Why ethics?

“Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.” — George Orwell

A couple of folks have asked me why we’re placing such a heavy emphasis on ethics in our new book, with at least one person going so far as to say ethics are all relative and so there’s no way to talk about ethics in relationships in any sort of global sense at all.

We take it as an axiom that ethics exist, and that some relationship behaviors aren’t ethical. If you have trouble accepting that there are any behaviors at all that are unethical in relationships, it’s probably wise to stop reading now, as there will be very little here for us to talk about.

To understand why we’re working hard to create a functional and consistent ethical framework for talking about polyamory, it’s helpful to look at the current BDSM community and how it’s progressed the way it has. I think there are important lessons in there for the poly community, but perhaps not the way you might think.

The organized BDSM community in the US arguably started out in the gay leather community in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and received a significant boost toward the end of WWII. It focused on highly hierarchical roles and often featured military-style protocols, perhaps because returning US servicemen really helped create it. (The argument about gays in the military is kind of silly; there always have been, and always will be, gays in the military.)

In the ensuing 70-odd years since then, the community has changed radically in several waves, becoming less hierarchical and less focused on gay male sexuality throughout the 1980s, more accessible to mainstream culture in the late 80s and early 90s, and much less underground in the late 90s.

For all its history, though, the BDSM community has largely failed to create a culture of consent. This is a bit odd, when you consider that most people involved in BDSM will argue that consent is the defining characteristic separating BDSM from abuse.

What do I mean when I say that it hasn’t created a culture of consent? I mean that the BDSM community, alarmingly often, shields abusers. In my experience, it tends to respond poorly to violations of consent, including sexual assault, especially when the violations come from leaders in the community. The most visible parts of the BDSM community (including such places as Fetlife, which is kind of the Facebook for the BDSM scene) institute policies explicitly forbidding open talk about sexual assault, except in general terms. All this has the effect of making the community a surprisingly safe space for predators.

The exact causes of these problems in the BDSM scene are beyond the scope of this essay. What is germane is that I feel the poly community is in danger of following a similar path, prizing conformity and low conflict above the ethical needs of the people in it.

Polyamory is at a tipping point. Alan has written about this several times in the Poly In the News blog, going back as far as five years ago, when he wrote,

People who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are usually unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move. No longer is it all about a few devoted people grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon’s wheels move half an inch. When the effort begins to succeed, the bandwagon starts rolling on its own, faster and faster.

And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch. Survivors loot the wreckage and disappear, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.

I’ve noticed huge shifts in the poly community in the last two or three years. It’s all over the news. Online poly groups, formerly scarcely larger than scores of people (successful ones sometimes reached hundreds, and large, established mailing lists might get a couple thousand subscribers) have exploded: these days, a  poly Facebook group might have six thousand members or more. Poly discussion groups are ballooning also.

That’s good news. Polyamory is becoming an accepted relationship model. Society is changing, offering greater flexibility and more tolerance for people who choose nontraditional relationships.

But it’s also a warning sign. I see a lot more people cheating and calling it “polyamory” than I’ve ever seen before–and, more worrying, I see the poly community becoming a lot more tolerant of it. I’m seeing a lot of people engaging in behavior that’s destructive, damaging, occasionally even abusive, and with it I see the poly community adopting an attitude of, “Hey, anything that anyone does is okay. Judgment is wrong. There’s no wrong way to do polyamory.”

In our book, we’re going back to first principles, and among these first principles is that, yes, there are wrong ways to do any kind of relationship. Violating consent is wrong. Abuse is wrong. Coercion is wrong.

And not all abuse and coercion involves fists. Sometimes, it’s very subtle. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it. I see gaslighting, I see arm-twisting, I see relationship structures that treat people as disposable, and I’m finding I’m surprisingly okay with saying yes, there really are wrong ways to do polyamory.

My concern is that we (and by “we” I mean not just poly people, but people in general) are so strongly encouraged to hate and fear conflict that we are reluctant to call people on bad behavior. It’s easier, so very much easier, to look the other way, to say, “Well, maybe that’s what works for them”; to say, “Well, it doesn’t really involve me”; to say, “Well, they won’t listen to me anyway.”

That’s what I believe the BDSM community has done. It’s a large part of why I stopped participating in it, many years ago. I am concerned that we are so conflict-averse, so eager to say that judgment is always wrong and we must never do it, that we are creating a community that tolerates bad actors, even abusers, because we simply don’t want to step forward and say, “You know what? This is wrong.”

