In mid-October of this year, the conservative blog Red State leaked intimate photos and text messages exchanged between Katie Hill, the freshman Democratic representative from California’s 25th district, and one of her campaign aides. The public discourse in the wake of this scandal could have focused on any one of these issues: 1) the exploitative, gross, and potentially illegal invasion of privacy enacted by Red State in distributing private photographs of Hill; 2) the power dynamics implicit in relationships wherein one person has the power to either hinder or bolster the career of the other person in the relationship; 3) the reality that many men in power abuse their privilege with reckless abandon and don’t face the consequences Hill has. And it isn’t as though these nuanced, complex topics are entirely absent from the critique and commentary that have emerged surrounding Hill over the past month or so, but it does seem that one focus in media discourse has overshadowed all others – namely, speculation about whether Hill, her husband, and her campaign aide were in a throuple.
Objectively, on its own the possibility that Hill could have been in a polyamorous relationship is irrelevant; it has no bearing on her capacity, or deservingness, to exist in a position of political power. Moreover, it is obvious that what fuels this focus on polyamory is a vested interest in objectifying Hill and sensationalizing her private life – two things misogynists love to do when confronted with information about a woman’s sexuality. And when the social discourse on polyamory is filtered through an objectifying, sensationalizing lens, as it so pervasively is, it can be easy to lose sight of questions about alternative relationships which are important and compelling. For one, I was led to wonder, through my engagement in Hill’s story, about how polyamorous women themselves characterize their identities and experiences.
This is the focus of an ethnographic study conducted by Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist based at Georgia State University, in 2005¹. Sheff, who was thinking about entering into a polyamorous relationship when she began this study, sought to examine how polyamorous women “enlarge the concept of sexual subjectivity through their engagement in nontraditional relationships” (p. 252). In other words, Sheff explored how polyamorous women, who, by virtue of their sexual relationships, reject social scripts that mandate that women should be both heterosexual and monogamous, experience expanded sexual subjectivities. Sheff’s study employed an ethnographic design, meaning that Sheff engaged deeply with a community of polyamorous women over an extended period of time, collecting interview and observational data to construct her analysis. The women interviewed, by the author’s account, were largely homogenous; most were in their mid-30’s to late 50’s, middle or upper-middle class, college educated, white, and often employed in counseling fields. As such, Sheff’s intention in this study was not to make claims about generalizability, but rather to reflect the experiences of the population represented by her sample.
The author found that conversations with her participants focused on the following themes: 1) expanded roles (i.e., experiences with polyamory encouraged participants to challenge social scripts which mandate that women have children, make homes, sublimate their own sexual desires in order to appease the desires of their male partners, and embrace their femininity in uncomplicated ways); 2) sexuality (i.e., many of the polyamorous women Sheff interviewed spoke openly about having high sex drives, wanting to connect sexually with other women, and identifying as bisexual – experiences which often are made invisible for women within heterosexist frameworks); and 3) power (i.e., several women described the polyamorous community as more accepting of women’s power than would be possible in a mainstream context, and others spoke about the dynamic and fluid shifting of power which occurred in their non-monogamous relationships).
Of note, women’s experiences were not described as uniform or uncomplicated. Sheff notes that for many of her participants, “feelings of empowerment and disempowerment [coexisted] in the same relationships” (p. 278). Moreover, the author theorized that the freedom, described by many of her participants, to delineate the contours of their sexuality is impacted by the fact that they were, predominantly, white and middle to upper-middle class (representative, Sheff notes, of most polyamorous communities at the time of her writing in 2005). Attending to the ways in which privilege intersects with her findings, Sheff writes: “It is no coincidence…that women with race and class privilege reported feeling…freedom in relationship style. The ample resources they commanded conferred increased ability to transgress social boundaries” (p. 278). Power, therefore, emerges as a powerful undercurrent throughout her analysis.
What I take from this study are two main points: 1) asking people to describe their identities and experiences will always yield richer understandings of a phenomena than relying on caricatured imagery put forth by uninformed outsiders (unfortunately, the latter is what is so often peddled in media discourse); and 2) power is never exempt from sociocultural analysis. We could (and should!) consider how the scandal in which Hill is embroiled speaks to the power she held as a white person in a position of political authority, and how the sexist discourse which emerged in the wake of her leaked photos and text messages underscores the power held by cis-men in this country to denigrate and objectify womens’ identities and experiences. A similar multiplicity of power dynamics is apparent in Sheff’s study, and what feels clear, when considering Sheff’s article in relation to the narrative which surrounds Hill, is how complicated sexuality, and stories about sexuality, can be. And rather than ignore or attempt to reduce that complexity, I would argue, we are best served, as thinkers, readers, and members of dynamic social worlds, by engaging deeply with the messiness of it all.