Ethical non-monogamy

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?


  1. When my husband and I first opened up our relationship, we did have a rule, we would not get involved with unethical non monogamist people. It wasn’t because we judged them. It was simply because we didn’t want the drama that could potentially come with getting involved with someone who wasn’t themselves open. And we noticed, that those who had to hide their involvements with us, couldn’t really “be” with us. 

    We’ve since changed our minds about this, for very much the same reasons that you have outlined. Like I said, we do not hold judgment about those who wish to look outside of their relationships without telling their partner. So, it is not my nor my husband’s responsibility to tell a person how to conduct their relationships. If they want to see us on the side, so be it. We are not responsible for their choices. If it’s not us, it will be someone else. It is not OUR fault if someone chooses to step out of their relationship, they have the power to say it is not right if they feel that way. 

    That being said, I am yet to get involved with someone who is stepping outside of their relationship. Mostly because, someone who has to hide their involvement with me, does not have a lot of time available for me and I generally lose interest due to lack of interaction. 

    1. Agree totally. In general, the people I fuck, or date, have a pretty compatible set of ethics. So while I have no rule, it’s unlikely I’d be drawn to fuck someone operating on the DL. Not impossible – it has happened. But unlikely.

      Just a month or so ago, I went on a date with a smart, charming, hot, sexy, woman. Unhappily married, crystal clear that a) she wanted to find a guy to leave her husband for, and b) she wanted to suck my cock. Though I kissed her goodbye expecting, and promising, more, after I slept on it, I just lost my interest. No judgment, no hard feelings. It just wasn’t as appealing to imagine my cock in her mouth, knowing we were ultimately seeking such different things.

  2. I hate nothing more than being lied to by someone who doesn’t want to harm me by potentially hurting my feelings. I’m feel harmed more by being lied to than by hearing the truth. It is unethical for you to decide what might or might not harm others.

    1. Also, all your OKCupid images violate their terms, have been reported and removed by their staff.

      1. If I did something that upset you, personally, I’m sorry.  I’m afraid I have no idea who you are.  And if this is a more general point then, ok – I don’t think this is something I do/have done.  And I’m sorry that whatever feelings you have toward me have led you to try to make my life more difficult by reporting my OKC images.

        In any event, I’m sorry:  you sound aggrieved, whether by me or by another, and I feel for you.

        Good luck.

        1. My reporting the pictures is nothing personal and has nothing to do with my feelings toward you. I do it all the time when I come across images that violate their terms. You made your own life more difficult by uploading pics that violate their terms. I did not make your life harder by reporting the abuse. Clearly OKCupid staff agreed and took your pictures down. I’m sorry you are upset about this.

      1. What part of “It is unethical for you to decide what might or might not harm others” is unclear to you?

        1. I don’t know what we’re discussing. In what moment, in what words, did I write that I thought I could or should decide what might or might not harm others? I think – I think – that this is precisely the point I was making in this post. I think I agree with you. I wouldn’t presume to decide what might or might not harm others; all I can do is endeavor not to harm others myself.

          I guess the question begged is whether, if I have a relationship with a married woman who’s on the sly, I’m harming her husband. I think that the answer is categorically no. The woman? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. But it’s her issue. That’s my point.

          1. “Anyone who loves someone knows that complete and total honesty isn’t a gift, it’s a selfish cruelty.”
            It is presumptuous of you to claim to know what anyone who loves someone knows. I want my partners to give complete and total honesty. I don’t find it selfish on their part when they are completely and totally honest with me. I expect it.

            “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.”
            Right there. Who decides when it’s OK to withhold the truth, or to say something other than the truth (i.e. lie)? It sounds like you would make that decision based on whether or not you think the complete truth might harm your partner. 

            “I wouldn’t presume to decide what might or might not harm others”
            Without doing that, how then do you decide when it’s OK for you to withhold the truth or lie to your partner?

            “all I can do is endeavor not to harm others myself”
            But you ARE harming someone by your action (fucking someone who’s cheating on their SO with you). Just because it’s indirectly and not directly doesn’t magically absolve you from responsibility.

          2. Your argument is akin to saying: Hey, I only helped Hitler build the concentration camps where I knew Jews would be killed. But because I didn’t actually kill any Jews I acted ethically because all I can do is endeavor not to harm others myself.

          3. I was going to write a thoughtful reply to your previous thoughtful comment, but then you went here.  Forget it.  Good luck to you – I wish you well.

          4. Of course you’re not going to respond. It’s just an extreme example of saying: Hey I only participated when someone did X to harm another person, but because I didn’t harm another person directly, my behavior, although complicit, is ethically sound.

            Good luck to and best wishes to you as well.

  3. Am I the only one who suspects that your anonymous commenter was cheated on?  Anyway…

    I’ve slept with a few married-but-cheating women, and I’ve slept with a few women who claimed to be single, in a marriage heading towards splitsville, or in an open relationship. Short of confirmation from her partner, how am I to really know the status of her relationship?  At the end of the day (or night, whatever the case may be), she’s responsible for her primary relationship and I’m responsible for mine.

