'The Ethical Slut': Inside America's Growing Acceptance of Polyamory

Millennials are increasingly embracing non-monogamous relationships – and the 1990s guidebook that helped popularize them is getting an update

'The Ethical Slut' brought new language to polyamory. Credit: Illustration by Brittany Falussy

In 1994, sexual educator Janet W. Hardy, was bedridden for a month with a bad flu that had evolved into bronchitis. She was, as she recalls, "high off my ass on Codeine cough syrup" when she caught a showing of Indecent Proposal on TV. Married couple David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana (Demi Moore) are faced with a moral dilemma when a billionaire named John (Robert Redford) offers them a million dollars in exchange for spending one night with Diana. Hardy, who is now 62, had herself been in a marriage that had ended about a decade earlier, and had not been in a monogamous relationship since. At the scene where the couple hesitates over the billionaire's offer, Hardy wondered if she was having a fever dream.

"I was sitting there going, 'What's going on here?'" she tells Rolling Stone from her home in Oregon. "A million dollars and Robert Redford, and they have a problem with this? It made no sense to me. I really got it at that point, how distant I had become from mainstream sexual ethics."

Hardy reached out to her friend and sometimes collaborator, the psychotherapist Dossie Easton to work on a book about non-monogamy. The pair had already coauthored two books on kink which were read in BDSM circles, but not much elsewhere. Both Easton and Hardy identified as queer and polyamorous, and Easton wanted to reclaim the word slut. They combined their own experiences with both casual sex and open marriages, navigating orgies and battling jealousy. In 1997, under Hardy's own indie sex-ed publishing house Greenery Press, they published The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities. It would go on to sell 200,000 copies.

The the first usage of the word polyamory is credited to pagan priestess Morning Glory Ravenheart Zell in 1990. Though different forms of non-monogamy have presented themselves in various cultures for millennia, in Western culture in the early 1990s it was still seen as an alternative practice, the kind favored by, well, pagan priestesses. Today, polyamory is less tied to one specific subculture or identity. In the two decades since the first edition of The Ethical Slut has been published, polyamory has expanded into a practice that, if not outright mainstream, is at least much more widely accepted and understood. According to a 2014 article from Psychology Today, at least 9.8 million Americans are in some kind of non-monogamous relationship.

"Twenty years ago, I used to get calls from show producers all the time, and the call would go, 'Can you point me towards a poly family that's not either old hippies or screaming geeks?'" laughs Hardy. "I would say no, because A, that's most of my rolodex, and B, that's who was doing poly back then. But these days, when I speak to poly audiences, they're young professionals, all shiny and new. It's very different."

Heather is a 35-year-old mental health advocate who lives with her husband and two kids in Toronto, Canada. (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.) She and her husband started dating when they were 17 years old, a couple of years after the first edition of The Ethical Slut was published. The two Canadian teenagers didn't yet have the language for what it is they wanted.

"This was pre-Internet forum, pre-all of that stuff. We really were going by gut," she says. "I didn't know the word polyamorous. I didn't know that there were tons of other people that had ethically non-monogamous relationships." The models they saw for longterm relationships, such as their parents or friends' parents, were monogamous, but didn't seem that satisfying. All that she and her then-boyfriend knew was that they liked each other a lot, and they didn't feel the need to be exclusive.

"We had a conversation where we both realized, 'I don't care if you flirt with other people,'" she says about the beginning of their relationship. "'Actually, it's kind of great. I love that side of you." She and her boyfriend were both extroverted, social people, and flirting with other people just felt natural. Heather, who identifies as queer, liked that she could continue to explore that side of her sexuality with other women. They moved in together at age 19. Her boyfriend started to date a woman he worked with at a restaurant, and when Heather met her at a holiday party, she realized she was attracted to her, too. The three of them entered a relationship together that lasted just under a year. The Ethical Slut describes this relationship model as a triad, but at the time neither Heather nor her partners knew that.

