Valerie Pavilonis

I don’t know why I was so afraid to talk about bodies, and specifically, my body, or yours or our bodies.

This summer, I picked up a self-help book titled “The Ethical Slut” from Bluestockings in New York, a bookstore dedicated to feminism and social activism. I was inclined to do so because two of my best friends were unethically slutting away their relationships, personal commitments and networks, which, as you can imagine, made a lot of people sad. It made me sad too, so I loudly proclaimed that I saw selfishly implemented polyamory to be a new, pinkwashed excuse for people to hurt other people without taking any accountability. More privately, it seemed to me too cynical to entirely give up on the idea of one true love. Someone has to be made, making themselves, just for me? We could conquer the world together. It is undeniable that our deeply personal relationships with our body are interlinked with our conceptions of desire, desirability and sexuality. My beliefs on rights and wrongs within the romantic relationships I experienced or saw around me were a product of the histories I have been a part of: half-loves, cheaters, vicious best friends, co-conspired illusions, lying, et cetera. I have tried therapy, self-love, vanity, academic excavation and often found no solution for trampling perceptions of sex and bodies that come from bad cultural belief systems or unfortunate incidents of violence. “The Ethical Slut” inspired me to look beyond a romanticization and stigmatization of sex and sexuality to imagine a new way to relate to my body and how I share it with people, when I’m talking, writing, performing, cooking or fucking. I strongly urge you to give this book a chance. I do believe that activism begins at home, and so, I believe it begins with the body. How does the world we live in make you treat your body? How does that make you treat other bodies? This is a mental health topic that wants you to pull your physical self into that care.

The very introductory paragraph from the guide shows how keenly Easton and Hardy grasp a frank commonality among people today:

“Many people dream of having an abundance of love and sex and friendship. Some believe that such a life is impossible and settle for less than they want, feeling always a little lonely, a little frustrated. Others try to achieve their dream but are thwarted by outside social pressures or by their own emotions and decide that such dreams must stay in the realm of fantasy. A few, though, persist and discover that being openly loving, intimate and sexual with many people is not only possible but can be more rewarding than they ever imagined.”

Let’s talk about love, sex and friendship by talking about bodies. How do you share your body with your friends? For example, do you hug people a lot? Do you only hug lovers? Is there a different way you touch lovers than the way you touch friends? What is a lover that a friend is not? What is a friend that a lover is not? I bet gendered lenses on these questions will produce a spectrum of answers. Now, ask yourself why. These are the sorts of questions that “The Ethical Slut” evokes before it announces its motto simply condensed: “We believe it’s okay to have sex with anybody you love, and we believe in loving everybody.”

The book hopes to challenge a “monogamy-centrist culture,” one that makes assumptions of sameness and inseparability between people the foundation of a true romantic relationship. We are seduced to believe that and misunderstand all the love someone is giving us or could give us for the sake of what we want out of them. Take how the book deals with the concept of jealousy and cheating as an example. The authors explain it as a “myth” that “outside involvements reduce intimacy in the primary relationship.” They claim that people categorize “affairs” as “symptoms of unresolved conflict or unfulfilled needs.” In a truly fresh perspective on pain in romance, they assert that treating affairs such as this is “cruel and insensitive” because it creates a) the category of “cheated-on” partners, whose insecurities are doubled down by this stigmatized social categorization placed on them, and b) “cheating” partners that are told that they don’t really “want, need, or even like their lovers,” that they are only getting back at or punishing their partners.

This example is one of many but it emblematizes the encroachment of our social systems on our romance and sex. We have all seen the broken shards of people’s self-perceptions and responses to the various degrees of “infidelities” that can obstruct the pursuit of an unending monogamous destiny. And we can all relate to our culture’s obsession with this monogamous romantic’s wish: In so many ways, we witness in books, movies and music only either naive belief in it or a flat-out, cynical and stand-offish rejection to it.

One day, I want to write an expose of our world’s desire for love, romance and sex, coupled with text screenshots — I’d title it “My Grindr Passport To The World.” For those who may not know (for whatever neoliberal reason), Grindr is a “geosocial networking and online dating application geared towards gay, bi, trans, and queer people” according to Wikipedia and a “proximity-based semi-dystopia where mostly men solicit sex — and perhaps a good date, like, once in a blue moon — from other men, trans or queer folks” according to me. For a while, I had a criminal relationship with it. I would talk to many men, take nudes in the bathroom to regret later and generally pretend to be more reserved and cautious and guarded than I felt comfortable being. Strange men would say strange things and I would go along with it, largely. I projected even a distance of personhood with many one-night stands because they felt placed so outside of my reality and inside instead a private chamber of shame, but whatever, and desire, gimme gimme. Other men mimicked this pattern, or maybe I learned it from them: You saw many blank profiles, talked to married men, couldn’t talk to people who end up knowing you from somewhere and met old men who had made routines of indulgence out of these apps like Grindr to celebrate their still-secret desires but still, priorities.

The approach the authors take to diagnose our world’s romantic failings is to understand how people conceive of sex and what it implies. As an exercise, ask yourself where your conceptions of sex or love came from. If questioning your attachment to monogamy pisses you off, take that opportunity to ask yourself: Why, though? Do you know people who have been hurt by an ideal of monogamous love? Do you want to be saved by it? Is the only way to raise children in olden nuclear family set-ups? What is the division of labor, and what is an unethical way to treat someone you claim to love? The authors of “The Ethical Slut” are on a project to reimagine how we express love, to reimagine how we can be more fair and more kind to each other. There are moments where the authors’ represented idyllic environments undermine the reality of race, class and gender inequities, but they constantly remind a reader that the guide is incomplete, a starting point.

I decided I wanted to write this book review because reading Easton and Hardy’s poetic yet straightforward guide to better loving emancipated me from a lot of the things I decided I would be OK settling with. When I was a first year, a boy slutshamed me over a poor decision I made sending a faceless profile some nudes of mine (which were, no less, also featured on VICE that same year so forgive me if I wanted to show off my 18-year-old, VICE-approved ass). It was a totally embarrassing moment for me because I hadn’t known if it was awfully offensive to share nudes on a social network site made to solicit a quickie (or sure, maybe love too) with constantly changing rules and etiquettes and especially entirely different worlds over the geographies of different cities, countries and cultures. Today, I’m sorry for that uppity junior’s narrow and vicious conception of the body, how pitiful a power play he played mimicking the stigma surrounding sex to dirty my body. Get off me: Maybe I’ll post a nude on my finsta.

Zulfiqar Mannan | zulfiqar.mannan@yale.edu .