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Three illustrated silhouettes of people in profile, facing right, each with a red heart over their heads.

Love, With Intention

What does it mean to experience love outside the traditional two-person romantic model? Black, queer philosopher Justin Clardy explains the transformative power “non-monogamy” can have on everyday life.

Many people know this story…

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl get married, have kids, and live happily ever after.

Obviously, details can change—maybe boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, for example—but for assistant professor of philosophy, Justin Clardy, this fairytale image of romantic love wasn’t something they bought into.

“As far as intimate caring relationships go, I cannot remember a time when seeing myself in one of those traditional monogamous relationships has ever appealed to me,” he says. “How I saw love was at odds with a world that would shame me and hold me to these normative standards of how experiences of love should happen.”

After years of feeling isolated, even from himself, Clardy discovered scholarship in graduate school that critically explored the concepts of non-monogamy and polyamory. These texts painted a broader picture of what love could look like in a fulfilling life. It might include several intimate or caring relationships of equal importance; a single, intentionally-unpartnered life enriched by deep friendships and chosen family; or any other permutation of meaningful connections just as valid as what others sought in that fairytale happily-ever-after.

For Clardy, this discovery was an a-ha moment—a vocational calling—one that opened up possibilities for love and support that felt right for them.

“Realizing that I wasn’t alone, I figured I needed to take up my own pen and contribute to this growing body of scholarship, because, even amongst all of the theory that I was being pointed in the direction of, I was not finding my experiences as a Black person being reflected in that body of literature.”

Since then, Clardy’s philosophical area of study has focused on the political concept of non-monogamy, specifically through a queer and Black feminist lens. Their hope is that by questioning the monopoly that monogamous romantic relationships hold in society, we can revolutionize how communities connect to and care for each other.

The terms “polyamory” and “non-monogamy” are quite provocative for a lot of folks. What do those terms mean to you, and are they different?

First, they do mean different things. I think that non-monogamy is a broader term to describe relationships that deviate from what I call a dyadic model, or 1:1 relationships. For me, non-monogamy has a variety of forms, and in fact, an infinite number of forms—which might include polyamory amongst those forms. So, under this concept of non-monogamy I include things like people who are single, those who prioritize close friendships, or those with chosen kin, which I think is usually counterintuitive to a lot of people. They typically think about non-monogamy as being a romantic relationship between more than two people, which I think takes us to this distinction between non-monogamy and polyamory.

Polyamory is a romantic relationship between more than two people with the full knowledge and consent of the people involved. To that end, some of these polyamorous relationships may have similar goals and mutually-agreed conditions as romantic relationships—like long-term commitment, exclusivity, or sexual intimacy.

What do you think is most misunderstood about non-monogamy?

The way that I approach non-monogamous theory, it’s much more political. I think the hasty association between non-monogamy and sexual relationships often gets in the way of being able to fully appreciate how this framework can expand our definition of love and care.

I’m always disheartened when conversations about polyamory or non-monogamy revolve around sex and jealousy—with the question of jealousy, I think romance here is the problem. Coworkers get jealous of one another. Friends get jealous of one another. Siblings get jealous of one another. Jealousy is not reserved for romance, you know.

“Romance is the problem” is a pretty dramatic statement. Do you see a difference between “romance” and “love”?

By romance, I’m talking about what we might call the “romantic industrial complex,” where images with a bunch of social meanings get disseminated and oversaturate the visible representations of love. From a very young age, if we find ourselves aspiring to love, we’re already met by complex propagandized images about the ways that love is supposed to look.

There’s a long history of the manufacturing of “romance.” Even if we were to think about the evolution of marriage, we can see where it went from an institution where women were treated as property to one arranged because of family and political ties. As marriage entered the “romantic” period, there were so many different things and opportunities happening within the capitalistic world. For the first time in history, we see the sort of prioritization of autonomy and choice being shored up by the work of poets and lyricists.

Meanwhile, as we see this emergence of choice, we also see the emergence of the importance of marital relationships to property inheritance and how states are able to surveil the family unit.

