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Student: Sofia Casadei (Erasmus)
Matrikelnummer: 11817519
Course:“ Theories of love”, Andre’ Grahle, WiSe 2017/18
“Monogamy : something to fight for or just
a social constraint?”
“Many people dream of having an abundance of love, sex and
friendship. Some believe that such a life is impossible and settle for
less than they want, feeling always a little lonely, a little frustrated.
Others try to achieve their dream but are thwarted by outside
social pressures or by their own emotions , and decide that such
dreams must stay in the realm of fantasy. A few, though, persist
and discover that being openly loving , intimate , and sexual with
many people is not only possible but can be more rewarding than
they ever imagined.”1
With this statement D. Easton and J. Hardy open their modern
groundbreaking guide, “the ethical slut, a practical guide to polyamory,
open relationships and other freedoms”, a perfect manual for those who
want to understand and live fully the benefits of sexual freedom. In this
paper i will take into consideration both the guide i’ve just mentioned
and the works of Natasha Mckeever and Luke Brunning, respectively “Is
the requirement of sexual exclusivity consistent with romantic love?”2
and “The distinctiveness of polyamory”3. My main focus will be however
on the last two, since they explain more theoretically the problems
connected with both monogamy and polyamory, while “the ethical slut”
is, as the complete title suggests, “a practical guide to polyamory, open
relationships and other freedoms”, so it already states the advantages
and values of polyamory over the ones of monogamy, and teaches you
how to live according to them, without really explaining the value
monogamy could have for instance in a couple or in the society.
However this guide will be useful to support some aspects of polyamory
we will see later.
Sexual exclusivity
Starting with Natasha Mckeever’s essay4, one of the most important and
convincing statements she provides for her argument is already at the
very beginning of her paper in the abstract: “In some cultures, people
tend to believe that it’s very important to be sexually exclusive in
romantic relationships and idealise monogamous romantic relationships;
but there is a tension in this ideal. Sex is generally considered to have
value, and usually when we love someone we want to increase the
amount of value in their lives, not restrict it without good reason.” This
point is already very clear and sharp, but let’s linger even more on it:
probably everyone knows the saying “if you love someone, let them go”,
meaning that true love and affection aren’t about egocentric purposes,
but about trying to do our best in order to make the person we love
happy, even if it means to set them free. With sex it shouldn’t be any
different, then we shouldn’t feel jealous or offended just because our
partner wants to have sex with more people, but allow them to do so.
Sexual exclusivity is a sort of cage for the couple, where you stay in with
just one person and you can’t get out. There is some sort of selfishness
and egocentricity behind this. The author herself states that many
couples don’t even think about or discuss the possibily of an open
relationship, where the partners are together and love each others, but
still have sex with people outside of the couple if they feel like doing it.
Most of the people feel Sexual Exclusivity as a “sacrifice” worth doing in
order to be together with “the one”, the very special significant other.
This is for sure a powerful demonstration of what love can do, and some
of them don’t even perceive it as a forcing, but as a display of their
commitment to the partner. But not all the relationships are perfect and
not always we find the true love of our life, the one and only. We maybe
find someone who is closer than others to our ideal, but, as N. Mckeever
also suggests, if we are, let’s say, dissatisfied sexually by this current
partner, we may feel forced to end the relationship just because sexual
exclusivity is a non negotiable feature in this relationship like it’s not in
most of them. If we were allowed to have sex freely with other people,
outside of this relationship, we may reconsider the possibility to remain
together with this person because we are in love with their mind and
personality, for example. N. Mckeever examines carefully the two most
popular, but yet unsuccessful justifications people normally provide for
Sexual Exclusivity. The first one affirms that SE is important in order to
protect the relationship. Phenomena like trading up5, namely leaving
your partner for someone better, with better qualities for instance, are
very recurring in our society. People may think this is less likely to happen
to them if their partner is sexually exclusive. Indeed, limiting the options of
sexual partners gives the other less opportunities and temptations to
trade up. But we should keep in mind that not all the sexual intercourses
outside of the relationship lead to an affair: sometimes we can feel
attracted by someone because of their phisical characteristics, for
example, but not necessarly want to trade up our current partner for
them. Sometimes what people really fear is not really their partner having
occasionally sex outside of their relationship, but the consequences that
this may lead to: diversion of attention, decrease of the time to spend
together and most of all the possibily they might be traded up. But this
last fear sounds contradictory, especially if we reconsider the example
we provided above: if we don’t feel completely sexually satisfied by our
current partner, but we are in a sexually exclusive type of relationship, we
