The Non-Monogamy Letters (3/6)

Non-Monogamy Letter #3

In the midst of a lockdown, Simon(e) van Saarloos questions their relationship to time, to dreams, to public space, and to the sexuality of voles.

January 16, 2021

Dear Kim,

Some months have passed since your letter arrived—so many things have happened. How are you doing now, living with this new viral relation? I recently listened to your appearance on the “Decolonized Buffalo” podcast. I had seen the release date, January 20 2020, before listening to the conversation, but when you mentioned you were visiting Texas and seeing your partner and his family, I felt excited for you—considering the fact that you mentioned not having seem him (and them) for months due to the lockdown. You ended the conversation explaining Tipi Confessions—live storytelling performances—and the many travel plans you have ahead of you. I realized only then that we have entered 2021 and 2020 is actually a year ago. If Texas has remained out of reach, I hope you have found at least more physical proximity to your partners in Edmonton?

Living with my long-term partner since the start of the lockdown in the Netherlands, I waver between feeling lucky and frustrated. When everything closed down last year, I was residing in Istanbul, Turkey for a few months. However, when the borders closed in March, I happened to be traveling in the region and with only a tourist visa to enter Turkey, I couldn’t return to my temporary home and landed back in Amsterdam. I feel extremely lucky that C. welcomed me into their house, that we can split the rent and other costs, but I desire a non-coupled way of living. I have been trying to formulate both the luck and frustration of this situation, not complying to the “poor singles” narrative that proposes couplehood as a remedy to isolation and loneliness, nor denying the actuality of our living situation and the pleasure of being close with a loved one, even if that closeness is most immediately caused by a lack of affordable housing. Due to my spatial rhythms pre-Covid, most of my intimate relations are geographically scattered. Not seeing each other physically for a longer time is quite normal, but it doesn’t take away the webbed worries. It also makes me think more about our usual infrastructure, and how our long-distance intimacy is often fully dependent on my work supported travels and passport privilege.

I wholeheartedly agree with your refusal to concede non-monogamy as a price to be paid for living carefully with Covid-19. Your phrasing of living with this viral relation, also points out the strong individualist response to Covid, equating protection with isolation and not with care. Each time the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, shares an update on Covid regulations, his pragmatic tone of voice is supported by a slogan in the background: “Alleen samen krijgen we corona onder controle” / Only together do we control Corona. With our right-wing, nationalistic and neoliberal government, promoting xenophobic and neoliberal policies and budget cuts for at least a decade now, I fear their interpretation of “together” and am especially alarmed by their desire to “control.” Recently, a research report exposed the current government’s complicity in racist and discriminatory policies concerning child support, explicitly squeezing citizens with a double nationality, addressing families with racist slurs and fining them for fictional flaws. What do they imagine when controlling an airborne virus? Which “we” is centralized in this fantasy of control?   

It is not your job or role to provide solutions—or to pretend solutions are possible—but I’m tempted to ask you: in refusing the narrative of monogamy as a necessary measure of virus control, what kind of a discourse do you propose, how are you negotiating your intimacies on a personal and, potentially, public level? And, I wonder, is pushing back against institutionalized settler-colonial intimacy any different than usual? As you write, you might be very strict and carefully distancing, you might be mask-wearing all the time, but you wish to see your partners. Having to loudly state our goody-goody behaviour—distancing, mask wearing—in order to be allowed to point out the normativity of the current restrictions as defined by the nation state, seems to me a terribly wrong, binary bargain.

I often think of my dreams at night as the only effortless anti-capitalist part of my life…

On a bodily level, I’m living my non-monogamous intimacies mostly at night, in my dreams. I always have strong dreams and, as I remember them when I wake up, live with them during the day. I’ve grown more dependent on my nightly adventures and physical proximity with people and non-human creatures over the past few months. I often think of my dreams at night as the only effortless anti-capitalist part of my life: these nightly dreams make me feel, think, experience so much. They are never profitable. Naming them in this letter, might already be too much exposure (and hence a first step towards potential exploitation). However, I wanted to share with you a little about the presence of these nightly experiences, partly because they safely meet some of my sexual desires, but mostly because of how you wrote about change, living with “change over space,” not “over linear progressive time.” Without a personal, physical and ontological history with non-linear conceptions of time to draw from my cultural upbringing, the dreams at night can feel like my most embodied experience with “change over space.”

It took a while to write you back. Please don’t take my delay as a lack of appreciation for your wonderful letter and response—I’m excited and grateful you have found the time and interest to engage, and your willingness to read Playing Monogamy. I’m very curious to hear more about your reading experience and insights. In October, before the newly installed closure of public life in Amsterdam, I had the chance to travel back to Istanbul, returning to the home I abruptly left in March but never got to pack. DJ, performer, trans* activist and friend Kübra Uzun and I were able to finish an audio work for the Amsterdam Museum. Wearing masks, Kübra and I walked through Gezi Park in the gentrified city centre of Istanbul, reminiscing about her teenage years, when she would visit the park’s shrubs, bushes and dark corners, seeking the protection of trees to engage other cruisers for sex. Like many LGBTQ folks who have a close physical and social connection to the park, Kübra was part of the rising people’s protests in 2013, occupying the city park and protecting it against the government’s decision to destroy the trees and build a shopping mall (the fact that the park was built on a demolished Armenian cemetery, the park’s front steps constructed with gravestones, is yet another interlinking story).

