Without Monogamy, What Is Commitment?

In The Hallowed Covenant, the third novel in the Passionate Pantheon series, we took a deep dive into the philosophy of the City by looking deeper at the lives of its residents. The Hallowed Covenant explores themes of atonement, commitment, and celebration, and spend a lot more time outside the various temples than we did with The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens. (The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, goes even further in this direction, spending time with characters who don’t occupy any special position of high rank in the City and aren’t Sacrifices to their chosen gods at all.)

One of the ideas that engaged us whilst writing The Hallowed Covenant is notion of
“commitment.” The City is a society where sex is integrated into almost every part of social life, nearly as casual as a handshake (for us, that is—you’ll notice residents of the City rarely shake hands, or even touch, on first meeting…there’s a reason for that, which might be a good topic for a future essay!). In such a society, what does commitment even mean?

In the real world, we’re so conditioned to see sex and commitment as part of the same tangled hairball that there are people who will argue, with absolutely genuine conviction, that commitment is not possible without sexual exclusivity. So how does the City think about commitment? What does commitment even look like? How is it celebrated and experienced?

“Today we celebrate a cleansing,” Sayi said. “Tashaka and Sendi call upon the Keeper to wipe away all past wrongs so they may join in union with a clean slate.” The air around her vibrated with her words, carrying them to every corner of the enormous hall. The flowing motes of light swirled in a vast whirlpool above the stage. “I call upon Tashaka and Sendi to write down all their transgressions against one another, so they may be washed clean by the Keeper. Let each be erased as if it never happened.”

Tashaka and Sendi dipped pens into the ink pots and wrote on long strips of pale pink silk. As they finished each strip, they handed it to a veiled Confessor, who rolled it up and placed it in the censer. Dense blue smoke rose from within. Sayi could not help noticing Sendi prepared several more ribbons than Tashaka.

When they finished, Sayi said, “Let those closest to Tashaka and Sendi now do the same, so that they move forward in friendship unsullied by the misdeeds of the past. Allow me to accept the weight of all your sins.”

The people seated behind the balustrade came forward. Tashaka and Sendi stood beside Sayi while their friends wrote on narrow strips of silk. A Confessor took each strip reverentially and placed it in the censer to be burned. Thick smoke twisted in the air.

—from The Hallowed Covenant

Commitment exists in the City, of course. For as long as we are recognizably human, with a desire for human love and human intimacy, it will likely continue to exist. Tying commitment to sexual exclusivity is neither necessary nor inevitable; commitment is what happens when you resolve to bind some part of your life with that of another, journeying forward together as partners, united in a common purpose: helping one another navigate life together.

This is just as true in the City as it is in the real world. The people of the City commit to one another in a vast number of ways, tailored to their individual needs and tastes. A public ceremony of commitment is, whatever society it takes place in, a declaration before the people around you: this is a person I choose (or, in some societies, was chosen for me); this is someone who means something to me.

The ceremony we see in The Hallowed Covenant begins with a ritual cleansing, a symbolic wiping away of lingering hurts over past transgressions, to allow those committing to one another to move forward unencumbered by the weight of past wrongs. (This theme of transgression, atonement, and forgiveness is central to The Hallowed Covenant; we wanted to explore what these ideas mean in a society with no codified laws or system of justice. We return to them again in Unyielding Devotion, one of the “dark” books, where they take on a very different form.)

In The Hallowed Covenant, we see a commitment ceremony that centers on ritual cleansing of the past—but it’s important to understand that this wiping away of past transgressions does not mean pretending that the past never happened. It can be easy to imagine a partner as a tabula rasa, the past as an empty book: nothing they did before matters; none of it is real. That’s a naïve, potentially even dangerous, idea, because you cannot love someone you do not know, and you cannot know someone without knowing their past. (Which is not to say, of course, that anyone owes you their past.)

The wiping away of the past, then, is about forgiving without forgetting. It’s about acknowledging the person you’re committing to, in all their glorious imperfection and in all their history, while also letting go of those last lingering remnants of the small hurts we inevitably inflict on one another. Tashaka and Sendi, the characters celebrating a commitment in The Hallowed Covenant, record their transgressions to be burned, but that doesn’t mean those transgressions never occurred!

In the City, a commitment ceremony does not, of course, mean you have to stop having sex with everyone else, and indeed Tashaka and Sendi, after their visit to the Confessory, also visit a House of the Blesser to partake of its delights (well, relatively speaking; those who serve the Blesser must endure 9-hour-long orgasms…something that sounds wonderful to non-kinky folks, but if you’ve played at all with forced orgasms, we can see you cringing and covering your nethers from here).

