On Polysexuality (Revised)

by Jason Stotts  

Summary: Our language related to sex must be expanded to capture all of the variations that we see in real life.  And we need to understand this because sex is good and a valuable part of a human life.  The way we structure our relationships and sex lives has a lot of optionality that depends on the people in the relationship and can include multiple loving relationships or multiple sexual relationships, the right way for any particular couple may not be monosexual monoamory, and this would be fine because polysexuality and polyamory are natural and can be perfectly moral choices.  As long as we observe some simple guidelines, leaving societally structured relationships and constructing our own can help us to live the best kind of lives possible.

Introduction

I originally wrote this essay back in 2010 as a follow-up of my essay “Contra Peikoff on Swinging,” an essay responding to Peikoff’s complete misunderstanding and then denunciation of swinging.  I had intended to write a defense of “non-monogamy.”  I couldn’t do it, but it wasn’t the subject that was the problem. Instead it was the very concept of “non-monogamy”, which was particularly ill suited to my endeavors as it has many inherent problems.  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 (having sex with no one is also “non-monogamy”).  Third, and the biggest problem, is an etymological problem: the word monogamy comes from Greek mono- (single) and 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 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.

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 his 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:

  1. monoamorous/monosexual (M/M)
  2. monoamorous/polysexual (M/P)
  3. polyamorous/monosexual (P/M)
  4. 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 that 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.

Sex is more than just our connection with others.  Sex is also immensely pleasurable.  Moreover, sex lets us “be” in our bodies: it allows us to feel completely embodied for a while in a unique and robust way.  Sex lets us tap into our body’s great capacity for pleasure and to experience the greatest pleasure open to us.  In short, sex feels good.

Isn’t Polysexuality Unnatural?

Before we begin our moral analysis, we must address the claim that polysexuality is unnatural, as it is the most common objection to polysexuality and the foundation of most objections to it.  However, what is the evidence that humans are naturally monosexual?  That some cultures are?  Others are not.  That some of our closest species-relatives are?  Our very closest are not.  That it is the optimal way to have a relationship?  What if it is not for everyone?  Interestingly, the preponderance of the evidence seems to suggest that humans are naturally polysexual or, at least, evolved polysexually.

So, what do we mean by “natural”?  A characteristic or trait is called natural when it is part of a thing’s nature.  By it’s nature, we mean the things that make it an X instead of any non-X.  Today, we might understand this for living things in terms of genetics and we would call a thing “natural” if it comes from our genes and develops unimpeded and without corruption.  Thus, a natural hair color is the one specified in a person’s genes, as opposed to an artificial hair color that is the result of dying it.  For humans being polysexual, we mean that humans are disposed to this because of traits in our genes.  It does not follow, however, that all things that are possibilities from our genes are good or desirable (and this point should be kept in mind), but simply that they are “natural” and follow from human nature.

I will not give a complete account of all of the evidence that humans are naturally polysexual, since that would take far too long; nor will I analyze the evidence from other primates in great detail.  Instead, let me refer readers looking for such an account to the very well done new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality in which the authors give the full evidence for the naturalness of polysexuality (although they do not use that term), as well as copious references to support their position.  Here, I will confine myself to only the most obvious signs that humans are naturally polysexual, those that come directly from our bodies.  But what evidence in our bodies could possibly point to the naturalness of polysexuality you ask?  Let’s look.

1. Breasts

Breasts are interesting things.  Their apparent function is to feed young, but clearly this is not their only function.  If it were, then there would be no way to explain their size.  The size of a breast whose only function is to nurse would be very small, much as it is in other mammals, and they would only show when they were full of milk. Their unnecessarily large (for nursing) size, points to the fact that breasts must have another very important function that influenced their current state.  This function is signaling fertility and reproductive availability.  If they did not serve this function, we should expect them to be smaller and/or less prominent.  Their size would be an evolutionary disadvantage if they simply were for nursing.

Furthermore, the sensitivity of the nipple is perplexing as well.  A breast that was only for nursing would be better if it had little to no sensitivity, since, as any woman who has nursed can tell you, nursing can be quite painful and this pain is a disincentive for a mother to nurse her young, thus potentially leading to her young being undernourished, underweight, less viable, and therefore less likely to carry on her genes.  Yet we know that the nipples are very sensitive and that some women can even orgasm from nipple stimulation alone. This seems like it would not be the case if the breast only had one function and that function was reproductive.

2. The Vagina

In large primates where females only mate with one male, such as gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans, the female’s vagina is oriented towards the back, in order to facilitate rear-entry sexual intercourse (SAD, 221).  In the polysexual large primates, like the bonobo, the female’s vagina is oriented towards the front, facilitating front-entry sexual intercourse (missionary position).  Thus, the orientation and position of the vagina is strongly correlated with polysexuality or monosexuality (at least with the females only having one partner) in large primates (SAD, 224).  Since the human vagina is oriented towards the front and this is strongly correlated with polysexuality in primates, this is strong evidence of at least a polysexual human past, since humans are large primates.

