3 Reasons Why I Prefer to Call It Consensual Non-Monogamy

an assortment of 4 various-sized Lego hearts. Their colors: white, red, yellow, blue.
Image by Bill Ward / CC BY

Hi Page,

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about ethical non-monogamy as a way of describing polyamory and other forms of open relationships. I’ve noticed you don’t do that. Instead, you say “consensual non-monogamy.” Why? 

1. Ethics are subjective.

ethical (adjective) – relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these, morally good or correct

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It’s tricky to talk about ethics in a universal manner. Because something that seems ethical to one person very well may seem unethical to another. It’s quite a subjective way to be framing things. And that’s one of the major reasons I stepped away from using ethical non-monogamy as a catch-all.

I feel like the way I conduct myself — at least in general — is ethical, but would everyone? No.

I do the best I can to do right by people, but I’m sure if I polled enough people that I’d find more than a few who would disapprove.

I’ve seen this subjectivity come to a head in polyamorous communities when people with different relationship structures decide that the other is doing things wrong. When certain folks will say that hierarchical polyamorists are always unethical. Or they’ll say that polyfidelity is inherently unfair and exploitative. Or they’ll say that relationship anarchy is a self-serving, immature way of structuring (or not structuring) relationships that lacks accountability. So on and so forth.

And when a person makes any of these charges, it’s typically accompanied by the claim that the person in question is also therefore “not really polyamorous” because it’s ethical non-monogamy, guys, amirite?

And because these structures are unethical — at least according to the critic of the moment — then bzzzzt not polyamory.

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I really hate this whole cycle. I’m allergic to sanctimony. Can’t stomach poly-er than thou pissing contests.

So one reason I’ve switched to using consensual non-monogamy as the umbrella term is to sidestep these particular conversations. Because I find them tedious.

2. It’s the same language researchers use.

Another big reason that I prefer using consensual non-monogamy over ethical non-monogamy is CNM is the term that researchers are using. Because I trained as a researcher and tend to read quite a bit of it on an ongoing basis, I’m used to hearing it referred to as consensual non-monogamy.

And as I do write to researchers about their work from time to time (including when Poly Land featured an interview with prominent researcher Dr. Terri Conley), it’s good to naturally express myself in those same terms.

Besides, there’s a reason why researchers are saying consensual rather than ethical non-monogamy. Really, at the most basic level, the ethical variation between styles of non-monogamy like polyamory or an agreed-upon open relationship and what we consider infidelity is the absence or presence of consent for those other activities.

So consensual non-monogamy is the more precise term for researchers, as it focuses on what’s fundamentally different about polyamorous or open relationships, as opposed to the non-consensual form of non-monogamy whereby people do not have consent from their partner to seek other sexual or emotional outlets but do so anyway (i.e., cheating).

And I figure it’s good to be precise.

3. It’s always good to focus on consent.

Seriously, it’s always good to think about consent. What’s important about consent is that it requires the agreement of all parties. It’s not about what one individual thinks is moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. It’s not values based. There’s not a built-in external component of “is this right in an universal sense?”

Instead, it’s about getting to a place of “yes” for everyone who’s actually involved, once everyone has been properly informed and had opportunity to think over the issues.

And when it comes to dealing with relationship health and well-being, this seems to be the key. Finding a resolution that works well for everyone who is affected and not necessarily needing to appeal to what any old person in the bigger, wider world might think, a thousand degrees removed from the situation.

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That’s why I prefer to call it CNM. But you know what? You do you. If you call it ethical non-mono, I’ll know what you mean. No big deal.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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