Want to Socialize during the pandemic? Learn the Rules of the “Ethical Sluts.”
How polyamory’s core tenets can help us navigate moving forward post-pandemic
Summer is here. Quarantine rules are starting to relax but we are still in the middle of the COVID pandemic. A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying what had become a Friday night tradition: pizza from the freezer and avocado salad. “Guys, I love you, but I need to start seeing other people,” I told my two guests in all seriousness.
These are not my lovers, but my two best girlfriends. The three of us are single and live away from our families, which is why we decided to ride the pandemic together. Our situation is unique, and very privileged. None of us have roommates and we’re not essential workers. We are a social bubble, a pod, a triad, a quarantine family, a “quaranteam.” Since shelter-in-place was first declared in March, we made a pact to collectively prioritize the health and well-being of the pod, which meant following the guidelines of the “ethical slut.”
“Ethical Slut” is a term coined in the 90s by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy to reclaim the word “slut” as a term of approval, even endearment. The authors lay out the models that inspired a set of ethics around the physical risks of intimacy in order to date multiple people. Now we need to take a page out of their book while we all consider extended adventures in “social intercourse,” a.k.a. hanging out with outsiders in the middle of a pandemic.
Who are we allowed to see now? How do we keep the pod healthy? Can we do so without obsessively surveilling the behavior of our loved ones? Who are we collectively willing to exchange germs with? How transparent should we be about it with each other?
There are many types of poly relationships, but during shelter-in-place, my friends and I found in ethical hierarchical polyamory a navigation tool for our newly found agreement. The Ethical Slut breaks it down for us: “people who live in a marriage-like arrangement are primaries, the people they love but don’t live with are secondaries, the people they enjoy spending (often sexual) time with, but often with less commitment, are tertiaries.”
In other words: prioritize your pod.
Here’s what you need to know before seeing people outside of your current “quaranteams.”
First, the basis of most non-traditional relationships is open communication and honesty. The need to keep our pod or “quaranteam” free from COVID has made us more transparent and responsible towards each other. In the past, as single women our motto was “mind your own business” but it has since evolved to “keep each other safe.” This also applies to society-at-large: your decisions are not just your own anymore, they can put other members from your community at risk.
I asked Juan, a polyamorous queer guy who lives in San Francisco, to explain the main difference between monogamy and polyamory. Juan explained that in monogamy, “agreements are mostly unspoken whereas with alternative relationship dynamics, those agreements are very explicit and everything is consent-based, same goes for the kink community and the poly community.”
Whereas in monogamous relationships sleeping with other people is cheating, polyamorous relationships openly embrace multiple partners. Radical transparency means explicitly talking to your partners (in this case, your pod) about who you’re going to see, when and how much.
Now that “pods” are starting to open up, it’s important not to fall into the trap of having unspoken cheating. Instead, we must follow a rigorous consent-based model. Sneaking out or being careless means going back to your quarantine pod and giving COVID to your loved ones. This principle is crucial if people from your pod have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID.
Radical transparency means also communicating your needs and feelings. Some people are introverts and feel okay with not seeing anyone else. Others need to go out and socialize to recharge.
Ask yourselves these critical questions: what do you emotionally need? How can the collective make space for that while still keeping everyone safe? What are your boundaries? What do you feel comfortable with?
Second, minimize harm by minimizing risk. The “ethical sluts” approach is similar to the harm reduction public health approach in affirming this basic yet powerful principle. Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus recommends harm reduction as a better alternative than the all-or-nothing approach. “Public-health experts have known for decades that an abstinence-only message doesn’t work for sex,” Dr. Marcus said in a recent article.
This starts with your body. In ethical hierarchical polyamory, the paradigm is “safe sex” while you also prioritize your “main” or “primary” relationship (in this case, your pod).
“I have a primary relationship with my wife, we live together and that’s why we prioritize each other in terms of time and care,” Juan said. In practical terms, this means Juan wears condoms with everyone he sleeps with except his wife.
