There are plenty of alternative models to monogamy, and they've become increasingly familiar to us — thanks largely to media interest. Polyamory is a prime example. But fewer people have heard of relationship anarchy, a way of being a romantic, sexual being that challenges traditional notions of romantic and sexual hierarchies. Much like anarchy as a political ideology challenges the power structures and rules imposed by government.
KC Clements, 29, is a relationship anarchist. Right on time for Valentine's Day, I picked his brain about what it all means and how the concept differs from other, better known forms of non-monogamy.
VICE: First of all, for people who've never heard of relationship anarchy before, what is it?
KC: Relationship anarchy as a term was coined by Andie Nordgren, who wrote the definitive manifesto on the topic in 2006. That’s really the best resource to check out if you want an in-depth explanation. To sum it up though, my personal approach is to treat my friends like my lovers, to avoid prioritising romantic relationships over platonic ones. For example, my close friend, my casual friend who I have sex with, and my date (a person who I have romantic and sexual feelings for) all play different but important roles in my life. My aim is to think carefully about how I relate to each person in my life, and to create a network of love and care that incorporates lots of unique people.
For those people who I do have romantic relationships with, I don’t subscribe to the idea, often called the “relationship escalator,” that the more time I spend with a person, the more intense our connection must be. So, in some cases, I may hang out with and be romantic with a person over a long period of time, but it might not make sense for us to hang out all the time or be primary sources of support for one another.
What makes relationship anarchy different from other forms of non-monogamy, like polyamory?
Honestly, there’s so much room for interpretation that someone else’s polyamory might look a lot like my relationship anarchy, and another person’s non-monogamy could be completely different. That said, when I was polyamorous I was more likely to seek out a primary romantic partner who I prioritised over other people in my life while still being able to pursue other romantic and sexual relationships. In shifting towards relationship anarchy, I’ve changed my focus towards investing in myself, my own needs, and my sense of autonomy, and I’ve put a lot more of my energy into my friendships. All of our relationships are valuable, and I strive to make sure my friends and lovers know I care for them in special ways.
What's dating like — are there certain specific protocols?
I would say my dating life is fairly similar to folks who practice other forms of non-monogamy or even monogamous folks who are in a casual dating phase. I meet people online or through friends, or, increasingly rarely in the digital age, in person. The big difference is I don’t really come into meeting new people with any expectations. I may go on a date with someone and realise we’d be great friends, or I might have a close friendship with someone where we have sex but aren’t necessarily romantically involved.
The main thing for me is to be as upfront and communicative as possible with each new person about how I engage in relationships. I make sure to tell new people I meet that monogamy is not my thing and that when I do have romantic relationships with people, I want to communicate with them regularly about what that means for us so we can be sure we’re on the same page. Non-monogamy generally, and especially relationship anarchy, aren’t the norm so it’s critical for me to be clear about what I want and what kinds of relationships I tend to have.
Do relationship anarchists get married?
They do! Relationship anarchy is really just an ideology that different people can interpret in any number of different ways. For some folks, that might mean that for one particular relationship getting married, legally or otherwise, makes sense. There are many different reasons why relationship anarchists might get married, whether it’s to pool their resources more effectively, avoid discrimination, be able to visit each other in the hospital, be able to stay in the same country, or affirm a specific commitment to a person (that they might also commit to with others).
However, I — and I think many other relationship anarchists — don’t believe in marriage. Personally, I find it incredibly frustrating that any government would dole out rights and benefits to people based on how they decide to couple. I think all forms of relationships and family structures should be given the same weight, dignity and human rights.
If it’s relationship “anarchy” does that mean there are no rules at all?
Anarchists don't actually believe that a no-rules, totally selfish culture is the way to go. They believe that the governments and laws and social norms we have in place are problematic, and that people should be able to come together as communities and make decisions about how best to share space and support one another.
Likewise, relationship anarchists reject the idea that the social rules institutions like the government and religions have put in place are ones that we should necessarily follow. And, as anarchists reject hierarchies that give some people more power than others, relationship anarchists refuse to give certain people in their lives power over them just because their relationship is romantic or sexual.
People often ask whether I’m just too selfish to commit fully to one person. However, I find it’s quite the opposite: I’m really intentional about my commitments to other people, and I’m invested in tailoring those commitments to what works with each individual I meet.
Is there a political ideology behind relationship anarchy?
Much like political anarchy, relationship anarchy tends to be more about resisting capitalist ideas that push us towards typical relationship models than about pushing a specific political ideology or a set of rules. Under capitalism, we’re taught that love and care are scarce and that the only way we can get our needs met is by claiming ownership over another person’s reserves. Relationship anarchy is really about rejecting those notions of property and ownership and recognising that love is, in fact, an abundant resource to be shared generously.
Do you think everyone would benefit from practicing relationship anarchy?
I don’t think that non-monogamy is right for everyone. It requires a tremendous amount of communication and self-reflection in addition to, you know, rejecting literally everything you’ve ever been told about love and romance. For some people, monogamy really is just the best fit for their lifestyle. What’s more important to me is that people don’t feel limited by their relationships and that they have the space to create loving, supportive relationships outside their romantic partnerships or traditional family structures.
There's an idea out there that people who practice non-monogamy must view monogamy as "unnatural." How do you feel about that?
As someone who is transgender and queer, I have complicated feelings about the idea of labelling anything natural or unnatural. People have long argued that being cisgender and being heterosexual are inherently natural in order discredit and discriminate against people like me. In reality, it seems like the idea of anything being “natural” in this day and age is somewhat of a moot point. Are skyscrapers natural? No. But, do we have people running around and saying there shouldn’t be skyscrapers?
Our ancestors’ relationships likely didn’t look like present-day monogamy, but their lives were also significantly different than ours. Ultimately, I think we’ve moved far past the concept of natural. What’s more important is to question whether monogamy works for this society in this period. And, I can’t really definitively say whether it does or not.
As people get older, especially monogamous people, they tend to consider "settling down." What do you think practicing relationship anarchy will look like in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond?
I’ll be turning 30 this year, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Many of us, especially the millennial generation and younger folks, are either delaying settling down (in jobs, in relationships, in homes) until later in life or questioning whether we need to do so at all. Likewise, the practice of monogamy itself has changed drastically in the last few decades so you have monogamous people getting divorced or not getting married at all or choosing to not have kids, and so on.
So, in one sense, I’m looking into the future and wondering how society will change to accommodate different ways of relating to one another, and whether that will mean that more people’s lives look more like mine. And, in another sense, I’m wondering how my own needs and desires will fluctuate in the years to come. My gut feeling is that my life will look fairly similar to how it does now. But I can’t say for sure.
What’s your best piece of advice for someone interested in trying relationship anarchy?
There really aren’t any rules. There’s no guidebook that says you have to do things a certain way. The important thing is to stay in touch with your needs and wants, and to make sure you’re not making compromises that you don’t want to make in order to get those needs and wants met. It’s important that you’re kind and caring towards the people in your life as well, even if that means being honest about not being able to meet their needs. Relationship anarchy is about maintaining your sense of self and autonomy and doing so in a way that allows you to build healthy, flourishing, and abundant relationships. Any way you get there is going to be the right way.