[This is the text of the book review from episode 22 of the podcast.]
The book reviewed in this episode is The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy.
Other books I’ve reviewed by the authors are Spanking for Lovers by Janet W. Hardy in episode four, and the book was amazing. Before I had the podcast I reviewed here The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book, which are excellent guides for people new to the scene. The Multiamory hosts took over this show for one episode and reviewed both of those books for episode seven, which turned out great.
So, I knew these ladies were kinky and was vaguely aware they had also written a well-known book about ethical nonmonogamy. I figured I’d get around to it eventually, just as I plan to get around to all areas of interesting kinkdom at some point.
But then I realized I was poly, which was blazingly obvious once I thought about it, and The Ethical Slut moved up Mount TBR. (Does everyone use TBR to mean To Be Read?) Mount TBR means the ridiculously huge stack of books I fully intend to read once I become immortal and have an endless supply of money (or free books, whatever).
The version I’m reviewing is the second edition, which the cover informs me has been expanded and updated. The original version was published in 1997—the second edition came out in 2009.
The book is broken down into four parts, with chapters in each part. Part One is entitled Welcome.
In Chapter one, which is called Who is an Ethical Slut, there’s this:
If you ask about a man’s morals, you will probably hear about his honesty, loyalty, integrity, and high principles. When you ask about a woman’s morals, you are more likely to hear about whom she shares sex with, and under what conditions. We have a problem with that.
And rightfully so! It’s not something I’d ever considered before, but it’s true. Double-standard-having bastards.
Something I really like about the book is that it has homework! I mean written exercises. Some are set off on their own, but there are also many, many questions within the text. If you answer all of those you’ll know yourself approximately 2,000 times better by the end of the book.
The authors define slut this way:
To us, a slut is a person of any gender who celebrates sexuality according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.
Chapter Two is Myths and Realities and covers judgments, myths and realities surrounding sluts and includes this quote:
Kinsey once defined a ‘nymphomanic’ as ‘someone who has more sex than you’.
Chapter Three is Our Beliefs, where the authors say:
Most of our criteria for ethics are quite pragmatic. Is anyone being harmed? Is there any way to avoid causing that harm? Are there any risks? Is everybody involved aware of those risks and doing what can be done to minimize them?
On the positive side: How much fun is this? What is everybody learning from it? Is it helping someone to grow? Is it helping make the world a better place?
If everyone on Earth lived by this philosophy we’d all be much better off, let me tell you.
Then there was this: In a section called Rethinking Sex, :
Are you having sex right now? Yes, you are, and so are we.
This was news to me. Then they go on to compare sexual energy to food—something else I don’t care about. The metaphor was that people enjoy the look and smell of food, and the memories of nice meals in the past or what we may eat tomorrow become part of that enjoyment. So sexual energy pervades everything. You know what? I eat whatever is to hand when I’m hungry and I don’t think about it otherwise most of the time. I’m asexual and aculinarial. Or whatever. Maybe books would work. I like the look and smell and feel of them… Anyway. They say that since they’re writing about it and we’re reading about it we’re all having sex. Well okay. Then they say this:
More pragmatically, we have had long, intense intimate conversations that felt deeply sexual to us. And we have had intercourse that didn’t feel terribly sexual. Our best definition is that sex is whatever the people engaging in it think it is. For some people, spanking is sex. For others, wearing a garter belt and stockings is sex. If you and anybody else involved feel sexual when you eat ice cream sundaes together, that sex—for you.
And then it all made sense, for I am a kinky person and I certainly understand being fulfilled by things that other people wouldn’t understand as sexy. Also an intellectual or emotional connection can feel incredibly intense and is much more profound and important to me in terms of a power exchange than anything physical.
Chapter Four was called Slut Styles—the first subheading was Sluthood Today, which sounds like a magazine. Modern Slut.
The chapter covers how different groups of people interact—lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and heterosexuals. No pansexuals or other folks. Asexuals are later in the book.
This description of how gay males approach sex blew my mind.
Gay male sex, as a rule, starts from a presumption of equal power, without the dynamic of overpowerment and withholding that often pervades male/female interactions. Thus, men do not generally try to get consent from each other by manipulation and pressuring: connection is more commonly made by a gentle approach, meeting a gentle response and no need to ask three times. Gay men give each other a lot of credit for being able to say no, and for meaning it when they say it—this makes coming on very simple, since you are never trying to sneak up on anybody and you are not required to be subtle. It is always okay to ask as long as it is okay for the other person to say no. This straight-forward and admirably simple approach to consensuality cannot be recommended too highly.
