The Chronicle Review

‘I Have Multiple Loves’

Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory

February 03, 2017

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and I have plans to meet her boyfriend for lunch. But first we have to go home to walk the dog. Her husband, Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, is out of town at a conference for the weekend, and earlier that morning Mezzo, their labradoodle mix, got skunked; Jenkins says Mezzo is still feeling shaky. Before I traveled to meet her in Vancouver last June, she told me on the phone that most "mono" people misunderstand the challenges of polyamory — the practice of being openly involved romantically with more than one person at a time.

"People ask, ‘Tell me about the downsides,’ " Jenkins says. "They expect the answer to be that it’s so hard jealousy-wise. But the most common answer is timing and scheduling. I’m a fairly organized person, so I don’t find it super challenging."

The claim is easy to believe. In her professional life, too, Jenkins is managing to do several things at once. Since 2011 she has held a prestigious Canada Research Chair in the philosophy department at the University of British Columbia; she has taught 200-person lecture courses in metaphysics to undergraduates and advanced graduate seminars in epistemology. This semester she is co-teaching an interdisciplinary survey on the theme of "Knowledge and Power," introducing students to Freud, Russell, and Foucault in short order.

Jenkins is also in a band, called 21st Century Monads, in which she and several other academics write songs about the philosophy of numbers. They live in different cities, she says, so "mostly we just email audio files to one another."

She is also spending more and more time writing for nonacademic readers. Since July 2016, she has been enrolled part time in the M.F.A. program in creative nonfiction at British Columbia. When I visited, she had just finished the manuscript of her first trade book, What Love Is: And What It Could Be, which Basic Books published in January.

Jenkins wrote about polyamory because she felt she had to. She and her husband were tired of living in the closet.
When we arrive at Jenkins’s house, Mezzo rushes, slipping, across the bare wood floor to the front door, and leaps on her. The dog’s black curls still smell like tomato juice.

"See," says Jenkins, gesturing at the living room as she clips on Mezzo’s leash, "We’re a very boring and respectable couple!" Two sofas, bookshelves, a wire stand displaying a volume of essays co-edited by her husband, also a philosopher at UBC. On the wall hang sepia-toned photographs of someone’s relatives. On the front porch are a swing and a coffee table with an ashtray on it. The ashtray is full, as if they have just had a party, or someone has been sitting out there, for a long time, thinking, while gazing into the street.

As we walk Mezzo around Mount Pleasant, a leafy neighborhood about 20 minutes away from campus by the green electric scooter that Jenkins drives to work every morning, she starts explaining why she prefers the term "polyamory" to "nonmonogamy."

"Nonmonogamy can include so many forms," she says. "You could just be ‘monogamish’ " — a term coined by the advice expert Dan Savage for long-term relationships in which partners allow each other to have occasional flings. "You could be swinging; you could have a ‘friend with benefits’ while looking for more-traditional romantic relationships. I sort of switched over to using the ‘polyamory’ label because this really means multiple loves. I have multiple loves."

Over lunch, she and her boyfriend, Ray Hsu, explain that it took a little while for both of them to realize how deeply they felt for each other. They met in 2012. (Jenkins and her husband married in April 2011; they have always had an open relationship and wrote their wedding vows to reflect this. They made no promise to "forsake all others.") Hsu is a poet who also teaches at UBC. He and Jenkins worked in the same building, but they met through OkCupid. They still communicate primarily through text messaging and social media.

"I think we broke Facebook," Jenkins laughs, when Hsu brings up how many messages they have sent over the past four years.

It took about a year, Jenkins recalls, before "I started to realize that I was in love with Ray as well as in love with Jon. And it probably took even more time to acknowledge it." After that, "the poly label started to feel like more of a useful fit."

