A Response to Jenkins and Ichikawa: If You Like Your Mononormativity, You Can Keep Your Mononormativity

This post was inspired by the recent widely read Chronicle of Higher Education’s “I have Multiple Loves”, featuring University of British Columbia philosopher Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins. The subtitle is, “Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory,” but there isn’t much of a case made. Instead, it’s more of an extended interview in which Jenkins rebuffs some rather weakly stated objections to polyamory. The article touches on many other topics too, such as analytic philosophy as gendered, the alleged hostility of contemporary philosophy toward women, and her disagreement with Brian Leiter, which led to Leiter threatening to sue in 2014. Over time, we plan to write more about all of these topics, but for now, I want to focus on the Off Topic piece that the CHE piece links to, in which Jenkins and Ichikawa respond to objections against polyamory. I intend this to be a two part series. I won’t give any positive arguments here; my goal is to show how weak their replies are to four objections that they consider.

1. It’s unhealthy to have a large number of sexual partners:

This is silly for many reasons. First, it’s false: one can maintain good sexual health by taking sensible precautions even if one does have several partners. Second, nonmonogamy doesn’t entail having a large number of partners; that association is based on prejudice. If you have only two partners in your whole life, but you have them at the same time, you’re being non-monogamous. Conversely, having a large number of partners doesn’t entail non-monogamy, so this sort of health-based concern should be applied equally to promiscuous single people and the multiply serially monogamous. Third, considered and ethical non-monogamy is likely to be a substantially better option health-wise than the frustrated drunken flings, clandestine affairs, or otherwise ill-considered hook-ups that are the fate of many of those who attempt monogamy despite not being well suited to it and eventually fail in the attempt.”

The reply here does not establish that having multiple sexual partners is healthy, and seems to take the health objection in a naive form. It appears to assume that the health considerations here are strictly with respect to not getting STDs or HIV. Of course one could easily avoid those and have a large number of sexual partners, but is this emotionally healthy? Is it psychologically healthy? Is it more likely to lead to the person’s overall health, in the long-run, than a monogamous life? These are the important questions that need answered, and it’s far from obvious to me that having a large number of sexual partners is, all other things being equal, as healthy as monogamy.

Their point regarding health-based concerns with respect to promiscuous lifestyles and multiply serially monogamous lifestyles seems to be as follows: “The health concerns you raise apply equally to multiply serially monogamous lifestyles, and promiscuous lifestyles, but most don’t raise health objections to these lifestyles, so they ought not raise them against against polyamory either.” Fair enough, at least for those who don’t find promiscuity and multiply serially monogamous lifestyles unhealthy. But, why think those are healthy? They all seem unhealthy to me! So this point doesn’t settle the health question either.

Now, with respect to the third point, suppose that it is true that polyamory could be more healthy than ill-considered monogamous hookups. This sounds possible to me. But that hardly establishes that it is healthy! Also, I’m not sure what they mean when they talk about being “well suited” for monogamy; they probably just mean “inclined toward it”. We ought to be careful not to think that the things we are inclined toward are, in fact, good. Maybe they are not assuming that, but I’m not quite sure what the point is then.

(2) Non-monogamy is inevitably psychologically damaging. Sexual jealousy is unmanageable, always and for everyone, so all non-monogamous relationships eventually suffer and break down:

Different people are different. It’s a silly mistake to assume that just because you (for example) find the idea of sharing a partner deeply uncomfortable, nobody else will ever be able to handle it. Actually, it’s not even a particularly good sign that you will never be able to handle it; non-monogamous people who have trouble with jealousy often find they get better at dealing with it over time, by thinking and talking carefully and explicitly about what it is that they’re feeling. (Certainly our own attitudes and dispositions have changed over time and with experience.) And, of course, sexual jealousy is often a big problem in monogamous relationships; the connections between jealousy and sexual restriction/freedom are complex and highly interpersonally variable. It might also be useful to stress here that non-monogamous relationships are generally not sexual free-for-alls, as some people assume. (Again, it’s only prejudice that drives this assumption.) The parties to a non-monogamous relationship get to decide what they are comfortable with and what they are not; it’s not about letting things happen that make you feel awful. No ethical relationship, monogamous or otherwise, is about that. What’s unusual is that non-monogamous people choose rules for their relationships based on the particular situations of the individuals involved, as opposed to adopting a standard set. One particularly silly way to get to the silly view that non-monogamy is inevitably damaging is to premise it on some thought like: ‘One of my friends once tried a non-monogamous relationship in college, and it made him/her really unhappy’. (To see how silly that is, just try replacing ‘non-monogamous relationship’ with e.g. ‘heterosexual relationship’ or ‘relationship with another human being’.) Most relationships, monogamous or otherwise, eventually suffer and break down for some reason or other. Sometimes, for sure, it’s because they’re non-monogamous and that didn’t suit the people involved. Other times, it’s because they’re monogamous and that didn’t suit the people involved. Different people are different. You know: obviously.