That could not be more different from anything I’ve experienced or ever expected to experience with men or women. It’s like reading about social practices on a different planet.
Chapter Five is Battling Sex Negativity.
The authors mention a resource guide in the back of the book to help people protect their legal rights in case they’re not in a legally recognized relationship and want to make sure they retain access to funds, property or visitation rights in the case of an accident.
Chapter Six: Infinite Possibilities
This is where the asexuals are. Over with the celibates.
And this is what they have to say about us.
We do not see ‘celibate slut’ or ‘asexual slut’ as in any way a contradiction in terms. There are infinite ways of relating to other people—romantically, intimately, domestically, and more—and if you’ve opened your life and heart to as many of those ways as possible, you’re one of us.
I’m fine with other people declaring themselves ‘sluts’ but I think I’ll stick with ‘ethically nonmonogamous’. ‘Asexual lesbian married to a man’ confuses enough people, without throwing the word slut in there. I’ll spend all day explaining what that means. Forget ‘kinky’ or ‘service-oriented’. Just wait until I start topping dudes. It’s like that Joe Ancis saying that the only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well. That’s so true.
This chapter covers the permutations available to ethically nonmonogamous folks. One of which they call ‘Circles and Tribes’
‘Circle’ is a word we use for a set of connections between a group of people that actually might look more like a constellation, with some people near the hub and connected to several others, and others near the outside and connected to only one or two and, perhaps, part of another constellation as well. (We like the word ‘constellation’ for this, because in a constellation, everybody gets to be a star!)
This reminds me of an early series of the L Word—the first or second—where Alice Pieszecki (the Leisha Hailey character) made something called The Chart and connected all the lesbians she knew together by who’d they’d slept with. It looked like the biggest, gayest constellation you’d ever seen. Then I found out a friend of mine had done something similar with the lesbians she knew and it covered the back of the laundry room door. Lesbians.
Another quote from this chapter:
Couples new to nonmonogamy tend to spend a lot of energy defining their boundaries. They usually focus more at first on what they don’t want their partner to do—the activities that make them feel, for some reason, unsafe or downright terrified—than on their actual desires. Setting these limits is, for many couples, a necessary first step out into the disorienting world of sluthood. However, as a couple becomes more sophisticated at operating the boundaries of their relationship, they tend to focus more on what they would enjoy, and then strategize about how they can make it safe.
Then we’re on to Part Two: The Practice of Sluthood
Chapter Seven is Abundance—basically the idea that there’s an infinite amount of love and sex out there. We tend to believe that if we’re giving something to one person we’re not giving that thing to another person, but you can love all of your pets or kids equally—or in different ways, but you still love them. It’s not, ‘Well, I have a third dog now, I like the first one less and the second one I can’t even look at anymore. Not one single redeeming quality.’
The chapter addresses real world limits like time (Google Docs are your friend—everyone involved can see them) and something they call the tyranny of hydraulics. I’ll let the authors explain.
The ‘tyranny of hydraulics’ is Dossie’s phrase for the biological realities that govern many aspects of sexuality.
So, I’m in love with this phrase and will be using it for the rest of my life. The tyranny of hydraulics. Stuff just doesn’t work sometimes. No matter how much you want it to.
Then we’re on to Chapter Eight, which is Slut Skills. This includes the excellent quote:
Great sluts are made, not born.
I have different quotes on the back of my business cards and that’s going on the back of some in my next set.
Knowing yourself is important in, well, life, but it’s particularly important when embarking on a journey that isn’t traditional. The authors urge self-examination and ask the reader: What do you expect from this way of living your life?
Then there’s a section called ‘Earning Your Slut Merit Badge’ which consists of all the things the best sluts work at: Communication, Emotional Honesty, Affection (which includes most of the love languages), Faithfulness, Limit-setting, Planning, Knowing Yourself, Owning Your Feelings, Going Easy on Yourself & Telling the Truth. These are explained in detail.
Under ‘Limit-Setting’ the authors have this to say:
When you respect your own limits, others will learn to respect them too. People tend to live up to your standards when you are not afraid to set them. Only when everyone’s limits are out in the open do you become free to ask for your dearest fantasies, secure in the knowledge that if your friend doesn’t want to, he won’t.
This brings us to Chapter Nine: Boundaries.
The belief is often that sluts aren’t familiar with the concept of boundaries, but the authors say this:
‘…sluts get a great deal of opportunity to develop exquisitely sophisticated discriminations: ‘We actually have more boundaries than most folks because we have more points of contact,’ more experience relating in very different ways to very diverse people.’
