New Bitch Radio Popaganda Episode: Monogamy!

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Our Popaganda relaunch kicks off with a bang: This episode digs into issues of monogamy. We tend to take monogamy for granted as a goal of relationships, but that's in part because it's an idea that been carefully constructed and policed throughout history. On this 20-minute episode, author of Sex and Punishment Eric Berkowitz explains the strange legal history of monogamy, writer Alex Borinsky discusses the role of monogamy as a political tool in the same-sex marriage debate, and sex educator Tristan Taormino dishes on the logistics of open relationships. Tune in! 

This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by She Bop!

Here is the full transcript of the podcast: 


Air date: April 3rd, 2013


SARAH MIRK:  This is Sarah Mirk and this is Popaganda, Bitch Media's feminist response to pop culture podcast.




Question: Are you really going to have sex with one person for the rest of your life?  Today on Popoganda, we're digging into the issues of monogamy in pop culture—where does monogamy come from and how is it used as a political tool.


It's a touchy subject, monogamy. Mostly, we take it for granted as a goal of relationships—sure, hooking up is fine, but someday you'll find the one person you want to be with forever and you'll have beautiful babies and there will be rainbows. But monogamy feels so inevitable in a large because it's an idea that's been carefully constructed and policed throughout history. Today we'll talk with author Eric Berkowitz about the legal history of monogamy and the strange punishments societies imposed for cheating. Then we'll discuss the contemporary role of monogamy in winning political support for support for same-sex marriage,  and finally talk with relationship expert and feminist pornographer Tristan Taormino about how people make non monogamy work for them. All of that mind-expanding conversation in just 20 minutes. Let's go!


But first, thanks to our sponsor, She Bop, a women-owned sex toy boutique that specializes in body safe products and education. Check them out at”


ERIC BERKOWITZ: Eric Berkowitz, author of Sex and punshment, 400 years of judging desire. I also work as a civil rights lawyer and advocate for the poor.


SARAH MIRK: Okay, so today we're talking about monogamy. What can you tell me about how monogamy is part of our legal system?


ERIC: Unfortunately, I sound like Bill Clinton, but we have to define monogamy. If we think of monogamy as two married people who agree to only have sex with each other, there really isn't a history of monogamy at all. Generally, monogamy from the beginning up until very, very recently was monogamy for wives. Men didn't really have any requirement at all to be faithful to their wives and women, at least of a certain class, were required very much to be faithful to their husbands.


The first death penalty crime that I could find in human history is from ancient Mesopotamia—to put unfaithful wives, to impale them on long poles in the middle of the village. So people took adultery very seriously, but only adultery on the part of wives.


SARAH: That's insane, that's like some Vlad the Impaler inspiration.


ERIC: I don't know if he knew about it, but he certainly got the point. Monogamy is definitely a very modern concept. Generally what the law demanded was anything that kept social order. Men having prostitutes or consorting with concubines or having multiple wives was fine. But women, who bore the children and who were to be really considered as more than animals but less than humans, were to be kept effectively under guard. So a woman who had sex with other men, a wife that had sex with other men, certainly there were questions about whether her children were her husband's or someone else's. And I also think it was definitely a threat to male sexuality, to the male urge toward dominance, that if your wife is not controlled, you have a problem.


SARAH: What cultures are we talking about here?


ERIC: I'm sticking with what I know, which is Western civilization from Mesopotamia through the present. So let me just go through a catalogue. Through the ancient Sumerians and Mesopotamians, yes, easily one third of their laws dealt with monogamy. On through the Hebrews, who were definitely a monogamous culture and also added that men needed to be faithful to their wives. That's fine, you could say it, but what was the sanction, what was the punishment? A man had to be faithful to his wife, but he could have dozens of wives. He could also consort with prostitutes.


