“The Ethical Slut”, Dossie Easton & Janet W. Hardy: Polyamory and Polyamorous Relationships

the ethical slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationships, and other adventures by dossie easton and janet hardy

Dossie Easton’s and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationships, and other adventures is a book I read when I was too young for it. As I recall, at the time the person I borrowed it from was living in a small place in Seaview, so I can date the borrowing to 2009, when I was 18. To be fair, I did get a lot from the book: it opened my mind and had lots of great concrete tips. But reading it now, three years later, I’m able to navigate it much more assiduously, to make sure to suck much more marrow from its bones. And it’s been so rewarding. The book is a wealth of information not just on polyamory (forms of sexual relationships other than monogamy) itself, but on consent, communication, and ways of relating in general.

The Ethical Slut has, broadly, two goals, and the content is divided thus. The first is to establish a philosophical case for polyamory, to explain the why of the authors’ and others’ lifestyles. While such a rational effort is likely to enjoy no success against humans’ overwhelmingly irrational decision-making, it does usefully provide a conceptual framework for sympathisers – as it has for me. The second goal is to facilitate polyamory, to explain the how of having multiple partners, of child-raising, of cruising, of flirting, of highly enjoyable sex. This second set of content is also useful and interesting and, indeed, should you read the book you’ll find it very worthwhile. Sensibly though, I have as yet kept discussions of my sexual mores from the public arenas, and I don’t intend to change that habit by discussing this section in too much detail. But you are welcome to visit me as you please, bringing pineapple and Batman (1966) and we’ll see what happens.

Anyway, I don’t intend to scare anybody off by plunging straight in to discussing polyamory as such. As I said, the book has lots of great ideas around consent, communication, and the nature of relationships.

The Ethical Slut on Consent

Consent is one of the few issues where Easton and Hardy take a very hard line. Which is only natural – the book is, after all, about being an ethical slut. The authors describe consent as “an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being and pleasure of all persons concerned.” This is a challenging definition. For mainstream society, where consent is undefined, often passive or non-verbal, and largely peripheral, this definition, with its inherent high valuation of consent, draws a line in the sand. Even for subcultures that are more aware of oppression, the specificity of this conceptualisation of consent and the force behind it are quite something. The authors give us a standard of consent not just to aspire to, but to achieve, and they insist that anything less is unethical.

To my recollection, I first enjoyed serious discussion of consent at Students of Sustainability in Newcastle, 2008.  Being a male in a patriarchy, it had taken a good 17 years for somebody to actually talk to me about consent. It’s hard for me to remember now, but it was confronting: while they didn’t deploy this particular definition, the idea of active consent was strong. The odd thing about this for most people is that it requires them to verbally and unambiguously ask for consent as they enjoy various sexual activities. In practice, this means seeking permission before acting: “Would you like me to take off your bra?” “I’m thinking it’s time I took off my pants.” “How about a spot of sex?”

Sadly, we’ve been socialised to find this awkward. The words we could use are soaked in taboo (“cunt”), lifeless (“pudenda”), or silly (“bearded clam”). This awkwardness can be one of the impediments to ethical sluttery; it has to go. While the whole business can feel silly the first time, I’d like to speak from experience in saying that active consent is, though perhaps not downright sexy, a great thing, and if there’s one thing better than post-coital euphoria, it’s post-coital euphoria with the confidence that the experience was, in fact, an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being and pleasure of all involved.

consent & polyamorous relationships, discussed in the ethical slut by dossie easton and janet hardy

The Ethical Slut on Communication

The book’s suggestions on communication are worthwhile regardless of your approach to relationships. Effective communication is crucial to polyamorous relationships as the departure from mainstream scripts for relating makes it much more important to be able to listen to others and understand one’s partners. For non-poly relationships, communication is also invaluable. Firstly, because ostensibly non-poly relationships may in fact be “monogamish” and depart from the norm of monogamy; secondly because in any case communication allows couples to grow closer and negotiate better.

This is expanded and a method suggested in the following paragraph, which struck me powerfully when I first read the book:
[quote]Learning to talk clearly, and listen effectively, is crucial. A technique for good listening is to listen to what your partner has to say without interrupting, and let him know you heard by telling him what you think he just said. Use this clarification technique before you respond with your own thoughts and feelings. In this way, you make sure you have clear understanding before you go on with your discussion. Similarly, if you’re the one talking, it’s not fair to expect your partner to read your mind – take the time and effort to be as clear and thorough in your explanation as you can, and be sure to include information about the emotions you’re feeling as well as the facts involved.[/quote]The practice of clear communication is also crucial to practising consent. Many people struggle with saying “no” to unwanted attention; others struggle to accept desired interest. This sabotages effective consent: if somebody isn’t able to say “no”, then their “yes” means naught. The authors are fans of upfront indications of interest; implicit in this is the option for the object of interest to be able to decline respectfully and without causing hurt. Would that this were the case! Inclinations towards alibis and excuses abound all too much. Rather than say “no”, someone might say “I have a boyfriend/girlfriend”, equivocate, or even take the path of least resistance and go along with it. One time in Adelaide a friend and I were engaging in a bit of friendly kissing with others, respectfully asking each person’s consent. Tragically, there was a girl present who seemed unable to refuse consent, to say “no”. It was sad. People have to be able to say “no”. It’s a good one to practise.

