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Polyamory Relationships Part I of III — Colonial Sexuality

Video Interview With Dr. Kim TallBear and Antoinette Lee Toscano

Religion did not make us monogamous

Photo of card with a heart and the word love, flowers, and a cup coffee
Photo Courtesy of Samantha Hurley

If you missed Polyamory Relationships Part II — Relationships Evolved, you can read it here. Researchers in Europe, Canada and the United States are discussing monogamy as colonial sexuality. Today some adults examine how they choose romantic partners and are making different choices from their parents.

Although Romantic relationships, marriage and partnering is complicated and unique to every individual, how humans find, create and maintain healthy and happy relationships have more in common than one might realize.

How we partner is often a product of our childhood.

However, as evolved as we think we are in comparison to our ancestors, we largely create relationships in the same way they did.

Consequently, when we dig a little deeper, we learn that inheritance or paternity, economics, politics and then religion influenced humans’ move away from fluid relationships with multiple partners and complex kinship toward monogamy.

Partnering like our Grandparents

Most people simply model behavior learned from family, religious beliefs and the rules of the society in which they live. When pressed one might say religion is the reason their family is one that models and promotes monogamous relationships. However, that may not be accurate. In part one of this series we went back to the bronze age to examine how monogamy became normative in western culture.

Historian Stephanie Coontz explains how one’s culture can shape the way they pursue romantic love.

“In ancient China the word for love connoted a very socially disrespectable relationship. Falling in love before marriage in India was considered an actively antisocial act”.

Many of the globally mobile still carry traditional ideas and practices that they bring into modern relationships.

“When you look at research on cross-cultural romantic relationships you get these very striking cultural differences”. —Xiaomeng (Mona) Xu, Ph.D.

“The sorts of cross-cultural differences that come out of self-report questionnaires would suggest that easterners, for example, really don’t feel passion, really don’t think about love as a positive thing”.

Dr. Xu’s research compared what people reported about being in love and what their bodies demonstrated during brain scans. Xu examined the brains of Chinese, British, and American people reporting to be in love.

What Dr. Xu found is in contrast to what easterners reported in self-surveys.

The result is this. Cross-cultural differences cause people to alter how they think and speak about romantic relationships.

The different ways that easterners and westerners view romantic love sometimes shows up in relationships as “the love struck westerner” or “the dispassionate easterner”.

However, the body tells a different story.

What the brain says about love

First, research shows the apparent disconnect between what people around the world say about finding romantic partners and falling in love and how the brain reacts to all things love-related.

Secondly, cultural expectations can cause one to override their internal feelings and desires. They may desire to partner or marry for love yet in China for example, Dr. Xu says:

“It’s very pragmatic. It’s based on thinking about whether or not this person is going to fit into your family and if they’re going to be a good financial choice, etc. How we go through the process of love can be very culturally defined, but the experience of love is really not so different from culture to culture”.

Challenges beyond what might arise in any romantic relationship arise when Third Culture Adults (TCAs) date and fall in love with someone from a different culture. This can happen among same culture adults when one partner is traditional and the other has a modern approach to romance.

However, some researchers explain that a person choosing consensual non-monogamy is in some cases returning to their pre-colonial roots rather than a modern approach to romantic partnering.

Monogamy as Settler, or Colonial, Sexuality

Beyond colonial sexuality - An interview with Dr. Kim TallBear By: Antoinette Lee Toscano.
Video interview with Dr. Kim TallBear and Antoinette Lee Toscano on monogamy as colonial or settler sexuality. Video Courtesy of Antoinette Lee Toscano.

“I often just focus on settler colonialism as a structure. And don’t worry about who’s a settler and who’s not. The reason that I avoid worrying about who’s a settler and who’s not is because we can all be complicit in upholding colonialism”. — Dr. Kim TallBear

Researcher, Professor, Speaker and Author — Dr. Kim TallBear shared.

Dr. TallBear is not alone in this hypothesis. Her findings are shared by an article in the National Institutes of Health,

“Different societies have evolved diverse sets of norms that regulate pair-bonds.

“Such marriage norms influence people’s long-term pair-bonds and thus their mating choices. Being married comes with economic, social and sexual expectations, prescriptions and prohibitions for both parties, who are accordingly evaluated, formally or informally, by their community.

Marriage norms govern such areas as who can marry whom, pays for the marriage ritual, gets the children in the event of death and is a legitimate heir and can inherit property, titles, etc.”

How we became a monogamous culture

The key to understanding marriage versus pure pair-bonding is recognizing the role of a community in defining, sanctioning and enforcing marriage norms”.

So, how exactly did we humans transition to monogamy from more fluid and multiple relationships?

Between six B.C.  and four A.D., Rome invaded Germania — the Roman term for the geographical region of North-Central Europe.

In Germania the Germanic tribes — Teutonic, Cherusci, Goths and others resided in modern day Holland through Poland and included Germany.

It was common at this time in Medieval German society to have marriage by abduction as a result of war. And marriage through an exchange of brides and grooms for important alliances. These marriages were non-monogamous for men only. The inequality and double standards upheld for married men negatively impacted women and children.

Best time in history to examine your relationship

Author James Brundage writes:

“These unions were not necessarily sexually exclusive; married men commonly maintained one or more concubines in addition to their wives”.

