For the second interview in the series we are talking to Dossie Easton, the author of The Ethical Slut.
You obviously have a very long association with polyamory, sex education and the BDSM scene, could you tell us a bit about how these areas first became a focus for you?
I have been a slut since I was 18 back in 1962 and first escaped from my parents and the mainstream culture, but for some years I believed that I would eventually settle down into a marriage type relationship. In 1969, finding myself a single mother and bisexual and highly motivated to explore radical feminism, I made a conscious decision to never be monogamous again. Everything else follows from there, I built my own communities for a while and then joined San Francisco Sex Information in 1973 and became a formally trained sex educator.
Knowing I had lots of fantasies, I formally came out into SM in 1974 when Cynthia Slater first formed the Society of Janus, a support group that still exists in SF.
Was there an early experience that really made you aware that you were different in terms of how you live and love?
I had no trouble being monogamous when I was partnered, but whenever I was single I would really enjoy a variety of partners, men and women, and resent anyone who thought I shouldn’t.
Monogamy and marriage have quite a problematic history especially towards women, do you feel that new forms of relationship can be a way of freeing ourselves from attitudes of ownership and control?
Absolutely. My first promise to myself in 1969 is that I would never again be somebody’s turf. Eeek. Then I went on a quest to find out who I was when I wasn’t trying to mold myself into being somebody’s wife.
How do you think attitudes towards polyamory have changed over the years?
I am overjoyed to find such a diverse and thoughtful and caring community forming in the last twenty or so years – we had such communities in the seventies, but on a much smaller scale, and with much less information or philosophy or spirituality. The openness and exploratory nature of the current poly universe is for me a justification of years of struggle, because I assure you, back in 1969 a whole lot of people thought I was completely nuts. Now I get paid to speak at the college I dropped out of in 1962 to pursue my career in the University of Life.
The relationship between sex and polyamory is often the basis of how poly lifestyles are viewed by those outside, how do you find a balance between a sex positive attitude and showing that polyamory has wider reaching implications?
I was privileged, starting with my daughter’s birth in 1969, to parent in the post-Summer-of-Love communal era, so to me sharing family involves a lot more than sharing sex. We raised our kids together while we struggled to find ourselves a place in the culture and in the economy. Back in those years, I put together feminist household, helped to design a women’s self-defense course, volunteered for the advisory counsel of the Sexual Assault Response Team, had a radio show on an all-volunteer station, and so on – as well as exploring a whole bunch of intimate and/or sexual connections with a whole bunch of mostly perfectly delightful people.
How did you and Janet Hardy come to collaborate on ‘Ethical Slut’?
We had already written the Bottoming and Topping books, and realized that we needed to write a book about our expansive lifestyles when we were speaking about SM at a MENSA gathering. Our partners were with us, and introduced to the audience, and as we spoke, we role-modeled a negotiation and talked about scenes we had done together, as we always do. After the workshop, in which many people heard their first information about BDSM, the first comments we overheard were about how could we stand up in front of the room and talk about our sex life with each other right in front of Janet’s “husband”! (Evidently my “wife” didn’t register on the radar.) We figured we better write a book.
How does the expanded second edition differ from the original? And why did you choose to change it?
The Second Edition is about 25% bigger, with new chapters or sections on Opening an Existing Relationship, Lifestyles of the Single Slut, dealing with cheating, keeping a long term relationship passionate, and much more. I am particularly proud of the new and expanded chapters on dealing with conflict and jealousy. I realized when I sat down to write that I had been doing therapy with a hugely diverse population of clients for eleven years since the first book came out, and I had a lot more to say. I have also included many exercises that have been useful in my practice to clients dealing with various poly relationship issues.
Ethical Slut has a strong ‘sex positive’ angle that is distinct from other books on polyamory, can you talk more about this sex positive angle and why you feel it is so important?
We come from a history of cultural suppression of sex whose remnants can be seen in all kinds of beliefs and customs among modern people. The one set that I encourage people to examine carefully are the beliefs that start out with “sex is only okay if ….” Like somehow if you restrict the set you can be a moral person, but if you include all the possibilities of sex between consenting adults, you have “gone too far”. We believe very strongly that sexual ethics are not defined by who you refuse to have sex with under what conditions, but rather by how well you treat the people you enter into intimate contact with.
I’d like to talk a bit about the relationship between areas like BDSM and Polyamory within your approach, how to you see the two areas as being related in your experience?
For many people, they are not related at all. I can’t even venture a guess that SM people might be more inclined to poly than others, because many monogamous couples right now are practicing some form of BDSM in private, at home, where we never see them. My experience is that in a repressive culture it takes a lot of thought and courage to break the rules and live the sexual life that you really want to live, and that people who can break the rules in one area are more likely to figure out how to free themselves in others. It’s really a skill set – once you succeed in identifying and outgrowing your cultural programming in one area, you become more capable of expanding your options in another.
