"Has Ethical Non-Monogamy Lost Its Way?" And other polyamory in the news
Everett Collection / VogueBy Alexandra Jones“This language was supposed to be about trust, honesty, communication, and commitment— defining commitment in a different kind of way.” Across a staticky Zoom call, Emily Witt and I are comparing notes on non-monogamy. “It was supposed to prevent lying and concealment,” continues the journalist and author of the seminal 2017 book Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love. “But I don’t really see it accomplishing that anymore—it actually seems to be giving people an excuse to act worse than ever.” She is in her office in New York, I’m in mine, in London—but despite an ocean of distance, our “notes” are markedly similar. “I’m sure this will feel familiar to most people on dating apps right now,” says Witt, rolling her eyes.There had been a time when, like Witt, I approached non-monogamy with a kind of puppyish idealism. It was 2017 and terms like “poly” and “ethically non-monogamous” (ENM) had just begun to penetrate the mainstream—as refreshing as a cold Pepsi on a hot day. It felt like the start of something brave and new—the start of a redefinition, as Witt says.Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder whether we weren’t all a little too hasty in embracing this newfound terminology. For far too long, all I have heard is horror stories—friends (almost always women) unmoored by the dynamics in these “relationships.” “Nowadays,” says Witt, “you see the term ‘ethically non-monogamous’ [on someone’s profile] and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will behave ethically or articulate what those ethics mean. More often it’s like they’re making a pronouncement: ‘Play at your own risk, I’m not going to take any emotional responsibility for you.’”Take 31-year-old Kate, for example....“There are maybe three monogamists left in London,” she quips....“...I was just lying in bed feeling really… I mean, it affected me, mentally. I felt used,” Kate tells me. And the worst part, she points out, is that she felt like she couldn’t voice her discomfort. “I thought it was illogical for me to feel used, because he’d been upfront about having a primary partner—and having a responsibility to that person…. It was like he’d used all this language about compassion, and openness—about bringing people in ‘ethically’—to lure me into a false sense of security about how he’d treat me....”
For Leanne Yau—a non-monogamy educator and founder of Poly Philia, a platform that offers digestible information on poly best practice—this is the absolute antithesis of what a poly lifestyle is meant to be about. She opens our conversation with an emphatic “I have a lot to say on this issue.” Yau, who has spent years advocating for this community, is irked by the influx of people co-opting the language of non-monogamy, without ever trying to understand the theory behind it.“Unfortunately, a lot of people have begun to conflate polyamory with being single and casually dating,” she says. “But being poly or ethically non-monogamous is about responsibility, and taking responsibility for your partners: you factor them into your decisions, you consider their feelings, you uphold your commitments to them and respect their boundaries. You strive to be open, honest, and compassionate towards them—it isn’t just a matter of reading someone their rights, then doing whatever you want.”The problem clearly isn’t the relationship configurations themselves—which, as Witt points out, were always meant to be about defining commitment, rather than safeguarding apathy. For her, it comes down to dating apps, which have spread the language of non-monogamy so widely, “that people who may not have heard the terms before, read a book like The Ethical Slut, or come out of a subculture where these practices are discussed and studied, will go on a dating app, see ‘ethical non-monogamy’ or ‘poly-curious,’ and take it to mean whatever they want it to.”......This story is echoed by a friend who’s recently sworn off dating anyone on the ENM spectrum. “I’ve just found that what a person usually means is that they want to have regular sex without committing to you or to anyone—or they want the full relationship experience but without taking accountability for your feelings.... “Ultimately I felt like people were whitewashing their bad behavior by couching it in these terms.”...For Yau, the misuse of poly and ENM terms comes down to the fact that we live in a highly individualistic society. Non-monogamy is ultimately a relational state—something that’s meant to be discussed, explored, and defined by the people engaging in it. It’s not so much something you “are,” as something you do with other people.......I learned rather quickly that the utopian ideal of “anything goes as long as we’re honest” could, in practice, be corrupting, painful, and humiliating. It wasn’t because I personally was a bad-faith actor—as I said, I entered with an idealistic outlook—but rather, that I hadn’t taken the time to properly educate myself on what was required....All of which is to say that I’m not here to call anyone out or point any fingers. I’d like to think that most people don’t have bad intentions—we’re all just trying our best. It’s just that as people calling themselves “non-monogamous” take up more and more space within the dating sphere, we must try to understand the emotional sticky patches—the murkiness, as well as the light. It clearly isn’t ever okay to make someone feel disposable—but it’s particularly not okay if you’re co-opting terms which have been specifically developed to guard against that. ...
