Amanda Miska is Editor-in-Chief of Split Lip Magazine. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in or are forthcoming from jmww, Storychord, Five Quarterly, matchbook, Hippocampus Magazine, Atticus Review, The Manifest Station, the Prairie Schooner blog, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but you can find her online at tumblingtowards.tumblr.com or on Twitter @akmiska.
Divorce rates have reached 98%, with only the most fanatical, fundamentalist sects clinging to their marital strife like badges of honor. Monogamy is Dead! the headline read on the New York Times several months ago, as though it was the end of a long war. In truth, monogamy has been ill for years due to its unnatural foundations. Most people have selectively forgotten that it is a socially constructed preference, not an evolutionary selection. Humans like to forget they are animals. Highly evolved animals, but animals nonetheless.
The new relational structure is not a sexual revolution—people have been openly having sex with multiple partners, both in public and in secret, for years. It is an emotional revolution: the freedom to be honest about every connection we have with another person, courtesy of a new understanding of the multi-faceted needs of every individual. The change isn’t sudden—it is simply that more people have started giving honest voice to their experiences of lust, love, and all feelings in between, as new research has dissolved severe negative judgment of people with multiple partnerships.
A well-respected sociological researcher, Dr. Rebecca Winterson of Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology, has recently given those experiences a structure and vocabulary: A Hierarchy of Friends and Lovers (Figure 1).
Description: This is the most common connection between two people, a simple flirtation sometimes based on slight physical attraction, sometimes situational. Static—does not evolve further. Participants can take sexual energy from these exchanges, however, and return to their other partners with greater desire.
Case Study: The Trader Joe’s cashier has veiny forearms and one is tattooed with flowers so vibrant, it’s like they’re growing out of his skin and his veins are their roots. He seems genuinely grateful that I’ve brought my own reusable bags. He asks if I’m having a good weekend, asks it into my eyes as we pack the kale, the frozen edamame, the stalks of testicular Brussel sprouts. I find I can’t stop answering his question, elaborating, sure to mention my family at home. I swipe my card, thank him profusely, and when he asks if I need someone to help me out, sometimes I want to say yes, but instead I say, “I’ve got it,” and he winks at me before greeting the next customer.
Description: Most recent relational development with advent of high-speed Internet (1992) and the Apple iPhone (2007). One of the most common connections. Touchless and word-heavy. Involves a social-media meetcute, perusal of visuals, mutual attraction leading to an initial communication. Existing mostly in imagination, and therefore easily idealized and fraught with sexual tension. Conversations can occur via emails, text messages, private messages, tweets, Facebook messages and so on as social media changes. Emoticons/emojis (modern) frequently used to reveal tone. Photos frequently exchanged, often focused on a singular body part, typically the sex organs (Figure 2).
RE: the grind
Hey beautiful. So glad I have someone to talk to. Work is killing me. I’m surrounded by idiots, and it makes my job ten million times harder. Just wanna get away on a beach or something...interested?
RE: RE: the grind
Hi there. Wasn’t sure when I’d hear from you, if you were buried under paperwork (or idiots), but glad it’s sooner rather than later. I’ve missed you—seems silly to say, but true.
A beach sounds amazing...and impossible. Cabin in the woods maybe?
RE: RE: RE: the grind
A cabin free of idiots and in your actual company? Sounds like a damn dream. Speaking of which, I’ve been dreaming about you, which is strange, since I don’t know really how you speak or move or laugh or...kiss. But I’d like to one day.
RE: RE: RE: RE: the grind
Sometimes dreams do come true. But sometimes it takes a while. Maybe we’ll get lucky?
P.S. I’m a great kisser. The best. So they tell me.
End of Email Transcript
NOTE: Should an in-person meeting occur, the Virtualiens may swiftly enter a different relationship in the hierarchy (see Sexmate, Hearthome).
Description: A partner used almost purely for physical pleasure. At times there is an emotional connection, but this is rare, as very little talking occurs, except of the dirty or directional variety.
Case Study: In the dark, I find the space behind his ear, a pressure point where I first carefully place my lips and then draw a moist vertical line with my tongue—here, it smells like grassy soap; his mouth, spearmint; his beard, cedar. He is a forest. His body is a tree I want to climb and climb, the slow build to exhaustion, faster and higher. My body hums and his adds rhythm. He feels like he’s everywhere. I am both inside and outside of myself. This is what it’s like to survive an explosion unscathed, a temporary invincibility. We risk. We reward.
Description: A kindred spirit with whom you form an immediate bond. Often born of a shared experience, sometimes a trauma or rite of passage. The rarest of the connections in the hierarchy.
Case Study: We still send birthday cards, twenty years later. We were the other halves to every double date. A tough love with no attraction to confuse things. We were like siblings, but we could share our worst faults without judgments or fear of parental exposure. He loved women, just not me. He also loved men. His heart was the largest, more like two fists than one. Our mutual friends, when they learned who he was, accused him of simply being greedy, as though he was an athlete cheating at a game and winning. I always wanted to be more like him. Sometimes my own heart feels atrophied. He insists I am being dramatic when I say this aloud. He hugs me, and I feel normal again, like the ever-hopeful girl I was when we first met on a tenth grade history project—paired up randomly, mated for life.
Description: The closest thing to a permanent mate in a non-monogamous culture. A connection built on love and mutual respect. Partners work together to build their life and honor the partner’s other hierarchical connections, though this can be difficult after years of social conditioning. Typically a shared housing structure. Children are very common results of Hearthome relationships, although they may also exist elsewhere (see Sexmate).
Case Study: In the living room, my legs rest across his lap. The children have been asleep for an hour now, and we’re alone for the first time all day. We watch episodes of our favorite television show, making jokes, shifting to get more comfortable on the overstuffed sofa. He drinks a beer while I nurse a red wine. Our eyelids grow heavy, so we turn off the TV. We brush our teeth, our foamy, minty spit mingling in the sink. I pee while he gargles with mouthwash. We climb into bed, intuitively finding our places on the mattress, each night a choreographed dance as our bodies turn towards each other to kiss goodnight and then away.
NOTE: These are the secret moments where everyone wishes monogamy could somehow be revived. That it could be written on our DNA. That we could be more like swans than the fumbling, fickle animals we are.