I do not believe we can give good poly advice without starting from an ethical framework and without being willing to say some relationship choices are ethical and some aren’t. It’s easy to say, “Anything that the people involved agree to is okay,” but that ignores the reality of the human condition. It ignores that abuse victims often voluntarily remain with their abusers, at least for some value of “voluntarily.” It ignores that people may agree to things at the start of a relationship that later become untenable–because, seriously, who among us can predict at the very beginning of a relationship what direction it might go? It ignores how easily and casually we are comfortable with violating consent. It ignores that people may make choices that hurt themselves or others for reasons that aren’t necessarily rational–fear of abandonment, fear of loss, scarcity thinking, and so on. It ignores that some people, through no fault of their own (economics, perhaps, or mental health issues, or any of a thousand other things) are uniquely vulnerable.

Right and wrong exist. There are ethical and unethical ways to do polyamory. Being willing to look unflinchingly at our choices, interrogate the ethics of our actions,  and speak up about uncomfortable or controversial things are, I believe, all necessary to do any kind of relationship well.

I think the time has come to stop pushing and start steering. I want to do whatever is in my power to create a community that is ethical and responsible, that celebrates love rather than fear, and that does not offer shelter to bad actors under the guise of everyone getting along.

There will probably be people who do not agree with this choice. I’m okay with that.


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  1. SCORE!

    You hit it out of the park with this one, Franklin, and I’m glad you’re willing to say it.

  2. As an ethical framework for a book that many will be suggesting to those new to Polyamory –
    This ROCKS.

  3. Dear Franklin,

    This is the first time I stop by one of your articles and find myself in deep disagreement.

    Some background: I’m Italian, I’m an active member of the Italian poly community and I’ve been for more than two years now. I’ve seen the community grow from a bunch of people on Facebook to a somewhat larger, somewhat thriving and somewhat geographically widespread real life community. As it happens when a community grows, I witnessed many changes. People who wanted it to grow found themselves carrying bigger responsibilities. And, as far as I can tell, failing to many of them. I agree with some of your and Alan’s points on what is going on at these times. I disagree with the proposal you make.

    You say “Right and wrong exist”. They do, within any ethical framework. But remember what ethics is for. You can see it as a personal tool to take an evaluation on possible decisions to make. According to my ethics, I wouldn’t kill people. I wouldn’t “treat people as objects”, as you say in another text. I wouldn’t do anything that would go against everybody’s needs. That’s my “compass”, something to refer to whenever I do anything that has an impact on other beings. Besides the personal aspect, ethics have a social face. Societies can agree on some common ethics, in order to make the society itself live on some principles. The social arrangement can imply tools that take freedom away from individuals, in order for the society to correct the violation of such principles: they usually take the form of negative incentives (such as punishments).

    Judgment exists because societies want incentives to “ethical behavior” and against “unethical behavior”. My point though is that these incentives can only stand when they take away some freedom. That means that, if the ethical system we are talking about values consent, involving a person in the arrangement requires their informed consent. If you are judging someone who isn’t adhering to your ethical system you are forcedly taking away their freedom, therefore violating your own principles.

    (It could be argued whether an ethical system that doesn’t value consent can exist without being logically unsound, but logical soundness fortunately is not the point: you didn’t try to prove the soundness of the framework you are proposing)

    It seems to me that you are proposing such a judgmental system. Your point is that it is needed in order to avoid a community train wreck. I don’t think it is needed. More to the point, I think it would lead to a bigger disaster. A culture of consent is to be based on empathy, rather than judgment. I understand you are concerned with abuse. I am too, possibly as deeply as you are. I just think there can be a different proposal to address this cultural problem.

    I think a proposal should be based upon empathy, as I said. I would agree on an ethical system that gives this high a value to consent. I think it can be proposed, and I would want to promote it.

    When I talk about “consent”, I think of what is sometimes called “informed consent” or “free consent”: consent which is given without putting any incentive scheme against its rejection. You wrote a whole paragraph against what we may call “façade consent”, consent which is extorted by coercion, manipulation or any other incentive scheme.

    It’s extremely tempting to judge this façade consent “wrong”. It’s undoubtedly against the ethics I’m endorsing myself, but I want to stop and think why we judge. What for. We may want to change the abuser’s behavior. Or to defend the victim from hurt. Or to satisfy our need for justice. Either way, there’s not much a judgment can do. I wouldn’t want a system of shaming. I want a culture that understands that abusing can hurt people, can limit their freedom, that we wouldn’t want that done to us. This is where empathy kicks in: I want understanding and connection. I want any potential abuser to know that they can get the highest of their gratification by satisfying other people’s needs, without tampering with their freedom. And I want them to connect with the experiences of those who have been hurt. I want hurt people to understand an abuser’s needs, and connect with them, and allow him to connect to their experiences.