More important than the vagina’s orientation is the fact that the human vagina actively attacks sperm with leucocytes in the vaginal tract (SAD, 264).  Not only that, but the complexity of the human female cervix acts to filter sperm (SAD, 265).

 This would be completely unnecessary in a monosexual species, in which sperm competition would not exist and where there would never be different kinds of semen in the same vaginal tract at the same time.

3. The Penis

The human penis is enormous!  Adjusting for body mass, the human male penis is 0.163cm/kg.  Compare this to an orangutan (0.053) or a gorilla (0.018) and you can see just how big it is!  The only large primate with a larger relative penis is the very polysexual bonobo.  In absolute values, the human male penis is by far the biggest at 13-18cm, compared to the bonobo (7.5cm), the orangutan (4cm), or the gorilla (3cm) (SAD, 230).  This would be absolutely unnecessary from an evolutionary standpoint in a monosexual species where a male would not be competing to inseminate a female, since a longer penis deposits sperm closer to the cervix, helping to ensure that more sperm make it into the uterus to attempt to fertilize the egg.

The unique shape of the human penis is almost irrefutable evidence of a polysexual human past.  The uniqueness is in the shape of its head, or glans, and the coronal ridge, which has been demonstrated to create suction in the vagina during intercourse.  The function of this suction is to remove sperm from other males that might already be in the vaginal tract (SAD, 234-235).  This it does very effectively, with studies showing up to 90% displacement with a single thrust (SAD, 235).  In order to not remove his own sperm from the vaginal tract, the head of the penis shrinks immediately after orgasm, so that the final thrusts or removal of the penis will not displace any of the male’s own semen (SAD, 235).  If you combine the unique shape and function of the head, with the length and girth of the penis, then what you get is a very efficient tool for both removing the sperm of other men and replacing it with your own as close to the egg as possible.  Really, the human penis is an evolutionary masterpiece.

4. The Testes

Evidence from the testes alone is, again, almost sufficient to prove the fact of a polysexual human past.  First, having external testes is a great disadvantage for a male, as any man can attest, and would not have been naturally selected if it did not have a very important function.  By having external testes, a man is risking an incapacitating attack on his testicles and injury to his most vital reproductive organ.  The very existence of external testicles is a great evolutionary disadvantage and would only have been selected for in order to achieve a very important end (this should not be taken as a purposive teleological claim, but rather as biological teleology).  In monosexual, or mostly monosexual, larger primates, like the gorilla, orangutan, or gibbon, the testes are safely housed inside the body.  This prevents them from being used to easily incapacitate or injure the male.  The reason that polysexual primates have external testes is to maintain them at a cooler temperature to facilitate the storage of semen (SAD, 237).  This allows the male to have larger quantities of viable semen available at all times.

Second, the size of human testes, combined with their productive capacity is way beyond what any monosexual primate might need.  In absolute size, human testes are not the largest at 35-50grams, compared with the bonobo (118-160g), but they are larger than both the orangutan (35g) and the gorilla (29g) (SAD, 230).  However, in terms of productive capacity, seminal volume per ejaculate, humans are by far the highest at 2-6.5mL, compared to even the bonobo (1.1mL), the orangutan (1.1mL), and especially the gorilla (0.3mL).  So, even though the human testes are not the largest absolutely, they are far more productive compared to other higher primates and dramatically more efficient at producing semen per gram of testicular tissue.  This evidence, while being compelling, is certainly not enough to prove a polysexual human past; in order to do that, we need to take a look at the function of sperm itself.

In a study where researchers captured the different spurts of male ejaculate, which comes out in a series of discreet spurts, they found something surprising: not all sperm have the same function.  For much of medical history, after it was understood that sperm fertilizes eggs, it was assumed that the function of all sperm was to fertilize eggs.  This, however, we now know is not true.  Ejaculate is made up of different types of sperm, in addition to those that fertilize the egg.

The first spurts [of human ejaculate] contain chemicals that protect against various kinds of chemical attack…[like] leucytes and antigens present in a woman’s reproductive tract…[and] from the chemicals in the latter spurts of other men’s ejaculate [which] contain a spermicidal substance that slows the advance [of other men’s sperm].  In other words, competing sperm from other men seems to be anticipated in the chemistry of men’s semen, both in the early spurts (protective) and in the latter spurts (attacking).  (SAD, 228)

The fact that the very composition of human sperm has evolved to deal with the presence of other men’s sperm in the vagina of a woman points unflinchingly, and inarguably, to a polysexual past.  There is simply no other plausible explanation for this to exist in all human males at the current time.

