Ethics and Promiscuity

An ongoing dialog about the ethics of being promiscuous, sex-positive, and sexually “open”.

The second or third time I went to Burning Man was in 2002. I was 28 (I’m now 45) and I was still, what I c consider, a “youngin'”. I remember attending a workshop by a camp called “The Ethical Sluts”. Honestly, I remember very little of it. But, what’s important is that about 15 years later (a couple of years ago), the idea of ethics and sexual openness began to surface in my ever developing personal philosophy. It was then that I remembered the “Ethical Slut” camp and their workshop. I recalled that there was a book written by the founders and looked it up. I still haven’t read it in its entirety, but I have given what I have read much consideration.

In our culture and localized societies, there is a great deal of shame placed on women who are viewed as promiscuous and sexually “free”. This, of course, is a subject which could be discussed at great and painstaking lengths. So, I will not get into detail about that. What I would like to ask, however, is have you ever wondered why it’s OK (and even encouraged, praised, or see as a sign of status) that men have sex with as many partners as they want to/can and women are discouraged, shamed, negatively labeled, etc. if they are viewed as having had “too many” sexual partners or experiences? I used to ask my ex partner about this fairly often and he was adamant that it was not appropriate or OK for women to sleep with as many partners as men and that it is just “different” for men than it is for women. Once, he tried to make an analogy about women and a well or bucket of water (something like that) and said that if a woman was the “bucket” and many men had pissed in it or put their cocks in it or whatever he said, would a man want to drink from it (or put theirs in it)? I can’t remember the analogy exactly, but whatever it was, it was totally sexist. I think I tried to make a reverse analogy of some sort regarding a Popsicle having been in a great many mouths and wanting to suck on it. I dunno. Regardless, it was pointless. This futility comes from traditional cultural programming, ignorance, small-mindedness, and sexism and/or chauvinism. OK, let’s just boil it down to good ‘ole misogyny.

I will continue to work on this post, but I want to provide you with a few excerpts (a sort of overview) from the book Dossie Easton & Janet W. Hardy The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt (1997).

If you look deep inside yourself, we bet you can find bits and pieces of sex- negativism, often hiding behind judgmental words like “promiscuous,” “hedonistic,” “decadent” and “nonproductive.”

Even people who consider themselves sex-positive and sexually liberated often fall into a different trap the trap of rationalizing sex. Releasing physical tension, relieving menstrual symptoms, maintaining mental health, preventing prostate problems, making babies, cementing relationships and so on are all admirable goals, and wonderful side benefits of sex. But they are not what sex is for. Sex is for pleasure, a complete and worthwhile goal in and of itself. People have sex because it feels very good, and then they feel good about themselves. The worthiness of pleasure is one of the core values of ethical slut- hood ethics

We are ethical people, ethical sluts. It is very important to us to treat people well and not hurt anyone. Our ethics come from our own sense of Tightness, and from the empathy and love we hold for those around us. It is not okay with us to hurt another person because then we hurt too, and we don’t feel good about ourselves.

Ethical slutdom is a challenging path: we don’t have a polyamorous Miss Manners telling us how to do our thing courteously and respectfully, so we have to make it up as we go along. However, we’re sure you’ve figured out by now that to us, being a slut doesn’t mean simply doing whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. So in this slightly disorienting world of sluthood in which everything your mom, your minister, your spouse and your television ever told you is probably wrong, how do you find your ethical center?

Most of our criteria for ethics are quite pragmatic. Is anyone being harmed? Is there any way to avoid causing that harm? Are there any risks? Is everybody involved aware of those risks and doing what can be done to minimize them? And, on the positive side: How much fun is it? What is everybody learning from it? Is it helping someone to grow? Is it helping make the world a better place?

First and foremost, ethical sluts value consent. When we use this word- and we will, often, throughout this book- we mean “an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being and pleasure of all persons concerned.” If someone is being coerced, bullied, blackmailed, manipulated, lied to or ignored, what is happening is not consensual. And sex which is not consensual is not ethical- period.

Ethical sluts are honest- with ourselves and others. We take time with ourselves, to figure out our own emotions and motivations, and to untangle them for greater clarity when necessary. Then we openly share that information with those who need it. We do our best not to let our fears and bashfulness be an obstacle to our honesty- we trust that our partners will go on respecting and loving us, warts and all.

Ethical sluts also recognize the ramifications of our sexual choices. We see that our emotions, our upbringing and the standards of our culture often conflict with our sexual desires. And we make a conscious commitment to supporting ourselves and our partners as we deal with those conflicts, honestly and honorably.

We do not allow our sexual choices to have an unnecessary impact on those who have not consented to participate. We are respectful of others’ feelings, and when we aren’t sure how someone feels, we ask.

Our monogamy-centrist culture tends to assume that the purpose and ultimate goal of all relationships- and, for that matter, all sex- is lifetime pair- bonding, and that any relationship which falls short of that goal has failed. We disagree.

We think sexual pleasure can certainly contribute to love, commitment, and long-term stability, if that’s what you want. But those are hardly the only good reasons for having sex. We believe in valuing relationships for what makes them valuable, a seeming tautology which is wiser than it sounds.

A relationship may be valuable simply because it affords sexual pleasure to those involved; there is nothing wrong with sex for sex’s sake. Or it might involve sex as a pathway to other lovely things -intimacy, connection, companionship, even romantic love- which in no way obviates the basic goodness of the pleasurable sex.

A sexual relationship may last for an hour or two. It’s still a relationship; the participants have related to one another, as sex partners, companions and/or lovers, for the duration of their interaction. Longevity is not a good criterion by which to judge the success or failure of a relationship: Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

“After all, my erstwhile dear, My no longer cherished. Need we say it wasn’t love Just because it perished?”

One-night stands can be intense, life-enhancing and fulfilling; so can lifetime love affairs. While ethical sluts may choose to have some kinds of relationships and not others, we believe that all relationships have the potential to teach us, move us, and above all give us pleasure.

Our friend Jaymes says, “I believe that every person you connect with on this planet has some sort of a message to give you. If you cut yourself off from whatever kind of relationship wants to form with that person, you’re failing to pick up your messages.”

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