I knew I’d crossed a line when I looked up to see a handful of people staring at me. I blushed. I was, after all, being a real slut. And I was out in the open. On transit, no less. My heart thudded in my ribs, but I didn’t stop. I took a deep breath, rolled my shoulders back, and kept doing what I was doing.
Reading. I was vigorously, sluttily, reading.
No, not porn. Not even erotica. I was reading The Ethical Slut, the handbook for the mindful pursuit of open, multiple, and unconventional relationships. I had been thinking about leaving the bonds of monogamy behind in favour of . . . something else. What exactly? I wasn’t sure. But I knew this: It couldn’t begin until I got over the embarrassment I felt reading a book with the word “slut” in the title, in public.
That was a year ago. And now, I am proudly, ethically, non-monogamous. And I talk about it all the time. I write about it, even (hi!). I make comedy about it. How did I get here? In some ways, I’m joining a tide of people, millennial women especially, who are deciding to at least explore, and at most inhabit, love lives and relationships that look different than those of previous generations. And culture is getting there too, with film and TV taking up the mantle (see You, Me, Her, Unicornland, Broad City and, for a pop cultural/historical take with a BDSM/kink twist, Professor Marsden and the Wonder Women) and pop music, too (I see you, Janelle Monae!). Alternative relationships are starting to feel like a true alternative.What’s It Like To Be A Man In 2018?
So, when non-monogamy is prevalent enough to seem almost acceptable, why should you care what I did? Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the journey into non-monogamy – however you choose to pursue it – it’s that people get too stuck in their own damn heads. Women especially have spent decades learning how to conform and bend to the status quo. It makes total sense that it might take a minute to reset. A minute to, frankly, unlearn societal expectations — to break the bonds of patriarchal, cisgender, heteronormativity, the “woman equals wife and mother; one-man-one-woman only forever” method. To choose to instead, as the great mega-couple Fleetwood Mac sings, Go Your Own Way.
What I want is for people to stop “studying” non-monogamy and start studying it (innuendo-laced emphasis mine). It would have taken me half the time to get from blushing on a train to kissing a married couple in public if it weren’t for the fact that most of what I read, watched, and listened to on my journey wasn’t so crushingly, achingly . . . well, vanilla.
With apologies to The Ethical Slut — which, if you’re thinking about relationships at all, not just non-monogamous ones, you should absolutely read — a lot of the writing you can find out there about non-monogamy either tends towards the coldly clinical, the ponderously sociological, or it manages Portlandia-esque levels of hippy-dippy self-parody. (The word “polyamory” alone is laughable to me; it seems preserved for Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell’s hot tubbing lovah characters on SNL.) Why, in a world where you could literally kiss, touch, and love anyone you want to, was all the thinking about it so self-serious? Why couldn’t we laugh at ourselves more? After all, sex and romance is awkward, strange and hilarious. And as a comedy writer, I can tell you that the “rule of threes” definitely applies: three people having sex is automatically funnier than just two. And I can speak from very recent experience.
If my love life were a penis — stay with me here — then the entire shaft would be made up of monogamous relationships while just the tip would be non-monogamy. All the feelings are up there, for one. I’m going to stop using this metaphor now, but here’s the deal: From age 18, when I had my first sexual, monogamous relationship, to just last year, when I ended my last one, I was in one committed, date-til-we-move-in, hate-til-I-move-out relationship after the other. And these men, nice men, “good” men (whatever that means) whom I loved until I didn’t, were all wrong for me for one reason: I only dated one of them at a time.
(A quick aside: I am childless, though I’d love to have children. There are lots of people who live in non-monogamous relationships while raising kids, and some, I’m sure, who give it up when they have children; since I don’t have direct experience with this I’ll leave it alone for now. I will say, however, that my personal view is that teaching kids to value healthy relationships, regardless of their configuration, is how we’re going to end toxic masculinity once and for all. It’s not without complication, of course, but what is?)Hey, Chantal: My Boyfriend’s Great. Living In Different Cities Is Not. Should I End It?
I don’t remember the exact moment I realized I needed non-monogamy. It was likely cumulative, but flashes come to mind: My friends in university, in an “open” relationship that imploded when he decided he wanted only her and she decided she wanted everyone but him; thinking being a Sister Wife wouldn’t be that bad, as long as it was the Big Love kind (hanging out with Chloe Sevigny) and not the Bountiful kind (living in Creston, B.C.); never being sold on marriage, not even in my Romantic, listening-to-The-Cure, puffy sleeves teenage phase when I argued with a teacher about the poem “The Highwayman” and how anyone who loves just one person enough to put their life in danger is a grade-A idiot.
