One of the odd things about contemporary society is how open relationships are vilified.
Starting from first principles, surely anyone should be free to have as few or as many relationships as they wished: whether that was being in a relationship with no one, or with only one person, or with more than one if they wanted.
Yes open relationships are considered by society to be immoral, immature, playing around, intrinsically bad for a stable family life, something one might do when one was young and foolish but something to outgrow. Women in particular come under a great deal of pressure: if she doesn't have a boyfriend, she's constantly asked when she's going to find someone; when she gets a boyfriend, she most very definitely isn't supposed to have more than one or she gets called all kinds of nasty names.
There are very specific historical reasons for this situation.
For two hundred thousand years, far longer than people farmed (let alone recorded history), we lived in roaming hunter-gatherer tribes. Staying in one place would deplete the local resources, so tribes were nomadic, moving from place to place in search of food.
Human foragers are vehemently egalitarian.
In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber relates a story from Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo: one day, Peter came home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, and he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly: “Up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow”.
To our ears this sounds strange. I’m about to go to bed hungry because I was unsuccessful hunting. You give me several hundred pounds of food. Why wouldn’t I say “thank you”?? To us this is the essence of politeness, a politeness we tell our children every day to say “please” and “thank you”.
To say “thank you” is to acknowledge that you didn’t have to do something, that you might not have. So I’m thanking you for doing it.
Suppose a friend had me over for dinner, and after the meal I said, “Thank you for not poisoning me”. Not as a joke, but as if I was serious. Or suppose I walked up to a police officer directing traffic and said, “Officer, I want to sincerely thank you for not shooting at me today”. We would find this bizarre, insulting, even deranged behavior, because it implies that you might have poisoned me, that the officer might have decided on a whim to use me for target practice as I walked by.
In an foraging tribe, to say “thank you” to someone sharing food is just as bizarre, just as insulting. Sharing food is what everyone just does, just as we simply don’t gratuitously poison our friends for fun.
Foraging tribes have no concept of “property” as we understand it. This is something that we have trouble even conceiving of.
Every introductory economics textbook has a narrative that explains the invention of money as more convenient than barter, a narrative that began with the founder of economics Adam Smith:
In a tribe of hunters or shepherds a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions…
And goes on to explain how this system of barter was inconvenient because if you had extra bows and arrows and wanted food, you had to find someone with food who wanted bows and arrows in trade.
It’s a nice, tidy narrative. It’s also completely wrong. Made up. Fictional. Not based on any historical reality of any sort of any human society ever.
In foraging tribes, no one “exchanged” anything. Someone who was good at making arrows would make arrows when the tribe needed arrows. Someone who was good at hunting would hunt when the tribe was hungry.
Later, in agrarian societies when property was invented, people would exchange goods and services based on personal credit: you would help me with my field and now “I’d owe you one”. Then later I’d give you a harness and we’d “be even”.
Money wasn’t invented in response to the inconvenience of barter because barter hadn’t ever been used as a mechanism of sharing or exchange in human society! Barter has only been used in rare cases of interactions between total strangers who might never see each other again, when there’s no opportunity to build trust and no way of knowing if promises will be kept.
What’s interesting about all this is that we’ve known for 200 years that this story of “primordial barter” is false! European explorers and conquerors would encounter “primitive” tribes and be surprised that the way they actually acted was completely unlike what they’d been led to expect. And yet economic textbooks written today continue to tell the same story.
Here’s another example of an entrenched narrative that persists despite the actual evidence being completely against it.
The pop evolutionary psychology narrative is that men seek exclusive access to a woman’s sexuality (so that he knows that the children he’s supporting is his) while cheating when he can (to spread his genes as wide as possible, since he doesn’t have to invest in raising children raised elsewhere); while women seek a man who is a good provider (to support raising her children) while cheating when she can (to get the best genes).
Another nice, tidy narrative, neatly combining evolution and economics; endlessly repeated in dating advice for how to “win the battle of the sexes”.
Which also happens to be utterly and completely false for the 98% of the time that people have been people on this planet!
