What Makes a Relationship Sustainable?

This comment
on another post has had me thinking.

It’s in response to something I wrote about an anti-porn conference and the commenter is trying to make a point about “green sex” or “sustainable sex.” I like the motivation behind it, but I think he’s missing the mark. Here’s what he offered:

For a positive vision of what sex without porn can be like, I offer “Green Sexuality”.

Green sexuality is sustainable sexuality. It is characterized by long-term, mutually respectful relationships that enhance the lives of the lovers and the wider world. Green relationships look more like erotica and less like porn, as defined at NoPornNothampton.org. Green sexuality is a union between two equals, embracing both heterosexual and homosexual bonds but excluding polygamy, adult-child sexual relations and bestiality.

Green relationships are mindful of the impact of sexual choices on physical and mental health. They value integrity, wholeness and communication and avoid exploitation, abuse, promiscuity, infidelity and prostitution.

Green sexuality is consistent with the principles of the larger green movement, emphasizing long-term thinking, respect for other people, and an awareness of the consequences of personal choices. The green lover avoids mindless excess. By giving up superficial, fleeting, unsatisfying experiences, green relationships cultivate a finer, deeper, richer, and more robust way of living.

First off, I like the idea of cultivating sustainable sexual relationships. As I’ve written many times, I believe that the consent, pleasure, and well-being of all of the people involved are the primary factors in assessing a sexual interaction, desire, or fantasy. And one could easily argue that sustainability and well-being are related. Long-term thinking, avoiding mindless excess (as compared to mindfully chosen indulgence) and integrity are all things that I can support.

But this person’s definition of sustainable sex is limited, I think. I see no reason why sexual connections need to be long-term in order to be positive. They obviously can be, and it’s certainly true that many people who have short-term or one-night sexual connections are engaging in them in ways that aren’t supportive of their well-being. At the same time, there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is absolutely possible to have sexual relationships that are short-term, or that have a sunset clause (such as, “we’ll be together until the end of the summer and you move away”), or such. As long as all of the participants are fully informed and genuinely choosing this path, how does that cause harm?

There’s a strong tendency in this culture to evaluate the success of a sexual/romantic relationship based on whether it lasts a long time, despite plenty of evidence that many long-term relationships are unhappy. Does this mean that a 5-month old relationship can’t be “green”? After all, is it the intention to be long-term that makes it sustainable, by this definition? Is it the desire? Or does one need to actually to have a certain number of anniversaries in order to qualify? Is there a benchmark for longevity that you have to reach before earning the merit badge? A job can be successful if you develop some good skills, and end things on good terms, even if your plan from the beginning was to leave after a year or two. Why can’t sex be the same?

A few years ago, some married friends of mine decided that their marriage wasn’t giving them what they needed. Rather than divorcing in the usual, acrimonious style, or the less common “we’ll end things and then not bother each other anymore” way, they thought of their divorce as a transition in their ongoing connection. They carefully considered how they wanted to craft this next phase, both for themselves and their child, and they even had a marvelously touching ceremony at which they shared with each other and their friends what they valued about their marriage and what they hoped would come next. They continue to be good friends and excellent co-parents. Their relationship is amazingly successful, even if mainstream definitions or this person’s notion of sustainable sex would label it a failure since they aren’t married anymore.

Granted, this level of open-hearted communication as relationships change is unfortunately rare. But the fact that it CAN happen and the fact that it DOES sometimes happen means that any definition of sustainable relationships that ignores the possibility falls into the same trap of sweeping statements that support sex-negativity.

It’s also interesting that this comment clearly focuses on monogamous connections and specifically excludes polygamy, even though it’s absolutely possible to create emotional and sexual relationships with more than one person. Not only does this privilege some relationships while denigrating others, it also ignores the fact that for many non-monogamous people, polyamory is more sustainable because nobody is expected to fulfill every single role or expectation of anyone else. For some people, multiple relationships creates room for a diversity of desires and experiences that can be more fulfilling and sustainable than trying to fit all of one’s sexual needs into a single relationship. One might even argue that it shares some characteristics with polyculture along with many of its advantages (as well as many of its challenges). Both polyculture and polyamory offer greater resilience as there are more participants to respond to a given situation, and they both require a deep understanding of the intersecting and overlapping relationships between and among individuals. I’m sure there are some other comparisons between the two.

I like a lot of things about this person’s idea of sustainable sex. I also think that it has some significant flaws that I’d like to see addressed. We don’t need sustainable sex. We need sex that sustains us, which isn’t quite the same thing.

6 Responses so far.

  1. Bob says:

    I liked your column and would like to build on the “green” metaphor. The writer you critique equates “sustainable” with “long-term”. I thought of agriculture, where sustainability takes many forms. One might be labor-intensive and characterized by settled villages, , and a tendency towards nation-states and civilization. But “slash-and-burn”, where fields a cultivated for a season and then return to nature for a year or several, is also sustainable. You get less population density and a cyclical interaction with nature characterized by a different periodicity. This model sustains a different, less hierarchical sociaty, not one that I personally would want to live in for more than a vacation, but sustainable. My point? I dunno, maybe just that metaphors are fun but dangerous.

  2. Bob says:

    oh, and porn == compost, valuable in some places and stinking filth in others, and children, as my parents and their suburban friends always gleefully commented, grow like weeds.

  3. Any sustainable relationship worth maintaining will require concessions. Concessions are not consistent with achievement of personal desires over all else. I wish I understood exactly what makes one couple make the concessions that another cannot. As I have discussed in a recent post (found at http://bit.ly/e4CT6k) on my blog, I have no answer why this is so for couples in successful sustained relationships; it is just the way they are. The concessions just happen.

    Is Still Here

  4. Caitlin says:

    You’re more sympathetic than I am to this somewhat arbitrary definition. It excludes pretty much all the sex I have, with my partner, with friends, at parties, even though I have it while still managing to be happy and kind to others. Anyhow, I’m not too upset at being excluded because as much as I too am an earnest left-wing environment loving type, the idea of striving for ‘green’ ‘sustainable’ sex sounds… incredibly boring and unsexy.

  5. Forrest says:

    You get out of life what you put into it. Very little of ourselves is necessarily put forward in a one-night stand, and yet the repercussions on ourselves and our lovers last a lifetime. A committed love is the only true love, anything else is a selfish love. We should ask ourselves if our course of action is beneficial to ourselves only. If our actions are harmful to someone concerned (the kids, greater society) then our moral framework is endangered and we are at odds with sustainability.

  6. Charlie says:

    I disagree that the only true love is a committed love. I think that one can act from a place of love in many other settings, although of course, it takes different shapes in each context. So while I’m with you that it’s worth asking “if our course of action is beneficial to ourselves only”, I don’t think that anything outside a committed relationship is “selfish love.”

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