Why ‘Consensual’ and not ‘Ethical’ Non Monogamy?

Photo: Robert Ashworth

When I sat down to write my book ‘A World Beyond Monogamy’ I was still using the term ‘ethical non monogamy’ as a catch-all to distinguish conscious, negotiated non-monogamy from cheating. It’s pretty much been the default term in poly/swinging circles for years. However, this is where I owe Zayna a thank you for lobbing in a question-bomb and suggesting ‘consensual non monogamy’ instead.

In the end it was a fairly simple decision to go with CNM over ENM. Here’s the thing: the label ‘ethical’ is subjective. You might think the fact you’ve agreed with your partner that you can both date other people means that what you’re doing is more moral than someone cheating on their partner, but there are others who will say different. 

It’s not too hard to imagine a religious conservative fulminating that anything that isn’t a monogamous relationship sanctified by marriage is immoral, full stop (‘period’ if you’re in the States). How about someone who goes even further and argues that by cheating you not only leave yourself morally compromised but that by agreeing with your partner that it’s OK for both of you to deviate from the monogamous path you lead them into sin as well?

Of course their ethical might well not be yours, and it barely needs pointing out that the desire that some people have to regulate other people’s private lives is often leavened with a dose of hypocrisy – Jerry Falwell Jr is hardly the only religious leader to preach one thing and practice another. Setting yourself up as any sort of moral paragon is an invitation to be dragged back down to earth.

So, ethical is difficult – your ‘ethical’ non monogamy might not be my ‘ethical’ non monogamy. In that gap between what two people differently understand to be ethical is where trouble lies especially if both assume that the other’s ethical is the same as theirs. And let’s not even get into wider ethics – can you be ‘ethically’ non monogamous and a rapacious capitalist, a racist, a misogynist? ‘Well I’m thoroughly ethical in my non monogamy but I don’t date [x] people…’ You can see why that’s a pit of snakes, right? 

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that being non monogamous is a less ethical choice than being monogamous, only that one person’s ‘moral’ is another’s ‘immoral’. The wisest people I know don’t claim to be moral or ethical, just flawed but aware of it and trying to do their best to live up to the standards they set themselves. 

So rather than get into an argument with people about what’s ethical or with those who simply disagree with the whole idea of non-monogamy let’s just focus on the key issue – consent. 

When I talk about consensual non monogamy the starting point is that everyone involved, not just the core couple or triad or whatever, has freely given their wholehearted consent,  knowing exactly what it is they’re consenting to and understanding the wider context that might influence their choice. It’s much easier, though not without its own potential for misunderstanding, to assess consent than agree on what is ethical and what is not. 

Going with CNM rather than ENM also helps deflate that balloon of superiority that a few people carry around on the end of a string. It’s about choice, it’s about mutuality, it’s not about being inherently better or worse than someone who makes a different choice.

Consent is such a critical topic when discussing sexuality of all kinds that we decided to devote one of our early episodes to it in its entirety. So Episode 3 of Beyond Monogamy will come out on 30th November, the International Day of Consent to mark that occasion. More about that in due course but I can tell you know,  it’s a humdinger. Stay tuned… 

Photo under creative commons licence.

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