ABSTRACTBased on interviews with six activists, this article sketches four different approaches to activism around non-monogamous relationship concepts in the German lesbian-feminist subculture in the past thirty years. The activists cover an age range from 21 to 51, share a feminist background and are each additionally influenced by different subcultures such as socialist, sex-positive, queer, riot grrrl and bdsm communities. Motivations, goals, achievements and difficulties of the poly-activists are described and the intersection between activism questioning mono-normativity and personal experiences of activists is discussed.
I am writing as a lesbian-feminist activist who started studying the theoretical aspects of alternative relationships in 2000 and their realities in 2004. In that sense, this article is more of a field report and makes no claims to be exhaustive or objective. Rather, the activists whose portraits I have sketched, and their concepts and actions should serve as a documentation of and an inspiration for all those searching for signs of non-monogamous life in our mono-normative society. Interviews with six activists and my own experiences were my primary sources.
The friend hopper: Albertine in the 1990s
Albertine is 49 years old and has been non-monogamous since she was 17. "My ideal lifestyle hasn't changed since then, and that's more of a deciding factor for me than the number of women I am kissing." Her description of her ideal lifestyle: "I want more from my friends and less from my relationships than most people do." As a young adult, she found a similarly-minded community and thus had no trouble realising her concept early on:
The women's centre from 1981 to 1985 was like the golden age of innocence, it was a group-oriented culture where we could find new definitions for our lives and the ways we wanted to live them. And the definitions were completely open. And that applied to relationships as well. Practically speaking, that wasn't true for everyone at the centre... but there were four young women who weren't interested in traditional, monogamous relationship structures. So there was a lot of experimentation in our small group. And the group was more important than any love affairs between individuals. We didn't make a big distinction between “love” or “sex” or “something else” because the connection was already there.
For that reason, Albertine and others had no incentive to become politically active. In their social environment, alternative relationship forms were a matter of course (Anna is living in a similar situation nowadays - see "The Octopuses" below). It wasn’t until someone wanted a ‘proper monogamous relationship’ and friends disappeared from Albertine´s life with their newest sweethearts that it became clear to her that many didn’t share or understand her views. She subsequently devised the concept of ‘friend hopper.’
In order to solve my dilemma with friends I lost to their relationships and to cope with my resentment and jealousy … I said to myself: I am a friend hopper- I simply change my friends like others their relationships. That I don’t have to chase after that very woman who had just fallen in love and disappeared. But instead … I think to myself “Then I’ll just look for someone new, just like the others do with love!”
Albertine sought contact with other lesbians who wanted to live without couple relationships. She met one at the Berliner Lesbenwoche [Berlin Lesbian Week] at an activity for single lesbians. With her , she organized meetings and workshops and wrote a pamphlet against the expectations of salvation that many have for love. The pamphlet was read aloud by friends in a feminist art performance and broadcast on feminist video news.
There were many reasons for the end of Albertine´s activist phase: the organizers of the Lesbenfrühlingstreffen [Lesbian Spring Gathering] - one of the largest events in the feminist lesbian movement in Germany - didn’t include her workshop for a second year in the programme, and
… then the activities were over. Because I didn’t want to talk about relationships so much and how they could function, but rather how one can live comfortably WITHOUT relationships. … I had also talked with so many people about this subject during this time on different occasions. And it got boring quickly, because those without a girlfriend said “Right, relationships suck” and those with a girlfriend didn’t want to talk about it at all. And those with more than one girlfriend had just the kind of lover’s drama with them that I didn’t want. … So I gave up talking about it in public because I didn’t find anyone to talk about it with … And because public relations isn’t really my thing. … In my close environment I have always made propaganda for my ideas, of course - that is also less stressful for me than public appearances. … and I have succeeded in making my surroundings comfortable.
For a long time after the end of her activities she also didn’t find any propositions of relationship alternatives that met her interests:
There was a lot on single lesbians and a bit about different forms of relationships at the Lesbenfrühling [Lesbian Spring] and the Lesbenwochen [Lesbian Weeks]. The part about single lesbians soon bored me, because it often boiled down to most of them being after a couple relationship.
The pleasure activist: Laura since the 1990s
Laura lives non-monogamously as well, but takes a break now and again, because it is good for her. She prefers to call her way of life “open connections,” because “with ‘poly’ everybody thinks that you screw around wildly.” She hasn’t yet found THE fitting word. In the 80s, she experimented a lot with relationship forms and became an activist in the 90s, when she had established her own point of view:
It began with the whore movement and sex toys, there I was branded as not being a proper whore and not a proper lesbian. And so I thought, then I will really be “improper” and tried stuff out. And at the boundaries you are more likely to be able to try things out.