might feel forced to end the relationship just because we really don’t
have any choice, while if the relationship was on open one or if both
partners practised polyamory, we could remain with our partner and be
sexually satisfied at the same time. Sometimes extra relationship sex
works also as a powerful self-esteem booster: Mckeever reports the case
of a woman who, after having had an affair, stated that she had started
to feel attractive and self confident again after many years. This kind of
experience can for sure make us feel better and special again, but in
this kind of situation i wonder if it’s worth remaining in the original
relationship if the only way you can feel alive again is having sex outside
of it. Nevertheless it’s not just sex outside of the couple which can lead to
an affair. Also activities like going to the disco, meeting new people or
practising sport in group could lead to trading up. Should this mean that
once in a relationship we should stop going out and do all the activities
we enjoyed before? This doesn’t seem very fair with regard to both
partners, who will have to change their habits only in order to please
their significant other, yet lots of people do it because they feel the need
to do all they can to safeguard their rapport. So this first justification to SE,
now that we have analyzed it more in depth, doesn’t seem convincing
enough: then how could we possibly desire to protect a relationship if it
leads to such a lack of freedom? With so many restrictions, like the ones
mentioned above, it would be more likely to hope for it to end. People
tend to value a lot their freedom, and taking this away from them, both
with sexual exclusivity and preventing them from going out, meeting new
people and doing what they like, stop them from being who they really
are and in most of cases only damages the relationship. The second
unsuccessful reason provided for SE is jealousy; this is for sure a powerful
emotion which can destroy relationships and lead to acts of violence.
Nevertheless it is considered by many a sign of love and not only this:
indeed we feel worried or suspicious if our partner doesn’t show us any
signs of it and we may also start to assume that he doesn’t really care
about us. Not being jealous of your beloved having sexual or intimate
relations with someone else might be seen as an indication that you
don’t love them. Jealousy can also be seen then as the fear of loss of
affections or even attention: we tend to feel jealous about our significant
other because we don’t like feeling ignored and we don’t want
someone else to steal the attention and love our partner normally gives
to us. Indeed at some point we even start depending on this attention,
which makes us feel valuable and desirable. But jealousy of this kind of
attention is not always necessarly connected with love: we may want to
see ourself as the central point in the life of our partner, not because we
really desire their specific love, but just because we want, more in
general, someone in our lives who puts us before of everything. We may
want to feel special, but not necessarly to feel loved. However some
people, even when reassured they won’t lose the love or the attention
from their partners if these lasts have occasionally sex outside of the
couple , wouldn’t still let them do it, and this suggests jealousy is a more
complicated concept to explain. Besides it is very normalised within our
society, and to demonstrate this, i will provide two examples, one
regarding romantic relationships and the other one ordinary friendships.
In a typical romantic relationship, if A starts to feel jealous about their
partner B because B spends too much time with their friend C, society
would normally assume that the person giving problems is B, the one who
is causing their partner to feel jealous because of their friendship with C.
But if we take into consideration a normal friendship, where A and B are
friends but A is also friend with C, if B feels jealous about it, it’s only their
problem and A is not responsible for it. These two so different ways to
experience relationships show the two sides of society: the moralistic one
and the realistic and more honest one. Indeed since we live in a society
so full of different and interesting individuals, it doesn’t seem fair having
to pick just one of them and leave out all the others. This is already
approved for what concerns friendship, but it should also be agreed for
what regards romantic relationships. Jealousy concerns the fear of losing
the already established relationship and the special roles it provides to its
members: we may feel jealous of the exclusivity of our love and the
sense of self worth we get from it. If our partner shares something so
intimate like sex with others, we feel no longer special, because we know
our partner has found attractive properties in someone else and we are
no longer “the one and only”. Furthermore, being chosen over everyone
else “affirms and recognises your sense that the things that make you a
particular individual are valuable because someone has chosen you for
those things” and desires to be in an exclusive relationship only with you,
which to some extent means that you are better and worthier than
everybody else. To sum up, in most cases jealousy is not something that
has to do with our partner’s behaviour, but rather with our personal
insecurities. We are often afraid to lose both love and attention from our
significant other and jealousy appears to be a solid form of self defense,
useful to safeguard our interests. However it shouldn’t be considered a
valid justification for SE, because how we pointed out before, it shouldn’t
be considered our problem if our partner is too jealous of us, but their.
