What is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
When I embarked on my first open relationship, over a decade ago, I had no clue what I was doing or how to navigate it. Nothing about what went on that first year would be considered ethical by anyone’s standards. There was zero foundation in my primary relationship, so every single mistake in the book was made on both of our parts. Lying, cheating, infidelity, hiding things, not knowing how to discuss feelings, breaches of trust, time, and well the list could go on endlessly. In short, everything I hold dear about the meaning of the word ethics was missing. In fact, even something as simple as having a safe sex conversation was foreign to me. Wearing condoms was the only hard and fast rule, which as I now know, doesn’t even scratch the surface of what could and should be discussed.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and the glaring issue that I kept trying to ignore was that my growing passion to incorporate the word ethical into my relationship was not nearly as simple as just deciding that I wanted it to be that way. But let us back up a little and start at the beginning, what is ethical non-monogamy?
Defining Ethical Non-monogamy
First, let us break this down into two parts
Ethical — beliefs about what is morally right and wrong or pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct. being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice, especially the standards of a profession: It was not considered ethical for physicians to advertise. The Google
Without realizing why, the word ethical gets tagged onto the front of non-monogamous relationships, and I admit freely that I use it myself. But, if you look at the Cambridge definition above, there is an issue, because the word “belief” is in there. And as we all know, belief is not a universal constant, just look at how many deities or gods exist globally. Belief is personal, and subject to individual interpretation. So, as you might well imagine, when belief is involved there is going to be some diversity with regards to the definition.
Non-Monogamy — (or nonmonogamy) is an umbrella term for every practice or philosophy of non-dyadic intimate relationship that does not strictly hew to the standards of monogamy, particularly that of having only one person with whom to exchange sex, love, and/or affection. Wikipedia
So, we have paired a blanket statement with an umbrella statement. There is nothing more ambiguous about that is there?
Common Ethical Assumptions
Putting two overarching terms together does not magically create clarity. In fact it does the complete opposite by opening people up to assumptions both given and taken. Here are a few that I equate with being ethically non-monogamous:
· The people involved have a clear idea of what they want and need.
· Safety is a priority
· Consent is respected
· All parties are aware of what’s going on. i.e. no cheating
However, this is a personal list based on my experiences and interpretation of the word ethical, and we all know the joke about what happens when you assume right? Reading my list, you may see glaring omissions, or things you don’t agree with. The temptation then, is to compile the perfect list that is universally accepted but as it turns out that is counter-intuitive. The phrase has been coined, embraced, and quite frankly loved. But there was no democratic body to determine what the term actually meant. In fact, there is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that using the term ethical was a way to combat negative stigma. To say to all the people who think we are a group just trying to get laid, simply selfish people who are too weak to handle monogamy, and cheaters we come back with… “hey man, no, we are ethical about it”.
It would be a steep mountain climb to get everyone who uses ethical non-monogamy to go back and redefine it or even define it for the first time. It was born out of a need to normalize what we do and that leaves us in murky waters. If you want a clearer example of how difficult defining groups of people outside of monogamy are, just ask a few swingers over various demographics to self define and you will see why this is a lost cause.
Thus we stand with a positive sounding term, without a clear definition, in a community that is comprised of more differences than similarities. I would go so far as to say there are no two relationships that are exactly alike and while that diversity is amazing to me it does not lend itself well to ambiguous definitions. So, what do we do now?
To Use or Not to Use
I love using the word ethical, but, I am aware that it is a blanket statement and it cannot be a standalone phrase. I am not confident that this is universal. In fact, what I see on a day to day basis is that this term is being applied as a catch all phrase, and without naming names, has be used to negate having the tough conversations. Non-monogamous relationships are not easy. They thrive in situations of conversation, consent, check-ins, aftercare, love, and a network of support when things go wrong. What this community does not need is a phrase that may end up demeaning the hard work and love that goes into our relationships. To that end, I would argue that ethical is not a starting out point, rather, it is a goal. It is a place your relationships should work towards, strive for, and never give up on. It is a place that is not perfect, but you are willing to admit fault, learn from your mistakes, and ultimately be an ambassador of the community.
Because this is only my humble opinion of the term, I caution those when reading it. Taking it as gospel is not going to work, at least not right now. If you choose to use it, it must be done in conjunction with all the work, and conversations. There is no one term that will encompass your unique tastes, relationship style, or identity outside of monogamy. If this lifestyle proves anything, it is that there are no shortcuts. To those looking for one, I assure you ethical needs to be dropped from your vocabulary.
To use the term ethical when it comes to non-monogamy is a personal choice. In a perfect world we could trust that everyone was on the level, knew exactly what they wanted, and were able to communicate that effectively. Further, that people respected each other, embraced consent without issue, and… again… the “ands” are endless. The reality is ethical is not a magical statement that ensures you know what type of person you are getting involved with. It does not actually mean that the person you are interested in is free of risks, or that they are even on the same page as you. There is no universal definition because it is based on a set of beliefs. So, get into the habit of not relying on the term. Instead, focus on the tried and true tactic of communication, honesty, integrity, and the ability to say no.
Do you have a story to share of someone who claimed to be ethical but turned out not to be? Or questions or comments? Please reply below or join the conversation on twitter.