“By contrast the concubines were usually servant or slave girls and the children of these unions could claim no share in their father’s estate”.

Many children born of a sexual relationship between a married man and an unattached woman resulted in children born into poverty. A circumstance that many of these children could not overcome during the course of their lives. Paternity certainty also became more important during this time. Therefore, by the end of the Bronze Age paternity was a concern for more than just the wealthy. Any male with land and other property to pass on to his heirs wanted certainty. As a result, monogamy for women in public and private was becoming the norm. This social change came as a result of the Roman invasion and later colonization across modern-day Europe.

Religion’s impact on spreading monogamy

Finally, to track the spread of monogamy we need to consider the proliferation of Christianity across Europe, followed by centuries of colonization in the Americas, Asia, and so on.

Photo of Golden Catholic Church Ceiling
Golden Catholic Church Ceiling Photo By: Marcel Colmenero

Proselytization and colonization is how our tribal, clan or social-collective ancestors became monogamous throughout most of the continents:

  1. Africa
  2. Asia
  3. Americas (North America and South America)
  4. Antarctica
  5. Australia/Oceania
  6. Europe

Does monogamy’s colonial sexuality serve the culturally mobile?

Today, researchers and anthropologists are attempting to recreate and document native people’s sexuality around the world prior to colonization.

“We know a lot but we don’t know everything because the missionaries were very good at forbidding open talk about sex.”

Dr. TallBear goes on to say — “There was a tremendous amount of shaming.

There were residential schools. Some of them were federal, Indian schools. Some of them were church schools. There is a lot of sexual repression in enforced monogamy. You come to emphasize things like virginity and marriage and things like that”.

Sex before the era of colonization

Photo of Dr. Kim TallBear
Dr. Kim TallBear Photo By: Unknown Source

“So, before that, you see this in the historical record. And you see it in the anthropological records … as problematic as that can be there was much more open conversation about sexuality”.

“A lot of our traditional stories that were about lessons…they give you ethical and moral [teachings]. They are funny and raunchy and you see this across the culture”.

Dr. Tallbear also said that open talk about sex, traditional forms of relationships and the like was beaten out of native people in residential schools.

Why native people continued to practice monogamy

In answering the question of how and why native people around the world continued to practice monogamy when it was not their tradition prior to colonization, Dr. TallBear said:

“Through these allotment acts at the turn of the 20th century that took, quote-un-quote, ‘excess Indian-land’ … they are trying to attract settlers from other parts of the US”.

Dr. TallBear continued by saying that “excess Indian-land” was also used to entice new European populations to come in and settle that land. The result was this. A man who was the only one who could hold property and be  recognized as the head of household would get 160 acres. If he had a wife he would get another 80 acres. He received 40 acres for each additional child.

There was a big incentive to be married and produce children”. — Dr. Kim TallBear

It was 1839 when Mississippi, USA allowed women to own and control their own property. This opened the door for other states to adopt similar laws. New York, USA’s passage of the “Married Women’s Property Act” of 1848 became the national prototype for legislation supporting a woman’s right to own property in the United States.

In the United States — Dr. TallBear said, “native people could come in and get an allotment as well. If they wanted to settle down and farm. Which was sometimes a condition of getting let out of the reservation. Women couldn’t own property … this ties women economically to men”.

Decolonizing Sexuality

Photo of a Poly-Solo Woman
Poly-Solo Woman Photo Courtesy of Nicole De Khors

“In my culture, as a Dakota person women were not tied economically to men like that. There were these extended family networks that supported people and their children”.

Dr. TallBear and other researchers write about how monogamy was not only forced or incentivized among the native populations wherever conquerers and settlers came into contact with native people. The practice of monogamous relationships was also imposed on the colonialists and settlers as well. Their ancestors, for the most part, had fluid relationships or practiced polygamy prior to the Roman invasion across Europe.

Primarily, regardless of where your people originated they were likely not monogamous.

Polyamory—the antidote to colonial sexuality

Photo of Polyamorous Triad
Polyamorous Triad Photo By Unknown Source

By examining if monogamy serves your happiness today you may find that polyamory and consensual non-monogamy is the antidote to colonial sexuality — for some people.

First, today we have tests to determine paternity and laws to protect inheritances.

Second, women in most developed countries can support themselves and their offspring without the financial support of a partner.

Lastly, societies are beginning to take a more inclusive and broader view on what healthy relationships and happy families are comprised of. This self-examination is causing some people to find different ways to partner and to create intentional families.

Examine how happy you are

One way to start a conversation about relationships and partnering styles with yourself, a trusted friend or a therapist might be to consider how happy you are with:

Photo of a Happy Young Man
Happy Young Man Photo Courtesy Nicole De Khors
  • The way you create romantic relationships.
  • A concept of one person as your one, your only, your everything — until death do you part.
  • Whether you could be non-monogamous by orientation.
  • Polyamory (poly) or consensual-non-monogamy as an orientation or lifestyle.
  • Discussing opening your marriage or relationship without ending it.
  • Finding a poly-friendly therapist to help you examine these questions in your own life.

In the coming weeks, look for additional articles and links to video interviews with Researchers, Therapists, Community Leaders and polyamorous singles, couples, triads and quads. These shared journeys will also help you to answer some of these relationship questions for yourself. We will discuss all of these topics and more in this relationship series to help you create the best relationship of your life.

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