The Lion, the Cage, and Non-Monogamy, or, The Gendered Construction of Non-Monogamy, Part II


Part I

What I have described in the previous post is the first order agreement in a primary partner relationship. It is also monogamists’ strong critique of the practice. We can see how their critique is warranted. I have been careful to critique non-monogamy as it appears in Simmons’s example and in the minds of monogamists. But I showed how internal to the practice called non-monogamy, its practitioners can occasionally spell and live out its patriarchal underpinnings, thereby collapsing the possibility of an ethical relationship between and amongst genders in the romantic and sexual situation. I called the above agreement between partners a first order agreement in that, in the first engagement with the possibility of non-monogamy, one partner approaches the other with a response already expected, namely, that since he has agreed to be non-monogamous his partner should follow him if she too believes in freedom, equality, and the like. From this first order agreement the partners can then proceed to a second order whereby both – as in two, second – agree to the parameters, rules, permissions, and laws set out before them. This is the topic for another time. Prior to arriving at the mutual agreement it is first necessary to counter the critique of a gendered construction of non-monogamy put forward by monogamists and exemplified by the individuals (men) who structure their encounters and relationships with their partner(s) in the manner outlined by the analogy above.

I can answer the critique in three ways: the woman becomes her own lion-tamer; provide a much more radical and accurate account of non-monogamy as a pursuit of polyamory (ethics); attempt to be courageous like a lion and decimate the cage-structure altogether.

The first is the most common response to the critique. An individual, like I have set out in my description of Simmons, becomes her own lion-tamer. She finds the key to open the door to her cage and strolls in and out of that cage as she sees fit. There is no single method to accomplish this. Some may come about it naturally, through their own awareness of their desires and drives, while others may take the educative route, reading about non-monogamy practices and critically evaluating them in relation to what she knows and has experienced with these things called sex and romance. It may even be possible, as I have hypothesized, that the first order agreement, through time and patience, through self-awareness and critical thinking, transforms into mutual agreement (second order).

While this answer is naively satisfying, it is possible, as I and many others have done, to turn this argument into one of ideology. There is no outside to ideology, and if ideology is or has been patriarchal, the woman becomes lion-tamer only to adopt the values and practices of the men or man (primary partner) in charge. What many women suggest instead is a feminine desire, a feminine voice that is in stark contrast to the desires of men. As I noted above, Simmons identifies himself with the King of the beasts; women may not aspire to such a great and despotic height. This being said, I cannot wholly buy the ideological critique because, first, I am concerned about the philosopher outside ideology who marks its problems and sites of resistance. Further, ideological critique seems to be waning; or its impact is, at best, moderately felt. Nevertheless, as I have described and critiqued Simmons’s analogy, it seems an important problem to at least tackle from the ideological front in some way.

The more substantive point of departure against the gendered construction of non-monogamy is clarifying what we mean by the term and its practices. I have attempted to do this elsewhere (“Non-monogamy: Principle or Practice?”)

First, against this horrific analogy of the pure sexual drive in constant pursuit of its lost object, in opposition to the monogamists’ argument that non-monogamy is a theory and practice which facilitates and justifies the man’s extra-monogamous encounters, I claim that extra-monogamous sex is only a component of non-monogamy and not its foundation. I argued previously that non-monogamy’s foundation is a principle of non-possession, a principle of sacrifice whereby each partner gives themselves (as much as possible) to the desire of the other. In Simmons’s analogy it is insufficient to merely prop open the door and let the lion(ess) leave at his(/her) whim. To counter the concern of the practice’s gendered construction, if we know the lioness has the drive to hunt and eat, we must throw a piece of meat onto the floor outside the cage, encourage her to be the lioness she wishes to be. Or better, we must cover ourselves in blood, stand at a distance from the open door of the cage, and sacrifice ourselves for the desire of the other.

