A Book in Review

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Love’s Labours Lost: ‘ The Ethical Slut ’

By Kenichiro Treglazov

‘The Ethical Slut'

by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy

2nd Ed., Random House, 2009.

Learning how not to screw up love is one of humanity's enduring obsessions. Bards have traditionally beautified the failings of romance, but their voices go tin in modernity. Easton and Hardy fill that lack and lay out an ambitious caricature of love in a digital age: polyamory, loving more than one.

“The Ethical Slut” makes clear that polyamory is less a relationship type than a method of practicing relationships. Whether one indulges partnered non-monogamy or unattached, roving romance, the polyamorist's composure remains key. Polyamory is decentralized juggling. It is a relationship style truly modeled after the technologies of our time.

I make clear: polyamory is problematic, but not for the reasons so often plied in the name of tradition.

Paeans to traditional relationships are an idiot's rhapsody not to be taken seriously except as a signal to find a better conversation. The arguments are wheezing, programmed, tiresome. Proponents of "traditional marriage" scarcely know what they defend. How shocked they would be to learn that they romanticize dated property laws! Marriage has been as much about love as the business of grocers has been about French cuisine. Love and French cuisine are afterthoughts, even accidents, built upon their premises.

In many ways, polyamory is a smiling response to the yearning of ages. We find praise for choice in love on the lips of the same dead poets who knew our failings so well. Consider Moliere's recurring lovers who, to their families' violent dismay, choose each other based on mutual attraction rather than social advantage, dowry eyes, and political intrigue. The young battle for their rights, and their audience stands as spiritual women- and men-at-arms. We stamp for their freedom; we stamp for ours.

Our lives, however, are no comedy.

Many polyamorists rely on the Internet to find lovers. Indeed, the alt.polyamory Usenet group helped many find their standing. Freedom of the heart has paired with freedom of information and online connections. People craft their lives in ways never before imagined.

And here is the danger. Internet-supported polyamory satisfies hearts by eroticizing network information patterns. Marshall MacLuhan would doubtless agree that, when love depends upon a medium, the medium becomes the shape of love.

We cannot ignore how digital selection has changed the work of selecting lovers. As a well-travelled man of an analog generation, I know how geography determines one’s choice of partners. We do not hunt so much as settle; however, in the same sense that has expanded great civilizations, we do settle. We eroticize the venues where we find love, be they work, vacation, highway rest stops, university, or church. We bond, intimately, with social structures and make them our homes.

Modern polyamorists bond with an unstable medium. They settle their lives online. Cut the power, and their erotic connections dissolve. Given how little we can trust the Internet, can we truly trust the emotional landscape Easton and Hardy offer in “The Ethical Slut”?

Proof of the conflation of eros and technology appears even in their mapping the particular emotions encountered in the polyamorous lifestyle. They reverse jealousy and call it "compersion," personal pleasure at seeing your partner's happiness. "Limerence" is the energy one finds in a new love, and this energy can strengthen the tested bonds of familiar lovers.

These ideas sublimate the networks that sustain the lifestyle. Websites direct us to like-minded websites; their operators joyfully share us with others of the same mind. Confirmation bias excites us when we encounter new information that affirms ideas we already enjoyed. Our options are false choices by design. We do not change. We enjoy our rut, our ditch, our grave.

The Bard writes, "Some cupid kills with arrows, some with traps," and the Internet’s dark maw awaits a modern metamour’s misstep. The labor of many loves belongs to those who dare undertake it, but the unreliability of the Internet would make it a slavery unrequited.

- Kenichiro Treglazov

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