Is Monogamy Fair?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

In any romantic/ sexual relationship, is it reasonable to expect your partner to limit their sexual activity in any way?

Weird question, I know. Here’s why I’m asking it.

Watching porn
In a recent column, I talked about porn in relationships. I asked, “In a monogamous relationship, is it reasonable to expect your partner to not watch porn?” And I concluded that it was not. I argued that, for the same reason people don’t have the right to expect their partners not to watch reality TV or read true crime — on their own time, when they don’t have any obligations and their partner isn’t around — people don’t have the right to expect their partners not to enjoy porn. I argued that people have some basic rights to privacy and autonomy — yes, strangely enough, even when they’re in serious committed relationships — and that the things people do on their own time, in ways that don’t have any significant impact on their partner, are entirely their own damn business.

But when I was writing this, I realized that some non-monogamist hard-liners would say the same thing about any sort of sexual activity outside a relationship. Some non-monogamy advocates — not many, but some — would argue that the right to make your own decisions about how to spend your own time extends to having sex with other people. I wrote that people had no more right to expect their partners not to watch porn than to expect them not to watch reality TV… and as I wrote it, I could hear voices in the back of my head saying, “But how is sex different from porn? If watching porn is no different from watching reality TV, then how is having sex with someone outside the relationship any different than seeing a basketball game with someone outside the relationship?”

Now, as you may have guessed, I don’t agree with those voices. I do, however, think this is a harder question than it might seem on the surface, and a murkier one, without an obvious place to draw the line. (To some extent, this is one of my “thinking out loud” pieces, and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer quite right.) Ultimately, though, I do think there’s a difference — even if it’s a murky and non-obvious difference — between watching depictions of other people having sex, and actually having sex with other people.

The difference is… well, other people.

Opening up tristan taormino
I think non-monogamy changes a relationship, in a way that porn does not. I think non-monogamy changes a relationship — because it brings other people into it.

For starters, those other people have desires of their own, and limits of their own, and rights of their own… desires and limits and rights that have to be taken into consideration.

The porn video doesn’t care if you don’t see it for months at a time. The dirty novel doesn’t have a special new kink that it really wants to explore with you. The book of French postcards doesn’t have a preference about whether or not you discuss it with your partner. The adult comic book doesn’t get hurt if you throw it away without so much as a phone call. Other people do. And they have the right to expect that their cares and kinks and preferences and feelings will get some attention. From both partners in a relationship — not just the one they’re boffing.

Which means that non-monogamy changes the relationship. For everyone in it. Even if you have the simplest, most limited kind of non-monogamous relationship — say, the “You and I are a primary couple, we can have sex with other people but only on our own time, and those other people won’t get involved in our romantic or social life” kind — the other people you’re involved with are still living, breathing, autonomous people, with lives and selves of their own. So both partners in that relationship have to treat the outside person’s desires and limits and rights as if they matter… even if only one of those partners is getting the outside nookie.

Plus, other people have emotions of their own — emotions that aren’t always predictable. Porn isn’t going to get obsessed with you and stalk you, or fall in love with you even though you clearly said upfront that that wasn’t an option. And you probably aren’t going to fall in love with your porn. Okay, yes, some people do get fixated on porn to an unhealthy degree. People can get fixated on anything to an unhealthy degree, from weightlifting to “Star Trek” to collecting porcelain pigs. But sexual relationships with other people carry a degree of risk that sexual relationships with books or photos or Internet videos just don’t. (And that’s not even mentioning the physical risk of STI’s and whatnot.)

Deep inside annie sprinkle
Finally — for now, anyway — other people change. They change in ways you can’t expect, and ways you have to adapt to. The only way your copy of “Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle” is going to change is when it comes out in a new 30th anniversary edition loaded with DVD extras. (We hope!) But with other people, you can have a nice, neat arrangement that makes everybody happy… and then what does that other person go and do but be human, and want something more than they used to, or something less, or something different. Which you then have to accept, or reject, or re-negotiate.

