Words by Emma Smit
As a confused but bright-eyed fifth grader, I was carefree and wild, mostly concerned with three things: attaching neon feathers to my hair, moving my body to the newest pop hits, and contemplating which ecosystem to unearth in my backyard. Then my mom told me she was in love with another woman. We had never spoken about her dating life or sexuality following the turbulent years with my father, but they were never married nor lived together, so separation was almost unnoticeable from the start. My mom told me, “I am in love with this person, and she just happens to be a woman.” I must have known the truth somewhere deep inside, because I remember that my cheerful knee-jerk response was, “I knew it.” As a 10-year-old, I didn’t feel the need to question her. I trusted my mom’s decision in choosing whom to love. To me, it didn’t matter, but to the world, it seemed to matter a whole lot. And since that day, my heart has yearned for a world where love is freely chosen and bestowed.
In 2023, "I love you" has expanded to encompass a multitude of expressions, accompanied by an embrace of vulnerability. Love can show up in traditionally romantic, sexual, and emotional forms. But it can now also appear in socially unsanctioned yet intimate gestures such as accompanying a partner during top surgery* or caring for a non-monogamous partner's children while they are on a date. Is modern love a wholly new concept, or simply a rebranding of traditional love?
Love itself is a non-heteronormative idea, so acts of love are a non-(hetero)normative expression and demonstration of care. To create a truly free society, people need to be able to build their own worlds while finding solace in their erotic embodiment without outside interference. Love beyond the norms has long been alive. Unfortunately, so have the accompanying and pervasive shame, violence, discrimination, and lack of understanding that continue to exert powerful force over our ability to experience and express love.
As we cross the ever-changing terrain of love, linguistic repertoires, intimacy, and connection, it's apparent that our society is becoming increasingly enamoured with technology and fleeting viral trends, all the while neglecting the intricacies and complexities of our relationships. Despite this cultural trend, one fundamental truth endures: We love whom we love unencumbered by the traditional bounds of monogamy, although oppression, masturbatory judgement*, and societal expectations surrounding marriage and reproductive choices cloud this nuanced expression. The choice to live in a consensual monogamous partnership is and must be as valid, but not more, than any other. Why is the exploration and redefinition of sexual satisfaction and coexistence such a contentious and unsettling topic for so many of us? It may be due, in part, to the way it challenges deeply ingrained beliefs and norms, forcing us to confront our own biases and fears. It’s therefore tempting to rely on normative "extremes" when scrutinizing or debating the potentially harmful effects of this freer, so-called, "modern" love. The expression of free love has historically been a path filled with repression and suffocation, plagued by capitalist and patriarchal oppressions.
Many of us are threatened when faced with the challenges to the dominance of heteronormativity within everyday lives. When faced with, for example, a partner working in the sex industry, sologamists*, disability, the diversity of relationships and experiences covered under the umbrella of non-monogamy, such as polyamory and open relationships, and dominant and submissive relationships. It is as if individuals who practice and enjoy these roles and dynamics are entitled to judgement. The media, cultural scripts, political representation, popular culture, lyrics, and most importantly, families, devote woefully little and often judgmental attention to ‘othered’ relationship styles and pleasure-centred discussions of sexual health and erotic embodiment. It is up to all of us to create a future where young hearts bloom and love sings on streets, in clubs, and in schools, regardless of its form or structure. A world where trauma, violence, and vandalism are but a distant memory. This begins with each of us, as individuals and parents, nurturing new belief systems to raise a curious and compassionate generation, tenderly and freely.
Since that moment when I was 10 years old and could feel the rightness of embracing love in whatever form it comes. My life choices have lovingly led me to invaluable connections and profound unions with transgender, gay, lesbian, queer, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and sex-working individuals. They’ve granted me the privilege to learn from those who are asexual or enjoy and prefer non-genital (penetrative) sex or self-pleasure. The path of love needs to be one of exploration, with the freedom to fully explore every corner of ourselves.
While I don't consider myself non-monogamous at the core, I am currently navigating the challenging but enriching waters of non-monogamy. This experience has shown me that durable and all-encompassing love can be rediscovered, not through vanity or illusion, but through a mature appreciation of all that life has to offer. It may not be a forever path, but it provides a foundation for exploring what works for me and what does not. Stepping outside of my body for some time has left me spiritually invigorated and more in tune with myself, even in the face of past traumas. Ultimately, we are all learning how to understand the nuances and evolutions of love through the absence of judgment and by exploring new ways of thinking.
“I know better than to claw at the universe for answers. When you dig, it gives you a hole. When you beg, it keeps you on your knees. And when you surrender, it gives you everything," stated an author and an artist Gabi Abrão. Sometimes it's important to step back and reflect on how we approach things that may seem confusing, threatening, or stigmatized. By reframing our internalization of love and surrendering to the process, we can put trust in ourselves and experience what we truly desire.
*Top surgery for transgender men and nonbinary people is a procedure to remove breast or chest tissue (subcutaneous mastectomy). It's also called gender-affirming surgery.
*Masturbatory judgement. Masturbation Shame Is Deeply Ingrained In Us. Our sexual experiences as teenagers often give us a variety of baggage that affects and shapes the way we enter and engage in sexual relationships as adults, despite growing up and realising that masturbation is nothing to be ashamed of — and is now in fact something to be celebrated in the name of self-care.
*Sologamist. A practicing sologamist only has sex, marries, or is in a relationship with themselves. It is a derivation of the word sologamy, which is the act of having sex with oneself or masturbating.