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The Ethical Slut Read-along: Chapter 1

Posted in Media, Sex & Relationships, and The Ethical Slut Read Along

I’m reading The Ethical Slut, 2nd edition and encouraging others to read and discuss it with me. If you have’t read it yet, you might want to should start with the Introduction to the series. The first installment of this read-along gave personal background about the author. In this part, we will examine Chapter 1, “Who Is An Ethical Slut?

Many people dream of having an abundance of love and sex .. Some believe that such a life is imossible and settle for less. … A few, though, persist and discover that being openly loving, intimate, and sexual with many people is not only possible but can be more rewarding than they ever imagined.” -From the opening of The Ethical Slut

The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

Welcome to the beginning of the actual read-through. We’re just looking at the first, very short chapter today so if you’re still swamped with holiday madness you can easily catch up after the New Year. However, I’m thrilled that some of you are joining me now and look forward to your comments.

I want to welcome everyone to this read-along who is interested in the book or any of the topics it covers. This includes both the actively polyamorous, the strictly monogamous and everyone in between. This book is also extremely queer friendly, written by two queer authors who are open to non-traditional relationships in any configuration of people and gender identities. I even want to welcome people who’ve never read the book but have experiences of their own to share.

The first chapter of The Ethical Slut lays out a lot of the book’s core concepts and assumptions, including important details about the language it uses — especially loaded words like ‘slut’ itself. In some ways it works as a miniature manifesto toward reclaiming not only this word, but also other loaded but delicious and useful words like cock, cunt, and fuck. Lanaguage is the core of communication, which is the core of any relationship. As the authors point out, when you are considering relationships outside the norm the first step is to define your terms.

Defining your terms can be important in relationships themselves as well as books. I’ve experienced it several times in my own life where misunderstandings arose from words that meant different things to different people and were often cleared up after a discussion of language. Effectively, any relationship needs to establish a shared vocabulary and this is a lot of what Chapter 1 does with its readers.

Words have power, and they don't always mean the same thing to everyone. Image by Chris Halderman.

The word slut is an especially interesting one. Since the publication of the first edition of this book, and as its become the “bible” of polyamory and non-monogamy, many people in sex-positive culture have taken up the cause of reclaiming the word from its negative connotations. There’s a thriving movement against “slut shaming” — people working against the idea that someone should be judged negatively because they choose to be sexually free.

In my experience, slut is at that strange mid-point between acceptance and insult, where its acceptability depends entirely upon context. The idea of being attacked for our high sexual appetites or our decision to practice multiple relationships is not an abstract one to many of us;  slut shaming is something far too many of us have experienced personally, and painfully in our lives — as my friend Kiki Christie recently wrote about in her blog. Entire books have even been written about the impact of the negative use of the word slut on young women.

And yet amongst my fellow kinky, sex-positive freaks (another word I’ve reclaimed), ‘slut’ can be a term of love and respect. Slut is a term of friendship, respect, and friendly sharing of another’s pleasure in sexual adventure. Amongst the sex-positive, and the fans of this book, slut is not gendered either. If a lover says to me ‘you slut!’ I would smile, give him or her a kiss, and call them sluts right back.

One phrase that jumped out at me from the ‘slut manifesto’ section of this chapter was the following statement: “sluts qualify for mortgages like everyone else.” I think it’s important to remember that some sluts do face discrimination, deliberate or otherwise. When I lived with a lover and her other partner in College Station, Texas and the neighboring town of Bryan, there were laws limiting the number of unrelated, unmarried adults living in a home. This was designed to limit where students could live, but also had the side effect of making it more difficult for our threesome to find a home.

Some of you may be interested in the differences between the two versions of the book, and this chapter has a brief outline of the differences — more exercises for the reader to do as they read are promised, which seems like a positive change.

One of the first differences a reader may notice is an apparent change in authorship. Dossie Easton returns unchanged from the first edition, but Catherine A Liszt is replaced with Janet W. Hardy. Except, as this chapter explains, Liszt was merely Hardy’s pen name which she used until her children were grown and has since discarded.

Speaking of language, the first chapter of this book now directly addresses the word polyamory. Polyamory as a word was only 7 years old when the first edition of the Ethical Slut was published. As the authors say: “Polyamory has moved into the language so rapidly that we think maybe the language has been waiting for it a very long time.” They also point out that words such as non-monogamy and open relationships define themselves by what they aren’t, whereas polyamory is defines itself by what it is.