All of which means that non-monogamy requires a level of involvement and negotiation and processing that porn simply doesn’t demand — involvement and negotiation and processing that can have a significant impact on your relationship. It can be a good impact, mind you: a great impact even, an impact that keeps communication open and eroticism alive. But it’s an impact, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

I mean, when it comes to porn, what do you have to negotiate? “Don’t look at it when I’m around.” Or, “If you’re going to look at it when I’m around, let’s pick something we both want to watch together.” Or, “If you watch it so much that you can’t pay your bills and we never have sex, we’re going to have deep trouble.” Or, “Keep the volume down when I’m trying to sleep.” Your arrangements about it don’t have to be any more complicated than your arrangements about any other book or magazine, TV show or Internet site. And they’re entirely between the two of you. They involve your wants and feelings and nobody else’s, and they only have to change if the two of you change.

So that’s why porn and sex are different.

Now, there is an area where this moderately clear distinction starts to get murky. And that area is sex work: prostitution, stripping, pro domination, other forms of live professional sexual entertainment.

Here’s why sex work is murkier. Sex workers are people, obviously. I hope I’m not going to get any debate about that. But with a few exceptions, they’re people who aren’t going to have expectations or make demands outside the professional encounter itself. They’re, you know, professionals, and whatever feelings they might have about their encounters with you, they’re skilled at drawing boundaries between their personal feelings and their professional responsibilities. With a few exceptions, sex workers aren’t going to ask to see you more often, or ask for something sexually that’s outside your agreement with your partner, or stalk you because they think you’re their soulmate. I’m not saying it never happens — but it’s rare.

So it could be argued that the non-monogamy issues I’m talking about here — the concern that other people have needs, desires, emotions, changes, any of which could affect your relationship — don’t apply to sex workers. And it could therefore be argued that, while it might be reasonable to want your partner to not have (shall we say) amateur sex outside your relationship, it’s not reasonable to expect them not to see strippers or pro dominants or prostitutes… since encounters with strippers or pro dominants or prostitutes aren’t likely to seriously affect the relationship.

I don’t know. It still seems somehow different to me. But I’m not sure exactly why. I haven’t gotten that far yet.


Is Monogamy Fair?

18 thoughts on “Is Monogamy Fair?

  1. 1

    Great post, Christina.
    I was with you all the way until the second to last sentence … “encounters with strippers (check), pro dominants (check, or prostitutes (BZZZZT).
    I think most people would agree that engaging in sex with a prostitute would be a no-no in a monogamous relationship.
    Although … I can’t exactly explain why. Maybe the premise is wrong?

  2. 2

    It seems like the degree of interaction matters.
    Watching a stripper in person doesn’t seem that much different than watching a video of the same performance.
    But, I’d see a private session with a cam-girl (apologies if this is not the preferred term) as more non-monogamous than someone watching a stripper.
    I think the difference might have to do with my expectations about my partner’s emotional intimacy.
    Some people can have sexual interactions from intimacy. But, my experience is that these people are much less common than the people who say they can disconnect sex from intimacy.
    So, the difference might come down to jealousy plus this belief.

  3. Ben

    Nice post! I’ve wondered the same thing myself.
    It seems you’re saying that it’s okay for your primary partner to try to control sexual activities that might affect The Relationship because those activities involve people who have–or just are likely to develop–their own needs. I see no reason to limit that to sexual activities. Is it reasonable to limit your partner’s ability to have close friendships? Only if the close friends are likely to _really_ need a friend? To accept a promotion at work? Only if “work” is a small company in which humans rely on each other? Surely there are other non-sexual scenarios in which people need YOU (rather than just someone). I’m not sure where I’m going with this either.
    It seems your premise is that it’s reasonable to demand that your partner not risk the feelings of others. I’m not sure I agree–it is reasonable to say “If you hurt someone else then I’m leaving”, but I have an uneasy feeling about “If you do something that may benefit this person but may possibly also hurt him–and I don’t know the cost/benefit ratio–then I’m leaving you”.

  4. 4

    Some non-monogamy advocates — not many, but some — would argue that the right to make your own decisions about how to spend your own time extends to having sex with other people.

    I would suggest that this right is a universal human one. However, when you consensually enter into a monogamous relationship, you are effectively giving up certain rights in exchange for those explicit “guarantees” that are supposed to come along with it, i.e. you will only have a sexual relationship with that one person, you will stay with them forever, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with this. It is a consensual agreement just as valid as any other relationship structure. So from that standpoint, monogamy is absolutely fair. The end result is exactly what you expect to get out of it. What wouldn’t be “fair” would be cheating or otherwise violating the agreements made as part of the relationship. And if the relationship agreement was that there would be no outside sex, then that would apply equally to “professional” or “amateur” sex.
    The bottom line is that these areas need to be explored and discussed with your partner(s) prior to their becoming an issue, monogamous or not. What’s a reasonable expectation for one person might be anathema to another and assumptions can’t be made regarding them. If there are differences, well, that’s what negotiation is for. That, or nude baby-oil wrestling.