In the audio work we recorded, Kübra talks about her memories of the park, the sex that she sought and always found, the violent interference of police, the increased surveillance disguised as security, the red light of the old fountain in the middle of the park—making me think of the Red-Light district in Amsterdam, while signaling nationalism for Kübra. Her stories became part of an installation, juxtaposing Kübra’s voice with Oosterpark in Amsterdam, where cruising also happens. But mostly, “cleaning up” happens—it’s a common policy: trees and shrubs are removed to eradicate the shade in which drug use, sleeping and sex occur. Just as in Gezi, lights and cameras are installed—a proposal by police to keep people safe. In the Netherlands, the “Pink & Blue” department is a special segment of the police, founded for the safekeeping of LGBTQ. However, at the Canal Pride in 2018, protestors addressing the safety and health and agency of LGBTQ migrants, refugees and “paperless,” were removed from the canal parade’s route by police.

Of course, cruising spaces have been under pressure for years, decades, due to gentrification, white homonormativity and an unquestioned belief that visibility = freedom, but the late-night strolls with Kübra and the increased celebration of cultivated nature as a place of leisure during lockdown, makes me want to discuss with you the architecture of non-normative intimacies.

The park’s architecture of neatly trimmed shrubs and designated markers for exercise and healthy life are a catwalk for straight life.

In Queer Ecologies, editors Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson write about the construction of public parks. Especially city parks are designed as a space of visible heterosexual couplehood; you stroll, enjoying free time on the weekend, recreating out in the open, showing your relationship status while being watched and monitoring others. The park’s architecture of neatly trimmed shrubs and designated markers for exercise and healthy life are a catwalk for straight life. Natural preservation parks are also mentioned in the book. The authors address the ways in which conservative preservation environmentalists promoted nature as helplessly in need of a saviour. In many cases, this actively installed ideal of protection led to the eradication of indigenous peoples living with the land (suddenly framed as a threat to the land). With your love for the prairie, what is your imagination of possible architectures for non-monogamous intimacies?

Apologizing for my slow response immediately brings back our discussion on time.

In my first letter, I mentioned that my view on Covid reveals an ableist and white attachment to hope: wanting this period of time to be over; hence regarding this time as a singular period, potentially separated, categorized, differentiated and named, approaching time as an object rather than relationality.

Elaborating a bit on the “ableist” aspect, I was thinking about the way in which disease and disability are framed as tragedies. In order for medical and societal support to be activated, disease and disability have to be temporal, not chronic or unknown in duration. Without a cure in sight, there isn’t anything to gain. The desire for a cure is expected and nearly demanded, while living with, living in relation with disability is condemned. Medical research, genetic fetus testing, fundraising initiatives and commercialized health promotion are often aimed at the future eradication of disability. The promise of cure and eradication motivates a lot of money, while disability justice does not. With Eli Clare, among others, I ask: how is it that we can invest millions in finding a future cure, while we are unable to provide health care for all, while cultural events do not have budget reserved for sign language interpreters, etc., etc.? This is what I referred to as my ableist attachment to hope, namely that only a future without Covid’s affect would be an endurable or livable future.

Five disembodied hands float together, with slices through their wrists and some fingers.

 Alison Kafer writes urgently about time and disability. Kafer addresses how disability is indeed often referred to in terms of time and time measurements—is it chronic, is the pain constant, are you experiencing relapse and remission? From an acclaimed crip perspective, crip time can also seriously change the temporal design of current societal structures. In Feminist, Queer, Crip Kafer underlines that crip time is often simplified to “slowing down” or taking more time. Someone who needs care to get out of bed, might need some extra time in the morning. Institutional adaptations, if made, are often aimed only at providing “extra” time (for example, to finish a test at school). Kafer proposes that crip time can indeed mean “extra” or more time, or slowing down, but it should more so be “a reorientation to time” (27); appreciating different velocities and temporalities, acknowledging the many ways that many minds and many bodies move.

Thank you for bringing me back to Undoing Monogamy. I read the book a while ago, after meeting a former student of Angela Willey at a self-organized queer summer camp at the Performing Art Forum (PAF) in the north of France. Willey’s former student promised me Undoing Monogamy is a MUST read and they were right. Reading it then, I was mostly drawn by the sections that explicitly counter biological explanations and defenses of both monogamy and nonmonogamy. But now that I revisited the book, I stuck very much to the second chapter, describing the research on voles. In the animal experiments Willey witnessed, monogamy and “healthy” social behaviour are equated. Assumed promiscuous behaviour of the voles in cages is related to an antisocial character, which the scientist attaches to autism diagnosis. The supposed monogamous or promiscuous behaviour of the voles is thus placed on a human spectrum. Even more worrisome: the voles are studied to understand human behaviour, simply because scientists have observed partner behaviour that appears monogamous.

The assumption is thus that humans are naturally monogamous and that the monogamy of voles makes them similar enough to study. Promiscuous appearing voles are injected with hormones—popularly known as the cuddle hormone—hoping to stimulate monogamous behaviour. When they do seem to grow more attached to one mate, this is classified as more social, and this is considered an improvement. Such a hormonal injection is even tested as a potential “cure” for autism! It makes me want to dig more into the ways ableism and monogamy are linked.

I’m very much looking forward to reading you,

With warmth,


Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Simon(e) van Saarloos is a writer and artist. They have published several books, including Playing Monogamy and Take ‘Em Down. Scattered Monuments and Queer Forgetting. They are also the host of *The Asterisk Conversations podcast and recently started a PhD in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley.

Illustration by

Whess Harman is Carrier Wit’at, a nation amalgamated by the federal government under the Lake Babine Nation. They graduated from the emily carr university’s BFA program in 2014 and are currently living and working on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh as the curator at grunt gallery.

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