This week on The Savage Lovecast, Dan Savage got a call from a man who hooked up with another man who had a(n allegedly) monogamous boyfriend. He wanted to know if he had done anything wrong, and if he should feel guilty. This question strikes me as particularly important to the polyamorous community, as we’re often faced with this sort of opportunity. Most advice I’ve heard from the community stresses that poly is only poly if it’s with the knowledge and consent of all involved, which includes partners of partners.
Dan (disappointingly, to me) gave a pretty standard response. He made a lot of room for degrees of offense committed, but ultimately concluded that the only morally upstanding thing to do would be to turn down a proposition from someone in a monogamous relationship. I was disappointed because, to my mind, that would be the worst choice of the ones available.
The Problem With the Standard Advice
Dan Savage feels that sleeping with someone in a monogamous relationship is wrong because, even if you don’t know the other person in the relationship and thus “don’t have a moral obligation” to that person, it makes you “an accomplice to cheating.” In Dan’s mind, cheating is wrong, and therefore helping someone cheat is wrong.
The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.
The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred. By preventing the “actual” cheating, all you’re doing is perpetuating the fraud that they are in a monogamous relationship. You’re actually doing more harm to the relationship by turning down the cheater, because you’re making it easier for both of them to pretend no betrayal actually happened. Chances are, unless you tell (more on that later), the other partner will never know about it, so most of the effect will be on the cheater. You’re just making the cheater feel less guilty and less likely to come clean.
So What Should You Do?
When you’re propositioned by a person in a monogamous relationship, from a moral perspective, there are three possible effects that your choice can have: do good, do harm, or do neither harm nor good. If you have sex with the cheater, you’re doing neither harm nor good. As explained above, the harm occurs when the proposition happens. The betrayal has already occurred. Whether the sex actually happens or not, the harm has already been done.
That being said, there are plenty of good reasons not to have sex with a cheater. First off, there’s a perfectly acceptable reason not to have sex with anyone – you don’t feel like it. There is no moral concern that I can think of which would obligate you to have sex with someone you don’t want to have sex with. In addition, the fact that someone is a cheater raises all kinds of concerns about that person’s trustworthiness, character, compassion, and decency. I have absolutely no problem with categorically turning down cheaters for those reasons. All I’m dealing with is the proposition that there is something morally wrong with being an accomplice to cheating.
Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship . As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses. Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.
If you’re going to be a hero and take responsibility for the other person’s relationship, a simple rejection isn’t going to do any good. To be a hero, you actually need to take some steps to right the situation. However, there’s no moral requirement to do so. Not everyone needs to be a hero. There is nothing morally wrong with accepting such an invitation if that’s what you want to do.