Polyamory has become a loaded term in its own right, in my opinion. While there are many fantastic poly activists (the authors among them) as in many other subcultures some less restrained zealots have flavored the word for others who may now choose to avoid the word.  Others avoid calling themselves polyamorous because they feel like their personal definition of the word doesn’t match how they personally practice non-monogamy. It’s important to recognize that for all that ‘polyamory’ can function as an umbrella term reflecting all manner of relationships, there are many who would never identifying with the term. My favorite subculture, the Burning Man community, is full of people practicing all kinds of non-traditional relationships, yet there are relatively few who would openly use the label. On my previous read-throughs, I always felt like the Ethical Slut had a lot to offer people in all kinds of relationships, but I’ll be interested to see if I feel like this is still true after this reading.

In the next chapter of the book, the authors examine some myths about sluts and a number of other words associated with the term like “promiscuous.” Our read-along will continue on Thursday, January 6th, 2011.

So now I’d like to open things up to our first discussion about the book itself. If you’re reading along with me I’d like to hear your reactions. And tell me, what does slut mean to you? How does the culture around you — the one you’ve chosen to associate with — handle your relationship choices? Please comment — even anonymous comments are welcome though I hope you’ll consider leaving at least a name or pseudonym to call you by.

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  • The one thing that bothers me about the book – at least the beginning (as I am doing the read-along) is that it seems to frame the entire topic of relationship plurality in terms of sex. (Should I be surprised? It’s called The Ethical Slut.) But there’s a range of sexual behavior and appetite that are compatible with ethical non-monogamy, and the desire to be non-monogamous doesn’t always grow out of unfulfilled sexual desires.

    I think this is standing out for me because I’ve become more aware of asexuality as a legitimate form of human sexuality (via asexual friends). That’s sort of the extreme end of what I’m talking about, but it’s an influence.

    I don’t think that the book can be divorced from the consequences of its broad popularity within the poly community, either, so I’ll go on a bit more. There’s an undercurrent within the text that suggests that sexuality that is not constant, free-range, hungry, and ready is repressed. At least it is when the authors talk about their experiences – monogamy restrained their ability to have the sex they wanted. There’s no alternative expressed. In the poly community, I find fairly consistently that people expect me to be overtly sexual, expect me to be ready for sexual relationships very quickly, expect me to have broad attraction to many people (and in particular, instant attraction to other people who are overtly, hungrily, and readily sexual). I’m not blaming this book, but I certainly think this framing of non-monogamy as overwhelmingly sex-driven influences how the community treats each other, the assumptions made about other members.

    Alright, enough babbling. I should note I’m quite possibly reading the wrong version of the book, so if this doesn’t apply to the update, disregard. :)


    • Kit


      First off I will say thanks for joining in this discussion. It is great to have you involved. I believe from what you say that you are reading the first edition of this book, and that one major difference I didn’t specifically discuss in my write-up above is that the authors have removed the lengthy personal anecdotes from this section. I feel like the tone of the second edition begins in a more measured way — less ‘ZOMG monogamy hurt me!!’ and more ‘here is an alternative that we have found that makes some sluts like us happy.’

      However I cannot completely dismiss your comments even so and would like to discuss them further. Of course, I am reading this book only slightly ahead of these posts — a few days in advance as I write ahead — so I can only talk to the beginning of the book as well as of course my previous readings of the previous edition.

      I’ve often talked about how much this book has to offer everyone, but I’d be willing to bet that an asexual — which is a valid orientation or lifestyle choice! — would not get much out of this book. The Ethical Slut is geared toward sluts, the sexually voracious, hungry, and ready. I think it tries to function both as a defense of that choice and a guidebook for the best way to function if you are such a slut. This is one of the things I applaud about this book — there are tons of books out there geared toward those who maintain a measured, more traditionally ‘acceptable’ pattern of sexual behaviors, and while I believe this book does not shirk on discussion of emotions or the logical side of relationship logistics, I think there is a definite audience (myself included) for a book whose first supposition is ‘Hey, we’re really horny sluts that want to have sex with a bunch of different people but ethically. What do we do about it?’

      Of course, I welcome everyone to this discussion including those who are not as well described by the previous sentence, and I do still believe the book has a lot to offer. But I think it’s important for the authors to begin the book by staking a decisive and strong claim on their sexuality’s acceptability, because far too many sluts have been punished for it.

      At the same time of course no one should punish, judge, or make assumptions about your sexuality and relationship choices any more than they should about mine. I think unfortunately one of the more common assumptions in the poly community is that everyone has sought it out for the same reasons. If I want to be poly so I can be wildly polysexual and slutty, than that must be why everyone else is here too! This is what my friends Pace & Kyeli call the Usual Error — the belief that everyone thinks just like you do — and they actually wrote a book about it.

      Thanks again for your comment. I’m looking forward to more discussion with you!

  • I’m with you. I absolutely think that it’s important for them to stake a strong claim in the “sex good!” corner. I think sexual behavior of all stripes gets treated as pathological by someone – I know asexual folks, people who enjoy sex for procreation and are comfortable with that, people who want every aspect of their lives to be sexually charged, and everything in between. And I equally know people who would turn nose up at any of those choices, any of those attitudes.

