Ashley Madison and the problem of compulsory monogamy

Monogamy: Don't be shocked, but it's not the only game in town.
Monogamy: Don’t be shocked, but it’s not the only game in town.

If you ever doubted what a nuclear-grade hot button monogamy is in mainstream society, look no further than the fallout from the Ashley Madison hack. Last week, the cybercriminals who stole the user list of this website (which helps people in exclusive relationships arrange secret sexual hookups with other partners) made good on their threat to post all of that information online. This unleashed the worst in nearly everyone — paranoia, finger-pointing, moralizing, predation, despair, and even some possible suicides.

I’m pretty sure this deluge of the dark side of humanity wouldn’t have been so massive if monogamy was not viewed as a practically compulsory part of any committed intimate relationship.

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Asking big questions about marriage: Rei’s story

Big questions can be scary to navigate in any relationship. Facing them together can allow a strong friendship to emerge.
Big questions can be scary to navigate in any relationship. Facing them together can allow a strong friendship to emerge.

Here’s another story from a reader, about how they transitioned from a legal marriage to refocus on friendship — by asking some pretty big, scary questions.

Stepping back from the top of the Relationship Escalator without severing a strong connection of friendship is still unconventional; the Escalator is still supposed to be strictly a one-way trip, with no pausing or stepping back.

However, I’m glad it seems to be becoming more common for people to find ways to step back from this ride without blowing up their relationship. (I’ve done it, as have readers Colin and Jamie.)

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New poll reveals strong stigma against ethical nonmonogamy

A poll by YouGov revealed strong social stigma against  nonmonogamy -- a little more in the U.S. than in the U.S. Religion may play a role in this.
A poll by YouGov revealed strong social stigma against nonmonogamy — a little moresp in the U.S. than in the U.K. Religion may play a role in this.

According to recent poll by YouGov1, only one in four U.S. adults believe that polyamory2 is “morally acceptable.” The majority (56%) believe that polyamorous relationships are “morally wrong,” and 18% aren’t sure.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., people are just slightly less intolerant. There, YouGov found3 that just over one third (35%) of British adults find polyamory morally acceptable; while a slight minority (47%) consider it morally wrong, and 19% aren’t sure

A high level of public disapproval in both countries helps explain why nearly one third of respondents to my Off the Escalator survey4 on unconventional relationships said that dealing with social stigma is one of the biggest problems of unconventional intimate relationships.

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Finding support to realign a relationship: Colin & Jamie’s story

Could a "breakup" look like this? Sure!   (Photo by Baily Weaver, Creative Commons license)
Could a “breakup” look like this? Sure!
(Photo by Baily Weaver, Creative Commons license)

One of the roughest aspects of the traditional Escalator model for intimate relationships is that it doesn’t offer any good ways to step down. When a couple who had been riding the Escalator together decide to end or shift their intimacy, it’s framed in violent terms of separation: a breakup or a divorce.

But off the Escalator, there are plenty of options to transition (rather than totally end) a significant intimate relationship.

Here’s one example, from a reader named Colin: (more…)

Ashley Madison data theft shows more nuanced conversation on monogamy is needed

WP AM storyWhen news broke on July 19 that the user database of the website Ashley Madison had been compromised, public moralizing kicked into high gear. Some people were eager to know whether their spouse had stepped out on them; and people who had cheated (or even just been curious about cheating) worried that they might lose all that they hold dear.

Does cheating hurt people? Well, lying often hurts people, as does depriving people of their right to consent in their own relationships. Still, the Ashley Madison data breach highlights that many people simply will not be monogamous, despite strong social pressure and practical risks.

People need better choices than monogamy vs. cheating. This is why we need greater awareness of ethical, mutually consensual alternatives to monogamy — and, for that matter, alternatives to other hallmarks of the traditional Escalator approach to intimate relationships, as well. Because one-size-fits-all social norms rarely suit real human relationships.

Fortunately, there are many, many ways to have mutually consensual, happy and healthy loving relationships.

Here’s what happened: Ashley Madison is an online dating and social networking site for people seeking to engage in clandestine intimate connections — presumably in violation of the agreements of their ostensibly monogamous relationships. Cybercriminals calling themselves The Impact Team published a some user records online to prove that they had at least some of Ashley Madison’s data. They threatened to release more if the site’s owner, Avid Life Media, didn’t shut down Ashley Madison and a similar property, Established Men. (more…)