Posted under pseudonym for reasons I’d rather not get into. If it’s relevant, I’m pretty involved in EA. I’ve been to several EAGs and I do direct work.
tldr I think many more people in the community should consider refraining from sleeping around within the community. I especially think people should consider refraining from sleeping around within EA if they have two or more of the following traits- high status in EA, a man who sleeps with women, and socially clumsy.
I think the community would be a more welcoming place, with less sexual misconduct and less other sexually unwelcome behaviour, if more EAs chose to personally refrain from sleeping around within EA or attempting to do so. Most functional institutions outside of EA, from companies to friend groups to extended families, have developed norms against sleeping around within the group. We obviously don’t want to simply unquestionably accept all of society’s norms, but I think in this case those norms address real problems.
I worry that as a group, EAs run a risk of discarding valuable cultural practices that don’t immediately make sense in a first principles way, and that this tendency can have particularly high costs where sex is involved (Owen more or less admitted this was a factor in his behaviour in his statement/apology: “I was leaning into my own view-at-the-time about what good conduct looked like, and interested in experimenting to find ways to build a better culture than society-at-large has”).
Regarding sleeping around within a tight-knit community, I think this behaviour has risks whether the pursuer is successful or not. Failed attempts at sleeping with someone can very often lead to awkwardness or uncomfortability. In EA, where employment and funding may be front of mind, this uncomfortability may be increased a lot, and there may be no way for the person who was pursued to realistically avoid the pursuer in the future if they want to without major career repercussions. Successful attempts at sleeping around can obviously also cause all sorts of drama, either shortly after or down the road.
Personal factors that may increase risks
I think within EA, the risks of harm are increased greatly if the pursuer has any of the following three traits:
- High status within EA- this can create bad power dynamics and awkward social pressure. First, people generally don’t like pissing off high status people within their social circles as there may be social repercussions to doing so. Second, high status people within EA often control funding and employment decisions. Even if the pursuer isn’t in such a position now, they might wind up in one in the future. Third, high status EAs often talk to other high status EAs, so an unjustified bad reputation can spread to other figures in the movement who control funding or employment. Fourth, many EAs consider the community to be their one best shot at living the kind of ethical life they want, raising the stakes a bunch. Fifth, the moralising aspect of EA may make some people find it more uncomfortable to rebuff a high status EA.
- A man pursuing a woman (such as a heterosexual man or a bi-/pansexual man pursuing a woman)- this factor can sometimes be an elephant that people dance around in discussions, but I’ll just address it head on. On average men are more assertive, aggressive, and physically intimidating than women. On average women are more perceptive about subtle social cues and find it more awkward when those subtle social cues are ignored. My sense is these factors are pretty robust across cultures, but I don’t think it matters for this discussion what the cause of these average differences are. Add to all that, the EA community has a large gender imbalance, meaning there’s effectively a large multiplier on any unwelcome sexual advances coming from men and towards women.
- Socially clumsy- awkward advances are obviously more likely to lead to the other person feeling uncomfortable or disrespected. Poor ability to read social signals is also more likely to lead to further or more extreme unwanted behaviour. Even if this never reaches the line of assault or harassment proper, it can still be very uncomfortable.
For anyone who has at least 2 of the above traits (such as a heterosexual man who is high status in EA or is socially clumsy), I would strongly recommend considering refraining from sleeping around in the movement. (Edited to add: I personally consider myself to have two of these traits, so this advice would apply to me.)
While these factors exist somewhat on a spectrum, I think many EAs will underestimate how much factor 1 applies to them personally. Rampant imposter syndrome likely causes many EAs to underestimate their status in the movement. If you have basically any direct job, note that many people within the community will assume you’re somewhat high status, even if you don’t feel that way.
What I mean by sleeping around
As this post is a call for people to voluntarily consider adopting certain personal behaviours, I’m not sure having an explicit definition is needed. Having said that, I would generally consider all of the following hypothetical examples involving Bob and Alice sleeping together to be behaviour in line with Bob sleeping around. Assume for all examples that both Bob and Alice are EAs:
- Bob and Alice have a one night stand
- Bob and Alice are friends with benefits
- Bob is casually dating multiple people, including Alice, and he doesn’t consider his relationship with Alice to be particularly special
- Bob is dating Alice and no one else, but he doesn’t consider it a serious relationship AND he thinks it's very unlikely their relationship will develop into a serious relationship
- Bob is polyamorous with multiple people, including Alice, AND Alice is not his primary
On the other hand, I generally would NOT consider the following to be examples of Bob sleeping around within EA (again, for all examples assume both Bob and Alice are in EA and that the examples involve them sleeping with each other):
- Bob and Alice are in a monogamous, monogamish, or open relationship
- Bob is polyamorous with multiple people, including Alice, AND Alice is his primary (and none of the other people Bob is polyamorous with is an EA)
- Bob and Alice are dating casually AND Bob considers his relationship with Alice to be special and thinks there’s a realistic chance the relationship could develop into a serious relationship (either 1. or 2. above)
Of course, I recognize this isn’t all black and white. And of course the risks here increase the more extreme behaviour someone engages in, so I think someone could decrease risks by decreasing degree of behaviour.
And for clarity’s sake, nothing in this post should be taken as a criticism of promiscuity in general or of any relationship styles in general. If any EA decides to have a bunch of one night stands or threesomes or non-primary polyamorous relationships or whatever else with lots of different people outside the community, I think that’s 100% fine and does not raise the sorts of concerns that sleeping around in EA does.
This is true even when there’s no blood relation and the connection is weak. Would you have a casual hookup with your cousin’s wife's sister? My guess is probably not, and if you did you’d probably recognize that this could cause a lot of harm to the family, maybe even causing a lasting rift. On the other hand, if you had met her separately without realising the connection and started to seriously date, I think people generally would find that acceptable.
Historic stigmatisation of LGBT people and relationships is one example of why not
For clarity, I’m talking about cases where you pursue someone sexually and they rebuff your advances. I’m not referring to sexual assault/attempted rape, which is obviously a much more serious issue.
If your response is “I would never get pissed at someone for rebuffing my advances” then they don’t know that. It’s very common for someone to act all nice while pursuing someone and then become very angry after it’s clear that sex won’t happen. Also, even if you won’t outwardly express irritation for being rebuffed, I think you probably generally do feel at least somewhat irritated when you’re rebuffed. It is a perfectly normal human emotion to feel irritated when you learn that you won’t get something that you want and which you thought you might get. Even if you hide this irritation, it could still sour your opinion of the other person and may lead to you badmouthing them (even if unintentional). And again, even if you never would do that, the other person doesn’t know that. The person you’re pursuing isn’t stupid, they know all this is a risk if they rebuff you.
This is its own can of worms, but seems true for a significant enough portion of EA that, at least for the time being, we should factor this into our decisions.
I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I can’t think of a similar word with a more neutral or positive tone
I recognize the barrier between “is an EA” and “is not an EA” isn’t always super clear. I think for pursuing people who are EA-adjacent, the concerns raised here apply somewhat but in a weakened form. But the vast majority of people in the world are clearly not EA and not EA-adjacent.