As is explained in detail in Sex at Dawn, in foraging tribes most everyone has sex with everyone else, women don’t know who the father of their children was, and the tribe as a whole shares responsibility for raising and supporting children.
Note, by the way, “most everyone” doesn’t mean “everyone”. Some people were gay, or had lower libidos and prefered to have less sex, or sex with fewer people, or sex with only one other, or were asexual and didn’t like to have sex at all. And all the usual complexity of human social interaction existed: she isn’t having sex with him because she’s mad that he was mean to her friend and she doesn’t think his apology was sincere enough…
Today we think of people who have sex with lots of other people as “promiscuous”, which to many has negative connotations of being indiscriminate and uncaring, such as having a bunch of one-night stands. But groups of foragers rarely number over a 100 or 150 people, and so each person would know all their partners deeply and intimately.
The tidy pop evolutionary psychology narrative is simple because it gets to ignore the entire rich complexity of human values and motivation and reduce everything down to just economics. Which would be a great simplification… if it were actually true!
With the advent of agriculture we gained the concept of property (“this is my farm, these are my sheep”).
However, in the early times societies were surprisingly egalitarian with women serving as chiefs, doctors, etc., to a degree not seen again until extremely recently.
In Sumerian times, procreative sex to create children was considered natural (after all animals did it), while non-procreative sex for pleasure was considered divine—a gift from the gods. (Debt: The First 5000 Years]
There is no evidence that Sumerian men in this early period saw anything troubling about the idea of their sisters having sex in return for gifts or money.
Then something happened. Societies became patriarchal and women were banished from positions of authority. Sexuality became dirty and bad. A woman’s sexuality became the exclusive property of her husband, and if she had sex with others, she was wanton, a slut, bad, evil.
Sex was no longer divine. Now not having sex, virginity and chastity, was divine, pure, good, spiritual.
With war came conquest, and from conquest came people taken as slaves, and slaves were used to mine the gold and silver which were used to make coins, coins which were used to pay the armies to wage war.
Once the idea of slavery was introduced, once people could become property, people could be seized to repay debts.
A man would go into debt, perhaps a gambling debt, or perhaps because crops had failed and he needed to borrow money to feed his family.
If he couldn’t repay the debt, everything he owned could be seized and sold off: his land, his house, his farm animals, his wife, his children.
It was rare for a man to be able to directly sell his wife or children for money. But in a very real sense his wife and children were treated as his property. He could borrow money (his wife and children didn’t have anything to say about it) and then his wife and children sold off into indentured servitude or slavery to pay off the debt. The end result was the same as if he could have directly sold his wife: his wife was enslaved, and he got money.
A woman sold into slavery or captured in war could be prostituted.
Now, today an adult woman living in freedom can decide to become a sex worker to make money and we call that “prostitution”, but voluntary and consensual sex work is very different than being prostituted. A woman sold into slavery and prostituted had no choice and didn’t get to keep the money.
Our legal and marriage customs are based on the Romans, and the Romans were a slave society. Even modestly prosperous households had slaves to clean, to pour the bath, to comb one’s hair, to teach one’s children, to have sex with.
The Roman concept of property was “dominium”, which we today call “dominion”: to have power over. This concept is a bit strange when applied to objects (“I own this pencil, so I get to do anything I want to this pencil!” “Um, yes?”), but the legal principle originated with slavery: when you owned a slave, you had dominion over them.
In America slavery was based on racism (Africans were inferior, so it was OK to make them slaves), but the Romans weren’t racist in this sense. Anyone could become a slave. Anyone could be captured in war, or sold for debts.
So a women had two possible futures: she could become a wife through an arranged marriage, and be sexually available to a husband chosen by her parents; or become a slave, where she’d be sexually available to any man who paid her owner for her services. In neither case did she have a choice.
Thus we have the origin of the connotation of a woman having sex with multiple people as fallen, soiled, immoral, bad.
European explorers and conquerors encountering tribes with little contact with the outside world found remarkable sexual freedom and generosity, while societies living at the fringes of empires have some of the harshest oppression of women: confined to the household, required to wear the veil or burqa in public, stoned to death for adultery.
