Home » 2014
Yearly Archives: 2014
I want to fuck you until your cock is so sore that you beg me not to touch you, for fear that the sweaty touch of my skin against you will arouse you again. I want to laugh, reminding you even as you protest that you have a safeword, and find that you can’t make yourself summon the will to use it as I sit my swollen pussy lips on your face, cumming on your equally swollen lips again and again. I want to hear your agonized groan as your cock inevitably and painfully gets hard again when I stick your fingers inside my pussy and clench around them, tempting you to fuck me again. I want to scream as you finally acquiesce, thrusting your sore cock into my bruised pussy. I want to feel you get harder inside me as the sounds of my screams and the sight of my agonized tears only arouses you further. I want to beg you for your cum, pleading with you to hurry and have mercy on me. I want you to laughingly ignore my pleas, and I want to not quite regret my decision to have asked for this.
The next morning, I want to wake up feeling like you’ve kicked me in the cunt because I’m so sore from your violent fucking. And I want your cock to be harder and swollen from your night’s sleep and from the memory of our pleasures than it was the night before. I want to plead with you to fuck my mouth and spare my pussy. And I want you to do it… For about a minute. I want you to laugh at my wriggling hips as my body betrays my desire even as–no, because–my pussy aches and trembles. I want you to pull out of my mouth without warning and shove your cock inside my pussy. And I want it to hurt you as much as it hurts me, our bodies screaming in pain even as the fleshy wet memory of so much shared pleasure comes rushing back to us. I want you to almost regret your decision, until we both forget how much it hurts. I want to get lost in the hard and unforgiving thrusts of our shared desire, until we are nothing but a pool of panting sweat and cum.
…Until, of course, the pleasure wears off, and we are both left laughing at how much our genitalia hurts.
All I want for Christmas is you.
I hope this wonderful post becomes, err, viral on the internet:
…or: “how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”
Polyamorous folks often celebrate and idealize the concept of compersion, which has been defined as the “opposite of jealousy.” Compersion can happen whether you’re in a hierarchical dynamic, or an anarchical poly dynamic. The shape and feel of compersion changes, depending on which of those dynamics you’re in, but the overall idea stays the same. I would go so far as to say that the poly subculture tends to imply that if you don’t feel compersion, you’re not a twu poly. Since poly folks have a bad habit of not understanding jealousy well (more on that in a later post), it’s not surprising that they have a bad habit of not understanding the “opposite of jealousy” well either. People tend to mistakenly assume that the capacity for compersion is a characteristic of individuals, rather than a characteristic of a complex interplay of relationships.
Let’s start with you. I’m not going to assume that you’re someone like me, who was born thinking monogamy was stupid, and who informed her first boyfriend when she was 17 that she didn’t think she could ever be monogamous. I’m going to assume that you’re what seems to be an average polyamorous person, who comes in two types: 1. The person who’s only had one or two very serious relationships in their whole life, and somewhere in their late 20’s/early 30’s decides after a lot of discussion to “open up” with their partner (I technically also fall into this category myself) or 2. Someone who was never very comfortable with monogamy, but had several serious relationships that were ostensibly monogamous, usually with very poor results and has decided to kind of give up on monogamy (either as a single or as part of an existing pair). People arrive at polyamory from lots of different directions, but these seem to be the most common.
So as an average poly person with sense, you approach this whole poly endeavor with a certain degree of nervousness. In particular, you worry that your partner won’t have enough time and energy for you once they have someone else, that they might be more attracted to the other person more than you, and that you’ll get jealous (if you’re genuinely worried about them leaving you for their other partners, then just don’t even try this poly thing until you feel more secure. It won’t go well for anyone). You do the thing that naïve poly people love to do (I did it myself), and reassure yourself by getting “veto power” over your partner’s other potential partners. You tell yourself that it’ll be okay, and that they won’t date anyone that you don’t like.
Except that it turns out not to be that easy. Your partner meets someone on okcupid, and you’re nervous about it. You tell them not to have sex until you’ve approved the relationship, but they want to know what counts as “sex.” The other person is new to this too and feels awkward about the restriction, but goes with it. Finally, the three of you arrange to meet, and you feel pressured to agree to let them have sex, and so you do—even though you (correctly) felt like you barely know the person, and are feeling super-insecure about where this new relationship might be headed.
