Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why Polygamy Is Not Ethical Non-Monogamy

Dear Viny,

I was wondering what your take on polygamy is, given that you believe in what I think you call "ethical non-monogamy." Are you okay with polygamy? Do you think it should be outlawed? I recently watched a video about a polygamous "sister wife" and she said she was very jealous at first of another sister-wife having sex with their shared husband, but that she eventually realized that she could "want for you what I desire for me." She equated it to the "pure love of Christ." Is that what you're talking about?

Is there a difference?


Dear Wondering,

Since I'm a word-nerd, I need to point out that polygamy comes from the late Greek πολυγαμία, which means marriage to many. In its stripped-of-connotation, purely definitional form, the term covers any type of non-monogamy in which more than two partners consider themselves to be married to one another. (I say “consider themselves to be married” because most countries, including the U.S., do not currently recognize polygamous marriages.) I have no problem with group marriage, either in theory or in practice, as long as each person in the group is a consenting adult. However, the video you watched was about a family that practices a culturally specific, religious form of polygamy that could more accurately be described by the word polygyny (poly = many; gyne = woman/wife). I do have a problem with this particular version of polygamy, for two reasons: 1) in my opinion, religious fundamentalism is simply crawling with dangerous memes; and 2) the way in which group marriage is practiced among fundamentalist sects is frequently unethical.

In order to explain why I don't think religious polygamy is properly covered by the “ethical non-monogamy” umbrella, even as broad as that is, I'd like to share the Ethical Sex Manifesto I'm currently working on as part of the book I'm writing. {NOTE: this manifesto is a WORK IN PROGRESS. Please feel free to chime in with comments/feedback/questions/suggestions! Thanks!}



  • My sexuality is mine, and mine alone. I have the right to think whatever I think and feel whatever I feel. I also have the right to express (or repress) my own sexuality in any way I choose, as long as doing so harms no one else in any way I could have foreseen and prevented.
  • Your sexuality is yours, and yours alone. It is my moral responsibility to respect your autonomy: I will never impose myself upon you. I will engage with you sexually only with your informed consent and express permission. If I know that you are unable to give informed consent and express permission, I will refrain from engaging with you sexually, and I will protect you from harm by doing what I can to ensure that others respect your autonomy.
  • We are all connected. Sex between truly autonomous individuals is one manifestation of this deeper truth.


  • Every human being has the same inviolable right to autonomous sexual expression, regardless of ability to exercise it. Someone who is temporarily impaired (e.g., not sober, not awake) has not given up that right. Someone who is permanently impaired (e.g., physically or mentally disabled) has not given up that right.
  • Some people (e.g., children, elders, developmentally delayed individuals) may need guidance or assistance so that they do not express their sexuality in ways that harm themselves or cause distress to others, but I will not assume that these people have no sexual needs.
  • I will do my part to work against systems of oppression that marginalize individuals on the basis of gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, body type, relationship status, or any other aspect of sexuality.

  • I will give you any information you need in order to give your consent to any sexual activity we engage in together. I will ask you for any information I need in order to give my consent. And I will do everything I can to ensure that everyone whose sexual health could be affected by my choices has access to any information they need in order to make their own choices.
  • I will be clear about my yes and no.
  • I will not play sexual games unless all players have agreed to the rules.

  • No sexual “contract” is binding. People can always change their minds, which means that consent is necessarily a continuing dialogue. I will never hold you to a promise you made on behalf of your future self: I understand that if you ever rescind your permission, you are now saying no, regardless of what you might have said earlier.


  • I don't know everything there is to know about sex, ethics, or any other topic. I assume that you know more about your sexuality than I do, and I will behave accordingly.
  • In general, I will avoid interfering in other people's sex lives. Consenting adults do not need my approval to engage in sexual activities of their choosing. If intervention becomes necessary because someone's sexual autonomy is being violated, I will defer to group consensus on the best course of action to take. 
  • My definition of ethical sex is my definition. I understand that your definition may be different.

As you can see, polygamy – at least as it is usually practiced among fundamentalist Mormons and other fringe religious groups in the U.S. – completely bombs my “Is it ethical?” litmus test. In these groups, wives and children are too often treated like property, teenage girls can be married off to old men against their will, and religious leaders work to create a climate of paranoid secrecy. In short, this kind of polygamy is a set-up not just for unethical sex as *I* have defined it, but also for widely-recognized violations of individual rights ranging from marital rape to the systematic sexual abuse of children.

So, to answer your question: Yes, Wondering, there is a difference. A HUGE difference.

No, I'm not saying religious polygamy is all bad, or that everyone practicing it is necessarily either a perpetrator or a victim of sexual abuse. Nor am I trying to claim that there are no similarities between religious polygamy and what I consider to be more ethical forms of non-monogamy. For example, I have no doubt that the polygamous woman in the documentary you watched has experienced the joys of compersion, a neologism coined by the polyamorous crowd that means something like, “the feeling that comes from taking pleasure in a loved one's pleasure.” I can see why a sister-wife might have equated this wonderful feeling with the "pure love of Christ" – but I would argue that the spiritual benefit of compersion comes at great cost whenever it occurs in a larger context of coercion.