On into Greek and Roman society, monogamy was a focus, but really only for upper class woman. A lower class woman, especially a prostitute or a slave, their bodily integrity isn't recognized at all. Here's something interesting: Rome, sort of like us, tightened down on all this. One of the things the first emperor wanted to tighten down on was women cheating on their husbands. The response to that, which I think is pretty funny, is a lot of upper class women who had boyfriends and affairs tried to register themselves as prostitutes to get out of prosecution for adultery. That happened hundreds of times because prostitutes couldn't be prosecuted for adultery, only married women.


SARAH: What would the punishment for adultery be? 


ERIC: Well, they were pretty creative. They would be registered as a prostitute, who didn't have any social status. Divorce. Losing your husband in that society meant losing your status. In fact Augustus was so serious about this that he said if you were a husband who knew about your wife's adultery and didn't report her, you could be prosecuted for pimping.


So then we move into the middle ages and, yes, the Christian church had the rhetoric about women being loyal to their husbands, but then at the same time the church was involved in the prostitution business. Just because a woman had to be loyal to her husband, that doesn't mean she couldn't have sex. If her husband, even though he had lots of affairs, didn't give her sex on some kind of regular basis, she had the right to sue him for it. It's called “marital debt.” Men had to service their wive's sexually. And if he couldn't, she had the option of divorcing him.


SARAH: Well that's strange because there are several states now where impotence is grounds for divorce. Indiana, I believe, has that law. But I'm interested in how this rich legal history of monogamy contributes to our pop culture.


ERIC: There is just case after case after case of girls being subjected to the same kind of shaming mechanisms that existed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We might do it humorously, there might be a punk group called The Sluts or something to make fun of it, but I think these standards hold over pretty hard. We say it in the last election with questions about birth control.


SARAH: That was Eric Berkowitz, author of Sex and Punishment and a lawyer.




ALEX BORINKSY: I'm Alex Borinsky, a playwright and occasional nonfiction writer and I live in New York.


SARAH: I wanted to talk to you about the story you wrote for N+1 called “A California Love Story.” Basically, tell me about what you think about the role of monogamy in challenging Prop 8 and in challenging the anti-gay marriage movement.


ALEX: I guess I just remember as the trial was unfolding and there were a  lot of pushes from marriage equality activists to get the stories that the plaintiffs were telling out there in public. There was a series of videos, transcripts from the trial. I was fascinated and troubled in a way that took me a while to figure out. I think it was because the stories reflected such a narrow set of experiences, in terms of both gender norms and monogamy.


SARAH: What you've pointed out is that the plaintiffs who're arguing these cases in favor of gay marriage are “the marrying type of homosexual.” They've got a stable family, they've been dating a long time, they just want to get married—it's a true love, soul searching situation. In this way, monogamy is a political tool to say, “Look, we're gay, but we're just like you married people.” What's the drawback?


ALEX: I think it's detrimental in two ways. One is in the longer-term fight for legal protections for people who might face difficulties in this country and two is for the gay community. I think there's a difference between what we'd say about our lives and the values we have in a conversation—there's a difference between those and the conversations we want to have about laws. Laws should be like a fence to protect everyone in this country and it's dangerous when values or stories or narratives about what we think as a culture is valuable get inscribed in those laws.


SARAH: Are you saying queer communities have a unique opportunity to look different than the history of straight communities?


ALEX: Just like there are all sorts of straight people, all sorts of men and all sorts of women, there are all sorts of queer folks. And I know there are many people who have these great love stories. I know those people and I've heard those stories and I think those people should be able to get married if they want to. But I think there is also something perhaps unique in a lot of gay culture about the ways communities get formed. There are relationships that are not quite romantic, marriage, monogamous relationships that are important and form important social bonds. Whether it's couples that aren't monogamous and therefore don't  quite fit into a pair of two or because childrearing gets difficult when you have two men or two women, the improvised structures that have happened in the history of queer communities are really exciting. And that's something I think is really different from broader culture now, where you have a lot of isolated people and isolated two person couples.


ALEX: How does all this political and legal talk about monogamy in the courtroom affect you personally? Do you feel like in your life you've tried to present as the “marrying type of gay” and you're worried about non monogamous relationships? Or has it not affected you much at all?


