In an ideal world, feminism would be, quite clearly, unnecessary. Our world is, however, unideal to an almost tragic extent. Signs of structural oppression of both minorities (racial, ethnic, national, sexual) and non-minorities (women, people of lower classes) are plainly visible in everyday life. Nonetheless, I understand that privilege can be extremely blinding (I have first hand experience with this effect) – so I am not surprised when privileged people (mostly middle- and upper-class white cis males) – claim, probably in all honesty, and probably with great deal of confusion – that there is no such thing, because they looked and could not see it. This can be, I believe, excused. Nonetheless, we have established methods for examining things that we cannot see and an educated person ought to know better than rely on intuition alone. After all, we don’t run around exclaiming that there is no such thing as an atom just because we can’t see it.


The established method is of course called science, and has, unsurprisingly, tackled these issues. And it has found so much evidence, and the consensus is so solid, that people who claim structural oppression does not exist are, plain and simple, science denialists. Like with all other science denialism – climate change, vaccination, cancer research – the deniers will dig up a study or another to support their position, dig in their heels and make up conspiracy theories about how scientists are in fact corrupt. All this is, basically, the result of not understanding how science works. This is, unlike individual blindeness, unexcusable – again, at the very least, for people with higher education.

(As an aside… The problem of denial has another interesting aspect: while few people claim to be experts in physics, nearly everyone is an expert in sociology (and climate science). Where does this difference between hard and not-so-hard science come from is hard to pinpoint. If we look back at ancient times, “armchair physics” used to be about as widespread as “armchair sociology” is today (again, in the well-educated strata of the society). You could maybe argue that a physical experiment is qualitatively different from a sociological one: nonetheless, looking at modern physics, particle physics in particular, a large proportion of experimentation is statistical in nature. In other words, the difference in methods is not as big as we make it to be. And as more and more degrees of freedom appear in our experiments, we will rely more and more on statistics to look for our results.)


We have established (by examining the scientific consensus on the matter) that a problem exists, but what exactly is this problem? Early on, I have used the term “structural oppression” without saying what it was. What I mean here is that the structure of society itself causes major disadvantages to certain groups of people. Structural oppression is sneaky and pervasive: it turns unsuspecting, well-intentioned people into oppressors, often without them even noticing.

In the society as it is, it is extremely hard to look at a woman (or a black person!) without some very subtle but very damaging prejudice. Did you ever meet an accomplished, professional woman and your first thought was “oh, she’s pretty” (cute, sexy, whatever)? Surely there is no harm in that? Well, not as such – this is a symptom of a much bigger problem. The fact of the matter is that we (the white cis hard-working etc. etc. “core of the society” types) all sometimes do it (even those of us who consider themselves educated in this regard). And every time we do it, we casually discard a lot of merit, and this is not without consequences. Maybe you try to conceal this weakness in your conduct, knowing that it is, after all, inappropriate… but more likely than not, the subject of your sexist thinking process will notice the subtle hints that you couldn’t help but drop. And maybe you weren’t really trying that hard – well, isn’t it a privilege to be admired on your looks when you are a woman, anyway?

But, every time this happens, the victim gets a little reminder that what they do doesn’t really matter. That it is more worthwhile to spend time and money on beauty salons, fitness centers and pretty (expensive) clothes than on education or entertainment. That you should find an accomplished husband instead of trying to do something productive, or creative, or just generally fulfilling yourself. That were you a little less lucky (or worked a little less hard on how you look), you would be basically worthless, regardless of all your other achievements. This is extremely, grossly depressing. And for the women who don’t stand out as pretty, or desirable-looking… well, unless they are absolutely stellar in what they do, the best they can hope is to be “X’s girlfriend” or “Y’s wife” and the occasional “your girlfriend does Z, that’s cute” (when you think about it, the average white dude in an average boring job gets a lot of respect for their mediocrity; that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the fact it’s only the white dudes that get it, is). And even if they are absolutely stellar, there will always be a guy who will simply have to let them know how much better he thinks he is (most likely being completely wrong, just to add insult to injury).

Well, the picture may not be as bleak as that, but that’s mostly because of how women can put up with all that shit and not jump off bridges in droves. I suppose if the dominant groups in our society were subject to that kind of treatement, with our fragile egoes, we would in fact be jumping off those bridges en masse.


In the short term, there really isn’t a magic bullet. A lot of progress has happened over the decades – the oppression used to be much more palpable and much more intentional than it is today. In the west, women are no longer labelled as second-rate explicitly, they are “merely” treated as such, and the perpetrators of the oppression are (usually) not malicious, only misguided.

