Monday, May 4, 2009

The Stacks - The Ethical Slut

The Ethical Slut, 1st ed.
by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt
Greenery Press, 1997

This is it -- the original polyamory manifesto, the old stand-by for college students looking to sow some wild oats, aging hippies holding on to free love... and, of course, the rest of us. In a single volume Dossie Easton and her writing partner Janet Hardy (writing under a pen name here) lay out the case for having multiple relationships concurrently with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

The Ethical Slut was a truly groundbreaking book. It came out at a time when the idea that a person could practice nonmonogamy openly and with the full consent of everyone involved was a revolutionary one. Very few people had proposed that jealousy is a cultural construct that can be fought, dealt with and overcome rather than a bred-in-the-bone instinct against which we were completely powerless. It was the dawn of the Religious Right, so Easton and Hardy were certainly bucking the trend by suggesting that sex is fun and pleasure is good for you.

The book had some faults that later books like Tristan Taormino's Opening Up would improve upon. Easton and Hardy were focused primarily on what Taormino would later term "partnered nonmonogamy" (where each person has one primary partner, plus a few secondary partners) and more or less neglected other kinds of polyamory. Their research was limited mainly to their own experiences and those of their friends, and so the book left some doubt that nonmonogamy could be successfully implemented outside of San Francisco aging-hippie circles. But despite these shortcomings and a multitude of other books that tried to do better (with occasional success) The Ethical Slut remained the gold standard in polyamory guides for more than a decade.


The Ethical Slut, 2nd ed.
by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy
Celestial Arts, 2009

This past March, Easton and Hardy (now fully out of the closet and publishing under her real name) finally returned to give their most famous book an update. You're probably asking, "Should I bother reading the second edition if I've already read the first one?" I think the answer is probably yes.

Twelve years ago The Ethical Slut was doing something that was totally unheard of -- presenting ethical polyamory with all the attendant consent and communication as an alternative to lifelong monogamy. This absolutely revolutionary proposition required the book's authors to set up a dichotomy between monogamy and polyamory, examining the underlying assumptions of a monogamous culture. Well, times have changed. In the last twelve years open relationships have gone from being the subject of shame, scandal and intense secrecy to the subject of popular TV shows. A few years after the first edition came out in 1997 people widely began to speculate that Bill and Hillary Clinton might have an open relationship and the visibility of nonmonogamy only increased from there.

There's no need for The Ethical Slut to be a polyamory manifesto anymore. The idea is in the zeitgeist already. At times, reading the second edition, I missed the old, proselytising Slut with its blatant and sometimes slightly outrageous challenges to conventional relationships. But when I feel a sense of loss I have to stop and admit that it's probably a good thing that Easton and Hardy have stopped trying to pass themselves off as sociological experts by floating complicated theories about monogamy's supposed roots in outdated agrarian cultures. The Ethical Slut has given up this type of missionary work to finally become what it was intended to be all along -- a relationship book.

The new edition is a longer read and it's been edited so it focuses more purely on relationship styles. Passages of the old book that presented polyamory as a challenge to monogamous values have been cut or placed in a context that deemphasizes them. In their place Easton and Hardy have supplied even more wise suggestions for communicating with your partners as well as exercises that can be done alone to gain insight into oneself or as a couple to build intimacy.

The second edition builds admirably on the shortcomings of the first but doesn't overcome them completely. In 1997, Easton and Hardy's expertise on polyamory seemed to come with a lot of speculation and optimism. Now after twelve years as polyamory experts they've encountered enough poly people to speak with real authority. However the focus remains limited to San Francisco -- readers who are put off by talk of hippie ideas like tantric sex had best read Jenny Block's Open instead. While the book remains focused on partnered nonmonogamy the chapters on solo polyamory and group arrangements are more prominent.

My overall impression of the second edition is that The Ethical Slut has grown up. The book, like its authors and readers, seems to have gained experience and become a little wiser with the years. This book is no longer a polemic. It's just a guide to the hard work necessary to live a polyamorous lifestyle.

1 comment: