Why you should drop the ‘e’ in ethical non-monogamy
The terms “Consensual non-monogamy (CNM)” or “Ethical non-monogamy (ENM)” have been cropping up in social media increasingly over the last decade. These are umbrella terms used to denote any relationship dynamic other than monogamy: including swinging, polyamory, and open or monogamish relationships. It is often used to talk about any alternative to traditional monogamous (mono-normative) relationships. In ENM all partners involved agree that having sexual and/or romantic relationships with other people is acceptable, allowable and even encouraged.
But as with any linguistic niche, our vernacular is changing. And slowly creators and micro-influencers are dropping the ‘Ethical’ prefix. Here’s why.
1. It concedes the immorality of non-monogamy
In The Ethical Slut, considered a seminal book on the topic of non-monogamy, the ‘ethical’ is used as a preface to help reclaim the highly offensive term following it. It is used to insist on the recognition that one can have multiple lovers, partners and relationships and still be concerned with their ethics and morals. It serves to decouple the notion that the only moral way to have sex is in a committed, monogamous relationship. In some ways, the authors designed the title of their book to be a counter-weight in a society obsessed with shame and judgement.
Using ‘ethical’ in front of ‘non-monogamy’ does largely the same thing. The inclusion of ‘consensual’/’ethical’ to differentiate relationships in which all parties are aware and consenting, from those incidents of non-monogamy in which at least one party is not aware and is being lied to — “cheating”. It serves to decouple the notion that the only way to have multiple partners is through lies, deceit and inherently amoral actions. It is in some ways, designed to be a counter-weight in a society obsessed with shame and judgement… the same as The Ethical Slut.
When we use the ‘ethical’ prefix , we concede in many ways that non-monogamy is inherently unethical
The Ethical Slut is not someone who manages to make their sluttery morally neutral through application of ethical standards, but one who rejects the notion that a slut is inherently immoral in the first place. Similarly, non-monogamy is not an inherently immoral state. Roy, the creator of OpenRelating says “calling it ethical non monogamy basically implies that non-monogamy is unethical and therefore requires a qualifier.” When we use the ethical prefix, we concede that non-monogamy is inherently unethical, and suggests that we have developed ways to make it morally neutral through self-improvement and hardwork. And this, is false.
2. It disallows non-monogamy the right to be messy
We have relationships. With other humans. And this means there will be imperfect, complicated and messy moments. Lying, deceit and mistakes are made everyday in monogamous marriages and monogamous relationships. Yet our society does not afford non-monogamists the same lee-way.
Leanne, the creator behind Poly Phillia blog, says “No one says “ethical-” or “consensual monogamy”. If people can be bad monogamists and still be considered monogamous, why can’t non-monogamous people do the same? Why do we need to justify ourselves in a defensive way?”.
I’m sure we would all hope that those engaged in any interpersonal relationship would strive for honesty, authenticity or equality; no matter their relationship structure or format. But one’s relationship dynamic or identity is not more or less valid by their ability to do this perfectly. Even within the non-monogamous communities, the use of ‘ethical’, holds with it a sense of entitlement or ‘higher than’ which is inescapable.
One’s relationship dynamic or identity is not more or less valid by their ability to do this perfectly
Roy from Open Relating says: “If someone asks if you practice ethical or consensual non-monogamy, you can ask them if they practice ethical-monogamy. They might rethink their assumptions.”
3. It has been used to mask unethical behaviour
This may seem like a trivial turn of phrase, but the move to cease using the ‘Ethical’ in non-monogamy is timely one. It comes off the back of a series of well-documented cases of abuse by individuals claiming to be experts in ENM or a part of the ENM community — including Franklin Veaux, Jeremie Saunders, and Eliot Winter.
The move to remove the ‘ethical’ from non-monogamy… comes off the back of well-documented cases of abuse by individuals claiming to be experts in ENM — including Franklin Veaux, Jeremie Saunders, and Eliot Winter.
These cases of abuse, grooming and human trafficking respectively, have resulted in legal action and a wholesale rejection by ENM communities, but some have simply moved to new spaces (physical or digital) and attempted to replicate their platform as a ‘ENM’ expert. When we use ‘ethical’ to denote a collection of relationship styles or a community, we create a sense of de-facto validation which individuals have and continue to leverage for abuse.
“I show my ethics through my actions, not by using labels.” Says Leanne, from Poly Philia: If my actions were indeed ethical/consensual, I wouldn’t need to justify them with a label. Meanwhile, plenty of people who claim to be ENM/CNM do not act ethically or consensually.”