Can you help? Maybe. Structural oppression is an emergent property, like many of the other horrible properties of civilisation. Vast majority of people that make up the society don’t consciously oppress women, yet the oppression is there on a large scale. Likewise, most women are not being particularly targeted by the wider society (of course, some are, especially when they speak up to point out prejudice… you know who you are, and you have my admiration), but again, on a large scale, the oppression is there and is undeniable.

Being aware of the problem is the first step in fixing it. Like with other emergent phenomena, it is very tempting to brush it off with “everyone does it, even if I do the right thing, this won’t change anything, I am just one person against thousands and they will stick with the wrong thing”. That is wrong. Precisely because emergent properties are emergent, composed of myriads of seemingly uncoordinated, minor actions, a top-down approach doesn’t work. You can’t legislate attitude. The feminists of the past decades have fought (and won) many of the top-down battles (voting rights, property laws, the things you can legislate); the underlying emergent oppression is, however, unlikely to be defeated this way. When looking at a complex, chaotic system (like society undoubtedly is), it is hard to link the high-level behaviour to low-level phenomena. A number of innocent, obviously harmless behaviours and actions and attitudes add up to a damaging effect.

However, we have plausible theories (some of which I have expounded above) on how structural oppression works; yes, these are theories and it’s hard to gather evidence, nonetheless it is the best that we currently have. And the requisite shift in individual conduct is not big and certainly not detrimental to the individual undertaking it, whereas the oppression we are trying to tackle is damaging and harmful… on balance, that definitely sounds like it’s worth a try; it’s not even such a long shot after all. Most importantly, this is a bottom-up battle… humans are great imitators, and if you are confident in your actions, those actions will be emulated – slowly, maybe so slowly you won’t be able to notice anything; but if you become a better person… someone else will probably think, hey, they seem to be a decent person and it doesn’t seem to be hurting them, maybe I could be a bit more like them myself. And that’s how bottom-up battles are won, one person at a time. And one of those days, another phase change will happen, as a critical mass of people will find certain behaviours unacceptable and the rest will (mostly) comply. Of course, nobody will be arrested for mansplaining or for tasteless “displays” in an attempt to “impress” a female colleague… but everyone will (rightfully) think they are an idiot and someone will probably tell them so. And the victims will be able to brush off the perpetrators with ease, since they’ll know that society is firmly on their side.

– 26.2.2015


As I have outlined in a [previous essay] 1, consistent ethics matter to me. The motivation may be unclear, but simple and consistent sets of rules have a definite aesthetic appeal. Just like in engineering, a simple and consistent system is more valuable than a complex, unpredictable mess, partly because it makes reasoning much easier. And I like to be able to reason about things, to use a rational process to understand and tweak my world view. And ethics are an important part of this world view.

It might not be entirely obvious at first glance, but polyamory 2 is primarily an ethical issue. The first concern in how we build our relationships is the effect this has on the people involved. Relationships are complicated, their dynamics involve a huge number of variables and they have a largely unmapped emotional component. Even though we barely understand most of what makes up relationships, we choose to apply a rigid set of very arbitrary rules to govern them. Rules that derive from tradition: a famously unreliable source of knowledge, the wellspring of ideas that gave us slavery, stoning, [FGM] 3 and countless other inexcusable horrors. Nevertheless, we consider traditional, “common sense” ideas – at least those that haven’t been widely and thoroughly discredited yet – to be infallible and worth defending tooth and nail. At least on the surface; when traditional rules are inconvenient, we are somehow capable of casual doublethink.

Serial monogamy (widespread cheating included) is one of those curious doublethink exercises we gladly engage in. On one hand, we have the traditional ideal of one true love, exclusive relationships, exclusive sexuality, chastity, virgin marriage and whatnot. Various people will go into various lengths on this, of course… but all those ideas are deeply embedded in our culture. Most people will consider those things to be desirable, and more importantly, ethical. Promiscuity, the antithesis of those ideals, is almost universally portrayed as unethical and wrong but nevertheless also nearly universally practiced. Of course, if you – like me – desire to live by a sound system of ethics, something has to give.


Let’s have a look at the central tenet of the “traditional” rule set, the idea that relationships, especially those involving sexuality, need to be in some way exclusive. First of all, there is an uncomfortable double standard at play: the stick that measures women’s chastity is much stricter than the analog used for males. This asymmetry in itself is disturbing and needs to be corrected. Of course, if you are a privileged male (preferably cis and hetero), there just isn’t that much of a pressing need to worry about it. Nevertheless, it should bother you, because it is – from a rational (not historical and not evolutionary) standpoint – completely unjustified. And if we were to fix the asymmetry by adjusting the male end of the stick, some of us would be rather uncomfortable all of a sudden. On the other hand, if we allow the same slack to women that men traditionally enjoy, the exclusivity deal as such becomes a lot shakier. This somewhat undermines the entire concept – it doesn’t appear to be so central after all.