These societies were in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the nearby empire, militarily or economically, with strong incentives for women to be kidnapped and sold into slavery in the empire; or alternatively for women to be seduced away by the empire’s economic wealth. The response of men was to clamp down on women, to hide them away, to restrict their sexuality (which might make them attractive to outsiders), even to the extreme of genital mutilation.
The veil and the burka symbolically carries the household with the woman, she may be out in public doing chores, but inside the veil or burka she’s still inside some household, owned by a man and not to be taken or seduced away.
In the 1800's here in the West came the idea of marrying for love, that a women should be able to choose her husband instead of being subjected to an arranged marriage.
She was still supposed to be sexually available to her husband, and not to have sex with anyone else, and she was forbidden from working at an occupation and making money on her own… but at least she got to choose who was going to have ownership over her sexuality.
So we had a major advance: for the first time in 7,000 years women were allowed to choose who they wanted to have sex with.
Combined with the Roman idea of multiple partners being bad, she only got to choose once. So it was an important but limited advance in romance and freedom.
Naturally since she only got to choose once, and wasn’t allowed to pursue economic advancement on her own, who she chose to become her husband-owner was vitally important. If she wanted to have an economically abundant life, she’d better choose someone that could give that to her.
This idea persists today, such as for example the mother who recommends to her daughter, “You should go study in the medical library. You might meet a nice pre-med student, and not have to work”.
Peculiarly, this concept of “marriage” as a woman trading exclusive access to her sexuality for a lifetime contract of support for her and her children is considered morally “good”, while a woman trading nonexclusive access to her sexuality in return for direct financial support is considered “prostitution” and morally “bad”.
Next up we got consumerism, the ever more strident exhortation to BUY BUY BUY because we’re inadequate, unloved, deficient, ugly, disrespected, unhappy.
Naturally advertisers love the idea that men should purchase a woman’s sexuality. Buy fancy cars to impress her, buy her expensive gifts to lure her, buy her a house to give her security so that she won’t leave.
Consumerism tells women to desire and expect men to buy her things… but if she admits that she’s going out with a guy because she gets nice things and financial support, if she dares to tell the truth, that makes her a “prostitute” which is illegal and she’s thrown in jail.
Ever wonder why women sometimes seem crazy? They have good reason.
Our society today is incredibly shaming of women.
A woman who naturally doesn’t want to have sex, who is asexual, is called “frigid”.
A woman who doesn’t want children is called “selfish”.
While in more liberal areas it’s slowly becoming OK for women to naturally desire to make love with other women, in many places in the world this is still illegal, and “homo” is still an insult.
A woman who wishes to engage in sex work is called a “whore”.
A woman who naturally desires to have sex with multiple people is called a “slut”.
A woman who does what she wants, for her own reasons, pursuing her own desires, is said to “have no self-respect”.
Just think about it. A woman is claimed to have “no self-respect” if she does what she wants, for her own consciously chosen reasons, making her own choices. Is that crazy or what?!
And on and on. Society tries to prescribe the one perfect path, where a woman is supposed to be pretty and sell herself (but not too directly), to be desirable to men (but not too much), to seek the security of a house and family (but only for love).
There are many people who naturally desire to have sex with only one other person, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. There are many people who naturally desire to have a house and raise a family with two opposite sex parents, and there’s nothing wrong with that either!
Where we create unhappiness is when we start imposing “should”s on people. We insist that a woman “should” have a sexual partner, and only one sexual partner… when her natural desire might be to have no partners and not have sex at all, or to have more than partner; to have sex infrequently, or to have sex often.
So today we’ve got a mix of sexual liberation and old Roman concepts we’re still hanging onto, which are pretty terrible for women.
What about men?
Men are entrapped by the ideology of dominion.
There’s “good” dominion, where a man convinces a women to give him exclusive sexual access in return for security, and bad dominion, where we get harassment, stalking, rape.
Now there is of course never an excuse for abuse or harassment. And as Eliezer Yudkowsky commented, “You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in”.
