“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.
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.