Despite the personal clarity that she has gained on these points, socially the relationship has not been easy. Even in liberal settings, where people might not blink at the idea of a friend sleeping around or dating someone of the same gender, Jenkins says that "mononormativity" persists: The ruling assumption is that a person can be in love with only one other person at a time. (She recalls a colleague becoming extremely discomfited recently at her husband’s birthday party, when Hsu introduced himself as "Carrie’s boyfriend.") Still, Jenkins believes that we are in urgent need of a more expansive concept of love. And she believes that philosophy, the discipline named for the "love of knowledge," needs to become more expansive — treating a wider range of questions and addressing a broader audience — in order to help create it.

J enkins did not set out to become a love expert. After growing up in Wales, she entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and pursued a degree in analytic philosophy; she stayed on to write a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of mathematics. "There’s a tradition of philosophy that I grew up in which is quite narrow in terms of the topics that it would address, in academic journal publications," she recalls. "We were addressing fundamental problems about space and time."

She published her first book, Grounding Concepts: An Empirical Basis for Arithmetical Knowledge (Oxford University Press), in 2008. According to a review in the journal Mind, Jenkins offered "a new kind of arithmetical epistemology" — one that challenged the unstated assumption that the difference between a priori and a posteriori knowledge was that only the latter involved empirical data from the physical world. On the contrary, Jenkins argued that a priori concepts, such as intuitions of numbers, also relied upon the senses.

Following that book, Jenkins published a series of articles on theories of explanation. However, she began thinking more and more about love. It seems logical that a thinker who spent so much time re-evaluating the ways in which experience shaped metaphysical knowledge might attempt to analyze her own life using the tools of philosophy. As Jenkins tells it, however, her inspiration came from Bertrand Russell — one of the founding fathers of analytic philosophy and a titanic presence at Cambridge.

"What I didn’t realize when I was studying his philosophy of mathematics was that he wrote about all these other things," Jenkins recalls. She particularly means his 1929 book, Marriage and Morals, in which Russell advocated for what he called "free love." Jenkins calls the book "a precursor of the contemporary sex-positive movement." She thinks that a lot of Russell’s work on love and marriage was ahead of its time, but that he himself remained blind to its philosophical importance.

"He just didn’t call Marriage and Morals philosophy," Jenkins says. "And I think that it’s partly fed into the conception of analytic philosophy as a very gendered thing: The mind, the logic, the mathematics is very specifically men’s business, and his work on love, sex, relationships, society — all the ‘women’s business’ — he cordoned out."

While philosophers trained in the Continental tradition — thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, and Jacques Derrida — have written about love, analytic philosophy continues to dominate North American departments. Increasingly, Jenkins has become frustrated with the way it separates philosophy from "real life" concerns.

Personal considerations finally drove her to start making this argument in public. Jenkins wrote about polyamory because she felt she had to: She and her husband were tired of living in the closet. In July 2011, shortly after their wedding, they published an open letter about their open relationship in the journal Off Topic. At the time, they were just about to move to the University of British Columbia. They were nervous, they said, but they agreed that they needed to come out.

The couple was worried about people judging them and their relationship. They had been lectured before, and they were familiar with the accusations against their lifestyle: That it was not healthy, physically or psychologically; that it was not natural; that it was not ethical; and so on. But they had well-reasoned answers to each of those charges.

"Despite these various kinds of nervousness (justified or otherwise) about disclosure," they wrote, "being closetedly non-monogamous (effectively, mono-acting) has its disadvantages too. We’re ready to be done with it. Academic philosophy is a small world; certain areas of it are very small indeed. What if someone happens to see one of us with somebody else, and assumes (not thinking about the alternatives) that we’re cheating? We each hate the idea of being taken for a cheater, or of being pitied as the spouse of a cheater. And we hate very much indeed the idea of some poor well-meaning friend feeling awful about having witnessed some apparent cheating, and agonizing over whether they ought to say or do something."

Jenkins and Ichikawa took the most common charges they had heard against nonmonogamy, and they refuted them one by one.

Jimmy Jeong for The Chronicle Review
Carrie Jenkins with her husband (right) and boyfriend (left).
Take, for instance, the claim that it’s unhealthy to have multiple sexual partners. Jenkins and Ichikawa pointed out that this was simply untrue. It is perfectly possible to maintain sexual health with multiple partners; indeed, a person who has openly discussed the pros and cons of opening a relationship with a partner is more likely to practice safe sex than is the frustrated partner who resorts to "drunken flings, clandestine affairs, or other ill-considered hookups."