5. Orgasmic Disparity

Most of us who are sexually active and experienced know all too well that there is a very large disparity between the male and female orgasm.  The male orgasm takes a comparatively short time to reach and requires a physiological refractory period between orgasms.  The female orgasm takes a comparatively longer time and requires no physiological refractory period.  Indeed, while most men orgasm fairly quickly and then cannot orgasm again for some time, women take longer to orgasm, but can repeatedly orgasm with no loss of tumescence (physical arousal) or desire.  This is a most unfortunate combination and leads to the common complaint in couples that the man orgasms “too quickly” and then is done or that the woman takes “too long” to orgasm and then might still be aroused and ready for more after her partner is already satisfied.  Indeed, there is a fundamental mismatch here, if we assume that humans are naturally monosexual.  However, if we do not make that assumption, then the origin of the problem becomes clear.

On a one male to one female basis, human orgasmic response makes no sense.  But, if we have a polysexual past that includes women having sex with multiple men, in order to get the best possible semen, then it’s obvious why men would need to orgasm quickly and women would need to take a long time.  If a man were to take too long to orgasm, he might not have time to finish and deposit his semen.  If a woman were to orgasm too quickly or lose interest in sex after orgasm, then she might not get the best sperm inside her, because she would stop being receptive.  Thus, the orgasmic disparity problem is a function of an unnatural monosexuality and is not a problem inherent in men or women themselves.

I personally think that the question of whether polysexuality is natural is now a closed question: polysexuality is natural and monosexuality is unnatural.  This does not, however, mean that polysexuality is the ideal situation for all people or couples.  Furthermore, it does not mean that polysexuality is a moral ideal or even that it is morally permissible.  These questions are still open and we need to take a critical look at them.  However, we must keep in mind that polysexuality is natural and that all claims against it based on its non-naturalness are misplaced.

The Value of Polysexuality

Now that we have seen polysexuality is natural, you might be tempted to stop here and insist that since it is natural, that is a sufficient reason to want to engage in it.  Perhaps it is; on the other hand, naturalness is not a very compelling reason to do something: running may be natural, but I generally desire a more compelling reason to do so.  Further, I want to know that not only is polysexuality natural, I want to know whether it is also ethical.  After all, sex is vitally important in a good life and if polysexuality would jeopardize this, then it must be avoided, no matter now natural it may be.

The question of why you want to engage in polysexuality is the first and most important question that must be asked of anyone wanting to engage in it: your intentions and what you hope to gain from it are major moral considerations.  Having good reasons to want to engage in polysexuality is certainly not morally sufficient, but such reasons are necessary and without having proper intentions and desires, then there is no morally permissible way to be polysexual.

Before a person should even consider a polysexual lifestyle, he must engage in some very serious self-reflection and introspection about the reasons why he wants to engage in polysexuality and what he hopes to gain from it.  It is imperative that this person is not evasive or self-deceptive in the process so that the reasons that he identifies are authentic reasons and not simply rationalizations designed to allow him to realize his whims.  This process should, ideally, take place over a period of time to make sure that the reasons that a person identifies are real, and persistent, reasons, instead of momentary desires.  In order to judge good reasons and bad reasons, we need a standard by which to judge.  Since we are trying to discover a moral way to engage in polysexuality, we will employ the standard of morality: the good is that which improves a person’s life and happiness, while the evil is that which harms a person’s life or happiness.  If a person has an intimate partner whom he loves, then their interests must also be considered.

Once a person has begun this process and come to realize that he has good reasons for wanting to engage in polysexuality, then he should bring it up to his partner (if he has one) and explain his desires and his reasons for them.  Then, his partner must decide whether he or she also desires to engage in polysexuality.  His partner must be given sufficient time to come to a free and fully informed decision on the matter and if his partner decides that he or she is not willing to engage in polysexuality, then his or her decisions must be respected.  Although, this is not to say that the matter must be closed.  Ideally, the process of deciding to engage in polysexuality should be done together as a couple with the partners working together to make the decision, all the while considering the implications of their choices for their long-term health and happiness.  Further, this is not to insist that a person must wait until after he has made up his mind in order to talk to his partner, this decision can be made together.

In the realm of good reasons for polysexuality for a couple, there are things like:

  • A couple wanting to strengthen their bond by engaging in an activity that they both enjoy and can do together.
  • A couple wanting to save a marriage that is otherwise good, but that has become sexually stagnant or sexless due to exogenous factors like children or work, but not from fundamental problems in the relationship, like lack of alignment on fundamental values.
  • A couple who wants to increase their sexual and self knowledge by exploring sexuality and improving their sexual techniques and practical skills in order to increase their sexual pleasure and satisfaction.
  • A couple in which one or both of the partners is bisexual and who wants to allow this person to experience the full range of their sexuality.
  • A couple who wants to achieve more pleasure from their sex life and who think that polysexuality will achieve this.
  • A couple who has a companionate relationship and where at least one partner still desires sex.
  • A couple who wants to reignite the spark in their relationship, which can be done via transference of the excitement of new sexual partners.