This chapter is about setting boundaries—figuring out what yours are—and communicating effectively. The entire book has stories from other people, as well as Dossie and Janet. It’s always useful to see how various techniques have been applied in real life.
Then we have an Interlude entitled An Unethical Slut: A Rant.
Some people treat sex as a big-game hunt—trying to conquer the unwilling and unwitting victim, as though the object of their attention would never decide to share sex with them unless tricked into it. Someone who tries to use sex to shore up sagging self-esteem by stealing someone else’s is a pitiable object: this strategy does not work to build a solid sense of self-worth, and this poor starving individual will have to go on stealing more and more and never getting fulfilled.
I’ve never thought of it this way, but it isn’t the greatest sign of self-esteem if someone is going around using magic formulae in an effort to get someone into bed rather than just being themselves.
Then there was this revelation:
A friend of ours once discovered that a would-be lover of hers had already had sex with her mother and her sister and was hoping to complete the set.
I have only one thing to say about that: Ewwwwww.
Then we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming in the form of Chapter Ten—Flirting and Cruising.
The authors think that flirting should be it’s own thing rather than having to lead anywhere. I wholeheartedly agree but I’ve have so many people misinterpret my for-fun flirting—either men getting offended I didn’t want more or women thinking I did want more—that that’s not going to happen. I’d constantly be saying: ‘I’m not actually interested in anything happening, okay? Okay.’ And that wouldn’t be conducive to flirting. That’s the opposite of flirting. Whatever that is. Farting, maybe.
The authors offer this advice to heterosexual men when cruising:
Many a man has made the mistake of approaching a woman in the way he thinks he would like to be approached if he were a woman. If you’re not sure if women find your approach too heavy-handed, imagine being approached by a large, strong man using your exact technique and ask yourself how that feels. Successful male cruisers remain sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues, conveying friendly interest and appreciation for the fascinating human being in front of them.
Also maybe imagine having some of the things you want to say shouted at you by several large, strong men when you’re just trying to get home at night.
Chapter Eleven is Keeping Sex Safe—fairly self explanatory title there.
Chapter Twelve concerns Childrearing and includes this quote:
Janet remembers a conversation with her older son when he was about ten: she’d just done a ‘birds and bees’ rap and had perhaps got a little carried away. At the end of her long speech, she asked him, ‘So, as long as we’re on this topic, is there anything else you want to know?’ He replied fervently, ‘Mom, you’ve already told me much more that I wanted to know.’
Yeah… Janet and I are similar. That’s totally what I’d be like.
Part Three is Navigating Challenges and begins with Chapter Thirteen: Roadmaps Through Jealousy.
One of their suggestions for dealing with jealousy is something they call Go for the Ick, which is just going right ahead and thinking about whatever your partner and their other person might be doing together rather than expending all that energy pushing the thoughts away. It reminds me of that scene in High Fidelity when the main character’s girlfriend has hooked up with the hippie-type guy who lives upstairs. He can’t stand the guy so, in his head, they’re having the most out of this world, kumbaya sex ever.
Chapter Fourteen is Embracing Conflict and contains suggestions for ways to deal with conflict rather than ignoring it or pushing it away.
One of the suggestions is to write whatever you’re feeling down in an email (without filling in the To: line) and saving it to drafts. Then leave it for a bit. Come back later and make sure you’re using I-statements rather than you-ing the person to death, after all, it’s about your feelings, not what the other person is doing. You may decide not to send it at all, but the authors said:
We usually delete sentences that begin with the words, ‘You shithead.’
Sound advice, I think.
Chapter Fifteen: Making Agreements.
‘Agreement’ is a better word than ‘rule’ because rules sound incredibly inflexible. They define it as:
mutually agreed-upon, conscious decisions, designed to be flexible enough to accommodate individuality, growth and change.
The chapter includes a list of sample agreements various people they’ve known have used to give you an idea of what to think about—many are mutually exclusive.
Chapter Sixteen is about Opening an Existing Relationship.
There is advice for each person involved—the person who wants to open the relationship, the ‘other’ person and the person who chose none of this.
There’s also an exercise called the Hierarchy of Hard which can be used to get from here to there on any goal, really. You break down what you need to do into progressively smaller steps and put those on index cards then take one card at a time and do what’s on the card. Proving what I’ve long known–office supplies can always improve your life.
We’re onto the final part—Part Four. Sluts in Love.
Chapter Seventeen is Making a Connection—or how to find people to date.