The Ethical Slut on Relationships

The authors’ idea here, which I love, is simple: relationships shouldn’t be shoehorned in to being something they are not. It’s suggested we should “value relationships for what we value in them”, rather than for their similarity to an archetype of either marriage or non-erotic friendship. Different people to whom we relate (ie, those with whom we have “relationships”, or “friendships” if you prefer) play different roles in our lives. There are people who are perfect for calling up and talking with for hours, but whom you’d never see a movie with. Some people are great company at home for fondue and skinnydipping, others are just the people to ask along to see the latest BZE public launch. This makes sense and is great! Troubles arise when we want people to play every role.

This business about roles went down quite transparently in one of my most dear relationships: I can recall specifically a time when a lover got in touch with me, but was struggling because she wanted me to play a role as emotional supporter, one which I hadn’t previously been asked to fulfill. She, then being somewhat more mature than me, could make this explicit. So to speak, she said that she really enjoyed what the relationship had hitherto included, but she wanted it to include more emotional support. If, for the sake of argument, I wasn’t able to fulfill this role, is our relationship a failure? What future is there in having me play roles I’m good at, while a lover finds emotional support elsewhere?

There’s an old joke. It’s said that a woman needs a certain kind of man in her life: someone to make her laugh, someone to keep the house clean, someone to hold her when she cries, and someone to make her scream in bed. It’s essential, the rather gendered joke goes, that these four people never meet.

Certainly in our lives we come to find relationships that we value in particular, we value them for particular things, and we may find a person(s) who meets many of our needs. But no one, ever, will find somebody who meets all of their needs. In this case, I’m not suggesting we should give up and refuse to experiment with our relationships, and see if perhaps that person who we love cooking with is also a good quiz night companion. Rather, it’s a case of appreciating relationships for what they do offer us and, if they don’t offer us other things, looking elsewhere for those things.

Polyamory: Some Questions

So that’s the broad strokes dealt with. I’m now really keen to expand upon the idea of polyamory. I’m going to do this in my own terms, because, although the book is at hand, I don’t feel like re-reading it and dissecting what is basically a thesis. It’ll also be much handier if admirers of mine trawl through my posts, as they are wont to do.

Let me come at this from two three, angles.

  1. Each of us, even the most dedicated monogamist, is in a number of intimate relationships. While only one such relationship may be sexual, we each have, in addition to potential lovers, friends whom we hold close at heart, soulmates, if you will, who are perhaps closer to us than even our lover. While there are of course substantive differences between these relationships, the most obvious one is the presence or absence of sex. So the idea of being in multiple intimate relationships is not at all radical or iconoclastic. It’s merely the sexual aspect. What part does sex play in a relationship?
  2. Think back over the lovers you’ve had, presumably in some sort of punctuated sequence. If you were with one of them when you met another, what would happen? What should happen? Wouldn’t it be sensible to enjoy each relationship for what it has to offer you? If this is sex, is there an issue with that?
  3. While there are certain relationships that are unquestionably sexual, or not, there is certainly a grey area. Many of us, certainly my peers, would have friends with whom they enjoy quite tactile relationships: dancing, massage, heads in laps. Touch feels good. The preceding statement is a statement about human beings. Massage feels good for a lot of the same reason that kissing feels good. Yet at some point on this sort of spectrum, a line is drawn between massage and between kissing, or between kissing and mutual masturbation, or between that and sex, a line that, it would seem, is placed arbitrarily. If there are things we do with our friends that we do because we love our friends and these things feel good, it may well make sense to rule certain things out. But such a ruling ought not to be arbitrary (I explore this further in this post on physical affection).

Conclusion

I think I’ve said most of what I have to say. For now. Talking about how we relate to each other is one of the most important conversations we can ever possibly have. Not just in the context of love and friendship, but as groups, as societies, as humans. At the micro-level of the nation state are billions of unique relationships. Considering these relationships, and how they could be as positive, respectful, and empowering as possible, is crucial to creating a better world.

Rating: *****

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. On Physical Affection in all Sorts of Relationships | Scit Necessitas - October 20, 2012

    […] This requires heartfelt listening and communication, and a deep commitment to consent: “an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being and pleasure of all persons concerned.” Ultimately, the benefits can be far greater, and a relationship better moulded to the needs and […]

  2. Dreamspire » Kirjoja ihmissuhteista: Miten oppia sosiaalisia taitoja? - February 8, 2015

    […] Miten varmistaa, että kaikilla suhteen osapuolilla on hyvä olla ja että seksi on turvallista? Kyseessä on monipuolinen ja helppolukuinen opaskirja, joka antaa kelpoja vastauksia ylläoleviin kysymyksiin ja muihinkin pulmiin. Tarkempaa analyysia kirjasta löydät täältä. […]

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