In this post, the word “menage” refers to a sexual activity involving three people, not primarily to a long term love relationship. I take it as obvious that one’s participation in a sexual menage doesn’t tell us anything about whether that person believes in monogamy, polyamory, or is against the idea of romantic love totally.
I’ve read five erotic romances which feature a menage (or more): Victoria Janssen’s The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover, Megan Hart’s Dirty, Broken, and Tempted, and Maya Banks’s novella Overheard (all but the last are Harlequin Spice). In three cases, the menage involved one hetero woman and two hetero men, was the fulfillment of the heroine’s fantasy, and readers were led to believe it was a one off (ok, a three off). In Broken, the menage involved the hero and two female strippers. In each book, it was pretty clear that the protagonist would end up happily satisfied in the long term with just one person, and it was clear who that person was. In Dirty, the heroine had virtually no relationship with the second man. In Overheard, the heroine was friends with the second man. And in Tempted, the heroine had strong feelings for both of the men, but was married to one of them, with whom she stayed. Although Tempted takes us into a gray area, all of these books stay true to the RWA definition of romance – the two person (primarily one woman, one man) love relationship.
The menage may push the sexual envelope in romance, but it doesn’t fundamentally threaten the core RWA definition of romance as a two person romantic relationship.
In contrast to the sexual term “menage”, polyamory, or polyfidelity, is a term for a committed love relationship (which may well include sexual menages or quartages, etc., or may not) with three or more people. This is romantic love, not mere lust or friendly feelings. (Some think of polyamory as a gender identity, but in this post I am using the term to refer to a lifestyle.)
Some people use the term polyamory to refer to a situation in which two people are the primary couple “in love”, but consent to sexual relations — even long term ones — with others with whom they are not romantically involved. “Swingers” with regular partners might fall into this category. That’s not true polyamory according to my definition.
Polyamorous relationships are guided by a very similar set of ethical values and principles to traditional monogamous relationships: love, mutual support, respect, loyalty, honesty, and trust. Polyamorites contend that there is so much deceit and cheating that goes on in supposedly monogamous relationships that their lifestyle is not so much different but being honest about what actually goes on. (For example, over 30% of the people who use online dating services are married. There is a whole dating site, Married Secrets, devoted to marrieds who want to stay with their spouses but have secret sex on the side) (although recent research suggests most married are faithful).
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that menage is becoming more and more common in erotic romance. It seems almost “old hat” in erotica, and we see “mainstream” publishers like Harlequin publishing books featuring the menage.
An HEA among three or more characters (polyamory in the sense I am using it here) is less common, but seems to me to be following the same trajectory. (Of course, my data set is comprised entirely of web surfing, so feel free to prove me wrong. Polyamory could be getting less common and less acceptable). Romance novels that end with three (or more) people together at the end feature what I would call “polyfidelity”. I have only read one of these, the paranormal novella It’s Raining Men, by Crystal Jordan, but I know that polyamory is a specialty of Emma Holly, for example.
I find this very interesting, especially in these times when we are interrogating our cultural understanding of marriage. My own thought had always been that while we can have sexual desires for more than one person at a time, true romantic love could only be felt for one person at a time. I think this has something to do with my conception of love, as not just an emotion but also a commitment to a “we”, a union of two people (thus begging the question). Thus the question of whether you believe polyamory truly possible may hang in some part on your definition of love. I may pursue this in a later post.
I know the links between pop cultural products like erotic romance novels and real people’s practices and beliefs are multivalent, and are mediated by many complex social, political, historical, and psychological structures, but I also think it is indisputable that pop culture is sometimes influentially ahead of the curve on where the culture is going. to take a recent example, think of the discussion of the portrayal of black presidents in TV and film around the time of Obama’s election:
“Our research suggests that people really do in a lot of ways treat fictional characters like real people,” said Melanie C. Green, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In 2004, she studied more than 100 college students and found that fictional narratives had just as strong an influence on their beliefs as nonfiction.
“To the extent that younger people have grown up seeing images of black presidents,” she said, “it is totally understandable that they would think about it in a different way than an older generation would.”
Of course, a TV show like 24 has millions of viewers and is a lot more mainstream than a publication on an epress which maybe sells, I don’t know, a few thousand copies?
Let me be clear on what I am NOT saying: (a) I am not suggesting that folks who sometimes write a polyamorous HEA in fact practice or support polyamory in real life, or (b) that these authors intend in any way to promote the poly lifestyle, the way Minx is encouraging writers and filmmakers to do, and (c) I am not saying that readers of erotic romance in fact endorse or intend to practice what they find in its pages. Trust me, I do understand fantasy.
But my own view of fiction, in general, is very far from Wilde’s or Barthes’ asceticism (art for art’s sake). I don’t think the gap between fiction (even fantasy fiction) and life is that large. On the other hand, fictional worlds are not actual worlds. They are not even possible worlds, but more like the “continuous and vivid dream” John Gardner spoke of. Fiction stretches our imaginations and encourages us to see old things in new ways and to behold things we many never have dreamt of. I am not going further into the question, but merely gesturing in this post to my own stance, which holds, with Gardner, that “we recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for, and analysis of values” (On Moral Fiction).
I am no expert on the poly movement, but even I know that fiction has been important to it. Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land galvanized the twentieth century secular poly movement (good discussion of Heinlein here). More recent influences are purported to be feminism (women can build the kinds of relationships they desire. Increases in rates of female infidelity may support this), and the internet.
Some polyamory supporters explicitly advocate producing narratives that challenge stereotypical views of polyamory in culture. In her keynote at this year’s Poly Living Conference (Powerpoint here), activist Cunning Minx explicitly advocated influencing pop culture via social media (blogs, twitter), and via the creation of images in books and film to combat the two dominant (negative) images of poly — the “swingers”, and the religious polygamists. As summarized by Alan of Polyamorous Percolations,
[Minx] told the crowd of about 100 that it’s time for the poly-awareness movement to start shifting focus: from education — explaining polyamory to people who’ve never heard of it — to culture-building — creating recognizable pop images of the polyfolk-world that represent us well, that we can be proud of, and that will appear in people’s minds when they think of us.
In romance, it’s not terribly uncommon for the hero or heroine to have strong romantic feelings for more than one person (any “love triangle”, Butch for V and whatsername in J. R. Ward’s Lover Revealed, Sadie for both her husband and Joe in Broken, or even a character mourning his or her dead lover, as Gabe does in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Dream a Little Dream). But in most mainstream romance, it is a mark of maturity and growth of the characters to pick one person and settle down with him or her. It is also the way we mark the flow of romantic narrative — when the second candidate for the hero or heroine’s affection has been removed, we know we are nearing the end of the book.
But creating a believable world in which three honorable, loving people live happily ever after — together – is quite different and quite subversive, and I think this is true whether the setting is fantastical or not.
Does the RWA accept polyfidelity as within genre boundaries? Should it?