Janet W. Hardy, an international speaker and teacher on relationships and sexuality, has been inspiring non-conformists for the past 30 years. Her co-authored book The Ethical Slut, at nearly 160,000 copies sold, is considered a foundational work of polyamory. Janet’s work spreads awareness about the ethics and intricacies of multipartner relationships, queerness, gender fluidity, and BDSM/kink. Here, she shares a few insights on the transformative powers of sexual freedom and out-of-the-box eroticism.
Anya: The Ethical Slut has become the definitive source for those beginning their polyamory journey or for those who are curious about researching the topic. At the time you were writing it, Janet, did you have an intuitive sense of just how big it was going to be?
Janet: Not a clue! We’d had a few experiences that had shown us how little people understood about alternatives to monogamy, but we had no idea we were going to catch such a wave of interest.
Anya: What have you learned about polyamory since The Ethical Slut was published? If a third edition were to be published, what new information would you add, and/or what would you change?
Janet: I’d be interested in adding more information about relationships that are not specifically sexual. While I like the fact that Slut focuses as much as it does on sex – I really feel that sex is the elephant in the room of polyamory – I also think there are important things to be learned from people who don’t include sex in their relationship structure, either because they’re some flavor of asexual or simply because it’s not a good fit for that particular relationship.
For a variety of reasons, including the kundalini experience I wrote about in some detail at http://www.salon.com/2013/03/17/my_tantric_awakening_turned_me_off_sex/ , my life has not included genital sex in more than a decade. Yet I still identify as poly as well as kinky and bi. I don’t think there’s nearly enough support for people like me, or enough understanding of the ways in which romantic and domestic relationships can work in the absence of sex as most people understand it.
Anya: Janet, you have authored or co-authored eleven books about sexuality and relationships. That’s an amazing accomplishment! Which book are you most proud of, and why?
Janet: Of the Dossie-and-Janet books – which are by far the bestselling ones I’ve done – I have a special fondness for Radical Ecstasy, our book about transcendent and spiritual experience during BDSM. It was a bear to write, but I think it gets at some important stuff that no other kink book does.
In terms of my own writing, my favorite by far is my memoir Girlfag: A Life Told in Sex and Musicals. Not only is it a memoir – my favorite genre anyway – but it’s a memoir about the liminal space between genders and orientations that’s where I live, and that doesn’t get much attention or understanding out in the world.
Anya: Please tell us about your new writing project, Chasing the Sound.
Janet: Chasing the Sound – the current title; it’s been through several, and I’m not sure whether this is the one it’ll end up with or not – is another memoir, this one about my BDSM life and especially about the ecstatic aspects of BDSM. I’m not what most people would consider a “spiritual” person, but my BDSM experiences (and, to some degree, my later Tantra experiences) led me to some extraordinary metaphysical journeying, and I’m trying to get those journeys down on paper.
Anya: Please summarize the message of Chasing the Sound in five words or less.
Janet: Five?? Wow. Okay, lemme try: BDSMer pursues ecstasy, finds it, reevaluates.
Anya: Some say a global consciousness shift is in the midst of happening, and that polyamory and spirituality are key nodes in the network of change. Do you agree? What do poly communities and spiritual communities have to say to each other? What do these groups need to dialogue about?
Janet: I’m not nearly optimistic enough to agree that a “global consciousness shift” is happening – I suspect anybody who says there is spends way too much time hanging out with educated affluent Westerners.
I do think, though, that polyamory represents a paradigm shift regarding relationships: discarding the idea that ownership is essential to relationship, and letting go of beliefs regarding blame and responsibility. (Note: I think our current beliefs about marriage and romance are a lot newer than most people understand. The idea that the core relationship is supposed to take care of all our needs – not just property ownership and parenthood, but nurturing, affection, romance et al – is relatively recent and far from universal, and I think we’re seeing substantial evidence that it doesn’t in fact work all that well for many people.)
