Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Ethical Slut

Currently reading: "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut, "Ulysses" by James Joyce, "The Odyssey" by Homer (YES, STILL!)

Next up: more "Ulysses", plus one other book - probably "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust - which I will take with me on my upcoming month-long trip as my only reading. Yowsa. :)

I read "The Ethical Slut" by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt back in November, based on the recommendation of a friend who is currently living a polyamorous lifestyle. I'm glad I read it, as it helped me better understand a way of living and loving with which I was completely unfamiliar, and yet I thought it could have been much better...Below, I am posting the review I gave to my friend, adapted from an e-mail:

What I liked about the book:

This book should've been called "How To Be a Human Being." :) Everything it talks about has to do with how to have effective and enriching relationships in all their forms. Own your feelings, be honest, be open about what you want, be willing to compromise, talk to each other, listen to each other...these are all things I've been trying to improve in my own life recently, and this book had some great insights into how to go about improving one's skills in these areas. I was particularly interested in what it had to say about owning one's feelings - that no one can make you feel anything. It's something that I feel like I've always known deep down (that I think everyone knows deep down), but was never able to articulate and apply. But now I'm consciously thinking about it in those terms, and it goes a long way in making strong emotions more manageable. Also, I really appreciate that it acknowledges those emotions. It doesn't say you shouldn't feel a strong, negative emotion, it says that what's important is how you act on the negative emotion, and how you let it affect the people you say you love. That's something I've always believed, but have had trouble with. This book definitely put certain things in perspective for me.

Also, reading this definitely corrected certain assumptions about polyamory that I had. Well, not corrected assumptions as much as it clarified things I just really didn't know. It's funny...but a lot of what's considered "polyamorous" is stuff that I wouldn't consider outside the bounds of what I would consider a monogamous relationship! :) For instance, if two people decide to get married, but then agree to allow each other to sleep with other people while staying emotionally true to each other...or if a couple decides they want to go to sex parties together, etc. That's all stuff that I would've thought was OK without thinking of it as an "alternative lifestyle." I always just thought that was called "two people sharing an interest." :) The stuff about having a secondary long-term person (or people) in addition to a primary relationship is a new idea, but surprisingly, not one that I have as much trouble with as I thought I would. I've always been able to wrap my head around sex outside of a primary relationship, but emotions? The key is, though, any relationship can work as long as everyone involved is clear about what they want, and honest about their intentions. Duh! ;) But I can now safely say that I fully accept and acknowledge polyamory as a valid choice, whereas I might not have been so comfortable saying that before. In the most basic sense, I would call myself an ideological ethical slut (if not one in practice). However, when I say "monogomous" I mean "emotionally monogamous" as opposed to "sexually monogamous", and I (try) to explain my feelings about that below...

What I thought could have been improved/what I didn't like so much:

I tend to bristle whenever anyone perports to have "the answer." Now, I know this book was primarily designed for people who are already considering a polyamorous lifestyle, or are at least interested in the topic, and several times it said something like "monogamy is fine if you actually choose it"....but then it would go on to talk as if monogamy=depression and polyamory=freedom. That doesn't really allow the possibility of monogamy as a valid choice, and the idea that there's only one way to "be free" is really annoying to me. Because taking one kind of dogma and replacing it with another does not equal freedom to me. It's still a cage - gilded and fun though it might be. The only thing I believe means actual freedom is the ability to make a choice and allowing an environment where people don't feel ostracized for making one choice over another. And let's say someone chooses "vanilla sex" with one person for the rest of their life, they shouldn't be made to feel as though they are somehow less than for being "less adventurous" or "repressed" any more than someone who chooses an open relationship should be called "promiscuous." Now, I did get that sense from this book, too, and I appreciate the fact that they'd probably actually be cool with any choice anyone makes for themselves, but I think they could've done a better job of being more tolerant in the actual text, as opposed to the "wink, wink nudge, nudge" tone they adopt in their approval of monogamy.

Also....people always cite the 50-50% success/failure rate of marriage as proof that monogamy doesn't work, instead of (perhaps) looking at the 50% of marriages that do work and figuring out why that is. Another thing that made me stop and go "hmmmm...." - all the examples of people who were "turned off" of monogamy were from people who had REALLY horrible or extreme experiences with it, like "My husband tried to kill me, and that's when I realized monogamy was not for me." Um....YEAH, if my husband tried to kill me LIFE might not be for me, you know? That doesn't mean monogamy doesn't work, it means you married a psycho! It surprised me that authors who claimed to want to "take ownership" of their emotions and choices might not take responsibility for them, choosing instead to blame an entire way of life. However, the very things that they are suggesting (the openness, the honesty, the communication, the owning of one's emotions) for a successful polyamorous relationship are the things that can make a successful monogamous one. The faults that they kept finding in monogamy are things that could be fixed if everyone did what is in this book! :) Lastly, I had trouble with some of the logic used in this book. For example, when they say that "do parents of nine children love their children any less than the parent of one child loves him/her?" And the thing is, YES. Parents always have a favorite. Parents always love one child (or several children) more than the others. I've seen it happen all the time, and there's nothing wrong with that, and I don't find it particularly shocking. This doesn't mean that they don't love the other children, but it does mean that they are loved differently. They say "I love you all the same" to uphold their self esteem and to be encouraging, good, supportive parents, but to assume that they love all their children exactly the same is a bit ridiculous. They shouldn't love all their children the same. They should love all their children, but certainly not alike. If what separates human beings from animals is the ability to make conscious choices, then we can't balk at the idea that there is one thing or one person we would choose over something or someone else. I thought it interesting that these authors were acting as though that doesn't always happen between people, but it does, and not just in romantic relationships.

I believe that it is possible to love lots of people, and I believe that there are different forms of love, and varying degrees of love. However, I don't believe that it is possible for anyone to love anyone the same . Kind of like in physics, where two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Given a choice between two people, or two anything, a person will always choose one over the other, will always prefer one or the other. The choice might be difficult and painful, and the degree of difference might be small, but the choice can always be made. I mean, even the distinction between "primary" and "secondary" relationship illustrates that.

I think the biggest problem for me with this book is that there was no real distinction made between emotional and sexual monogamy. Monogamy is simply used as the all-encompassing opposite of polyamory. But as was illustrated in so many of the relationships used as examples in this book, very often people in a group love relationship have one person they are the most emotionally committed to - and not even that they are interested in being "life partners" with, owning a house or having kids with - but two people who are committed to each other, and committed to a certain lifestyle together. There's always a person we enjoy being with the most. It doesn't mean we don't love and enjoy being with our other friends, lovers, family, whatever....but people have favorites, and ultimately, a most favorite. Pretending that's not the case seems silly to me.

The Ethical Slut - Eh