I Want to Explore Polyamory, My Partner Doesn’t. What Should I Do?

I Want to Explore Polyamory, My Partner Doesn’t. What Should I Do?

I Want to Explore Polyamory, My Partner Doesn’t. What Should I Do?

Another reader asks how she can protect others from an ex-colleague who may have assaulted three women.


Dear Liza,

I’m a cis man in a monogamous relationship with a strong feminist woman. But I’ve long had qualms about the idea that being with just one person is the defining trait of commitment. Recently, I decided to do some reading about ethical non-monogamy, and it really resonated. I’m starting to think that it may be the best relationship model for me. When I broached the topic with my partner, however, she got angry and dismissed non-monogamy as a ruse of patriarchy designed to justify male sexual predation.

I haven’t dared to bring it up again. I don’t think she’s right and can articulate why, but it’s pretty obvious this is a deal breaker for her.

What are your thoughts on ethical non-monogamy as a sex-positive feminist? I’d also appreciate advice on how to talk about it with my partner. My ultimate fear is that ethical non-monogamy may be the only way I can be happy in a relationship, but that exploring the idea will lead to the end of ours.

—Ethical Slut

Dear Slut,

Feminist arguments for ethical polyamory abound. For centuries, monogamy was enforced by the patriarchal ownership of women, and even today, exclusive sexual access to one woman is seen by many as a central, nonnegotiable feature of male privilege; notice, for example, the insulting power of the word “cuck” among conservatives on the Internet (the term, which is short for “cuckold,” has in recent years become a frequent right-wing taunt, implying deep terror about wives having sex with other men. Needless to say, no female synonym exists). In the right context, polyamory can offer a way out of such retrograde machismo and slut shaming.

But don’t you think all this is beside the point in your situation? We mostly don’t choose the terms of our relationships for political reasons. Whatever she’s saying, your girlfriend’s resistance to polyamory isn’t about feminism; it’s about her feelings. She does not want to you to sleep with other people. Maybe this will change over time—but if just mentioning the possibility angers her, I doubt it. If she doesn’t want an open relationship, she shouldn’t have one.

But don’t give up the idea without further discussion. It doesn’t sound like a passing whim on your part. If you want to try to stay together, talk about this issue in couples therapy, which can place boundaries on the conversation and help explore why each of you feels as you do. The goal should be for the two of you to decide, in a compassionate way, how to move forward. Should you be exclusive or ethically non-monogamous? Can you find some compromise (a common approach is to find the exception to monogamy that works for both of you—“threesomes only,” for example)? Or is it best to break up?

If you do split, your next step is finding someone who wants the kind of relationship you want. Put your desire for ethical non-monogamy all over your Tinder or Match.com profile. If it’s possible where you live, go to poly events. Join poly communities online. Whatever you do, don’t get into a serious monogamous relationship until you’ve tried this other option for yourself.

Dear Liza,

I work in higher education. Last year, the celebrated chair of a department at my institution assaulted three young women at a campus event after buying cocaine from a student and sharing it with others. This became common knowledge, and he resigned. As far as I can tell, the institution made it possible for him to leave in a manner that would leave his career untarnished. Then another local institute of higher learning hired him.

I’m very upset by this, and would like to do something about it. What are my options? How do I balance my personal risk with the safety of other young women in academia?

—Cautious Cassandra

Dear Cassandra,

That’s one hell of a disturbing story. I can see why you’d want to keep this man from working with other young women, but it may not be your story to tell.

Were you assaulted by the department chair? If so, I am so sorry! Please engage a lawyer right away! But if you were not one of those students, says Claire Potter, a history professor at the New School who writes extensively on Title IX issues, you have no standing to spread these allegations. First of all, has there been a Title IX investigation already? If not, you could encourage the students to file complaints or even go to the police.

Then too, there can be restrictions on the speech of people involved in Title IX investigations, and depending on your school’s policies, talking about this could be verboten. Worse, going public could expose the assault victims to unwelcome attention, from doxxing to rape and death threats. And if you speak out, you make yourself vulnerable. Misogynist trolls will likely denigrate you online in the ugliest terms. Anything stupid you’ve ever said or done may be revealed.

You also risk causing unjust harm to the department chair. Potter cautions, “She needs to ask herself: How does she know what she thinks she knows?” You sound very certain, but you don’t say what your evidence is. Were you present at the event? If not, keep in mind that “common knowledge” isn’t always vastly different from “rumor.” The scenario you’re describing may be untrue, or it may not have happened exactly in the way you heard.

Which brings us to another risk: legal defamation, says Kimberly Lau, a partner at Warshaw Burstein who specializes in Title IX cases. If the former department chair hasn’t been found guilty (either by the school or in a criminal trial) and you tell this story to his employer, you’re “sharing unsubstantiated allegations” and could be sued. Lau warns emphatically, “I recommend that she refrain from making statements to [his] new school.”

Have a question? Ask Liza here.

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