A mixture of masochism and sociological interest leads me to listen to American sex advice columnist Dan Savage’s podcast, Savage Love, on my long-ish morning walks over Hampstead Heath. Call after call, Americans with baroquely complex sex lives ring in describing quandaries arising from a labyrinthine set of negotiations known as ‘ethical polymory’ – having multiple partners at once, who know about each other.
A woman, 33, married to her husband for eight years with two kids, wonders how to get her husband to feel comfortable when she ‘cuckolds’ him at his request by offering oral sex to her other partner in front of him (he keeps freezing up and getting depressed). A man, 27, wonders how to manage the demands of a ‘throuple’ with his two girlfriends when they don’t get on.
Polyamory and its ilk is not just a fad found among woke West Coast Americans; every other British Tinder profile now contains charming imperatives such as: ‘Pizza, 1960s cinema, polymory’ or my favourite: ‘open-minded people only swipe right’. The Ethical Slut, a manual for polyamory that was first published as a niche book with pseudonymous authorship in 1997 has, several reprints in, become a bestseller.
And the phenomenon is attracting ever-greater interest from researchers keen to establish whether these honesty warriors, keen to turn the dark, greedy heart of human sexuality into a jamboree of open-ness, are successful. What is emerging, unsurprisingly, is a picture murky at best.
A recent survey co-conducted by the Wheatley Institution and Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life discovered a gender imbalance among non-monogamists: less than half of women in a consensual non-monogamous relationship said that they wanted the arrangement as much as the man. I’ve heard of many cases where the opposite is the case: the point surely is that one person is going to be less happy about sharing than the other, but, terrified of losing their partner by not being ‘game’, will soldier on in misery.
Indeed as more observers are beginning to note, killing off monogamy in the name of honesty doesn’t add up morally or any other way really. It all may be dressed up as progressiveness, a pleasure-taking and pleasure-giving generosity (the hideous word ‘compersion’ means pleasure in your partner’s sexual enjoyment of another) and above all, a form of “radical honesty”. These are standards to which all right-thinking people, the open relationship brigade say, ought to hold themselves in matters of the heart.
In reality it is a sly manoeuvre to demand the range of choice, ambition of desire, and seeming freedom from deprivation claimed to result from ‘opening’ a relationship. These are laudable modern values, but only in other contexts. I can’t imagine anything worse than a person I love, with whom I sleep and whom I call my partner, telling me that my heart breaking at the prospect of his regularly sleeping with another woman or women (or men) is a sign of my backwardness, illiberal or punitive instincts – that he’s right and I’m wrong. No amount of ‘rules’, or entering assignations in a shared calendar (a popular regimen in polyamorous households), would help.
Despite the heartbreak of knowing you’re not enough sexually for your partner, cheating has never seemed to me to be a cardinal sin, and certainly not on a par with the likes of violence or murder. So if you’re going to cheat, be honest about it. Own it. Don’t wrap it up in manipulative, narcissistic psychobabble about ‘honesty’ and ‘exploration’ – in doing so, you dress up bad to seem good, and confuse wrong so that it thinks that maybe it’s right.