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Raluca Bejan

Raluca Bejan's picture
Raluca Bejan is a PhD student in Social Work at the University of Toronto. She focuses on immigration and social justice.

What's not so open about open relationships?

| August 20, 2015

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Open relationships are a hot topic these days -- along with monogamy, non-monogamy, monogamish, polyamory, and even half-poly-monogamy. I mean who didn't read the Ethical Slut? And who doesn't want to be an 'ethical slut'?

If sleeping around were ethical, we could all peacefully and non-consequentially enjoy the sinful immorality of sex, love, lust and romance, without paying the guilt-ridden price for satisfying our desires. As in some sort of Žižekian-Lacanian make-believe, if there is a god, everything is permitted. If there are ethical rules for lovemaking, then Amen. All lovemaking is therefore permitted.

I know quite a few couples in these open-style scenarios. I also know some cheaters; some (un)happy and/or (un)married monogamists, and some failed polyamorists. To be honest, I do not know of any success stories of polyamory. For whatever reasons, polyamory (or what we came to know under the all-encompassing 'open relationships' term) seems challenging to do. Way easier to be an unhappily resigned (or happily cheating) monogamist.

I do have doubts in taking polyamory (the way it is defined and conceptualized nowadays) as the footprint to break us away from the oppressive belief of monogamy. And here is why.

First, because its inscribed regulative demands. Open relationships are deemed to work from the premise of negotiated rules and boundaries on what to do and what not to do: how to deal with jealousy, how to communicate your limitations with your partners, how to schedule your lovers, how not to sleep with mutual friends, how not to foster regular sexual encounters, and etcetera, etcetera. The list could go on and on.

Some have even penciled in such guidelines and are religiously renegotiating them on a regular basis. Or differently said, taking all the fun out of what open love should be all about. I do not know how other people play when they are romantically involved but I personally cannot keep to any rules or boundaries.

And of course there is the question of desirability in sticking with such rules and boundaries. But the main thing I struggle to understand is why we need to switch from regulated monogamy to regulated polyamory? Isn't this very same regulative predictability that makes a setback out of monogamy? Isn't the act of regulating oneself into a linear type of romance, sex and love, of 'only having one partner for a lifetime' what produces and reproduces monogamy and constructs it as we have come to know it?

Or asking the question(s) in a different way, if the regulation of desire is what undermines monogamy, why are we then trying to build the alternative (i.e. polyamory) on the same regulative kernel? And in mirroring this regulative routine aren't we just reproducing another linearly framed placeholder for love?

Second, because its obligatory ethics. The imposed ethicality of informing anyone you are sleeping around with, about whom you are sleeping around with. Yet what we take for granted here is the actual notion of 'ethics.'

Ethics is as a branch of philosophy, moral philosophy, that, in compartmentalizing its subject matters into meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics, is generally concerned with commending right and wrong conducts. But we should not forget that what is right and what is wrong and from what perspective are the 'rights' and the 'wrongs' defined will also shape what socially constructed 'rights' and 'wrongs' are to be applied to sex and romance.

Of course, many more supplementary queries can be summed up here, particularly vis-à-vis morality in itself, desirability of morality, and/or prescribed and uncontested ways of assigning morality. However, what I would specifically like to interrogate is the (desirability) of ethical principles and guidelines apropos of sex, love, desire and romance but also the relationality of ethics with what we come to know about sex, love and desire.

I mean, let us just say it. The whole concept of ethics is a Western construction, a product of Eurocentric (and phallocentric) enlightened philosophy, grounded in Western premises, ideas but also ideals of what constitutes a 'rational' liberal agent, capable at any time and under any circumstances to exercise 'moral' judgment about what is good and respectively bad for her.

Yet I believe many of us out there are actually living our lives (or love lives anyway) in absolute irrationality. Why do we then tribute 'ethics' as the normative benchmark? If we already consider sleeping around as immoral -- which we do, since we solely juxtapose open love to (moral) monogamy, assigning its openness only comparatively, via différance, and making it determinately the byproduct of this (moral) sexual exclusivity -- how much chance do we actually have in moralizing its derivative immorality?

It might just be easier to stop giving two (or any) cents on any regulated versions of (wannabe) subversive yet mainstreamed love civility. They might be nothing more than theoretically possible yet practically impossible ways of lifting us from the boredom of monogamy to the bliss of polyamory. 


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