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Why Helping Someone Cheat is OK, or Dan Savage Disagrees With Me! December 4, 2012

Posted by wfenza in Skepticism and atheism.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Silenus - December 5, 2012

Personally, I don’t think I could get it up for someone who was cynically betraying a person that thought they were loved by them. YUK! Beyond that, whether I was being propositioned or not, I’m still getting info I’d rather not know. If there is any obligation, it is to help the betrayed party, not the cheater. I’m not sure there is any good way to do that.

2. warboar - December 5, 2012

As an open-minded monogamist, I like and agree with this post on the basis that the sex isn’t the problem, it’s the lying/deceit. In instances where there is cheating involved, definitely go to counseling and figure out how to correct the situation, if there’s any way to do so. It is often the case that the person doing the cheating is feeling starved, or hurt by the “non-cheating” partner somehow, and thus looks outside the boundaries of the relationship for love and acceptance and satiation of physical desire. And, sometimes, the cheater is simply a feckless asshole who possesses no concern for the feelings and health of others.

Sexual promiscuity (of the deceitful sort) with strange partners is a deal-breaker for me. Yeah, I’m one of “those people” who asks to see medical records before I get physically involved — better safe than syphilitic, as I always say. I don’t know what kind of diseases cheaters have caught, will catch, and might give to me if I let them into bed. In a poly situation, *ideally*, everyone knows who everyone else is, has been with, and where everyone has been in general. Everyone is in the know, and consents. Instances of STD transmission are significantly lower among consensual partners in a poly situation than in situations where there is cheating, from a stats perspective.

3. sarah - December 5, 2012

What have been your experiences?

4. freakapotimus - December 5, 2012

Like you said, I don’t have an issue with the sex part, but with the lying part. I have nothing against people who have sex with others that are already in (allegedly) monogamous relationships; I do not thing they are doing anything morally wrong. I, however, will not have sex with someone who has flat out told me that the partner will not be aware of me, or has asked me to lie or hide. I have been threatened, stalked, and assaulted by jealous partners in the past, and I’d rather not have that happen again. Of course, this could always happen anyway, but if I think there’s a high probability, I’m not going to that the chance.

5. Green Fizzpops - December 5, 2012

Helping someone cheat is totally unethical. You seem to be forgetting about the “with the knowledge and consent of all concerned” part of polyamory. Sure the lying in a problem, but you’re ignoring the _consent_ part. By helping someone cheat you’re creating a sexual relationship chain in which consent has not been obtained, and that’s antithetical to polyamory.

6. By Association « Pilot Precise - December 7, 2012

[...] just finished reading an article about how it is acceptable to help a monogamous person cheat.  It’s a short read, check it [...]

7. therioshamanism - December 8, 2012

I have to strongly disagree with this. By sleeping with a cheater, you ARE causing more harm than good. Not only are you rewarding their infidelity by giving them what they asked for, but you’re also violating their partner’s right to consent (or not) to being in an extended dynamic with you, now that you’ve slept with the cheater. Even if it’s only that one time, you’ve potentially opened everyone in that particular sexual chain to whatever STDs you might have that you didn’t know about, never mind what you might be exposing yourself to in turn. Because it’s not just about the selfish desires of the cheater and the other person–it’s about every single person potentially affected by the act.

On top of it, your feeling that the sex isn’t as important as the emotion is a thinly split hair that doesn’t make a good justification for being “the other person”. There are plenty of people, poly and otherwise, who DO see the act as being worse than the intent. There’s a certain line that got crossed when it went into physical reality. Some people can work past someone having an unhealthy crush or even emotional cheating, but for some once it goes physical there’s no redemption.

8. estrix - December 9, 2012

Dan has said that cheating is wrong, but it’s less wrong than other things. Sometimes, cheating is sort of a pressure release valve, something that ultimately allow someone to have the energy to do that work and keep a relationship going. So it’s not always damaging to that relationship.

Personally, I would avoid participating in something like that, but not for ethical reasons. Rather, for the same reasons I generally wouldn’t sleep with someone who routinely bad-mouths their ex-lovers, or who says nasty things about their mother. I prefer getting involved with people who are nice, and who are honest. So, cheating is such a red flag to me for reasons related to my own self-care, that I don’t think I’d reach the point of having to decide if it’s ethical.

9. Moniqa Aylin - March 12, 2013

Your article seems to imply that having sex with other people, though breaking the monogamous relationship’s boundaries, is not actually cheating/harmful if the person admits to it every time. And that just ain’t right.

Having sex with another person is cheating if it’s against the agreed upon relationship boundaries, and lying is a second betrayal on top of that. I don’t see, however, that wanting to have sex with others and not acting or not being able to act upon it is a betrayal to the relationship, only to your own feelings.

If you want to have the sex with the cheater, that’s up to you to weigh the value of being true to yourself and authentically loving against the ethical question of consent of all involved, but doing it isn’t harmless.

10. When polyamory isn’t an option, is cheating an option? | atheist, polyamorous skeptics - November 19, 2013

[…] a year ago, Wes wrote this post on the blog about whether it is permissible, morally, to accept an offer of sex from some….  I was not in agreement with him when I read it, but my disagreement was based on a moral […]

11. Sara - February 24, 2014

This sounds like an excuse to get your rocks off without having to consider the ethical implications. Wanting sex is natural for most people and some of us want a whole lot of it with multiple people – also just fine. But do you NEED to have sex with THIS particular person, a person who’s cheating? Is it really that important?
The desire to perform mental gymnastics to excuse cheating sex, just because you want to do it and the person is hot, etc, is a sign that something is wrong.
You say that saying “no” is the worst choice. How can getting intimately involved with an unethical liar possibly be a better choice than leaving it alone? Walking away and letting unethical liars deal with the consequences of their actions whenever they are inevitably exposed is not the worst choice. People do terrible things to each other all the time, we can’t get involved in everyone else’s lives. Eventually the cheater will face the music.
So what if this person is attractive, charming, etc? Doing whatever we want when we want for no other reason than mere want is a sad excuse for “being true to ourselves.”
There is more to ethical sex than simply wanting it and consenting to it.


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