Pusheen love cats. Credit: Tumblr
The romantic, monogamous love story is the most tired love trope.
This story tells you that real love is out of your control and arrives when you least expect it. It is love at first sight. You are hit by a fantastical force that whispers: this is just right!
But not just magic will keep this union together; you also have to put in work. You need to make compromises, such as relinquishing selfish and sexual desires. Only then can love mature through the progressive stages of sharing a home, marriage, and finally, the perfect merging of two individuals: a child.
This myth still has a powerful hold in today’s Western neoliberal societies. Its most important message is that love is magical and apolitical.
However, at a closer look, it is obvious that love actually works to uphold hetero- and cis-normative, patriarchal, capitalist, and hierarchical structures in society.
On the other hand, it can be a revolutionary force to challenge norms, promote feminist practice, and to reject capitalism.
Love as a challenge of norms
In the West there is strong belief in the idea of 'free love' and people 'marrying for love', as opposed to for any other reason. But when you start examining class, privilege, gender, sexual, and other identities in relationships they look remarkably like 'arranged marriages'.
Test yourself: write down the gender, race, class, social, political, educational, and geographical background of everyone you have been attracted to. Do you see a pattern?
If you are only attracted to able, 'mentally well', successful (by society’s standards), cisgender, normatively beautiful, slim people, from class privileged backgrounds, then you are also upholding violent norms. This means that you cannot just declare that who you are attracted to is a personal preference. You can’t just get away with saying 'that’s not my type' (unless your non-type is cis-white-hetero-male, they receive enough admiration in society anyway, so lets de-centre that!)
Love can be a revolutionary force to challenge norms, promote feminist practice, and to reject capitalism.
Instead, we should actively resist these norms by challenging who and what we find un-attractive and un-interesting. This can be done through art, culture, porn, but also of course through changing who we interact with and who our communities are made up of.
Whilst none of us of course want to be charity or curiosity fucks, everyone deserves to desire, reject, be desired, and be rejected. We have to make it possible for all sorts of different bodies, looks, and identities to be represented and understood as loveable, desireable, and fuckeable. But also as laughable, complex, disgusting, and weird.
As Jamie Heckert argues, love can work as a radical force for social change through bringing people from different groups, identities, and privilege backgrounds together. But we need more discussions about what it means to love and be attracted to people across the privilege spectrum.
This must include complex understandings that also allow for marginalized people’s agency. Rather than avoiding unequal relationships, we need to think about how to mitigate for society’s uneven distribution of power in our intimate relationships. This goes for relationships between cis men and women, people of color and white people, as well as across all intersections of gender, sexuality, and race.
Love as feminist practice
Instead of seeing love as some mystical thing that just happens to us, we should follow bell hooks idea in All About Love and see love as a verb. It is a practice that we do, and that we have been socialized into doing differently along gender lines.
hooks points out how patriarchal capitalist society promotes love as dominating, competing and a 'property-style' care relationship. Men are of course best at practicing love in this way, and hooks is very skeptical of how manipulating and dominating is so intertwined with masculinity and heterosexual dynamics.
This is also related to more individualistic strands of relationship anarchy and polyamory, where feelings such as jealousy and insecurity are looked down on as faults that the individual needs to deal with on their own.
Instead, we should actively promote more feminine and feminist practices of love, such as caring, seeing, and actively listening to others. It applies both to the practice and experience of “falling in love,” as well as continuing to love and be loved.
The sociological experiment of 36 questions for falling in love encapsulates part of this process. It suggests that falling in love is about creating an opportunity for people to really see and get to know each other.
Continuing to love and be loved in a feminist way is then about sustaining this intense feeling of being understood, seen, and recognized. It is not simply about “working on the relationship” by spicing it up with some new sex toys or going up the “relationship escalator.” Rather than “work,” it requires creativity. This is love as supporting others to be themselves and to grow rather than controlling them to be what you need. It requires that we all learn to do emotional labor both through seeing others and revealing our own vulnerabilities.
Practicing love in this way though, it is important to avoid treating love as an essentialised verb, which hooks sometimes seems to suggest. An absolute love practice could easily transform into trying to 'fix' and 'liberate' people, which could be particularly dangerous for less privileged people like queers, sex workers, and people with mental health problems.
A feminist practice of love instead has to be a never-ending process, rather than a defined set of activities or an end-oriented perspective. This requires complex emotional labor that pays attention to how mental health issues, insecurities, and vulnerabilities are differentially distributed across the privilege spectrum (including gender and other identities). It means that some people will need more support than others, and that we need to all take responsibility for this- particularly those who are in privileged groups.
In a capitalist world of competition, domination, and individualism, practicing love in this way is a form of feminist resistance. It is about creating a world where love –in the form each person needs it – is accessible to everyone, rather than a scarce resource that only the most privileged can acquire.
Love as rejection of capitalism
It’s not just the practice and distribution, but also the idea of how love is secured and contained, that upholds white, heteronormative, capitalist norms and relations of power.
The institutionalization of love in society through, for example, the marriage contract, reflects our understanding of desire, human nature, and the political imaginary of the capitalist social contract. As Laura Kipnis argues in the polemic Against Love, love can easily be compared to other mind-altering phenomena, like drugs and sex, that allow us to imagine other ways of being in the world. Mocking how we worry about such substances, she writes:
“What if they impede productivity! So we make them scarce and shroud them in prohibitions, thus reinforcing their danger, along with the justification for social controls. Clearly love is subject to just as much regulation as any powerful pleasure-inducing substance.”
The ideology of capitalism and the work ethic tells us that human desire needs to be disciplined through law, routine, and work, and that pleasure has to be earned. We need these structures to protect us from ourselves as well as non-citizens; to make sure that we harness the good side of human nature.
There are a million similar rules about how to secure love. The marital contract is just one extreme expression of it. Most of these rules revolve around being obedient, suppressing immature and selfish desires, and 'working' on the relationship. It is about certainty, clear trajectories of progress, and being a good mature person. This sounds awfully like how to be good patriotic individual in a neoliberal capitalist society.
By rejecting traditional notions of love, we can be even better social renegades than Kipnis’ adulterers are, and fight the tyranny of capitalism, the national social contract, and the work ethic. Through queerness and non-monogamy we can defy the idea that love has to be a scarce resource that can be put into neat trajectories or distinct boxes of 'familial', 'platonic', 'sexual' or 'romantic'. Instead, love as queer, undefined, and ever-changing desire can destroy the rigid borders of gender, national identities, and relationships.
We deserve a society that revolves more around exploring love in both 'casual' and sustained forms than around work. It is not a coincidence that most of us find it difficult to fall in love, and that when we do, it is often in places/times where we feel more relaxed (holidays or festivals for example), have less rigid schedules and responsibilities (at school or university), and when we have consumed some kind of mind-lubricating substance.
We should strive for a society where we value allowing relationships – and the different connections they create – to flourish, grow, but also to fluctuate. Rather than seeing monogamy and polyamory as opposing terms, we can blur the imagined boundaries between individuals, couples, and families, where love cannot be fixed into one specific form, and where we don’t allocate social resources and privileges on the basis of relationship status.
Rejecting standard notions of love hence goes hand in hand with rejecting capitalism. It is a proclamation that we can live and be otherwise. This is a vision of love that can shatter and reimagine the limits of what we previously thought was possible.
Let’s see love for the revolutionary potential it has.
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