Ethical Non-Monogamy and the “One Penis Policy”

While the concept of polyamory is becoming more popular, a lot of misconceptions are also being thrown around about what it means to be ethically non-monogamous. In particular, there is an overwhelming issue with heterosexual men instituting a “one penis policy” in polyamorous dynamics with their queer female partners. Everyone has their own comfort level and the right to negotiate rules within their relationship, but the problematic reasoning behind this increasingly common policy puts the ethics of “ethical non-monogamy” into question.

What is the “One Penis Policy?”

The “one penis policy” is a common situation wherein both parties in a relationship are allowed to involve other women in their sex lives, but not men. Not surprisingly, I hear this issue brought up most often by queer women who are dating straight men and find the policy to be oppressive.

Note: Obviously, some people will find that this exact situation works for their relationship, and that’s great! If everyone is consenting and happy with that situation, this arrangement is fully within your rights and I wholeheartedly support that dynamic. However, that situation is not my focus. The problematic idea of the one penis policy applies specifically to women who are unhappy with this arrangement, but who have male partners who try to enforce or normalize it. Please keep this crucial difference in mind when I discuss challenging this policy, as the lack of consent for this dynamic is very important in analyzing why it can be toxic.

Cissexism, Transphobia, and Queer Fetishization

The idea behind the “one penis policy” (or OPP) is cissexist in itself and widely transmisogynistic. What straight cis men mean when they say “one penis” is “no other men.” This ignores the fact that trans men and trans women exist, and are often potential partners for queer women. Assuming that all men have penises and that all people with penises are men is simply not true and this concept is harmful to perpetuate. This policy not only limits the female partner to only women, but usually only cis women. A red flag to look out for when trying to identify this policy is when one partner’s dating options are being limited to only the types of people (gender-wise) that the other partner is attracted to.

This is clearly a way of fetishizing the sexuality of queer women. The idea that queer women are used as sexual pawns for straight men isn’t a new concept–and it isn’t one limited to the kink or polyamorous communities. Any queer woman who has ever had an online dating profile has most likely been solicited to be a couple’s add-on for a threesome. Even without any indication of that being an interest, many people assume that a queer woman would be down for a threesome with a random heterosexual couple simply because she is queer.

Photography: Salem

Exceptions obviously exist, but when a straight man dates a queer woman and opens up the relationship to involve other women, there is often a threesome or triad discussion. These men tend to assume that because their partner is queer, they would be more open to having a threesome than a straight woman. The only addition these men are usually willing to make, however? Cis women.

Opening a relationship to involve cis women while excluding cis men, trans people, and non-binary people is problematic for the queer female partner. In these cases, her partner has a free pass to date 100% of the people he is sexually interested in. The woman, however, is left limited to only explore one facet of her sexuality. This inequality poses a serious problem that fetishizes queer women while oppressing their sexual freedoms.

Why Men Instate the OPP

The one penis policy is mainly put in place by straight cis men who feel threatened by their partner dating or having sex with other straight cis men, but not other queer women. By setting up rules in the relationship where both parties can sleep with other women, the male is able to indulge in polyamorous relationships or sex guilt-free because “it’s equal.” However, because he’s not sacrificing a desire to sleep with other men, it isn’t as equal as he may claim.

Photography: Salem

The man in these cases benefits much more than the woman does. He is able to have relationships with other women, and he gets to hear about or watch his partner with other women–a common male fantasy. Lesbian relationships have long since been fetishized by men. There is an incredibly huge market of porn that centers around the fantasy of a threesome with two women or being a voyeur to lesbian sex, for example. The idea of his partner with another woman may very well turn him on, while the idea of her with another man threatens or emasculates him.

This may not be true in each case because not all men have those fantasies, but it’s a common enough idea to consider when analyzing why these policies are put in place. Regardless, it usually boils down to the threat of his partner’s new partner(s). Cis men see each other as potential threats in their relationships more than any other gender. The fact that they often encourage their partners to involve other women in the relationship signifies that they think women simply aren’t threatening to the primary* male/female relationship.

*I don’t like the use of primary/secondary terminology in polyamory discussions, but I use it here to illustrate the mindset of the men who think this way.

What this means for the women is that their queer identities are being trivialized and exploited for the men’s benefit, without risking their masculinity. Many queer women in this position feel like their relationships with non-cis partners are also belittled. What does it say when your partner is threatened by cis men but not trans men? This creates a great deal of stress for the queer partner and, subsequently, all the relationships she is involved in.

Challenging the OPP

Again, if all parties agree on only opening the relationship to people of a specific gender, that is totally acceptable. The problem with policies like the OPP only occur when one partner is unfairly limited by the rules of another. Polyamory is not about sexual control of a partner, but the freedom to explore other sexual and romantic interests.

Photography: Salem

Communicating your needs to your partner is of the utmost importance in any relationship–but even more so in kink or non-monogamous relationships, because they can be so much more complex. If your partner is limiting the type of sexual or romantic partners you can see in an open or polyamorous relationship against your will, that is a problem. Begin addressing it by talking to your partner about why it is problematic, drawing from the ideas discussed above. Here are a few things to keep in mind while discussing this issue with a partner:

  • The very idea of the one penis policy perpetuates the harmful and inaccurate idea that all men have penises (and that all people with penises are men). The concept is cissexist and transphobic at the core, closing off the possibilities of a broad spectrum of different gender identities he may not have even considered before.
  • This also makes the bizarre assumption that women and trans/non-binary individuals aren’t threatening to the male partner’s masculinity, which is a harmful way of thinking.
  • Taking into account that the OPP is almost always put in place by straight cis men, they’re opening themselves up to sexual/romantic relationships with 100% of the people they’re attracted to (often times only cis women), and cutting their queer female partner off from the wide variety of people they are drawn to. It’s unequal for one partner’s options to be limited.

If your partner defends the policy by stating their discomfort with cis male, trans, or non-binary partners, discuss that. Of course people are allowed to have their own comfort levels–that is not up for debate–however, when a man in this situation is only made uncomfortable by other cis men, there’s a bigger issue involved. This issue is even bigger than the individual, because this is a product of toxic masculinity that is integrated into every aspect of male identity since birth. Writing off these concerns is an invalidation to everything society has taught and reinforced in him. While it may not be healthy, these insecurities may very well be his reality.

Instead of ignoring the concerns he has, discuss in depth why the gender of your additional partners shouldn’t be a factor in their comfort by being reassuring and understanding. Discuss ways you can make him more comfortable with any partner you choose.

  • Would having all partners meet in person help?
  • Would having an open line of communication (such as a group chat) be beneficial?
  • Do they need to be educated on trans/non-binary identities to understand them better?
  • What about monthly meetings to check in and discuss progress?
  • Would couples’ counseling be useful?

Go back to the basics of polyamory to work out these issues.

By challenging unwanted gender-specifications in polyamorous dynamics, we aim to make our partners more open to queer identities. We need to assert our sexual freedoms in place of oppression because if we cannot be our true selves in our sexual/romantic relationships, where can we?

xx SF

2 Replies to “Ethical Non-Monogamy and the “One Penis Policy”

  1. This article really resonates- I feel very lucky that my cis male partner isn’t threatened by my attraction to other male-presenting folk and is himself attracted to people across the gender spectrum, but I have come across (so to speak)! so many cis men in the poly dating world who have those exact prejudices you are talking about. Can’t help but think it stems a bit from insecurities. I sometimes feel sorry for them that they aren’t allowing themselves to fully embrace all the possibilities- I think they limit themselves as well as their partners. Well written and well expressed, thank you!

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