Consent, Open Relationships, and Sex-Positivity

One of the difficulties I’ve seen when it comes to discussions and debates around sexual practices and communities of erotic affiliation centers on the notion of consent.

On one side, there are the folks who bring everything back to the question of the individual. The general argument is that if a person consents to a particular act, then there isn’t any reason that they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. Yes, this is a vast oversimplification of a much more complex statement, but it often boils down to the notion that people should be able to anything they want, as long as they and their partner(s) consent to it.

On the other hand, there are people who argue that, in a society that limits choices depending on one’s sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, culture, physical ability, etc., there really isn’t as much choice as some people claim. They rightly point out that most people are within some groups that are dominant and some groups that are oppressed. The more one moves within dominant groups, the more choices one has and the more choices one has and the easier it is to bring everything back to the consent of the individual.

I get both sides of this and I would really like to see more nuanced discussions. For example, consent is often framed as only something that the people in a given sexual situation need think about. But I think that the consent of everyone affected by an action should have input into the decision. I have no problem with people who enjoy being watched while they have sex by people who want to watch them. I have a problem with people who have sex in public in order to elicit reactions from people who have not consented to be part of their scene. I have no problem with people who have multiple sexual partners. I have a problem with people who deceive their partners in order to do it because they’re not letting their partners have full knowledge and choice. We can open up a discussion about the effects of the sums of people’s choices on the larger society, but only if we are willing to look at this from the perspective of both the individual and the group. We need to see both the forest and the trees.

So I was really excited to read Critique of Pure Relationships: On Consent and Compulsory Monogamy when it showed up in my twitter feed. It’s an impressive article that weaves together the socio-cultural factors and the individual influences that shape and define monogamy as the gold standard for relationships:

There are, however, a multitude of ways in which social institutions interfere with our ability to actively consent. Any institution that upholds any particular form of sexuality as ideal, and privileges it as such, in turn acts as a coercive force, pressing individuals to comply with that ideal. The same can be said of political and economic institutions which privilege one form of sexuality with various benefits and write-offs. We can hardly be said to be actively consenting when only one option is considered valid, ideal, or “good.” In order to better understand consent it is important to look at some of the systemic roots of coercion in our lives.


Linking together enforced monogamy, the nuclear family, the gender binary, jealousy, community, language, and economics is exactly the sort of thing that gets left out of most of the discussions around open relationships and sex-positivity. Wendy O-Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships: Guidelines for Responsible Open Relationships is one of the few exceptions and it’s definitely worth a read. That doesn’t mean that the other books, like Opening Up and The Ethical Slut aren’t great guide. They focus on the how-to side of things, without as much exploration of the contextual forces that shape how we think and feel about relationships.

Not that I, or these folks, are advocating that monogamy isn’t a valid option. In their own words (sorry for the long quote, but I just love this):

We envision a society not in which monogamy is obsolete, but in which it is seen as only one possible relationship structure among many, and in which any relationship structure is entered into as the result of deliberate, active consent. We envision a society in which individuals form intimate relationships and shape their roles within those relationships out of authentic needs and desires rather than as a result of pressures to conform to a predetermined model, and where self-reflectivity with regard to the way we form relationships is encouraged rather than discouraged. In this society, people will be educated and empowered to make sexual decisions based on the safety, consent, and desire of all parties involved rather than based on an externally imposed morality. We envision a society where value is placed on the development of authentic sexualities.

We envision a society in which all families—whether connected by blood, by choice, or some synthesis—are given equal consideration and validity. The roles of the individuals within these families will not be determined by gender, but will instead be formed in a way that equitably balances the needs of the family as a whole with the needs and desires of each individual.

We envision a society in which sexual fluidity is permitted and embraced rather than feared, in which we recognize that an individual’s needs and desires with regard to sexual orientation, gender identification, relationship structure, and relationships with specific partners are not necessarily static, but are capable of changing throughout the course of one’s lifetime. Acceptance of fluidity and change needn’t mean treating relationships as disposable or temporary; on the contrary, it means embracing an expansive definition of “commitment.” In this context, commitment doesn’t have to mean a promise that our needs or desires will never change, but can instead mean a promise to navigate these changes openly and honestly with our partners when and if they do occur, and likewise to offer our partners the kind of support they request when facing such changes of their own.

Finally, we envision a society that treats all forms of consensual romantic relationships equally, without giving economic or political privilege or priority based on the structure of a relationship. We envision a society in which polyamorous and non-monogamous groups are granted the same respect and consideration as monogamous pairs.

In order to realize this vision, we must fully recognize monogamy as something to be consented to, not coerced into. It is difficult, but not impossible, to begin considering and creating alternative structures for our relationships and families even within the context of our current society. But in order for relationship structures to be radically re-imagined on a lasting and widespread scale, support for a variety of consensual choices must exist in all areas of society. In our policy we should be attempting to rework or abolish current legislation which privileges certain relationship structures over others. We should seek to form alliances with marginalized social and sexual groups. Within our community we should challenge our own assumptions about other relationship forms as well as speak out against groups which fail to accommodate alternative structures. We must work consciously to break down our own deeply imprinted ideas that love inherently equals monogamy, and that jealousy is justified and unavoidable. We should also explore new ways of forming groups and sharing resources, and appreciate those who already have.

This is what I think sex-positivity is all about. Recognizing that any relationship structure and any sexual practice is both an individual choice and shaped by the options that are presented or that one can envision. Believing that when people are free to actively and enthusiastically consent to whatever sexual expression is authentic to them, they will be able to craft their lives to meet their ever-shifting needs and desires. Acknowledging that the socio-cultural context in which we move influences both what possibilities we each have and while possibilities we can imagine. And moving towards a society in which freedom is truly celebrated, by confronting our own prejudices and biases, as well as those of our families, our communities, and the larger culture.

Give the full article a read. It’s worth it.

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