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The Ethical Slut Read-Along: Chapter 4

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

I am leading a read-through of the Ethical Slut, 2nd edition. If you’d like to catch up on past installments, check the list at the bottom of the series introduction.

In this installment we discuss Chapter 4, “Slut Styles”

Welcome back to another week of our read-along of The Ethical Slut. Just a reminder, you can feel free to comment on any of our past installments if you are behind in your reading — I’ll still respond to comments on other chapters.

“A slut living in mainstream, monogamy-centrist culture in the twenty-first century can learn a great deal from studying other cultures, other places, and other times: you’re not the only one in the world who has ever tried this, it can work, others have done it without harming themselves, their lovers, their kids — without, in fact, doing anything except enjoying themselves and each other.” –from The Ethical Slut

The Ethical Slut, Second Edition by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

This chapter is about the different forms of ethical sluthood in modern times and throughout history. It is similar to chapters 7 and 5 in the first edition, which together covered much the same topic. There looks to be a little less information on historical sluts and a bit more, and better laid out information on modern ones. Some of the topics, such as celibate sluts (yes, there is brief coverage of celibacy in this book) have been moved to a later chapter in this section, “Infinite Possibilities.”

This chapter is about listening to the lessons others might have for us in how we could lead our lives. While on the one hand, the dominant paradigm in Western culture is one many find limiting — as we’ve already analyzed in this series — on the other hand throughout history, around the world, and in other subcultures there have been people who did things differently.

When I was in college I adored my anthropology class — if I ever decide to become a scientist it would be an anthropologist. Even though I went into the class as someone who was already open-minded about cultural diversity, I was still stunned by the incredible variety of rituals, traditions, and morals applying to almost every aspect of human life. A brief study in anthropology should disabuse any thinking person of the idea that there is one ‘right’ way of doing things.

In their ‘slut anthropology’ (my term), the authors touch briefly on historical sluts including the Bloomsbury group which I mentioned already in our discussion of Chapter 2. They address the hippies and historical Utopian communal movements among others. Then, there is a discussion of different modern groups of sluts — for example there is a section on how lesbians approach sluthood, and what lesbian behavior can teach everyone. I did find it a little strange that the first mention of relationship types such as the ‘V’ (two people who share a third person as a mutual lover) was relegated to the section on heterosexuality — in my experience sexual compatibility is not based only on orientation in deciding whether something becomes a V or a triad, but I suspect these relationship types will be addressed in more detail later. This section is necessarily brief, but someone could probably write an entire book on sluts throughout history and the world (and I’d want to read it!).

“We recommend, when you are in the company of the unfamiliar, that you look for unfamiliar wisdom. You’ll find lots of it, and it will make you richer.” -from The Ethical Slut

Are consciously sex-positive subcultures safer for women? Image taken by John Curley in Black Rock City, 2009.

It might not surprise many of my readers, but I imagine it can be startling to some to think of sex-positive subcultures — consciously sex-positive ones — as having better ways of handling sexual consent with respect. We’ve all seen (and probably rolled our eyes) at the episodes of the procedural crime dramas that are all over TV these days where some horrible crime happens in a sexual subculture — whether it’s BDSM, furries, pony play, etc. It becomes an excuse to highlight the lurid nature of what they do that’s different. Even though many of these shows will include some token words about how “maybe they really are just like us,” they rarely talk about the steps the communities do take to keep their people safe.

Sadly, rape, assaults, and other violations of consent and personal rights do occur among sluts and sex-positive subcultures. The difference, though, when these groups are working properly, is in the reaction — because they openly acknowledge the sexuality in their midst they react by finding ways to handle that sexuality more healthfully, more ethically, and more pleasurably for everyone.

I recently hitched a ride between Austin and Houston with a man who had just gotten out of being an organizer in liberal activism for various causes like the rights of indigenous people. As we rode he expressed his frustration with a number of aspects of liberal politics, but the one he kept coming back to was what he saw as terrible sexual politics amongst his fellow activists. He described how when new women join many groups, they find themselves preyed on by the other men in the group and are driven away or silenced by the aggressiveness of the male voices.

In a healthy, sex-positive culture, there are clear rules -- and often limitations -- about how one can approach others for sexual play, and personal boundaries are easily enforceable. Image by Abhi Ryan.

I was able to contrast this with lessons I have learned in the subcultures where I spend my time, from Burner culture to the kink scene. At a monthly house party I attend, there are strict rules about approaching others for sex or kink play: You are allowed to approach anyone you are interested in, but being told ‘no’ means you can’t come on to them again until they make the first move. A ‘maybe’ means you can ask again one more time, but if you’re turned down again you have to leave them alone just like it had been a ‘no’. Of course, even an enthusiastic yes has to be followed by communication — negotiation about what is to take place next. These rules come with the knowledge that they have to be upheld by both parties in the interaction — just as it’s the responsibility of the person making the approach to respect the response they get, it’s also the responsibility of the person being asked to enforce their boundaries, or to get help from the community if they find they are unable to do it themselves.

We can also learn from the problems other cultures have had as well. One of the Burner Principles, a sort of loose ethical code of Burning Man community events, is radical inclusivity. Interpreted sensibly, this is an admirable goal that means everyone gets an equal opportunity to join our community and be judged honestly on their own merits. But taken to illogical extremes, it has been interpreted by a minority to mean that no one can ever exclude anyone, ever, or that even unethical sluts should be welcomed in our midst. For those reading elsewhere on my blog, there’s going to be a deeper discussion of the Burner Principles and what they mean for different people in my series, A Burner Lexicon, in the near future.

Obviously, slut anthropology becomes an ongoing conversation of lessons learned and new ideas shared. I hope you’ll share some good or bad examples you’ve seen in the cultures and subcultures to which you have belonged. Comments are open for you to share your thoughts on this chapter. We’ll be back next week on January 27, 2011 with a discussion of Chapter 5, “Battling Sex Negativity.”