However, there are actual useful roles that (the illusion of) exclusivity fulfills. Most of us have inherited an evolutionary deficiency (which of course wasn’t a deficiency all along, but in a contemporary western society, it’s a lot more burden than worth), namely jealousy. Knowledge of infidelity (especially sexual, at least in men, and emotional, probably to a greater degree in women – the difference due to evolutionary and cultural baggage) triggers a chain reaction in our brains. It’s uncomfortable because it means that we were (probably) cheated out of our reproductive success. Well, used to mean. This semi-hard-coded reaction is of course hopelessly outdated. But sexual and emotional exclusivity in a relationship is something that shields us from this unpleasant experience.

While jealousy is essentially obsolete (the useful roles it plays are very limited, but it causes a great deal of harm), there is a bunch of other traits that play into this. Humans have a natural propensity towards both emotional and sexual promiscuity. We are social beings, and social contact feels good – and even though social isolation is maybe not as lethal as it used to be, it still has very real and very practical (and generally bad) consequences. In other words, our pro-social behaviour is beneficial to us… but it also easily triggers jealousy. Finally, a third major parameter enters the balancing act: trust. If we neglect trust, an optimal solution to the jealousy/promiscuity conundrum is cheating; sadly, compromising trust has the least-visible immediate consequences, and accordingly, cheating is a widespread phenomenon.

Trust and Ethics

The question of trust in relationships brings us back to ethics. We (well, many of us, apparently) have a deep-seated desire for building trust. It gives us a sense of security and it fuels our well-being. And breaking established trust is often very painful. While building trust is a cooperative effort, it is easily broken by unilateral action. These properties together make it very important from the point of view of ethics. We can probably agree that cheating undermines trust and can easily cause irreparable damage to a relationship. It is, however, all too easy to conflate the suffering caused by the violation of a trust relationship with the onslaught of jealousy: after all, our arrangements are such that those two often go hand in hand.

However, this is incorrect (as anyone who has experienced polyamory in some practical capacity probably understands). There are two separate issues, and two separate ethical considerations. Arguably, trust is the more important of the two: consequences of a trust violation are more painful, can last a very long time and can easily affect all other relationships of the violated person. And it is cheating – not promiscuity – that endangers trust. If a rule was established in a relationship – however tacitly (and the expectation of sexual and/or emotional exclusivity is so entrenched that a rule for it is rarely spelled out explicitly) – breaking this rule without the consent and knowledge of the other person is clearly a transgression. But the subject of trust in a relationship is flexible and negotiable: if both participants in a relationship agree (give informed and non-coerced consent) that such exclusivity is not a requirement, then no violations of trust can happen by breaking this (nonexistent) rule. This is the basis on which fulfilling and successful polyamorous relationships are built.

Jealousy and Freedom

While careful, explicit and rational approach to building trust can (even despite some practical difficulties) mitigate the dangers of its violation, this does very little to address the other problem – jealousy. Even though in most cases, jealousy causes less suffering and the damage it inflicts is limited to a short time horizon, it still is a very legitimate concern.

Again, as it is often the case in practical ethics, this becomes a balancing act: an uneasy one, because it involves acceptance of some degree of suffering of another person, in exchange for one’s own benefit. The suffering in this case is the experience of jealousy, the benefit is the freedom to engage in promiscuity – building relationships with multiple people at once. This freedom, and the relationships it affords us, can be extremely rewarding. However, justifying someone else’s suffering by one’s own fulfillment is a slope that’s extremely slippery. I believe that the only ethically sound way to address this is through symmetry; an approach that requires a steel-clad foundation of trust to work. The idea is simple: I pledge (within our established relationship of trust) to give you the requisite freedom and to accept – and deal with – the possible jealousy. You pledge that you won’t abuse this freedom, and that you won’t neglect my suffering from jealousy, but will work with me to assuage it. I will work to defeat my jealousy because your – and by symmetry, my own – freedom is more important to me. It is basically impossible to formalize those promises, to spell out a working contract that will make everything easy. But trust is not built on formal promises; it is a matter of basic human decency (a glaringly ill-defined concept) and of trying our best.

Nevertheless, the ethical rules that emerge from such an arrangement are simpler and more rational than the traditional deal. There is no longer a forced distinction between friendly and romantic relationships, the ethical framework that governs our – inevitably multiple – relationships with people is much more unified. Sexuality is no longer forced into a proxy role – where romantic relationships are defined by sexual content, and friendly relationships by the lack thereof. It frees us up to position our relationships wherever they feel comfortable on the multi-dimensional spectrum, without bumping into limits established by the imposed categories. It makes it possible to experience trust and security in a close but asexual relationship, without giving up on sexuality. It gives our relationships equal opportunity – a feature of ethics that I find very satisfying. More symmetry is (almost) always good.

– 6.12.2014

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