Let’s talk about one penis policies, which is when a nonmonogamous couple–generally a straight man and a queer woman–create a rule stating that the woman can only have sex with other women. (In a less extreme but probably harder-to-enforce version, the woman can have casual sex with other men, but she can only fall in love with or form committed relationships with women.)
One penis policies are generally justified using some combination of these rhetorical moves:
- “Well it works for us so you can’t judge it”
- “It’s equal because both of us are only seeing women”
- “I [the man] can’t emotionally handle her fucking another man so isn’t this better than just being monogamous”
- “I [the man] wanted to give her the opportunity to explore her interest in other women; she doesn’t need another man”
- “I [the woman] am not interested in any other men anyway so what’s the problem”
I’m going to suggest another justification for one penis policies, one that tends to underlie the rest. This one usually remains invisible because nobody wants to say it out loud and sometimes they don’t even realize it’s what they believe:
Girls don’t count.
Many straight men do not believe that romantic/sexual relationships between women are fully real. They do not believe that women have the potential to fall in love with other women the way they presumably fall in love with men. (If she says she loves her, she just means, you know, like a good friend you also have sex with. Anyway, how exactly do girls, you know, do it?) They do not believe that a relationship between two women could ever “threaten” or “interfere with” a relationship between one of the women and her boyfriend/husband/primary, because at the end of the day, all a woman really needs is a man. The rest? Just icing on the cake, just a bit of fun to pass the time while her boyfriend’s on a date with someone else.
It’s the same reason the media will see photos of us making out and call us “friends” or “gal pals.” It’s the same reason everyone assumes that a bisexual woman will “end up” with a man “eventually.”
One penis policies are fundamentally sexist and heterosexist because they rest on two assumptions: 1) that men should be able to control other men’s “access” to “their” women and 2) that relationships between women don’t fully “count,” and therefore could not possibly cause any jealousy or conflict.
In theory, one penis policies are also transphobic because they conflate being a man with having a penis. In practice, some of my trans friends say that when dealing with these couples, they tend to be grouped with others of their gender regardless of their genitalia, but that doesn’t make the name any less erasive–and I’m sure plenty of couples do get hung up on people’s genitals rather than their genders.
Are there some situations in which a couple implements a one penis policy without any sexism or heterosexism involved? Hypothetically, sure. Just as in some hypothetical situation where a man tells a woman she’s being too “strident,” maybe he would’ve said the exact same thing to a man saying the exact same thing in the exact same tone as the woman did. But based on everything I’ve seen, I’m quite comfortable assuming that the vast majority of times men call women “strident” involve sexism, as do the vast majority of relationships involving one penis policies.
What happens if the male partner really does have serious emotional issues with the idea of his girlfriend/wife seeing other men?
I mean, that wouldn’t surprise me. Most men in our society grow up with the belief that they should be able to provide everything a woman needs, and that if she wants to see another man, they’re somehow failing at masculinity. Men are not socialized to see women as competition when it comes to dating women because queerness is so invisible. That, combined with many straight men’s belief that relationships between women are ultimately not fully legitimate, probably means that many of them have a much easier time with their partners dating other women than other men. Don’t forget that many men also get off on imagining their female partners with other women, so that probably helps. (No, I don’t think that comes from a great queer-affirming place, either.)
If you’re a queer woman in a nonmonogamous relationship with a man who suggests (or demands) a one penis policy, here are some things to consider.
1. Your relationships with women are just as real and valid as your relationships with men. Even if you’ve never had sex with a woman before, even if you’ve never fallen in love with a woman before, even if you’ve never formed a committed relationship with a woman before. If you’re looking for those things, you will probably eventually find them, and when you do, it might surprise you how powerful the experience is.
2. Your relationships with men are not uniquely “threatening” or “harmful to the relationship” in ways that your relationships with women are not. Any relationship can potentially be game changer that permanently alters preexisting relationships. That’s not because anyone was “a threat” to your preexisting partner or the relationship; that’s because sometimes we meet people who make us realize that we want or need things we didn’t realize we did, and once we realize, there’s no going back. That’s a danger with polyamory, and in fact, with any type of relationship. Happens to monogamous couples all the time.
3. Although a manipulative partner will try to get you to see it this way, don’t fall into the trap of falsely conflating “doing exactly what your partner wants” with “supporting your partner through a valid personal issue.” If your partner has a hard time with you dating other men, you can support him through that even as you date other men. It is okay to say, “I hear that this is hard for you, but I’m not able to just give this up. How else can we work through this?”
