With lots of speculation around what happened at this year's Oscars, let's keep in mind: open relationships don't lead to violence.
While the main focus of the recent Oscars ceremony has been on the joke that played a role in the violent interaction between Will Smith and Chris Rock, I think the jokes about the Smiths’ open relationship bear discussing, particularly the false assumption that they cause violence.
Before I jump in here, I want to make sure it’s clear that I understand that as a white person, it is not my role to weigh in on many aspects of what happened. However, as a scholar of gender, sexuality, and relationships, I believe it’s important to talk about open relationships as a whole, across all cultures, as well as the monogamous-leaning baggage many of carry that can lead to inaccurate snap judgments.
First, let’s establish that open relationships are pretty common. I’ve seen some classic anthropological literature asserting that 80% of the world’s cultures have at some point accepted multi-partner marriages (technically the term for that is polygamy; one man with multiple wives is called polygyny; and one woman with multiple husbands is called polyandry, though this variant is less common). According to the UN, polygamy is generally accepted or legal in at least 33 countries today. A Pew Report suggests that about 2% of the world’s population lives in polygamous households.
In the modern Western context, multiple-partner marriages are usually not legal, so instead, you see people experimenting with open relationships. According to recent studies, about 4-5% of Americans have tried out open relationships, which of course are based on consent and communication; the numbers are much higher if you include instances of non-consensual non-monogamy, a.k.a. cheating.
So for a modern American couple to try an open relationship is not that bizarre or uncommon. You probably know someone who’s experimented with the concept, had a brief phase of “single but dating around,” or started dating someone while in the stages of a divorce. As I’ve noted, many people are driven to pair-bond with a partner, but monogamy can also be wielded like a cudgel to police people’s sexuality and relationships.
Because open relationships are so prevalent, we can’t make any assumptions about links between being in one and acts of violence. I mean, how would we control for variables in a study like that? How could we tell which violence is stemming from patriarchal conditioning and which violence is chosen more on an individual level?
Further, a lot of monogamous people make a lot of weird assumptions about the role of jealousy in all this. We get a lot of toxic messages from pop culture about how if you really wanna win your lover, you’ll act in jealous and stalker-ish ways, and those are not great. I am really not all that interested in the hot takes of monogamous people who haven’t taken the time to do the work and undo the harmful, negative aspects of their social conditioning within a monocentric culture. Like oh you wanna fetishize jealousy? That says more about you than about the situation at hand. Gross.
Oh, and guess what? Ignorance is no excuse either.
You simply cannot, on the one hand, complain that you don’t understand non-monogamy because there aren’t enough examples out there, and on the other hand, shame non-monogamous people when they come out as non-monogamous.
You see why that’s a problem, right? You see how this discourse makes it unsafe for people in open relationships to be more transparent about their lives, right? Not that anyone owes you transparency.
And it’s especially annoying when public figures receive extra scrutiny for their lives in such a way that makes it utterly clear that sexist ideas are still at work. As I’ve seen others observe, if Kim Kardashian isn’t safe from abuse during her divorce, how the hell is the average woman supposed to be safe during her divorce? If you’re eating up this celebrity gossip and sharing your hot takes on the Smiths, how the hell do you think your friends in (probably closeted) open relationships are going to feel?
Yes, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are in an open marriage. No, that doesn’t mean the general public gets free rein to speculate about the details of their relationship and especially the implications of their relationship on other actions they’ve taken publicly.
And they certainly don’t drive people to violence. So, please knock off the inappropriate speculation, and keep your nose out of their relationship status, or anyone else’s other than your own.