Surely anyone who thoughtfully levels this objection against polyamory is not doing so simply because they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea. What we really need, in order to establish either that non-monogamy is inevitably psychologically damaging, or that monogamy is psychologically more healthy, is good psychological studies that control for a lot of very difficult to control variables. I’m very skeptical that we have much psychology to lean on here. Now, the bit in this objection about sexual jealously being unmanageable always, and all non-monogamous relationships eventually breaking down, makes the objection naive. That sexual jealousy is manageable, and that some non-monogamous sexual relationships are lasting, does not establish that they are psychologically healthy for those involved.

3. Non-monogamy is unnatural:

This is just a weird claim. We’re not even quite sure what it’s supposed to mean, but maybe it is the sort of claim that might make it relevant to point out that hardly any species is sexually monogamous. (No, swans aren’t. They do often pair bond for life, we understand, but there’s a difference between a life-long bond and a sexually exclusive one; assumptions to the contrary are yet more prejudice.) And humans aren’t particularly monogamous either, if you look at their practice as opposed to their policy, and/or if you look at more of their history than the last little bit. What it would take for humans nevertheless to count as ‘monogamous by nature’ escapes us. But this whole discussion is silly in any case, because lots of very awesome things are totally unnatural, like MacBooks and ibuprofen. So the (putative) unnaturalness of non-monogamy is just irrelevant to whether or not it’s a good idea.

Presumably, a sophisticated thinker who would level such an objection would be a natural law theorist; but, given Jenkins and Ichikawa’s materialism and seeming unfamiliarity with natural law theory, it isn’t surprising that they would find this claim “weird”. Natural law does not hold that what is natural is what a given creature, or a species of creatures, is disposed to do, so that in the case of humans, it is natural for them to be monogamous because they are disposed toward monogamy. What is natural has to do with a thing’s telos, so in order to take this objection seriously, we’d need to start there. But talking about sexual relations in this way is completely foreign to Jenkins and Ichikawa, as they probably reject that the natural world has telos. Now, if they weren’t thinking of an objection from natural law, but were thinking of someone who would appeal to what is natural in some vague sense based simply on what things tend to do, then yeah, the objection is stupid. But who cares about that objection?

4. Non-monogamy is never ethical:

Non-monogamy requires explicit (and ongoing) reflection and decisions about what sorts of freedoms and restrictions are ethical given the particular individuals concerned. It emphatically isn’t about ignoring or overruling ethical considerations. So by itself, the claim that non-monogamy is never ethical has about as much plausibility as the claim that heterosexuality is never ethical, or that interracial relationships are never ethical, or that relationships that start on a Tuesday are never ethical. If everyone involved is honest, happy and healthy, it’s hard to see what the problem is supposed to be. It can’t be just wrong.

(4) isn’t an objection. One who holds (4) would hopefully do so for some underlying reason, perhaps one of the reasons considered above, or some other reason. What’s interesting to me here is Jenkins and Ichikawa’s claim that, “If everyone involved is honest, happy, and healthy, it’s hard to see what the problem is supposed to be.” Lurking beyond this, it seems to me, is the dubious assumption that an action is acceptable so long as no one is hurt and everyone is happy (and honest, apparently, but I wonder why that’s important, so long as everyone is happy and healthy?). If natural law, deontology, or virtue theory is right, then we definitely wouldn’t want to grant this point.

I’ll end this first post here. So far, we haven’t seen compelling arguments that should make those of us who think polyamory is wrong reconsider. If you like your mononormative views, you can keep them. Stay tuned for part 2, in which I’ll consider their arguments from a different perspective.

Walter Montgomery

Walter is a philosophy graduate student in New Hampshire. He sometimes wishes he was a lawyer, and other times wishes he was a basketball coach. Some of his favorite childhood memories involve traveling with his immediate family, grandparents, and cousins’ family in big gas-guzzling vans towing campers. He sees philosophy as a tool for getting at Truth, and thinks too many contemporary philosophers see it as a tool for advancing their ideological preferences.

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    • Thanks for the catch, JS. What is this doing in CoHE? I guess polyamory is VERY important to higher education today. Ha!

  1. Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and I have plans to meet her boyfriend for lunch. But first we have to go home to walk the dog. Her husband, Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, is out of town at a conference for the weekend…

    In other words, Carrie Jenkins makes the “philosophical case” for audultry.

    • Urban,

      You have to understand that’s it different somehow! It’s not that she wants to have a provider and then get her side play from a more masculine man (i.e. have her cake and eat it to). It’s that it’s, how do you say… incredibly complicated.

      Any man (or cuckold) who accepts this type of treatment is an evolutionary disaster.

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