I can understand the confusion- if your definition of “cheating” is “having sex with someone other than your spouse,” then you’re likely to equate poly with breaking the rules. But I always wonder about that- there’s no other area that I can think of in which “cheating” means anything other than “not playing by the rules.” And there’s no reason why we all have to have the same rules.
In soccer, you can touch the ball with any part of your body other than your arms or hands. In basketball, you can only touch the ball with your hands. Cheating in one game is playing by the rules in the other. Similarly, different relationships have different rules. Seems pretty simple to me.
Of course, simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Poly requires the ability to talk with your partner(s) about your needs & concerns, as well as the agreements you’ve made with your other partners, especially with respect to safer sex. Most of the poly folks I know have gotten pretty good at sharing this kind of information. Reid Mihalko’s safer sex elevator pitch is a really good format for that:
Reid’s Safer Sex Elevator Speech
Write down your answers for each and then try it out on yourself in the mirror or on a friend or a lover.
- When were you last tested for STDs, what did you get tested for, and what was the status of those tests?
- What is your current relationship status and sexual orientation, and what, if any, relationship agreements do you have that the other person should know about?
- What are your Safer Sex Protocols and needs?
- One or two things that you know you like sexually (or might want to do with this person).
- One thing you know you don’t like sexually (or that you aren’t up for today).
- Optional: Quick rundown of any risky sexual things you’ve done since you were last tested.
- Last step: Then ask the other person, “And how about you?” and listen to what they say and how they say it…
Being able to have these conversations takes some practice. It also helps if you’re striving to keep other aspects of your relationship honest. So I wasn’t surprised to read about some new research showing that people who cheat are less likely to practice safer sex than people who are openly poly. Among cheaters, condom use for vaginal and anal sex was 27% and 35% lower and alcohol use was 64% higher. Of course, there’s some correlation between alcohol use and not practicing safer sex, and some people who cheat may drink in order to get past the voices in their heads that are telling them that they’re doing something they know they shouldn’t. It’s important (as always) to remember that correlation is not causation, and that there are many different reasons people do what they do.
Nevertheless, as someone who’s been in a non-monogamous relationship for over 20 years, I can say that I’m really glad to see that we’re beginning to see some research to show that there’s a difference between poly and cheating. I’ve had enough friends and lovers who have shared stories of therapists who didn’t understand that the problem with cheating is the dishonesty, which poly folks usually do their best to not engage in. And I’ve had plenty of people not believe me when I tell them that my partner always knows who I’m with and when to expect me home. That’s part of our how we operate, but some folks seem to have difficulty grasping that. Instead, they seem to assume that I’m simply cheating. So the more info we have to show that the two things simply aren’t the same, the better.
There are some excellent books to help you figure out how to make poly work for you. If you haven’t seen these, I highly recommend checking them out.