"That was one of our first experiences that wasn't a casual or one-time thing," she says. "The three of us were pretty sure we were inventing the wheel."

Eventually, Heather says, the culture that surrounded her began to catch up. She credits this to living in a progressive city like Toronto, and the Internet's ability to "bring people outside the mainstream together." She finally read The Ethical Slut at age 30, while she was already well into developing what she describes as her "own kind of community of poly, kinky, queer awesome people."

Like Heather, both Hardy and Easton had to figure out their own ideal relationship models as they went along. Easton, who is 73, was coming out of a traumatic relationship in during the summer of love in 1969 and decided that the only way for her to live from thereon out was by "being a slut. I was never going to be monogamous again," she says. The idea of a communal lifestyle appealed to her, so she took her newborn daughter and found a home in a queer community in San Francisco. She joined a group called San Francisco Sex Organization and taught her first class on unlearning jealousy in 1973.

Hardy, 62, was married for 13 years when, in 1988, she realized that monogamy no longer appealed to her. Her marriage ended that same year. A few years later, in 1992, she met Easton through a BDSM group in San Francisco called the Society of Janus. Easton was teaching a class called "Pain Play with Canes from Psyche to Soma" and Hardy volunteered to help her demonstrate. Two years later, the pair gave a presentation on S&M in Big Sur at a Mensa gathering. ("Of all things," says Hardy.)

"Dossie went home because it was so hetero, she couldn't stand it," says Hardy. Later, she ran into another friend who relayed an overheard conversation from the conference. "She said, 'Did you hear about that S&M workshop this afternoon? There were these two women, they were talking about stuff they had done together, and one of their boyfriends was right in the room!'" Kink was no big deal to the Mensa crowd, but non-monogamy could still shock in 1994.

Amber – whose name has also been changed – was born around the same time as that Mensa gathering, and today works at social justice non-profit in Brooklyn. At 23, she is barely older than the first edition of The Ethical Slut. Her vocabulary is comfortably peppered with terms that took Hardy, Easton and Heather years to start using. She prefers the term "polyamory" to "open relationship" because the latter implies a hierarchy to the people she dates, and she doesn't have a primary partner. Friends she has sex with but doesn't date she calls "paramours," while "metamours" are friends that she has a romantic partner in common with. "I'm really lucky where most of my metamours and I get along," she says. "I learned a lesson recently where you're not always going to like your metamour, and that's OK." Liking your metamour can lead to "compersion," which The Ethical Slut describes as "the feeling of joy that comes from seeing your partner sexually happy with someone else."

Her sibling, who is 18 and genderqueer, also identifies as poly, and Amber is out to her parents. "The way I told them, was I said, 'Yeah, I'm dating this person, and this person, and this person," she tells me. "I explained this to my mom, and her first concern was, 'Well, what if you say the wrong name during sex?'"

Though Amber has only been identifying as polyamorous for a few years – she was 19 when she asked her boyfriend if they could open their relationship – she speaks with the confidence and authority of someone who has been allowed to experiment with her sexuality her entire adult life. She emphasizes the need for communication in all relationships, particularly when it comes to hurt feelings.

"I'm sure you're waiting to ask me the big jealousy question," she tells me. "Of course polyamorous people deal with jealousy, it's just that we see it as an emotion to be acknowledged and talked about and work through." Jealousy usually comes from insecurity and fear, she says, summarizing a large portion of The Ethical Slut, and can require "self reflection and metacognition" to work through. She is active in the New York poly, kink and queer scenes, and goes to several events a week including BDSM play parties and swingers mixers. I ask her if all her partners are part of the same community, and she laughs. "Yeah, whether they like it or not," she says. "Even whe you break up with a partner, you're still in each other's peripherals." There is little separation between her sex life and social life. Amber is unapologetic about this, and why shouldn't she be? The word "slut" no longer has the same connotations it did when Hardy and Easton were 23.