What i’m trying to say is that everyone deserves to have freedom and
live their life fully and we shouldn’t change our mind just in order to
please the other. Not all the emotions are allowed to flow freely in our
society. Hatred and rage are two valid examples. Even if we feel at times
these emotions towards some people, it doesn’t mean we are allowed
to, let’s say, kill them. Jealousy is very similar: just because we feel it, it
doesn’t mean it’s always right to display it, on the contrary if we really
love our significant other, it would be better to suffocate it for their sake.
Now that we have gone through these two always provided, but yet
unsuccessful justifications for SE, we may wonder if there are some valid
reasons to keep sexual intercourses just inside of the couple. One reason
might be that sex is generally what marks boundaries between various
types of relationships. Let’s say that A and B are in a romantic relationship
with each other. They love each other and spend a lot of time together.
But then, couldn’t we just say that they are like best friends, for instance?
Sex in this case could be the one main factor that marks their relationship
as a romantic one. But even here things get complicated: there are also
couples who don’t have sexual intercourses at all for reasons that may or
may not depend on their will. So shall we not consider them real
couples? One point that i personally find very enlightening, it’s provided
by N. Mckeever herself. She suggests that Sexual exclusivity could or
could not be a distinctive trait to mark a relationship: what really counts
is choosing an activy that you will share only together with your
significant other. One may choose sleeping in the same bed as
distinctive activity, meaning that this ritual should remain just between
the two and not including anyone else. Society has pushed sexual
exclusivity too far, then breaking this promise is a valid reason for many to
divorce and if they are not married to simply split up. But SE shouldn’t
necessarily be what makes one relationship special. The options are
endless. One could choose to hold hands, reading novels, eating ice
cream or even have sex with each other as an exclusive shared activity
with their partner. It doesn’t really matter what sort of activity it is. What
matters is finding something to share specifically with your partner,
something which marks your relationship with this person as unique and
special, something that belongs to the couple only. If sexual exclusivity is
something we are almost forced to do by the society that surrounds us,
this seems to be no longer something special or valuable that we can
decide to put specifically in our relationship or not; it seems more an
established rule we have to follow in order for our relationship to be
accepted by the people around us. To sum up, i would say that through
this Mckeever’s essay we have just analysed, it becomes really clear that
SE is more of a social construction rather than something to do for the
partner’s and the relationship’s sake. It’s worth to carry it out if we
personally feel this is the most significant way to make our relationship
special in its own way, but it is for sure an overrated one, adopted by the
vast majority of people just because it is an already established practise.
But we shouldn’t be forced to choose it at all costs: each one can find
their own way to show the world the nature of their romantic relationship.
Once clarified this, we may wonder how it would be like to opt for open
relationships, where there is a main couple and both the two partners
are allowed to have sex outside of it, or even to experience polyamory,
which Luke Brunning describes in his essay “The distinctiveness of
Polyamory” as “a form of consensual non-monogamy, the freedom of
surrending to love and allowing love”. Yet one condition is fundamental
for polyamory: all the partners involved in a polyamorous relationship
must know about it and be aware of the other already existent or
possible future partners within the relationship, this meaning that each
new “member” must be informed and agree with the concept itself of
polyamory, namely having more romantic relationships at the same time
with different people. Unlike an open relationship, in polyamory there is
normally no real primary relationship: all the relationships with the
different people involved are special and unique, there isn’t a couple
inside of all these couples who prevails over the others. Besides
polyamory is not just the factual realization of this multiplicity at the same
time, but most of all it is an idea, a way of perceiving and living the love.
One can be polyamorous without currently being in a relationship. If
monogamy professes to love just one person at the time, in polyamory
there is no such boundary: one is free to love how many people they
want even at the same time. This is not to be intended only on a sexual
level: indeed many pursue polyamory in order to have strong emotional
bonds with many people, instead of just one. There is for sure an
incredible amount of freedom in this, something completely detached
from the usual moral constructions imposed by the society. Polyamorous
people respect each others very much, indeed they aim to be honest
about their feelings, desires and expectations within their relationships.