In Buddhist terms, polyamory can be a path out of attachment – a way of feeling connected without the desperate clinging that is part of so many of our relationships. And I do think that in that regard, it has the potential for spiritual growth.
Anya: Some activists say that polyamory is becoming mainstream, is becoming commercialized and thus losing it’s radical edge. Do you agree? What is the state of poly activism today?
Janet: Frankly? I don’t care whether it’s radical or not, and I don’t see why anyone would. If you’re building your life in a certain way because it’s radical, you’re being controlled by the mainstream in exactly the same way as someone who builds your life a certain way because it’s normal. If poly is a good fit for you, then be poly; if it isn’t, then be something else, monogamous or celibate or whatever.
Poly activism is in its infancy. While it’s important to look toward a day when our relationships have the same legal and social support as monogamous ones, making that happen will not be as simple as same-sex marriage was: too many of our structures (child custody, inheritance, etc.) are designed for the two-person model, and rebuilding them to accommodate more than two people will not be the work of a year or two.
If I ran the world, I’d simply remove government from the marriage model altogether. Why is it important that we support pair-bonding? Aren’t we really trying to support parenting, and caring for the elderly and disabled? Well, then, do that, and eliminate laws that privilege the two-person couple over other family structures.
Anya: Please put on your psychic hat for a moment. What do you see happening with the polyamory movement in the next decade?
Janet: I’m already noticing, when I speak to college-aged audiences, that many of my listeners are second- and sometimes even third-generation polyamorists. I can’t begin to imagine the changes that will be wrought by people who have been brought up in poly families. Without having to wrangle with cultural expectations the way we senior polys have done, what will they be able to achieve?
Anya: I heard in a recent interview that, lately, you live a rather quiet, low-key life with your spouse. Do you currently view yourself as an activist? How important is polyamory to your life today?
Janet: I’m still poly-identified, and I haven’t ruled out the idea of poly in my life – but really I’m not feeling strongly drawn to enacting it. Occasionally I’ve gone through the first step of meeting someone and talking to my spouse – “I’ve met this new person and I’m going to see if there’s the possibility of more” – but it’s been quite a few years since I’ve felt compelled to follow through. That’s partly because I live in a new place where I don’t know as many people, and partly because of normal age-related libido changes… but mostly, I think, it’s because I’ve had my journey, and found out what I needed to know, and that sort of exploration just doesn’t call to me the way it once did.
Anya: What would you say to someone who is first realizing that polyamory is an option?
Janet: Be patient. Try one new thing at a time. Don’t let anybody who isn’t one of your partners tell you that you’re doing it wrong.
Get used to the idea of owning your own emotions. When you get over the habit of blaming your difficult feelings on someone else’s behavior, you’ll learn a whole lot about yourself, and you’ll develop emotional strengths that you never knew you could achieve.
And be ready for land-mines. Nobody does poly perfectly the first time, and nobody does it perfectly the hundredth time either. Have compassion for your partners and for yourself.
Anya: In my own spiritual journey, I have found compassion can be such a challenging practice, especially when emotions are running high and triggers are being pushed. Do you have any practical advice or strategies you can share about how to enact compassion, for the self and for partners?
Janet: Compassion is challenging, but I tend to think it’s the most important task we as human beings encounter. It starts from empathy, but empathy gets increasingly difficult as the perceived distance/difference between ourselves and the other person gets larger. I think it’s a muscle that strengthens with use, though. I try to practice daily: when I read the daily news, I try to imagine what it would feel like to be all the people I read about – not just the victims (that’s easy) but the perpetrators as well. What would make someone commit an act of violence or theft? What kinds of anger or entitlement or desperation must be there, how did the person learn those feelings, what must they have felt like committing the crime? Sometimes I can’t (there’s a C.S. Lewis quote: “If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo”), but sometimes I can. And when I’ve been able to feel compassion toward a rapist or a murderer or an investment banker ;), it’s a lot easier to remember how to do it when one of my partners pisses me off – or when I’m having trouble loving myself.