Warning: This is a really long gushing over a comic.
Many people cite Robert A. Heinlein stories (particularly Stranger in A Strange Land) as their introduction to the concept of ethical non-monogamy. My introduction to the idea was also fiction: Wendy Pini’s ElfQuest series.
Though most of the elves do pair into couples or remain single, some develop triads or larger groups. Even when in a committed relationship, EQ elves may still find love or sex with others.
The first complete story focuses on the rivalry between Cutter (the main hero) and Rayek over Leetah. Rayek and Leetah are already lovemates (boyfriend and girlfriend) and Rayek has been asking Leetah to be his lifemate (spouse) when Cutter arrives. Though Leetah loves Rayek, he is possessive and demanding; she craves more freedom than being lifemated to Rayek would allow. Cutter and Leetah instantly experience Recognition when they meet; Recognition is a biological imperative that drives two elves to mate and reproduce. Leetah dislikes Cutter and fights Recognition, but is torn between two suitors: one she loves but finds suffocating, and one she dislikes but overwhelmingly needs.
Rayek challenges Cutter for wooing rights over Leetah, but the contest does not determine ownership. As in many two-men-battle-over-one-woman stories, the contest is more about the men’s rivalry with each other than over their love for the same woman. Leetah even tells Rayek, “The only thing the trial will resolve is your foolish rivalry — not my preference!” When Cutter wins, Leetah says that she still loves Rayek and reminds Cutter that winning the contest does not mean that Cutter has her, only that Rayek can no longer interfere when Cutter tries to woo her. Eventually, Leetah does see Cutter as compatible in ways that Rayek was not, and accepts him as her lifemate.
Rayek leaves, not due to his loss of claim over Leetah, but because he feels redundant since Cutter can perform Rayek’s tasks for the community at large. In fact, one pleading for Rayek to stay cites the love between Leetah and Rayek as a reason to stay, and suggests that Rayek join Cutter and Leetah in a three-way bond. It is Rayek’s dislike of Cutter, not horror of the general concept, that makes this “unthinkable.”
So, despite the “there can be only one” plot in the first story, the society does permit the sharing of partners. In addition, the story’s end shows hints of more non-monogamy. Two women flirt together with the single man Skywise, and all three, plus one more woman, share another suggestive scene. Shenshen, Leetah’s sister, offers a flirtatious smile to the single man Pike as she walks arm-in-arm with her lovemate.
In later stories, the non-monogamy increases. We soon see that Skywise has established a foursome with his three female friends, yet he still plays with a lone woman he meets on an adventure, and still later has a threesome with two other women in an orgy. One young woman named Dewshine experiences Recognition with a man she meets on the same adventure; she rejects Recognition at first, wanting to stay faithful to her established lovemate, Scouter. Since denying Recognition is bad for an elf’s health, Scouter promises to still love Dewshine and act as father for the child that she will bear, freeing her to fulfill the sexual needs of Recognition while still giving her a loving relationship.
During the previously mentioned orgy, some established couples stay exclusive, but some play with other partners. Dewshine and Scouter, for example, stay together, but Cutter actually recommends that Leetah go to Rayek, knowing that the former lovemates want each other. Rayek’s new lovemate, who had already asked Leetah of Cutter, “Do you share?” promptly seizes the chance to have Cutter for the night. The following morning, the orgy clearly did not weaken any love bonds, no matter who had sex with whom.
Thus far, the relationships mostly focus on couples that sometimes share: swinging or open relationships. Further books also include more polyamorous relationships. Pike joins a man and woman in a committed triad. Shenshen shares one bed with two men. Later, she joins Pike and his partners in a four-way bond, though she also is lovemate to another man, who in turn is lovemate to another woman. When Leetah disappears for a while, Cutter lives with a man and woman in a triad. When Leetah returns, the two couples still often share in a two-couple/four-way bond. Scouter eventually Recognizes another woman, and she joins Scouter and Dewshine in a committed triad.
Though families and couples (or larger groups) are established, there is still a lot of love and sex freely shared among the EQ elves. Being friends with, loving, or having sex with another does not threaten an established relationship. Only Rayek, with his jealousy and insecurities, shows such possessiveness… and even he probably would have shared Leetah with most partners… just not one who threatened his sense of self, like Cutter.
This universe certainly is not a model on which to base reality, of course. EQ elves rarely reproduce outside of Recognition; accidental pregnancies are rare to nonexistent. There are no STDs and, even if there were, elves have healers who can magically cure infections and wounds. So, there is no need for safer sex practices or related cautions. Jealousy and insecurity are extremely rare (only exhibited by flawed or villainous characters) and everyone within the community is dedicated to each other’s wellbeing; there are no intentional harms. The entire culture is based on sharing everything, including physical resources and emotional care. Thanks to telepathy and psychic empathy, there cannot even be the innocent misunderstandings that are the frustration of many open relationships and source of many sitcom plots. Deception within the community is extremely rare, partially since it would take an extraordinary amount of work to achieve and maintain, and partially since, again, only flawed or villainous characters would even consider it.
Still, I adore the EQ approach to ethical non-monogamy. While I cannot safely copy the “free love” behaviors and would not want the telepathic connections, even if they were possible, I do admire the elves’ frubble and desire for everyone’s happiness. Among the elves, love is not a limited resource, but one that becomes more plentiful the more it is given and shared, and sex is a source of pleasure to be shared between respectful partners, not a justification for possession.