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Threesome Ethics



One day this question was presented to me on my blog.


I’m hoping you can direct me to some of the discussions you mentioned about the ethical treatment of the “secondary” (or maybe discussions about having been that person). I’m a thirty-three year old man, and a few nights ago I had sex with a married woman while her husband watched. The sex was fine, I suppose, but other things—the way they tended to talk about me and not to me, for example, as if I were an object and not a person—has left me bewildered and depressed. I realize now that I simply didn’t and don’t understand the relationship dynamic that I walked into.


I realized that I had never really addressed the ethics of a couple with a male lover. It is not that the situation is completely different than with a female lover; but in practice, due to a certain level of expectations about male sexuality, there is a great deal of room for misunderstanding and hurt.

Whether a couple takes a man or woman as a lover, the core ethical imperative is the same. It is never morally acceptable to take an additional person into your bed and treat that person as an animated sex toy. Whether you phrase it as “love your neighbor as yourself” or “humans should always be the subject of your moral actions never the means” the point is the same, it is morally imperative that you consider the full humanity of all your playmates.


Almost all ethical systems use this same yardstick with the glaring exception of utilitarianism. To the utilitarian, the net happiness measures they morality of the action. So, according to that ethical standard, if you as a couple expect to derive more happiness from using a person as a sex toy than you expect they will suffer pain from being used, your actions are morally acceptable. Though this net happiness measure is very popular today, I firmly reject the entire utilitarian ethical system. Just because I and my partner) get more happiness than we cause pain to someone else does not, and cannot, justify ignoring the fact that we are harming another human being. Sadly this idea of using hoped for good to outweigh reasonable expectation of harm is all too common in the way adults interact sexually with one another.


It is funny, we instinctively tell our children to consider the feelings of their playmates but somehow forget that same admonition when we engage in adult play. Could you imagine telling your kids it’s OK to make fun of the one clumsy kid because there are ten kids who enjoy doing it? But yet, if a couple take a man or woman into bed and treat them without dignity and respect because the two of them gain pleasure from it, somehow that is OK. I say no. Never. Taking a person into your bed is always an exercise in looking for and meeting the physical desires and emotional needs of the other person. It is hard enough with just two people, but it is ever more difficult with three or four or more. However, the moral imperative to leave the other person better off when they leave the bed is never abrogated no matter how many people are in the bed.


This is one of the chief differences between swingers and polyamorists. Swinger couples do not commit to the welfare of their casual playmates. The playmates are most often barely acquaintances and therefore it is very easy to take the attitude that the playmate will take care of his or her own needs thus absolving the swinger of an obligation to do so. Though swingers are not necessarily unethical in their treatment of others, there is a much higher risk of emotional mistreatment of a playmate they do not know well. Thus while I do not condemn swingers per se, the moral risks of swinging are far more problematic than with polyamory. In polyamory, the emotional relationship with new partners takes precedence over the physical relationship and thus the risks to the lover outside the primary relationship is lessened.


Now, I also advise couples in a committed relationship (i.e. married) that their prior commitment to one another should not be undermined by the addition of new intimate relationships. Polyamory is not a zero sum equation. If one or both of you take a new lover that does not mean you give any less love or commitment to your existing partner.


So how can you give full attention to the humanity of a new lover while at the same time treating them as an outsider to one’s primary relationship? There are those who suggest that to make that distinction is inherently impossible and that you are objectifying the new lover from the outset when you tell them they will never be an equal partner.


To those who make that argument I would suggest that they are over simplifying the complexities of human interactions. We all live in a milieu of intersecting relationships, all with different obligations and expectations. This is where the concept of universal love becomes paramount. If I commit to a moral imperative to show compassionate love to all those who cross my path, it sets a baseline that I live out to those in my environment. But, how I show that love is dependent on both the needs of the other person, and my positionality to fulfill that need. My relative proximity to the other person, and my relational obligations impact the expected moral action. '


Thus I have a very powerful standing obligation to my wife and children not to threaten their security even as I show love to others. I cannot morally justify depriving my own kids of their needs to meet the needs of someone else’s kids. The classic example of this is the minister who has time for all his parishioners but fails to give time to his own wife and kids. Thus to suggest that a new lover has the same status in terms of priorities is as fraught with moral pitfalls as to suggest there are no moral obligations.


Is walking this line between objectification of a new lover and disregarding commitments to one’s spouse easy? No. By nature a new love burns with hot fire that tends to make the more cool and durable love of marriage seem dull. Similarly, the new excitement of sex with someone new (and possibly better looking) than one’s spouse might seem to justify the disregard of prior commitments; however, duty and commitment morally outweigh passion and crashing orgasms every time.


It would be all too easy to make the new partner believe that they have (or will soon have) equal or greater status than your existing relationships. It is all too easy to let yourself believe the new hot fire is superior to the cool committed love you have with your spouse and convey that belief to your lover. However, it is a lie. The passion of new love is always, ALWAYS, short lived. Yes, by restricting access you can make it last longer, but in time you will have to decide between your new love and your old commitments.


And what of the emotional well-being of that new lover. Is it fair or moral to give them unrealistic expectations? Is it fair and moral to let your passion translate into false promises that they will become the equal of your mate (or to supplant him/her)? Yes, there are successful polyamorous triads, but those relationships are not built on burning passion any more than are marriages. Triads (or larger) are built on the cool love and trust of committed familial love.


So, what of the case of the man who wrote me with the question? In his case there is clearly a lack of honest communication on several levels. One level can be seen in the bedroom behavior of the couple. They were clearly making the sexual encounter about them and their relationship. Far from being immoral, that is a good approach. Their banter between themselves is a way of giving assurance to each other that the sex with a new man is not a threat to their relationship. However, the very fact the writer felt excluded indicates that the couple did not take seriously their duty to him and his welfare in the bedroom play. He should have been included in the banter, or they should have at least discussed this pattern of behavior before they got into bed. I have no way of knowing if the reasons of the couple were selfish or not. I could just as easily assume an innocent lack of understanding of the lover’s needs as condemn them of selfishness. They may well have experience with men who explicitly want to be simply an animated sex toy. We have had this experience more than once where a man wants just physical sex and nothing more. This couple might have thought this is what the writer wanted and were trying to meet his expectations. The failure was in not communicating before they got into bed.


Who is at fault? Well, rather than asking that question, how about who could have prevented the hurt feelings? The answer is that if any of the three had brought up his expectations of “relationship sex” as opposed to “depersonalized sex” this issue could have been avoided. But this is not a lost cause, the fact that there was hurt feelings might be just what they need to talk about before a second bedroom encounter. Perhaps the couple would like to move to relationship sex but didn’t know how to move forward. Remember, we cannot expect that others will know what to do even when they want to do the right thing. In all relationships we must be willing to lead our partner(s) to a situation where everyone’s needs are met.

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