Relationship anarchy: a feminist twist on relationships

It’s comforting and reassuring to have labels and categorize yourself. Thousands of online quizzes can tell you everything from what your exact personality type is to what your specific sexuality is to what sushi you are.

People take comfort in labels especially when it comes to relationships. From relationship statuses on social media to wedding rings, it seems important for relationships be clearly and publicly defined.

It’s no surprise then that when we remove these labels—or even start to question them—it creates, for some, total chaos. It’s in this state of romantic anarchy that subculture groups arose and started to thrive, groups such as Relationship Anarchy.

Often confused as a synonym for polyamory, relationship anarchy is a nontraditional relationship style, whether romantic or platonic, in which a special focus is put on open communication and constant questioning of norms between partners. RA is a feminist practice in that it breaks down patriarchal relationship norms.  

“I think the more you’re confronting heteronormative beliefs, the more you’re going to bump into…I don’t want to say problems, but areas where you have to work harder,” said RA practicer Kale Gosen, who identifies as a queer, non-monogamous sex-positive feminist.

“I want relationships based around consent and communication,” Gosen added. “I highly value autonomy and direct communication, and therefore I won’t ask you for permission to do things, but I will talk to you about how you feel for as long as you need to!”

RA aims to address areas of heterosexuality that can be problematic by deconstructing and dissecting what it means to be in a relationship and customizing relationships to individual needs.

“The idea of developing an explicitly ethical way of doing relationships resonates with key feminist ideas around…the idea that the personal is political,” said Dr. Meg John Baker, a relationship anarchist, sex and gender therapist and senior psychology lecturer.

Although nontraditional lifestyles like RA can be more feminist oriented, much of the population has unfavorable views of them.

According to a study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, “Although a sizable number of individuals engage in CNM [consensual non-monogamy], these relationships are highly stigmatized. Compared to monogamous relationships, CNM relationships are perceived by the public as less satisfying and lower in relationship quality; those involved in CNM are perceived as fundamentally flawed.”

Perhaps this has to do with the large misconception that CNM is solely an excuse to sleep around.

“Many people think RA is for people who just want to have a lot of sex,” said Sally Eck, a Portland State professor in the women’s studies department. Eck hosts RA meetings at her home.

“If that’s all someone wants, then I think relationship anarchy is way too much work. It’s a tremendous amount of work to live your life outside of assumption.” Rather than a free-for-all, Eck looks at RA as “an opportunity for conscious relating.”

RA practice emphasizes openness, communication, respect, cooperation and consent, and

the principles of relationship anarchy can be practiced by everyone, even monogamous individuals.

Swedish activist and author of the RA instructional manifesto Andie Nordgren wrote, “Relationship anarchy is not about never committing to anything—it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you.”