In the pandemic, masks are the new condoms: wear them all the time except with your pod or “quaranteam.” This approach also means knowing that you have to weigh the risks. Given some activities are less risky than others, definitely meet outdoors, practice social distancing (6ft. apart) and wash your hands really well with soap and water. Vox just published a really good guide to navigate risk while opening up. Dr. Julia Marcus also made this helpful chart:
Not So Fast
A third rule is to proceed cautiously. I called Gaby, a 32 year-old woman who has been in an open relationship with her husband for five years. I asked what she and her husband were doing during COVID. “We can’t see other people right now because there are too many points of contact,” Gaby said over the phone. “It would be really hard to trace it. So many people we want to see, and maybe we would have to pick one. But then they also have a bunch of other people that they also need to be able to see. So how do you manage that?”
In this way, COVID is different from STIs. “First of all, we know condoms are very effective,” said Gaby. “And two, there’s testing and so if there’s any chance that they weren’t effective, you are able to find out right away with a test. And then there’s also treatment.”
We don’t have a cure for COVID. And we don’t have contact-tracing or consistent testing. So don’t get ahead of yourself. Yes, practice radical transparency and risk minimization, but always factor in that there are too many unknowns and information is changing rapidly. The more unknowns the less able you’ll be able to accurately assess the risk, which is why it’s better to keep your outsider social contacts to a minimum. So proceed with caution –but don’t be afraid to proceed at all.
Consent and Contact Tracing
Now how to apply the three rules. While we wait for contact tracing to be effective it’s important to keep track of all the people we see. Pick a small number of people to start seeing –it can be family, siblings, another couple or another small pod. Then ask them what their practices are. How are they keeping themselves and others safe?
Remember that the behavior of one can affect the health of the pod. You have to check in with your insiders before meeting with outsiders so everyone can collectively assess the risk and reach a common understanding. Since everyone would know who each person saw and when, this would allow for quicker decision-making if anyone were to be exposed, presented symptoms or tested positive.
Say a pod member wanted to have a conversation without a mask, or even touch someone outdoors. For that to happen, the rest of the “quaranteam” must feel safe about that person either because they have been in total isolation for 14-days, or because you trust their hygiene practices and socially minded behavior. This would be practically “merging pods,” therefore everyone involved has to agree. In our analogy, it’s like having sex without a condom.
“I feel like we will have to start approaching and reintroducing other people into our lives in kind of a similar way because of COVID,” Juan said. “We’ll be more like ‘I want to hang out with you, but have you been quarantining this whole time? Have you had any symptoms? Or like, are we going to wear our masks? Is it okay if we don’t wear masks? Should we touch each other? Can I hug you?’”
Knowing the most recent COVID updates is crucial. You have to subscribe to newsletters, podcasts, follow trustworthy media and keep up with COVID-related coverage. Don’t be the person in the pod who wants to force everyone to wear gloves to go outside even though the CDC has specified they are not required for non-essential tasks. You have to read quality information to help avoid spiraling paranoid delusions and control your pod’s behavior in invasive ways.
Learn to separate scientific facts from what you emotionally need. Facts and emotions are different, but equally important to achieve balance. This principle has to be paired with open communication. Non-monogamous ideals don’t work under the paradigms of jealousy and shaming. Obsessions and paranoia affect the collective too.
We think of freedom as an individualistic pursuit. But communal consent is powerful. If everyone follows these guidelines, we could potentially expand or merge pods while keeping our communities safe.
Gayle Rubin, a famous queer academic, wrote in 1984 that society has historically accepted only monogamous, heterosexual and reproductive sexual relations. The queer, the weird, the sexual outcasts and norm-breakers have been censored or banned. Rubin calls these rebels the “erotic dissidents.” In COVID times these dissident practices must be propagated. Especially given the lack of alternative that mainstream paradigms around the world give us.
My pod is expanding, ethically. The principles of the “ethical sluts” and “erotic dissidents” will help us get through the pandemic without completely losing our minds. We are all in this together.