Friday, November 03, 2017

Couple Privilege Does Exist: A Response to Lola Pheonix

I recently came across this article, Five reasons 'Couple privilege' doesn't exist. The writer of this article, Lola Pheonix, seems to be coming at the question of couple privilege from a polyamorous perspective, which is different from the experience of aromantic people. I'll try to address both perspectives, although it's important to keep in mind that I'm not poly and I have essentially no experience with poly relationships. I also bring up disability quite a bit, because my initial learning about privilege was largely in the context of disability.

They* quote Franklin Veaux saying privilege is "any advantage that one person or group has over another that hasn’t been specifically earned", and go on to disagree with that definition, stating that privilege has to be based on a societal system that deliberately benefits a certain group over others.

I disagree with both definitions, actually, but I like Franklin Veaux's definition better. I'd simply amend it to say that this advantage results from social systems, not purely from biological differences. For example, being able to walk isn't a privilege, it's just a biological reality. But being able to count on buildings having entrances designed for people like you to enter easily is a privilege given to people who can walk (we don't have any buildings with entrances that assume the ability to fly, for example).

Lola Pheonix's definition of privilege, meanwhile, is overly narrow. It excludes discussion of privilege systems affecting groups that are not widely known & recognised to exist by society.

For example, many buildings have flourescent lighting, which can be an accessibility issue for people with epilepsy, migraines, or sensory processing issues. I have yet to encounter anyone who deliberately choose flourescent over other options because of a hatred for people with those disabilities. Instead, the vast majority of flourescent lights were installed by people and organizations who simply didn't consider the potential accessibility issues that could be relevant to their choice of lighting.

I, personally, see being able to design and visit buildings without worrying about the lighting causing seizures or similar negative effects as an example of abled privilege. But Lola's definition wouldn't count it.

They then discuss 'couple's privilege' as if it consists solely of how poly relationships are treated in personal relationships. Setting aside the question of whether systematic patterns of being insulted for a certain identity can count as oppression by itself, that's far from the only effect of couple's privilege. There's a reason gay couples pushed so hard for legal recognition of their marriages, and that's because it comes with a long list of legal benefits. These benefits are not available to unmarried partners, including all but one of a polyamorous person's partners. Nor are they necessarily available for the primary relationships of aromantic people.

For example, although my brother and parents have certain rights by virtue of being my family, they could potentially lose custody of my child to my sperm donor if I were to die before my child grew up. This is especially true if I don't make the sperm donor sign papers beforehand. (As I wouldn't if the pregnancy wasn't planned, for example.) And only recently did Canada first allow a mother's best friend to undergo a second-parent adoption, representing the first time a second-parent adoption was granted to a non-romantic partner. Similarly, I shudder to think of the legal battle if a polycule had a custody dispute. My guess is that any partner who wasn't married to the child's parents or biologically related to the child would be at a severe disadvantage, no matter the relationship to the child.

And speaking of gay couples, next, they bring up how many of these couple's privileges aren't available to non-heterosexual couples. I'll acknowledge that point, although I'd argue it soon won't be true anymore. But just because a certain set of privileges aren't afforded to everyone with a certain identity doesn't mean that identity isn't privileged. After all, trans people can be straight, but they certainly don't access straight privilege. Similarly, gay couples (and other queer couples) being denied couple's privilege doesn't mean that heterosexual couples can't be privileged over single heterosexuals, polyamorous heterosexuals or heterosexuals who aren't able to marry for various reasons (eg threat of losing welfare or disability payments).

Next, they mention that many of these privileges aren't unique to couples. This, too, is not really relevant. There is a lot of overlap between different systems of oppression. Both trans and disabled people often get treated as 'self-narrating zoo exhibits' and asked overly personal questions by strangers. POC, women and physically disabled people all tend to get touched intrusively and nonconsensually by strangers. Both POC and invisibly disabled people (especially neurodiverse or mentally ill people) are at higher risk from police violence. Trans women, POC and disabled people are all at greater risk of being murdered and have our killers receive lighter sentences. Single people, LGBT people and disabled people are all likely to be denied the right to adopt for reasons that don't affect our actual ability to parent. The list goes on. If we excluded any oppression shared by multiple distinct groups from privilege discussions, we'd have virtually nothing to discuss.

They also mention that choosing to prioritise certain relationships over others isn't oppression. I agree. If you're treating your partner of 5 years who you live with as more important than your LDR with a partner for 3 years, that's just human nature. And if your friends prioritise your partners the same way, that's probably just because they know one partner better. We can't, and shouldn't, treat all people as if they were equally important to our lives, and that includes poly partners.

But there's a big difference between inviting your friend's spouse but not their girlfriend because you know their spouse better, or you don't get along with their girlfriend, and doing so purely because they're married. And similarly, there's a difference between inviting your own spouse but not your girlfriend because she's out of town, or doesn't like those kinds of events, or you'd simply rather bring your spouse; and doing so because you fear negative reactions to coming out as poly, or feel that she doesn't belong there because she's not the one married to you.

They then discuss binarism. As a mostly cisgender woman, I don't feel qualified to comment on whether or not binarism exists, although I will mention that I've seen a lot of disagreement among non-binary people about this question. I would also be interested to hear their thoughts on 'truscum', and how that relates to binarism. But I digress.

They also discuss how visibility doesn't lead to acceptance. As an autistic person, I have an interesting experience with being both hypervisible and invisible, and I can attest that both are terrible. Hypervisibility isn't the same as visibility, though. Visibility, to me, means being able to access positive self-representation and narratives that help you to develop a sense of yourself as a member of a category of people - being able to see yourself represented and included in society's construction of what 'protagonists' are like. And caricatures and stereotypes are no better than the complete lack of representation, and can in some cases be worse.

I also feel like their discussion of privilege treats it as a binary, which it certainly isn't. A nondisabled poor trans woman of color has abled privilege over me, but I have class, cis and white privilege over her, making me almost certainly more privileged overall. And the same could be said for pretty much any axis of privilege. People who are privileged in most, but not all aspects will generally be more privileged overall than people who are privileged in only a few aspects. This doesn't negate the reality of any one axis of privilege.

Overall, I get the feeling we probably agree more than we disagree.

* I don't know what pronouns Lola prefers, so I'm using 'they/them' as the most neutral option.


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