Which is not to say nobody ever forsakes all others. In the City, every relationship is bespoke. In the fourth book, Unyielding Devotion, we meet Jakalva, who is committed to a partner who is her only lover, even though she hosts extravagant parties legendary even in the City for the extraordinary sex that takes place at them. Having only a single lover is an eccentricity, something outside the social norm, but it does happen.

When your template for commitment isn’t solely based on the requirement of sexual exclusivity, that lets you focus on what commitment really means. You can argue that the laser focus on sex that defines many real-world ideas about commitment causes people to forget other forms of commitment: the commitment to building a life together, to helping each other grow towards the best possible versions of themselves, to being there through turbulent waters. Taking sex—or any other form of assumed expectations—out of the equation allows more deliberate attention to the other things that matter.

But perhaps this is typical of the City, to expand things beyond sex. In the real world, when we talk about “consent,” we usually mean sexual consent; residents of the City tend to apply ideas of consent, autonomy, and agency far beyond sex, which is why, for example, the people in the City would never ask a child to hug someone they don’t want to hug, something that happens in the real world all too often.

The point here is that commitment doesn’t look like just one thing. The City has no rulebook for what a committed relationship must look like. The residents live lives adapted to their needs, rather than adapting themselves to traditions. The City empowers people to make commitments that work for them and express the values they wish to express, but it does not dictate what those relationships must look like.

That doesn’t mean there’s no social contract in the City, of course. One of the strongest ideas in the City, and one we explore at length in The Hallowed Covenant, is the idea that a promise is sacred, and a promise once given can never be broken:

“What I mean is…” Her voice trailed off. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “The thing is…”


Tessia twisted her fingers together. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.” Her voice was nearly inaudible.

“I see.” Penril sat back with his arms folded in front of him, lips pressed in a tight line of disapproval. “You made a promise not only to me, but to the gods themselves. This is a serious matter.”

“I know!” Tessia wailed. “I can’t do service, I just can’t!”

Penril sighed. “When we created the first gods,” he said, “we struck a pact. The gods agreed to provide for us, and in exchange, we agreed to worship them. Central to this covenant is the idea that a promise is a sacred thing. Nobody, human or god, may break a promise once given. To do so is to tear at the foundation of our society.”

“But I—”

“I’m not finished!” Penril thundered. “If we cannot count on one another to keep our promises, the bonds that tie us to each other in mutual cooperation fail. All of society crumbles. A promise, whether to a person or to a god, is a bond. If you break that bond, what place do you have among civilized people?”

Tessia wept, wracking sobs that shook her slender frame. “I know!” she said. “I can’t—I just—I didn’t know! I thought I could do it! I’m sorry!”

Penril’s gaze held steady. “You have made a promise to the Blesser and to me. You made your promise in the presence of Avia in her role as Vessel of the Blesser. Keeping your promise is not optional. I will expect you to be here half an hour before sundown in four days’ time, prepared to serve the Blesser.”

—from The Hallowed Covenant

There is a social contract, but it’s not about tradition for tradition’s sake. If a traditional way of forming a relationship or expressing commitment (or even having sex, as we see with the character Sirchia in the second book, Divine Burdens, and the character Kaytin in the fourth book, Unyielding Devotion) doesn’t work for you, the City will find a place where you can be happy and fulfilled without harming others (well, sort of).

The social contract of the City is about those things that allow people to function in a cohesive society together while still seeking their own path to fulfillment, even if that path isn’t like that of other people. The City draws the line between individual autonomy and social responsibility quite differently from the way societies in the real world do, and is much less willing to sacrifice autonomy for conformity, consistency, or security. And even in its few absolute rules, the City places limitations. A promise, for example, cannot be infinite in duration. “I promise I will always be with you” is not a promise the City would require you to keep; a commitment may be for a certain time, at which point it may be broken or renewed, but when you can easily live for six hundred years, there must be provision for the fact that people grow and change…a commitment must leave room for the reality that you might not be the person in four hundred years that you are right now.

This approach to commitment helps people to find and focus on what matters most to them. Which is, we think, not a bad way to run a society.

Pre-orders for the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, open soon! This novel will also be available in audiobook form, narrated by the fantastic Francesca Peregrine.

New to the Passionate Pantheon? You can get a sense of the world from the short story This Light Becomes My Art, available on the Passionate Pantheon blog (Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3).

We will also be doing another live-stream event soon! We haven’t set a date, but the last one was a blast (and ran for more than six hours), so we’re looking forward to it. Watch this space!

What is sex?

Image: Steven Weeks

Let’s talk about sex (baby!).

I mean, okay, you might well say that’s pretty much all we do here anyway. And you’d have a good point (it’s not totally accurate, but close enough for a cigar, perhaps). The Passionate Pantheon novels are studies in sex: weird sex, post-scarcity sex, sexual fetishes so niche they don’t even have names. We talk about the philosophy of sex, the ethics of sex, the social structures around sex…

…but what even is sex?

