Hi, Friend!

It’s newsletter time. This August we’re exploring the art of alternative relationship scripts, a.k.a. Ethical/Consensual Non-Monogamy (ENM/CNM). If you’ve wondered what life outside monogamy looks like, if you feel monogamy does not fulfill your needs and desires or if you’re just curious to learn about relationships, we hope that through this reading you'll come away with a better understanding of your options and how to navigate relationships, monogamous or not. 

We invite you to join the ongoing conversation about ENM on our Instagram page, where we share new content every day. 

Why Ethical Non-Monogamy? 

As Dr. Jordin Wiggins told My Sex Bio in an interview, “we have lost out on opportunities to grow into our sexuality, discover what we like (and don’t like) because we have never been taught how to reflect on our sex and pleasure.” At My Sex Bio, we want to provide you with all the tools we can for you to command your sexual biography. This means we aim to prompt reflection and questioning every time we can. Most of us are running on scripts that don’t necessarily serve us, but that we’ve sometimes internalized without noticing. Relationships are an important part of our sex lives and have a deep impact on our way of experiencing pleasure. Why is it then, that we get to choose so little about them? 

Certified Sexologist Elisabeth Barnes points out how “we want to put monogamy on a pedestal. However, both divorce rates and infidelity statistics suggest it might not be working very well for at least 40-50% of couples.” Whether monogamy is at fault or not is not today’s conversation, but these statistics suggest that deeper reflection into what relationships can look like and what scripts are we running them through is worth the time. 

There’s always room for learning, improvement, and fulfillment. 

What is Ethical or Consensual Non-Monogamy (ENM or CNM)?

For Barnes, “consensual non-monogamy means to have a relationship with more than one person at the same time [... with] consent between all involved.” Multi-Certified Sex Educator and Relationship Coach Kelly Gonsalves defines ethical non-monogamy as “a broad term that encompasses any form of relationship (romantic or sexual) that doesn't take the form of an exclusive, monogamous relationship between two people.” There are many ways in which these relationships can present themselves, with variations in the number of partners, the dynamics between them, involvement or not of sexual activity, etc. 

Some people call it “consensual” non-monogamy, others use the word “ethical.” Even though this remains a personal choice, it’s important to consider potentials. To polyamorous person Danny Burbol, saying something is “ethical” allows for a ‘gray area’: 

If we were asked, “is it ethical to slap someone in the face?” we would probably have a hard time answering this question. If instead, the question becomes “is it consensual to slap someone in the face?” We can easily say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on the agreement made by the parties involved. 

Even though it is a matter of preference, both the ethical and consensual aspects of non-monogamy are key to the relationship style. Could we have an ethical relationship with someone without it being consensual? Certainly not. Is being consensual what makes it ethical? It’s only a part of it.

(For ease of reading, we will mostly refer to both ENM and CNM as ‘ENM’ in this newsletter.) 

Are people non-monogamous because they want to have a lot of sex?

The short answer is NO. Intuitive Coach and Polyamorous person Chantel Porter has told My Sex Bio her experience: “I can't tell you how many times I have to tell people that just because I'm open or poly doesn't mean I'm always looking for a date or a hookup.”
People tend to associate non-monogamy with frequent sexual activity, and even perceive non-monogamous people as promiscuous. However, non-monogamy works under two assumptions for which the focus is not precisely sex:
💛 The “abundance model” of love: author and polyamorous person Franklin Veaux mentions how “opportunities for love and connection are so abundant that they tend to waltz in the front door at the most inconvenient times.” 

💛 The incredible potential of relationships to be tailored to each individual’s specific needs through consent and honest communication. As Nirel Marofsky—child of a polyamorous household—points out, “we’re acknowledging [by talking about ethical non-monogamy] that we have the choice, that we can design our own relationships if we so choose.” 

Furthermore, the “lots of sex” misconception misses that some of us are asexual, and still have intimate and romantic relationships with others. According to Author Jaya Mishra, “asexuality describes a lack of sexual attraction. Asexual people may experience romantic attraction, but they do not feel the urge to act on these feelings sexually.”

(If you’re interested in learning about group sex—something we won't be talking about this month—check out our March 2021 content on our Instagram page or read the newsletter!)

Types of ENM

According to Prevention Magazine, Mind Body Green Relationships, BetterHelp, and Healthline, the following types of relationships are included under the ENM umbrella:

🟡 Polygamy: “Being married to multiple partners.”

🟡 Open relationships: when “you can sleep with folks outside of your primary relationship or marriage.” Relationships with others tend to be strictly sexual.

🟡 Swinging: “When a couple has sex with another couple and/or ‘swaps partners.’”

🟡 Monogamish: Relationships that are, “for the most part, monogamous, but allow for little acts of sexual indiscretion (with the partner’s knowledge).”

