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What is ethical non-monogamy? - Richard Godwin

Blog | By Richard Godwin | Jun 30, 2022

Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is when you have intimate relationships with more than one person – but in a non-cheaty way. By Richard Godwin

When it comes to ethical non-monogamy (ENM), it’s all completely consensual, non-exploitative and above-board – and everyone involved has a really nice time. At least in theory.

What it doesn’t mean is lobbing all your keys in a bowl after dessert; or meeting the Featherstones behind the pampas grass for nipple clamps and fondue – but, then again, it doesn’t not mean that.

ENM is an umbrella term, taking in polyamory, pansexualism, open relationships and all such deviations from the monogamous norm. As long as you and the person(s) with whom you decide to be ethically non-monogamous are fully aware of what you’re signing up to, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.

ENM has become quite fashionable among straight people in recent years; chic in a way that swinging and dogging aren’t. Gay people may point out they’ve been doing ENM for years. Just as you may now choose from a whole patchwork of gender and sexual identities (lesbian, transgender, asexual, pansexual, aromantic, genderqueer etc), so you can now choose from drop-down menus of commitment levels, predilections and participants. Quite literally so on the ENM dating app Feeld, which caters for every conceivable sex-positive preference, from heteroflexible polycules to a pansexual BDSM (look it up).

But it’s not all free love and wild abandon. ENM is particularly popular in Silicon Valley, where a Californian love of personal liberation combines with a geeky love of systems and rules. It is, in some ways, the opposite of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell French approach to extramarital affairs. A polyamorous acquaintance of mine warns that ENM actually involves far more deeply involved conversations about power dynamics than it does actual sex.

How liberating to cast off centuries of hang-ups and inequalities, to move beyond the one-size-fits-all marriage template! A female friend has recently come out as polyamorous and seems to be having a wonderful time. ‘It’s like a hobby,’ she says.

Still, it is no safeguard against the vagaries of the human heart. My friend dated an ethical non-monogamous guy for a while. He was happily married with young children and spoke lovingly about his wife (who also had a boyfriend). But my friend got the ‘ick’ when he told her that she and his wife both liked the sexual position they were engaging in at that moment. ‘Like … I felt totally fine to chat about her … but not during sex.’

She suspected the wife was more invested in ENM than the husband: ‘It has to be a truly mutual decision – otherwise someone is getting hurt.’

Which would, of course, be deeply unethical.