People may want to follow the beliefs of polyamory for various reasons:
some may want to preserve their autonomy as individuals and some
others may want to nurture wider intimate groups without limiting
romantic intimacy to the traditional couple. Polyamorists don’t believe in
“the one and only”, the person who is going to change forever your life
and the way you look at yourself, on the contrary they believe that to
forge the self is important to have different perspectives and points of
view from different people. Furthermore they value more the process of
exploring human intimacy rather than the goal of securing a partner. Like
Hardy and Easton suggest in their modern guide to polyamory, we as
human beings love adventure and experiencing . The word “adventurer”
is sometimes used pejoratively, suggesting that the adventurous person is
immature or inauthentic, not really willing to grow up and settle down
into a presumably monogamous lifestyle. However also some
polyamorous people desire to settle down and have a family, just not in
the conventional way: they might indeed create a polygamous family
with more than two parents and children resulted from various sexual
intercourses. Nevertheless polyamorous relationships are generally
speaking more complicated to implement. They are not fully approved
in our society yet, and Brunning in his essay provides four objections that
are normally moved to this kind of lifestyle. The first one is that polyamory
leads to the objectification or commodification of other people,
because one uses them to sate one’s sexual or emotional greed. Angie
Young, for instance, in her review of “The Ethical Slut”asks: “isn’t it curious
how polyamorous relationships replicate the disposable throw away
values of our capitalistic society, treating other people as objects to
satisfy our cravings, interchangeable as we please, useful to us only as
long as they work for our own purposes?”6However polyamory is not
about “Throwing away our previous partner”, something that, on the
contrary, happens all the time in monogamy; it is about allowing more
people at once in our intimate life. We, as human beings, like to think
about ourselves as social but yet monogamous animals. Nevertheless the
truth is that we are not even close to the kind of monogamy already
present in nature: penguins and pigeons, for instance, choose one
companion very carefully and remain with them for the rest of their lives.
If we only think about the phenomen of “trading up” within our society, it
becomes clear to us that human beings are not monogamous animals.
Even only having this possibility in our minds, to have more than one
partner during our lifetimes or even at the same time, shows us that we
can actually choose between a monogamous or polygamous lifestyle, it
just depends on what we want and on the environment that surrounds
us. The second objection provided is that polyamory impedes proper
attachment to one’s partner: if we have more than one lover, then when
things get rocky with one, we can just go to another, instead of staying
with and working in depth with that rockiness. This is partly true and some
people will always run away from their relational problems instead of
facing the music. However this applies to both monogamous and nonindividuals: then even in monogamous relationships people who are
deeply insecure tend to avoid discussing difficult matters and selfsabotage themselves instead, for example cheating on their partner, in
order to get rid of them and of all the problems within their relationship.
Nevertheless polyamorous people value extremely communication: they
prefer being really honest about their emotions and difficulties, in order
to make all their relationships work, so it seems very unlikely that such
emotionally-open individuals would rather ignore some main issues
instead of solving them. The third objection is the most well-grounded
and objective one so far: it underlines the fact that relationships flourish
only if one has the resources, practical and emotional, to sustain them,
that individuals have limited resources, and thus that polyamory
demands more resources than an individual could provide.
Consequently, not all the relationships in polyamorous life will flourish. This
is absolutely true to some extent, then also polyamorous people need to
understand, once they have decided to carry on this lifestyle and beliefs,
that their actual relationships will be limited to maximum an handful: i
prefer not to provide a specific number, but one should take into
account that each relationship, in order to be considered as such, needs
time and care in different propotions depending on the necessities of
each partner and that generally speaking we cannot dedicate our
entire day to relationships only: then other primary necessities like
working, studying, eating, sleeping or cleaning the house for instance
need to be done daily or almost, leaving us a limited amount of time to
dedicate to other people. The fourth and last objection states that
polyamory is risky and precarious, that a polyamorist may manage to live
quite well for weeks, months or even years, but his life will be less stable,
because although the way he lives has not so far been such as to
threaten his happiness and security, there are various tensions in his way
of living, like jealousy and other difficult emotions, that are always waiting
to surface and which, in moment of crisis may erupt to damaging effect.
