The concept of having multiple sexual partners is nothing new to humanity—just ask the Ancient Greeks who enjoyed notoriously glorious sex lives and “had a desire for anyone and anything.” But when it comes to modern romance, navigating life beyond monogamy can be tricky.
This is partly because monogamy in of itself is pretty straightforward: It involves two people loving and only banging each other under the premise that it's easily navigated. But it’s also thanks to our culture’s deeply-ingrained templates for what romance should look like that makes non-monogamy more intimidating to navigate.
Fortunately, non-traditional relationship dynamics are becoming more popular than ever, and with this increased interest comes greater access to resources. Whether you’re looking to be a unicorn making couples’ fantasies come true or wanting to form loving relationships with a whole group of people, the first step is understanding what ethical non-monogamy (ENM) actually is.
Let’s dive into what it means, and how to make it happen, shall we?
What is ethical non-monogamy?
“ENM is the practice of having multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships with the knowledge and agreement of all partners involved,” explains sexuality and relationship scientist Zhana Vrangalova, PhD, consultant and creator of Open Smarter, an online course that helps people make decisions about their relationships.
The inclusion of ‘ethical’ may seem like a performative add-on, but it’s actually essential. Mainly because cheating, or lying about having sexual relations with someone else, is technically a form of being not monogamous, but it’s certainly not an ethical act. “The ethical portion of it is the consciousness, honesty, and transparency between all parties involved,” agrees polyamorous educator and activist Tiana GlittersaurusRex.
In ethically non-monogamous relationships, “everybody knows everything that's happened, or at least what they opt in to knowing.”
So while monogamy is between two—and only two consenting adults, ethical non-monogamy is a lifestyle in which there are technically infinite possibilities of love and connections to be made.
What is the difference between ENM, polyamory, swinging, and an open relationship?
Think of ethical non-monogamy as an umbrella term used to describe any consented-upon relationship style outside of monogamy. From polyamory, to swinging, to being monogamish, there are a lot of distinct ways to practice ENM.
“Polyamory is a particular type of ENM where partners have multiple ongoing romantic relationships,” Vrangalova says. Romantic love is at the core of this distinction, or as Tiana puts it, “intentional committed relationships,” noting that sex is not inherent to a loving relationship.
Another distinction is that polyamory can be non-hierarchical in nature, meaning that there may be no central couple or primary partners, like in a throuple, where all partners are functionally equal. Open relationships, in contrast, typically reference one couple forming the “main romantic unit, but sees others separately for relatively casual sex and dating,” says Vrangalova.
Swinging is the practice of couples swapping partners with other couples, with a greater emphasis on sexual connection than romantic. However, lately more players are embracing their bi and pansexuality, blurring the lines to the point where swinging is evolving to look more like foursomes or orgies, which is more in line with a general open relationship approach than strictly partner-swapping. This is part of why the term lifestyle is beginning to replace swinging.
The language around ENM is clearly still developing, but this only underscores the importance of communication. To maintain honesty and transparency, everyone involved in a relationship must be forthright with their intentions and feelings. So, however any ethically non-monogamous person describes themselves, it’s always worth it to clarify exactly what that means for them.
How do you get started?
If the idea of threesomes, orgies, or a team of partners appeal to you, then ENM may be exactly what you’re looking for. As tantalizing as it all may seem, however, it’s important to do it right.
Sitting down with your partner to discuss it can be daunting, but there’s only one way to find out if they might join you in this adventure into sexual liberation. Present the topic clearly, with a solid understanding of why you think it’s right for your relationship, and understand that they may need time and space to process.
“You’ve got to really do some legwork, some understanding, some educating, because you’re looking at enhancing or disrupting your relationship,” cautions Valerie Poppel, PhD, clinical sexologist and sexuality educator with the Swann Center, as well as host of Brown Sugar Confessions, a radio show that explores Black female sexuality.
“Don't rush into it, take the time. It'll be there tomorrow.” It can take couples years to go from broaching non-monogamy to actually trying it, but for others, it’s a natural move that fits them overnight.
