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What's Wrong With Being Really Sexually Promiscuous?

Slut-shaming still happens, and not just by misogynists like Rush Limbaugh.
 
 
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This summer, the New York media exploded with a rare type of news: An apartment building in Brooklyn has been converted into a residence for polyamorous people. As you may expect, not all of the coverage of the Hacienda Villa intentional community—or the public’s reaction following it—was positive or judgment-free. But the fact this made it into the mainstream media and that a lot of the coverage and response was in fact positive or judgment-free, speaks to the increased openness to alternative sexual lifestyles – at least in the more progressive corners of modern-day America.

Yet, in the minds and hearts of people, not all (consensual) alternative sexual lifestyles are created equal. In a time when nonheterosexuality is close to losing the status of ‘alternative,’ transgender people have scored Medicare coverage for gender-confirming surgeries, Fifty Shades of Grey has made it clear that kinky desires are as mainstream as it gets, and open relationships are more visible than ever, there is one sexual lifestyle that remains imbued with stigma: unbridled promiscuity. Accepting promiscuity—having lots of (mostly) casual sex with lots of different people—as a valid lifestyle choice is perhaps the final frontier in creating a sex-positive, open-minded, sexually tolerant society. 

There is no doubt that, among the general population, promiscuity is almost universally considered a bad thing. It seems like every day there is a new example of slut-shaming, often with tragic outcomes; the sex addiction industry routinely labels all promiscuous people as having a problem; and studies show that over 70% of college students would lose respect for someone who “hooks up or has sex with lots of people.”

But anti-promiscuity stigma also often comes from those who themselves embrace alternative sexual lifestyles, often as a way to justify their own—less promiscuous—alternative lifestyle and, consciously or unconsciously, make it more palatable to the general public. Because anything, anything, is better than promiscuity.

Consider the following exchange between the host of the Huff Post Live segment about the Brooklyn polyamorous apartment complex, and Lily, a current resident of the Hacienda Villa who identifies as polyamorous and is appearing on the show with her identity disguised.

HuffPost Live Host: Is it because of judgments like that in the past that you are coming out anonymously right now?

Lily: Oh absolutely. It bums me out that I have to be anonymous, ‘cause I’d be happy to share it with everyone. I think it’s really important for people to understand what polyamory is. And unfortunately I’m working in an industry where there’s a lot of judgment, still! And I do hope one day to be able to be fully clear about who I am and what I stand for. But because people just don’t understand it, and they automatically think that you’re just like having a lot of sex with a lot of people, randomly, I just can’t have to explain that to people I don’t necessarily know.

Most of you read this statement and don’t notice anything stigmatizing embedded in Lily’s defense of polyamory. All she’s doing is explaining what polyamory is (not) and that it shouldn’t be judged against. Right?

Wrong.

True, Lily is explaining – quite accurately so – that polyamory is not about “having a lot of sex with a lot of people, randomly”. (Polyamory is about having multiple loving as well as sexual relationships with more than one person, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.) But Lily isn’t providing this as an answer to a neutral question about what polyamory is. She’s offering it in the value-laden context of why people judge, yet shouldn’t be judging, polyamory as a lifestyle choice. Saying ‘people wouldn’t judge polyamory if they knew it wasn’t promiscuity’ directly implies that ‘if it were promiscuity, people would be right to judge it’. That, unlike polyamory, promiscuity is a lifestyle worthy of condemnation and unworthy of acceptance.

 
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