Polyamory, according to author Deborah Anapol, refers to a set of “lovestyles” wherein individuals are free to engage romantically with any person—or group of people—they wish. In her new book, Polyamory in the 21st Century, Anapol aims to distinguish just what these lovestyles look like, vis-à-vis a popular contemporary “bias [toward] mononormativity.” Subsequently, she suggests the benefits that “sexual fluidity” holds for the future.

Anapol, who is a full-time relationship coach, writes as a “participant observer in the polyamory community,” and her commentary on the intricacies of multi-partner relating spares no details. Drawing from her professional practice, she brings readers right into the high-occupancy bedrooms—or “sex rooms” as they are sometimes called—of today’s most vigorous polyamorites.

Anapol’s account is designed as an all-around apologia of the consensual free love movement and attempts to radically and critically redefine the very meaning of sex. But although it’s intended to be both revolutionary as well as educational, Polyamory in the 21st Century leaves the discerning reader more puzzled than enlightened. The author’s ultimate report, laden as it is with obvious contradictions and vagaries, betrays a quixotic and confused fascination with an incoherent form of living.

Two themes in Polyamory in the 21st Century are particularly striking: the author’s preoccupation with distinguishing love from lust; and the anthropological, relational, and ethical considerations she offers as a consequence of her findings.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

The definition of polyamory itself is a good entry into Anapol’s perception of the meaning and place of love in human experience. “I use the word polyamory,” she says, “to describe the whole range of lovestyles that arise from an understanding that love cannot be forced to flow or be prevented from flowing in any particular direction.” She infers that, given the ‘fact’ that “humans are not naturally monogamous,” we ought to do our best to surrender “conditioned beliefs about the form a loving relationship should take and [allow] love itself to determine the form most appropriate to all parties.”

On the one hand, Anapol says that polyamory “involves the conscious decision to act altruistically, that is, to put the well-being of others on an equal par with one’s own.” But she also seems to embrace an account of neurobiology which, she suggests, admits that “free will is an illusion and that we only imagine we are making choices after the behavior has already occurred.” In any event, Anapol is clear throughout that authentic polyamory—as amor—must be driven by love and nothing else. Still, the tension between impulsive sex and love proves cumbersome; and Anapol implements an invented word to help bridge the gap: sexualove—“the integration of love and sex.”

It’s not hard to see where this new concept—vague as it is—might lead. After justifying her fundamental assumption, that unbridled sexual passion and altruistic love naturally coexist (and are even identical) in healthy adults, the book digresses into a flurry of case studies, drawn from Anapol’s relationship coaching experience, which serve to illustrate all the varied and diverse instantiations of “polyfidelity.” With an unbendable focus on the primacy of love in polyamory, Anapol forgoes any real attempt at distinguishing further between the components of sexualove—love and sex—other than perhaps a brief section on addiction, wherein she calls compulsive sex “healthy” and raises the wholly ambiguous notion of “love addiction.” In short, with such a domineering notion about the primacy of sex, the author’s initial love-versus-lust distinction fades entirely.

A particularly interesting chapter, called “The Ethics of Polyamory,” draws upon these feebly established conceptions of love, lust, impulse, and “sexualove” in an effort to justify the lifestyle morally. While coming up short on providing a cohesive (or even coherent) defense of “ethical polyamory,” Anapol does home in on a few key characteristics of the contemporary moral mindset.

Anapol endorses a transition from an old to a new ethical “paradigm.” The old, she says, was characterized by an “emphasis on maintaining the status quo,” while the new paradigm places a “higher value […] on being totally honest or transparent toward the goal of creating more authentic and growth-producing relationships.” Anapol summarizes her acclaim for “new paradigm” relationships as follows:

In the new paradigm, the presence of acceptance and unconditional love tends to take precedence over everything else. What this means in practice is that allowing the form of the relationship to shift—for example, from romance to friendship or from a closed marriage to an open marriage or marriage to divorce while maintaining positive regard, care, and support for all those involved—is the primary ethical standard in the new paradigm.

Although the analysis that follows is anything but rigorous, Anapol’s claim that modern ethics derives its norms almost completely from relative ideas of goodness is completely accurate.

A point of confusion arises when Anapol purports that the ethics of polyamory are grounded in a “blending of [moral] paradigms that marries the old-paradigm value of longevity to the new-paradigm acceptance of allowing greater flexibility of form”—an observation she draws from the work of Dr. Robert Francoeur, “a married Catholic priest” who first proposed the idea of “flexible monogamy.” After leveling a diatribe against “old paradigm” rigidity and extolling the value of “new paradigm” shape-shifting, it seems Anapol is forced to retreat (at least in part) in order to gain some traction on the real issue at hand: enduring relationships. The “moral litmus test for relationship ethics,” she argues, is simple: “does [some activity] preserve [a] relationship or destroy [it]?” For Anapol, relationships that endure are better than those that don’t. Of course, just what a relationship is remains for the reader (and presumably the author) entirely unclear.

Anapol’s difficulty in pinning down the meaning of “relationship” in multi-partner and alternative settings corresponds directly to the contemporary debate over gay marriage. The push for moral relativism in modern culture is clear; but so are the problems associated with merging “new” and “old” ethical paradigms. Just as Anapol works hard to find footing for enduring relationships on the slippery slope of “unconditional acceptance,” supporters of gay marriage face equally turbulent waters: namely, finding domicile for firm commitment in a landscape governed by absolute “tolerance” and “non-judgment.” Whether she realizes it or not, Anapol’s internal discontinuity expresses well what happens across the board when commitment and longevity are made subject to shapelessness and impulsivity.

The second half of Polyamory in the 21st Century is devoted to particular issues facing the polyamorous community: “The Challenge of Jealousy”; “Polyamory and Children”; “Coming-Out Issues”; and “Cross-Cultural Perspectives” to name the most prominent. Unfortunately, Anapol’s treatment of each of these topics reflects her disinterest in offering a penetrating, critical analysis of the lifestyle (something the reader was led to believe would be important by the introduction), and her sadly puerile grasp on basic ethical and even social principles.

As an exposé of the polyamorous “lovestyle,” Anapol’s book is probably second to none (at least none that I’ve read, which is admittedly very few!). But as for offering an honest, balanced perspective on how traditional views of love, relationships, and interpersonal commitment demand a thorough reevaluation in light of “new-paradigm ethics,” Anapol comes up incredibly short. Polyamory in the 21st Century makes an attempt to rattle the status quo, but the author alienates mainstream readers by failing to offer any point of entry beyond anecdotes and personal testimony. In the end, the book not only disappoints on the level of clear thinking, but even in terms of the scope and depth promised by Anapol in the first pages.

The author’s difficulties, in turn, provide their own curious window into the dilemma of multi-partner relating. For the perceptive reader, it is easy to see that polyamory is something best pursued with eyes wide shut. Time and again, the author switches gears when a topic gets too sticky, and most of all when it demands clarity and certainty. In fact, given Anapol’s reluctance to put her finger on just what the term “relationship” signifies, we might be led to conclude that the lifestyle does not really aim to develop meaningful, intelligible relationships at all. Rather, its purpose is more to excite a fascination with “the other(s)” at the total expense of mutual intimacy.