  5. 5

    Surely part of the reason is that people enter into monogamous relationships with the expectations of monogamy? In most relationships, the non-use of porn is not a central expectation of those entering into the relationship. Unless this is explicitly discussed ahead of time, there is no particular reason to assume that your partner is going to give up porn when they enter a relationship with you. Imagine if sex were like porn in this respect, that we generally had no expectations that our partners would stop having sex with others. In this case, I tend to think that it would be unfair to then go and demand from them that they abstain from sex with others. While it is true that sex with others involves more complications than porn use, I’m inclined to think that the main issue is the same in both cases. It is unfair to spring unexpected expectations on your partner and then act as though you have the high moral ground when your partner doesn’t like them.

  6. 6

    They’re, you know, professionals, and whatever feelings they might have about their encounters with you, they’re skilled at drawing boundaries between their personal feelings and their professional responsibilities. With a few exceptions, sex workers aren’t going to ask to see you more often, or ask for something sexually that’s outside your agreement with your partner, or stalk you because they think you’re their soulmate.

    It occurs to me that while sex workers may be practiced and skilled at making this distinction, their clients may not be. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a partner to worry that a more “personal” interaction than just watching porn could have an undesirable effect on their partner’s attention and emotional state, even if it’s not reciprocated by the outside partner.

  7. 7

    The thing about strippers and prostitutes is…plenty of people go see strippers and that’s not any different than watching porn. You have a few drinks, look at (half) naked chicks, and that’s it. you go home to your monogamous partner with no guilt on your heart. it’s the same as checking out other women on the street. you find other women attractive but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to have any sexual or romantic attraction to them. however. prostitutes, on the other hand, are trickier. why do most people go to prostitutes? to get sex. if you’re in a monogamous relationship and you’re going to a prostitute for sex, that kind of means that there’s an issue with your sex life in the relationship. whereas if you’re seeing other people (open relationships/polyamory), as strict as that is (“no falling in love with that person or anything else besides sex”), it’s not the same. when you’re having sex with two people, both of which you’re not paying for their services, you are having sex with them presumably because you find them attractive and you /want/ to. note the word ‘want’. when you see a prostitute, and usually you know a woman is a prostitute if you go to her knowing she is one, you’re not really wanting her. you’re needing her. you’re needing her for her services and are willing to pay to have sex with her. you don’t just go ‘oh, that prostitute’s hot i’ll go have sex with her’. that’s not normally how it works. most people actively seek prostitutes out. of course, you can have an open relationship and need to have another partner for sex, but that’s not as blatant as prostitution.
    …i’m not sure if i made any sense…>.>

  8. 8

    I think that the risks associated with jealousy are an order of magnitude higher when you’re talking about a person rather than porn (even if that person is a sex worker). To a certain extent it may even be biological wiring; most people have an occasional propensity to feel insecure about retaining the time, attention, or commitment of a partner. Porn is not usually a serious competitor for those things, but other people potentially are. I think sex workers, at least when you get to prostitution, are closer to the latter than the former.
    I think it’s also important just in terms of notification. If my partner watches porn without my knowledge, it’s generally not something that’s important to me. But if that person had sex with someone else, I would have the definite feeling that they should have asked first, or somehow notified me of the possibility (one reason to have this conversation relatively early in a relationship and avoid surprises). It would raise serious questions about why they wouldn’t tell me, where the other person sees the relationship headed, and (more mundanely but very importantly) whether I should be tested for an STI. On the other hand, I’m not so sure how I’d feel about an attitude of “I’m definitely going to tell you, but I’m definitely not going to ask for permission or input.” I’m not sure if “jealousy” is really how I’d feel, but there would definitely be a sense of feeling disregarded or not valued.
    I dunno. I definitely think we are in a grey, personalized area, rather than one where one can set up definite principles. Maybe sexual jealousy goes in the same bag as making allowances for other strong and unshakable, but ultimately irrational reactions. If someone is a bit of a germophobe, I might make some concessions for that to make them more comfortable, but I’m not going to take three showers and disinfect my whole house every day. There are definite “wrong” answers about where to draw that line, but not an obvious “right” one outside of one that you can negotiate and all parties can live with.