    I do draw a line, vague as it may seem. If she’s married-but-cheating and heading towards divorce, I’ve got no trouble at all fucking her. She’s cheating with no intention of leaving him? No thanks, I’ll find a playmate elsewhere.

  4. See, the lady that challenged you appears to me to be exactly the sort of person you should attempt to sustain contact with. Okay, so she used Godwin’s Law on you, thats always annoying when you’re the one likened to a Nazi sympathiser, BUT she still had a valid point.

    Obviously, you don’t have to interact with anyone, but I don’t think she was being abusive, at all. It’s completely irrelevant if she has been cheated on (that point is to Hubman) except that, for you, N, if she had been, she is a highly valuable contact to have.

    I say all this because you state many times on this blog, that you want to be liked. You want to be understood. You don’t see yourself as arrogant, etc, etc. So why disengage with someone who is prepared to help you understand why you might not be liked or understood, or why you might be perceived as arrogant, etc?

    She touched a nerve, and it was a damned interesting one, too.

    I do get your interpretation of responsibly. That if you are not directly deceiving someone, you are not harming them. I think, for the most part, that’s fair, and I can understand why you’d need some kind of line to be drawn. But it’s not as simple as that, and and a huge number (most?) people do think an other man/woman are to blame in the deception of an affair.

    Life’s full of grey areas but this is exactly the type of issue I think should be discussed here. I am fascinated by how you attempt to resolve these. Sometimes, I find your conclusions fair, sometimes I don’t. And your resolution of this particular argument, in my mind, isn’t.

    1. Interesting.

      I’ll take up your suggestion, but first, a clarification. If someone compares me to a Nazi, I’m done. Period. Not because I’m offended, or defensive. Because it’s so ludicrous that it reveals I’m engaged in something other than argumentation. That interlocutor wasn’t arguing, s/he was harassing.

      Now, on to you.

      You say some, maybe even most, people think another man or woman is to blame in an affair. I have no comment on statistics – whether it’s ten percent, fifty percent, or ninety percent. But my view is, whatever the number, they’re all wrong.

      For several reasons.

      First: we each have our personal relationships. The fantasy that we spouses should be able to rely on our gender brothers and sisters to enforce the bonds of our matrimony is, if nothing else, outdated, now that many of us have loosened those bonds. Said differently, how is a third party even to know what are the terms of a marriage one of whose members s/he fucks? And whether s/he does or not, s/he wasn’t a party to the marriage vows that may be being broken, and can’t be held responsible for them.

      Second: blaming the other wo/man is simple sleight of hand, designed to protect us from reality. If your husband fucks another woman, HE is responsible for the impact on you. She doesn’t know you. It’s much safer to be angry at someone you don’t know than to feel betrayed by someone you love. But in the case we are considering, you were.

      And third: The idea of the temptress sells both men and women short: men, because it suggests we are powerless in the face of female sexuality (cf., the Taliban), and women, because it reduces their sexual desires and behaviors to moral counters, subject to constant appraisal relative to some external moral guide.

      No, if your wife betrays you with me, have the balls to direct all your rage at her.

      If your husband strays, limit your anger to him. ‘Cause I have a hunch that any anger you THINK you feel toward the other woman really belongs to him.

      1. I still think you got too touchy about the Hitler thing. It was an extreme example, as the woman conceded, but it was just an example. I didn’t consider it to be harassment at all.

        Yes. Admittedly, I’ve hung out a lot at popular relationship forums. There, cheating is, generally unacceptable and those who participate in it have issues they need to work on, including the third party. And they have a point. Why choose to get involved with someone if, to your knowledge, they are deceiving someone else?

        That ‘to your knowledge’ bit is key, obviously. If they’ve lied to you, you’re not to blame, although you may be a bit of a mug.

        I get your point about where the betrayed spouse should be focusing their anger but what I’m discussing is not really that. This is not about who cheated partners should bitch about. This is about personal responsibility. Where should we, you and I, draw the line?

        I find it hard to reconcile someone who believes in a Buddhist philosophy and who states we should only lie if it’s to the benefit of others, with someone who can happily fuck a unwitting husband’s wife. Sure his wife has a lot to answer for, but where is your empathy for him?

        Life’s tough and we can’t empathise for everyone in the world who has a problem. But when you’re choosing simply another fuck buddy, why not choose the one who doesn’t lie and who isn’t, potentially, breaking the heart of their partner by fucking your brains out?

        As I said, I can see why you’ve drawn the line where you have. I don’t think your viewpoint is massively unfair. But I do see it clashing with other aims you appear to have. You want to do the right thing by as many people as possible, right? You don’t want to be considered selfish? You want to have a good time and you want others to do the same? You want to enjoy yourself without harming others? Sounds great, so why not just pick those who feel the same way as you to have fun with?

