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'The Ethical Slut': Inside America's Growing Acceptance of Polyamory

'The Ethical Slut': Inside America's Growing Acceptance of Polyamory
From Rolling Stone - September 16, 2017

In 1994, sexual educator Janet W. Hardy, was bedridden for a month with a bad flu that had evolved into bronchitis. She was, as she recalls, "high off my ass on Codeine cough syrup" when she caught a showing of Indecent Proposal on TV. Married couple David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana (Demi Moore) are faced with a moral dilemma when a billionaire named John (Robert Redford) offers them a million dollars in exchange for spending one night with Diana. Hardy, who is now 62, had herself been in a marriage that had ended about a decade earlier, and had not been in a monogamous relationship since. At the scene where the couple hesitates over the billionaire's offer, Hardy wondered if she was having a fever dream.

"I was sitting there going, 'What's going on here?'" she tells Rolling Stone from her home in Oregon. "A million dollars and Robert Redford, and they have a problem with this? It made no sense to me. I really got it at that point, how distant I had become from mainstream sexual ethics."

Hardy reached out to her friend and sometimes collaborator, the psychotherapist Dossie Easton to work on a book about non-monogamy. The pair had already coauthored two books on kink which were read in BDSM circles, but not much elsewhere. Both Easton and Hardy identified as queer and polyamorous, and Easton wanted to reclaim the word slut. They combined their own experiences with both casual sex and open marriages, navigating orgies and battling jealousy. In 1997, under Hardy's own indie sex-ed publishing house Greenery Press, they published The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities. It would go on to sell 200,000 copies.

The the first usage of the word polyamory is credited to pagan priestess Morning Glory Ravenheart Zell in 1990. Though different forms of non-monogamy have presented themselves in various cultures for millennia, in Western culture in the early 1990s it was still seen as an alternative practice, the kind favored by, well, pagan priestesses. Today, polyamory is less tied to one specific subculture or identity. In the two decades since the first edition of The Ethical Slut has been published, polyamory has expanded into a practice that, if not outright mainstream, is at least much more widely accepted and understood. According to a 2014 article from Psychology Today, at least 9.8 million Americans are in some kind of non-monogamous relationship. [1]

"Twenty years ago, I used to get calls from show producers all the time, and the call would go, 'Can you point me towards a poly family that's not either old hippies or screaming geeks?'" laughs Hardy. "I would say no, because A, that's most of my rolodex, and B, that's who was doing poly back then. But these days, when I speak to poly audiences, they are young professionals, all shiny and new. It's very different."

Heather is a 35-year-old mental health advocate who lives with her husband and two kids in Toronto, Canada. (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.) She and her husband started dating when they were seventeen years old, a couple of years after the first edition of The Ethical Slut was published. The two Canadian teenagers did not yet have the language for what it is they wanted.

"This was pre-Internet forum, pre-all of that stuff. We really were going by gut," she says. "I did not know the word polyamorous. I did not know that there were tons of other people that had ethically non-monogamous relationships." The models they saw for long term relationships, such as their parents or friends' parents, were monogamous, but did not seem that satisfying. All that she and her then-boyfriend knew was that they liked each other a lot, and they did not feel the need to be exclusive.

"We had a conversation where we both realized, 'I do not care if you flirt with other people,'" she says about the beginning of their relationship. "'Actually, it's kind of great. I love that side of you." She and her boyfriend were both extroverted, social people, and flirting with other people just felt natural. Heather, who identifies as queer, liked that she could continue to explore that side of her sexuality with other women. They moved in together at age nineteen. Her boyfriend started to date a woman he worked with at a restaurant, and when Heather met her at a holiday party, she realized she was attracted to her too. The three of them entered a relationship together that lasted just under a year. The Ethical Slut describes this relationship model as a triad, but at the time neither Heather nor her partners knew that.

"That was one of our first experiences that was not a casual or one-time thing," she says. "The three of us were pretty sure we were inventing the wheel."

Eventually, Heather says, the culture that surrounded her began to catch up. She credits this to living in a progressive city like Toronto, and the Internet's ability to "bring people outside the mainstream together." She finally read The Ethical Slut at age 30, while she was already well into developing what she describes as her "own kind of community of poly, kinky, queer awesome people."

Like Heather, both Hardy and Easton had to figure out their own ideal relationship models as they went along. Easton, who is 73, was coming out of a traumatic relationship in during the summer of love in 1969 and decided that the only way for her to live from thereon out was by "being a slut. I was never going to be monogamous again," she says. The idea of a communal lifestyle appealed to her, so she took her newborn daughter and found a home in a queer community in San Francisco. She joined an group called San Francisco Sex Organization and taught her first class on unlearning jealousy in 1973.

Hardy, 62, was married for 13 years when, in 1988, she realized that monogamy no longer appealed to her. Her marriage ended that same year. A few years later, in 1992, she met Easton through a BDSM group in San Francisco called the Society of Janus. Easton was teaching a class called "Pain Play with Canes from Psyche to Soma" and Hardy volunteered to help her demonstrate. Two years later, the pair gave a presentation on S&M in Big Sur at a Mensa gathering. ("Of all things" says Hardy.)

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