🟡 Polyamory: “The act of having intimate relationships with more than one person at the same time.”

🟡 Polyfidelity: “A relationship between a group of people where all members are equal partners in the relationship, and no one has sex with or dates people outside the group.” 

🟡 Relationship anarchy: “An approach to relationships, usually non-hierarchical, where there are no set rules or expectations other than the ones that involved partners agree upon.”

Types of Polyamorous Relationships

Polyamory is just one of the many forms of ethical non-monogamy listed above. It comes from “the Greek ‘poly,’ meaning many, and Latin ‘amor,’ meaning love.” This indicates that, for the most part, polyamorous relationships can and will often involve sexual as well as romantic or emotional commitment(s) with multiple consenting partners at the same time.

On that note, Stephanie M. Sullivan, MS, LLMFT reminds us how “polyamory is not cheating, and should not be confused with affairs or infidelity,” since, as pointed out by Consultant in Ethical Non-Monogamy Roy Graff, “everyone involved in the polyamory circle stays informed through ethical communication.” These arrangements are built and agreed upon by all parties involved in the relationships, and they can, according to Sullivan, look like:

💛 A vee: three partners. “One person acts as the ‘hinge’ or ‘pivot’ partner dating two people. The other two people are not romantically or sexually involved with each other.”

💛 A triad: three partners. “All three partners are romantically and/or sexually involved with each other.”

💛 A quad: four partners. “Four partners who are intimately connected in some way, whether romantically or sexually.”

💛 Hierarchical polyamory. One [primary] relationship placed above other relationships. Secondary or tertiary partners may not have a say when it comes to big decisions and might be kept hidden from family and friends.

💛 Non-hierarchical polyamory. One partner does not hold importance over another, and each relationship is important in its own way. All partners might have a say when it comes to big decisions.

Cornerstones of ENM

“It meant learning that other people are real and that
it’s important to interact with them as human beings,
not as things for me to try to get my needs met with.”
ENM practitioners keep it real, and create an almost-from-scratch model of relationship that suits their needs and their partners’. To achieve this, they:

💛 Communicate openly and honestly. ENM practitioners tend, according to Writer Jessica Stillman, to “favor direct communication over standard scripts,” and are pushed to develop the ability to talk about ‘awkward’ or ‘uncomfortable’ topics (e.g. other partners, sexual interactions outside the relationship).

💛 Take jealousy as an opportunity for assessment and a “symptom of insecurity or anxiety that should be handled by introspection to identify the cause and identify better ways to cope,” mentions Stillman, which could include communicating with partners to ask for reinforcement.  

💛 Create parameters. They create explicit rules or practices for the arrangement concerning the number of people who engage in the dynamic, whether or not there is emotional and/or sexual involvement, the STI tracking process, etc. 

💛 Care about their partners’ feelings. According to Multi-Certified Sex Educator Kelly Gonsalves, ENM “does not mean you get to care less about anyone's feelings and well-being. On the contrary, ethical non-monogamy necessitates a lot of care and empathy.” One needs to be ready to take responsibility when required.

If you want to learn more about this, we invite you to check out Relish’s blog post “Open Relationships 101: How to, Dos and Don'ts and What to Expect

Fun fact: some of the people who practice ENM do not need to ‘unlearn’ jealousy. They report to have never experienced an emotion like it, which could indicate that ENM for them is more of an orientation than it is a choice. 

Debunking ENM Myths

“Non-monogamy and polyamory are not meant to simplify life by giving you free reign to go out and act on every urge you have,” mentions author Madison Barry.

Among the many myths surrounding ENM are:

❌ It’s cheating
❌ It equals promiscuity
❌ It puts you at higher risk of contracting STIs and STDs
❌ It’s a threat to monogamy
❌ It’s about trying to have it all
❌ It’s harmful for children as it creates different family structures
❌ It’s about sex
❌ People who pursue ethical non-monogamy are avoiding intimacy
❌ People opt for ethical non-monogamy when their monogamous relationship doesn’t work or because their partner ‘isn’t enough.

Now let’s set the record straight. In ENM:
✅ Partners create their own rules and define what commitment and loyalty mean to them. If it was agreed both could have partners outside of their relationship with each other, then there’s no cheating because that aspect is consented to; there’s no lying or hiding.

Talking about STIs and STDs feels almost mandatory. Sadly, given the scripts we’ve attached to monogamy over the years, there tends to be a lot more reluctance to talk about these topics within monogamous structures (especially when there’s been cheating involved.) If anything, ENM puts one at the same risk level of contracting an STD or STI as monogamy
✅ The amount of care that goes into each relationship shows. Thinking of engaging in ENM just to ‘have it easier’ could make one’s life harder, given the need to balance multiple people’s personalities, desires and emotions. It is called ‘ethical’ or ‘consensual’ non-monogamy because people engaging in it DO CARE

✅ Some structures include triads (where three people are committed to having a relationship between the three of them only.) Evidence that many people engage in ENM because they are looking to build ongoing, MEANINGFUL relationships with more than one partner at a time.