        1. I see. Well, re Hitler, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. Where I’m from, analogizing ANYONE to Hitler – EVEN A MASS MURDERER – totally misses the point of Hitler. If that’s not blindingly obvious, I’m not sure what we have left to talk about. I understand that you didn’t consider this person’s attempts both to prevent me from maintaining a profile on OKC and to malign me with the worst comparison I can imagine to be harassment. And all I have to say to that is, um, ok?

          On my part in another woman’s cheating, I guess we just really see the world differently. As I’ve written, I don’t have a zero tolerance view of deception. Many marriages stay together precisely because of the space they make for deception. Which doesn’t mean they would survive that deception’s revelation.

          I’m not saying I like participating in deception, and I often will refuse to, if it feels wrong to me (more on that in an upcoming post). But I simply don’t have a blanket view on this.

          As for my empathy for some unwitting husband, I categorically reject the idea that my fucking a woman reflects a lack of empathy for some man I’ve never met, about whom I know nothing. Including about, say, his own behavior as a husband. Or even what he would think if he knew about me. I can guess, I can presume, but categorically? I have no view.

          Finally, on that last question, I think I CAN say, categorically, that’s what I do.

          1. I’ve got to be honest. I’d forgotten the OKCupid thing. That was weird. I’m not sure a jury would consider it harrrassment, but it was weird.

            She tried to illustrate her point by explaining that those who helped Hitler weren’t completely guilt-free. She didn’t compare you to Hitler. And, obviously, that Godwin’s Law thing is a thing because it happens commonly. This is the internet and people use examples like Hitler because everyone knows Hitler. Of course it was dramatic and silly but harrrassment? Nah.

            I’m not disagreeing you on the honesty thing. I, too, agree that those who struggle with diplomacy can be quite offensive. But I still get what she was saying, as you admitted you did/do.

            I also admit, I think it’s incredibly hard to have a blanket-view on the subject of honesty.

            You categorically reject that fucking an attached woman (who, to your knowledge, is deceiving her partner) reflects a lack of empathy for her partner? Really? I don’t understand that. Sorry.

            His behaviour within the marriage has no reflection on your personal responsibility here. It barely reflects on hers. If she was unhappy about something in her relationship, she should be fixing it or quitting it, not lying her way through it. But, I repeat, it has no reflection on your personal responsibility.

            But, if, as your last sentence suggests, you categorically do not have a good time with people who are harming others (for example, by lying to them about by having an affair), then the point is moot. But your original post seemed to suggest this wasn’t an issue for you. So I’m confused.

          2. Lots of responses.

            First: I don’t know that I care what a jury considers harassment. In my universe, if you repeatedly visit someone’s OKC account to assess, on behalf of the masses, whether s/he is “violating the terms of OKC,” and you repeatedly report them, that’s harassment. Or stalking. Or trolling. Or something.

            Second: I’d never heard the phrase “Godwin’s law” before your previous comment, and I didn’t google it til the second time you referenced it. But I like it. Thank you. (For those who aren’t familiar, it’s the principle that as a comment thread on the internet lengthens, the probability that someone will be compared to Hitler/the Nazis approaches 100%.) And. It may well be true that it’s an inevitability on the internet. It’s not on this blog. I control this blog, and I will not engage in conversations with people who trivialize genocide (or who insanely demonize run-of-the-mill, normative behavior) without thought, awareness, or perspective. My blog, my prerogative. Call it what you will, but my perspective is, such a person is beneath my engagement.

            Third. I don’t categorically reject that fucking an attached woman, who, to my knowledge, is deceiving her partner, reflects a lack of empathy for her partner. I categorically reject that fucking an attached woman, who, to my knowledge, is deceiving her partner, CATEGORICALLY reflects a lack of empathy for her partner. I am a big believer in the multiplicity of possibilities. You seem to imagine that this is always, in every circumstance, wrong. What I think is that this is always, in every circumstance, DIFFERENT.

            Fourth. You state that “… if she was unhappy about something in her relationship, she should be fixing it or quitting it, not lying her way through it.” That’s a moral stance. It’s yours. It’s not mine. Again, I feel that there are different correct answers in different circumstances, and I feel ill situated to evaluate the correct answers in someone else’s relationship.

            And finally, you misunderstood my last sentence, or I mis-wrote it. I do NOT agree with what you write, that I “categorically do not have a good time with people who are harming others.” I categorically do not feel qualified to assess whether people are harming others, including through deceiving them. What I meant in my last sentence was a confirmation of your last sentence – I “pick those who feel the same way as” I do.

            I have a larger post coming on this subject, but this is the thing: people lie. That’s just true. I don’t subscribe to any sort of absolute morality that lying always is wrong. Many marriages thrive on a foundation of lies. Others fall apart on foundations of truth. I don’t judge. I don’t feel qualified to judge.

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