On Polysexuality (4/5)

by Jason Stotts

Necessary Conditions for Morally Permissible Polysexuality

The necessary conditions to morally engage in polysexuality all stem from the moral standard that we identified earlier: the good is that which improves a person’s life and happiness as well as those of his partner, while the evil is that which harms a person’s life or happiness or those of his partner.

1. Having Good Reasons

We won’t delve into this issue much more, after thoroughly analyzing it in the last section, but it is important to remember that a person’s reasons for engaging in polysexuality are of the utmost importance and that if he has bad reasons to engage in polysexuality, then there is no moral way to do so.

2.  Open and honest communication.

In addition to having good reasons to want to engage in polysexuality, it is also necessary that the couple have open and honest communication both between the partners themselves and any other person with whom they might want to engage in sexual activity.  Open and honest communication is key because polysexuality runs counter to cultural and religious expectations of monosexuality and culturally ingrained beliefs that sexually exclusive relationships are the only kind of stable relationships.  Consequently, when engaging in polysexual behavior, a person may feel fear, which is the emotion that is a response to the expectation of loss of values, since many of us share the cultural belief that polysexual relationships are naturally unstable and if our partner has sex with another, then they will leave us.  However, neither the idea that monosexuality is natural nor the idea that polysexual relationships are naturally unstable find little support in reality.  Certainly, if a person is engaging in a polysexual relationship for bad reasons, like in order to placate a partner, then the polysexual relationship will drive a wedge between the partners and lead to the dissolution of the relationship and hurt feelings.  However, this is a function of engaging in these behaviors for bad reasons and not a necessary function of the actions themselves.

It is imperative for the couple to maintain open and honest communication if the partners hope to successfully engage in polysexuality and that they inform each other of how they are feeling, what they are enjoying and not enjoying, and any and all other relevant information that each partner needs in order to understand how his partner is feeling and the effect polysexuality is having on his partner and their relationship.  As soon as communication breaks down, the partners will begin trying to infer information from their partner’s actions or statements that may or may not be accurate and will consequently act on insufficient or incorrect information.  This greatly increases the likelihood that the relationship will suffer or that one or both of the partners will feel jealous or hurt by their activities.  That open and honest communication is a necessary condition for morally engaging in polysexuality should come as no surprise to most people, since it forms the foundation of all relationships and no relationship could survive without communication, whether monosexual or polysexual.

In terms of the people with whom a couple hopes to engage in sexual activity, it is also imperative that they have open and honest communication if they want to have a successful sexual encounter.  The couple must clearly communicate what they desire to get out of the sexual activities, their boundaries and activities that they want to engage in and those that they do not want to engage in, and any information that the third party has a reasonable right of knowing, such as STD status or conditions that might affect the sexual activity such as erectile dysfunction.

Although open and honest communication about those things that are very close to our core personal identity, like our sexuality, and about which we might feel embarrassed or unsure, since we have grown up in a sex-negative culture, can be difficult, it is imperative that this communication take place if polysexuality is to be engaged in successfully and ethically.

3.  The free, and fully informed, consent of your partner.

While this condition seems patently obvious, it is still necessary for a person to morally engage in polysexuality and one that some couples do run afoul of.  By the free, and fully informed, consent of a person’s partner I mean that a person openly communicates with his partner his reasons for wanting to engage in polysexuality and then, after deliberation, his partner freely chooses to engage in polysexuality.  In order for his partner’s consent to be fully free, he cannot subject his partner to any pressure to acquiesce to polysexuality or to doing any activities with which he or she is not comfortable.

Of course, such consent is harder to get in a culture that so highly values monosexuality.  In a culture that valued polysexuality or in a future where polysexuality was valued, then this point would likely be a null point, since polysexuality would be the default kind of relationship, much as monosexuality is now.

Some partners attempt to underhandedly encourage their partner to engage in polysexuality by introducing them into situations, without their partner’s foreknowledge, to which they would not otherwise consent: for example, by taking them to a swinger’s party or club and then hoping that their partner will feel either pressured or aroused by the activities and will then join in.  Not only is this patently immoral, since it is treating your partner as a non-agent who is incapable of reasoned choice and deliberation, it is also deceptive and shows a fundamental lack of respect for your partner.  This indicates that not only is this relationship not the kind that will be able to successfully engage in polysexuality, it also indicates that the relationship has some very serious problems and is not a healthy relationship.

