How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Every Thursday night, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
My boyfriend of six years recently told me he wouldn’t care if I slept with someone else, and I’m struggling to know how to take it. I don’t actually want to sleep with anyone else—he brought it up fairly out of the blue. I think he meant it in that he wanted to be a good ally? Like, I think he meant that he didn’t want to limit me in life.
But him saying he wouldn’t be jealous makes me wonder if he doesn’t love me as much as he used to, because I tend to think that if you love someone, you’d probably care if they are with someone else. Maybe that’s because I don’t see feminism as incompatible with monogamy, so I’m not sure what to do with this.
Rich: I think this calls for a brief meditation on love? Love is so personal that few things about it are actually universal. Maybe the feeling is, though it’s impossible to say. The thing about umwelten is you can only have one: yours.
Stoya: And love, like partnered sex, changes with each relationship. Or varies. It’s different, is the point.
Rich: And it varies over the course of a relationship.
Stoya: Yes! The way that you yourself love changes, the way your partners in your relationships love changes, and the ways you love each other change. I think it’s important to underline that interest in non-monogamy doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in love or attachment.
Rich: Your own experience cannot be relied upon as a gauge for someone else’s: “I tend to think that if you love someone you’d probably care if they are with someone else.” That’s egocentric thinking. There are roughly 8 billion people on this planet, all with unique combinations of genetics, epigenetic functioning, and upbringing. There are many, many different ways to see and experience this.
Stoya: Maybe her idea of love is jealousy or possessiveness.
Rich: The writer feels that way, but it simply isn’t like that for everyone else. It’s a mistake to conflate someone’s processing of jealousy with their capacity for love. Many partnered non-monogamous people will tell you that.
Stoya: Maybe her love needs to be a closed loop.
Rich: Right, that’s another piece: what you need. Human experience ranges wildly, but you are completely within your rights to want to be loved in a way that’s intelligible to you. In fact, knowing that about yourself is a way of making sense of the chaos, and figuring out how you fit into such a varied world.
Stoya: To your point above, maybe what feels like love to this person is conflated with expressions of jealousy. If that’s the case, it’s worth asking why.
Rich: Right! And that’s not to pathologize. There are a lot of suggestions in American culture that to love is to be jealous. In fact, not being jealous requires a process of unlearning for some people who are nonetheless inclined to non-monogamy. For many, that process is indefinitely ongoing.
Stoya: I haven’t checked in on pop culture recently aside from Harlots. How’s jealousy treated in mainstream media these days?
Rich: Good question! I’m trying to think of anything I’ve seen that’s deviated from the general “everyone is monogamous and the suggestion of deviation from that is bound to erupt jealous rages” that I’ve seen. In the much-discussed Netflix series Sex/Life, jealousy provides major motivation for the husband character. European cinema for decades has normalized non-monogamy and featured characters with laissez-faire approaches to their partners’ extracurricular activities (I’m thinking French new wave and Fassbinder, in particular). But in general, I think it’s safe to say that norms remain fixed in the U.S.
Stoya: Then I think we can assume some portion of our writer’s stance is informed by entertainment. Learning about romantic relationships from entertainment is like watching pornography as sex ed. You can definitely learn a few things, but you’re only seeing one section of the whole picture.
Rich: Yeah, this question is imbued with a kind of pressure from without: “I don’t see feminism as incompatible with monogamy.” Same! Feminism means you get to pick monogamy or non-monogamy! Or dabble in both! The point is your agency to make that decision for yourself.
Stoya: I’m so confused by that line.
Rich: Here’s my take: Our writer is a woman, and she feels preemptive judgement about not being liberated enough to explore non-monogamy, like hypothetical chatter about there being limits to her progressiveness. Even if they were real, those voices would be worth ignoring.
Stoya: Thank you. That makes sense to me. I get the sense that our writer is overthinking this.
Rich: You know what it reminds me of? Eyes Wide Shut (slash its superior literary source, Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle), wherein the mere expressed interest in sex outside the union creates a crisis.
Stoya: The easiest solution there is to ask her boyfriend what prompted him to declare his openness to this. I’m sure we could come up with 15 reasons in a few minutes.
Rich: And yes, ha, that’s exactly what I was thinking: He said it because he wants to hear it. He’s putting it out into the world. He’s trying to Secret an open relationship.
Stoya: Aaaaah. Wow. Sherlock Juzwiak.
Rich: It’s a tactic I may or may not have used myself in less straightforward times. I do think that this letter illustrates monogamy’s grip, and why I think the societal emphasis we place on it can be such a burden. It makes even thinking outside of it so daunting.
More How to Do It
My wife and I have been married 14 years and together for 17. We have a pretty strong relationship after a period of stagnation. With raising kids, both of our careers, and all the activities, we found ourselves drained. We have in the last few years refocused on us and our desires and our sex life, intimacy, and our togetherness has grown and reignited. In this time, my wife has expressed her desire for a kinkier sex life. She likes light BDSM to be filled and stretched by big dildos. We have explored this. But when it turns back to me, I have one recurring fantasy and I am very reluctant to share it with her. Scared might be a better word.