An ethical non-monogamy has something other than sex as its aim, or, the partial aim of non-monogamy in the form of extra-monogamous sex has a telos somewhere else besides genital satisfaction. In my previous writing I argued that non-monogamy is ethical insofar as it has polyamory as its goal; the practice achieves it end (which is itself an impossibility as partners come and go, like the lion and lioness who enters and exists their cage) when every person involved in the relationship is loved (to varying degrees). Here is the very evident difference between polyamory as a practice of ethics and the primary partner relationship as a excuse for extra-monogamous sex: in the latter we begrudgingly permit our partner to use others as sexual objects because we want to grant ourselves that privilege and/or, at best, encourage them to do so; in the former we encourage and aid our partner in treating and engaging their new partners with love, as object and subject.

I have put forward this idea of polyamory almost at odds with what is now even becoming a traditional or conservative form of romance, i.e., the appropriately labelled open relationship (open as in opening the cage, but holding on to the key, attached to a chain tucked under your shirt). The solution to the problem I have raised with Simmons and other non-monogamous individuals like him is in changing the structure altogether. This analogy of the cage is simultaneously intuitive, compelling, naïve, and ethically reprehensible. Once we have dropped the thought of non-monogamy as a freedom from the cage, a freedom granted to us by our lover and granted to them in turn rather as an ontological trait inherent to our human subjectivity, we can start to think about making a real change in the structures and operations of sexuality and romance. Only then will the gendered construction critique lose its strength. For now the problem productively troubles us, forcing us to ponder what revolutionary change might be necessary to begin constructing an ethical habitat for the lions and lionesses dwelling in our heads.

The Lion, the Cage, and Non-Monogamy, or, The Gendered Construction of Non-Monogamy, Part I


I heard an analogy about non-monogamous relationships the other night. It warrants a discussion not simply because a celebrity proclaimed it, the one and only Gene Simmons of famed rock band Kiss, but because it internally highlighted the problems with non-monogamy. His unintentional criticism of his own practice is productive for it is the same issue monogamists continually refer to when speaking on/about/against non-monogamy. I write this piece because I feel the need to further clarify and validate certain modes of ethical living, namely, non-monogamous relationships with the aim of polyamory.

Simmons’s analogy, as it was passed down to me and how I slightly rework it, is as follows: There is a lion in a cage. Given our knowledge of lions, and a certain lion-essence let’s call it, we are aware that he does not want to be in this cage; he would rather be free to roam the plains, hunt, etc. But the lion in the cage is well taken care of – within the confines of his cage there is little more he could ask for. One day the lion-tamer decides to open the cage, leave the door ajar for the lion to come and go as he pleases since, as we know, lions do not belong in cages. Now the lion has two options: he can exit his cage or if he so chooses can stay put. The important thing is the cage door remains open to provide the conditions under which the lion can exercise his freedom to choose.

On a superficial glance we have something like a rudimentary account of non-monogamous romance. In this context I define the non-monogamous romance as a two-person partnership whereby both parties are, by either one-sided or mutual agreement, allowed or given permission to have extra-monogamous sex, and perhaps emotional and intellectual attachments. These encounters outside the partnership are permitted insofar as both partners maintain the stability of their otherwise normalized relationship. The persons encountered outside of their inclusive romance – for a night, a week, or month, etc. – are of lesser importance (less loved and cared for) than the primary partner. How does this definition work in Simmons’s analogy?

The lion is pure sexual drive, desire, pursuit of pleasure, and so on. Given that the lion is pure sexual drive, no matter how much he is fed he will always want more than his caregivers are able and willing to provide. In other words, the lion is insufficiently satisfied. We have then a hyperbolic lion, not symbolic one, as he analogously refers to the drive of Man who finds sex with one individual inadequate to quench his natural instinct. This is often incontestable and even understood by monogamists as the best reason for non-monogamy – analogously to the lion, persons are insatiably sexual and will desire other persons regardless of how much they fight or attempt to constrain this drive. Therefore a reformed structure is needed to placate this search for the lost object of desire, a structure which is simultaneously different yet maintains the old, out of habit and safety, for a love(r) free of risk.