The simple fact is that some people might never want to engage in polysexuality and if a person cannot rationally and non-coercively convince his or her partner to engage in polysexuality, then he has only two choices: to forget polysexuality or end the relationship.  Polysexuality can only be a value in a person’s life under certain conditions and if he has to coerce or deceive his partner in order to convince him or her to engage in it, then polysexuality will not be valuable.

4.  Complete respect for your partner and his or her boundaries.

Once a person has met the above conditions, that of having good reasons, having open and honest communication with his partner and possible sexual partners, and having the free and fully informed consent of his partner, then, and only then, can he move forward and begin a discussion of actually engaging in polysexuality.  Part of this discussion must be a discussion of boundaries and what each partner is comfortable doing and what he or she is not comfortable doing.  Especially at the beginning of a couple’s foray into polysexuality, a couple should set up overly restrictive boundaries and adhere to these until they are sure that they want to continue moving forward and that both partners are actually okay with engaging in polysexuality.  Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to predict how you might react if you were actually in a new sexual situation and/or seeing your partner engaging in sexual activities with another person.  There simply is no way to rationalistically be sure that one will be completely comfortable with polysexuality before the fact.  Even if a person is convinced of the possibility of morally engaging in polysexuality, having grown up in such a sex negative culture like ours, it is impossible to know whether he is harboring some premises that will come to the fore during a sexual encounter that could be upsetting.

After the couple has some lighter experience with polysexuality, and the amount here will be completely dependent on the individuals involved, the couple should reassess their boundaries together and whether they want to relax any particular boundaries, add new boundaries, or both.  Perhaps a couple will relax some of their original boundaries, but will add new ones for things that they overlooked.  The reassessment of the boundaries must be done together and set at such a level that neither partner will be asked to engage in any activity that he or she may not want to do.  Thus, in the case of disagreement about where the boundaries should be, the boundaries must be set at the more restrictive level so that one partner will not put themselves into a position of having a bad reason for engaging in polysexuality, i.e. to placate or appease a partner, and thereby make it immoral.  Furthermore, the attempt of one partner to coerce the other partner to engage in sexual activity that he or she does not want is also immoral, as we have already shown, and if these two actions are combined, it doubly invalidates a couple’s claim to be engaging in polysexuality morally and thus represents a very serious moral violation.  If a couple finds themselves in this situation, it is imperative that they immediately cease all outside sexual activities and reassess their primary relationship.  Like all things, polysexuality is not inherently valuable and if we want it to be a value in our lives, then we must be careful how we practice it, lest it end up causing harm.  Whether or not polysexuality ever comes to be accepted as normal, starting to engage in polysexuality with a new partner should always be done slowly and carefully.  However, the speed at which a couple could safely proceed would likelier be much faster if polysexuality was more widely accepted.

5. Practicing safer sex.

Safer sex is another necessary condition for moral polysexuality and a very serious and important one.  It is patently irrational to risk your health by contracting STD’s when we have very good ways to detect their presence and reduce the risks of their transmission.  Consequently, the couple who seeks to engage in polysexuality should first get the full range of STD testing in order to make sure that they do not currently have any STD’s.  If they do, they should take precautions not to spread them and should fully inform any potential partners of their condition so that they can make a free and fully informed decision about whether they still want to engage in sexual activities with the infected person or couple.  If they do not have any STD’s, then they must take precautions to stay that way.  This means not engaging in sexual activity with any person who has not recently tested negative for STD’s and using protective barriers, such as condoms and dental dams, in order to prevent the possible transmission of disease.  It cannot be overly stressed that safer sex is not risk-free sex.  No matter what the context, whether swinging, dating, or casual sex, there is always a risk of STD’s.  The tests we have are very accurate, but not perfectly so.  The methods we have for preventing the spread of STD’s, such as condoms, are very effective, but not perfectly so.  It is called safer sex because it is much safer than it would be otherwise, but it is not perfectly safe: some risk still exists.  It is up to each individual to minimize the risks as much as possible and to gauge whether the remaining risks are outweighed by the benefits.  Although, realistically, riding in a car is much riskier for your health than any sexual activity with proper protection (or even without).

It is also important to note that since most people who engage in polysexuality are generally in their sexually fertile years, birth control must be employed.  Pregnancy can be a wonderful experience and children can be one of the highest values life has to offer, but an unplanned pregnancy and children that a person does not want, or cannot care for, can be a nightmare.  It is imperative that a couple thinks carefully about if and when they want to have children and plan accordingly.  In an age where we can all but entirely prevent unwanted pregnancy, to not take precautions is completely irrational and immoral.