  9. 9

    It seems to me that there may very well be areas that a couple agrees to be reserved for just the couple. For monogamous couples, sexual intercourse is reserved for the couple only. Some of the non-monogamous couples I know have other things reserved for the couple only. In one case, the couple only watches Dr. Who together. If they’re not together, they don’t watch it with friends, or even alone.

  10. 10

    In one case, the couple only watches Dr. Who together. If they’re not together, they don’t watch it with friends, or even alone.

    That is one of the most romantic things I’ve heard of.

  11. 11

    Hm, take my wife and I as an example. We have an open marriage. I’m equally bothered by her watching porn as I am at her sleeping with any number of other people (i.e., not really bothered at all, only a twinge of wishing that I could give her whatever it is that she’s craving).
    Of course, I can see how for most people, the addition of direct interaction with another person is a significant factor. But I can see how people would think the same about porn in a relationship. For plenty of people, it’s not that they have unique sexual access to their partner, but also dedicated sexual attention from their partner.
    For plenty of people, lots of the factors of “adding another person” in direct physical contact are also factors in their partner’s porn use.

  12. 12

    Very interesting post. I had never looked at it this way. I’ve always thought that watching porn wasn’t being non-monogamous, but never had a really good reason for it. I have always looked at it as something private. It’s got nothing to do with my relationship for me. I’m in a monogamous relationship, but still enjoy porn. I see it as a personal form of entertainment, a moment to myself. I see it completely separate from my sexlife with my girlfriend. Looking at strippers seems like the same thing to me, but visiting a prostitute somehow does feel wrong. I don’t know if I can put it into words very accurately. Actually having sex with someone else sounds like replacing your partner to me, because they can do the same things. I don’t know if that makes sense. But it seems to me that porn is something private, a fantasy. Visiting a sex worker to involves your partner because thats something you can also do with your partner. There is one issue though. I’m bisexual and obviously my girlfriend can’t fully fulfill those needs. We can simulate it to some extend, but it’s never the real thing. So I wonder how you would draw the line there. Our agreement on that is that if the opportunity ever arises I ask her how she feels about it. If she doesn’t feel good about it I won’t do it. But is that fair? I’m at peace with our current agreement because we came to it after good communication. But I can imagine other people wouldn’t like to be limited like that in the expression of their sexual desires.

  13. 13

    Millions of words and a sure fire way to attract attention.Talk about sex and everybody goes mad one way or the other!
    it is a pity that the Creator of it all made one fatal mistake!
    Every thing that moves has an inborn notion that it is the most important piece of shit on this world.This notion from day one has been a reason to fight.
    St Hildegaerd 600 years ago claimed to have been told by God what is supposed to happen to the world (look it up) If her prophesy is correct, there is no more evil mind than the creator of it all.
    Our suffering is it’s enjoyment !

  14. 14

    I really enjoyed your post, Greta. But here’s the way I see it. I am only comfortable in monogamous relationships. However, I don’t “expect” my partner to be monogamous towards me. Simply put, any partner of mine has the right to have sex with whomever they wants to, but I have the right to opt out of the relationship if that happens. It’s all about complete honesty from the beginning.
    My partner is well aware of the conditions that need to be met in order to maintain a relationship with me; and I know theirs. This is in no way putting restrictions on what each other can do. We are both free to do whatever we like, but we understand that the other has the complete right to end relations if they are uncomfortable with the actions of the other, as long as these comfort/uncomfortable zones are made clear from the beginning.
    So, I am fine with someone not being monogamous, but just not with me. This is how I see good relationships working. Neither is claiming superiority over one another, or in any sense restricting the freedoms of the other. Relationships are merely verbal contracts with conditions that need to be discussed and agreed upon before commencing. And sure, it can be revised later, no question. As long as both partners are open and honest, there is no problem.

