Smutty March: The Ethics Of… Cheating

In the grand scale of things, there are some far darker sins out there in the world compared to cheating. But when it comes to your average person in a developed country, the great evils of murder, rape and torture might seem a little unlikely to figure into our daily schedule.

In practice it’s the mundane sins that tend to be a big deal for us; the sort of every-day, run-of-the-mill sort of sins like lying, petty theft, and privacy infractions that (while not exactly of world-shaking significance) can really screw up the lives of the individuals involved. And of these mundane evils, you’d be doing well to find one with more destructive power than cheating.

No one likes a cheat. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married, a long-time partner or just dating – bumping uglies with someone outsides the relationship pretty much spells social, emotional and potentially economic disaster for everyone involved. Feelings will be hurt, trust will be shattered and future plans will be dashed as if they never existed. Best of all, so massive are the implications of cheating on your partner that it has a tendency not only to destroy not your immediate relationship itself, but also to set off a Rube Goldberg machine of collateral damage through friends, families and work colleagues.

To simulate an unexpected pregnancy, simply set the apparatus on fire.

Entire social groups can fracture, with people taking both sides, long-term friendships disappearing overnight and (if one or more of the people involved is a tad… unstable) one hell of a lot of private business becoming public very, very suddenly. Naturally this only gets worse the more serious and long-term the relationship was before the incident – such a betrayal can be devastating even when you’ve just been dating for a few weeks, but once you’ve started to combine your lives, make big joint purchases, make friends as a couple and (god help you) have kids together… well let’s just say that disentangling your lives becomes significantly more complicated, if not outright impossible.

Suddenly this sort of thing doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.

And this is only glossing over the emotional impacts cheating can have! Imagine going from having a strong, loving relationship with someone, trusting them with your deepest secrets, opening yourself up and being as vulnerable as you can be – only to have all that shattered as that person abandons you for someone else. Truly, there is no lower a blow than cheating.

All of which is kind of odd, considering no one actually loses anything out of the situation.

Seriously, think about this for a second: in what other area of life does adding something good to another good thing, somehow decrease its overall value? If I add desert to a meal, the meal improves overall – the main meal doesn’t suddenly sour because the ice cream turned up. Similarly, if I win the lottery in addition to my normal pay, then I’m hardly going to complain. And one more person turning up to my party does not spoil said party. Why is it then, that adding sex and/or intimacy from another person, somehow ruins the sex/intimacy you were already receiving?

As we’ve already establish, sex is a good thing. No matter which school of thought you come from, sex provides a positive benefit: love, intimacy, pleasure – even the most hardcore prude has to admit that sex at least provides children. So why is it that adding more of these positive things to your life is unacceptable for some reason? Why is it generally agreed that we should seek to improve the quality of our lives on all other fronts, but it’s somehow a ‘betrayal’ when it comes to love, sex and intimacy – perhaps the most fundamental desires in the human psyche?

Frankly, the entire objection to a person having more than one sexual partner at a time comes across as simple jealousy, if not outright possessiveness. Surely if you love your partner, you’d want them to be as happy as they could be, right? Well, intimacy, love and sex are all very well known to improve happiness, so why are you trying to keep your partner from more of it? What is it you lose exactly by them hooking up with other people? It’s not like you need to have exclusive rights to them for intimacy to work properly, after all – all their friendships are also intimate, if non-sexual relationships, so how is that any different?

And if intimacy isn’t the problem, then the only real objection left is that you don’t like them having sexual pleasure from any other source than yourself. And once again the question needs to be asked: what’s the problem with that? Provided that your sexual needs are satisfied, and you enjoy the sex you have with your partner, than what does it matter if they get a bit of extra enjoyment in addition to that? What, are they not allowed to masturbate either? Next you’ll be telling them they can’t watch TV without you present in case they ‘betray’ you by enjoying themselves without you present.


Think about it a little bit and our whole obsession with romantic monogamy is quite ridiculous. If the aim of the game is to improve our emotional wellbeing and sexual enjoyment, then what the hell are we doing locking ourselves into a relationship with one and only one person for long periods of time? Even if it makes sense to aim for one highly compatible partner to spend several decades with, live with in close confines and have sex with exclusively, then dating exclusively is possibly the worst screening criteria imaginable. The fact that many people scoff at concepts like internet dating or speed dating is quite bizarre when you realise that the vast majority of relationships start on the basis of ‘I talked to them one time at a party’, ‘we happened to share an interest’, or simply ‘they were around a lot’. Choosing where to have dinner involves a more strenuous and rigorous process than this, and no one ever formed a years-long, life-altering commitment to food.

If you are on the hunt for a serious long-term romantic partner then dating multiple people simultaneously is the absolute MINIMUM you should be doing. How else are you going to be able to find someone who matches you properly, without getting ridiculously lucky? Hell, how are you even going to know what you’re looking for until you’ve shopped around a bit? To describe human sexuality as complicated is a massive understatement – how are you going to know what you personally enjoy in sex until you try it out? And how the hell are you going to do that if the person you’re currently stuck with really isn’t interested in anything other than missionary-lights-out-no-talking-praise-jesus?

(Help me)

Yeah I know we love to worship the perfect couples: high-school sweethearts that never dated anyone else, got married and stayed together for 80 years before dying in each other’s arms. People really knew what love and commitment were in those days! They weren’t like young people today who want everything and can’t commit and put in the hard work necessary for a successful relationship, no sir.

Aww… how lovely and condescending.

