The Counterfeit ‘Honesty’ of Polyamory

A couple kisses on the beach in the Black Sea coastal town of Bourgas in 2009. (Oleg Popov/Reuters)
The trend toward privileging desire over commitment and morality has predictable consequences.

Is it culturally permissible to date monogamously while also visiting sex workers to enjoy an “expressive sex life”?

An anonymous letter writer recently posed this question in Slate magazine.

“If there’s anything I’d want my new partner to understand,” the missive reads, “it’s that I believe seeing a sex worker can make me a better partner. . . . Getting certain sexual needs taken care of elsewhere would allow me to better focus my attention and invest in our relationship.”

Of course, it’s not just anonymous letter writers advocating for loosening cultural chastity belts. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller recently wrote favorably about a related, albeit slightly different, form of openness: “polyamory,” which, he argues, “is going mainstream, like it or not.” Assuming that such open arrangements are in fact growing (and it’s worth noting the strong disagreement about the scope of the phenomenon), Miller and others tout polyamory, or consensual non-monogamy, as allowing more honesty regarding our true desires.

Polyamory “is not defined by sex but rather honesty,” writes one polyamorist in USA Today. Miller, in fact, characterizes polyamory as “radical honesty,” claiming that it allows once impermissible desires to be articulated and pursued more openly and truthfully.

This is perhaps one of the main arguments advanced by advocates of polyamory and consensual non-monogamy. After millennia of deceiving ourselves and others, we’re told, polyamory finally permits us to say what we really think and to act as we really feel.

Not attracted to your spouse anymore? Polyamory gives you license to say so and begin the conversation about moving from monogamous to “monogamish.” Want two partners instead of one, or three instead of two? Polyamory lets you be honest about that desire and to act accordingly.

But before polyamorists congratulate themselves too much over their honesty, it’s worth investigating what they mean by “radical honesty.” It turns out that, in practice, this kind of “honesty” more often deals in half-truths and plays the role of legitimizing a self-centered form of sexual consumerism. Ironically, “radical honesty” not only undermines our ability to live true to our commitments. It also evades the many ways widespread acceptance of polyamory could make society worse off.

Proponents often tout polyamory as an ethical, “consensual” form of non-monogamy. However, a recent survey, co-sponsored by the Wheatley Institution and Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, found that less than half of women who had been in a consensual non-monogamous relationship said that both partners desired the arrangement equally.

And, among all survey respondents, it turned out that “men desired an open sexual relationship almost four times more than their female counterparts.” To be sure, plenty of male respondents in the survey reported that their female partner wanted an open relationship more than they did; but, no matter the direction of the data, the findings suggest that the mainstreaming of polyamory would likely result in many individuals (particularly women) feeling pressured to enter arrangements that would not be their first choice. And, as others have observed, these findings should encourage an appropriate dose of doubt regarding the “consensual” nature (for all affected parties) of so-called consensual non-monogamous relationships.

Another study (referenced here) on this topic found that “commitment emerged as a central concept in polyamorous relationships” but that when “rule violations” of commitment occurred they were “not generally interpreted as ‘cheating’ but rather as opportunities to renegotiate agreements.” In other words, even in polyamorous relationships, there are rules and violations of rules. The main difference, it appears, is that in “radically honest” relationships the dishonest partners — those who don’t play by the rules — face few consequences.

How can this be considered honest?

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of the word “honesty” is. Certainly, a realistic approach to human sexuality would acknowledge the existence of non-monogamous sexual desire, but it’s not clear why honesty requires us to privilege such desires over our commitments and our moral obligations to other people.

Spouses and partners believe (quite reasonably) that when they promise to be faithful, they mean it. Indeed, living up to one’s word, contract, or solemn vow has long been the quintessence of honesty. Honest people do what they promise; they make good on their commitments. But that’s not, evidently, how honesty appears to function in contemporary polyamorous relationships, in which “rule violations” are merely “opportunities to renegotiate agreements.”

What happens if such renegotiated agreements are violated over and over again? When does such a relationship cease to be “radically honest”? And, if the answer is never, isn’t a more apt description “radical mendacity?”

Radical honesty, as defined, is particularly pernicious because it not only allows an individual to void prior moral commitments but also seeks to give the individual a moral justification for doing so — one is doing the right thing by following one’s honest desires. Many commitments can be canceled, and many responsibilities evaded, with this kind of honesty.