This period really situates romance not as this mystical metaphorical force that Disney would have us believe, but more as an implement of state interests.

So, if romance is tied to government interests, what are the real-world, lived implications of excluding non-monogamy from conversations about marriage?

I think we have to start with the idea of caring relationships. There are caring relationships, like monogamous marriages, that get state support. That state support comes with political entitlements and rights that citizens outside of marriage don’t have access to.

If there are non-monogamists in a society where certain relationships are getting that support and recognition and their caring relationships are not, it’s going to have material consequences on non-monogamous people, their children, and their families. This can include vacation time granted by an employer for family caretaking, instances when the law only recognizes family members as being determined by marriage, or potential healthcare benefits for children and other kin.

What we have is a basis for an unjust distribution of goods, rights, and entitlements.

So, by looking at marriage as an institution, I begin to see critical possibilities for utilizing this institution to help repair historical wrongs that were directed toward Black folks. Through reparations, ultimately, we can create pathways for economic mobilization amongst marginalized communities and disrupt our commitments to capitalism.

If you see non-monogamy as a tool for justice in Black communities, how has the institution of monogamous marriage created historic injustices in the first place?

From the angle of race, when you think about economic marginalization or the wealth gap, many people want to talk about slavery as merely a system that exploited physical labor. But I think that part of that labor was reproductive, with white enslavers manipulating Black intimacy, making “monogamy” virtually impossible.

For example, looking through historical records, we can see that there were enslaved persons who fought and died in the Civil War, some of whom had more than one spouse, but in those cases, neither spouse was entitled to a pension like other soldiers’ families.

Because of slavery, these Black soldiers found themselves in an unjust arrangement where the state did not or could not recognize the whole picture of what their family structure looked like. I believe that looking at this, we can see the role that marriage as an institution, and its denial of Black, non-monogamy in the past, has some impact on the generational wealth gap that we see today.

And if we’re looking at recent precedent, consider the history of the political movement toward gaining the right for same-sex marriage. This too was informed by material injustices. For example, during the AIDS epidemic, LGBTQ+ spouses could not legally inherit their loved one’s property or visit them in the hospital.

Of course, I understand that marriage means different things to different people and that romance does have value, but we have to be able to separate the romanticism of marriage from the institution’s connection to legal rights, protection, security, and the ability to exist as equals. In the US, the government has a duty to fulfill these commitments to all people.

Given that most people wouldn’t consider themselves non-monogamous, can reflecting the non-monogamy framework still benefit those in monogamous relationships?

I agree that the non-monogamous identity is not for everyone, but I think if we consider the limitations of monogamy on a structural level, it might inspire people to place greater value on other caring relationships already in their lives—friends, kin, community—that can sometimes be neglected in the hierarchy of monogamous relationships.

Even if that reflection doesn’t push someone to take up the identity of non-monogamous, it might relax some of the social stigma and lead to policies that better protect and support non-monogamous relationships and the caretaking that happens within them.

College students are at an age where some are exploring romantic or intimate relationships for the first time. How are they engaging with this topic in the classroom? What generational insights are they bringing?

I think because of the rise of social media and the rate at which information can spread, my students are just exposed to a lot more perspectives than when I was coming up, and that has increased their awareness of non-monogamous relationships, such as polyamory. But, while they have been mainly exposed to it as a romance style, I’ve found that they’ve really found value in engaging with thinking about it through a political lens as well.

And interestingly, we’re at a moment where students are matriculating at Santa Clara and across the country who were impacted by a global pandemic where they had to experience physical distance. I think that living without a particular kind of proximity to others presented an opportunity for folks to think about the many varieties of relationships that they had and the importance of taking care of one another, even through things as simple as phone check-ins. It really forced people, especially younger people, to grapple with the value that even non-romantic relationships have in their lives. And now when I talk about non-monogamous relationships, it’s easier for these students to think about their web of friends and family.

CAS, Ethics
Illuminate, philosophy, identity, relationships
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