Finally, I found it interesting that you asked me whether I think polygamy ought to be outlawed. As I've already noted, polygamous marriages aren't legally recognized, and some of the practices common among fundamentalist groups (e.g., arranged “marriages” in which girls as young as 13 or 14 are paired with much older men) are actually punishable violations in the U.S., and many other countries, too. For all intents and purposes, then, religious polygamy has already been outlawed. Did you mean to ask whether I thought polygamy ought to be somehow stopped? Well, that's a tricky one. Let me preface my answer by noting that modern-day religious fundamentalists refer to their doctrine of plural marriage as “The Principle.” I'm always going to put people above principles – my own included.

Beets and Beatitudes,

Thursday, May 15, 2014

When Mum's the Word: Respecting Different Approaches to Ethical Non-Monogamy

Dear Viny,

I'm wondering if you have any insights about how to deal with generational differences in poly relationships.

Currently, I am involved with someone much older than I am. He grew up during the 60's, when the free love movement was just beginning. He has told me stories about sitting in the back seat of cars, making out with chicks, and no one would mention birth control or even discuss whether or not to have sex, just so that if anything were to happen, it would be the result of a spontaneous accident. As a child of the 80's who grew up during the AIDS epidemic, I remember sitting in the back seat of cars, making out with boys, and asking, “Baby, did you bring a condom?” without missing a beat.

Skipping ahead a few decades, we now have a situation in which my lover and I have different approaches to being in an open relationship. Before entering into a space of physical intimacy, we both spoke with our spouses. My husband and I opened our marriage eight years ago, and are very comfortable with these kinds of conversations, but this was a new topic for my lover and his wife. During their conversation, which I was not present for, they agreed to a variation of the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” approach, which I don't clearly understand. She has since made several friendly overtures toward me and my family, and this has been reassuring. However, she and I have never had a meaningful conversation, much less talked about boundaries, scheduling, sexual hygiene, or any of the other conversations we poly folks are accustomed to having.

My lover's wife is not interested in having a sexual relationship with anyone at this point in her life (not even her husband – they haven't had sex in several years). Still, I'm feeling anxious about their arrangement. It's not that I think he is being unethical. I am pretty sure he is following the “rules” of his marriage. My problem is that I don't understand those rules. I feel like the American poly Eliza Doolittle at the hush-hush Euro-style party, and I'm worried I'm going to make a faux pas and not even understand the nature of the mistake.

I want to let my lover and his wife handle their marriage their own way. At the same time, I want to feel more at peace. Are there constructive changes I could propose, while still being respectful of generational differences in our approaches?

Rio, dancing on quicksand


Dear Rio,

Based on my own intimacies (sexual and platonic) with people 15+ years older than myself, people my own age, and people 15+ years younger, I might be able to make a few generalizations about possible generational differences – for example, “Older people are more likely to think of sex as a private matter, and less likely to enjoy electronic dance music,” or, “Younger people are more likely to feel comfortable sharing graphic pics/videos of themselves, and less likely to use apostrophes when texting.” However, I don't think these kinds of generalizations are particularly helpful when it comes to developing and maintaining authentic relationships. We fall in love with individuals, not with broad cultural patterns or statistical likelihoods. One of my long-term partners was born before 1960, and he's one of the most sexually open people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. When I first met his family, I was surprised – and delighted! – by the ease with which he and his siblings talked and joked about sex-related topics with their 80-year-old parents. Clearly, they didn't get that “Leave It to Beaver” memo about keeping bedroom talk in the bedroom, under the covers, with the lights off.

I'm not sure it matters why your lover and his wife are choosing to handle things differently than you and your husband do. It might be due to the fact that they're older, or it might be due to some other factor or combination of factors. In any case, the real problem here is not the age difference. The real problem is the lack of communication. And this one is a particularly sticky wicket, because you can't exactly solve it by communicating about it! Unfortunately, when one person wants to talk and another does not, the person who says “no” always wins.

You're in a really frustrating position, Rio. Your lover's wife has not agreed to have a direct relationship with you, and she has no incentive to go along with any changes you might propose, no matter how constructive they might be. If you tell your lover, “I need your wife to communicate with me,” or even, “I need you and your wife to communicate with each other about me,” you would be putting him in a frustrating position: he would have to choose whose stated needs to honor, yours or hers. And no one wants to be cast as the “middle man” in that kind of power play. (Ah, yes, the circular argument: if only you could speak to his wife directly....)

I suggest you step back from this whole convoluted mess for a moment to focus on the person you have the greatest chance of changing: yourself. Who are you, and what do you need from others in order to show up as your authentic self in your relationships? Where are you willing to stretch, and where are you in danger of snapping?