Seriously, stop and think about it. What is sex? Shagging, knocking boots, nookie, lovemaking…what is it? How do you know when you’re doing it? It’s a hard enough question to answer in the real world, coming as we do from a heteromononormative PIV-focused culture. What about in a world where the norms of gender, sexuality, identity, even corporeal consistency, are nothing like the culture(s) we grew up in? A world where most people change most of those elements of self routinely, even casually?

As usual, the citizens of the City would answer that question rather differently than we in the real world do. And as usual, that’s intentional on our part as authors, because the Passionate Pantheon novels are a way for us to explore sex from the viewpoint of people with quite different ideas from ours.

Without haste, she lowered herself onto him, taking him inside her. Donvin ran his hands up her back. She buried her face in his neck with a sigh. He stared up at the sky, lost in the tinsel chaos of the rain against the shield dome. Rippling streamers of light snaked across the sky. Rashillia rocked her hips, each slow, subtle motion igniting ripples of pleasure across his skin like the golden light above.

Gradually, Rashillia slowed, until at last they lay together unmoving for a long moment that stretched out to eternity, simply basking in the feel of one another. “You are delightful,” she said. Whorling eddies danced over Donvin’s body. She ran her fingers through his hair. “Thank you for sharing this moment with me.” She placed a gentle kiss on his lips, so softly it stole his breath away, then rose and vanished into the party.

Donvin lay on his back for a long time, relishing the hum in his skin and the silent spectacle overhead. Presently he rose, summoned a black robe edged in red and a glittering amber drink from the Provider, and wandered through the party. All around him, people chatted, or basked in the pools, or had leisurely sex. A lean, graceful man with white hair and deep indigo skin spun long metal rods with balls of fire at their ends.

—from the short story This Light Becomes My Art

Sex in the City is a strange beast. Sex permeates every part of civic life in the City: it’s religious worship, it’s social entertainment, it’s part of the system of justice and atonement, it’s deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life.

But with all that boot-knocking going on, the way the City defines sex is quite different from the way we in the real world define sex.

People in the real world sometimes struggle to figure out what “counts” as sex…especially those who had sex education that disregarded or downplayed the connection between sex and pleasure that isn’t aimed at procreation. “I’m a virgin, that’s why I only do anal!” “If two women have sex, are they still virgins?” Go on any social media where folks talk about sex and sure as night follows day, eventually you’ll run into this kind of confusion.

Most people in the real world, however confused their ideas about sex might be, will probably agree that if a penis enters a vagina, it’s sex. It’s practically the only act which the majority of people think of as “definitely sex” (regardless of what else they would include in that category). Which makes it all the more surprising to consider that, in the City, Donvin and Rashillia would likely not call what they did in the passage above “sex.”

Sex, for those of us who live in the real world, is largely about genitals and bodies and grunt-n-thrust. Most other “sex adjacent” activities are called foreplay. 

Sex to people in the City is not about what you do with your genitals (or whatever part of the body those particular nerves have been rerouted to), it’s about intent.

So how does the City define “sex”?

The quick, simple answer is that most people in the City, most of the time, regard sex as any activity which is primarily about orgasm. Not necessarily having an orgasm, mind you, but activities that play with orgasm—either inducing orgasm or causing some or all of the people involved to want orgasm but be denied. (When you live for centuries, and have access to almost unlimited biomedical nanotechnology, you can come up with some pretty innovative spins on orgasm denial.)

That near-unlimited biomedical nanotechnology kinda makes focusing on intent rather than genitals necessary, because when you can change your body at will, it’s not always obvious what bits are or aren’t genitals in the first place (which is one of the reasons that bowing is the usual mode of greeting between non-lovers, rather than shaking hands).

A small jeweled drone of blue crystal zipped over their heads and then just as quickly darted away. A moment later, Fyli appeared, resplendent in an elaborate dress of shimmering blue fabric that hugged her outlines, slit up both sides and descending to a deep V in front and back. Mahree crawled on hands and knees beside Fyli, nude except for metal manacles around her wrists and ankles, all connected to each other with lengths of heavy chain that clanked as she moved. She wore a wide collar of metal around her neck. Streaks of rust clung to the edges. A broad metal band of the same rusted metal encircled her head, covering her mouth. A chain ran from it along her back to metal plugs in vagina and ass, held in place by more chains that ran between her legs and wrapped around her hips. She gazed silently at Kaytin as they came near.

Fyli sat gracefully beside Kaytin. “Good afternoon!” she sang. “Are you glad you didn’t make a bet with me after all? I bet Mahree is wishing she’d done the same.” She slid her hand under Mahree’s breast. Mahree shuddered and moaned.

“As often as Mahree bets against you,” Kamra said, “you’d think she likes to lose. Or maybe she’s just slow to learn.”