    I suppose my problem is less with the content of the book (as far as I’ve read) for purposes of the book, and more with the content as I’ve been SOLD the book. This is the poly bible! That’s what friends have told me. But I pick it up and find little to connect with. I mean, I’m certainly queer enough, but I find myself only moderately sexual – and I don’t think there’s any conflict between that and polyamory.

    Maybe I’ll have to write a book. ;) I’ve had thoughts!

    • Kit

      Yeah it IS sold that way — hell I’ve said those phrases myself even in this read-along. The funny thing is that as I’ve prepared for the read-along I’ve heard many more comments along the lines of ‘I love that book but…’ than I expected too. For a ‘bible’ it may have been superseded by other works — the most commonly mentioned is Opening Up by Tristan Taormino — but there may also be room for more poly books with still more viewpoints.

      I hope you’ll keep reading along with us and comment. I’m very interested in discussing the ways this book DOESN’T work for you as well as why it does. I certainly agree that there is no conflict between your choices and sex drive and the desire to be polyamorous. It’s too big an umbrella for that!

  • Arwen

    Hi Kit,

    Is it possible to do this read-along a little bit slower (for example one chapter a week)? Because of the Holidays and full time jobs me and my friends haven’t been able to read chapter one yet and wright a comment on it.
    For me it isn’t possible to read a chapter and wright a comment in a few days. So my question is, can we discuss one chapter a week, so chapter two will be discussed next Thursday instead of this Monday? I hope this is possible, it would make it a lot easier to follow this read-along.

    My comment on chapter one will follow soon.

    Greetings Arwen

    • Kit

      I think this is fair, especially given the unexpected number of non-native English speakers I have visiting me. We will do about a chapter a week — I’ll only post more than one entry if I am dividing a single chapter into multiple parts. We’ll discuss Chapter 2 on Thursday next week.

  • Arwen

    Hi Kit,

    Thank you very much! This will be very helpfull.
    My comment will follow soon. By the way, a Happy New Year for you and Pet!

    • Kit

      Happy New Year to you too, and to everyone else participating in this read-along!

  • KitsPet

    Thank you Arwen for the New Year wishes, and Happy New Year to you and yours as well.

    As for what the word ‘slut’ means to me… that’s a bit tricky. My upbringing is such, that slut is ingrained with negative connotation. I was a rather late bloomer and did not have sexual relationships till my mid twenties. I often felt as an adolescent/young-adult that all of my friends who were more sexually adventurous than I, were what I considered slutty. I suppose that this meant to me, at the time, that they were having sex indescriminantly with people that they did not always necessarily have a real emotional connection with. I now don’t consider this a bad thing. I have since been called a slut myself, sometimes in a positive connotation, sometimes negatively. The way I view the word depends upon who is using it. So far, it is still not one of my favorite words to use to describe myself… but I will still own up to it when need be.

    My biological family views my relationship choices poorly… they always have, but particularly now that I have entered into a relationship with someone that is poly. It has been a source of stress, particularly in that I did not choose to share this aspect of our relationship with my family, or rather my parents. I was ‘outed’ by my sister, something which I have not entirely forgiven her. My other family, my chosen family as it were, does not judge me too harshly. I do get the frequent comments: “I could never do that, I’m too jealous a person.”, and “Are you sure this is what you want?”, but I understand that those comments are from people who care about me, but may not necessarily be opening their mind to non-traditional type relationships. It’s frustrating to be sure, but what really matters is whether or not I am happy. So far I am, exceedingly so.

  • Sil.

    It is interesting to look up the etymology of the word “slut”. Chaucer uses sluttish (late 14c.) in reference to the appearance of an untidy man. The actual word is written down for the first time around c.1400, and signifying “a dirty, slovenly, or untidy woman” probably cognate with dialectal German Schlutt “slovenly woman” dialectal Swedish slata “idle woman, slut” and Dutch slodder or slore “slut,” but the ultimate origin is doubtful. The Dutch used the word “slet” originally to indicate a “swab, or mop” and it is thought that slet actually came to mean: a woman which you use to mop the kitchen with. Not very flattering… But it could also be that the action simply became equivalent with the person who does the mopping and swabbing, because it is known that slut is used to indicate “a kitchen maid, a drudge” in the mid-15c. Most likely these servants were not the cleanest of all: the story of Cinderella (Dutch: Assepoester: “the one who mops the ashes”) tells it all. However, the meaning “woman of loose character, bold hussy” is attested from mid-15c.; playful use of the word, without implication of loose morals, is attested from 1660s.

    Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily. [Pepys, diary, Feb. 21, 1664]

    Later on it was only used in its negative context of an untidy person, evolving into a woman of loose sexual morals. The funny thing is that the male version,”a stud”, does not have the negative context. This may well have to do with the “high standards” of double morals which we encounter in most cultures: after all, until condoms and the like were avialable, it were the dames which became stuck with the children, loosing the little value they had had when they were still virgins.

