London, 1 Million Years Later
(You may find of interest reading London, 1 Million Years Ago, as reference )
One million years later, and what was then Brixton and its thousands of squats, Notting Hill and its own (yes, there were squatters there too and it wasn’t even a nice place to live), has moved East, where I settled, without knowing it was going to go -Boom! and become fashionable.
So yeah, one million years later, I repeat, and I’m surrounded by the wearers and supporters of dissident sartorial fashions, sartorial experiments, experimental dandies, friends and lovers. Feminism, gender studies, queer studies, non-mono, poly, D/s relationships… I didn’t know about any of this when I first arrived in London, but I feel lucky and fortunate to have been exposed to it, to have absorbed and been invited to new forms of living, loving and being. It’s exactly why I came here and it’s so good to be still experimenting and discovering.
Many, constantly evolving new forms of approaching one’s sexual agency propagate like virus, bloom and sink all around me. I didn’t get accidentally knocked up nor escaped to the suburbs with a safe job in that ancient London I first encountered, so here I am: still containing multitudes. My lovers and I rant against male privilege, male entitlement; we discuss feminism and they seek my approval by proving their credentials as enlightened males who have shattered the shackles of the patriarchy. All whilst discussing how to be a dandy with no other resources than charity shops and Primark. It’s all inter-related. The objects of my lust still wear eye-liner, have amazing haircuts, choose clothes and a lifestyle that validates them in their own eyes, not in the eyes of the world. I meet new ones regularly and I doubt that they exist in Bilbao, even today. I feel lucky.
And yet… And yet… As soon as I put their beliefs to the scrutiny, a very different reality emerges. Once again, there is too much make-up, too many words: a stylish smoke screen that conceals, with varying success, deeds that contradict their well informed theory. Ancient privileges are hard to give up. Traditional gender roles are much, much harder to relinquish than imagined, when your gender automatically puts you at the centre of the Universe. The world is still full of happily enthroned males, and of women who take their place silently at their feet. They often do this in the name of feminism and equality and non-normativity, or at least, bending it to validate their arguably free decisions.
I’ve always felt stifled by the hegemony of the traditional couple as the golden standard by which all other forms of sex and romance must be measured against, often disfavourably. The notion of love as exclusive to two people, the ideal to aspire to if you want to achieve happiness. I’ve been attempting non-monogamous relationships for the last few years and found myself fighting a futile battle against the limited roles available to male and female. In courting and in love, in coupling and in partnering, these obsolete, yet widely practiced roles, keep coming up, stubbornly, undefeated, no matter how extensive, how up to date, our eloquent discussions on the subject may be.
Even less mainstream relationship arrangements, like D/s, kinky, poly and open couples, almost always revolve around a primary, heteronormative couple. It makes it easier to go out on adventures when you have a secured partner to go back to to remind you that yo are loved, taken care of, that you matter to one person in the world at last. Lone she-wolves don’t have that advantage: they date, triumph and fail, and go home alone to evaluate your gains and losses.
So here I am, another experimental seeker of the Holy Grail: another non- monogamous lover and woman in London. East London, to be precise. Currently, I’m seeing different people, all of them male or gender-queer. but biological males. They all know about each other, but have no contact with each other, or interest in each other. I feel differently to each one of them, and we give each other very different things, ways of loving, fucking and being with each other. But they don’t exist in a hierarchy in my head or in my life. I cherish their differences and the many facets they bring out in me, but I see them as equals to me, equals among themselves. Personally, I don’t buy into the hierarchical view of non-monogamous relationships that many advocate and practice: primary, secondary, tertiary partner – or whatever labels you may wish to give to your significant others. These definitions always come on a sliding scale of importance, like a list of honours. It’s intrinsically sexist and more important: patriarchal. And the patriarchy has never been good news for women’s sexualities. It’s not and it will never be our ally.
But let’s go back to the wild world of non-monogamous relationship that flourish in London these days, specially in East London. Most of the ones I know function on a hierarchical basis. This hierarchy starts with a heteronormative couple presiding from the top. These people may be fooling themselves that they are defying convention by being non-monogamous, but most of these partnerships revolve around a male-female couple, and its privileges. Once again, bow to the traditional preeminence of the male/female couple as cultural imperative. What’s unconventional about bowing to the sacred superiority of heterosexual coupling?