Structure in Simmons’s analogy is identified by the cage. It is the situation we are born into, or the coordinates we are socially, culturally, and geographically engrained with. In this analogy a new habitat is not built for the lion, one which is more suited to his instincts; neither is the lion freed, placed back into the wild so he can be the lion he is. What we have here is a small opening through which the lion can apparently free himself, or not if that is what he reasons is best for his life as a lion. In political terms we have the necessity of a revolutionary change but try to pass off revolutionary change through incremental or reformist gains (in the form of the small opening in which the lion can enter and exit according to his desire, will, and intellect).

Two things were not thought in Simmons’s analogy. The first is that the lion is, as we know, a lion – he cannot think himself out of his cage, even when the door is opened. He has been habituated and transformed into a caged lion; he has forgotten the wild and this world outside his cage is unfamiliar and scary. He will slumber and be fed at regular intervals with an indifference to confinement.

The second poorly thought element for Simmons is the personage who opens the cage. This individual is not named. What we do now however is that it is a person, and as a person, through his reason and will and morals, believes the lion should be freed. But the fault or untenable quality of this analogy, in ascribing the first unthinkable element, that of thought, of choice to a lion, we must ask how can a lion, incapable of a human reasoning, could feel comfortable leaving his cage when upon his forced entry into the cage, which he no doubt put up much resistance to, he was abused and mistreated. We then ask: Why does the lion-tamer feel the need to open to cage, for only he is capable of opening it (due to his apposable thumbs and power of reason)? The lion-tamer must have cause to provide the conditions for the lion to up and leave. I claim he opens the cage so as to prevent the lion, should he gain the capacity to reason and to speak, from complaining about his situation inside the cage. Yes, to give the lion his “freedom.” Second, to shake off the feeling of guilt the lion-tamer experiences because he is not inside the cage. The lion-tamer tells his captive, “Here, a way out, take it! You want to stay? Then you must agree with me that your cage is a fine place to live since I have provided you the opportunity to exercise your freedom. Remain in your cage if you choose. I, as keeper of this cage, am free to wander about outside its confines on the other hand.”

Simmons is therefore both lion and lion-tamer in his oppressive analogy. He identifies himself as pure sexual drive, confined and hungry, and then provides himself a way out through the personage of the lion-tamer (ego and superego combined into one). Or put differently, the lion opens the cage himself, the id has tricked the ego and superego into thinking the choice to open the cage was a deliberate and rational procedure based on the laws and norms which allow for society’s functioning. In this procedure we have evidence of the gendered construction of non-monogamy. The man frees his sexual drive in the manner described in this analogy. On the other hand, in Simmons’s case, when he applies the analogy to his partner, he is the person who holds the key to his lioness’s cage. Because he has granted himself this privilege, in order for it to function within the poorly agreed upon structure of monogamy with an oppressive twist, the man opens his lover’s confines with a sly grin. He gives the woman a small space to crawl through so that he can grant himself that same access of coming in and out of his own cage. He does this in the name of freedom, in the name of equality, in the name of liberation. But we have yet to identify the drive or desire of the captive lioness. Is it unsurprising that Simmons calls himself a lion, the King of the beasts, the master and lord over all other animals? Man liberates the woman, but she chooses to stay between the bars; he then cruises the plains and hunts.

I was told that this was the case for Simmons’s relationship. It was he who demanded this openness, and when his partner voiced her opposition, her cries were in vain. Her disagreement was thoroughly unreasonable; what had she to complain about since the man had granted her the same freedom to leave the cage? In this flawed relationship and insufficient attempt at mutual recognition the structure is clearly constructed around gender and oppression.

Let us take the example further and say the lioness timidly, with hesitant steps, exits her confined space. She takes the male lion-tamer up on his offer of freedom. But the lion-tamer will keep an eye on his lioness; he knows his own lion wants to run rampant and assert his dominance as King of the plains. The lioness is not granted this luxury, for the lioness is always subservient to the lion. Additionally, when the lion-tamer needs his lioness back in her cage, to show off to the circus, she is mistreated if she exhibits even the slightest hint that she is in fact enjoying her freedom. (I am of course not speaking directly to Simmons and his partner – how would I even know what either were thinking or experiencing? – nor to all instances of the primary partner relationship or other non-monogamous structures.)

Part 2