A sex expert explains ethical non-monogamy and how to protect yourself and others if you practice it

Dr. Wendasha Jenkins Hall is a dynamic sexuality researcher, educator, and media consultant who provides a fresh, shameless take on love, sex and relationships that helps individuals embrace their sexuality, take charge of their health, and prioritize their pleasure through shame-free and sensible sex research and education. She holds a PhD in Public Health Education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, a MS in Communications Management from Morgan State University, and a BA in Journalism-Digital Media from the University of Central Florida. Currently, Dr. Jenkins Hall is an Assistant Professor of Integrated Health Science at Kennesaw State University.


One thing that can be said about consenting adult relationships is they don’t come with a blueprint. Whether they’re intimate or not, relationships aren’t one size fits all — and that’s okay! As long as communication, consent, and consideration are at the foundation, the way in which we intertwine our lives with others can look many different ways.

And just as many folks engage in long-term monogamous relationships (which do tend to be viewed as the societal default), the amount of individuals taking part in ethically non-monogamous relationships is continuing to grow and become more prevalent.

So, to learn more about ethical non-monogamy, we spoke to sexuality researcher and educator, Dr. Wendasha Jenkins Hall to help us break down the basics. Even if you’re not interested in pursuing an ethical non-monogamous relationship, there are plenty of things monogamous couples can learn from best practices of ethically non-monogamous couples. (Spoiler: Communication is key!)

Below, learn more about what Dr. Jenkins Hall had to say about testing, boundaries, and more:


What is ethical non-monogamy?

Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is a consensual relationship practice wherein people are not bound to a single romantic partner. Instead, they can have multiple, concurrent romantic and/or sexual partnerships. ENM is pretty common as a 2017 study found that more than 1 in 5 US adults have engaged in a consensual non-monogamous relationship at some point in their life.

What is the difference between ENM, polyamory, swinging, and an open relationship?

Polyamory, swinging, and open relationships are all forms of ethical non-monogamy. Individuals who are polyamorous have multiple, intentional, concurrent romantic partnerships with full consent of all parties involved. On the other hand, swinging is typically practiced in the context of a committed relationship wherein couples engage in partner swapping/sharing and/or group sexual activities. Single individuals who partner with couples may also identify as swingers. Finally, open relationships typically describe a dynamic where two partners in a committed relationship agree to casual sexual partnerships outside of their “main” relationship.

Are there any common rules or boundaries for ethical non-monogamy?

There is no set standard or rulebook that governs ethically non-monogamous relationships. Every relationship is unique and rules or boundaries are specific to the individuals involved. For example, some swingers may establish that they will not engage with outside partners solo, while a polyamorous individual may agree to a closed triad — three, consenting individuals who are only sexually and romantically involved with each other. Some relationships have sex only policies that do not condone outside emotional romantic partnerships, while others allow emotional attachments. However, no matter what rules and boundaries are established, consent and clear communication are key pillars in every relationship. Every sexual decision that is considered or entertained must be discussed and agreed upon by all involved and impacted parties. Without consent, one is not practicing ethical non-monogamy. Also, It’s important to remember that people have agency and relationships that can and do change over time. What worked last month with partner A, might not work today with Partner A but may be fine with Partner B. Thus, it is important to communicate often with every partner regarding any sexual, emotional, or personal issues or changes that may impact the relational boundaries that have been established.

Specific to consent and communication, those engaging in ENM should consider sexual practices that protect and maintain the health and safety of all involved. ENM is more than good times with multiple partners of your choosing. Accordingly, individuals participating in ENM should keep a strict STD testing schedule of every three to six months, especially if fluid bonding (an active choice where you and your partner(s) decide not to use barriers during your sexual experiences) or serodiscordant partnering — relationships where one partner has HIV and the other does not — is involved. Testing should occur (1) before discussions of condomless sex, (2) before the introduction of each new sexual partner, and (3) after a sexual partnership ends. Accordingly, condom use and PrEP are other forms of STD prevention that should be discussed with all partners involved. Those who engage in condomless sex should also consider other forms of contraception — e.g. the pill, patch, ring, shot, IUD — if pregnancy is not desired. In the bedroom, partners should discuss sexual acts and behaviors that they are (or are not) comfortable participating in. Consenting to have sex with someone does not mean that one is consenting to every sexual act under the sun. For example, a person who is into spanking or flogging or should communicate that preference to their partner, as their partner should be an active and willing participant and not coerced into participation.

According to the CDC, the rule of thumb is to get tested every three months and between fluid bonding with new partners. Is this consistent with those in ENM relationships?

Anytime individuals consider condomless sex and/or fluid bonding, all involved partners should get tested before participating in the act. In short, every time a new partner is introduced, testing should take place whether they decide to fluid bond or not. Further, testing should be done every three to six months if one’s sexual network is open — e.g. casual sex with multiple and/or anonymous partners. If an individual is unsure of the sexual networks of their partners, then they should test every three to six months as well.

What can monogamous couples learn from some of the practices of ENM?

There are a few things monogamous couples can learn from ENM. First, is the importance of open communication. Individuals participating in ENM must learn to express themselves, ask for what they need, and navigate conflict within their sexual and romantic partnerships. These key communication skills are also essential in monogamous partnerships. Second, ENM also prioritizes boundary setting. Engaging in multiple sexual and romantic partnerships requires rules and structure to protect the emotional and sexual wellbeing of all involved. While outside sexual partnerships tend to be a hard ‘no’ for monogamous couples, there are emotional, sexual, physical, and financial boundaries that still must be established to maintain a healthy relationship. Finally, ENM requires that individuals engage in some level of introspection. They must be in tune to their conscious thoughts and feelings, which is important when dealing with difficult emotions like jealousy, identifying negative relationship patterns, or addressing internalized trauma. Introspection facilitates personal and relationship growth and development. Accordingly, individuals in monogamous relationships can benefit from this practice as well.



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References:

1. Prevalence of Experiences With Consensual Nonmonogamous Relationships: Findings From Two National Samples of Single Americans. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. URL. Accessed May 24, 2022.

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