...People who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are usually unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move. No longer is it all about a few devoted people grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon’s wheels move half an inch. When the effort begins to succeed, the bandwagon starts rolling on its own, faster and faster.
And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch. Survivors loot the wreckage and disappear, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.
...So maybe it’s time for us to pay less attention to just pushing the polyamory-awareness movement, and more to steering it.
If we are to save our defining word... and guide this thing in good directions as it gains momentum, we should, in my opinion, take every opportunity to:
1. Keep stressing that successful polyamory requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;
2. Emphasize that poly is not for everyone, and that monogamy is right and best for many;
3. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone and the "full knowledge and consent of all involved";
4. Expand that to not just "knowledge and consent," but well-wishing and good intention for all involved. The defining aspect of polyamory, I'm convinced — the thing that sets it apart and makes it powerful and radical and transformative — is in seeing one's metamours not as rivals to be resented, or even as neutral figures to be tolerated, but as, at minimum, friends and acquaintances — perhaps family even — for whom you genuinely wish good things. (And beyond that, of course, there's no limit to how close you can become.) This is what differentiates poly from merely having affairs. In this way it becomes a generalization of the magic of romantic love — into something much wider, and more widely applicable, than the dominant paradigm of a couple carefully walling away their particular love from anything to do with the rest of humanity.
And, 5. Warn people that, while poly can open extraordinary new worlds of joy and wonder and may help to humanize the world, its benefits must be earned: through courage, hard relationship-honesty work, ruthless self-examination, tough personal growth, and a quick readiness to (as they say in the Marines) "choose the difficult right over the easy wrong."
With the bandwagon now moving, let's not let it run away from us in the next few years to the point that "polyamory" goes mass-market as something careless or trivial, or in any way less than what we know it to be.
Sometimes I forget things. ... I forget to be thankful, to marvel, to bask in my life and the people I live it with.This economy has driven my husband out on the road. ... I'm drowning, working 10-hour days and trying to keep the house from falling down around my ears, and the kid from starving or flunking or just plain hating me. Except somehow, I'm actually afloat despite how my mind imagines it some days.The truth is... aside from a husband, I also have a girlfriend.I knew I was lucky to have her in my life because of the love and support and sheer giddiness in being together.What I was not conscious of was just how lucky we all were to have three parents, three adults, three spouses really, to pitch in when things were less than stellar.I forget how lucky I am, how good I have it despite the difficulties....I forget that this lifestyle isn't just about love or sex. It is also strangely practical despite people finding it so very unusual.My girlfriend doesn't take my daughter to the doctor or register her for school or keep up with the home warranty or schedule the exterminator. She does, however, help me cook and clean and grocery shop. She does do spelling words with my daughter and helps her grow crystals for her science fair project....I forget life wasn't always so isolated. Families weren't always mom and dad and 2.5 kids and a dog. It has always taken a village....I wished for extended family, for a house full of friends sharing the load. That's not the way the world works, I was told. I didn't open my marriage to create a village, but it has certainly been a lucky side benefit.... This economy sucks. But I'm grateful that it has improved my memory.
Meanwhile: Turn the tide.
The Russian family-cartoon series Masyanya
turned dissident. Watch. The cartoonist has fled.
Here was a country with a tragic history that had at last begun to build, with great effort, a better society. What made Ukraine different from any other country I had ever seen—certainly from my own—was its spirit of constant self-improvement, which included frank self-criticism. For example, there’s no cult of Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine—a number of Ukrainians told me that he had made mistakes, that they’d vote against him after the war was won. Maxim Prykupenko, a hospital director in Lviv, called Ukraine “a free country aspiring to be better all the time.” The Russians, he added, “are destroying a beautiful country for no logical reason to do it. Maybe they are destroying us just because we have a better life.”
I find [this] particularly salient given American conservative hostility toward women serving in our military. People like Ted Cruz praising the supposed manliness of the Russian army, while claiming ours is weak because of “woke culture.” Ukraine puts that bullshit to bed, not just with the women serving in its ranks, but with gay soldiers very publicly sewing unicorn patches on their uniforms to denote their pride.
To hell with any conservatives who impugn anyone’s service as somehow less effective or honorable than white straight men.