She also suggests doing some self-awareness work.“I tell my clients to write a list of five things, why they want to do it, and what they have to offer somebody else. It’s hard enough keeping one person happy, how are you going to keep two or three?”
Taking the time to understand what it means to be ethical also makes all the difference. Reading books like The Ethical Slut and listening to podcasts like Multiamory, Normalizing Non-Monogamy, and Swinging Down Under is great for building expectations about what the lifestyle is like, how community events can feel, and navigating boundaries and communication inherent to the healthy practice of ENM.
The best way to put this newfound knowledge into practice is by developing a community. Lifestyle spaces exist throughout major cities worldwide, and the people that frequent them can be found by signing up for apps like SDC, Feeld, and SLS.
Navigating these spaces and the lifestyle can be helped by consulting the non-monogamy subreddit as well. “I highly recommend folks who are curious about this lifestyle to connect with ENM-friendly online or offline groups and communities where they can get accurate info, and social support,” Vrangalova advises, inviting readers to her free monthly event series called Open Smarter Social, “where people from all over the world join to discuss (non)monogamy related topics in a welcoming, judgment-free environment.”
Clubs, play parties, and spaces for the sexually adventurous are all unique in what they offer, so check them out to understand what feels right for you.
It’s worth noting that ENM spaces can seem very white-dominated, but Tiana is challenging the assumption that ENM isn’t for everyone. “There are more people of color within this community, and part of why I love being out there as a woman of color is that I can destigmatize who is polyamorous and what ethically non monogamous people look like.”
She mentions that POC-specific events and spaces do exist, and while they may be more underground, there are ways to safely exploring the world of ENM. SwingersHelp has some resources for discovering POC-specific spaces and how to navigate the racial issues that can occur.
What are common rules or boundaries for ethical non-monogamy?
The lack of limitations in ENM do not extend as far as ignoring the needs of others, or else it wouldn’t be ethical. Steadfast rules can create a sense of security, from having the power to veto a partner’s potential playmate, to keeping kissing out of the hookup equation.
But establishing boundaries allows for a higher degree of flexibility, so as you grow and evolve in ENM, your needs can, too. The most important thing is to ensure your needs can be articulated, heard, and observed, and when they’re not, that you feel comfortable having a discussion about it.
Vrangalova says the most important questions that need to be answered during a couple’s ENM negotiation stage are:
- Are you going to see other people just for sex, or are you going to be dating others more seriously?
- Are you going to be seeing others together with your partner, separately, on your own, or both?
- How much will you disclose to each other about other partners?
Boundaries can be formed once all parties are solid on the answers to these questions. Beyond this, just about the only general rules in ENM are consent, consent, consent, and a commitment to having a great deal of radically honest communication.
What are some tips to keep in mind?
Just because you agree to something doesn’t mean you have to follow through. Sure, you might show up to the sex cruise or orgy with every intention to check certain dirty deeds off the sexual bucket list, but no matter what you have agreed to, the same rules of consent that exist in the monogamous world apply. Ethical non-monogamy doesn’t inherently weed out bad players, so if your gut isn’t feeling it, listen.
ENM is best explored as a relationship enhancement. Plenty of couples turn to non-monogamy to fix a problem in the relationship, but remember that other participants are not looking to be the solution to whatever ails you.
“If they're doing this out of spite, if they're doing it because he cheated and this is your way to get back, it's not going to work. It's not something you go into broken, you go into it healthy with a true sense of who and what you are as an individual, and how you can bring that energy and that light to your partner,” Poppel says.
That’s why it’s ideal for both partners to be enthusiastic about ENM. Seasoned non-monogamists know when one partner is only there to please their other half, and that’s not fun for anybody.
Finally, just keep communicating. You are in uncharted waters experiencing a lot of new feelings. A common misconception is that non-monogamous folks are naturally lacking in jealousy, but the truth is, we’ve just learned how to work through it by developing communication structures that ensure no stones get left unturned. And if you need it, ask for help from your community.