I've been super blessed in that I've always lived in places where I didn't feel like I had to present in a certain way. I think it's hard enough, whether you're on a monogamous road or a non monogamous road, to have respectful relationships. That's constantly a struggle, I imagine, for everyone. In part, thinking about these issues and arguing with people about it has forced me to articulate what I value about those non monogamous relationships. But I think they're a hard battle—in some ways a harder battle—to make work in a way that's really respectful and does justice to everybody's dignity.


SARAH: I always think it's funny when people describe relationships as a battle.


ALEX: Yeah!


SARAH: Relationships are full of war metaphors and so are politics. You can use the same exact language to describe trying to be in love with someone as you would to describe trying to get someone elected president. Why is it so hard just to love somebody? Or many people?


ALEX: Right! In some ways, it's nice that it's always about the particular person that you're dealing with.


SARAH: Do you think you're be married someday? Or will you always be non monogamous?


ALEX: I don't know. It depends on the people involved, I guess. I'm hesitant to make predictions and that's why I want to defend the non monogamous ground in general.


SARAH: That was Alexander Borinsky, who's also currently working on a musical about Earth First.




SARAH: Next, we're taking time with Tristan Taormino, a woman who is very busy.


TRISTAN TAORMINO: Hi, this is Tristan Taormino. I'm a writer, sex educator, filmmaker, and radio host. And right now I'm promoting my brand new book, The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure and I'm also the host of my podcast, Sex Out Loud.


SARAH: I know you travel all around teaching workshops to people who, some of them are non-monogamous, some of them are thinking of being non-monogamous, and some of them are just curious about what the heck all this is about. So what are the main questions people ask you in your workshops?


TRISTAN: I think for the people who are just starting out, the want some kind of guidance about how to set up rules and boundaries that make sense. I think people are always kind of looking for models and examples. Not that they want to make a carbon copy of what those are, but I feel like we have so few role models for people in non monogamous relationships that once you start navigating that territory, it's not like you can look to your parents, your aunt and uncle, that couple you babysat for for five years. It's not like we have a  huge pool of adult role models to draw on and say, “How might I navigate my open relationship and what might it look like?” So it feels like really uncharted territory. People are constantly being confronted with situations where they want to take responsibility for their own actions and their own feelings but they also want to grow and learn and get past some of these pre-programmed ideas, like that, for example, we're supposed to be jealous. Our culture places jealousy right alongside love and commitment. So some of it is a deprogramming that people do—they need help and want to feel validated that they're trying to work through these really difficult issues when they see all around them elements of jealousy and how jealousy is really encouraged by our society.


SARAH: I think you're right that it's in some ways validated. Jealousy is something that we're expected to feel, even though it's a negative emotion. You know, people aren't shocked if you're not an angry person, they're not shocked if you're not a spiteful person, but they are shocked if you're not jealous in relationships.


TRISTAN: Right, because, again, it's been linked to love in these really particular ways. It's a plot point in every kind of media we have. So when I say jealousy and you say jealousy and we nod like we're speaking the same language, actually jealousy manifests itself in all these different ways for all these different people. So you have to figure out how jealousy manifests itself for you. Are you feeling envy? Are you feeling competitiveness? Are you feeling possessive? Are you feeling left out? Are you feeling insecure? Is it touching on some of your fears and anxieties? Are you getting obsessive about it? What fears and behaviors does it result in? Sometimes, it's really not a matter of, “I wish my partner weren't doing that” but “I wish I were doing that, too.”


So it's different for every person and the first step is really unpacking it and seeing what comes up for you and then how to cope with those feelings in ways that make sense.


SARAH: Some days it seems like monogamy is a fundamental part of society that's just in the ether all around us. How much do you find yourself thinking that people believe monogamy is a building block of modern society?