Opening Up

Are you monogamous but considering opening up your relationship? Here are some things to keep in mind:

🔆 Before talking to your partner, make sure you understand why you want to do this. According to Cari Romm in The Cut magazine, “you want to make sure you’re not trying to solve any problems in the relationship, with this as the solution.” Is it because you have unmet needs or just curiosities? Make sure you are ready to communicate this to your partner. 

🔆 Choose a place and time where both of you can, as comfortably as possible, sit and talk through this. You want to be alone and relatively unstressed. 

🔆 Talk about what commitment means to you. Cari also points out that “you have to be direct, but you also have to be reassuring.” Explain as clearly as you can how you feel committed to your partner, and explore ways to express your devotion other than exclusivity. 

🔆 Think. About. The. Details. What is it that you want to try? Dating someone else? Bringing someone else home? Sexual or emotional involvement? How will STI monitoring work? Consider how you can make things “supportive of the primary relationship, not destructive,” suggests Dr. Laurel Steinberg
Other specific questions you might want to ask yourself according to Cosmopolitan include…

🟡How many other partners are you okay with each other having?
🟡How many times per week is acceptable?
🟡Can they see the same person on a recurring basis or only new people?
🟡How much information do you want to hear about these other experiences?
🟡When should you focus solely on each other?
🔆 Respect their answer. If your partner is in complete disagreement with it, it’s up to you to decide whether or not staying in a monogamous relationship is best for you. Make sure, however, that you don’t approach this conversation as an ultimatum.

🔆 Find support if you feel you need it. A licensed therapist can help you navigate through the process of opening up your relationship in a way that feels authentic and secure for both you and your partner. You can also try exploring online resources together!

Challenges and Benefits of ENM

"We're not different. We go to work, we pay taxes, we love each other."

Chris, who is in an open marriage.

“I’ve seen clients lose jobs because they’re polyamorous.”

Diana Adams, Founder of Chosen Family Law Center
ENM is similar to any choice or orientation: there’s a fine line whereafter comparing it with other choices or orientations won’t make sense. There are, however, some common shared experiences among practitioners...
🟡 Trust and freedom. Studies suggest that there tends to be more trust and less jealousy in non-monogamous dynamics.  
🟡 Enhanced communication skills from rewriting traditional relationship scripts and creating relationship agreements. 
🟡 A more varied sex and love life with more opportunities to explore curiosities. 
🟡 Less pressure to fulfill all of one partner’s needs. 
🟡 Shame. ENM practitioners are estimated to be a population even bigger than the LGBTQ population; yet many of them choose to keep this aspect of their lives hidden in the face of possible rejection or straight exclusion from society. 
🟡 Jealousy. ENM represents more opportunities for jealousy to arise (which tends to be turned into a benefit, since it allows for the underlying issues to be processed in the frame of open honest communication..)
🟡 Time management. Love may be infinite, but time isn’t. There must be enough time for all partners in the dynamic to feel good and valued, and it might often be tough to find it.
🟡 Legal implications. Parenting and marriage become difficult for people in polyfidelitous relationships when legal marriage between more than two people is not an option for most. 
(If you want to learn more about the challenges and benefits of ENM, listen to or watch our interview with Sex, Relationship, Spiritual, Grief and Trauma Resolution Guide for couples and individuals Jessica Graham, wherein we discuss how non-monogamy can be a “radical spiritual path,” her journey through jealousy and how our relationships with ourselves can impact our sexuality.)

Unethical Non-Monogamy

Because in mainstream culture there’s little talk of non-monogamous relationship styles, ENM can feel like a scary option. In non-monogamous dynamics, “there is fertile ground for an abusive partner to dictate the way things ‘should’ be done—controlling the narrative with emotional manipulation, guilt, and power games,” says Relationship Coach Dedeker Winston. This is why it's important to inform yourself about the ways it could go wrong and how to identify them, since you most likely haven’t been as exposed to these as to the ways monogamy can go wrong. 

Some of the signs that could indicate unhealthy non-monogamy are:

According to Winston:
⚠ “You have no privacy.”
⚠ “You’re expected to become romantically involved with anyone your partner is dating.”
⚠ “You or your partner insist on having veto power.” (The power to end each other’s relationships.)

According to Writer Raïssa Simone:
⚠ “Power disparities within the 'polycule' [polyamorous relationship with four or more people involved] are not openly recognized.”
⚠ “Your partner has expectations of how you pursue new relationships that they would never accept for themselves.”
⚠ “You feel unable to voice concerns or be critical of your partner or those in your polycule.”
⚠ “There are hostile or manipulative metamours involved in the dynamic.” (Metamours are your partner’s partners.) 
⚠ “Your partner lies to you about the rules and boundaries their other partners have set, or lies about your rules and boundaries to others.“
⚠ “Your partner doesn't prioritize safe sex.”
⚠ People involved in the dynamic “minimize sexual assault or the importance of sexual consent.”

