Okay. I’m angry today so, instead of doing all the Important Responsible things I need to do like buy groceries and go to the bank, here’s a rant. It’s about what’s wrong with monogamy. But first I’m going to give a bunch of background that has to do with a computer program.
I’ve been working on this post about the Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid and why it’s awesome. There’s something I’ve been struggling to talk about because it’s important but it’s also out of scope for the piece I’m writing, which is about accountability, anonymity, autonomy, and online resistance to rape culture broadly, and not about my radical anti-monogamist agenda. Still, monogamist bullshit shows up everywhere.
PAT-OKC is a browser add-on that highlights OkCupid users’ attitudes about consent and violence. It’s very cool. The tool works by “looking” at a user’s publicly answered Match Questions and then displaying any potentially concerning answers at the top of their profile. One particularly cool aspect of the original version was that it allowed everyone running the tool to share information with each other. It did this by aggregating Match Question answers collected by each version of the tool on a server that all versions of the tool could access. Unfortunately, PAT-OKC no longer has this capacity because (fortunately!) the tool got so many installs that the server’s resources were overloaded. The developer, maymay, had to quickly code up a version that relied only on local data. Because a server is expensive, the local-data-only version is what most PAT-OKC users are running right now.
In other words, if you’re running PAT-OKC, you can currently see “red flagged” answers that are visible to your OkCupid account. But originally, you were able to see “red flagged” answers that were visible to any OkCupid account using PAT-OKC. The server-side code to do this still exists and can easily be run by anyone who wants to host it a version on their own server. There have been some critiques that it does this by “stealing private information” — a claim that is patently ridiculous if you know anything about how OkCupid works.
In case you don’t, it works like this: Users answer Match Questions and decide whether to make their answers public. If you and another user have given public answers to the same question, then you get to see each others’ answers. If you haven’t answered that question or your answer isn’t public, you don’t. OkCupid didn’t always work this way. Originally, there were no such thing as public answers. Then, there was the “WTF” option, which allowed you to make your ALL your answers public to specific users of your choice. In 2010, OkCupid changed their interface to make all new answers public by default unless you checked a box marking that answer “private”. Some people were pretty pissed about this. (In fact, if you’d prefer to make your Match Question answers private by default, here’s a script that will let you do that.) Still, OkCupid has consistently moved towards making that data more and more public. Of course, it’s in the company’s interest to encourage as many public answers as possible, because the opportunity to read attractive strangers’ opinions on politics and oral sex is part of what OkCupid is selling.
The current system, by which you can answer a question to see another user’s answer, is a game that encourages you to make more of your own answers public. There’s nothing “private” about other peoples’ public answers which you can’t currently see. You’re just blocked from seeing them because you’re playing a game. If I’ve answered the same question, I get to see their answer. Those are the rules of the game. And it’s a fun game! I like going to the profile of someone I have a crush on and answering the questions we don’t have in common yet. It’s like unlocking little secrets about people I think are cute. (I’m easily entertained.)
But PAT-OKC doesn’t care about the, “I like broccoli! Do you like broccoli?” game. It’s trying to fight rape culture. So, it looks at what people have posted publicly about consent and violence and then tells other people what they’ve said — even people who haven’t personally answered the same questions about consent and violence. Maybe because those questions are triggering for them. Or maybe because, like many OkCupid questions, all the possible answer choices suck. Or maybe they just haven’t gotten around to it. Whatever.
The point is, PAT-OKC doesn’t do anything I couldn’t do myself. It’s not like there are some questions I’m allowed to answer and other users aren’t, or vice-versa. Every time I look at someone’s profile, I could go through their list of publicly answered questions, find questions about consent and violence that concerned me, answer those questions myself, see what their answers are, and thereby make a decision about whether or not I want to message them. PAT-OKC just gives me that information faster. Cuz computers.
So the argument that PAT-OKC users shouldn’t be allowed to share information about potential rapists because that violates the rules of OkCupid’s dating game seems ludicrous to me. You know what also violates the rules of the “dating game”? Being a rapist. It’s like saying that if I’m going out on a date with someone I met through mutual friends, I shouldn’t be allowed to ask my friends what they think of him, because that might be compromising his “private information”; I should just go on the date with him and find out for myself. Not only would that be a weirdly extremist position to hold about information in the physical world, if my friends happened to know that this guy had a history of saying or doing problematic things around consent, they’d actually be remiss in not mentioning that to me.