But still society doesn’t provide much in the way of good role models for men.
Let’s look at a typical scenario, described by Johnny Soporno:
A man meets a woman, and she likes him: she thinks he’s cute, or he makes her laugh, or she likes his interesting hobby, or whatever attracts her. She likes him so much, in fact, that she sleeps with him that very first night.
“Uh-oh!”, he thinks, “she was easy”.
After all, he knows he’s nothing special. He’s been indocrinated all his life that he’s not tall enough, not rich enough, not handsome enough, not smart enough, not courageous enough, not good enough.
Why, if she’d have sex with a nobody like him, she’d have sex with anybody!
And… if she had sex with anybody… she’d be (gasp) a “slut”… and he knows sluts are “bad”… not that he’s ever been told why, but the entire culture tells him that “self-respecting” women stringently dole out their sexuality… and his friends will tease him if they find out he’s seriously involved with a “slut”…
So he dumps her.
And he finds another woman. Who doesn’t like him as much. Who doesn’t particularly think he’s all that cute, he doesn’t make her laugh, she doesn’t find his hobbies all that interesting. But, she doesn’t particularly mind being taken out to a fancy dinner. She doesn’t mind being taken out to see an expensive musical.
She doesn’t want to have sex with him, she’s not going to have sex with him, but she never promised to have sex with him either.
“Aha!” he thinks. “I’ve found a ‘high quality’ woman who isn’t ‘easy’!”
Of course, he still knows in his heart that really he’s kind of a nobody, so why would a woman like her be interested in someone like him?
So he puffs himself up. He tries to impress her. He tries to make himself out as better, more impressive, richer than he actually is. “Hey baby, wow, your eyes are just the same color as my new Porsche!” [Soporno]
Which, naturally, is a turn-off.
In his mind, if she is having sex with anyone, it would be someone taller, handsomer, richer, more suave.
In reality, she is having sex (not that she tells anyone because if she did she’d be called a “slut”), but the guy she’s having sex with isn’t actually all that different than him. They just happen to have some common interests, they happen to have some chemistry.
And she’s not actually all that different than the first woman he dumped.
He imagines that the first woman having sex with him and the second not is a signal that the second is “better” on some objective scale of “hotness”. In reality, it’s a signal that he and the first woman like each other and (other things being equal) would be a good match.
The result of all this is dating based on deceitfulness. She has to pretend that she’s not really interested because if she’s too eager she gets seen as “easy”. He has to pretend that he’s so amazingly wonderful that she’d be happy to have him as her exclusive supplier of all her future emotional, sexual, and security needs.
Poly is having or being open to multiple loving relationships, ethically, with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved. While some forms of poly involve groups (such as a triad where three people are all involved with each other), it doesn't need to.
These relationships need not be sexual. One or more of someone’s relationships might be romantic, or supportive, without a sexual element.
Some people naturally desire to have only one sexual partner. Some people are asexual, and desire to have no sexual partners, while still desiring loving, supportive, or romantic relationships.
The distinction with poly is that people are honest and open about what they’re doing.
“Monogamy” has two different meanings. Sometimes “monogamy” is used simply to mean desiring, or having, only one sexual partner. “Monogamy” is also used to mean that one should have only one sexual partner, to promise to have only one sexual partner, even if one desires more. I call the latter “prescriptive monogamy” for clarity.
The Disney romantic ideal is a woman finds “the one”, who then provides her with relationship security… for the rest of her life… until one of them dies.
In practice, this doesn’t actually work out all that well for most people. Most marriages end in divorce, and many people suffer the pain of discovering cheating and other forms of dishonesty.
The response of the prescriptive monogamous culture is to clamp down harder. “Don’t get too emotionally close to a man not your husband” warns the pundits: “it can be even more dangerous than cheating sexually!”
Which, from a poly perspective, is… rather… bizarre: the way to achieve relationship security is to cut yourself off from as many relationships as possible?
