A Lexicon of Alternative Sexualities, Part 1: Consent Matters


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Shutterstock.

In reading comments on earlier Slate articles addressing non-normative sexualities, including my own, I’ve noted that a number of issues that crop up repeatedly in comments seem to turn on misunderstandings about terminology. Some of these confusions are willful, while some are inadvertent; at least one was partly my own fault. For anyone who was offended at the use of the term vanilla in my first essay, I apologize. I don’t understand the term as derogatory, but I could’ve written more clearly. I’ll get to a discussion of what that word means to me later this week.

To help those whose life experience may not include a close friend or family member whose sexuality differs from our culture’s standard model, I have put together this guide to how I understand a variety of words that are important in describing such relationships. This is based on many years of experience living as a bisexual polyamorist and on interactions with a variety of friends and partners who identify as LGBT, kinky, poly, swingers, and so on. I am mostly not basing these entries on formal surveys or research. I’m sure there are people who live in communities in which some words are understood differently. I welcome feedback on such differences, as well as suggestions for more terms to discuss, in the comments.

The entries are organized loosely by topic. Today’s covers the critical difference between non-monogamy and cheating.

(consensual) non-monogamy
This is the broadest catch-all term for relationship structures that dispense with the traditional assumption that the people in the relationship desire sexual and emotional exclusivity. At least in my experience, non-monogamy without consensual in front of it usually refers to the consensual variety, where all parties have agreed to some form of emotional or sexual openness. Non-monogamist refers to a person who prefers and seeks out non-monogamous relationships, even if they are currently single or only involved with one partner. A non-monogamist may have a stretch of many years where they are happily seeing only one partner. That doesn’t mean they stop being non-monogamous; they might not be so happy if they felt they had lost the option of pursuing outside relationships at some point, if and when the right person comes along. Similarly, a monogamous bisexual may only be seeing a same-sex or opposite-sex partner at any given time. They do not “switch” between gay and straight; their attractions and capacities remain constant. Identity persists through changes of circumstance

The essence of cheating is the transgression of your agreement(s) with your partner(s). If you’re lying to one or more of your partners about whom you’re seeing and what you’re doing with them, you’re almost certainly cheating. If you’re able to go home from a date with your boyfriend and tell your wife all about it, then you probably aren’t.

Across all non-monogamous communities I’ve encountered, it’s widely agreed that regardless of what kind of agreement you have with your partners, breaking such agreements is despicable. If anything, cheating is more frowned upon among non-monogamists than among monogamists, for two major reasons.

First, the consequences of people taking sexual risks are higher when you have an interconnected network, rather than a collection of mostly isolated dyads. Although norms of practicing “safer sex” are very strong, you can never reduce the risk to zero. People who recklessly add to the risks faced by the community may be disinvited from parties and events and stories of their misdeeds may get circulated so that others in the community know not to trust them.

Second, on a moral level, cheating on an explicit and accommodative agreement can feel worse than the narratives of cheating on the implicit, never-spoken arrangements of normative relationships. As the aggrieved party in such a situation, there’s something especially insulting about the idea that you put in the effort to negotiate with your partner, trying to provide them as much opportunity as possible to get pleasure and support from their other relationships … and then they still just went off and did whatever they wanted.