by Jason Stotts
Following my essay “Contra Peikoff on Swinging,” I wanted to write a defense of “non-monogamy.” I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t the subject that was the problem; instead it was the very concept, which was particularly ill suited to my endeavors. First, it presupposes that monogamy is the standard and that non-monogamy is aberrant. Second, words that are defined negatively only tell you about what they are not; what is more cognitively useful is when words are defined positively such that a person can learn what a thing is from its definition. Third, and the biggest problem, is an etymological problem: the word monogamy comes from Greek mono- (single) + gamos (marriage) and means having only one marriage. Thus, the concept “non-monogamy” subsumes only three units: being single (zero marriages), bigamy (two marriages) and polygamy (multiple marriages). The concept non-monogamy says nothing about the number of sexual partners a person has, or even the number of people that one loves, but only the number of spouses a person has and this wasn’t what I was interested in defending or even analyzing.
What I am interested in analyzing is the practice of having multiple sexual partners. In order to flesh out this phenomenon completely and to investigate it, we first need to identify it conceptually. I will begin by naming it “polysexuality” combining the Greek poly- (more, many) with the Latin sexus (sex) and meaning by it the condition of having multiple, or more than one, sexual partners during any one time period (not necessarily simultaneously) or of having sex with people besides a person’s partner while he is in a relationship. As much as I hate to combine Greek and Latin, the standard nomenclature regarding sexuality has already been bastardized and, so, for clarity’s sake in English, I will follow suit. The problem is that there is no sufficient word in the English language to deal with the phenomenon that we are analyzing and so I must introduce this new word to carry the cognitive weight of the following analysis. Furthermore, in contrast to “polysexual,” I will introduce the word “monosexual,” the Greek mono- (one), as meaning sex with only one person during any time period or, to put it another way, a person who does not have sex with anyone besides his partner when he is in a relationship.
Lest it be objected that the word “promiscuity” would have functioned equally well, let me point out that promiscuity means that a person is not very selective about hir or her sexual partners, but this does not mean that he or she necessarily has multiple sexual partners. Indeed, a person could only have one sexual partner and have done a poor job selecting this person and thus should be considered promiscuous. Promiscuity is a qualitative judgment, not a quantitative one, and attempting to use it in our analysis would only muddy the waters.
I will also be using the concept “polyamorous” to mean a person that experiences romantic love for multiple people in the same time period or who has multiple relationships at the same time. While this word has been given many nebulous meanings through use, I am going to be using it strictly here to only mean experiencing romantic love for multiple people at the same time. In contrast, I will be using the term, another neologism unfortunately, monoamorous to mean a person who experiences romantic love for only one person in the same time period or who does not romantically love any person besides his or her partner.
Armed with these new concepts, we can now categorize all relationships as one of four types:
- monoamorous/monosexual (M/M)
- monoamorous/polysexual (M/P)
- polyamorous/monosexual (P/M)
- polyamorous/polysexual (P/P)
It is now time to give a more thorough analysis of polysexuality: its naturalness, the reasons why a person might want to engage in it, the conditions necessary to morally engage in it, and possible values a person might gain from it.
The Value of Love and Sex in a Human Life
In order to motivate our discussion of polysexuality, it’s useful to begin with looking at the value of sex itself, since if sex with one person isn’t valuable, then it’s not likely that sex with more than one person will be. Nonetheless, this may seem strange to anyone who has ever experienced the joys of sex and, indeed, sex does seem like the exemplar of a natural good. However, even though sex is obviously pleasurable, sex in all instances is not good, as in the case of rape. Thus, we need to look at whether sex is valuable in life and, if it is, in what ways it is and how it helps contribute to a good life.
Traditionally, sex and love has been left out of most accounts of ethics and of the good life. With few exceptions, like Aristotle and Ayn Rand, the value of others, in any capacity, in a good life is usually ignored. Even with these great philosophers, though, a full account of the necessity of love and sex for a good life is lacking. This is strange, though, as most of us recognize the importance of love and sex in our lives. Indeed, few us would choose to live if he knew that his life was to be both loveless and sexless.
While sex is immensely pleasurable, the value of sex is more than just this. There is a deep yearning in most people to share a connection with other people. Aristotle recognized this and for this reason called us the political animal. This need is for more than just sex, it is for love and for good people to share our lives. While we also have friends for the same reasons, our lovers are more important to our overall happiness and play a bigger role in our lives. Our friends and lovers fulfill a real human need to connect. Further, through our friends and lovers we can experience the world as we wish it were and see out own actions reflected back at us, to that we can more clearly see ourselves and our values (cf. with the Aristotelian idea of mirroring).
Our lover has an even more important role as he or she becomes a part of us, enriching our lives and increasing the scope of our happiness. The intimacy required for this is profound and it takes quite a bit of shared history and living together to develop. Once it does, though, the reward is one of the most profound joys open to humans: that of being able to experience your values, including your lover, in physical form through sex. Sex is truly one of the most morally significant acts that we can do. Thus, if we are to even consider polysexuality, we must make sure that it will not harm the role of sex in love in our lives, lest we cut ourselves off from true happiness for no more than physical pleasure.