What does relationship security look like in poly? Here’s an excerpt from More Than Two:
Eve was in a serious bicycle accident that left her hospitalized for several days and disabled for weeks. Her husband Peter spent the weekend in the hospital with Eve, but then had to leave to get back to the town he was working in. Eve’s girlfriend, Paloma, came to the hospital that evening and wheeled her in a wheelchair down the street for a sushi dinner, then brought her back to the hospital room and stayed to cuddle. The next day her other lover Franklin arrived from Portland, took her home, and provided her with round-the-clock care for another week.
What strikes me about this description is how natural it seems. If one’s lover, or friend, or perhaps one time lover who is now a friend, is in the hospital or in some other crisis, one’s natural desire is to help out. And when one is in a web of relationships, whether lovers or friends, there are people available to be there for you.
In contrast, prescriptive monogamy says to carefully cut oneself off from all possible relationships except one. To not get “too close” to anyone because your current relationship is based on exclusivity.
If someone only feels sexual attraction towards one other person, there’s no need for them to hold back in fully exploring and developing deep relationships with other people… they just won’t be sexual.
And, naturally, one can feel sexual attraction towards someone else and choose not to get involved because it wouldn’t be wise to get involved with that person, or one doesn’t want to get into another relationship now, or even because one is busy and simply doesn’t have the time!
Because society’s prescriptive monogamy says that one “should” be in a relationship, and a successful relationship involves sex (and thus, you should be having sex with someone, but of course only one person), some people imagine that being poly would mean that you “should” now be having sex with multiple people, or “should” be in multiple relationships.
It’s quite possible to identify as poly but to currently be in only one relationship, or to currently not be in any relationships.
Some people, new to poly, and being used to prescriptive monogamy with lots of rules and “should”s, try to create poly relationships out of rules and restrictions.
Some rules, those dealing with one’s own personal boundaries, are important and needed.
An example of a personal boundary is “I will only have unprotected sex with you if you don’t have unprotected sex with other people”.
Other rules attempt to restrict or prescribe what kinds of relationships people are allowed or are supposed to get into. These, in practice, tend not to work out well. They may not always be unethical when entered into with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved… but still lead to unhappiness when attempted.
For example, a couple may seek a third partner with the idea or intention that the third person will be sexually intimate with both of them. Such an arrangement is ultimately coercive.
Or, a couple may decide to open up their relationship, but with rules about what they may or may not do with others. For example, sexual intercourse may be reserved to the couple. Or, sex may be OK with others, but emotional intimacy is reserved to the couple. Or, the one member of the couple may have “veto” power over relationship the other enters into.
Such rules may sound like a good idea in the abstract when there is no actual third person involved. When the actual natural desire in the new relationship turns out to be smaller than the restriction, there’s no problem (and the restriction wasn’t actually needed in the first place). When the natural desire exceeds the restriction, then the restriction either constrains the new relationship in an unnatural way, or leads to breaking the rule, or cheating.
Ultimately, the attempt to restrict or coerce the forms other relationships may take is dominion in another guise.
Need I say more? ☺
Poly is conventionally depicted as being about having more sex. For some this is true. But poly is equally about having less sex! More Than Two
For a person with a low libido, who doesn’t want to have sex all that often, being in a monogamous relationship can be painful: “I’m not able to meet your sexual needs, and I forbid you from getting your sexual needs met anywhere else either”. But when the couple is part of a larger network of lovers, everyone can more easily find their own level, and the pressure is off.
Sex is one dimension, romance another. Perhaps you seek more romance in your life but not necessarily more sex. Or perhaps you seek more romance that includes really amazing sex. With poly you can deliberately seek out the kind of relationship you desire.
I’ve focused on poly here because many people choose monogamy by default, unconsciously, because society tells them to.
Relationships that are deliberately, intentionally constructed are more satisfying, and more likely to lead to happiness, than relationships whose shape is determined by default social expectations. It is certainly possible for a monogamous relationship to be built by careful, deliberate choice... it’s just not the usual course.
To intentionally create your own relationship style, whether poly or monogamous, takes courage.
Courage can be learned. Courage can be practiced. Courage can be developed. See Steve Pavlina’s article The Courage to Live Consciously