    So, I think that the term “slut” is a good one. It is provocative, disturbing and makes people think and, if inclined to sharing love, feeling the need to explain and articulate the (positive) aspects involved. It would be much easier if the authors had used the title “Ethical Studs”, but at the same time it would invite the readers to laziness, and would allow them not to look inside themselves, not to redefine the notion of the word “slut” for themselves. Can they come up with the glass shoe, which will make the slut Cinderella to a queen (or king)? So actually, I find the title brilliant.

    As for the notion that it is especially written for those who live a sexual poly-life, I do not agree with Kit. I think that the chapters on conflict management, insecurity in relations etcetera can as well be applied to non-sexual relations as to sexual relations, be it mono or poly. Even a non-sexual person may be a slut, in the sense that he or she may have so many relations with other people that there is a strong need for ethical behavior to manage them all.

    • Kit

      @Pet: Your happiness is the gauge I return to every time I see our relationship stretching what you’ve previously been comfortable with. I have sometimes felt guilty or at least uncomfortable because I am so much more actively poly than you, seeking out new lovers to entertain me while you are so far away while you (at least right now) seem only interested in me. Sometimes it seems like a scary imbalance, but then I remind myself how very happy our relationship makes you and I know we’re doing the right thing.

      @Sil: Thank you for the brilliant discussion of the etymology of this word. Most of this I was not aware of (nor is it discussed in the book, as far as I know).

      It seems like there are two approaches when you are trying to change the image of a subculture — there’s the choice to invent a word — for example, polyamory. Or there’s the choice to reclaim an existing one with negative connotations — slut, queer, etc. I hope this read-along benefits those who are ‘slutty’ in all kinds of ways, sexual and otherwise.

  • Sil.

    @ Kit: do not be fooled by my text: a part I took from Wiki: a kind of wiki-leaks you might say ;-)

    • Kit

      Haha! Thanks for injecting some valuable etymology into our discussion anyway. :)

  • Arwen

    Okay then. I received the book and I have red chapter one “Who is An Ethical Slut?”.

    When I first red this question
    I thougt “I’m not, because I’m monogamous but that vision has been changed in the past two days.

    I support the autor’s idea to reclaim te words slut, cock, cunt etc… For myself this process has just started.

    Most of the time I still have very negative feelings towards the word “slut”. But recently there was a situation where my Dominant called me “a little slut”. For the first time I thought; “yeah I am a little slut at this moment and I’m very proud of it”!
    So, like I already said, the process of reclaiming this word has started, grinn.

    I’m looking forward to the next chapter and I hope more people will join this read-along, so we can discuss the various topics of the book.

    Greetings Arwen

    • Kit

      Arwen: Congratulations on your proud slut moment and thank you for sharing it with us! Those moments feel great — when you realize you are giving and receiving pleasure freely, happily, and with all of your being. I think that’s at the heart of this positive idea of the slut — and you’re right that it doesn’t depend on monogamy or polyamory. At its best the word is simultaneously loving and a little shocking, a term of endearment with a bit of bite (the best kind, often).

  • KitsPet

    @Arwen: Oh yes, I do like when Daddy calls me his little slut. The word is very sexy when he uses it.

  • Like KitsPet, the word slut always had an incredibly negative connotation for me. I used it against myself for a long time, to occasionally disastrous results. Time experience (and reading) got me over that for the most part, but it still stings me when someone I trust(ed) uses that word against me as an obvious slur. Random strangers? Bring it on. I’ll agree with them and probably give them a nice little hip thrust just for good measure.

    I couldn’t have a lover or partner call me a slut though (in the middle of sex or a scene). I had someone ask if they could do that once and I damn near broke down (someone else did it without asking and it was an instant mood killer, told him off and never talked to him again). Maybe it’s just my history with the word but I can’t help but think that when someone uses slut like that, they really mean it, in the worst way.

    I go into a little bit more detail of my history with being a slut and with polyamory at my blog.

    • Kit

      @Grogette: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I am excited to read your blog entry, I will check it out shortly.

      It’s interesting how you respond to this word differently depending on who says it, and how that’s almost the reverse of mine. It brings up a more general issue about language, which is that every kink relationship — and probably every relationship in general — needs to discuss language as part of negotiations. What is one person’s beloved pet name is another’s insult or even trigger and this goes every bit for seemingly innocuous words like ‘girl’ as it does for loaded ones like ‘slut’ or ‘cunt’.

      Of course this brings up one of polyamory’s entertaining complications — keeping track of who to call or not call what, just as a busy slut might find themselves thinking ‘now is it this lover who likes their nipples bitten hard or am I confusing them with…’

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