In 2015, ‘What is polyamory?’ was the ninth most searched question on Google in South Africa. Internationally, a YouGov study in America reported that 51 per cent of people under 30 years old define their ideal relationship as completely monogamous. Just over 60 per cent reported that their current relationship is completely monogamous with 11 per cent stating that they had previously had ‘sexual contact with other people with the consent of their partner’.
While the exact reasons are unknown (the current dating culture of indecision and non-committed dating with elements of selective commitment, as broken down here, perhaps being one), some say ethical non-monogamy seems like a more ‘natural’ way of dating. (By ‘natural’, we refer to the argument that biologically humans are not predisposed, but conditioned, to be monogamous.)
Whatever your take on the subject, it’s hard to ignore the various studies and psychological findings that point to monogamous relationships being female libido killers (contrary to popular belief). In an interview with Tonic, Wednesday Martin (author of UNTRUE – Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free ) says ‘many experts are now considering that women need variety, novelty and sexual adventure every bit as much as men do, and possibly more’. Esther Perel, sexuality therapist and author of The State of Affairs, supports this theory stating that research shows ‘men remain much more interested sexually in a partner for a longer time [while] women tend to lose their interest in a shorter amount of time’. Growing female sexual liberation and the current mainstream support of women’s rights has likely resulted in a rise of embracing one’s own sexual autonomy, thereby redefining how we define love.
So what does ethical non-monogamy mean? To be clear: NOT cheating (which happens in secret, and is not consensual). It can occur in many forms, each different, but always with consent. There are many types, but here, we break down the top five:
Polyamory essentially means having more than one romantic, committed partner. Contrary to popular belief, polyamorous relationships are not only about sex (although sex is obviously a possible part of the relationship). Polyamorists favour intimacy and connection, and are committed to more than one partner at a time. There are many sub-forms of polyamory – some involve married couples with a ‘secondary’ partner; sometimes partners exist separately and sometimes they exist in tandem. More Than Two explains that ‘there’s no one right way to create a polyamorous relationship, though ethical polyamorous relationships do involve honesty, respect, and compassion.’
2. Open relationships
Often confused with polyamory, an open relationship differs in that the focus is on casual sexual encounters (with the consent of your committed partner, otherwise it’s just called cheating).
Although polyamory and polygamy sound similar due to the Greek word ‘poly’ (meaning ‘many), they differ in that ‘polygamy means multiple spouses’. According to Psychology Today, polygamy mostly occurs in heterosexual marriages, whereas polyamory can apply to all genders and sexual orientations. The most common form of polygamy is polygyny – which is when a man is allowed to marry more than one wife, but the woman is restricted to one husband. Polandry is where a woman can marry more than one partner (although this is less common globally).
In South Africa, the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 recognises polygamous marriages (i.e. customary marriages) as legally valid under certain requirements.
Monogamish was popularised by author and journalist Dan Savage. Psychology Today defines monogamish relationships as those ‘in which a couple is primarily monogamous, but allows varying degrees of sexual contact with others.’ They differ per couple in the boundaries and rules set, which can be defined by one-night stands, specific kinds of sexual activity, and time or location limitations.
Swinging refers to committed couples who consensually exchange sexual partners. The focus being primarily on joint and casual sexual intercourse.
Elisabeth Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door – Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families advises that non-monogamous relationships ‘aren’t the way to soften a blow or to transition out of a committed situation’ or ‘to avoid breaking up’. ‘I have never seen that work’, she says. Being honest with yourself and your partner about your intentions and setting rules before opening the boundaries of a committed partnership is important. Dr Sheff continues, ‘trust and communication are crucial in any relationship, whether it’s monogamous or not’.