Examining the Myths of Sexual Morality

Sex without Guilt in the 21st Century

by Albert Ellis

Reviewed by Spring Cascade

Originally published in Loving More #36 in Winter 2006

Among the books I picked up in the early 70s, when there was a fair amount of openness about alternative relationship styles, was one by Albert Ellis: The Civilized Couple's Guide to Extramarital Adventure. As I've been studying psychotherapy, I've come across many references to him as an eminent psychologist and a prolific author, with nary a mention in the textbooks about his writings on sex. I thought that the book I had found in the 70s was an aberration, a onetime excursion into sexual matters. I was wrong. He has written extensively on sex.

For over 50 years Ellis has been advocating a saner approach to sex, presenting a rational view which has been censored. He has had difficulty getting his work on sexuality published. His writings have been modified before publication without his permission, and omitted from publications of symposia at which he presented.

Sex without Guilt in the 21st Century is an updated version of an earlier work published in 1958. This new edition includes a chapter detailing his "adventures with censorship."

Those of us in the poly community have had to question society's mores. If we sometimes have a hard time defending our lifestyle to people outside our community, we can look to this book as an excellent resource, with many points that we can use in response to criticism. Ellis doesn't promote polyamory, but he does clear the way for it by rationally dissecting our society's approach to sexuality, pointing out the unnecessary pain it causes, and offering a different perspective that encourages us to explore our sexuality to find what works for us. He suggests that sexual sanity "largely consists of noncompulsiveness, personal experimentation, open-mindedness, choosing paths that do not entail too many practical disadvantages" and not putting yourself down if you "behave self-defeatingly" (p. 186). He describes the personality growth that can come from "sex-love adventuring."

Ellis notes that a healthy, emotionally growing person is flexible, whereas a disturbed individual is likely to be very rigid and constrained. He comments that fascism, including the sex fascism which tries to dictate how everyone should live their sex lives, creates anxiety, depression, and rage, and says that most Americans are probably sex fascists. He believes the healthy individual is willing to try out various sexual activities, choosing through experience those which suit him or her the best. For example, people may have one or two favorite positions while also occasionally trying a different one. We may find certain things more enjoyable, such as combining sex with love, but that doesn't mean that sex without love cannot also be enjoyed.

He encourages us to let teenagers know the joys of masturbation, so they can engage in it without guilt or bad feelings. Letting youngsters know unequivocally that sex is fun, that it's a great and repeatable human joy, would reduce the conflicted feelings about sex they've developed in this culture.

He suggests that a key to living a healthy, happy life is to recognize that while we may prefer certain things and desire for interactions to happen in certain ways, that's only a preference, so we don't need to "awfulize" something which didn't happen the way we wanted.

He addresses morality by looking at whether something needlessly or gratuitously harms someone, and points out that by this definition many sex acts that are traditionally considered sinful (e.g. masturbation) are not immoral, while many traditionally acceptable ones are actually immoral (e.g. refusing to divorce a spouse for whom one has no desire or affection).

In Sex without Guilt in the 21st Century, Ellis relentlessly points out that the emperor has no clothes. He points out the flaws in the rationales for the sexual restrictions that we have in our society. He explains the ways in which sexual inadequacy in both men and women has been caused by ideas, and proposes ideas and attitudes that can lead to greater sexual fulfillment.

This book may not be appealing for those who take a spiritual approach to sexuality since he discounts spirituality, but my sense is that once we look at sex rationally (which he does excellently), we are then in a position to be open to combining it with our own spiritual inclinations.

One limitation is that the attempt to include same sex relationships is handled rather awkwardly, and could have been improved by a good editor. His own understanding has evolved (not surprising after 50 years). He now thinks we're innately bisexual with a preference for a particular gender. There's a sexual disturbance only when there's a rigidity, a strong antipathy to the possibility of being sexual with someone of the nonpreferred gender (same or other).

Another limitation is his lack of emphasis on honesty and communication. I think the strong emphasis placed on this in the poly community is extremely helpful. Ellis comments that the lack of honesty in adultery may destroy a marriage because of the beliefs we've been raised with (rather than because of the adultery itself), and notes that we may wish to avoid misleading someone with whom we are contemplating an affair out of enlightened self-interest and empathy. Personally I recommend a much greater dedication to full and open discussion of one's feelings and actions with all the people involved in or affected by a relationship.

I find Ellis's commonsense approach very appealing, perhaps because it fits very well with my own initiation into nonmonogamy (long before the term polyamory was coined). When my first husband brought up the idea of having other lovers, we discussed the pros and cons. This was against the social mores, but I couldn't think of a good reason for that. It was something that he wanted, and pleasing one's partner is a good thing. I didn't find any strong reaction in myself against it. On the contrary, it seemed to me that it promoted our closeness by making it easier to talk about our feelings and desires. Our rational approach in thinking about the possibility seems very much in line with the way Ellis examines things.

After reading the book I was left with a sense of amazement at the lack of cross-pollination between Ellis's work and writings on polyamory. His work is very relevant, yet he does not refer to the major polyamory authors, nor have I noticed references to his work in my readings on polyamory. He only briefly mentions the possibility of two or more couples creating a communal or tribal marriage, or the possibility of being passionately in love with more than one person simultaneously. Yet it's very clear that if our society took the sensible approach to sexuality that Ellis takes, polyamory wouldn't be an issue. It would simply be one choice which some people make, no better nor worse than monogamy, a path which one might explore for a while or for a lifetime.


© 2005 by Elaine Cook

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