Among Barbra Streisand’s many accomplishments, there is one which will go down in my mind as a pivotal moment in human history. And surprisingly–given her amazing career–this one was not intentional. Back in 2003 she tried to suppress photographs of her home in Malibu thereby triggering a wave of psychological reactance aka. greater public awareness and subsequent increased desire of many, to see the photos. Simply put, instead of being a 15 minutes of attention, the photos went viral.
This reverse psychology concept is facilitated by the internet and the term The Streisand Effect was coined in 2005 by Mike Masnick, CEO and founder of Techdirt. What does this have to do with open relationships?
Well, the Guardian newspaper called for submissions of non-monogamous relationship stories in an article a few weeks ago. They asked
‘Do you think that non-monogamous relationships are more common among different generations? Why?’
Within the context of the survey I believe the underlying question was, why are open relationships are more prevalent nowadays? But it wasn’t the right question. Because of course non-monogamous relationships have been around for, well, always. Cheating, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, and polyandry (many women for one man) have been ubiquitous throughout history. Longevity, geographical mobility and the decline in traditional religious beliefs are reasons commonly given nowadays for the perceived upswing in open non-monogamy. Yet these reasons don’t explain anything but why the prevailing dishonest non-monogamous solutions might increase.
Instead what we’re seeing is a rise of open, egalitarian and consensual relationships where all partners can have several lovers… and be honest about it. So really the question might better be phrased, why are honest, egalitarian and consensual open relationships on the rise? Is it because we are getting more honest? I doubt it.
One answer might be The Streisand Effect. If you want to keep people obedient, you have to keep them in a state of subsumed non-awareness… not only can they not be aware of different choices that might otherwise logically be available to them, but unaware that they are unaware. Now make them aware of the choices thanks to the internet, but try to suppress the ‘bad’ one. It immediately gains more awareness than the one which has been made freely lauded (where are all the controversial and viral articles on conscious monogamy?).
Cheating might be considered unethical, but is a nonetheless accepted reality in our culture. Polyamory and other forms of more open non-monogamy like swinging are not. Yet they are growing as a movement despite the fact that they are still largely vilified by mainstream society. Or perhaps polyamory and other forms of more open non-monogamy are growing as a movement in large part because they are so vilified by our society. Better in many cultures to cheat, than to be openly non-monogamous.
Some believe that polyamory is an inclination–‘polyamory-by-nature’–and therefore its practice might be less correlated with an ability to choose such a open configuration than admitting and embracing an inherent biologically determined inclination in a small percentage of us. I don’t believe that polyamory-by-nature is true for me, but as a fallible human I respect others’ opinions that it is true for them. Still I predict that polyamory-by-choice as a viable relationship option will continue to rise for Millenials under The Streisand Effect until it reaches tacit acceptance in our western society, in the attitude that an open relationship is no big deal.
I am generation X. I remember landlines and loading games for hours with cassettes on my Acorn Electron. My age was brought home to me the other day when I read my children the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where the family sits down to watch the news. My children do not know about terrestrial television and the six o’clock news. They have access to a plethora of information curated by their own tastes. At age six, my daughter knows best what her curiosity prompts her–and us–to research. Right now, that’s planetary systems, combustion engines and how her body works. We have the information at our fingertips to explain it all (and videos on youtube to show it).
But I belong to the generation who knows what life was like before the internet and after the internet. Would I have chosen polyamory if I hadn’t found articles on the web and if my consequent choices hadn’t been strenuously disparaged by my family? My friends? If they’d instead said, ‘Yeh polyamory… it’s no big deal.’
I can’t say. All I know is that I am fundamentally for freedom of choice and against any enforced relationship style. Like many others of my generation, the information at my fingertips makes me peculiarly dismissive of authority largely due to heuristics and bias.
So the question of whether polyamory-by-choice is still a valid choice whilst it proliferates under The Streisand Effect is also worth asking. If our own minds are manipulating us into thinking that open non-monogamy is a more attractive option simply because we believe that our behavioural freedom is being threatened, then those people who believe they are true believers in polyamory, may in fact be doing it just for the hell of it and not because they truly suited to it. They are swapping one box they believe to be a prison, for another box… rose-tinted by the illusion of freedom.
As the polyamorous community looks with interest at the growing number of stories in the press, a lot of us worry. This worry is also demonstrated in our consumer preference. Books like More Than Two have met with resounding success because they explain how to do ethical (to be redundant) polyamory in a time where people are choosing polyamory regardless of whether they might be suited to it. Books like my first story The Husband Swap, which can be seen as a cautionary tale, met with relatively more success only after I added the Lessons Learned to it and due to popular demand both the tale and the lessons will be soon released in one volume. Of course, the mainstream press focused on the cautionary tale rather than the lessons learned…
I am raising my children in a world where all relationship styles are valid but are no big deal. In Sweden, I don’t have to change much about our society to make that true. I want them to be able to choose what is truly suited to them instead of choosing a potentially unhappy option just for the hell of it. Yes, they will have their own biases. Yes, it will probably be by trial and error. Yes, they will experience pain. But at least they’ll know go into adulthood more accepting of our differences and respecting everyone’s freedom of choice, including their own.