In theory, these relationships à la mode operate as a number of individuals who have entered into this arrangement knowing what’s going on. They strive at making their complex deals work for all participants and they acknowledge their rights and their duties to each other. It may sound unnecessarily complicated, an objection I’ve heard many times for those who don’t approve on non-monogamous relationships. My answer is that all relationships, regardless of the numbers in them, require work. This work is worth the effort for some, but not for others.
But the prospect of having to work on a relationship, often translates itself as opting for the line of least resistance. The chance of having several sexual or romantic interests going at the same time appeals not only to the genuinely non-monogamous, but also to individuals who are there for all they can grab without giving a second thought to anybody else involved. So despite the best intentions, this all in the open, everybody-knows-what’s-going-on, arrangement is still relatively unusual, even in the apparently liberal circles I move in.
I discovered this when I first started declaring my non-monogamous status, and meeting men for potential liaisons. Many of them were single, but others were attached. Of the latter, most of them described the relationship they were in as: open, non-monogamous, or poly(amory). From their point of view, that is. They were simply lying or embellishing the truth: because they were often in a partnership with someone, a woman, who didn’t know about his adventures, or who turned a blind eye, or who denied it, full stop, despite the evidence. The archetypal triangle, with the man playing behind his partner’s back.
I’ve also met men who are in a couple and both parts have agreed on being non-monogamous. Whilst the man takes full advantage of this arrangement, the woman accepts it in theory, but rarely puts it into practice, or not at all. It happens a lot and I suppose one could easily blame society’s premium of “good and virtuous women” but goddammit, weren’t we trying to demolish obsolete gender stereotypes?
Lastly, I’ve discovered another type of coupling that is also quite common: a relationship where all parts are in denial about being in a relationship. They are all free to see other people because, officially, they aren’t seeing each other seriously and don’t even consider the other a “proper partner”. But these people are, despite their dismissive words, operating in practice as a couple. They protest: “oh, its not a relationship, we aren’t together really, he/she isn’t my boyfriend/girlfriend…” However, they are always tiptoeing around each other, giving each other priority over other lovers and feeling hurt when they feel they aren’t at the top of a pyramid whose existence they’ll deny, if you ask them.
All of these ethically problematic approaches to relationships that I’ve encountered in the search for suitable partners, had one thing in common: the men loved my status as independent whore and leaped at the chance to make me part of their menagerie: a courtesan, a mistress to visit occasionally and to have uncomplicated fun with. All my life, I’ve wanted to be a courtesan. I have exercised and trained this side of me. If I believed in nature, I could even go as far as to say that I fall into this mode naturally. I’m not saying I’m the ultimate, Sacred Whore of Babylon, but I make quite a tantalising imitation, it seems. I’ve honed the role of courtesan both for love and for money. And men love courtesans, because by their traditional job description, they offer the pleasure without the commitment.
But as I grew older and more experienced, I’ve began to realize that I wasn’t relating to this archetype as I thought I would. My role model is in fact the whore, not the courtesan. I was working on being not lover validated by the regard of others, but the one and only mistress of my desires, captain and commander of my pleasures. This is the whore, a free agent whose sexual identity stands alone and demands being satisfied. But this selfish sexual assertiveness is a wild energy that refuses to be tamed by roles, cultural imperatives and hierarchies. I’ve discovered that unless you are very alert, the whore will be restrained and forced into a different role, one that has been, for thousands of years, a vehicle to impose a subservient role on female sexuality: the mistress. And a mistress is, invariably “the other woman”. An afterthought, an accessory, a discardable toy for men’s pleasure.
That’s right. What these men, all attached, wanted, was not a rampant whore full of agency to choose her lovers at will, but a mistress to keep in a cabinet, an addition to their collection. Not an equal, but a commodity. That’s the role of the mistress. A whore, on the other hand, is not a mistress. A whore is the artifice of her own desires and has no place in this husband/wife/lovers/mistresses hierarchy. Because her role is not defined by whom she is attached to, unlike a mistress, who only exists as long as she is somebody’s object of desire. A whore is captain of her soul, commander and administer of her own desires. She has the agency, – oh, the emasculating horror! -to choose and to measure her lovers’ worth. The whore lives her desires in her own terms and that might mean that her men may not always live up to her specifications.
It’s no wonder that this archetype, Lilith, the Succubus, the female vampire, the Rampant Whore of Babylon, the Witch, has been demonized and suppressed for thousands of years. She isn’t part of your patriarchal ego-massaging. So many men find it very difficult to accept that a woman’s sexuality isn’t switched off when they aren’t around. Hence, also, the myth of the insatiable nymphomaniac, the long-fanged vagina.