But in university, when I had ample opportunities for threesomes and make outs and queer experimentation (I went to seven Tegan and Sara shows in one year), I instead spent my undergrad dating one boring dude from Windsor who also didn’t believe in monogamy, but did believe in taking Radiohead too seriously. And I remember one day realizing that I didn’t have to date him, or anyone, if I didn’t want to. And I didn’t want to, but it was easier, so I did. Until we broke up (a longer story than I have time for here, involving my dad’s death and a trip to Europe that I abandoned halfway through).
Monogamy was easy, I thought then. I was difficult. It was my fault.
Now I know: Monogamy is easy. And easy sucks. I am difficult. And I want a life as big and difficult as I am.
But like the good girl I am, it took an authority figure telling me what to do, to get me to do it. And like the good tortured comedian I am, that authority figure was my therapist. There I was, on her couch, cradling a fat, fringe-y pillow. I was complaining, once again, about the limitations in imagination of my then-boyfriend.
“What do you want,” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “More than this.”
“More what,” she pushed.
“More people,” I blurted, before I realized it. It slipped out, like a mouth fart. And then suddenly, it filled the room with its immensity, like a real fart.The 7 Best Vibrators To Try, If You’re Sorta Shy About Trying A Vibrator
“I knew it”, she said. “You’re polyamorous.” (I laughed. That word sucks so much!) And we talked about it, and I promised to think I about it.
Cut to four years later, after my next failed monogamous relationship.
“I think,” I said to my therapist, “That I’m non-monogamous.”
“Took you long enough,” she said. And when I asked her how to make it real this time, she gave me a huge gift by saying: Tell everyone.
So I did. I told friends, work colleagues, comedians. You. At 34 years old, I finally declared what I wanted out of love and life. One friend, a gay man, compared what I was doing to coming out (with the privilege of being a white, straight-ish woman choosing so). When I told another friend, a gay woman, that I was “coming out” as non-monogamous, asked me drily if I “wanted a parade” (I deserved that). I told my sister, sort of. Then I told my mom.
My mother is no shrinking violet. She’s a performer, a wit, a late-era hippy, a free-thinking liberal who showed us we didn’t need men but also loves ogling the hot ones. She recently turned 64 and dyed her hair purple. Still, she’s my mom, so I wanted to make sure I told her in a way that wouldn’t shock or alienate her. When the time came, I was nervous. I said something like, “Mom, I’m not going to date just one man anymore.” She replied, “You never have.” Touché, purple-haired grandma.
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This would require analogies. So I said, “I’m going to be like a Queen Bee, keeping lots of workers in my hive.” She replied, “What the f— are you talking about?” I panicked. I had to make this more relatable, real.
“Okay,” I said, “so you know how Tilda Swinton has an older lover and a younger one? I’m going to do that.” Yes, I used the very grounded, everyday example of Tilda Swinton, a human being who’s definitely not an ActingAlienTM sent from Mars, to normalize my non-monogamy. To my surprise, my mother simply shrugged. “Do whatever makes you happy” she said.
And I have. Sometimes. I’ve also made mistakes, broken the cardinal rules of ethical sluttery. I’ve been to sex clubs, sent more nudes than I can count, kissed a drag queen. I’ve fallen in love and lust. I’ve made deals with myself and unmade them. I’ve mixed up two couples over text. I’ve faked bravery. But I’ve been active and present every moment. It’s been funny, and weird. Sometimes lonely, but totally mine.
And I’m going to share some of it, because people deserve to skip the worst and most boring bits when they explore this. Or at least, you deserve to feel less alone by laughing at me, and less bored than when you read books about it. If you’re already thinking about it, then chances are you should already be doing it, not entering more monogamous relationships and spending $100 an hour and several years bouncing the idea off a very nice therapist who knows what you want before you do. And, at the risk of sounding like a self-help guru: If you want to change your life, you should start now.
How? Go buy The Ethical Slut, to make sure you have the basics down. (Coles Notes: Talk to your partner(s) and don’t lie.) Watch the stuff I mentioned above, too. Listen to Janelle Monae, which you should be doing anyway. Think. Fantasize. Ask yourself “What do I really want?” And be ready to challenge and question things you have always assumed, like “Sure, I’ll date around in my 20s but in my 30s I’ll settle down.” What if, instead, you never settle down? What if you never settle, at all, for anything, again? How might your life change? What if dating multiple people, sometimes at once, isn’t avoiding reality but rewriting it in your image?
Think about that. Write down how you feel about it. Assume nothing you learned about relationships is written in stone, and assume most of it was designed hundreds of years ago to keep women in line.
With all that done, then what? Boy (and girl), do I have some stories. But first, I have a date.
Kaitlin Fontana is a non-monogamous writer, director, and producer and an award-winning essayist from Fernie, B.C., who now lives in Brooklyn. Read more in this series, including Fontana’s first foray into online dating, the pitfalls of falling love with a married, monogamous man, and what happened when she stopped looking for “the one.”