The Paper Dolls of Polyamory

The Paper Dolls of Polyamory January 22, 2024

My new favorite podcast is the Theology Pugcast. I came across it in the midst of listening to That Hideous Strength. It was like something was in the air. I was listening to that uncomfortably prophetic work and they were talking about it all at the same time. This morning I was coming to the final minutes of this episode, about knowledge, when a friend sent me this piece from the New York Times Modern Love section. It’s called “My Relationships Have No Clothes: I have no moral objection to infidelity. For me, sex is just sex,” by someone named Kate Bailey. It was a most propitious mashup, as it were.

In the Pugcast episode, C.R. Wiley, Glenn Sunshine, and Thomas Price take up the classical distinction between curiosity and studiousness. Being curious is something I have generally thought of as a good characteristic. People who aren’t curious, I’ve found, are tedious to be around. People who don’t ask questions can be exhausting. The classical understanding of curiosity, though, is uncomfortably applicable to our current malaise. To be curious is to seek to uncover something that ought to remain hidden, whereas to be studious is to accept and use the gift of insight with wisdom and discernment (they said it much better than I ever could).

If we have discovered anything in the past few years, it should be how quickly the thirst for knowledge goes sideways. It’s like everyone is Eve, chomping on every apple, even the ones that wormy and disgusting. Besides a very pleasant discussion of the movie Casablanca, the Pugcast guys discuss how terrible it is to know too much about people, how the drive for authenticity is becoming repulsive, and how modesty doesn’t have to be confined to the realm of wearing enough clothes but even more to how much information is appropriate to divulge about oneself and one’s incilnations. You should definitely give it a listen, especially if you feel like clicking on that New York Times link, which is a heartbreaking attempt to self-justification. Bailey writes:

To me, all relationships are like those paper dolls we had as children. The figures are in their underwear and then you put different clothes on them for different occasions. The base level is the figure laid bare. The base level is vulnerability and intimacy. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up — mistress, relative, friend, girlfriend, husband, lover — the base stays the same. And if the base is good, it’s easy to understand how someone can start off in one set of clothes and end up in another. Some time ago, I just stopped using the clothes to label my relationships.

In illistration of this point, she describes her sexual relationship with a man who was engaged to another woman. He felt, it seemed, guilty for sleeping with someone besides the woman he’d asked to marry him. Bailey, meanwhile, didn’t have any problem with it at all. But she did want him to know that he bore some responsibility for her feelings, even though, as she keeps saying, theirs wasn’t a relationship with any kind of label:

But I told him as straightforwardly as I could that I had no moral objection to infidelity. That was the only way I could think to phrase it. Sex was just sex. I was basically communicating that if he wanted to have sex with me, I was going to enthusiastically approve. I quickly mentioned that what did matter to me was his ability to take care of two women’s feelings at the same time. He looked down at his boots and said that he probably wouldn’t be able to do that.

It’s fascinating that Bailey expects that this man, for whom she holds sexual attraction, to be able to “take care” of “two women’s feelings at the same time.” “Ethical” nonmanogamy, for her, means that the other woman knows what the man with whom she has a sexual relationship is doing sexually with other women. It is “unethical to keep that person in the dark,” though she is basically fine with living an “unethical life. How can anyone really explain to the person they’ve committed themselves to that they’ve had sex with someone else but that it’s not a big deal. What does “care” mean in a sentance like that?

In the New Testament lesson in the Daily Office this morning, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthian church to quickly back away from sexual immorality, which includes, Bailey might be surprised to learn, a sexual encounter or relationship with anyone to whom you are not married, and marriage can only be between one man and one woman. Despite what you might think, that “sex is just sex,” it actually has to do with the core of who you are. What you do with your body is not purely physical, it is related to that which is spiritual. Therefore, writes Paul:

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Ironically, Bailey does enter into some, vague cost analysis, but in exactly the wrong way. Instead of wanting to be known by God and others for glory and for honor, she thinks she wants to be stripped bare, that intimacy means the bracing air of sexual freedom. Rather than enjoying the comfortable intimacy of exclusively devoting yourself to one person, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others so that you wrap each other in love and affection, she thinks something like that would be “untrue” to “experience:”

Dressing the doll up might make things more comfortable at times, but it wouldn’t be true to our experience. And if the price we must pay is occasionally having to think hard about it to make sure it’s still working — well, I’m willing to pay that small price.

Leaving aside the grotesque attempt to think of human relationships as an exercise in playing with paper dolls, we must point out that “it” is not a small price to pay. It is a price people are paying in heartache and trouble day by day. How foolish of her to care nothing for that fiance of the man she slept with. How dumb of her not to question her own assumptions. She calls herself, unironically, a “relationship anarchist.” Her responsability, apparently, isn’t to care for other people who might, in turn, care for her, but rather to “reflect unconventional truths and challenge social norms.” If “we don’t start talking about it openly,” she concludes, “it will never get easier.”

Nor should it, because talking about it may make a lot of curious people think they have gained some deep insight into happiness and freedom, but all Bailey has done is sin against herself, against those she claims to love, and against God. It is exactly the kind of knowledge God commanded Adam and Eve not ever to seek out.

Check out my substack for more depressing takes!

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