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Language Matters

“She had a shotgun wedding.”

“She’s living in sin.”

“She’s just his bit on the side.”

One late September Saturday in 1983 around 100 of my grandparents’ friends and family gathered for a 50th wedding anniversary party that my Mum and her siblings had organised. It remained a surprise until the Friday afternoon when my Aunt told my Nan that there was a hair appointment booked for her on the following morning. On hearing the news my Nan broke her heart crying and revealed a secret that she’d kept for 49 years. You see, they hadn’t married in 1933, they’d married in 1934, just six months before their eldest child was born. For almost half a century my grandparents had been lying to their children and friends, hiding the shame of their ‘shotgun wedding.’ In the face of this very public celebration the mask finally crumbled and my Nan confessed that we were celebrating a year early. But she swore that Aunt to secrecy and the rest of her children only found out five years later when their parents died within a few months of each other.

Almost 80 years to the day after that 1934 wedding I was sat in my local pub chatting to a then partner about the news that had come out of his country that day; America’s Supreme Court had allowed same sex marriages to stand in five states meaning for the first time more Americans lived in states where these unions were legal than not. That evening he stated his view that “non monogamy is going to be the next relationship structure to come into the spotlight and upset the status quo.”What makes you say that?” I asked. He argued that people have always gossiped about and judged other people’s relationships and that as each one becomes more socially acceptable (and disparaging the people in them becomes less acceptable) it paves the way for something new to bear the brunt of judgment. “Think about it,” he said. “Having a child out of wedlock used to be the worse thing that could happen, but imagine calling a child a bastard now? And living in sin – you’d never say that these days.” His view was the legalisation of same sex marriage marriage would mean another paradigm shift and the door was now open for non-monogamous couples to out themselves and ‘enjoy’ a period of being the object of fascination and fear.

I can’t really decide whether he was incredibly astute or over simplifying things and bloody lucky in the timing of his statement, but it’s undeniable that in the last five years ethical non-monogamy and polyamory has been enjoying its moment in the spotlight. There’s an increasing amount of coverage in the mainstream media, some of the most popular dating apps have introduced the opportunity to declare your non-monogamous status and more people are coming out about their relationship structures to family and friends. And, as he predicted, there’s backlash.

While it would seem inconceivable in 2019 to make asides about ‘shotgun weddings’ or ‘living in sin’, comments like ‘she’s his bit on the side’ still prevail and they carry the same weight of casual thoughtless judgement. I read something recently where someone talked about poly men “pretending to be enlightened and sex-positive and forward-thinking when really it’s just them wanting to stick their dicks into as many women as possible.” A couple of weeks ago LoveLustLondon tweeted an OKC comment where someone’s blanket message to non-monogamous folk was “don’t even think about messaging me and good luck catching an STD.” Comments like these are not prejudiced on the scale of homophobia or racism, but they are prejudiced nonetheless and can be deeply hurtful to non-monogamous people. And they are lazy. People who make them are invariably lashing out and making no effort to understand or respect the dynamic and hard work that goes into successful open relationships.

Of course, there are some people who are using the increasing profile of non-monogamy and tick boxes on apps to behave in an entirely unethical way. Tech can facilitate in a far more efficient way the same poor behaviour that drunk Saturday nights with mates or late nights at the office used to pave the way for. Humans have always and will always behave like arseholes sometimes. A while back a few of us got involved in a Twitter chat defending poly in light of someone claiming that it’s being evangelised. Exhibit A said at the time: “The pseudo-poly guys and opportunists on dating apps are assholes, but ‘it seems to be all over the media and it’s the evangelical ones who shout loudest’ is exactly what people used to say about homosexuality: “why do they need to shove it down our throats, etc”.
To extrapolate the point Exhibit A made, to those people who make snide comments about poly being trendy or poly people just wanting to fuck everything that walks, I would suggest they replace poly with ‘gay people’ and check whether their comments stand up to scrutiny. If your comments are stigmatising someone and how they are honestly and consensually living their life then you may want to interrogate your attitude rather than their lifestyle.

Last weekend, knowing this post was in the pipeline, I asked Twitter what their experiences were. I could have written this post just sharing people’s responses. I think the one that made me saddest was The Curious Mermaid who said: “The more I read of these tweets, the more I feel that I’m right to still be in the closet about non-mon as far as work acquaintances and parents are concerned.” I hope in time it becomes as acceptable to talk about your different partners without raising eyebrows as it is to now say you’re moving in with someone. I’m unlikely to ever experience the half a century of shame that my Nan did when she became pregnant with her first child, but I also look forward to the day when describing me as someone’s ‘bit on the side’ becomes as unlikely and unacceptable as discussing that someone is living in sin.

This was meant to be posted in time for the fear prompt last week but time ran away with me. Here it is a week late!

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6 Comments

  1. Excellent post. Language has always interested me. I’m just saddened that

    • …sorry, I’m typing this on my phone and I sent it before I’d finished. Just saying that I’m saddened there has always been so much narrow mindedness down the years. My grandmother was placed in an orphanage because she’d been born ‘out of wedlock’ . Let us hope for a more understanding world.

  2. Conflating poly or non mon with unethical behaviours is lazy thinking in my view. I think that the understanding of the concept of concent is very helpful in gaining clarity about our own and other’s boundaries. We are engaged in unpicking old social structures here though so it will take time!

  3. Thanks for writing this E40, I of course agree with all you say and wonder how many more people like your grandparents are out there (and how many of those are people we know). Well done also for including the caveat that this isn’t on the same scale as racism or homophobia.
    O

  4. thecuriousmermaid

    March 2, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    Great post, and yeah your partner was quite astute about poly coming under the spotlight wasn’t he! Sorry if my comment made you sad, too… I’ve had a huge amount of love, understanding and support from my friends and also my sisters, so I’m not feeling totally marginalised or in the closet- don’t feel THAT sad for me :-). I guess I only care a little bit about coming out at work/to my parents anyway. I do think that people in their twenties (I’m in my thirties) seem to be way more confident about owning this shit than I am, so maybe they’ll pave the way for me in my workplace at some point, and then I can piggyback on their coattails. (I realise that’s not a thing and pigs don’t wear coats, but I’m commenting in a hurry!)

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. Polyamory is not something that I know a lot about and what I do know has really only been learnt since blogging and chatting with people in different sorts of relationship dynamics. I am really glad that the world is slowly changing, although there is still such a lack of understanding and intolerance for those who lead different lifestyles. I think that people feel threatened by other poeple who choose to do things differently to them, as if that somehow challenges what they have themselves. The sooner we stop the need to categorise the better, although I appreciate that it has a psychological purpose. Thank you for a post which made me think about this more deeply 🙂

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