Compersion?

by Jason Stotts

Compersion is a word commonly used in polyamorist and swinger circles.  It means, roughly, the ability to derive pleasure from your partner’s pleasure.  However, from an etymological standpoint, the word is absolute nonsense – an utter abomination of a word.  The prefix “com-” mean “with” or “together,” the prefix “per-” means “through,” and the suffix “-sion” is used to form nouns and means something like “the state of X,” where X is what comes before the -sion.  So, “compersion” means something like “the state of together through.”  Yeah, it should make you cognitively shudder.  This is what happens when hippies living in a commune make up words.

Anyway, the thing that the word is trying to point to is a real phenomenon and is an important ability for those engaged in polysexual lifestyles.  After all, you should gain pleasure from your partner’s pleasure if your partner is a value to you. That is, if your parter is a value to you, then that which is good for him or her is also good for you, since his or her good is also your good, by virtue of your partner being a value to you.  In case that’s not clear, the point is that those things which further your values are values to you (as a consequence of this) and your values being furthered improves your own lot.  In the case of your partner, if you truly value them and place them highly on your hierarchy of values, then that which is good for your partner is, for that reason, good for you.

Thus, for the rational man or woman who highly values their partner, their partner’s pleasure should be pleasant to them.  This fact is not limited to any one realm, but is true of all the things that your partner values: even if the same thing would not be a direct value to you.  If, for example, your partner loves to play chess and you do not, but your partner derives great pleasure from playing chess, then even though you wouldn’t want to play chess, you should be glad that your partner does enjoy it and you should enjoy the fact of their enjoyment.  (Lest it is thought that I am about to deal with polysexuality without first addressing whether or not it can be moral, let me refer you to my essay “On Polysexuality” where I address this question.) Now, in the sexual realm, this fact holds true as well.  However, this doesn’t mean that a rational man or woman cannot, or will not, still feel jealousy.  On the contrary, being raised in our culture, tainted by the christian hatred of all things sexual, it would be hard not to feel jealous at first.

Jealousy is an emotion that is a response to fear of loss.  In contrast with envy, which is desiring that which another has, jealousy is a fear that a value one has in danger.  When your partner spends time with someone else or engages in sexual activities with another person, it is common in our culture to feel jealous, which is to worry that the value you have in your partner is in danger of being lost to this other person.  This is to be expected, since we live in a culture that says that you can only have sex with the person who you intend to die with and that this sex can’t be for pleasure, but only for reproduction.  Further, our culture says that love is a zero-sum game and that any attention that your partner gives to another person must, necessarily, diminish his or her affection for you, since your partner’s love is a finite quantity.  Note that not all cultures share these assumptions and that showing jealousy is shameful in some cultures, because it shows a lack of trust or a sense of ownership (depending on the culture).

In a good and healthy relationship, there should not be any reason for jealousy, because both partners should be on the same page and should be communicating openly and honestly about their needs and feelings.  Furthermore, since their relationship is based on real values and their love on each others character and because they have a shared past and shared identity, there should be no cause for concern that one’s partner might leave.  This kind of relationship is stable and can handle nearly anything.  Further, the knowledge that one’s partner will be completely honest and upfront about any issue removes the need to be suspicious of them and makes it possible to trust them in a way that isn’t possible without this complete honesty.  Not only that, but knowledge of your partner’s integrity means you need never doubt them or whether they will keep your interests as their own.  In short, in a good and healthy relationship you need not fear that your partner will leave you and thus jealousy is unwarranted.

However, just because jealousy is unwarranted does not mean that you will not experience it.  The question you need to ask yourself is whether the cause of the jealousy is ideas you’ve accepted by osmosis through the culture or whether it is because there is actually a serious problem in your relationship.  Remember, your emotions are not impenetrable things that just happen to beset you from time to time, but, rather, are an automatic response to antecedent value judgments.  If your value judgements are well formed and consistent with your conscious ideas, then your emotions will be in line with your reason and they will serve your life.  If, on the other hand, your value judgments are a random assortment of half formed ideas, then your emotions will give you contradictory responses and they will seem to be alien to you, since they are not in line with your conscious ideas.

Ultimately, the thing that “compersion” is trying to point to is real and it is quite valuable for those who want to engage in a polyamorous or polysexual lifestyle.  However, the name has got to go and we shall need a new name for the concept.  I’m not sure that I have come up with the perfect name yet, but I’m considering two options: erotic resonance or empathetic pleasure response.  Either one would be better than “compersion.”

3 Responses to “Compersion?”


  1. Aaron

    Despite all the negative attitudes to sex that we can attribute to religion or culture, I don’t see how jealousy is so ‘nurture’. Jealousy makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary standpoint, and (possibly hippie bonobos aside 🙂 ) it is exhibited in sexual competition of most animals. An evolutionary argument is only to say something’s part of human nature, but not one way or the other whether it’s something we should embrace or counter – after all, tendencies to murder or rape could be shown from nature, yet are rationally countered for man’s long-term interests, getting along in groups, etc. I just don’t see how it is an artificial construct of religion or culture instead of part of human nature, and I think it has to be handled as part of our nature regardless what the ultimate conclusion about accepting or cognitively fighting jealousy might be.

  2. JasonStotts

    Aaron,

    Jealousy, insofar as it is an emotion, is certainly natural.

    It is the object of jealousy and the reasons why people are getting jealous that are learned behaviors and these have to do with the ideas I named above in the essay.

    Furthermore, I don’t think it’d be so easy to establish jealousy of the kind described in the essay as part of our nature. If we look at our closest primate relative, the hippie bonobos, and their utter lack of jealousy, we see one very real possibility for how human nature might have been in pre-civilization.

    Ultimately, though, I think you are right that whether or not it is part of our nature, we must decide whether the behavior improves or harms our lives and act accordingly based on our reason.

    ~Jason

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