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Episode 10 - The Ethical Slut

posted Mar 15, 2016, 1:35 PM by Joreth InnKeeper   [ updated Sep 6, 2018, 7:15 PM ]

The Ethical Slut (2014) - IMDB - YouTube

As the Chief Media Archivist for the Polyamory Library at the Kinsey Institute, I got a sneak preview of the new web series, The Ethical Slut, "inspired by" the book of the same name by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, but then I didn't finish my review of it at the time and now there are 4 seasons out. I'll be honest, I thought the book was OK when I first read it, although I never thought it was a poly book. I considered it to be a book on communication in open relationships that just happens to include polyamory but also covered a lot of other types of non-monogamy. Over time, however, I've come to really dislike how it gets touted as "the poly bible" because it's not. It's still just a book on communication in open relationships and now there are better ones out there, in my opinion. Not only is polyamory not the focus, but when it does touch on polyamory, it's usually on a very specific form of polyamory that I happen to think does more harm than good to our community - couple-centric polyamory.

The Ethical Slut webseries is a fictionalized narrative of two women, Dottie and Jackie, who start out in monogamous married couples (not with each other) but find themselves opening up their marriages to try polyamory. I think the characters are loosely based on the authors' real experiences, but the characters are clearly modern day (whereas the authors started their journey quite a few years ago) and the book The Ethical Slut is already out in that universe for the characters to read as a guidebook in their explorations.

The format is a web series, so the episodes are all less than 10 minutes long, some as short as 4 or 5 minutes. I will say that the production value is excellent. They clearly went out of their way to do this with a professional look, and as someone with a background in broadcast and video production, I definitely approve of the effort to produce a quality show. Given the time constraints, I think the story line was clear and well-paced, but as a personal preference, I think the time constraints of the medium, by necessity, keep the plot and character development too shallow for my taste. For example, in one scene, our resident therapist, Dottie, counsels a couple whose chemistry has gone out of their marriage. One woman wants the other to be her "everything" while the other woman is too stressed from carrying the burden to want to be anything. They bicker, the sex is gone, and they don't even seem to like each other anymore.

So Dottie recommends opening up their relationship in order to relieve the pressure of making one person be everything to the other. Immediately both clients accept the idea as a possibility and end hugging and proclaiming to just want to see the other happy. I totally get that this is the nature of the medium. As I said, I think the pace was actually pretty good, all things considered. This is not a complaint so much as an explanation of a personal preference. I just couldn't buy that scene, or many of the others that had to rush on past the deep, hard stuff in order to get to the point. But, then again, I sat for something like 15 hours in a darkened movie theater to watch every single Marvel movie (Thor, Hulk, Captain America, etc.) in a single marathon, culminating in the premiere of the first Avengers movie and I've also watched the extra 20-whatever hours of "extra footage" on the Lord of the Rings special edition box sets - more than once. So take that with a grain of salt.

Anyway, this is clearly a show marketed towards the poly community, and the word "polyamory" is mentioned several times as something the characters are intentionally exploring. So it definitely belongs on the poly movie list. So far it focuses exclusively on the "opening up your marriage" variation of polyamory and using the new partners as experiments and personal growth tools and relationship salvage teams.

Some day, I'd like to see a movie or read a book that shows us polyamory from the perspective of an individual who just happens to fall in love with several people for no other reason than because each of them are awesome people, not to fix a flagging sex life, not to be a pressure valve for the original couple, not to meet some specific "need" that the pre-existing partner can't or won't meet, not to be a shared experience that a couple does "together" as if they were a single unit with no individual identities of their own, not to avoid developing emotional attachments with anyone by having too many partners to adequately get attached to, not to boost the ego or feel flattered or to fulfill some Oedipal complex when the established older couple "hunts" the young hot bi babe and captures her for their own, not to secure a line of sex or love from one person by promising an equal amount of sex or love to their pre-existing partner, not to own an animate sex toy for a narcissistic womanizer or insecure patriarch, not to be a surrogate parent or nanny or housekeeper for the commune and to give the wife an unpaid assistant, and definitely not to have some woo-woo spiritual justification that elevates the act of sex to something mystical and sacred in order to enjoy it wile condemning anyone who just likes to fuck as something "base" or animalistic, not rising to some "higher plane".

