Polyamory appears to be one of those activities—like CrossFit or going vegan—that one cannot really participate in without talking about it ad nauseam. The first half of January 2024 alone witnessed a surfeit of intimate disclosures. The New York Timesran a much-discussed review of a memoir in which a newly-polyamorous mom describes her sexual adventures in graphic detail. Peacock announced a new reality television series featuring romantic couples in search of new additions. New York magazine devoted a cover feature to an in-depth guide to polyamorous relationships, complete with a glossary of instantly dated terms, a Q&A for the curious, and a variety of confessionals. It’s all presented with the gee-whiz earnestness of a Scholastic brochure introducing kids to Earth Day.
It’s clear that polyamory is having a moment, albeit one that—as with many phenomena these days—exists more in the media than in the world at large. Think of it as the interpersonal version of a show like Succession, which became the subject of endless think pieces, despite having a peak viewership six times smaller than that of a regular-season NFL game. By this analogy, a Brooklyn polycule is “Connor’s Wedding” and normal marriages are a Chiefs–Steelers game.
Nonetheless, these things have a way of trickling down into society itself over time—such has been the trajectory of changing sexual mores in America since the 1960s. And this has more broadly been the promise of much postwar liberalism: that we can eat our bohemian cake and have it too, without losing the comfort and security of bourgeois society. Thus, with polyamory, anyone can live like Jules et Jim, minus the tragedy at the end.
Yet this trend is not an embrace of gallic cynisme about sexual matters, but a very American attempt to bring transparency to them. It is far more bourgeois than it is bohemian. The model is not bedroom farce but “ethical nonmonogamy,” in which all business is brought out into the open, and consent and disclosure are the watchwords. Lying and scurrying about can be replaced by open discussion and mutual respect, as enlightened couples pursue gratification either together or severally.
So let me propose a somewhat counterintuitive thesis: run-of-the-mill cheating remains preferable to polyamorous sexual affairs. First, because it paradoxically accords greater respect to ordinary decency, and second because it accords greater respect to sex itself.
The most obvious argument against cheating is hypocrisy—one is living a lie. But there are worse things than hypocrisy. After all, as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The cheater knows that infidelity is not praiseworthy and thus seeks to conceal his activities. This is a preferable state of affairs to trying to make a virtue out of a vice, as ethical nonmonogamy does.
The difference between the two is rather like the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and bullshit: the liar must respect the fundamental integrity of the truth in order to lie successfully; there remains a true version of his story that he is obliged to avoid. The bullshitter, by contrast, seeks to efface the boundary between truth and falsehood for his own purposes. It is perhaps for this reason that the proselytes of polyamory, with their endlessly euphemistic language, sound like nothing so much as McKinsey consultants: both are peddling similar products.
But let me adduce an even more serious charge against polyamory: despite its sex-positive presentation, it is contrary, and perhaps even hostile, to the spirit of Eros. Its true god is not Venus or Bacchus but Bentham. And it is oriented less toward unbridled sensuality and hedonism than toward the endless proceduralism and rule-making of a union local in search of a quorum for new delegates. This is the inevitable result of a chimerical attempt to control Eros, which either fails outright (just witness the wrecks piling up on r/Polyamory) or succeeds by rendering it completely unerotic. When Dante encounters the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca, he is horrified to learn that their trysts were inspired by readings of his own love poetry. The relevant text for the polyamorous today would instead be Robert’s Rules of Order.
I am not endorsing adultery—but at least it acknowledges the power and danger of the erotic. Not for nothing was it such a mainstay of the 19th-century novel, perhaps the defining art form of the era that saw the definitive victory of private over public life. Yet one pictures the contemporary advocates of ethical nonmonogamy leafing through Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary and thinking to themselves, “oh, but all this could’ve been solved by radical transparency and a willingness to escape outdated norms, etc.”
Nowhere is this belief clearer than in how poly advocates deal with the problem of jealousy. The need to overcome jealousy (as opposed to lust) frequently appears in sermons on polyamory—it receives its own chapter in The Ethical Slut, which New York magazine confusingly calls “the polyamorous bible.” Under the reigning ethos of openness, jealousy is an obstacle or personal shortcoming to be defeated, like a Scientologist ascending to a higher Thetan level.
That excessive or misdirected jealousy is to be avoided is obvious enough. Think of what happened to Othello (or to Leontes in The Winter’s Tale). But it’s not incidental that Desdemona was not, in fact, unfaithful to Othello (nor was Hermione unfaithful to Leontes). Both plays focus on the flaws in their respective protagonists that led them to assign guilt where none existed. The problem is not that they were jealous; it’s that they were jealous without cause.
Doing away not merely with immoderate jealousy but with jealousy tout court is a different matter. James Madison has a famous analogy that seems apropos here: however dangerous fire may be, we should not eliminate oxygen to preserve us from that danger.
Jealousy is simply a function of desire. One cannot avoid it without producing a denuded and colorless version of desire—with lust, perhaps, but no longing. To put it another way, you could conceivably strip jealousy and shame from desire, but it would no longer be desire. Surely this is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.
Of course, there’s nothing novel about attempts to bring unruly human passions under rational control in ways that allow us to satisfy our needs without threatening disorder. In this sense, polyamory is not a wholly new phenomenon but simply a development of an existing liberal trendline. Erotic and romantic relationships can be folded into the same suite of options that we have generally come to expect from modern life. And as with other areas of modern liberalism, our solution to the messy realities of the heart (and other organs) is to convert its dealings into another venue for individual choice within the bounds of rule-governed behavior. If you’re not hearing Marvin Gaye in your head while reading this, I don’t blame you.
Don’t get me wrong: the cheater is rarely as admirable a figure as Anna Karenina. He or she is, after all, violating a marriage vow and lying about it. The cheater is furthermore frequently a cliché, sleeping with secretaries or advisees, as the occasion allows. Men in particular are likely to be motivated more by opportunity and the thrill of variety than by some all-encompassing passion.
Nonetheless, the cheater at least does not participate in the collective delusion that the erotic domain can be made safe from the passions. Adultery is a transgression that accepts its transgressiveness; it does not seek absolution from an enlightened society, nor does it presuppose that rules might save us, provided only that they are made fully rational.
Does this mean it’s all right to cheat as long as you hide it? Well, no. As Aristotle remarks in the Nicomachean Ethics, there’s really no “right” way to commit adultery. Wise words, which the poly-curious would do well to heed.