I saw the following question on Formspring the other day, asked by Harper Eliot, the former Lady Grinning Soul, and author of the terrific, newly relocated blog “It Girl. Rag Doll”:
If you’re sleeping with someone whose partner doesn’t know, are YOU also cheating, or is the cheating only on your lover’s part? Also… can you be ethically non-monogamous if you’re fucking someone who is “unethically” non-monogamous”?
First, a tiny tirade against the tyranny of The Ethical Slut. I read The Ethical Slut. I enjoyed The Ethical Slut. I recommend it to anyone thinking about opening up a relationship or just having a lot of sex. But there is a segment of the population that seems to treat the book as if it were “received wisdom,” or more: commandments from on high. They consult the book and issue opinions and judgments – of themselves and, more often, of others.
There was a brief period in my marriage when our arrangement was “don’t ask/don’t tell” – explicitly. We acknowledged that I (at that point, T wasn’t interested) might have sex with others, and agreed not to discuss the specifics of any such encounters or relationships. During that time, I went on a date with a woman I met through OKCupid, a married woman in her own open relationship. As we talked, she lamented that – much as she wanted to – she couldn’t fuck me, because she and her husband “feel strongly that they want no part of dishonesty.” I explained that non-disclosure isn’t dishonesty. But to her, the contours of my relationship failed to pass the muster of hers.
The truth is, I didn’t really want a relationship of any sort with this woman – I wasn’t that attracted to her, and neither did I like her very much. (The two were closely intertwined.) As we said goodbye, she went to kiss me, to shove her tongue in my mouth. “Wait a second,” I said. “Is this consistent with your deal with your husband?” She confessed it probably wasn’t.
So here I was with a woman who told me she couldn’t fuck me because I wasn’t living up to her ethical standards – arbitrary standards that she and her husband had set for me, without consulting me, standards I had no interest in – but standards she was perfectly comfortable violating herself.
Now, she is a hypocrite. Not all partisans of The Ethical Slut are hypocrites. But there is this tendency – reflected both in my date’s behavior and in the question above – to imagine that there’s some objective standard of ethical behavior against which we should be measured. Against which we should measure others.
Sorry, but I’m not buying it. I try really damned hard to be “ethical.” To me, that means not doing harm. Anyone who loves someone knows that complete and total honesty isn’t a gift, it’s a selfish cruelty. That’s not to say that deception is good; it’s to say that sometimes the most loving thing to do for a partner is to say something other than the truth, or not to speak the truth. Obviously – there’s a lot of room for abuse and deception here. For years, I operated in what I thought was the protection of this safe harbor for ethical behavior and, in fact, I was a self-deceived, deluded, duplicitous liar. But… when a good friend told his wife, as they were leaving for a wedding, that her hair looked awful? I mean, she had asked. But it was too late for her to do anything other than wear it as it was. What’s the ethical thing to do in that situation? I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure it’s not to say, “Oh, it looks like all it needs is a piece of fruit in it and it’ll be complete.” (I was at the wedding. This was, in fact, a totally accurate assessment of her hair.)
So for me, what it means to be ethical is not to harm someone. I’m a bit of a stickler on this point. I (mostly) try hard not to kill moths, or ants, or roaches (though I do, from time to time, lay out traps or poison if we’re infested). And I try hard not to harm friends or lovers or strangers (or people who have harmed me). And, perhaps most important (for me), I try hard not to judge others – their behavior, their standards, what have you.
Now – to the question at the top of this entry: as I’ve written before, “cheating,” to me, is doing anything your partner believes you’re not doing with someone else. My definition of cheating has nothing to do with the partners of my sex partners. And with regard to my ability to remain ethical in the face of your lack of ethics? I don’t see people as chattel. If you have decided – for whatever reason – that you are prepared to deceive your husband, then I don’t feel particularly well equipped to render judgment on your decision. I certainly don’t know enough to conclude that, by fucking you, I would be wronging your partner.
When someone bumps into me on the subway, or cuts me off when I’m driving, because he’s in a hurry, how I react is the best barometer of my mood I know: I’m capable of snarling fury – “That miserable fucker – how selfish and insensitive and obnoxious!” And I’m capable of gentle generosity – “Wow, he’s really in a rush and oblivious to his surroundings. I hope he’s o.k., that nothing terrible is happening in his life.” And, by being capable of both, I’m capable of seeing how projective my judgment generally is. How can I possibly render a decision about your ethics without truly walking in your shoes?
So: Yes. Yes, I can be ethically monogamous if I’m fucking someone who’s “unethically” non-monogamous. But can you?