Laura is, among other things, a pioneer for sex toys for women in Germany, has written books and articles on the subject of sexuality for many years, gives lectures and workshops, organizes events and cruising areas , and holds a weekly salon. Communicational work is always the focus for her, no matter how many partners one has: “Poly always means a lot of work on relationships and exploring the limits and it is a process and it is also strenuous.” This is why Laura doesn’t think much of boundaries between the different concepts - for instance: polyamory and Schlampagne [The Slut Campaign], because this always changes for her. Her activities are mainly aimed at subcultures, those she personally feels connected to: the women’s movement, the transgender movement , and the SM contexts.
In 2005, Laura published the anthology Mehr als eine Liebe. Polyamouröse Beziehungen [More than One Love : Polyamorous Relationships] with Traude Bührmann and Nadja Boris Schefzig. “The book was really an important impulse for discussion in the women’s movement” she asserts. From her perspective , there has been more openness in the women’s movement towards this topic over the past few years. Although older women would often tell younger ones that their relationship experiments were nothing new and dampen their enthusiasm, it was clarified in the anthology that today’s experiments are of course not completely new, but draw on the old movements. This clarification removed the opposition between the older and younger women. Nonetheless she sees an important significance to the 80s, when she began her own experiments: “It is new that we can look back on 30 years and have a more solid basis and another implicitness than before.”
The Sluts: Elke, Jule, Uta since 1998
In 1999, some feminist lesbians called the Schlampagne [Slut Campaign] into being. One of these is Uta. She is 37 years old and has been interested in sluttiness for 12 years. She has lived a non-monogamous life for the same number of years, at the moment , in a/autosexual form. Before the Schlampagne she was in a utopian group in the women’s centre, where relationship utopias were also an important topic. Elke and Jule are also Schlampagne activists. They were already interested in slutty life in the sandbox (Jule) and primary school (Elke) (exclusivity norms became acute, for example, with the subject of best friend) and both say they have always lived non-monogamously.
The Schlampagne was an action platform which also looked for alliances with gays, bisexuals and heterosexuals in the beginning. The aim was to include feminist criticism of marriage as well as the existence of alternative forms of relationships in the public discussion on the introduction of Homo-Ehe [gay marriage] and call for equal status for all ways of life. They had developed an alternative bill to the German parliamentary proposals, which was ignored at first, then revived by the open lesbian representative of the socialist leftist party, PDS, Christina Schenk, and introduced to parliament as ‘Bill for the Equal Status of all Ways of Life’ - however, without reference to the Schlampagne.
Some basic concepts of the Schlampagne include the following: The insult Schlampe [slut, also tramp, sloven] was reclaimed for self-designation. Slutty relationships are defined as oriented towards one’s own values and needs instead of the dominant order. In this respect they are dis-orderly, thus sloppy (the corresponding German adjective schlampig means sloppy or disorderly). The Sluts were not just concerned with the possibility of several sexual relationships, but also with fundamentally challenging relationship norms and developing a self-determined way of relating, instead of the rigid division into couple relationship, blood relationship, friendship, and work relationship with their corresponding fixed codes of conduct. The importance of friendship, which usually counts much less than sexual relationships and kinship, should also be made more visible and celebrated. The Sluts always had the explosive political force in mind, inherent in questioning traditional relationship norms such as sexist and hierarchical structures, and put their campaign in the broader context of political struggles for abolishing all forms of suppression.
Elke, Jule, and Uta estimate that in the heyday, the maximum number of Slut activists was between 10 and 30. This relatively low number of active women met with a substantial public response. The strongest reception was in lesbian, gay, and leftist contexts, where the term Schlampe spread very quickly, was partially taken up by activists and is still used today. But the mainstream media was also interested - although only until the law was passed - conducted interviews and reported on activities. Furthermore, there was interest on the part of the German and Austrian socialist and green parties.
In addition to the political activities, the Schlampagne composed conceptual texts about their vision of life in self-determined and self-accountable networks of relationships. Jule and Elke published the most important texts in a book called Die Schlampen kommen! [The Sluts are Here!] in 2003. Since the beginning of the Schlampagne they also have held workshops, written press releases, essays and fiction, given lectures and interviews, and are active in Lesbenring, the largest lobby for lesbians in Germany. Uta was active from 1998 until 2000 with press releases, lectures, workshops, networking, promotion and lobbying, and since 2006 has been occasionally spending her time on related activities.
In 2001 - after the German Civil Partnership Act passed - the Schlampagne gradually developed from being a platform for action to a way of thinking about relationships altogether. Elke describes it like this:
We finally moved from reacting to acting, the discussion framework became broader and also included topics such as relationship networks in comparison to families of origin, relationship biographies in connection with social development…
Today the Schlampagne is no longer a campaign, but rather a loose network for discussion.
The Octopuses: Albertine, Anna, Gwendolin since 2005
Albertine, Anna, and Gwendolin are three who have taken on the Schlampagne. Albertine, introduced at the beginning of this article, was inspired and enthused for the project Krake [Octopus] by her friend Gwendolin after a long period of withdrawal from public activism.