TRISTAN: Oh absolutely, I think even people who are non monogamous believe that because we've been taught that and told that by all these institutions around us. People are rewarded in many ways, some that are practical and material, for being monogamous. I think that there's a lot of pushback and a lot of resistance, there's this sense that no one wants to believe it's happening except for a handful of weird people, which is just not true. I also feel like no matter how many signs I point to that monogamy may not be working for a lot of people or may not be a functional model anymore for the way we live now, there still seems to be a level of pushback. “But it's the right thing! It's the natural thing! It's the best thing for the kids!” There's always a comeback for people. It seems like they're desperate to hold up this institution that, if it were so natural, normal, and beneficial, wouldn't need so much propping up. If it's such a solid institution, why do we need to support it so much, like it might crumble if we blow on it wrong?


SARAH: Do you remember when you first came to understand that you could be a non monogamous person, that there were other options?


TRISTAN: In my own life, the first open relationship I explored was when I was in college. Certainly when it was presented to me, it made sense. It seemed like it should be an option for everyone, though it was clear even back then that some people wouldn't even consider it an option. For me, it made sense given the circumstances that I was in and I definitely didn't know anything and was trying to figure out as I went along. It all didn't make much sense and it wasn't very successful, but it was the first try and like lots of things, you need a little practice.


SARAH: That's our show—I hope you leaned something new! I'm still reeling from that bit about impaling women who cheat on their partners. I'm gonna shake that one off while I go ahead and invite you to tune into our next show and feel free to get in touch with us with your ideas for people or topics we should cover, either via, or on Facebook and Twitter at Bitchmedia.


Thanks again to our guests Eric Berkowitz, Andrew Borinsky, and Tristan Taormino. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker  Our producer is Sarah Molner at Pagatim studios in Portland and intern Hannah Svon Forman helped put this show together. Our fabulous sponsor, She Bop, and you can read feminist responses to pop culture every day at


by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

So necessary

Thank you for talking about this topic. Especially as it relates to the gay marriage debate, it needs to get more words. I am a queer polyamorous person and I feel conflicted about supporting gay marriage. It feels to me like a denial of the history and culture of the queer community and a sanitization of our relationships to make them palatable for the mainstream, straight public. Different ways of configuring relationships and different kinds of relationships are part of the glue that hold our community together.
I also appreciated the discussion of the legal history of monogamy. It has never really been a two way street and the devaluation of women really serves as its foundation. This should be brought up in every discussion of the "naturalness, beauty, and sanctity" of monogamous marriage. It was and continues to be primarily a way to transmit property from one generation to another.
I'm not going to say that non-monogamy is a solution to everyone's problems. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, which is just like monogamous relationships. But one very important thing it brings to the table is the necessity of talking about things. Communication and understanding between people requires a lot of work. The myth that two people will lock eyes, fall in love, get married, and never need to talk about anything because they are soul mates and should just KNOW, is crazily damaging. We need to leave that behind. Once you do, whole new worlds open up. Successful open/poly relationships given visibility can be that model of how people deal with each other with love and respect instead of jealousy and possessiveness.

Thank you!!

Thank you for this great discussion! I am also a person who identifies as queer and is relatively new to non-monogamy. Since coming out to myself and a select few other people about being non-monogamous I have really started to notice how monogamy is promoted and imposed in our culture, particularly through media. I am also very sensitive to other's judgments of people who are non-monogamous and I think a lot about how many people who have pushed very hard for same-sex marriage rights may not be there to push for similar rights for those who want/have multiple romantic partners.

One of my favourite phrases used in this podcast was "improvised structures" of the queer community - before I knew it was a thing that other people were doing and not just some ideal I had shifted towards in my own head, non-monogamy absolutely felt like a way I wanted to "improvise" in my romantic relationship with my partner. It still feels that way sometimes too given the lack of role models, as you mentioned.

I also appreciate the honest discussions around how relationships can feel like "battles" sometimes! Negotiating a non-monogamous arrangement can be ridiculously trying in a context in which monogamy is held up as the "right", "moral", and a lot of the time only option for a long-term, loving partnership.

Thank you for this discussion and please keep them coming!!!

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