In each of these reasons, polysexuality could bring value to the couple’s life and increase their happiness, without harming their life or relationship.

In the realm of good reasons to want to engage in polysexuality for the individuals qua individuals, there are things like:

  • There is a great value in sexual variety and novelty.  For example, men in long-term monogamous relationships have decreasing levels of testosterone leading to lowered energy and libido, and a general distance from life’s pleasures.  Further, men with lower levels of testosterone are “four times more likely [sic] to suffer from clinical depression, fatal heart attacks, and cancer when compared to other men their age with higher testosterone levels.  They are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and have a far greater risk of dying from any cause (ranging from 88 to 250 percent higher, depending on the study).”  However, men who have affairs or multiple sexual partners show higher, or increasing, levels of testosterone.  (SAD, 289-295)
  • Polysexuality helps marriages, as well as the individuals in them, to thrive.  If we look at statistics for divorces in the US, we will notice that roughly 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce in the US.  Of these, a large number are due to sexual reasons like infidelity or sexual incompatibility.  This means that many marriages end because the individuals in them are sexually unsatisfied.  Polysexuality might help solve this problem by giving the individuals the things they need sexually, while also giving them the benefits of the stability and security of a committed long-term relationship.
  • Polysexuality encourages open and honest communication in sexual relationships.  Let’s face it, it’s not like we magically stop desiring other people when we enter into a relationship, we just stop looking for partners to have a relationship with: these are two separate things.  In a polysexual relationship, the incentives for dishonesty are removed, allowing the partners to be honest with each other about their desires when they find another person attractive.
  • Polysexuality lets people explore the full range of their sexuality with partners who are interested in, and enjoy, the same things that they do and which their primary partner may not.  This can range from anything like S/M, to role-playing, to different positions or locations, etc.
  • Studies show that the increased ejaculations for a male can increase fertility (SAD, 238), reduce their likelihood of developing prostate cancer (SAD, 238), and make them 50% less likely to die from coronary heart disease (SAD, 238).
  • Women who are exposed to semen are less likely to suffer from depression  (SAD, 267).  Since sex tends to wane in monogamous couples, polysexual couples should, ceteris paribus, tend to be healthier and happier due to their higher levels of sex.
  • Polysexuality encourages people to stay in shape in order to remain attractive for new partners and in order maintain their stamina and endurance.  In addition, sex is itself a great form of exercise.

While there are many possible reasons to engage in polysexuality, the reasons that will motivate a couple to engage in polysexuality are ultimately those that they personally find most compelling.  Of course, while the above is not exhaustive, they are all good reasons to want to engage in polysexuality.  However, it should not be forgotten that there are still moral constraints that a person must take into account, which we shall address shortly.

The realm of bad reasons to want to engage in polysexuality is much larger, as it is generally easier to go wrong than to go right.  Thus, this list will certainly not be exhaustive, but I will try to indicate a range of reasons that are immoral.  Some bad reasons a person might have include attempting to salvage a failing relationship where the partners are fundamentally incompatible, in order to placate his partner, in order to debase or humiliate himself, to increase his “numbers” or conquests and gain a false sense of self-esteem from sexual exploits (cf. Don Juan), because he is bored of his partner and is looking for a new partner, because he simply wants to violate norms and/or taboos, et cetera.  The principle is that what makes a reason bad is that it harms a person’s health or long-range happiness, or those of his partner.  In general, bad reasons a person can have fall into just a few categories:

a. It is self-deceptive or evasive.

b. It is dishonest to his partner or potential other lovers.

c. It is damaging to himself, his partner, or his relationship.

d. It is a way of ignoring actual problems with himself or his primary relationship.

While I can’t give exhaustive accounts of either the good reasons or bad reasons to engage in polysexuality, I hope that the above will serve as guidelines in order to help people evaluate their reasons.  As long as a person is guided by the principle that the good is that which improves a his health and happiness as well as those of his partner, while the evil is that which harms a person’s health or happiness or those of his partner that we identified above and then elaborated upon, then he will likely have good reasons to want to engage in polysexuality and avoid moral problems.

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 three choices: to forget polysexuality, have a relationship where only one person is polysexual, 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 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.

This is also not to say that it would be immoral to jump right into polysexuality if both partners are willing and excited to do so, but only that the risk is greater by doing it this way.

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 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 person’s happiness and long-term interests.

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

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 polysexuality 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 solely 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 would be incredibly hard.  I think that many 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 and their own dispositions regarding 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.

What do you think?  Sound off in the comments if you agree or disagree.

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