In the past few years, newspapers, magazines, and television dramas have introduced a new term into the public discourse of sexuality: “polyamory,” which denotes romantic and sexual relationships absent traditional constraints of fidelity. Daniel Frost and Hal Boyd examine some of the arguments used to justify this phenomenon, which often focus on the supposed “radical honesty”—another new term—of polyamory:
Proponents often tout polyamory as an ethical, “consensual” form of non-monogamy. However, a recent survey . . . found that less than half of women who had been in a consensual non-monogamous relationship said that both partners desired the arrangement equally. . . . Another study on this topic found that “commitment emerged as a central concept in polyamorous relationships” but that when “rule violations” of commitment occurred they were “not generally interpreted as ‘cheating’ but rather as opportunities to renegotiate agreements.” In other words, even in polyamorous relationships, there are rules and violations of rules. The main difference, it appears, is that in “radically honest” relationships the dishonest partners—those who don’t play by the rules—face few consequences.
Radical honesty, [thus] understood, is particularly pernicious because it not only allows an individual to void prior moral commitments but also seeks to give the individual a moral justification for doing so—one is doing the right thing by following one’s honest desires. Many commitments can be canceled, and many responsibilities evaded, with this kind of honesty. Commitments made in the shadow of “radical honesty” seem always to have an implicit escape clause attached to them: “I will do X, at least as long as I feel like it.” Ultimately, “radical honesty” just means being honest about your desires, and in particular your sexual desires, even if you fall short of honesty in your commitments.
Polyamory’s boosters can claim honesty here only by importing a great deal of loose assumptions about right and wrong, human nature, and what it means to live a worthwhile and fulfilling life. In this view, humans are defined primarily by their felt desires, and the only way to live honestly and authentically is to obey them. Desire is most core to the self.
Of course, humans are not reducible to desires alone.