On Polysexuality (5/5)

by Jason Stotts

The Optimal Solution?

In order to look more in depth into polysexuality, let us take a look at the two kinds of polysexuality and see which form is more likely to maximize our happiness.  In order to do so, we will assume that a couple can meet all of the above requirements in order to morally engage in polysexuality.  Thus, we will be just comparing the benefits or detriments of monoamorous versus polyamorous polysexuality.

Prima facie, it seems to me that monoamorous polysexuality would be the ideal way to be polysexual, since deep intimacy and a shared life with a partner is the only way to achieve the most robust kind of happiness.  Monoamorous polysexuality seems to protect this relationship structure and the bond that the partners form by making sure that there are no competing romantic loves that might threaten the relationship.  Monoamorous polysexuality does not insist that a person can have no feelings at all for the sexual partners outside his relationship, but rather that he should not let these feelings develop into full love.  This does not mean that a person need to ignore or evade his or her feelings, but rather must choose to not allow them to develop all the way.

If we concretize what a monoamorous polysexual relationship looks like, it is structured as a traditional relationship with two partners who live together, share each other’s lives, and who care deeply about each other.  From the outside, it would look like any other traditional relationship organized around a natural pairing of two people.  However, the partners would be free to engage in sexual activities with people besides their partner.  Today, this frequently manifests as swinging and many people will likely think of it this way.  However, it need not be as structured as swinging and can take the form of a couple that only has an occasional erotic encounter with a carefully selected person.  In order to be optimally beneficial to the partners in the couple, the relationship should be constrained such that the sexual contact with others outside the relationship should be with the expressed permission of their partner and with their participation as well, as we described above.  By participating in sexual activities with outside people jointly, sex will continue to be something the binds the couple together.

Monoamorous polysexuality allows the couple to maintain the deep level of intimacy that is the hallmark and chief advantage of monoamorous monosexuality.  By being emotionally exclusive with each other, they will develop the closeness that leads to the kind of shared identity and shared history characteristic of the best relationships, the kind that greatly contributes to a person’s happiness and enriches his life.  At the same time, it allows the partners to express their natural polysexuality, but in a context where it only benefits their life and does not detract from it.  By being in a monoamorous polysexual relationship, the couple gets the best of both worlds and can be completely emotionally and sexually satisfied, without having to sacrifice one to the other.

Now, this is not to say that monoamorous polysexuality is not without its possible problems.  While all relationships require good communication in order to thrive, polysexual relationships require even better communication.  For some couples, this will mean having to work harder at their relationship, but hard work is generally the price of admission for the good things in life and relationships are no different.  Further, it can be harder for some couples to maintain intimacy while having sex with more than one person.  It is important to remember, though, that while intimacy can be enhanced by sex, sex is certainly no guarantee of intimacy.  In order to cultivate true intimacy, a relationship needs to be based on shared values.  Further, it needs a history: the couple needs to have gone through tribulations and celebrations, through bad times and good, so that the partners know that they can truly rely on each other no matter what may happen.  Additionally, the partners must hold each other as their highest value and each other’s happiness as partly constitutive of their own.  Through this, they will develop a shared identity: a personal identity that would be fundamentally incomplete without their partner.  This is intimacy.  Obviously sex will help us to feel closer to our partners, but who would be so crass to assert that the couple who has been together many years in the way we have described, but who could not have sex, for whatever reason, would be any less intimate?  Through sex we experience intimacy, we experience the value of our partner through the physical joys of sex, but sex does not create true intimacy.  Intimacy based on sex is ephemeral, the proverbial castle on a cloud.  If we wish to have true intimacy, we need to work much harder at our relationships than to simply have sex.  Thus, a couple who feels less intimate as a result of polysexuality should work on shoring up their own relationship before they continue and give serious thought to how they view intimacy.