What about the assumption that nonmonogamy is psychologically damaging? "Different people are different," Jenkins and Ichikawa wrote. Many nonmonogamous people report that they come to feel less jealousy over time; conversely, many monogamous people complain of experiencing sexual jealousy. In response to the charge that nonmonogamy is "unnatural," Jenkins and Ichikawa pointed out that virtually no species are sexually monogamous, even if they are socially monogamous or pair-bond for life. ("Not even swans.")

They called their letter "On Being the Only Ones." Soon after they published it, they learned that they weren’t. Strangers, and couples they had known casually for years, started approaching them at conferences, they say, and thanking them for writing the piece. Many said they had quietly lived the same way and felt relieved to be able to speak about it. Emboldened by a new sense that she had an activist mission — that her coming out might help others like her, and that she, as a tenured professor, had the privilege to do so — Jenkins began writing more about nonmonogamy. She wrote about it in The Globe and Mail and Slate. She went on CBC to give radio interviews. But even in contexts in which people were willing to give her an audience, they struggled with her argument that polyamory and promiscuity were not the same thing.

Throughout history, Jenkins points out, society has sexualized people or behaviors that it considers undesirable or impermissible in order to discredit them. Take young single women who moved to cities in the early 20th century, for instance, or couples who came together across racial lines, or gay men. Jenkins notes that in order to gain respectability, LGBTQ folks have had to adopt lifestyles that look like straight monogamous marriage.

Which features of love are biological and which social? she asks. What can we control?
There is no necessary connection between polyamory and prom­iscuity, Jenkins argues. She thinks like a logician, and to her, this is simply a confusion of concepts. She points out that a person could fall in love with two people at the same time, have only two partners her whole life, and be considered a "slut." Meanwhile, someone can sleep around while dating, or go through a string of brief, monogamous relationships, and have dozens of partners without receiving censure. Still, Jenkins recognizes that most people will struggle with her ideas.

About a year ago, she gave an interview to Cosmopolitan UK about nonmonogamous relationships. She emphasized the point that polyamory did not mean the same thing as promiscuity. She spoke at length with the writer about the damage that confusing the terms could do, and asked to read a copy of the article before it ran. The author, who had listened painstakingly, seemed to get it. She ran the text of the story by Jenkins, and Jenkins approved it. So when Jenkins received a copy in the mail, she was dismayed. The cover asked, "Is the foursome the new threesome?" Inside, the centerfold blared: "THREE ISN’T A CROWD," beside a photo spread that showed … an orgy.

"Not a small orgy," Jenkins laughs. "Like maybe 25 people." When she texts me a photograph of the Cosmo issue later, I count 20, but it is hard to tell. They are writhing in a tangle of limbs and haunches like some flesh-toned version of the Indiana Jones snake pit.

The Cosmopolitan UK spread not only conveyed the opposite of the message that Jenkins had wanted to send. It turned her into a target of abuse online. Like many women who write for the public, particularly about gender or sexuality, Jenkins gets a steady stream of hate mail. Strangers threaten her on Twitter: Why are you acting like this is an ok thing? Get herpes and die, slut. Sharia law looks more attractive by the day. One message she shows me is from someone whose handle contains the name RAMBO and whose feed features pictures upon pictures of guns. Jenkins says that she feels safer living in Canada than she would if she lived in the United States, but who knows? It takes only one angry man.

Meanwhile, Jenkins has had to contend with harassment within her discipline, too. She declines to offer specifics but says, "Anonymous commentaries in the philosophy blogosphere can be pretty grim." The field has been widely criticized from within by scholars who say that not only is the curriculum male-centric, but gender discrimination is routine. In recent years, several high-profile cases of sexual harassment have further sullied its reputation.

