Why Are Open Relationships Still More Taboo Than Cheating?

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Cheating is something we’re constantly surrounded by. It’s in wider culture and songs, either you’ve been affected by it, someone you know has, or you’ve done it yourself. We hear of ‘side pieces’ or the ‘other woman’, and it’s treated as an inevitability to be cheated on in relationships at one point or another. It’s normal, in the way we pretend it’s not.

Open relationships, or polyamory, on the other hand, still remain taboo – it’s ‘extramarital’, and involves something other than monogamy as cheating does, yet with express permission from all parties involved – but it’s still considered strange and not how you’re supposed to do things. 

Why might that be? 

Birmingham City University Sociologist Dr Ryan Scoats says that, “[…] in comparison to monogamy there is much less awareness of [open relationships], much less formal education about having these relationships, and a lot more stigma around it.”

Cheating’, in the most used sense of the term, still operates within the constructs of monogamy. It’s a solitary practise that fulfils whatever romantic or sexual urges of one person, without actually addressing the problems of the partnership equally. It’s a violation of boundaries, that exhibits both a disregard for the other’s wellbeing and the unequal power relations that permitted it. 

A 2015 YouGov poll reported that 1 in 5 British adults admitted that they’ve had an affair, and a third had said they’ve at least considered one. 

To allow for open shows of non-monogamy, that are honest, negotiated and fulfilling for all parties, is an upending of what freedom and autonomy people are allowed to have in the constrains of relationships– especially in the case of women, and it comes dangerously close to a non-heteronormative relationship system for the likes of most. 

Even in an open relationship that is completely heterosexual, the inclusion of more than one man or woman in an equal exchange of power and love, comes too near to what is considered outside normality. Cheating on your partner in something that does not fulfil you, is considerably preferable. That is not to say cheating and boundary violations cannot occur within polyamory – people will always have some sort of ground rules within contained relationships. However open, but consensual non-monogamy operates with the framework of consent in mind, called ‘ethical non-monogamy’ by another name. It’s a movement that at least says it’s trying to put people first, and that has been a refuge for many women who say monogamy had never been without the trappings of sexism. 

In fact, its beginnings come from ‘ownership’. The book Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá,  goes into just that, describing the birth of monogamy only to be 8,000 years ago, after the rise of agriculture. Men began to prioritise children, in order to pass on their property to those who shared their bloodline, to do that, they needed to know that women were as much their property as their land.  

But this doesn’t necessarily mean nothing’s changing. A 2016 YouGov poll found that nearly a fifth of under-30s have engaged in sexual activity with someone else, with the knowledge of their partner (or consensual non-monogamy, CNM). The movement is there, but perception of the concept of, and the people in open relationships is yet to catch up

Penelope Helbest