Signs of an abusive monogamous partner who uses non-monogamy to manipulate you, according to Melissa, a Hotline advocate, are:

⚠ “Your partner has cheated and decides they want to open things up as a result.”
⚠ “Your partner wants to be non-monogamous but doesn't want you to have sex with or date anyone else.”
⚠ “You feel like you need to open up your relationship in order to keep it going.”

(If you are, or you know a loved one who is experiencing abuse, please seek help. There are numerous international supportive helplines and we’ve compiled a number of them into this hotline document—also available in our resource center). 

Find other ENM folks

COVID has certainly made it challenging, but the internet is ready! Here are some apps that people in the ENM community have found helpful, according to Madeline Howard of Women's Health Magazine and Gabrielle Smith in Cosmopolitan:

🔆 Feeld 
🔆 #Open
🔆 BiCupid
🔆 OkCupid
🔆 MoreThanOne
🔆 PolyFinda

You can also use traditional apps like Tinder, Hinge or Bumble to find potential partners, just make sure to state very clearly that you are ethically non-monogamous (ENM) and add that you’re looking for “like-minded folks,” says Certified Sex Therapist and Clinical Psychologist Janet Brito as quoted in Cosmopolitan. Make it a habit to remind people this is what you’re after even if you’ve already matched and are chatting.  

If you’re in an open relationship and looking for a ‘third’ person, make that clear in your bio, and even create a profile to which both you and your partner have access. Certified Sexologist Gigi Engle asserts that this is a great way to establish clear boundaries and ensure the “total transparency” needed for the situation.

By this point you might be wondering, ‘what about the are-humans-naturally-monogamous-or-not debate?’

As addressed in a joint research article by the University of South Carolina and Oakland University, “it seems that either monogamy or CNM can improve social relations, romantic satisfaction, and mental health when the option to pursue diverse romantic and sexual strategies allows someone to find and fill their niche.” Options are on the table, all equally valid, all waiting for you to take them or leave them. It’s time you go out there and write your sexual biography! 

Carnal Theories:

“There is no one sexual path to take, you create your path by making it.”

Dr. Rachel Allyn; Psychologist, Writer, Retreat Leader, and Pleasure Expert.
Click here to listen, and here to watch her episode.
“Sexuality, much like spirituality, is an infinite path of possibilities. When we wake up to being more than a separate solid self, with a fixed location, we suffer less, and sex gets a lot more interesting.”

Jessica Graham; Meditation Teacher, Sex, Relationship and Spiritual Guide for Couples and Individuals, Grief and Trauma Resolution Guide
Click here to listen, and here to watch her episode.
If you enjoyed what we explored in this newsletter, we invite you to listen to or watch our interviews with these two insightful experts,  Dr. Rachel Allyn and Jessica Graham. Stream wherever you listen to your podcasts, or head over to our YouTube channel for visual versions! 

Our Blog

Resources on nurturing your sexual-self provided by ShaVaughn Elle in our blog entry Nurturing our Cycles Through Ritual:
📚 The Body is Not an Apology — Sonya Renee Taylor
📚 Becoming Cliterate — Dr. Laurie Mintz
📚 Queer Sex — Juno Roche
📚 Women Who Run With the Wolves — Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.
📚 Unf*ck Your Intimacy — Faith G. Harper, Ph.D.
📚 Pleasure Activism — Adrienne Maree Brown

Writing Prompts:

Take what you’ve learned through our social media, Carnal Theory interviews, this newsletter, our recent blogs, and other resources to inform your inner reflection and self-exploration:

📝 Have you ever considered applying relationship structures different from monogamy? 

📝 What can you learn from ethical non-monogamy?

📝 How can you customize your own relationship(s) to adapt to your and your partner’s/partners’ unique needs? 

This voluntary monthly prompt invites you to explore your sexual biography.
Tips on exploring this: Set aside 20 minutes with your phone on silent and relax in a comfortable space with a pen and paper. Go slow. Start with what comes to mind from your first read of the prompt. Continue writing from your stream of consciousness. 

Mantra of the month

My thoughts and feelings are valid, and I command their influence upon me.

Researching our sexual biographies:

Have you ever considered engaging in or have you ever engaged in any type of non-monogamous relationship?
Yes      No
Each month we ask a question in support of our leading mission at My Sex Bio. As we grow we plan to help fund and supply research for sex education. The results of these questions may be shared on social media as well as the following month’s newsletter. These results will also help curate relevant content for our readers, like you, moving forward. Responses are voluntary and anonymous.

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