  15. 15

    This is a rediculous long post… So I will try to get the preliminaries out of the way first: 1) First time reader of your blog, but I got here from PZ and will be back. 2) I love the thoughtful comments above.
    As a non-monogamous man engaged to a monogamous woman I found this piece quite interesting. However I thing you framed the underlying question incorrectly, and that leads down a road to of course an incorrect answer.
    Fundamentally I don’t think anyone has a right to anything in a relationship with another person. Since a right by its nature is something that can be enforced against them absent consent. So for example I have a right of free speech that can be positively enforced against the government. Or I have a right of the right to life that can be enforced against everyone else, but I do not have a right to the friendship (romantic or otherwise) that is enforceable against anyone.
    You ask, then answer ‘if in a relationship one person has a right to limit their sexual activity in any way?’ However this assumes that there are some rights that can be found in a relationship and I reject this premise fundamentally for the following reasons:
    The nature of a private personal relationship is really that of a contract, where each person has agreed to modify some of their behaviors in exchange for a similar modification from the other person(s). Looking at a traditional monogamous relationship you can still see tremendous variety in the nature of these obligations from the example of not watching Dr. Who above to which side of the bed each sleeps on, who does the cooking, cleaning, dishes, ect… Even limiting the discussion to a monogamous relationship there is no truly right or wrong answer to these questions, and the answers may vary drastically from couple to couple.
    This variety leads to a lot of problems in some relationships, not usually from those sets of things that the people have discussed and settled on, but from the unspoken obligations people bring to the relationship that are never discussed openly, and therefore spoken about. For instance a lot of people never discuss the arena of sexual issues that are raised in a relationship and just assume that the other person agrees with them on the issues.
    This is where the problems arise in open relationships, in porn, strippers, sex workers, ect. It isn’t that any of them fundamentally lead to a broken relationship; it is the lack of communication that creates them. So when one person expects that entering into a relationship necessitates monogamy and the other doesn’t this conflict leads to problems. Just as when one person expects the other to set aside their porn collection and the other doesn’t it can lead to the same type of problems. Fundamentally the anger/upset is really driven by the same issue, that the underlying contract was breached by one person, while the other feels they have acted in accordance with it and are being attacked unfairly.
    To me this intellectual construct then answers both the question you raised in discussing porn, and in monogamy, it isn’t that one person has or doesn’t have a right to enforce against the other, it is that the relationship contract has been broken in ones eyes and thus brings into question entire areas related to trust, breach of faith, and the like. Even something as small as wasting money on collectables can lead to the exact same type of feelings of breach of confidence and being lied to. I believe that it isn’t the activity itself, but the breach of the interpersonal relationship agreement that gives rise to these feelings.
    Under this theory the request by one to do or refrain from any activity and the acceptance of that request by the other is always a reasonable one. Thus answering the questions you raise about watching pornography and monogamy in a consistent way, without the need to draw some sort of fuzzy uncomfortable line in the sand, or giving rise to the problem of sex-workers. Because fundamentally it isn’t your rights that someone is breaching (leading to potentially difficult grey areas), it is their agreement they have broken.

  16. 16

    Redirected here from for a class project. The difference between prostitution and stripping or porn I believe is that there is a certain amount of kinship people feel with others that we have sex with. No one can honestly claim to feel nothing during sex, and that a certain bond is present that is not present in masterbation. If this were not the case the large amount of sexual toys meant to simulate real sex would have long ago driven out casual sex. It is this connection between two people that a monogamous relationship seeks to protect. In porn and in Stripping this contact is not present, as such prostitution seems wrong, but not the others.

  17. 17

    Great post. Sorry I’m coming to the game so late, but I only recently discovered your blog.
    Here’s one more thing to consider in all this–a factor that puts me firmly on the “no prostitutes” side of the argument in my own case: emotions. I love my wife, and I do not want to hurt her. I imagine that I could show her this post, and we could debate the ins and outs (no pun intended) of professional sex work, and she might rationally come to the conclusion that it would be “unfair” to deny me the right to visit a prostitute from time to time, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t hurt when I went out and did it. I don’t know about you, but when reason and emotion have come into conflict in my own life, reason has prevailed somewhat less than 100 percent of the time.
    I’ve never actually broached the subject with my wife, and I could be wrong: perhaps she’d be thrilled to have some great new gift ideas for me. I’m guessing not. Fortunately, I don’t actually want to visit a prostitute so badly that I’d risk hurting her even just by asking. Not all people in monogamous relationships will find themselves in this same situation, and I don’t think it ultimately addresses the question of whether monogamy is “fair” or not. But if you’ve decided monogamy is basically fair and are having trouble determining whether visits to professional sex workers should be a permissible exception to the rule, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to let one’s partner’s emotions tip the balance one way or the other.

  18. 18

    but the question “how is having sex with someone outside the relationship any different than seeing a basketball game with someone outside the relationship?” still stands after all this

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