The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton

Description

Content warning: mentions sex.

“The guide of choice for people curious to move beyond conventional monogamy, and for anyone interested in learning better skills for love, sex, and intimacy, The Ethical Slut will open you up to the adventure and freedom that comes from redefining the way you relate to friends and lovers. Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton offer the techniques, skills, and ideals they have developed for practicing successful and ethical polyamory through open communication, emotional honesty, and managing jealousy. This updated and expanded edition includes more than fifteen practical exercises, new topics such as consent and overcoming sexual shame, tributes to poly pioneers, and interviews with contemporary sluts who are making this way of loving a reality. Whether you’re a card-carrying slut or just testing the waters, you’ll learn how to find your desires and discover romance and friendship beyond your dreams.” – the blurb on the back of my copy, which is a 20th anniversary edition.

Recommendation

Check out this book if you’re curious about the basics of how consensual nonmonogamy works, or if you want a foundational resource from which to start discussions or point you toward other materials. If you already know the basics and you’re looking for something with more contextualized examples and direct advice or exercises for specific relationship scenarios, probably look elsewhere. This is the first book I’ve read about this kind of thing, though, so I unfortunately don’t have suggestions for other readings.

Cover of The Ethical Slut

Discussion

This book functions better as a discussion-starter and thought-prompter than a thorough guide. It’s at times frustrating how cursory a lot of the sections feel, often consisting of just one or two paragraphs on a loaded topic that barely give the lay of the land before moving on. The generality makes the book feel repetitive at times, as introductory sentences about nuanced topics under the same broader category are naturally going to contain similar sentiments, and most of the sections tend to amount to some variation on “this will be intimidating to get into but it is something you can learn; all of the emotions you experience in the process are real and worth sitting with; opening up your preconceived notions about relationship structures can likewise open up opportunities for community in your everyday life; whatever structure you end up choosing should be a choice rather than a default because-you’re-expected-to obligation.” 

There were two notions in the book that I took major issue with. The first is a bizarre proposition that factoring physical appearance into your personal equation of what you find attractive is somehow inherently shallow or immature. In the chapter titled “Making Connection,” the authors write “We do think that physical appearance, wealth, and social status have very little to do with the person behind them, and if any of those criteria appear high up on your ‘who’ list, you may be a little bit stuck in your fantasy.” Wealth and social status, sure, but physical appearance? Further passages in the book revisit this idea, including an exercise for basically spending concentrated time trying to find people physically attractive who you otherwise wouldn’t, and a section about public sex venues like orgies and swingers’ parties where the authors suggest revisiting the aforementioned exercise or going to a nude beach to help set your expectations for what “real people look like without clothes.” I understand wanting to impart to readers that not everyone who participates in poly communities is model-level-attractive, but presumably most readers of this book have some experience in relationships and have a general idea of what they’re attracted to. The book’s focus on expectation setting comes off as a suggestion to lower one’s standards, which is kind of off-putting, as if the authors are implying that sure, you can have an unconventional relationship structure, but you can’t have that AND share it only with people you find physically attractive. Maybe it’s the authors’ way of impressing upon the reader that these lifestyles are still fairly niche and so in a lot of cases there just won’t be as many options as people may be used to.

The second problematic stance in the book, in my opinion, is its lackadaisical attitude toward cheating. The authors seem to regard cheating as an acceptable outlet for poly people who don’t know yet that they’re poly or who are too scared to propose a poly dynamic to their partner, which is deeply ironic for a book with “ethical” in the title. Frustratingly, all of the specific advice in the “Opening an Existing Relationship” chapter is framed for a couple in which one of the partners has either an active cheating relationship with an outside person, or just has an outside person in mind that they immediately want to start a relationship with as soon as it’s cleared with their current partner. There’s nothing in the chapter specifically for couples who aren’t already in the process of looking outside their relationship, and that’s pretty alienating as someone who thinks cheating is unilaterally gross (with very specific exceptions, e.g. for domestic abuse scenarios where it is physically dangerous for someone to leave a relationship without a safety net).

Criticisms aside, The Ethical Slut covers a wide variety of topics and is good for discovering concepts–and learning words for things you knew about but didn’t know the lingo for–to do more research on later. It’s written in a friendly, welcoming tone that encourages the reader to do further independent exploration and gives lots of assurances that being unsure, scared, or nervous is okay, normal, and healthy, and that nothing that you explore or try has to be part of your life forever. 

The ideas in this book about moving past a starvation economy of affection, placing constraints on relationships only as much as needed for personal safety and comfort without restricting that relationship’s potential; making and revising agreements as you learn more about your desires, needs, and limits; owning your emotions and the resolution thereof; and ultimately being responsible for getting your own needs met were the most useful to me at this time in my life. I think all of those concepts apply pretty equally well to friendships as they do to romantic or sexual relationships, and I hope that I can apply some of them as I learn more about creating lasting friendships and finding communities that make me feel supported, wanted, and loved.

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