“Yeah, about that,” Vekol said. “How come you locked all her useful bits away? What’s the fun of that?”

Fyli ran her fingers through Mahree’s hair. “I modified her body last night. Didn’t I, darling?” She stroked Mahree’s nipple. Mahree trembled violently, moaning. “If you lot want to play with her, I’m sure I won’t mind. And whether she minds, well, isn’t important.”

“How did you modify her?” Kaytin said.

“I rerouted the nerves from her clit to her nipples,” Fyli said. “Both of them.”

—from Book 4 (Unyielding Devotion), due out Fall 2023

We’ve explored the idea of bodies so radically altered, the concept of “genitals” doesn’t even apply. In Book 5, still untitled, there are musical performers who have no genitals whatsoever, but their skin is highly sensitive to sound vibration—so sensitive that the act of performing creates pleasure so intense it’s almost a single non-stop, continuous orgasm. (You can find out more about this when Book 6 publishes, most likely some time in 2025. Stay tuned!) There’s a lot to think about here: if two people wearing these bodies perform together, are they having sex with each other, even though they aren’t touching? We think the answer is ‘yes,’ for the same reason that if one person in the real world is wearing a remote-controlled vibrator with someone else at the controls, they’re engaged in sexual activity with each other even if they’re not touching. 

For those of the City, performing whilst wearing a custom body like that is having sex; but what Donvin and Rashillia did was more like cuddling, because they had no intent for greater pleasure than people in the real world might get from, say, kissing; and without that intent, it isn’t sex.

Focusing on the intent rather than on body parts opens, we think, opportunity to think about sex in ways that are a lot more nuanced than the ways people typically think about sex. It instantly answers questions like “is it possible for two women to have sex?” (yes, of course it is!) and “does it count as sex if we only do oral?” (yes, of course it does!).

So what’s the point? Why talk about any of this? Who cares what “counts” as sex?

Different societies do tend to put the line, even if it’s a fuzzy line, in different places, and those lines help shape how those societies think about sex and sexual relationships. Even what counts as an erogenous zone varies from culture to culture.

In the real world, a lot of people draw the line in a lot of different places. We don’t want to suggest that everyone defines sex only in terms of a penis entering a vagina, or has difficulty understanding that two women can have sex.

And similarly, we don’t want to give the idea that everyone in the City thinks of sex only in terms of playing with orgasm. Sex is complicated, and the line between ‘sex’ and ‘not sex’ is fuzzy. (Is an erotic massage sex? Sexting? Mutual masturbation? Solo masturbation? Voyeurism?)

In the City, not everyone plants the flag in the same place, either. Not everyone would define sex solely in terms of focus on orgasm, and some people doubtless would call what Donvin and Rashillia did “sex.”

How we think about sex, and what it means to us, matters, because the way we think about sex helps draw the borders of how we think about consent and agency. In the real world, we are a lot more permissive about doing things like making children hug or kiss people they might not want to be touched by right now—even distant relatives that the child might not know or even have met before—because we think of “consent” as something almost uniquely tied to sex, and hugging a relative isn’t sex. Therefore, we don’t see making a child hug someone they don’t want to hug as a violation of autonomy.

The residents of the City have a much broader idea of “sex” than we do, but they also have much broader ideas about agency, and are far more concerned with protecting agency. Demanding that a child hug someone they didn’t want to hug would be seen as a consent violation in the City (and the City does protect the autonomy of children as well as adults, to a much greater extent than we in the real world do). Even though it’s not sexual in the slightest. Residents of the City understand that sex is only one area that consent applies to.

Even with the City’s broader definition of ‘sex,’ there are still edge cases. (There are always edge cases, because humans are good at finding those niches that very few other people considered before, that’s part of what makes us fun!) If you’re giving someone a foot massage that neither of you think of as sexual, but they have an orgasm (when neither the giver nor the recipient expected it), is that sex? It’s a gray area. There’s no way to define a bright clear line between sex and not-sex. But we think it’s interesting to explore different social topologies around sex.

So are we any clearer about what sex is, and what sex isn’t? Not really. Humanity tends to be just a little too complex and nuanced (and, quite frankly, creatively kinky) for any one definition to apply to everyone. We picked a particular element to plant our flag on because so much of the City revolves around pleasure—sexual and not—that really, any place you planted that flag would have been somewhat arbitrary. 

But hey, this is porn. “Sex is when you play with orgasm” sounded like a good enough shorthand to us, no matter what many denizens of the City would get up to.

What about you? What do you count as sex?

Pre-orders for the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, open soon! This novel will also be available in audiobook form, narrated by the fantastic Francesca Peregrine.

New to the Passionate Pantheon? You can get a sense of the world from the short story This Light Becomes My Art, available on the Passionate Pantheon blog (Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3).