Take a good look at whether you are honoring your own boundaries in this relationship. Your lover and his wife have set their boundaries. You need to set yours, and then determine whether there is enough space in between for a relationship to flourish. Do you have any relationship deal-breakers? For me, dishonesty and unwillingness to disclose information I need in order to protect my sexual health are definite deal-breakers. You don't seem to be worried that your lover hasn't given you the straight story, and (assuming he's been truthful with you about being in a sexless marriage, and truthful with his wife about being in a sexual relationship with you) it isn't strictly necessary for you and his wife to communicate about sexual hygiene. But are there any other consequences of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” that you are not okay with? If so, you need to discuss these deal-breakers with your lover.

It may be that you don't yet know what all of your boundaries are, and that's fine. Give it some time. Drawing clear boundaries takes years of practice and a super steady hand. Your lover and his wife are new to this – and so, in some respects, are you. They are new to ethical non-monogamy, and you are new to their way of being ethically non-monogamous. Given sufficient time and increased levels of trust, people's boundaries often shift. Perhaps your lover's wife will eventually feel more comfortable talking openly about your sexual relationship with her husband. Or perhaps you won't mind catering to her wishes after you get to know her well enough to understand why she might prefer privacy to disclosure.

Meanwhile, don't be afraid to fuck up. Do your best to honor the agreement your lover has made with his wife, but only to the extent that you feel comfortable doing so. In my opinion, you ought to err on the side of saying too much rather than too little, since your preference is to communicate more openly. If something you do turns out to've been a faux pas, be grateful: you can learn a lot from a few mis-steps! If you find that you keep tripping over the same sharp rock in the green pasture of love – and no one else is on board with painting it day-glo orange so that you can see it better, and there's no way you're gonna get the go-ahead to dig it up and drag it somewhere safer – you will know you need to move the fence until that particular rock lies outside your stated boundaries.

So, my fair lady, please repeat after me: the rhine in spine falls minely on the pline....

Dipthongs and derring-do,

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Metamour Allergies: I Can't Stand My Partner's Other Partner

Dear Viny,

I really, really, *really* don't like my partner's other partner. However, he is completely enamored with this person. I fear that he's too wrapped up in NRE to see what's going on. What should I do?

- Totally Irritated


Dear Irritated,

Unfortunately, the only known antidote to New Relationship Energy is time. Right now, your partner has those rose-colored wraparounds firmly affixed to his head with hormonal superglue, two balls of twine, a studded collar, and fifty yards of fuschia duct tape: there is nothing you can do or say that will make him see his lover through your eyes.

Unless you have serious concerns about your own or your partner's long-term health and/or immediate safety, the best course of action is probably to wait this one out. That can be tough when you're sneezing and wheezing and scratching at your metamour-induced hives, I realize. So here are a few suggestions for things you can do during the time it's going to take for your partner to come to his senses:

1) Check Your Own Lenses. Your partner may be too in love to see clearly, but what makes you so sure your own vision is any clearer? Are you looking at the world through the green-tinted glasses of jealousy or envy? If so, you have some work to do.
2) Gather More Information. Find out what you can about the person your partner thinks is so great. Approach this task in a spirit of curiosity and open inquiry, keeping in mind how easy it is to make snap judgments out of ignorance and/or fear. The point here is to understand the relationship dynamic better, not to add to your long list of dislikes.
3) Monitor Your Exposure. It's important to strike a balance between too much Metamour and too little. Are you spending too much time interacting with your partner's partner? Or do you go out of your way to avoid each other? Similarly, do you and your partner spend most of your time processing his other relationship and your negative feelings about it, or are you not communicating about it enough? Either extreme can be problematic.
4) Shift Your Focus. Obsessing about your irritations is a great way to make sure you feel irritated constantly. Try thinking about something else for a change. No, I'm not suggesting that you repress your negative feelings. Keeping the lid on seething resentments means that someone is bound to get scalded the next time you blow off some steam. Accept your feelings. Express them to your partner and/or your metamour, if necessary – as gently and thoughtfully as you can – and then move on.
5) Take Care of Yourself and Your Own Relationships. Your partner's relationship with his other partner is his business, not yours. Unless your partner is in real danger, it is not your responsibility to rescue him from this situation or protect him from the consequences of his bad decisions (if indeed engaging with this particular person turns out to have been a bad decision on his part). Recognize that your energy will be better spent attending to your own business.
6) Apply “Calamine” As Needed. When, despite your best efforts, you find yourself feeling super annoyed, treat yourself to whatever healthy (or even quasi-healthy!) distractions you most enjoy. Also, if you can think of something you, your partner, and your partner's partner would all enjoy doing together, something not likely to cause disagreements or bring up negative emotions for anyone – oven-mitt bowling, hopscotch, a stupid movie, whatever – try to make it happen.

You may never come to adore your partner's partner, but if you take my advice, chances are you'll be feeling meta-more better in six months to a year. At that point, you and your partner will both be seeing a bit more clearly, and you'll find that you are finally looking at the same person: a human being whom your partner fell in love with, and whom you really disliked, once upon a time. Either your partner will have realized that you were right all along, or you'll have realized that he was right all along – or, more likely, both of you will have realized that you both had somewhat valid, somewhat skewed perspectives initially. In any case, whether or not your partner's partner is still a part of your lives, all of you will probably have shifted into more comfortable positions.

Balsam and Butter,