As polyamory is treated less like a novelty and more of a valid relationship model, modern entertainment is learning to reflect that. In the eight-episode web series Unicornland, Annie (Laura Ramadei) is trying to explore her sexuality after the dissolution of her marriage. She does this by "unicorning" – the term given to women who join couples in bed for threesomes. Every three- to seven-minute episode introduces Annie to a new couple: straight, lesbian, kinky, longterm married couples looking to spice up their sex life. It depicts one very specific subset of polyamory, but in doing so manages to explore much of the richness and complexities of modern relationships that go ignored in most mainstream media.

"I was always in these long relationships, and they always had this goal of marriage and longevity," says the show's creator, Lucy Gillespie, 32. Like Annie, Gillespie got married young, at 26, and split from her husband about four months later. "Part of the reason I got divorced was I didn't know how to communicate in my relationships, and sort of felt my needs were secondary to my partner's," she says. "Then I realized I didn't have to do that to myself." Post-divorce, she went on "a kind of tour of relationship options," she says, and became involved in the New York fetish scene. "For the most part, it's full of very interesting, very conscientious people who are creating and sustaining and maintaining very high functioning ethical polyamorous relationships."

Gillespie read The Ethical Slut two years ago, and started writing Unicornland about six months later. The idea of unicorning appealed to her as a narrative device because the evolution of her own sexuality felt like such an internal, mental process. "In Annie's unicorning, she's really able to try out other people's relationships and see how they function from within," Gillespie tells me. "I felt that the couples were sort of the best way for Annie to try out all these different facets of polyamory." The eight episodes take viewers through a crash course of many of the issues polyamorous couples face, such as jealousy, or navigating boundaries of what is and isn't OK. In episode six, Kim (Ali Rose Dachis) returns from the bathroom to see Samara (Diana Oh) and Annie making out on the bed. "We have rules," she says. "No French kissing on play dates." It's a simple line that shows how much work can go into creating and maintaining a healthy poly relationship, without the high stakes drama of Indecent Proposal.

"We're seeing some TV shows that are specifically about poly," says Hardy, when reflecting on whether things have gotten better since Indecent Proposal. She cites an episode of Crazy Ex-Girfriend in which protagonist Rebecca Bunch finds herself in love with two men and can't decide between them. "She goes and interviews a poly triad to find out how to deal with this, and finds out that what she's actually doing is just being a person with very bad boundaries." I ask Hardy if she can think of other mainstream examples of polyamory. She mentions the not-exactly-recent 2001 movie Bandits, and Big Love, the HBO drama about Mormon polygamists. The pickings aren't exactly abundant, but the critical success of shows like Unicornland and Broad City (in which Ilana Glazer's character dates Hannibal Buress for the show's first three seasons while continuing to pursue sex with other people) indicate that younger audiences are ready and open for more.

The 20th anniversary edition of The Ethical Slut, out September 15th, has been significantly updated and expanded from its humble debut, including sections to poly pioneers, black poly activism and yes, shifting attitudes towards polyamory within a new generation. They acknowledge that millennials reading the book today will not have been raised in the same context that Hardy and Easton were – before the sexual revolution, when saving oneself for marriage was considered the norm.

The essence of Hardy and Easton's book, though, is the same as it was two decades years ago. "One of the things that's radical about The Ethical Slut is that we wrote it in conversational English," says Easton. "Most of the earlier books about sex were written like you're supposed to have a white coat on, with a stethoscope around your neck, or you're supposed to be writing about what those other people over there are doing." The new Ethical Slut will sit on bookshelves beside other recent releases, like Amy Rose Spiegel's Action and Emily Witt's Future Sex, two books put out by mainstream publishers that combine a conversational tone with personal experience to challenge conventional attitudes about sex.

"It becomes a very intimate book for people, and we worked really hard to be affirming of everybody's experiences," says Easton. "The places where we get scared or embarrassed, any of that stuff, it gets in the way. People can find validation in there."