Over the last few weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has taken a very strange turn. Beginning in Michigan in mid-April and quickly spreading across the country, thousands have taken to the streets during the pandemic in protest, not against improper care or lack of protection for essential workers as in other countries, but against the lockdowns implemented to try to slow the spread of the virus. Defying stay-at-home orders, gathering in groups with signs and often weapons, the protesters shouted and displayed messages including “OPEN OUR BARS,” “SACRIFICE THE WEAK,” “I WANT A HAIRCUT,” and the incredibly ironic “MY BODY, MY CHOICE.” Many compare the lockdowns to the tyranny of the British Empire, call it socialism, or say that the lockdowns are tantamount to slavery.
While it might be tempting to write these slogans off as hyperbole, the truth is that many Americans genuinely believe that they are being oppressed by the actions taken to stop the pandemic. They recall reading about the suffering of others, and they compare their own suffering to it, because for many this is the worst thing they have ever experienced. A large percentage of the anti-lockdown protestors, and a significant percentage of the nation as a whole, is facing for the first time a world where their grocery store shelves aren’t always full, their financial well-being is dependent on government assistance, and they are isolated, frustrated, and afraid. For the first time, they are seeing what life would be like without their privilege.
We talk about privilege a lot in non-monogamy. In short, privilege is a system of generally unearned advantages that are valuable, restricted to a specific group, and with very few exceptions unchangeable. We are aware that white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, couples privilege, and many others exist, but for those of us who live with these privileges it’s often hard to conceive what it would mean to not have them. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to face the food shortages in El Salvador that prompt refugees to flee to our borders when most of us have never experienced our favorite brand being out of stock for more than a day or two, or to guess how it feels to fear leaving your home when every place you ever lived was safe and secure. We as a nation are experiencing a true loss of privilege for the first time in generations, and we are starting to see how it feels to go without.
The irony here, however, is that the general loss of privilege that we are experiencing during this pandemic doesn’t negate our privileges; if anything, it accentuates them. The wealthy among us hoarded supplies at the outset of the panic, leaving little for those who had to wait on stimulus funds to get their needs. Young black men are still being profiled, discriminated against, and harassed by police for wearing their required masks in public, while two white men who murdered a black jogger were only arrested after video footage surfaced months later. Retail employees are underpaid, overworked, and at high risk for exposure, at the same time as they are being assaulted and even killed by customers who try to defy mask orders. The heavily armed (and heavily white) anti-lockdown protesters have thus far experienced none of the aggressive force from law enforcement that Native American environmental protestors have experienced. The lockdown has shown in sharp contrast the disconnect between the experiences of those with privilege and those without.
Within the non-monogamous community, these same kinds of privileges exist, and they often manifest themselves in ways that are unique to our communities and lifestyles. Partners who have greater financial resources often get more frequent and more involved dates than those who lack them. Heteronormativity is the rule rather than the exception, even as bisexual women are fetishized by “unicorn hunters.” A similar dynamic plays out with race, especially in swinger communities, where black men are fetishized, reduced to “BBC,” even while many clubs and communities actively exclude non-white members. Ableism, body shaming, transphobia all exist within the non-monogamous world, and the list goes on.
An additional factor to consider regarding privilege is that not all privileges manifest in the same way. Race, ethnicity, national origin, body shape, and some forms of disability are difficult if not impossible to conceal from others on meeting; sexual orientation, gender identity, relationship style, socioeconomic status, and other forms of disability, however, are often invisible to others unless revealed. Sometimes this is referred to as “passing privilege,” allowing these individuals to avoid marginalization or mistreatment that they would otherwise be subjected to by others; however, “passing” can lead to its own kind of marginalization, subjecting those who “pass” to identity confusion, erasure, and the risk of being outted. The number of trans women murdered every year after being outted showcases how calling “passing” a privilege is a fundamental misunderstanding of what privilege is.
One of the most discussed forms of privilege in non-monogamy, and one that is unique to our world, is couples privilege. The pandemic has provided a clear example of how this privilege works, as most non-monogamous couples defaulted to socially isolating together, leaving other partners to isolate alone. Like other forms of privilege, couples privilege is not something that couples do, so much as it is a set of benefits that couples get, some tangible, some not, simply by being a couple. Also like other forms of privilege, couples can choose to be aware of this privilege and work actively to reduce its harmful effects on other relationships, to actively abuse that privilege and create prescriptive hierarchies that keep other relationships in a lesser class, or anything in between.
So, what can we do about privilege? After all, privilege isn’t something that we do, something that we choose, so it isn’t something that we can reject. What we do have control over, what we can reject, are the negative effects of not having privilege. We each have an obligation to examine our own privilege and how our privilege shapes our choices and preferences. This is especially important when it comes to selecting and pursuing potential partners, as our preferences often conceal both privilege and prejudice. (Consider how often we hear members of our community say they “prefer to date in our own race” or similar sentiments.)
We have the ability to find places where we have advantages that others in our community do not, and we can do everything in our power to eliminate the obstacles that others face. We can stand up to structural obstacles, like excessively high costs for club memberships and conference registrations, and push to overturn racist, sexist, ableist, and heteronormative policies in organizations and community resources. In our own relationships, we need to be aware of the places where we have more privilege than our partners (or our metamours), and do what we can to support them without erasing their own voice.
(An important note: This article is meant to be a timely introduction to privilege in relationships, but it is far from a complete study of the topic. There are many brilliant minds who have devoted their careers to the analysis and study of privilege, and numerous brilliant books, articles, podcasts, and scholarly works have been composed about it. Also of note is acknowledging that I, as a cisgender white male, am writing from my own place of privilege, and my words are inevitably from that perspective. I strongly recommend to everyone reading this article to seek out more information on privilege in our community.)