What is your reaction to claims from some feminists that BDSM is the opposite of sexually liberating and that some aspects could even be considered a form of internalised patriarchy?
Bullshit. Well, you asked for my reaction. I have been an actively practicing masochist since 1974, and during those thirty-six years I have raised a child, worked fulltime in a battered women’s shelter, completed graduate school, acquired a professional license in psychotherapy, written five books and three second editions with my co-author and a number of articles and published a bunch of poetry and bought a house completely on my own and established a business and produced and starred in my own radio show. I have never been supported by any partner, male or female, and I am ferociously independent to a fault. Ask my partner – she doesn’t mind, she’s ferociously independent too. Do I sound like a some wimpy victim of the patriarchy?
I think what reassured me that these social myths are in no way true was meeting, back in 1974, through Janus, many people in BDSM who were in no way like the myths, or the porn, would suggest, but rather a bunch of strong, independent, intelligent, thoughtful people whom I admired. I and my friends identify very strongly as feminists, and resent being accused of partnering with the patriarchy.
Let me share an experience I had somewhere around 1981, in the middle of the sex wars in feminism, when I was working at the battered women’s shelter in Santa Cruz, California. A member of our board told me that her partner, a professor at a local university, was researching an article about lesbian sadomasochism. I was delighted, happy to find some feminists researching my lifestyle, and offered to help her connect to lesbian SM practitioners she could interview. These academics were horrified that I had assumed that this “research” might involve actually talking to someone like me. It turns out she was writing one of the chapters in the dreadfully uninformed book, Against Lesbian Sadomasochism, which was published some time in the eighties. And they call this “research’?
So once again, I say “bullshit”.
Could you define for us your view of feminism and how it has impacted your view of polyamory?
I became a feminist quite suddenly in 1969, during the same revelation that led me to vow never to be monogamous again. I became aware of how much I had tried to censor my behavior and my expression on the grounds that it was unwomanly to be successful, intelligent, or to have a destiny of my own. A large part of my explorations of alternative forms of relationships back then was about discovering who I am when I am not trying to behave like a wife. All of this became an utterly rewarding journey to wholeness – by claiming all of my qualities and all of my strengths, and working to complete myself as a human being on an individual basis, not by being someone else’s other half.
These were the early years of feminism, and the issues we struggled with seem almost unthinkable today – we were constantly trying to deal with what we believed about ourselves as women, and how much that had been taught us by a society that was indeed oppressive to us. I am incredibly proud that the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies has so thoroughly changed the world of possibilities for the women and men who are young adults today.
Polyamory became at the time a strong way to live my feminism, finding many aspects of myself in many very different relationships with others as well as validating long periods in my adult life when I have lived as a single person – with lovers, but not in a couple.
Could you talk a bit about your work as a councillor and what you find are the greatest challenges polyamorous people face?
I am privileged to work with a population of wonderful and courageous people who are living their ideals and creating new ways to do relationships. I think a lot of the challenges polyamorous people face have to do with following their loves and their desires into creating relationships for which there exist no prefabricated scripts. This obviously leads to greater possibilities for fulfillment and I personally love living where the scripts are being written.
You also mention that within your therapy work you deal with spiritual communities; the spiritual seems to be important for many polyamorous people, what is you personal take on this?
I think the Western world is in the process of recovering from centuries of being offered only religions which are overly focused on acting like governments and trying to control their members’ behaviors, particularly around sex and love. When we expand our view of religion into that of spiritual practice, and look beyond Western European religious traditions of the past millenium or so, we find genuine practices, where people seek out gnosis and communion and connection with the Divine – no one name can contain the animating force of the universe, but we can try with Tao or Life Force or Kundalini or Energy. Real experience of the loving energies that flow through all of us all of the time, whether we pay attention to them or not. These are the energies that connect us all.
I teach westernized versions of Tantra, workshops in which we follow an embodied spiritual practice into expanded states of consciousness. These energies are so palpable and the way they connect us all together in a web of life and love is so radiantly beautiful, that I can say that I truly believe that God is Love. That wonderful feeling we have in the heart when we feel love – that, I believe, is truly Divine Energy.
So obviously, all these many expressions and sharings of love that poly people engage in are, blissfully, in and of themselves a spiritual path.
And lastly, do you have any plans for future work exploring issues related to polyamory?
I have an article on Making Friends with Your Jealousy coming out in Nonmonogomies, edited by Meg Barker and Darryl Langdridge, next year. I’ve been doing an enormous amount of teaching in the U.S. and in Europe, and beyond that, as far as the next book is concerned, that is a mystery that I suppose I will discover when the time is ready.
To find out more about Dossie Easton please visit her website at: www.dossieeaston.com