Humans are complicated creatures with intense emotions and big hearts. Sometimes we like to share our lives with just one person. Sometimes we prefer to open up our relationships to include new partners. But what happens when an open relationship doesn’t have the knowing consent of both partners, resulting in a secret affair? Then maybe you’re willingly (or unwillingly) participating in the hottest new trend: unethical or non-consensual non-monogamy.
What is Ethical Non-Monogamy?
In order to know what unethical non-monogamy is, we’ve got to start from the beginning with ethical non-monogamy (ENM). ENM is an arrangement involving two partners consensually entering into an open relationship. ENM is a commonly used term among those in polyamorous relationships, and the tag has a whopping 1.1 billion views on TikTok. The acronyms are frequently found on dating app profiles among those looking for a new partner or fling.
“Polyamory is a form of ethical non-monogamy, as is swinging,” Dr. David Ley, sex therapist, clinical psychologist, and author of 2012’s groundbreaking The Myth of Sex Addiction. “So [with this trend] what we see trending here is simply an acknowledgment that there are many ways to love and be in a relationship and that monogamy is not the only option.”
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Committee on Consensual Non-Monogamy notes that “approximately 1 in 5 Americans (22%) have been involved in a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point during their life,” making it a more common experience than one might think. Even the dating app Hinge has an option for those who identify openly as ENM.
What is Unethical Non-Monogamy?
Unethical non-monogamy (also called non-consensual non-monogamy), as one could imagine, is essentially the same thing but performed without one partner’s consent. As a lesser-known and lesser-used term, it’s a wildly controversial part of the polyamory community. Some additionally refer to unethical non-monogamy as “informally polyamorous.”
Though it might be a hot-button topic, some people proudly live this lifestyle and share it online. Advocates call for it to be normalized, experts are heavily researching the topic, and even the extramarital affair social networking site Ashley Madison is entering the discourse. Anonymous, self-proclaimed, unethically non-monogamous writers like Aquarius Moon or Page Turner call themselves “cheaters” participating in “casual hookups.”
To Judge or Not to Judge?
However, willingly admitting to any activity as non-consensual or unethical is a red flag for some activists. Polyamorous users like @andi.elicious say non-monogamy should be intrinsically ethical. So why do some polyamorous individuals make a point of specifying between ethical and unethical non-monogamy?
Dr. Ley emphasizes that the “ethical non-monogamy” concept and label is to destigmatize the idea that of polyamorous or non-monogamous relationship is inherently amoral.
“Historically, anything other than monogamy has been painted as immorality. I often see people in the ENM space, particularly poly folk, engage in incredible judgment and moral condemnation of people who engage in unethical non-monogamy or infidelity,” Dr. Ley adds. “But I think they do so from a place of unexamined privilege.”
Throughout history, Dr. Ley says, ENM “has been largely reserved for the literati, intellectuals, and the wealthy.” Conversely, unethical non-monogamy (including cheating or infidelity) has been the only option for those from conservative, traditionalist, or religious backgrounds who still want to get their sexual or emotional needs met. And while Dr. Ley says we might not understand this phenomenon, those in the polyamorous community must consider why it might occur.
“I can’t put myself in their shoes, but I imagine that they are arguing that ENM is not as simple or as available an option as some poly activists like to pretend.”