Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Polyamory is in the air. Or, I should say, it is on the air in a new CBS series called Swingtown. For those who are nostalgic for the heady times of the Ford administration this series brings it all back. And it makes polyamory or swinging or wife-swapping look like a reasonable option on the a path to sexual liberation.

In a related development self-created internet star Julia Allison recently posted a blog entry recommending a book called The Ethical Slut. In France that is called a tout pour plaire title. Anyway, JA was looking for a way to deal with her "constipated sexuality" and she found something appealing in that book. She liked its caring, loving, respectful attitude toward sexuality and adds that if her dates were as respectful as the authors of the book they would be getting more sex from her.

The strange part comes when you look up this book on Amazon and discover that it is about polyamory, fact that JA ignored in her post. Place that in the equation and her post is saying that a man who respects a woman will happily barter her intimacy to another man in exchange for a romp with his wife. With everyone consenting, of course.

As you know, serial adultery was not invented in the 1970s. From courtly love to courtesans Europeans had perfected the art long before the arrival of the baby boom generation.

With a significant difference. In the past people were discrete. They hid their dalliances from their partners... out of respect. Whatever a husband or wife did with his or her free time... it was considered rude to rub a spouse's face in it.

Up until the 1970s, that is. Baby boomers introduced a new concept, one that was sanctioned by the therapy culture, the counterculture, and the Playboy philosophy: they decided that they had to be open and honest about their sexuality, the better to liberate it from Puritanical capitalistic repression. So they dispensed with discretion and introduced something like contracts.

They believed that as long as everyone explicitly consented, then it was all OK. If two people decide that it is alright than it is alright. You can see how easily this notion simplified thorny and difficult moral issues.

Therapy had taught people that they could define their sexuality as they wished. They could rewrite their own sexual narrative. According to JA this is the message of The Ethical Slut.

Anyway, the culture was saying that adultery was not the real problem. The problem was dishonesty. If we were open and honest about all of our sexual desires then we could actualize all of our hidden sexual potential. We would not only be exploring our sexuality but we would be exploring the sexuality of our neighbor's wife or husband.

The new principle was: if you spouse consents and if he or she is getting some of his or her own... then neither of you is cheating. How could anything be wrong with pleasure?

Back in the 1970s many of the intrepid sexual explorers started to have feelings of jealousy, envy, inadequacy, or shame. Some people did not rejoice in the opportunity to watch their spouse getting it on or getting off with someone else.

Of course, the culture was at the ready with an answer. Their negative emotions meant that they needed therapy. Therapists proposed helping people to feel better about feeling bad. Of course, these same therapists had promoted the ethical principles that made wife-swapping feel normal in the first place. Thus, therapy had induced the behavior and then offered to treat the anguish and despair that accompanied it. Tell me that is not a good business model.

Anyone who was there knows that it seemed like a good idea at the time. For many people it was an experiment. They wanted to know whether there really were rules for human sexual commerce and whether these rules applied even to people who had decided to ignore them.

Is sexuality just a social construct? Can you define it as you please? Can you make it up as you go along?

The answer seems to be: No. How do we know this? By the simple fact that wife-swapping seems to have contributed to a spike in the number of divorces. And, over the long term very few couples will say that it contributed to their overall bliss.

More philosophically, the problem lay with the notion of consent. If you consent to allow someone to exploit you and you simultaneously exploit the other person with his or her consent, you are still engaged in exploitation. If you enjoy it, that is fine, but do not imagine that two people who are using each other for their mutual pleasure are not using each other.

It simply means that they have no grounds for a lawsuit. And that, after all, is what this is all about. Signing a document, drawing up a contract, does not change reality; it does not repeal human nature. Saying that it is so does not make it so; agreeing that it right does not make it right.

The earth does not revolve around the sun because we say that it does. And it will not stop revolving around the sun if we all agree that it should not.

Signing a consent form does not redefine reality. Thinking otherwise makes you a contemporary believer in the ancient Chinese philosophy of legalism.


Anonymous said...

I do not think you understand what polyamory is. It's not the same thing as swinging - it's the establishment of several loving relationships that can be exactly the same as a typical monogamous relationship. It's not polysexual, it's polyAMORy. The main idea of polyamory is that it's really, really stupid to try to own other people, which is what monogamy constantly tells you to do. He's "my" boyfriend, the same way this is "my" desk. It's all "mine." Polyamory de-emphasizes the stress on ownership and lets people just love each other.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the comment. I was being a bit ironic... because after all many people call sexual relations ... love making.