A paper published last July by Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California at Riverside and Carolyn Dicey Jennings of the University of California at Merced found that women made up just 25 percent of philosophy faculty at 75 institutions in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia. When the researchers took rank into account, they found evidence that women experienced higher attrition rates, lower promotion rates, and lower rates of senior recruitment.

Jenkins thinks a lot about philosophy’s gender problem. "It’s a complicated situation, and a lot of factors contribute to it and reinforce it," she says. "There’s the stereotype of the philosopher, a genius, as someone who looks like Socrates, with a big white beard. One of the things that’s noticeable is that women leave philosophy, even as undergraduates, even if they’re doing well. One plausible explanation is that we’re not cultivating the sense that this is a field for women."

Jenkins emphasizes that this image not only affects who is doing philosophical work. It also shapes what kind of work gets done. Elizabeth Brake, an associate professor at Arizona State University who also works on feminist philosophy and philosophies of love, agrees, even as she expresses some measured optimism. "Philosophers have been writing on love and sex since Plato’s Symposium," she says. "And over the past 15 years, especially with philosophers writing on same-sex marriage, the topic has become much more accepted within political philosophy." Still, she stresses that "people writing on new topics face the burden of proving that the topic is philosophy."

John Corvino, chair of the philosophy department at Wayne State University and author of What’s Wrong With Homosexuality? (Oxford University Press, 2013), says that scholars who work on "applied philosophy" — a term he dislikes — usually have to prove themselves first in other areas: "Jenkins’s first book was on the philosophy of mathematics. Jason Stanley, who recently has done interesting work on propaganda and ideology, made his name in philosophy of language and epistemology. Old prejudices about what counts as ‘serious’ work — and relatedly, who counts as a ‘serious’ philosopher — linger."

The debate over what kind of philosophy gets rewarded blew up recently in a more specific storm, in which Jenkins found herself at the center. It started as a set of disputes surrounding Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor who founded the Philosophical Gourmet Report, and ran it until recently. The Gourmet Report ranks philosophy departments, based on surveys filled out by hundreds of academic philosophers every year, and enjoys enormous influence within the field. It has also caused consternation among critics who have questioned its methodology and say it is biased against philosophy departments with a Continental orientation or an Asian one.

"There are many reasons, feminist and otherwise, to be concerned about the Gourmet Report," says Jennifer Saul, a philosophy professor at the University of Sheffield, who runs the blog What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? In 2012, Saul published a paper arguing that Leiter’s publication encouraged the perpetuation of "pernicious biases that hinder the accurate evaluation of work and that perpetuate stereotypes and unjust inequalities." It was one of several critiques of the Gourmet Report that prompted a flurry of online and email exchanges between Leiter and his critics, and preceded a statement that Jenkins published in the summer of 2014 pledging to behave with civility in her professional life.

Many in the field, including Leiter, read the statement as an attack on him. He responded by sending Jenkins a derisive email and tweeting that she was a "sanctimonious arse." When Jenkins made the email public, other philosophers rallied to her defense. They circulated a "statement of concern," eventually signed by 600 faculty and students, saying that Leiter’s actions had harmed Jenkins’s health and ability to work, and refusing to participate in the Gourmet Report’s surveys until he stepped down as the editor. Leiter published a series of posts complaining of a "smear campaign" and that October stepped down, though he remains on the Gourmet Report’s advisory board. Later that year, he threatened to sue Jenkins for falsely portraying him.

Jenkins refuses to speak about the Leiter controversy. Last summer she — along with Jennings and two other vocal critics of Leiter’s — each received an envelope full of human feces. Leiter denied sending the packages and has attributed them to someone who must be trying to embarrass him, noting, for example, that one or more of the envelopes used his law school's return address.

I n contrast with these dramas, Jenkins’s book What Love Is reads calmly. It is not a how-to book — unlike The Ethical Slut, which remains the most widely read manual on polyamory. But it is not a dry philosophical argument, either. The book opens with an autobiographical anecdote. ("The first draft began with a list of definitions," Jenkins says with a laugh; her editor pointed out that this might not be the most gripping opening for a general audience.) Jenkins reflects on how the experience of feeling in love with both her boyfriend and her husband led her to question what love was. Could she be in love with both? Was she mistaken about her own feelings? Or was it that the definition of romantic love was in error and needed to expand?