Commitments made in the shadow of “radical honesty” seem to always have an implicit escape clause attached to them: “I will do X, at least as long as I feel like it.” Ultimately, “radical honesty” just means being honest about your desires, and in particular your sexual desires, even if you fall short of honesty in your commitments.

But again, “radical honesty” fails to be fully forthcoming even in this. Polyamorist boosters can claim honesty here only by importing a great deal of loose assumptions about right and wrong, human nature, and what it means to live a worthwhile and fulfilling life. In this view, humans are defined primarily by their felt desires, and the only way to live honestly and authentically is to obey them. Desire is most core to the self.

But these assumptions bear a strong affinity to a dehumanizing consumerist approach to life — one in which other people and relationships are means of achieving self-satisfaction. Partners will be around as long as they are useful, attractive, or desirable but then can be discarded (or reprioritized) when they are no longer sexually or emotionally satisfying. With honesty defined as allegiance to desire, all things are measured by the extent to which they conform to our wants. It’s tempting to say that polyamory is the working out of consumerism at the level of intimate relationships.

Of course, humans are not reducible to desires alone.

We also have the capacity to reason, voluntarily enter into commitments, and make moral judgments. Desires are often not in harmony with our commitments or moral judgments, and when they are not, it should be our highest moral judgments that prevail. Even “ethical polyamorists” have to concede this point — they would agree, for example, that a base desire to engage sexually with another person without his or her permission, or who is under the age of consent, does not justify acting on that desire.

Advocates of polyamory might say that they don’t mean those kinds of desires, but that is precisely the point: The mere experience of a desire does not tell us much about whether the desire would be appropriate to act on. Radical honesty too often conflates the experience of desire with the moral judgment that acting according to the desire is a good and appropriate moral choice.

Advocates of “radical honesty” downplay the ways in which the widespread acceptance of polyamory will further threaten certain valuable institutions and vulnerable groups. Scholar Rob Henderson recently wrote about a conversation he had with a student at an elite institution of higher learning. The student observed that “when he sets his Tinder [dating app)]radius to five miles, about half of the women, mostly other students, said they were ‘polyamorous’ in their bios. Then, when he extended the radius to 15 miles to include the rest of the city and its outskirts, about half of the women were single mothers.”

He went on to observe that

the costs created by the luxury beliefs of the former are borne by the latter. Polyamory is the latest expression of sexual freedom championed by the affluent. They are in a better position to manage the complications of novel relationship arrangements. And if these relationships don’t work out, they can recover thanks to their financial capability and social capital. The less fortunate suffer by adopting the beliefs of the upper class.

As the noted religious leader and former jurist Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has observed, while some “can pretend to neutrality on questions of right and wrong, . . . society cannot survive on such neutrality.”

University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox has demonstrated that people in the upper class often still enter into and benefit from monogamous marriages but that marriage norms have seriously deteriorated among the poor, with serious consequences for single parents and children: “Children born to working-class mothers are almost three times as likely to be born outside of wedlock, compared with children born to middle- and upper-class mothers. Children born to poor mothers are about five times as likely to be born out of wedlock.” If we’re being honest, polyamory is often the unchosen and unwanted reality for far too many families, and its social consequences have been devastating for the most vulnerable. Of course, we are not claiming that polyamorists are uniquely responsible for the breakdown of marital norms among the poor, but we are arguing that the spread of “radically honest” views of commitment and relationships will make family stability increasingly unlikely.

Any honest culture would confront such realities and seek to remedy (not exacerbate) them.

Those who advocate “radical honesty,” however, are right about this much — we should be candid with ourselves about our internal mental and emotional life. If we have a thought or a feeling, we should be honest about it. But we should always ask: Is this a good thought or feeling to act on? Will this desire, if acted on, have positive outcomes for myself, those I love, or my community?

We are not obligated to be obedient to every desire, or even every desire that another consenting adult is willing to accommodate or encourage. Moral truth should come first. If we want to reach sound conclusions about polyamory, it would seem that old-fashioned honesty — the kind that keeps commitments, accepts responsibility, and cares about the vulnerable — is better than a radical honesty that seems interested only in half-truths about human happiness.

Daniel Frost and Hal Boyd teach in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University and are fellows of the Wheatley Institution. Their views are their own.


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