Book Review: The Ethical Slut

I’d heard of this book in sex positive circles, and what convinced me to read it was a male friend of mine had bought it and announced he was reading it.

The book is touted as an introduction and guideline for approaching non-monogamous relationships – polyamory, open relationships, sex communities, swinging couples, casual sex, etc– or being ‘sluts’ as the authors enthusiastically write.

My overall impression of this book is negative. It’s simply not a well written book.

It’s over written – it uses too many words to express its ideas. When reading I found myself not being able to focus on it and starting to skim read. I started thinking ‘Is this just me? Do I have a bad attention span?’ But when I started reading Everything I needed to know about economics, I learned from online dating (my review herethis proves to be not the case. Everything I needed to know is a book in the same broad genre (dating and relationships), and I found it exciting, engaging and a pleasure to read – I found myself looking forward to reading it. Everything I needed to know is a much shorter book, and seems to pack in more ideas into a more concise read.

The tone of The Ethical Slut is more celebratory than an objective assessment of non-monogamous relationships. It seems to take a starting point of already having been successful in non-monogamous relationships. For example the book never seems to deal (or if it did, the idea didn’t stick with me) with that most people find the idea of non-monogamous relationships socially unacceptable, or at least don’t express opinions to the contrary. If I were writing a book on non-monogamous relationships – that’s where I’d start – outlining the history of monogamy, theories about why and how it came about,  the popularity of non-monogamy in other cultures, in other times, and its prevalence in current western culture.

All this leads me to think that this book is more targeted to people who are already on board with the idea of non-monogamy. This isn’t to say that a book shouldn’t be targeted as such, just like a standard dating advice book might be targeted at single professional men, or single professional women, but it helps frame your argument narrative if you provide an objective basis to build from, rather than taking it as assumed. If your book is at a more advanced level, and not to be taken as an introduction to the subject, then the assumptions and starting points should be explicitly stated in the introduction.

I couldn’t get past the authors’ use of the word ‘slut’. The authors use the word as reclaimed word to describe, essentially, what I’d call sex positive people – people who enjoy sex and see it as a positive expression of life activity.

In their words:

‘To us, a slut is a person of any gender who celebrates sexuality according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you. Sluts may choose to have solo sex, or get cozy with the Fifth Fleet.’

I found the term distracting, and meaningless. Whatever your thoughts are about reclaimed words, I feel like they don’t belong in literature that is intended to be subject to debate and theorising. For example if I was reading a book about negotiating life as a black American man, I might accept the author’s proposition that black men may call themselves ‘niggers’ (or ‘niggas’) as a means to reclaim a term that had been previously used a tool of oppression. However I wouldn’t think it would suit for the author to use the word ‘nigger’ every time they were referring to black men and women!

The book did have its nuggets good wisdom. The best chapter in the book would be the chapter about dealing with jealousy. Jealousy, like other emotions like anger, and sadness, is one of those emotions that in our culture is seen as negative, and reflection of bad character. The narrative around this is changing, and people are increasingly encouraged to accept these emotions, and manage them. My review on the movie Inside Out addresses this.

The authors deal with this topic head on – they acknowledge that jealousy is likely to be a prominent experience in non-monogamous relationships, and encourage the readers to own their emotions and provide several suggesting for managing it. One poignant point they made was where one of the authors’ partners would express his insecurity (‘Just tell me I don’t have anything to worry about’) when she was about to go out with a lover, and that this was a good thing. It was a good thing that he trusted her enough to express his feeling of insecurity. Insecurity is another of those emotions that the typical narrative says is unattractive. I felt it was a great relief to read this paragraph and it was not something I’d considered before.

Another entertaining aspect of the book were some of the anecdotes provided. I felt these gave much better context for understanding the more difficult dynamics, and they were interesting to read.

The book was glaringly lacking in some subjects. For example the experience of rejection, or the experience where one partner feels left out. Again, the book seems to assume that the readers are already successful at dating finding romantic or sexual mates. Given that there are entire industries dedicated to opining on the topic, it would suggest that this is an unreasonable assumption to make.

Overall, I felt like I didn’t learn much from this book, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. I’m not critical of the subject material, but it wasn’t presented in a particularly readable manner. Perhaps if I was in a non-monogamous relationship I’d be more incentivised to read it, but I would suggest that someone else could do a better job of writing the same book.

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