    Polyamory is already moving in this direction. It proposes consensual relationships, that is: the potential for deep connection, without tampering with the freedom of others.

    I would like to point out that I’m only disagreeing with only few of the points you made. I agree with the proposal of an ethical framework, I disagree with the proposal of a judgment system. I want to add that while I agree that the polyamory culture may be moving on its own way without steering, I don’t agree that steering is required. We don’t need to control the culture: we may push a different proposal, closer to polyamory’s original ideals.

  4. Davide Riccio, I don’t think that you and Franklin are so far apart. I think the gist is that Franklin is saying that we should not fear speaking up when we see something that is damaging to someone else. We should not let the label “judgmental” be used to silence us.

    I am intrigued by your approach of empathy rather than judgement. I think there’s a lot of merit there, and the notion is worth exploring further.

  5. A friend of mine proposed a blue-dot facebook logo, which I liked and signed up to, as a symbol of being willing to stand up on the spot when abuse occurs and say “That’s not OK.”

    While we can get tangled up about where what lines are, when we spot someone being hurt or humiliated, it’s on us to step up and call the perpetrator on their bad behavior, right then and there. (You don’t have to judge the person – they may be driven by meanness, or they may be socially inept enough to really just need a clue-by-four to get their attention. Judging the behavior and its consequences, though is another question.)

    As an example, bullying works because people (whatever their reasons) stand around letting it happen; often it takes just one person to stand up, and the rest of the group is then galvanized to action. I’ve seen this happen over and over again.

    So, I’m agreeing with Franklin here. Communities do have mores, and to the extent we want them observed, we ought to make them explicit and point out when they’re being violated. Sticking our heads in the sand will. not. work.

  6. there’s an important distinction between judging the person and judging the behavior. it seems to me that we *need* to judge behavior in order to assess acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

    with the rare exception of sociopaths, it is very rare that people have actual evil intent. unacceptable behavior can be unethical, unkind, and downright wrong, even *without* evil intent. in fact, that is more often the case than not. because actual evil intent is thankfully pretty darn rare.
    in judging the behavior, and standing up when unacceptable/wrong behavior occurs, we’re sharing a standard. if someone is clueless, having a rough day, or lacks skills to do better, we’re providing a heads-up for them to implement and/or learn skills to do better in the future.

    if they opt not to do so, then it becomes a *choice*, and former excuses no longer apply. at that point, it’s not a fluke of accidental behavior; it’s *chosen* behavior.

    at that point, yes… i am going to judge the person negatively. for at least a while, i’ll still aim to convey in ways that enable connection and might enable seeds i plant to grow. yet if someone continues to insist that their excuses warrant treating others in unacceptable ways, our values and world view are different in ways that leave real people with real hearts in the wake of their *chosen* behavior.

    in those situations, it *matters* if someone chooses not to see their behavior as a problem, and it *matters* if someone chooses not to invest in time and work to do better. it *matters* how my family, friends, loves, and communities *choose* to treat others.

  7. @Chris BeHanna,

    You make an excellent point when you say «We should not let the label “judgmental” be used to silence us.» Remember, when people say “judgment is wrong” they are making nothing more than a judgment themselves. In the end it’s always judgmental behavior that is acting violently. You don’t want to be shut up because you’re doing something that someone else deems “wrong”.

    All of these dynamics are often driven by defensiveness. Judgment (either of someone else, or of someone else’s behavior: the line is blurred, and I’m not sure we really need the distinction here) leads to defensive behavior, because it’s [perceived as] aggressive behavior.

    An option could be to state your thinking leaving the “right or wrong” part out. You know that abuse most probably leads to people feeling hurt. This can always be said (and it ought to be said, as a culture). And you can alway empower people, remind them that they can stand up when someone is attacking their freedom, abusing their consent, and that they can ask for support.

  8. Very well said, as usual, Franklin.
    I’m glad this is brought to the light, because I hear of some Poly groups that let subtle abusers thrive. What do we do? We avoid them. Consequence: it’s as if there was no Poly group there. So we’re deprived of support because of a very few individuals that are not held in check or discouraged by the many.
    We can’t have done all this work to abandon now, can we?


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