To combat these frightening figures of greedy but self-sufficient female sexuality, the mistress was invented as an accepted form of domesticated female sexuality, to be used when required by the dominant males. A mistress’ identity only exists as subordinate to that of her man, one who always sits at the top of a pyramid composed: of husband, wife, mistresses, lovers… bestowing his attentions in them, when it suits him. A husband is available in his own terms, while his mistresses can be summoned any time and as required. Obviously not all the time, but only when his real life, his real partner, his real commitments, permit. Because men have more important things to do while the mistress spends her days getting ready for her duties within the walls of her boudoir.
I have struggled hard, failed miserably and got back on my feet again, to become an independent whore who demands her sexual desires to be acknowledged as equal to those of men. But equality in love and sex is far from having being achieved, by me or by most women. I’m not willing to take my place in the eternal triangle (or parallelepiped, as some non-monogamous relationships can be). I demand my fellow whores, sovereign of their bodies and desires, but not at the expense of others. In case anyone is wondering, I don’t want to be a wife either. I want no part in the despicable madonna/whore psychodrama so loved by patriarchal thinking. But men, the men I meet, time and time again, all fall into this madonna/whore mindset. In any free, experimental whore, they see the prospect of an exciting new toy to spice up their official lives with. When they tire of me, they see me as the temptress who made them stray into this scary land of anarchic equality.
Men come to me to moan about their partners, thinking that I’ll feel flattered when they confess to me how sexless, boring or fucked up their girlfriends are. Unlike me, the tantalizingly rampant whore, who is flawless because she’s merely a plaything, a pornified doll for their pelasure. I don’t feel flattered being compared in this way: their awfulness doesn’t make me better. But it’s a classic form of complimenting and seduction. Beware of it, because once again, it gives the whore value not by herself, but in relation to another. It’s yet another clever way of removing your agency.
I hate it when they come to me, also, to tell me their woes and unburden their worries on me. I hate this age-old triangle being enacted again, in London, in the XXIst Century, one million years after my first encounters with male privilege: wife who doesn’t understand him, a mistress who does and is always there to provide him with a patient ear and sexual healing. In you own, male terms. A counsellor-cum-mistress.
Many men don’t follow this sexist agenda deliberately. I know they are naively unaware of the eternal psychodrama they reenact like authomatons. Their diatribes against the oh, so maligned patriarchy are, I’m sure, sincere and heartfelt, because it oppresses men as much as it oppresses women. No, I’ll correct that: patriarchy oppresses men, granted, but not as much as it oppresses women. But these well thinking, feminist, new men, oppress me by mistaking my intentions and putting the “mistress” label on me. It’s a way of using their male privileges when it suits them. Men use their well read feminism to seduce women, only to then revert to good law-abiding patriarchal boys, and label me as “other woman”. To use me if and when they may please.
Trying to juggle several lovers without rubbing it on each others’ faces, without making them feel they are lesser on some perceived pecking order, is not simple. But it’s possible. I exercise it, with a reasonable success, every day. Interestingly, I know other women who do this too. It’s always women who are more successful on keeping non-hierarchical, non-monogamous relationships working. I’m still to meet a man who does not fall for the tempting, hierarchical model. Dear male reader: if you are one and have got this far, I’d love to hear from you.
The moral of the story is that women who choose to live their lives and enjoy their bodies and independence in their own terms, pay a very high price. They are placed in a cage, on a lesser corner, to be washed separately for fear of contamination. Even by those who claim to love, cherish, respect and adore them. They are still The Other Woman, the mistress, the exciting, but ultimately, objectionable secret that gives status to any man who has her, and she must be grateful to be placed in the same league as flash cars, 60-bedroom mansions and private jets. And we often accept this position without complaining, because we believe we are acting out of our own freedom and agency. These roles are so deeply ingrained in our psyches, that women can be very compliant to the prevalent order of things. We’ve been taught to seek validation in men’s sexual attention, and be flattered by it. Flattery is a form of exercising power, the fabled iron fist in a velvet glove. From a man’s point of view, what’s not to like about this power to appropriate other people’s sexuality for his own advantage? It’s unanimously approved of by society, who tend to assume that men’s libidos are bigger, more insatiable, more important, than female ones: “it’s the way men are”. But it’s much more than being validated by society and custom. Man as husband, lover, who administers his little serfdom of adoring women, is placed, just as God and the patriarchy planned, at the centre of their own world. Why should any man want to give up this almost god-like position in the Cosmos?