That’s when it clicked that I was actually dealing not just with a misapprehension about how the Internet works but with a busted “real-world” social norm: We’re actually NOT supposed to share information with each other about what people are like in relationships, are we?
I’m not supposed to ask my partners’ exes about their relationships with my partner. I’m not actually supposed to talk to my partners’ exes at all; we’re supposed to hate each other. I’m certainly not supposed to e-mail my ex’s new partner (as a friend of mine once did) to tell her that he has a history of lying, cheating, and bad consent around STIs. If I do, I’ll just get accused of “starting shit.” (Which my friend did. Until the new girlfriend discovered firsthand that her beau was, in fact, lying, cheating, and practicing bad consent around STIs. Now, she and the ex are friends and he’s out of the picture.)
Or there was that time when I asked a co-worker about a boy we both liked, “Hey, do you know what’s up Cameron? I know he’s got this girlfriend back home but then, the other night, he kissed me…” and she said, wide-eyed, “He has a GIRLFRIEND?!” Apparently, she’d been sleeping with him for months and he’d never said a word. When we confronted him about his onion-layers of cheating his flabbergasted response was, “Why would you TALK to each other?! Women cause so much drama.”
This is called the siloing of information. Abusers depend on it to get away with abusing multiple people. And it’s also strongly encouraged in normative relationships — particularly normative heterosexual monogamous relationships — in the name of “privacy.”
I’m not saying that all monogamous heterosexual relationships are abusive. And I also want you to understand that, when I say “monogamy”, I don’t just mean “relationships between two people who agree to be sexually exclusive with each other.” When we talk about “monogamous” relationships in our culture, we’re talking about a LOT more than that. We’re talking about the way our culture does monogamy — which is not simply that two people agree not to have sex with anyone but each other. Rather, it tends to be that two people make their relationship with each other their number one intimacy-priority in life, and they share everything about their lives with each other, and very little about their life together with the outside world.
This expectation of “marital privacy” is so strong that it’s encoded into law. You can’t make someone testify against their spouse in court because our notion that “what’s said in the relationship stays in the relationship” is so sacred. And this notion flows all through our relationship culture, from exempting you from incriminating your partner all the way down to “it’s not polite to kiss and tell.” Meanwhile, there are very few counterbalancing norms on the other side — etiquette that encourages (rather than simply “excusing”) you to be open about your intimacy with others in certain situations. The few that do exist are almost entirely for extreme scenarios like domestic violence, and even those have been hard won by decades of feminist activism.
Some privacy between intimates is lovely, don’t get me wrong. And being able to make decisions about our own privacy preferences is vital for a free society. There are certainly things I like to keep private between my partners and myself because it helps create safer spaces in which to be ourselves and simply because it feels sweet to have little things that are just ours. But, on the flipside, there are certain things it feels equally important to me to be able to communicate about with my partners’ other partners, close friends, family members, exes, etc. Having Max Possible Privacy Setting as the default for what a “meaningful relationship” looks like in our culture, and shaming people (particularly women) who share even the most innocuous information about intimacy, creates fantastic cover for those who ARE being abusive.
And contemporary monogamous culture — not just compulsory monogamy, but the way that many people who ARE choosing to do monogamy are doing it — encourages that culture of information siloing to a degree that is totally out of whack.
So out of whack that we apparently have to think twice about whether it’s okay for some people to share already public information with other people about the possibility that someone might be a rapist.
Finally, I am absolutely not suggesting that the silencing of abuse survivors and others is exclusively caused by monogamous normativity. There’s lots of misogyny here (see: “Women cause so much drama.”), domism within the BDSM scene, and loads of other power structures at play. But the institution of monogamy is also one of them. And I’m not letting it off the hook. Because fuck monogamous culture.
…Okay, I think that’s all.
* puts on flame retardant pants *
Now, I’m going to the grocery store.