Y'know, just a good ol' "hey, you're kinda neat, let's get to know each other ... I really like you, let's spend more time together ... you have become something really special to me ... hey, you're also kinda neat, let's get to know each other ... I really like you too, let's spend more time together ... hey that other person you're dating is kinda neat, I'd like to be friends ..." sort of thing. Like the natural development of a good, healthy monogamous relationship where the two characters take their time growing into each other and finding their natural rhythm together without externally imposed limitations and with the full liberty and exuberance that falling in love entails, only each of those two characters also has the freedom to do that and does that with other people who are also main characters. Where's THAT movie?

Later seasons do start introducing more diversity, at least in terms of demographic representation, if not so much with relationship structure diversity. In fact, one of my favorite characters is a queer kinky black woman who seems to have her shit together. She introduces the characters to things that stretch their comfort zones and even introduces the concept of white privilege in a much later episode. But, for the most part, we see mostly white, middle-class couples (at least wealthy enough to afford private marriage counseling), some straight and some gay, struggling with monogamy and various attempts to "open up" their relationships.

I do recommend this show. It definitely has polyamory and it seems to be written by people who actually know what polyamory is, for a change. And I also think that it's important for our entertainment and our art to show poly people making mistakes. These characters do pretty much everything "wrong", in my opinion. There is cheating, there is lying, there is making rules, there is prioritizing the primary couple, there is using poly and using partners to "fix" broken relationships or to fulfill "needs" or to experiment. I didn't see a single character say "there's absolutely nothing wrong with my existing relationship, my partner is perfect and compliments me well, and our conflicts are totally reasonable and healthy differences, and yet I still met this other person who is also awesome and I'd like to explore a relationship with them because they're a whole and complete person who is amazing and enriches my life, which is already whole and balanced," or who said anything remotely like that.

Not all of our media needs to show the Pollyanna version of polyamory, especially if the media is for ourselves. Our art can show the dark side, can show the mistakes we make, can show the pain and heartache that exists within poly relationships. One of my favorite book series is the Anita Blake series because I identified with the main character. I felt that she had all of my bad traits and none of my good traits, so reading her story was a lesson for me in how not to fuck up my own life. So I don't think it's necessarily problematic that all of the characters make decisions that I think are examples of poor polyamory. I just don't know if that's the motivation for why the characters make those decisions, or if the writers think this is actually how polyamory ought to go. I couldn't tell from the show. This is most definitely not "polyamory is doomed to fail, here, watch this trainwreck to see why." The characters experience both ups and downs to polyamory, as they should. I'm just not sure if the mistakes the characters make, some of which lead to their conflicts and some of which are lucky and have no long lasting negative consequences, were intended to be seen by the audience as mistakes, or if the writers intended them as positive examples. What I mean is that the writers may not agree with me that some of the actions the characters take were, indeed, mistakes.

So, definitely poly, definitely belongs on the list, and entertaining. I'd recommend this show with the proposition that you consider the actions of the characters as mistakes to learn from and do differently. Consider that not all poly people are white, middle-class, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, fit, cis people. Consider that a large percentage of the poly community is not "coupled" (whether they have romantic or sexual partners, or not) or did not start out by "opening up a relationship". Consider that seeking out people to fulfill a particular role or a particular duty is not the most ethical approach to relating to other human beings. Consider that, while exploring non-monogamous relationships, the people you're exploring with are human beings with feelings and needs and lives of their own and do not exist to serve a purpose for you or to support your own character arc, but have their own story to tell for which you may be their supporting character.

We all like to think of ourselves as the hero of our own stories. But in the stories of other people, we may be supporting characters or even villains. They do not exist for us. Some of these stories get more visibility than others. The Ethical Slut webseries is one set of such stories. It's well produced and well written for its medium, and I am recommending it, but I'd still like to see more visibility for other stories and less support for couple-centric poly structures.

You've been reading Poly-ish Movie Reviews, with your host, Joreth, where I watch the crap so you don't have to!