Under the subheading: Where? Is this:
We find a lot of ethical sluts exploring alternative realities: try your local Society for Creative Anachronism and other historical re-enactment groups, and know that many Renaissance Faires are practically sluts’ trade conferences.
It makes sense that people exploring an alternative way to conduct their romantic lives would also be into alternative realities in general.
They then mention PolyMatchMaker.com, which weirdly doesn’t have an app—doesn’t everything have an app? I’m surprised my cat doesn’t have an app. And there’s an ethical slut test on OKCupid. I took it but my results would come out wonky, because it was mostly sex-based and I’m asexual. Anything that had to do with history or future interest in sex made me look like a particularly prudish nun, as there were no options for—I’d partake in sex as an act of submission with the right D-type. My official result was:
Happy Almost-Slut Whoa! You scored 11 Sluttiness Points and 23 Ethics Points! The 23 Ethics points was higher than 81 percent of other participants,
which is a little unsettling, as I thought I was just being a decent person.
Chapter Eighteen: Couples covers NRE—new relationship energy—also known as limerence. A word that sounds as light and shimmery as NRE feels.
Chapter Nineteen is called The Single Slut and includes lists of The Rights of the Single Slut and the Responsibilities of the Single Slut—both very useful lists to keep in mind.
Then there was this quote, which fell under the sub-heading ‘Role-Constrained Relationship’
Sometimes your relationship may be defined by the roles you play together, roles that a person’s life partner may not want or enjoy. Your connection could be as simple as a love of watching football on TV or, perhaps more complicated, being the same-sex partner to someone in an opposite sex marriage. Your shared roles might be about S/M power exchange, erotic roleplaying, exploration of gender, spiritual journeying, or any other sexual sharing that the partnership doesn’t provide. Your shared role makes you part of a family’s ecology, part of what makes it run smoothly, and is both a joy and a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
This is what I’m looking for so to have it addressed so tidily lets me know it’s not uncommon for people to have someone in their life who fulfills a specific role, as opposed to having multiple traditional relationships, so to speak.
Chapter Twenty: The Ebb and Flow of Relationships covers breakups and how to handle them with grace, dignity and respect for everyone involved.
Chapter Twenty-One is entitled Sex and Pleasure. It addresses the sex-negativity pervasive in our culture and ways to educate yourself in order to have better sex. Under the sub-heading ‘Good Sex Starts with You’ is this quote:
What have you done recently that helps you feel good about the body you are inhabiting today? It’s hard to have a good relationship with our body when all you do is yell at it.
This is such an accurate description of many people’s relationship with their bodies…wow.
Chapter Twenty-Two is Public Sex, Group Sex and Orgies. Which is, bizarrely, a collection of brownie recipes and sewing patterns. Kidding. It’s exactly what it sounds like and how to navigate them with your partner.
The Conclusion is called a Slut Utopia and includes this quote:
When right and wrong are your only options, you may believe that you can’t love more than one person, or that you can’t love in different ways, or that you have a finite capacity for love—that ‘many’ must somehow be opposed to ‘one’, or that your only options are in love and out of love, with no allowance for different degrees or kinds of love.
We would like to propose something different. Instead of these simpleminded either/or arguments, consider the possibility of seeing, and valuing everything that there is, without viewing them as in opposition to one another. We think that if you can do this, you will discover that there are as many ways to be sexual as there are to be human, and all of them are valid. There are lots of ways to relate, to love, to express gender, to share sex, to form families, to be in the world, to be human…and none of them in any way reduces or invalidates any of the others.
One thing that I was looking for that wasn’t covered is when one person is poly and the other is monogamous. Often, advice people give is that when your partner is out on a date is to remember that you’ll be going out on a hot date soon, too, but if one of you is happy just being with your partner and the other is poly, that isn’t going to stop the monogamous one from being jealous or insecure occasionally and they won’t have the ‘well, I’ll be getting my own wing doodler done good soon’ to comfort them. By the way, ‘wing doodler’ is non-gender specific. Whatever makes you feel good is your wing doodler. For me, it would often be my brain. ‘Wow, that conversation was so intense and we were so on the same page my wing doodler is buzzing right now.’
Aside from that, it is easy to see why this book is considered to be a classic. It’s well written, by two people with decades of experience and a finely-tuned sense of humor. I would definitely recommend it to both people new to the land of nonmonogamy and anyone interested in learning new relationship skills. 5/5
[After the podcast went live, Janet Hardy let me know the next edition is in the works and will include more information on the varieties of asexuals out there, as well as information on poly/mono relationships. I look forward to that, which is set for 2017, I believe.]