Sex & Relationships

What's Wrong With Being Really Sexually Promiscuous?

Slut-shaming still happens, and not just by misogynists like Rush Limbaugh.

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.

This implication is subtle, and so seamlessly incorporated in Lily’s larger point about people’s tendency to judge what they don’t understand, that it goes over most of our heads. It certainly went over the heads of Lily and her friends, who, when brought to their attention, adamantly rejected the notion that she had committed, or would ever commit, an act of stigma against the promiscuous. But that inconspicuousness is precisely what makes this incarnation of anti-promiscuity stigma more dangerous, more insidious, and more difficult to fight against.

When slut shaming is blatant and perpetrated by people who proudly flaunt their sexism and sex-negativity, it is easy to expose it and call the haters out on it. But when committed by people who see themselves as sex-positive and respectful of all sexual choices between consenting adults, anti-promiscuity stigma often goes unnoticed. It sneaks just below our threshold of consciousness, so that even well-meaning friends are entirely unaware they have just slut-shamed their more sexually adventurous peers. And so it continues to quietly perpetuate and reinforce the view that having sex with many different people for the sake of sex is somehow less valuable or less respectable than having sex with a few people for the sake of love. That view remains unquestioned by anyone because how do you eradicate something that is virtually invisible, yet so deeply engrained?

Slut-shaming by the ‘sex-positive’ also hurts their targets more. Rejection has deleterious consequences on health regardless of where it comes from, but rejection from the “ingroup,” the social group you consider your own, is even more deleterious than rejection from an “outgroup,” a groups you don’t identify with or maybe even see as the enemy. For promiscuous men and women, it is easy/easier to discredit insults by raging Rush Limbaughs or the misogynist manosphere. But polyamorous people are their allies, their friends, their community; their comrades fighting on the same side in the war against sexual persecution. When they feel rejected—however subtly—by their own, the scars are likely to run much deeper.     

My goal here is not to single out Lily as the poster child for anti-promiscuity bigotry. All slut shaming considered, this is not a particularly egregious example of it. Nor is this an isolated incident among the ‘sex-positive’ community. (That same day Lily was on the HuffPost Live defending polyamory by emphatically distancing it from promiscuity, I was a guest on theManwhore podcast, where my very vocally self-identified sex-positive host, Billy Procida, proudly shared how he defended the Hacienda Villa to his prejudiced father by explaining that polyamory “is not just about fucking a bunch of people, it’s a bit higher level than that” (fast forward to 34.40). Slut-shaming of the “really slutty” people is everywhere.

My goal, instead, is to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of anti-promiscuity stigma even among the most sexually liberated among us. And hopefully contribute to the long and difficult process to eradicate it, one open-minded mind at a time. So when you’re out there defending sexual freedom, don’t extend the line of acceptability just far enough to include yourself, and leave out in the cold the ones sluttier than you. Because, as Carol Queen aptly puts it, “I don’t think a community, or a space, where people are subjected to slut-shaming (or homophobia, biphobia, heterophobia, kinkphobia, transphobia, etc., etc.) can be called ‘sex-positive’ at all.”

Need to learn more about what sex-positivity is and is not? Carol Queen breaks it down.

Zhana Vrangalova, PhD, is a NYC-based sex researcher and NDRI post-doctoral fellow who studies casual sex, nonmonogamy, and sexual orientation, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at New York University where she teaches Human Sexuality. She also blogs about the science of hookups for Psychology Today, tweets daily about new sex research, and runs The Casual Sex Project, a place for people to share their true hookup stories. Stay in touch by signing up for Dr Zhana’s monthly newsletter or following her Facebook page.