Now, the reason I say that monoamorous polysexuality is preferable to polyamorous polysexuality is that I have serious doubts that most people are capable of the deep kind of intimacy that is necessary for the best kind of life with more than one person.  I find myself in agreement with Aristotle (cf. NE 1156b25, extrapolating his discussion of friendship to all relationships) that the conditions necessary to develop deep and lasting love and intimacy are strenuous and unlikely to be met by more than one person.  Even if someone had the emotional capacity, which is possible, there are still very practical concerns, like time and money, which make it hard to develop multiple love relationships.  Indeed, it’s hard for most of us to dedicate the necessary time and emotional energy to one partner in order to maintain a thriving relationship.  It’s not that I think successful polyamory is impossible, I just think it’s incredibly unlikely.  I think that most polyamorous relationships end up being a shallow kind of love without deep intimacy.  So, it’s not that I think polyamory is necessarily immoral, but if it detracts from intimacy, then it certainly seems to end up in a morally sub-optimal condition.

On the other hand, there do seem to be some structural problems with monoamorous polysexuality, or at least potential problems.  In not allowing himself to feel love for his sexual partners outside his relationship, a person could very well be instituting a mind/body dichotomy by severing sex from love or he could be evading the reality of his feelings by denying or suppressing them.  Both of these are problematic as the former can lead a person to develop psychological problems and a sense of detachment from his body, while the latter can be emotionally devastating as denying emotions generally works to shut down the entire emotional process.  This could obviously be avoided by moving to a polyamorous kind of polysexuality.  Doing so would make it so that a person need not ever have a reason to deny the emotions that he is experiencing.  My concern with this, though, is in the danger of diluting his primary relationship and thus cutting himself off from one of the most important of the external goods for happiness.

This is not to say that I think it is impossible for a person to love more than one person at a time, I do not believe this (for a fuller discussion of this, see my “Is Love a Zero-Sum Game?” Clearly, we are capable of loving a partner, friends, family, children, etc. all concurrently without the love running out, as though it exists in some fixed quantity.  However, deep sexual love does seem to desire to be more exclusive and the kind of emotional intensity that we feel for our lover and the time we need to put into this relationship is much greater than other kinds of love.  Thus, it seems hard for me to believe that a person could maintain two great sexual loves concurrently.  On the other hand, perhaps assuming that they must be equal is incorrect.  Perhaps the sexual relationships need not be equal and the love we feel for our primary partner should be much greater than the love we have for our secondary partners.  While this might work for having short-term relationships, it doesn’t seem viable for the person who wants to have two long-term relationships and have deep love for both of his partners.

If we don’t assume that the love of a person’s outside sexual partners needs to be equal to that of his primary partner, then polyamorous polysexuality seems to be a more viable option.  For, indeed, it does serve to help keep a person from ignoring or evading feelings of love he might develop for his outside sexual partners.  Additionally, if a person had a greater emotional capacity, such that it was not burdened by multiple loves and he had the time, money, and other resources available, then much of out objections against polyamorous polysexuality are removed.  Indeed, many polyamorists argue that living together in a group where everyone loves each other provides great benefits in terms of childcare, living expenses, etc., and that it generally allows everyone to do more with less money than they would be able to do otherwise.

Perhaps the answer is that either polyamorous or monoamorous polysexuality can produce an optimal solution, depending on how the partners engage in these relationships.

Objections and Responses

1. These conditions are overly restrictive and would make engaging in polysexuality very hard, perhaps impossible in practice.

While the conditions are restrictive, the restrictions are acknowledgments of facets of human nature and of the requirements of a good human life, or morality.  While they will, for some people, make polysexuality harder to engage in, they serve to ensure that it will be done in a life-affirming manner and will not cause harm to the person himself, his partner, or their relationship.  Insofar as people engage in polysexuality in violation of the above requirements, their actions are immoral and this essay does not sanction their actions.  There are right ways and wrong ways to engage in polysexuality and if a person wants it to be life affirming, then he needs to engage in it correctly.

2. Are there any kinds of healthy relationships that would be better off as monosexual or that would not do as well as polysexual?

Yes.  I certainly think it’s possible for two people to have a healthy relationship, but be better off in a monosexual relationship; for example, perhaps they don’t have sufficient time, or money, or need to care for parents or children, etc.  Not all people even desire to be in a polysexual relationship and those that do not desire it, should certainly not attempt to engage in one.

Further, there are certainly people who are capable of maintaining one relationship without a problem, but lack the communication skills, emotional capacity, etc, to successfully engage in polysexuality and thus should not do so.  Additionally, some people in successful relationships may have personal problems that would prevent them from successfully engaging in polysexuality.  For example, a person who is very jealous and cannot trust others will never be able to successfully engage in polysexuality.