This point of view highlights the fact that polyamory is normally seen as
something to experience during young age, not life-lasting. However
many polygamous families still manage to live nowadays thanks to their
open mind and the deep value they assign to communication. I am not
talking about communities like Mormons, because this kind of polygamy
is most of the times unilateral, privileging mainly the male members of the
family. I’m referring to an equal condition between mutiple partners who
share willingly the same values, who care about each other, and are
ready to discuss problems when they come to the surface: these kind of
individuals could form a balanced family with children coming from
different unions without fearing “the eruption of tensions” we mentioned
above. Such relationships are for sure difficult to achieve, but could be
ones of the most satisfying and an example free from social constructions
for the future generations. Probably one of the hardest part when
dealing with polyamory is the intensive “emotional work” which needs to
be regularly done in order to keep up with the various members of the
various relationships involved. Emotional work is the activity of engaging
with another person’s emotional life. It involves, “The management of
others emotions- soothing tempers, boosting confidence, fuelling pride,
preventing frictions and mending ego wounds.” This is a fundamental
concept in polyamory, much more important in these circumstances
rather than in monogamous ones, and this is mostly because of the
strong emotions that arise within polyamorous couples. For instance,
thinking to be able to deal with Jealousy and actually dealing with it are
two completely different things. If A and B are two polyamorous
individuals who are in a relationship, they must be ready at some point to
welcome a third potential partner. A may think that he is mentally
prepared to do so, but seeing B with a potential C may actually upset
him. Emotional work is what A and B would need in this situation in order
to overcome their “difficult” emotions and live peacefully their
relationship. What really matters is trying to speak up with your partner in
a constructive way, without accusing them, avoiding being
manipulative or domineering. So, if for instance A feels jealous about B
and C being also in a relationship, he shouldn’t blame it on B for having
intimate relationships with others, but he should first talk to B, express his
feelings and emotions and eventually start to work on them in order to
learn to contain the most negative ones. Some polyamorists, for
example, train themselves through “compersion”, namely the joy in
seeing your partners in love with many individuals besides you, in order to
get rid of their jealousies and insecurities. Polyamorous people benefit
from dealing with so many people and their emotions because it helps
them to improve their skills in relating well to others in everyday life.
Polyamory can take many forms, but as it was originally conceived, if
deception or coercion is involved or if the people involved are out of
integrity in any way, it’s not polyamory, no matter how many people are
sexually involved with each other. On this understanding emotional work
is arguably a constitutive feature of polyamory because it manifests
one’s commitment to honesty and integrity. If one is unwillingly to
engage with the emotional lives of one’s partner, one is not truly
Now that we have gone through these two points of view, it’s time to
sum up the main ideas of these two authors and try to answer to the
question in our headline: Is monogamy something to fight for or just a
social constraint? Mckeever suggests that sexual exclusivity is something
worthy if both partners decide to give it this value and choose it to make
their relationship unique in its own way, otherwise it is just a social
constraint protracted nowadays within our society because of
justifications, like jealousy and protecting the relationship, that we have
already proved above to be wrong. Jealousy is something that needs to
be contained, like we already normally do with negative emotions like
hatred and anger towards other people, in order to live in a peaceful
society. Protecting the relationship is something that can be done
without imposing sexual exclusivity, spending time with your partner and
simply caring for them, for example. On the contrary each enforcement
towards your significant other has the opposite effect to distance them
from you.
Brunning on the other side, like also Easton and Hardy do in their manual,
doesn’t linger on the positive sides of monogamous relationships, but
examine in depth each aspect of polyamory to conclude whether this
represents a possible new lifestyle within our society. Polyamory is
something that requires constant work, because of all the difficult
emotions that raises, but it’s also rewarding in terms of sexual freedom
and deep intimacy with multiple individuals.
Personally i see polyamory as an innovative way of living. The possibility
of a greater number of relationships at the same time and sexual
freedom within individuals is something that could set free our society
from the old moralism which suffocates our impulses and emotions. Not
everybody shares the desire to be polygamous, but for the ones who do,
society shouldn’t take a dim view on them, but accept their beliefs
letting them lead the life they feel more right for themselves.
1) “The Ethical Slut, Third Edition: A Practical Guide to Polyamory,
Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love”, Dossie
Easton and Janet Hardy, August 2017
2) “Is the requirement of sexual exclusivity consistent with romantic
love?”, Natasha Mckeever, Journal of applied philosophy
3) “The distinctiveness of polyamory”, Luke Brunning, journal of
applied philosophy, 05/08/2016
4) “Is the requirement of sexual exclusivity consistent with romantic
love?”, Natasha Mckeever, Journal of applied philosophy, first
5) See Nozick’s “Love’s bond”
6) Angie Young, “review of the ethical slut: a guide to infinite sexual
possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, May- June
2004, p.195
-“The distinctiveness of polyamory”, Luke Brunning, journal of applied
philosophy, 05/08/2016
-“Is the requirement of sexual exclusivity consistent with romantic love?”,
Natasha Mckeever, Journal of applied philosophy
-“The Ethical Slut, Third Edition: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open
Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love”, Dossie Easton and
Janet Hardy, August 2017