Anna is 21 years old and has lived non-monogamously for one and a half years. She calls it: "Poly. Short and painless. Creating multifaceted relationships with many people. It is continual experimenting. What I call it always changes …" Through discussions with a friend she came to this subject, which plays a large role in her new circle of friends. She calls herself a feminist because "it’s a part of it [being a feminist] to criticize the RCR (romantic couple relationship)." She doesn’t feel a need to belong to one of the non-monogamy movements, but sympathises with the Schlampagne. "I was surprised how much there was on this subject and that there are several people who made films and wrote about it" she said, "it was a revelation, that there was already so much. I found that great. I truly had all the preconceptions that monos tend to have…" With this assertion, Anna confirms Laura’s hypothesis that what’s new about today’s movement for a non-monogamous way of life is that it can tap into 30 years of history and, at the same time, points out that this discourse is nonetheless only accessible to a few.
Gwendolin is the author of this article and began her slut-activism in 2004, when together with a friend she initiated a slut group for sharing experiences and social analysis. In addition, she launched the women’s/lesbian’s holiday camp for alternative relationship forms, where 25 participants gathered in 2007 and 2008.
Albertine and Gwendolin have issued the underground zine Die Krake. Künstliche Beziehungen für unnatürliche Frauen [The Octopus: Artificial Relationships for Unnatural Ladies] annually since 2005, and Anna since 2007. The octopus, with its many arms, symbolises the numerous possibilities of composing relationships. The style of the magazine alludes to grrrl-zines, which evolved at the beginning of the 1990s with the Riot Grrrl movement as a do-it-yourself grassroots medium. The Octopus claims to contribute to establishing a culture of alternative relationships while giving a voice to diverse approaches and experiences, without promoting a universally valid philosophy of relationships. In this sense, there were articles on polyamory, cuddling friends, critical discussion of romantic love, matriarchy research, love at the end of capitalism and, last but not least - always a great deal of humour throughout. The editors wrote many articles themselves or presented pieces found in other media, which they commented on sluttily/sloppily and put into context. In addition, there were articles from readers from Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Peru.
The Octopus is sold for the price of the photocopies by the publishers at various occasions such as ladyfests, the L esbian Spring Gathering, or slut-workshops. But also, readers distribute the zine. They recopy it and give it to friends or sell it at subcultural events. Thanks to a reader, it can also be ordered in the internet at www.diepolytanten.de.tc, a slutcultural homepage established by a polyactivist. At the moment , the circulation is at 250 copies.The number of Octopuses that have been recopied is completely unknown.
The portrayed women felt personal discomfort with mononormativity in different ways. Albertine experienced mononormativity in personal relationships with lovers and friends, who had mononormative expectations. Laura was stigmatised as "not a proper whore, but not a proper lesbian either". Elke, Jule and Uta experienced invisibility of and discrimination against alternative relationships in the political discourse and legislation, and Anna mentioned discomfort concerning invisibility and inaccessibility of information about non-monogamous lifestyles.
These experiences motivated them to become publicly active on the topic of non-monogamous lifestyles and to take various actions to improve their personal situation and to change societal structures: the friend-hopper, the Sluts and the Octopuses all developed new relationship concepts and publicized them through pamphlets, performances, lectures, press releases, books and a grrrl-zine. Moreover, all activists except the friend-hopper engaged in educational activities and held workshops on the various ways of non-monogamous life. These workshops as well as a holiday camp, the group meetings, the salon, the cruising areas and other events offered space for practical experiences and experimentation outside the monogamous norm and are occasions for networking and the exchange of experiences. This activism has immediate effects on activists and participants: it ends social isolation, offers a value-system that does not stigmatize non-monogamy and allows to develop new abilities in creating and conducting relationships.
Initially, the polyamory movement in Germany only existed on the internet, and it is still today much more active in the virtual space than in the material sphere. The feminists acting against mononormativity, though, only occasionally use the internet for their purpose. They are instead strongly oriented towards face-to-face communication and the print media. This may be the effect of well-established structures of the feminist subculture that are used as a platform for activism - a social space that is not available to polyamorous women and men without subcultural affiliation.
Although information on nonmonogamous life is still not easily accessible and feminists tend to be ignorant of their foremothers' struggles and achievements, it seems that the feminist subculture of the past twenty years has never completely lost sight of the possibilities of a life outside the monogamous norm. It thereby offers a solid base that today's nonmonogamous activities can be built on.
Reference list/Books mentioned in the article:
Blum, J. & Heinicke, E. (2003). Die Schlampen kommen! Ein Lesebuch. Norderstedt: Book On Demand.
Méritt, L. & Bührmann, T. & Schefzig, N. B. (Eds.) (2005). Mehr als eine Liebe. Polyamouröse Beziehungen. Berlin: Orlanda.
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