“In a nutshell, the traditional Relationship Escalator looks like this: two (and only two) people progress from initial attraction and dating, to becoming sexually and romantically involved and exclusive, to adopting a shared identity as a couple, to moving in together and otherwise merging their lives—all the way up to marriage and kids, ‘til death do you part.”
This is how journalist and blogger Amy Gahran defines the Relationship Escalator. Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life is a book about all the other possible relationship styles, trajectories and configurations available to us if this one doesn’t fit the bill. As she says, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. … It’s just not the only game in town.”
This book is not a how-to guide. It’s an effort at description, a sort of step-by-step tour of the realm of relationships that exist off the Escalator. As such, it occupies a niche in which it has few peers. In fact apart from Designer Relationships, which nods in this direction to a point, it’s pretty much the only non-monogamy book I’ve come across whose primary goal seems to be descriptive. It’s certainly the only one that’s based on survey data from over 1500 people—a truly impressive endeavour.
Stepping Off covers a lot of ground, from the most common forms of off-Escalator relationships to the less well known, all the way through to unconventional break-ups and post-breakup relationships with one’s exes. Each section offers description, definitions and lots of illustrative quotes, as well as a rundown of common ethical concerns pertaining to each form of off-Escalator relationship.
Thanks to this thoroughness it would make an excellent primer for people who aren’t yet super familiar with the idea of non-monogamy and other unconventional relationship styles. That is a major strength, and an important one: most books about non-monogamy champion one or two forms of it and provide instruction, whereas this one feels more like a buffet or a tour, a rare opportunity to see a wide range of options. This means if you’re already doing off-Escalator relationships, this book may tell you a lot of things you already know. But I still think it’s a worthwhile read for two reasons.
One, it really does cover a ton of ground, such that even experienced off-Escalator people may find a tidbit or two they hadn’t heard before. It provides a series of snapshots of contemporary non-monogamy, including both familiar and more recent additions to the conceptual lexicon. I gleaned some new things from it—among other things, the section on people who are asexual and aromantic was a welcome inclusion for me, given that this population is often left out of writing about relationships in general and non-monogamy in particular. I was also able to bone up on some of the lingo all the cool kids are using these days (comets and squishes and afterships, oh my!).
Two, because of the survey data. It’s just not been done before, and that makes this book stand out from the crowd. To be clear, the data, here, mostly takes the form of illustrative anecdotes and observations from Gahran’s respondents. She does a great job choosing quotes to support her various topics, which lends a personal touch and helps ground her efforts in a kind of fair-mindedness. While she sets out the potential pitfalls and ethical challenge points of each form of relationship, she also provides quotes from people who happily engage in those forms, so it’s clear she’s not condemning any one form or elevating any other. You can tell she’s got her favourites—and legitimately so, particularly when it comes to serious ethical issues—but her journalism background shines through in her clear efforts at providing a balanced view.
Now, while Gahran does include a few rundowns of various percentages early in the book, I would have liked to see a lot more quantitative analysis. Given that she has such a robust data set to work from, I feel like she’s kinda holding out on us. Perhaps she’ll do more with the numbers in one of the future books she plans to publish—she lists several forthcoming titles and topics. For now, it’s cursory, but it’s still definitely way more than you’ll get anywhere else.
Of course I have some of my standard critiques. The book is relentlessly contemporary and North American, which means it doesn’t spend more than a few sentences on either the history of non-monogamy in North America, or on cultures outside North America whose mores around monogamy, relationships and family might be very different. Sometimes I really think we’re reinventing the wheel over here in the West, and could stand to learn a lot from earlier and non-Western cultures where our default assumptions about relationships were never there in the first place. Even the history of contemporary North American polyamory gets short shrift here.
Obviously that’s not the kind of information you’ll get from a giant survey, so perhaps this is just my hankering for a different book altogether—though in some ways it also speaks to the way an online survey might not be the best way to connect with stories from our polyamorous elders, some of whom are in their seventies and above now. In any case, sometimes the intense focus on present-day relationships, in this book and most others, leaves me wondering whether we’re forgetting our history and with it, our chance to learn from it.
Also, I’m struck with how heterocentric the baseline Escalator structure really is. While plenty of quotes in Stepping Off come from self-identified queer people, I would have liked a much more robust analysis of queer alternatives to the Escalator, now and throughout time. Of course the Escalator has shaped all of our lives to some extent, but that’s largely because it’s the most common relationship structure in a heterosexual world built on a long history of property and bloodline transfer through marriage. Effectively, the history of the Escalator is the history of heterosexual marriage.
But for centuries now, folks who knew from a young age that they weren’t heterosexual have always had to find ways to work around the Escalator—whether to jump right on it to satisfy convention while leading clandestine gay lives, avoid it altogether, or find some way to approximate it without access to legally sanctioned marriage. The idea of stepping off the Escalator is great, but it doesn’t sufficiently consider those who could never have stepped on it in the first place, and all the creative ways they have historically found to manage that reality, especially considering how mandatory the Escalator has been. The lavender marriage is itself a form of non-monogamy, for instance. And while same-sex marriage has been around for anywhere from a few months to a couple of decades depending on what country you’re talking about, suddenly having access to a new form of state-sanctioned approval doesn’t change queer history or the contemporary queer cultures built on that history. This requires more than just inclusion in the data set. It also requires perspective and analysis that I didn’t find in Stepping Off.
But again, perhaps I’m just hankering for a different book. I guess I just wish that so much writing about polyamory, non-monogamy and other off-Escalator relationships wasn’t so consistently rooted in heterosexuality as a baseline with queerness as an incidental variation, even with the friendliest of approaches. I will probably make this complaint until a few really solid books about non-monogamy come out specifically from a queer perspective.
On another note entirely, kudos to Gahran for a pretty darn solid copy editing job. I still have my peeves with the excessive and unnecessary use of italics, which seems endemic in self-published manuscripts, but I snagged on very few typos, which was a delight. If, like me, you find terrible editing a huge deterrent, rest assured you should be able to read this lovely book with few hiccups.
Overall, Stepping Off is a quality addition to any library about non-monogamy and alternative relationships. It’s doing a really different thing and doing it well. I’m excited to see the range of books in this area expanding with this new effort, and looking forward to seeing what Amy Gahran does next.