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.)