4. One penis policies only really make sense in a very monocentric model where monogamy is the default and polyamory is some added extra bonus that you have to ask permission for, pretty please. In this model, the thinking goes, the female partner should be grateful she’s “allowed” to date anyone else at all, so it shouldn’t be a problem that she can’t date men.
5. Rules that restrict one or both partners’ intimacy with others can sometimes be helpful if implemented with a specific limited duration and a plan for eventually getting rid of the rule. Permanent rules, however, tend to restrict not only intimacy with others but personal growth, too. Using rules to avoid jealousy is like taking dose after dose of ibuprofen for a toothache rather than going to the dentist. Yes, ibuprofen is great while you’re waiting for your appointment, but you’d better have one scheduled or be planning to schedule it, because underneath the pain killer, the problem’s only getting worse.
6. The cause of jealousy is not “my partner is seeing someone else”; that’s just the trigger. The cause is something for you to figure out on your own through introspection or talking to your partner, a therapist, or a trusted friend. When we’re talking about one penis policies, though, the cause is usually unexamined ideas about what masculinity means and how many men ought to be “enough” for your partner (generally, one).
7. Many couples who are new to polyamory make the assumption that the woman’s female partners will never cause jealousy for her male partner or “threaten” the relationship. However, in my experience, that jealousy tends to eventually hit him like a bag of bricks–once he realizes that relationships between queer women are very much real, and very much erotic and passionate. So, if your intention is to just avoid jealousy altogether, maybe monogamy is the better choice. (Then again, monogamous couples get jealous all the time. Maybe the better choice is to deal with jealousy head-on.)
8. If you’re going to implement a temporary one penis policy while you/your partner work on an emotional issue, it’s important to include 1) a specific date at which you’ll revisit the issue and 2) a specific plan for addressing the issue. This can look like, “I’ll spend two weeks doing some reflection on this and then we’ll talk about it again,” or “I need to go to therapy to deal with this issue; let’s revisit it in six months.” The plan and the time frame will vary based on the needs on the people in the relationship. The important thing is that the rule doesn’t become indefinite, because it’s way too tempting for most people to just avoid doing that difficult personal work.
While I’ve largely addressed this article at queer women because that’s my experience and that’s who I’m mostly focused on supporting, I do want to say something to their straight male partners here: I recognize that this isn’t easy and that you’re going against a lot of your cultural conditioning. If ethical nonmonogamy were easy, more people would do it. (That more and more people are doing it is a testament to our ability to unlearn what we’re taught.) I encourage you, though, not to stop quite so close to the starting line. You don’t need a one penis policy. You just need to keep doing the exact same work you’ve been doing to open up to polyamory in the first place.
One last thing to note is that some women insist that they’re personally okay with one penis policies and therefore there’s nothing wrong with them. I see that about the same way as I see women who don’t mind or enjoy being catcalled on the street, or gay men who genuinely don’t mind it when their straight friends use the f-word, or whatever. Many marginalized people have developed adaptations to everyday oppression and one of those adaptations is simply not giving a fuck. If that works for you, that’s fine–except insofar as it causes you to dismiss other marginalized folks who are choosing to speak up. That you’re personally fine with your straight male partner strongly implying that your relationships with other women are virtually meaningless doesn’t make that any less sexist or homophobic; it just means you’re personally fine with it.
For my part, I and most queer women I know will not accept one penis policies in our relationships and we will not get involved in relationships with people who have them with their other partners. To me it throws up a red flag regardless of the gender of the person I’m dating; a man with a one penis policy comes across like he needs to control his female partner(s); a woman with a one penis policy comes across like she thinks our relationship isn’t real. No thanks.
I think that in a poly landscape where discussions like these are still frequently drowned out with cries of But It Works For Us So You Can’t Judge It, it’s important to speak up when common practices are based on faulty and toxic assumptions about sex and relationships, and one penis policies are based on quite a few of those.
Extra moderation note: I am not interested in debating whether or not polyamory is healthy/natural/”moral”/feasible. If you want to argue about that, you can do it elsewhere. Because if you tell me that polyamory is unhealthy or never works, you are literally denying my lived experience and that of many friends and partners. Not cool. For some people, polyamory is unhealthy and doesn’t work; for others, monogamy is unhealthy and doesn’t work.
I think that polyamory triggers (for lack of a better word) a lot of people because it causes them to think about very upsetting things, such as their partner having sex with someone else. Those bad feelings cause them to lash out and condemn polyamory as wrong and selfish etc and do not generally contribute to a productive discussion. If this describes you, please take care of yourself and step out.
I’m also not interested in hearing from monogamous people about why they’re not poly. That’s not what this article is about. This is not your space. Thanks.
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