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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Sexplanations: Monogamy and active bystanding

Sexplanations is an anonymous Q&A column about sex, sexual health, sexuality, gender, relationships and the promotion of respect at Grinnell College. Questions are answered collaboratively by the Sexual Health Information Center (SHIC), the Stonewall Resource Center (SRC) and the Office of Wellness and Prevention. If you have a question or comment, submit it anonymously at or email [howeemil].

I’m not sure if I want my next relationship to be monogamous.

— Monogamous Conglomerous

I feel this is almost a cliché for a lot of queers at Grinnell. I imagine it has to do with the fact that when forced to rethink relationships in terms of family, friends and lovers, we question and sometimes reject assumed standards like monogamy in relationships. Bigots will say it’s because queers are flitty sex-mongers who can’t do white middle-class family structures, to which I say, yes, thank you for seeing me! But that’s not everyone.

Much work done when questioning monogamy is critiquing hierarchies of relationships. Why can’t friendships be just as intimate and interdependent as relationships we distinguish as romantic? It’s important to know that the process of questioning how monogamy does or does not function in one’s relationship is where the magic happens, not in whether one chooses to practice monogamy. Monogamy does not necessarily evince heteronormativity or assimilation, and non-monogamy is not a morally superior position — both are prone to toxicity and liberation.

You may want to consider whether you feel non-monogamous or polyamorous, meaning one is open to having multiple partners (NB: “poly” as shorthand for polyamorous has been critiqued by Polynesians for co-opting their identity term). And to get there, you’ll probably need to dig deep into what differences you draw between friendships and partners — time spent? sexual intimacy? romantic feelings? interdependency? And then there’s the other unpacking: what are sexual intimacy or romantic feelings to you? These questions are so hard. Why are they so hard?!

How has being monogamous affected your relationships with people besides your partner? Are friendships at all devalued? Do you feel more willing to connect with people honestly and openly when there are preset limits on possible sexual intimacy with those people?

It’s hard to be something other than monogamous. Particularly when one’s potential dating population seems small to begin with, bringing in non-normative relationship structures can elicit intense feelings of undesirability and loneliness. If that happens, remember that you are choosing non-monogamy/polyamory to be able to connect more deeply with people you care about — it’s worth it. It’s also hard to enter a relationship with monogamous folks hoping they’ll change their mind. I wouldn’t count on that happening, but questioning what monogamy means in monogamous relationships can be magical for learning how each partner thinks about intimacy, needs and ways of connecting. I hear a lot of people say that they’re too jealous to be non-monogamous. Okay, that’s fine, but jealousy happens in non-monogamous and polyamorous relationships too. In those cases, it’s about using the recognition of jealousy to explore its roots — unmet needs, uncomfortable power imbalances — and that’s something everyone can do.

Last weekend at Harris, and someone came up and started dancing on my friend without their consent. I asked my friend to go to the bathroom with me so we could get away. How can I be an active bystander if that happens again? 

— Bewildered Bystander

Hey Bewildered Bystander, 

Actually, you were an active bystander in that situation! Although we may think about active bystanderism as something that you have to be confrontational and loud about, the truth is that there are many ways you can “step up” and be an active bystander. 

In some cases, one might step up and say something to the person who came up and danced on your friend, but that option isn’t available to everyone. Identities, power dynamics, past experience and other factors can impact what actions feel available in the moment. So going to the bathroom with your friend? That was a great option for you in the moment. 

Someone else might have gotten help from an ACESS staff member or waved over a friend of the dancer. Walking between the dancers, having the DJ pause the music or change the song, or even spilling a drink may be other options, of many, one could take in order to be an active bystander. Part of the active bystander trainings offered on campus focus on brainstorming what different steps one could take in various situations to be an active bystander, and often, it’s a lot of identifying things that many of us already do — such as moving with our friends elsewhere, like you did. 

It’s also important to note that the role of being an active bystander doesn’t rest solely on the peers of the person in the uncomfortable position — peers of both parties should take action. Most students at Grinnell, regardless of relationship to one another, would prefer that someone step up, even if they are unsure of how the situation is actually playing out. 

Basically, you did the right thing for your friend, and you are an active bystander. As you look ahead towards future Harrises or even Sunday brunches, sit down and have a conversation with your friends about what options feel available to you and each other. If you’d like to learn more or have more structured conversations about it, reach out to Jen Jacbosen [jacobsen], a SAM, a Peer Educator or a CA. 

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