Free love

Is getting intimate with more than one person really so wrong?

Photograph: Pickettphoto.net

I first heard of the 1997 cult-favorite book The Ethical Slut almost a year ago, when the guy I was seeing at the time referenced it to support his case (more like plea) for an open relationship. I found the title intriguing, but only recently purchased a copy. The premise is that polyamory (being romantically involved with more than one person at a time) is our natural state—monogamy, not so much.

It’s almost too obvious to note that most of society isn’t wildly enthusiastic about such unconventional relationships, despite the clear propensity of couples (yes, women too!) to stray outside the bonds of their oh-so-holy unions. After working on Capitol Hill and at Star magazine, I’ve become so jaded that I operate under the assumption that if someone isn’t a known cheater, they just haven’t been caught yet. And if we’re going to slyly dabble on the side anyway, perhaps we should consider polyamory.

The authors argue that it’s not inherently unethical to have simultaneous partners; what is unethical is treating your partners badly, and you can certainly do that in a monogamous relationship as well. “We measure the ethics of a good slut not by the number of his partners, but by the respect and care with which he treats them.... One-night stands can be intense, life-enhancing and fulfilling; so can lifetime love affairs,” they write.

They take issue with our culture’s prevailing sentiment that, “If you’re really in love, you will automatically lose all interest in others,” and the corollary, “If you’re having sexual or romantic feelings toward anyone but your partner, you’re not really in love.”

While it’s true that getting married or making a significant commitment doesn’t necessarily put a damper on one’s loins, freely hooking up and getting hurt may.

On a personal level, the authors might have convinced me that any hurt I’ve experienced is just the grief over what I’ve considered to be another strikeout in the relationship game. Perhaps I should take a look at it from their point of view: “Our monogamy-centrist culture tends to assume that the purpose and ultimate goal of all relationships—and, for that matter, all sex—is lifetime pair-bonding, and that any relationship which falls short of that goal has failed.... All relationships have the potential to teach us, move us, and above all, give us pleasure.”

The way they talk about sex is very positive, very loving and very free of emotional risks. Honestly, if all men I dated treated me with this much respect and love, I’d probably have slept with a lot more of them.

And I think that’s really the point: Our sexual and romantic experiences—whether they be monogamous or polyamorous—need to be filled with respect. As TONY reader Justin, 27, wrote me in an e-mail, the feelings most people have about their sexual experiences “have to do with how the man and woman treated each other throughout the exchange.” He mentioned that he happened to be reading Casanova’s memoirs, and “realized that this man, though he did have many sexual encounters, was a lover—someone who truly respected women and thought they deserved to be worshipped with affection. This is something that is really lost in today’s society. So many men want to go out and just fuck a woman, whereas Casanova wanted to sleep with them, make love, and fall in love.”

Although he was promiscuous, Casanova’s approach doesn’t sound so dangerous to me.

Editor’s note: When Casanova-ing about town, we recommend that you guard not only against broken hearts, but also STIs.