This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.
In any romantic/ sexual relationship, is it reasonable to expect your partner to limit their sexual activity in any way?
Weird question, I know. Here’s why I’m asking it.
In a recent column, I talked about porn in relationships. I asked, “In a monogamous relationship, is it reasonable to expect your partner to not watch porn?” And I concluded that it was not. I argued that, for the same reason people don’t have the right to expect their partners not to watch reality TV or read true crime — on their own time, when they don’t have any obligations and their partner isn’t around — people don’t have the right to expect their partners not to enjoy porn. I argued that people have some basic rights to privacy and autonomy — yes, strangely enough, even when they’re in serious committed relationships — and that the things people do on their own time, in ways that don’t have any significant impact on their partner, are entirely their own damn business.
But when I was writing this, I realized that some non-monogamist hard-liners would say the same thing about any sort of sexual activity outside a relationship. Some non-monogamy advocates — not many, but some — would argue that the right to make your own decisions about how to spend your own time extends to having sex with other people. I wrote that people had no more right to expect their partners not to watch porn than to expect them not to watch reality TV… and as I wrote it, I could hear voices in the back of my head saying, “But how is sex different from porn? If watching porn is no different from watching reality TV, then how is having sex with someone outside the relationship any different than seeing a basketball game with someone outside the relationship?”
Now, as you may have guessed, I don’t agree with those voices. I do, however, think this is a harder question than it might seem on the surface, and a murkier one, without an obvious place to draw the line. (To some extent, this is one of my “thinking out loud” pieces, and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer quite right.) Ultimately, though, I do think there’s a difference — even if it’s a murky and non-obvious difference — between watching depictions of other people having sex, and actually having sex with other people.
The difference is… well, other people.
For starters, those other people have desires of their own, and limits of their own, and rights of their own… desires and limits and rights that have to be taken into consideration.
The porn video doesn’t care if you don’t see it for months at a time. The dirty novel doesn’t have a special new kink that it really wants to explore with you. The book of French postcards doesn’t have a preference about whether or not you discuss it with your partner. The adult comic book doesn’t get hurt if you throw it away without so much as a phone call. Other people do. And they have the right to expect that their cares and kinks and preferences and feelings will get some attention. From both partners in a relationship — not just the one they’re boffing.
Which means that non-monogamy changes the relationship. For everyone in it. Even if you have the simplest, most limited kind of non-monogamous relationship — say, the “You and I are a primary couple, we can have sex with other people but only on our own time, and those other people won’t get involved in our romantic or social life” kind — the other people you’re involved with are still living, breathing, autonomous people, with lives and selves of their own. So both partners in that relationship have to treat the outside person’s desires and limits and rights as if they matter… even if only one of those partners is getting the outside nookie.
Plus, other people have emotions of their own — emotions that aren’t always predictable. Porn isn’t going to get obsessed with you and stalk you, or fall in love with you even though you clearly said upfront that that wasn’t an option. And you probably aren’t going to fall in love with your porn. Okay, yes, some people do get fixated on porn to an unhealthy degree. People can get fixated on anything to an unhealthy degree, from weightlifting to “Star Trek” to collecting porcelain pigs. But sexual relationships with other people carry a degree of risk that sexual relationships with books or photos or Internet videos just don’t. (And that’s not even mentioning the physical risk of STI’s and whatnot.)
Finally — for now, anyway — other people change. They change in ways you can’t expect, and ways you have to adapt to. The only way your copy of “Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle” is going to change is when it comes out in a new 30th anniversary edition loaded with DVD extras. (We hope!) But with other people, you can have a nice, neat arrangement that makes everybody happy… and then what does that other person go and do but be human, and want something more than they used to, or something less, or something different. Which you then have to accept, or reject, or re-negotiate.
All of which means that non-monogamy requires a level of involvement and negotiation and processing that porn simply doesn’t demand — involvement and negotiation and processing that can have a significant impact on your relationship. It can be a good impact, mind you: a great impact even, an impact that keeps communication open and eroticism alive. But it’s an impact, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
I mean, when it comes to porn, what do you have to negotiate? “Don’t look at it when I’m around.” Or, “If you’re going to look at it when I’m around, let’s pick something we both want to watch together.” Or, “If you watch it so much that you can’t pay your bills and we never have sex, we’re going to have deep trouble.” Or, “Keep the volume down when I’m trying to sleep.” Your arrangements about it don’t have to be any more complicated than your arrangements about any other book or magazine, TV show or Internet site. And they’re entirely between the two of you. They involve your wants and feelings and nobody else’s, and they only have to change if the two of you change.
So that’s why porn and sex are different.
Now, there is an area where this moderately clear distinction starts to get murky. And that area is sex work: prostitution, stripping, pro domination, other forms of live professional sexual entertainment.
Here’s why sex work is murkier. Sex workers are people, obviously. I hope I’m not going to get any debate about that. But with a few exceptions, they’re people who aren’t going to have expectations or make demands outside the professional encounter itself. They’re, you know, professionals, and whatever feelings they might have about their encounters with you, they’re skilled at drawing boundaries between their personal feelings and their professional responsibilities. With a few exceptions, sex workers aren’t going to ask to see you more often, or ask for something sexually that’s outside your agreement with your partner, or stalk you because they think you’re their soulmate. I’m not saying it never happens — but it’s rare.
So it could be argued that the non-monogamy issues I’m talking about here — the concern that other people have needs, desires, emotions, changes, any of which could affect your relationship — don’t apply to sex workers. And it could therefore be argued that, while it might be reasonable to want your partner to not have (shall we say) amateur sex outside your relationship, it’s not reasonable to expect them not to see strippers or pro dominants or prostitutes… since encounters with strippers or pro dominants or prostitutes aren’t likely to seriously affect the relationship.
I don’t know. It still seems somehow different to me. But I’m not sure exactly why. I haven’t gotten that far yet.