3. This analysis is centered around people already in relationships, but what about single people?  Can they morally be polysexual?

I think it’s possible to engage in moral polysexuality without being in a relationship, but I think it is harder.  Part of the reason that I think it’s harder is because of the propensity of single people to substitute polysexuality for looking for a good and rewarding relationship in their own life and thus it would impede their long-term happiness.  Further, I think the danger of devaluing sex is greater for a single person engaging in polysexuality.  It seems much easier to start seeing sex as simply for pleasure or simply bodily when a person is single as opposed to when he is in an established relationship, where he has already given sex the respect and recognition of its importance that it deserves.

It is important to point out that it is not that I think it is impossible for a single person to engage in polysexuality, but just that it is much harder.

Conclusions

We began our discussion by first introducing new concepts in order to more clearly discuss the issues of having sex with more than one partner.  Then, we discovered that humans have a polysexual evolutionary past and that, therefore, polysexuality is natural for humans.  Next, we looked at some of the values of polysexuality and reasons why a person might want to engage in it.  We then asked the more important question: but, is it moral?  We elaborated necessary conditions for it to be moral and considered cases where it was immoral.  Finally, we considered both cases of monoamorous polysexuality and polyamorous polysexuality and the advantages and disadvantages of each.  Through this, we have seen that it is possible for a person to morally engage in polysexuality and that doing so can, in some cases, make a person’s life better than it would have been otherwise.

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Part 4

4 Responses to “On Polysexuality (5/5)”


  1. Kelly Elmore

    Do you believe that jealousy is always the result of a psychological problem? Is some jealousy natural?

    “Obviously sex will help us to feel closer to our partners, but who would be so crass to assert that the couple who has been together many years in the way we have described, but who could not have sex, for whatever reason, would be any less intimate?”

    I would. I think that sex deepens and cements intimacy, so people who have been long term partners and are not able to have sex would lose some intimacy. This doesn’t invalidate their relationship. But however intimate the couple is, they can deepen and strengthen that through sex.

    I certainly agree with you that polysexuality can be a moral choice, but I am interested in your opinion on whether it is generally better than monosexuality. If a couple could be healthily polysexual, do you think monosexuality is a less optimal choice?

  2. JasonStotts

    Kelly,

    Jealousy is a natural emotion that is a response to a fear of loss. It can be rational or irrational depending on the ideas to which it is a response. If you have a legitimate reason to value a person and fear that they may leave you for another person, then you should feel jealous. Jealousy is only bad when you are acting solely out of fear and have no reason to suspect that your partner may leave you.

    In terms of your claim that the older couple, that has been together for a long time and who can no longer have sex, is less intimate than one that could, I don’t agree. I agree with you that “sex deepens and cements intimacy.” But, the point I am making is that sex does not cause intimacy. Perhaps sex can only deepen intimacy so much and a lifetime of love and shared experience are quite sufficient to maintain this deep level of connection, even without the sex.

    In terms of whether I think that it is better than monosexuality, I think that is a question that depends solely on the couple and the people in the relationship. If a couple could have a healthy polysexual relationship and they desire to do this, then yes, monosexuality would be sub-optimal.

    ~Jason

  3. D. Bandler

    Jason,

    I was wondering what your opinion of the book “Sex at Dawn” is. The book is making the argument that monogamy or monosexuality as you call it is not natural; that religion and the state have created the traditionalist, patriarchal society of the last 10,000 years. Obviously this book is going to give Conservatives fits. The evolutionary psychologists also seem to argue that evolution hardwired humanity for serial monogamy.

    But in light of philosophy and of the Objectivist approach to romantic love, do you still think that a sexually exclusive monosexual relationship is the optimal setup? Or are there multiple arrangements that are ideal for human sexual relationships? I have often wondered if a true laissez-fair society would lead to a radically different type of sexual culture than we have seen so far in human history. Perhaps polysexuality of some type or other is better suited for the human sexual psychology. But it is hard to make any meaningful conclusions in this area because right now our culture is dominated by post-modern philosophy and the nihilistic New Left. The New Left’s aim is to destroy all standards: traditional *and* rational.

    Fascinating subject. I am looking forward to the eventual publication of your book.

  4. Erosophia

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