Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of the largest, if the not the largest, organization for African-American or black nonbelievers & atheists in the United States.
The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community.
I reached out to begin an educational series with one of the, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States.
Here, we talk about healthy and toxic patterns.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We’re talking about monogamy, polyamory, and so on. There’s been a lot of different terms floating around. In general, there are two different meanings. One is two people together for life, sexually and otherwise.
Another one is multiple people together in varying arrangements. I think this has a lot of relationship to secular communities, especially as the excess focus, say, that is given to monogamous relationships in traditional, Abrahamic religions fades away. Let’s talk a little bit about that today, please.
Mandisa Thomas: Monogamy doesn’t necessarily mean that two people are mated together for life. It just means that during the life of said relationship, marriage etc, that the two partners will be exclusive physically, and are also expected to be emotionally and mentally exclusive towards each other.
Polyamory in contrast, means that there’s more than one partner involved, and that there’s an ability to love more than one partner simultaneously. Usually, these relationships and the individuals who are described as polyamorous, and much like monogamous relationships, require an extensive amount of communication between all parties.
Interestingly enough, within the Abrahamic religions, the ones who are expected to be monogamous are the women. We are supposed to be exclusive only to the men that we’re with. The men are allowed to have more than one partner, and it’s supposed to be a community-accepted standard that women are just supposed to deal with. It’s definitely not the other way around.
Women, if caught having another partner according to the Bible, could be stoned to death. While that doesn’t happen in today’s society, if a woman has more than one partner, then she could be deemed “a slut” or not respectable. Of course, that is a double standard that I find it very unfair and that I rally against.
Jacobsen: How does this play out for African-American communities or black folk across the spectrum of religious belief you might find in America?
Thomas: Like many other communities, many in the black folks preach one thing, but then do something totally different behind closed doors. just like most communities, and especially with the still very high number of- even though teen pregnancy is down. There are medical statistics that show that our communities still have some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS cases and also STI’s (sexually transmitted infections). People obviously aren’t being as monogamous, but there is this a pretense that is hard to deny.
But we must also consider institutional factors like slavery. Black women and girls in particular were coerced, raped, and sexually exploited. Also, the black community tends to turn a blind eye to girls who are being molested, and who are being coerced by older men in the community. This also occurred during the period of slavery in this country.
Unfortunately, we don’t talk about sex and sexuality objectively in our community. There’s also little to no discussion about the LGBQT community, nor about what to expect from your partner or partners. That it is okay to date, and moreover, how do we date? How do we develop relationships? How do we communicate in a marriage? How does that expectation translate over time?
Sometimes circumstances may arise where partners may need to consider that perhaps being in a polyamorous relationship would be better. And we must be open to discussions and consideration of these factors.
Overall, I think that this is something that isn’t discussed frequently but within the black community, it is discussed even less. There’s a lot of ignorance about this topic, and a lot of shaming too.
Jacobsen: What have been proposed solutions to widen the conversation or put a wedge in that crevasse? How do you make it more acceptable to talk about, even if individuals aren’t looking to practice it?
Thomas: Right. That’s the thing. There is a misconception that just because you identify as polyamorous or you advocate for it, that you’re going to automatically go out and act on it. That you’re looking to have sex with anyone and the first people that you see, which for most is completely false.
Or this idea that you can’t be even physically attracted to someone else while you’re in a relationship. That is an unrealistic expectation. Getting people to understand that these things are okay, that it is a part of human nature, hopefully, is the first step.
Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of the Biblical stigma, and we’re dealing with a lot of toxic masculinity, which is what this is based around men’s egos being so fragile that they can’t handle if their partner is attracted to someone else.
There must be discussions about the fact that having physical relations with someone does not necessarily mean that you’ll fall in love with them. It also doesn’t mean that having sex with someone else other than your partner means that they are capable of building the same type of relationship, that they can provide those other needs.
Getting rid of the expectation that one partner should be able to fulfill every need that the significant other has. It is absolutely impossible, especially when individuals come from traumatic backgrounds. Really, there should be some professional counseling involved. I know we’ve talked about this with other subjects. Professional counseling, preferably nonreligious and based on evidence, will help tremendously.
Comprehensive sex education is going to be really, really important when it comes to these initiatives. Unfortunately, we still don’t have these conversations enough within our schools and within our communities to make it comfortable discussing them.
Jacobsen: Out of the population, if everyone is given the opportunity for social sanction, how many people do you think are polyamorous and how many people do you think are monogamous?
Thomas: I don’t have any statistics to back that up right now, so I couldn’t really say for sure but I will say that with the number of people who run around on their partners- I also forget the statistics of the number of marriages that end in divorce. I think part of that is because of the unrealistic expectation that the partner is supposed to fulfill every need. Perhaps if the partners communicated and were able to discuss being polyamorous effectively, then perhaps the rate wouldn’t be so high.
I’m thinking that there’s probably at least 60% of the population that is polyamorous. Whether they’ll admit to it is something totally different. There’s a need for people to be honest with themselves about what they want, what they like, and whether they’re able to communicate that with their partners.
But there are probably quite a few folks who ARE monogamous. I certainly want to be fair about that. I think that if two people are able to make everything about their relationship work, whether they satisfy each other physically, emotionally, mentally, as well as building a solid foundation for their relationship (meaning that their business affairs are also in order, they’re able to sustain each other financially), then that’s great.
But usually, that tends not to be the case. I’m not saying that it couldn’t be, but if there is the opportunity to explore building better relationships with other partners and make it more communal, then I think people should be open to it.
Jacobsen: You mentioned toxic masculinity. I know at least three general reactions to that phrase or that term. One is outward rejection, word and meaning, whether it’s understood or not.
Another one is not liking the new terms for just general critiques of certain aspects of how men behave, think, act, in general. Another one is they accept it wholeheartedly in terms of its concept and in terms of its intended meaning and terminology.
For those who may not know, what are you intending when you say “toxic masculinity”?
Thomas: My intentions for the term “toxic masculinity” is referring to the notions as well as the actions of people. It doesn’t just include men because unfortunately, women and children and others are affected by toxic masculinity.
They are the actions and the notions that impede an ability to look at things objectively, especially as they pertain to the notions that have been placed on us and this idea that if they’re challenged in some way, then people will be adversely affected. They come down on folks. They may make nasty comments or they may take drastic actions, especially against women.
Said toxic masculinity may result from challenging these norms and these ideals that have favored men for so long, and their perspective. Really, it’s not just a coined term for me. It really does address problems and how men react to them. That is how I’m intending to use the word and the terms. Hopefully, people understand how these are ideals that are rooted, and that they really do need to be addressed.
Jacobsen: If we’re looking at the acts and the norms that harm women, and girls, and men, as well as things that men benefit off of as well, through toxic masculinity, would this imply a similar concept in toxic femininity? If so, what would be its form and some examples?
Thomas: I think that if we’re talking about toxic femininity, then we may be referring to women who say they hate all men. Also, if they haven’t sufficiently received the help or support that they need for the hurt or the trauma that they experienced, and they’re taking it out on people who don’t deserve it. Or even this idea that if you don’t go along with their brand of feminism, then you’re flat out wrong.
I have seen some women do this. And I contend that it is a byproduct of toxic masculinity. I can only cite my observations, but I find that this tends to be where the toxic femininity comes in, when you have women who just outright take on those same characteristics. You know how the people who were bullied become the bullies later? I don’t agree with that any more than if a man was doing it.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.
Thomas: Thank you very much.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.