6.  Finding acceptable partners.

Finding morally acceptable partners to engage in polysexuality with is not very complicated: it generally follows the same rules that a person would use to find a potential relationship partner.  The ideal partner is one where there is value alignment, a complementary sense of life, mutual sexual attraction, and an enjoyment of each other’s company.

By value alignment, I mean that two people share at least their fundamental values: the more values two people share, the stronger their value alignment is and vice versa.  Strong value alignment leads to a closer connection, making it more likely that all the parties will be able to respect each other and enjoy spending time together.  Furthermore, those who share your values are more likely to be a value to you in your life, as they will be working to achieve the same ends that you are, making you allies in common goals.

Value alignment, although necessary, is not sufficient.  There are people with whom I might have a perfect value alignment, but who have a divergent sense of life and thus I would not want to be around them.  Consider that a person who has a very benevolent sense of life will not enjoy the company of someone with a strongly malevolent sense of life, even if they have a strong value alignment.  These two people will most likely irk each other as they will always have different analyses of the same issue in light of their sense of life, even though they might agree on the objective facts of the situation and the moral implications.  In general, it is best to find a partner with the same or a complementary sense of life.

It should go without saying that a person should only pick a partner to whom he is sexually attracted, although it’s not likely that he would pick a person for sexual activity to whom he was not attracted.  However, some people do commit the error of thinking that a person’s personality is all that counts and that their physical attractiveness is irrelevant.  This is fine in the case of friendship, but in the case of a sexual partner it is immoral.  It involves ignoring or evading an objective fact, whether or not one is attracted to the other person, and acting as though a person’s body is irrelevant.  It is an instance of mind/body dualism, even if it is opposite to the way it usually works.  If a person is not sexually attracted to someone else, then it is immoral to engage in sexual activity with him or her, not to mention quite difficult to become aroused to do so.

Finally, you should enjoy the company of the other person.  While, again, it is not likely that a person would choose to engage in sexual activity with a person that he did not enjoy being around, it is certainly possible.  If you don’t enjoy being around a person, it is very hard to see how they could be a value in your life.

7. Maintaining a reverence for sex

A reverence for sex is certainly not the same thing as a reverence for monosexuality and over-emphasizing the latter can lead one to devalue the former.  Indeed, there is nothing explicitly reverential about sex with only one person.  Rather, it is the way that a person engages in sex and the beliefs that he holds about sex that determine how he treats sex and whether sex can be a value in his life.

So, what is a reverence for sex?  Reverence for sex is holding a deep respect for sex and its importance in human life.  For, indeed, sex is important.  Sex is constitutive of a good human life and without sex, it’s not clear that a person could have a good life in any real sense.  Aristotle noted that some things were so important in a human life that happiness would be incomplete without them and I think it’s clear that sex is one of these goods.

Let me draw an analogy between conversation and sex.  Conversation with others can be a very great value in life.  On the other hand, it can be an absolute waste of time.  It can be enjoyable or painful; it depends on what you talk about and with whom.  Deep, serious, intellectual conversation is generally the most rewarding, but a person can also find value in light conversation with pleasant people.  He need not have any particular reason to converse with someone else or he can do it to achieve some end.  Further, having shallow conversations does not devalue intellectual conversations and may even make a person value them more.  Now, although the analogy is not perfect, I believe it works pretty well, especially given the context of all of the above information.

It is my belief that it is possible to engage in polysexuality and still maintain a reverence for the importance of sex in life.  Perhaps a person can even gain a deeper sense of reverence through it.

Polysexuality: The Final Verdict

After all of this, we still must ask the question: is polysexuality moral?  That is, does polysexuality contribute to a person’s happiness?  The answer, as is the case in many ethical questions, is: it depends.  Polysexuality can be moral and above we’ve elaborated some of the considerations that a person needs to be aware of if he wants to morally engage in polysexuality.  On the other hand, it’s not hard to see how polysexuality could go wrong and end up being immoral and detracting from a person’s happiness.

This brings up one of the challenges of eudaimonism for those that come to it from a rule-based ethic: there are not always cut and dry answers to moral questions.  Eudaimonistic ethics rely on a moral agent applying general principles to a particular situation in order to gain moral guidance.  Thus, for a eudaimonist, phronesis, or practical reasoning, is of paramount importance.

This generalized nature of eudaimonistic ethics is what prevents us from being able to say that polysexuality is unequivocally moral.  It can be moral if it is practiced well, but it can also be damaging to a persons’s happiness and long-term interests.

Nonetheless, we can say without hesitation that polysexuality can be moral.


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