Even though we're well into the 21st century, romantic relationships are still tangled up in rigid notions about loyalty, obedience, ownership, and, of course, monogamy. Monogamy isn't something we are taught to question, especially as women. We're told that we're meant to have sex exclusively in a committed partnership or not have it at all. The ability to remain sexually "pure" for the purpose of one's future "husband" is paramount. Add in all the religious dogmas that underlie those beliefs — "God will strike you down" and "you'll go straight to hell" (if you waver in your chastity) — and it's terrifying. The idea that we are either virgins or "wh*res" doesn't give us a lot of options.
Monogamy is presented as the only moral and acceptable way of living — not as an option among many others. Single people get zero respect (and zero tax breaks)! If women enjoy a series of sexual encounters before they land on monogamous coupledom, they're often perceived as promiscuous and as someone no one will want, which is a flat-out lie that we're conditioned to believe. If we have children outside of matrimony or a monogamous relationship, we've viewed as "sluts" and, worse, bad parents. And God forbid you have children from more than one partner. Or are over the age of 25 with no marriage prospects or even a novio? Dios mio! What will your family's acquaintances and complete strangers think? How many of our fathers, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers have second families and kids all over the place? Can someone please tell me what kind of monogamy that is? Help me understand!
These rigid rules are used to determine our "value" to men and to society as a whole. If we want to identify and deconstruct damaging power structures, we should start with monogamy. Why? Because it is not something we actively choose; it's something we've been conditioned and coerced to accept. We forget that there are so many other options for how we can fulfill our sexual needs and construct our sexual and romantic lives. We also forget that we're the first generation of women to enjoy this much self-determination. And yet, we unconsciously end up in relationship structures that feed into our oppression, and we continue to espouse traditional beliefs about womanhood and family life that harm our self-worth. I'm not suggesting that monogamy is wrong, but like Dr. Kim Tallbear (aka the critical polyamorist), an associate professor and faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta in Canada, has said, "Until you have worked hard for your monogamy in a non-monogamous society, don't tell me it was your choice."
Consider Exploring Ethical Nonmonogamy
Before you actively and consciously choose monogamy, try experimenting with ethical nonmonogamy. "Nonmonogamy is an umbrella term used to describe types of relationships where individuals have more than one romantic and/or sexual partner at a time," Rebecca Alvarez Story, sexologist and founder of The Bloomi, told POPSUGAR, emphasizing that "according to research, 39 percent of individuals prefer not to have a completely monogamous relationship, so it is not uncommon." It is also important to distinguish "consensual nonmonogamy" from "nonconsensual nonmonogamy," which is just a fancy way of saying "cheating."
One of the biggest myths about nonmonogamy and polyamorous relationships is that they are simply an outlet for cheaters, which is the furthest thing from the truth. "Monogamists are way more comfortable with cheating than they are with this," Dr. Tallbear said on All My Relations, a podcast about how Native peoples are represented in the media that also unpacks the way conventional sexual mores are used to control and repress people. For most, it's far easier to stray than to respect the ethics-based process of setting and respecting transparent sexual boundaries.
Figure Out Your Needs
What do you actually need — sexually, emotionally, and mentally — to be fulfilled? If someone asked what you needed to achieve an orgasm or feel safe, what kind of direction would you give them? If you have never considered what your own needs are, that's a good place to begin. Reflect on your current and past relationships, and ask yourself why you configured them the way you did.
For Latinas, first-generation kids, and children of immigrants, there is a lot to unpack. Astronomer Dra. Nicole Cabrera Salazar's immigrant experience may illuminate why many of us will struggle to define ourselves and assert our needs independent of others. "When my family immigrated to the US, we didn't have anyone else here. Codependency is a survival skill. It's a tool," she said. "It helps you survive as a family unit and all the things that are involved with that. The problem is you are taught to put other people's needs before your own and you are not taught to differentiate yourself (or your needs) as an individual. So eventually your own needs will threaten the codependent family structure."
If you're a Latina who has moved out of your family home or chosen a life path counter to your family's wishes, you know the guilt that comes with prioritizing yourself. Family-formed codependency is a pattern that carries over into our romantic relationships.
For Dra. Cabrera Salazar, leaning into nonmonogamy was a way to confront and challenge some of the emotional traumas that influenced how she structured intimate relationships with past partners. "Nonmonogamy is not like something that I'm trying or like an ideological thing for me, it's really a part of my identity. It's always been there, and I remember crushing on multiple people in middle school and high school, but that sh*t gets washed down so fast because it's like, only if you're a slut. You learn very quickly that isn't OK."
As Latinas grappling with Catholic guilt, machismo, and cultural shaming, many of us actively avoid oversexualizing ourselves. In a society that brands us "spicy" and assumes we're all sexy Sofia Vergara-like baby makers, we make choices related to our sexualities to avoid criticism and being stereotyped. Taught that our sexualities are wrong and/or dangerous to men (both destructive patriarchal notions), we tend to fall in line and deny our sexual freedom and expression, whether it's right for us or not.
Don't get me wrong, it's not all about sex, but it is about self-understanding and acceptance. Like it or not, our negative beliefs and practices around sex impact other areas of our lives and prevent us from authentically showing up for ourselves and others. Alvarez Story offers several questions we can ask ourselves to begin evaluating if nonmonogamy is something we should consider exploring:
- What have you learned or been taught about monogamy so far?
- Do you believe someone can be in love with more than one person?
- How important of a role does sex play in your relationships?
- Do you have the capacity to nurture more than one relationship?
- Do you do a good job at establishing personal boundaries?
- Are you good at understanding and communicating your feelings?
- Do you have romantic or sexual needs or desires that aren't being fulfilled?
- Are you currently in a relationship? If so, how would your partner(s) feel about this?
To further advance your self-discovery, you might want to consider console from intimacy coaches like Sofia "Fifi" and Kabir "Bear," who work with people on how to open up their relationships ethically and explore different forms of nonmonogamy. "We've made it our work to support people in their journeys to integrate these nontraditional relationship styles," Fifi told us.
The couple say a lot of the work is "deprogramming" our fears and misconceptions about a life without monogamy. "People think it's only about sex, or that you can't commit to people in it, or that it's a temporary thing," Fifi said. Fundamentally, ethical nonmonogamy is about not forcing everyone to conform to the same relationship style, and ironically, it requires more, not less, commitment to the people you love. "When there isn't an ethic around transparency and honesty, we put our partners and selves at risk and the quality of our relationships isn't as authentic and honest as it can be," Fifi pointed out.
Others opt for a "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement, where they mutually agree not to disclose the details of their outside romantic or sexual interactions. Essentially, ethical nonmonogamy works however you want it to work. The purpose of parameters is to show your love and commitment to one another by honoring your prearranged sexual contract. You do it because you choose to — not because you feel like you have to because those are the rules. "You can totally cheat in polyamory," Fifi said. "We emphasize the 'ethical' in ethical consensual nonmonogamy."
It's important for women to understand that we are allowed to seek pleasure, to choose relationships that feel good, and to fulfill our own needs. We shouldn't have to settle for a stifling existence inside the confines of societal and cultural norms. Living against the rules might actually be self-affirming and liberating.