French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most prolific non-monogamist of the last century. His lifelong open relationship with philosopher and feminist (and bisexual) Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he shared a belief in authentic personal freedom, is legendary. He was not, however, entirely ethical.
Philosophical historian Louis Menand, in The New Yorker, documents how Sartre deceived, swindled and manipulated his way through a long list of lovers, leaving a trail of resentment and broken hearts behind him. Perfect authentic freedom, in Sartre’s case, was licence to be a dick.
Modern polyamory, as with Sartre, often expresses itself as a desire for freedom: freedom from tradition, monogamy, boredom or sex-negativity. Traditional relationship rules are replaced with self-tailored agreements, anything being acceptable as long as it is agreed to. Unfortunately, as with Sartre, it is quite possible to keep agreements and still be a pain in the ass.
Writers Franklin Veaux, from Portland, and Eve Rickert, from Vancouver, take a stab at this problem in their new book More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory.
Veaux and Rickert argue that, while there may be no perfect way to be non-monogamous, there are certainly some very bad ones. Among them, they list hierarchical relationships, “primary” partners, vetoes and non-negotiable relationship rules.
Even if these pacts are mutual, the authors say, the inevitable emotional repercussions are often too much for a relationship to bear.
Hierarchical and veto agreements, in which one partner controls what happens to others, Veaux and Rickert say, are most often driven by fear and insecurity. “Many people say, ‘I need rules in my relationship,’” they write, “but what they actually need is . . . something like security or stability, a sense of empowerment, predictability, or safety.”
Instead of acting decently, More Than Two’s case-study subjects create rules to protect themselves and then treat their partners terribly. Agreements need to be more than just freely chosen, Veaux and Rickert argue. They need to be ethical.
More Than Two is less like Sartre and more like his sterner predecessor, German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant, who reportedly died a virgin and never travelled farther than 10 miles from his home town, defined a moral action as one that treats people as ends, not means, and respects individual agency. Veaux and Rickert riff off Kant to create their own axioms: don’t treat relationships as more important than people, and don’t treat people like things. This means, they say, that even casual partners have rights in a relationship, like it or not.
The upside of More Than Two is that Veaux and Rickert are not afraid to tell people they are wrong. Popular books on non-monogamy, such as The Ethical Slut and Opening Up, have generally encouraged people to break all the rules, given the proper agreements. More Than Two takes a stand on ethical questions beyond mere consent.
The admonition to “communicate, communicate, communicate” is all very good but not if you communicate poorly (“passive communication will fuck you right up,” the authors write). Mutual agreements are fine but not as crutches to replace trust and respect (“If they cannot be trusted to make the relationship work, it won’t, rules be damned”).
The downside is that More Than Two will probably not change many minds. The book is written from a loose collection of stories, generalizations and personal opinions (an approach one footnote limply names “anecdote-based poly”). It’s easy to nod sagely at the sections you agree with and dismiss those that make you uncomfortable.
The book lacks the concrete limits of scientific review, the detailed research of journalistic non-fiction or the rigour of philosophy. Even so, More Than Two manages to run to nearly 500 pages. For a book with as provocative a thesis, Veaux and Rickert bring a lot of bark and not much bite.
For readers who make it all the way through, however, More Than Two can be credited with confronting a problem far too often avoided in polyamorous writing: the close but tempestuous relationship between polyamorous and LGBT communities.
There is barely a mention of gay male relationships in the book, and no wonder: non-monogamy, as the authors point out, is intensely divided by sexuality. Straight polyamory, they write, still struggles with homophobia, while some gay people accuse polyamory of undermining gay societal acceptance. Some bisexual and trans people, the authors suggest, flee to polyamory to escape gay and lesbian cultures that view them with suspicion.
This is the sort of tough problem with which the largely straight, cisgendered polyamorous world will have to grapple one day. To do so, they need a new normal of relationship theory, with its own rules, codes and ethics. More Than Two is a tentative step in that direction: a little more Kant and a little less Sartre.