"We are creating space in our ongoing cultural conversations to question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love," Jenkins writes. "I’m personally invested, as are you. Just as we all bring our experiences with us, and just as we are all biased, we are all personally invested. Nobody is agenda-free."

The central goal of What Love Is is to abolish what Jenkins calls "the romantic mystique," a deliberate allusion to Betty Friedan’s classic second-wave text, The Feminine Mystique. "On the one hand, we’ve accepted the idea of love as a tremendously significant social force: something that shapes and reshapes the entire trajectories of lives and serves as a focal point for all kinds of values," Jenkins writes. On the other hand, "we have simultaneously normalized the idea that love is a mystery: something hard or impossible to comprehend."

In characteristic fashion, Jenkins rejects the aversion to reflecting on love for fear of destroying it, professing to be "more worried about the tangible dangers of underthinking than the putative dangers of overthinking." And so she proceeds to examine how experts, including philosophers — from Plato to Nietzsche to Russell, and to her contemporaries, like the University of Miami’s Berit Brogaard — have defined romantic love, and works to break down common assumptions about it. Some of those, like Nietzsche’s assertion that a woman "wants to be taken and accepted as a possession," are easier to refute than others, like the idea that "if you’re not in romantic love, or at least looking for it, then you’re doing life wrong" — an idea Elizabeth Brake calls "amatonormativity."

"While I don’t agree with that on an intellectual level, the internalized attitude is hard to dislodge," Jenkins writes. "In the same vein, I can’t just stop caring about monogamy norms because too many other people care about them. And last but not least, it’s impossible for me to stop caring about whether my situation counts as a genuine case of romantic love because I know that its being recognized as such could be a powerful way of convincing people to take my relationships seriously."

Key to that campaign is Jenkins’s exploration of whether romantic love is primarily a biological drive (a theory ascendant today) or a social construct. While most feminist theorists and humanists and social scientists in general have been inclined to treat the two in opposition, rejecting biological essentialism or conceiving of romantic love as a social expression of a biological phenomenon, Jenkins is not satisfied with either. Which features of love are biological and which social? she asks. What can we control?

Ultimately, she argues, love is both: "ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role," not unlike an actor embodying his character on stage. Jenkins is not alone in this new openness to biology, history, and sociology — which have often been bracketed from philosophy. Brake remarks that to write well on a topic like love, "you have to be empirically well informed. It’s important to know about history of marriage law, rates of marriage, policy and statistics." In 2015 the feminist philosopher Elizabeth A. Wilson argued in her book Gut Feminism (Duke University Press) that feminist theorists needed to learn to account for scientific data in their arguments.

While Jenkins criticizes those who are too quick to call "insufficiently examined ideology … ‘natural’ or ‘biological,’ " she also emphasizes that recognizing the biological elements of romantic love can have socially emancipatory effects. For instance, brain scans that showed similar neurological activity in gay and straight subjects expressing love played an important role in compelling scientists and the general public to recognize same-sex love as legitimate.

"Let’s not forget that it took many years of serious scientific research to convince (most) people that there is no biologically superior race or gender," writes Jenkins. "Getting a proper grip on the biology of love may help us unravel the idea that there is one biologically superior way to love."

Moira Weigel is completing a Ph.D. in comparative literature and in film and media at Yale University and will join the Harvard Society of Fellows as a junior fellow in 2017. She is the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).

Corrections (2/9/2017, 12:13 p.m.): An earlier version of this article erroneously described the allegations of a Statement of Concern about Brian Leiter. It also mischaracterized the timing of his threat to sue Jenkins, and mistakenly referred to the Philosophical Gourmet Report as a "blog." And it incorrectly described John Corvino as a co-author of What's Wrong With Homosexuality? He is its sole author. The article has been revised to remove those inaccuracies.