But you know the horrible truth about these sort of ‘perfect’ relationships? They got lucky. Pure and simple. There is currently 7.2 billion people on this planet; the odds of you ever finding a partner so totally compatible with you, throughout all the changes that a person goes through over a lifetime, that you never ever want to leave them are insanely slim– the odds of them being literally the first person you ever dated, EVER? Good luck with that.

But such luck can indeed exist, and it’s just as well for this ‘perfect’ old couple that it does, because you know what the alternative was for these traditional monogamy-at-all-costs folk? A lifetime of misery, stuck in a relationship with someone they no longer loved, found attractive or even liked. And why? Because breaking up meant you had failed and cheating was a sin. So you put up, shut up and got on with things – for the rest of one partner’s natural life. Hooray.



“Getting closer Phillis, but you’ll have to do better than that to knock me off the perch!”

So given all this, it seems like sleeping around isn’t just an ok thing to do, but positively important to a person’s growth. Open relationships and polygamy, rather than being the bizarre province of hillbillies, hippies and religions based on a giant game of ‘what’s in the box’, are really the ideal approach for relationships – by maximising the number of partners we have, we maximise the amount of love, pleasure and intimacy we can experience, while also learning what we enjoy far faster than we could ever do on a one-at-a-time basis. Sure, this sort of thing has a far higher chance of sexually transmitted diseases getting around, not to mention unwanted pregnancies, but these are both fairly minor practical problems that can be easily managed through contraception, communication and the normal health checks every person should do from time to time.

So… open relationships all round? Sadly not.

The more perceptive of you may have noticed that open relationships are still very much the exception in even the most liberal of societies, and those that do try them almost always end up to their neck in drama.

People, it would appear, are complicated, and it’s often difficult for us to sort out what it is we want or need in life in our own minds, let alone explain it clearly to someone else. So even if you go into an open relationship completely willingly and with the best of intentions (and it’s not hard to imagine someone agreeing to it while privately harbouring doubts) then it’s not going to take a lot for things to get ugly, really, really fast.

See in much the same way that pleasure and intimacy increase with multiple partners, so too do all the negative and tricky parts of a relationship. The fact that we have enough trouble balancing the needs and interests of just two people (let alone all those who can’t sort their own lives out) serves as a pretty big warning here; involve more people in a relationship and the risk of serious drama is going to skyrocket exponentially. One perceived slight is all it’s going to take, and suddenly we’re up to our eyeballs in suspicion, jealously, them-against-us, he-said-she-said, and all sorts of horrific nastiness that are a lot worse than just being single.

You just became daytime TV

But it doesn’t have to be like that, right? Surely a thoroughly mature set of people with good communication skills can make such a relationship work? And yeah, I’m sure there are people out there that can and do live in great non-monogamous relationships with minimal problems. But they’re rare, and the reason they’re rare comes down the very simple Golden Rule that lays at the core of any relationship: everyone has to be on the same page.

To put it simply, for any relationship between any number of people, be it sexual, friendship or even a work relationship, the key to success is that everyone has the same expectations. Provided everyone knows and agrees with what the relationship is to involve, and subsequently gets that out of said relationship, all is well and good. But if one or more people have different expectations going in and subsequently don’t get what they were expecting, you’re going to have trouble.

So good communication, right? Yep, except that this is all a hell of a lot more complicated than it sounds; success under this Golden Rule basically requires everyone involved to know with absolute certainty, at all time, EXACTLY what they need/want and that they be able to communicate this to everyone else clearly and precisely.

And that my friends, is totally impossible.

On the whole people suck at communication, largely due to the fact that we barely have an idea of what we want/need consciously, let alone unconsciously at any given time. You might indeed think that an open relationship sounds awesome. You might even be able to overcome the extremely natural reactions of jealously and be fine with your partner screwing other people. But if you’re not 100% ok with the entire arrangement, right down to the very core of your being, if the arrangement upsets you for reasons unknown or causes you emotions that you weren’t expecting, then this is not going to end well for you or anyone else unless you can promptly and clearly express what’s going on – and since you yourself have no idea, that’s going to be tough.

This is hard enough to sort through yourself, but add a relationship with another person and life just became a hell of a lot more complicated. Not only do you have to try to sort out your own head, you have to explain it to someone else, who has to interpret it accurately, who then has to sort out and express their own head, which you in turn need to somehow deal with while still trying to sort out your own crap.

This is why we can’t have nice things. Like open relationships. And gangbangs.

Try throwing one or two more people into the mix and life just because a minefield of misunderstandings, unclear explanations, conflicts and competition – all while you’re still trying to sort out your own crap. Fun, fun, fun!

Cheating takes all the complex, designed-to-fail drama-potential of an open relationship, and then hurls the entire mess right into the face of the Golden Rule by explicitly breaching what your partner expects from your relationship together; monogamy. Big surprise then that it goes down like a paedophilia joke in the Vatican.

Again, totally understandable.

 Open relationships are one of those things where the practical realities of the situation currently outweigh the principle of the matter; on paper they might be the ideal approach for how we love and fuck each other, but in practice, what with imperfect communication, emotional instability, and our ongoing cultural terror of sex, they’re just not going to work out.

But practical barriers can be surmounted, and we should always strive toward what is right in principle. Maybe one day we’ll improve our communication abilities, get over our collective fear of sex and get down to some great quality shagging. But in the meantime, I leave you with the bizarre yet satisfying knowledge that open relationship are indeed the ethical choice – if only we were good enough to deserve them.


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