But it turns out that the new person is super needy, kind of obnoxious, and no one that you’d ever want to hang out with normally. You keep trying to get along with them, but it really doesn’t work. Nothing about the relationship seems to make your partner really happy either; they come home stressed from almost every date, but they insist that the relationship is going great. And you wonder: what the hell ever happened to compersion? You feel no inkling of joy at the idea of your partner with this annoying, clingy person, and you’re genuinely irritated that they spend so much time together. And whenever you express concerns about the other relationship, your partner gently dismisses your concerns as symptoms of jealousy, and assures you that you have nothing to be jealous of. And your protests that you’re not jealous don’t sound very convincing to either of you… and both of you wonder if you’re “really poly.”
You keep reminding yourself that you’ve got that veto card in your back pocket if this ever really gets to be too much for you, but eventually you learn the hardest lesson of hierarchical polyamory: “veto power” is nothing more than a brutal ultimatum where you say to your partner, “them or me.” Those aren’t words that wise folks say after their partners are in love and in an established relationship. Veto power really only works at the very beginning of a new relationship, but if your partner really wants someone, they’ll probably just try to talk you into giving it a chance. It turns out that the heart of successful polyamory is being able to trust your partner enough to believe they’ll make good relationship choices in the first place.
It may sound like I’m voicing some sort of bitter personal experience here, but I’m not (knock on wood). I’m actually describing a pattern that I’ve seen over and over again among poly folks of my acquaintance (and that I feel I have inflicted on my poor dear husband a few times). Again and again, I hear people asking in hushed, and sometimes even skeptical or suspicious, tones: how does one manifest this elusive emotion known as compersion? Is its absence symptomatic of imminent poly demise?
The simple answer that people lose sight of over and over again is that compersion is a three-way street. It’s basically impossible for you to be happy about your partner’s new relationship if you think that relationship is crap. Also, you tend to end up feeling lessened because your partner is spending time with someone you perceive to be so inferior instead of spending time with you. The reality is that it’s really, really hard to experience compersion unless you feel comfortable with your partner’s partner and their relationship. If your partner seems unhappy and stressed about their relationship—and especially if that stress takes a toll on your relationship—it’s really fucking hard to feel happy about that relationship. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up feeling jealous over a partner’s bad relationship with someone else unless you view it in fairly condescending terms (“Well, they have to make their own mistakes.” “Well, at least they’re dating somebody.” “Well, I know I’m gone a lot, so they need company.” And my personal favorite: “Well, hopefully dating that crazy asshole will just make them appreciate me more.”).
In some ways, I think it’s easy to overstate the importance of compersion for successful poly dynamics. Generally speaking, cheerful tolerance of a partner’s other relationships is sufficient to maintain a happy poly existence. In my experience, cheerful tolerance rarely results in profoundly compersive feelings. Outside of my triadic experience, or some group sex experiences that I was actually present for, I can’t honestly recall ever feeling some strong sense of compersion. When they’re with people that I like who seem to be making them happy, I’m happy that my partners are happy. I have learned that the name for this general feeling of being happy at the happiness of others is mudita, and it’s a much better characterization of my experience of vicarious poly. There’s not a big difference for me between feeling happy about my husband being well fucked, or my feeling that he’s happy about being out to dinner with his friends. However, in general it feels more like the absence of jealousy, and I can’t really characterize it as a strong or even particularly meaningful emotion. I do think that compersion is essential for a successful triadic+ dynamic, however. In order to maintain a complex three+-person relationship, you’d damned well better be a lot more than merely cheerfully tolerating your partners’ relationships with each other.
At the same time, I don’t want to downplay the importance of constructing a cooperative poly dynamic. If you ever find yourself faced with the unlikely choice between the girlfriend you adore who your wife can barely tolerate, and the girlfriend you are quite attracted to who your wife gets along with great, pick girlfriend #2 every time. Compersion may not really be necessary for most poly dynamics, but it sure as hell makes them way easier. And if you’re wondering how you do that, the answer is simple but annoying: date people your partner(s) already like. And if you’re waiting for the answer to the question I posed at the start of this post–“how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”–the answer is: you can’t.
There’s nothing easy or automatic about compersion. Its absence should never be used as the litmus test for whether an individual is “really poly,” nor is it necessarily a sign that a relationship set is doomed. The appearance of compersion, on the other hand, is usually a good sign that everyone is doing well together, and that is undoubtedly our poly ideal. But I say: let’s settle for an absence of jealousy, and not try to demand its opposite to call our dizzyingly complex poly lives “successful.”
 For purposes of simplicity, let us forevermore refer to all such people who are “innately poly” and who usually depend upon variety in some degree for sexual satisfaction and interest as “polysexuals.” This helps distinguish them from folks who are “polyamorous”—people who, for whatever reason, seek multiple intimate relationships. Polysexuals are often polyamorous, but polyamorous folks are only sometimes polysexual; polysexuals tend to be extremely highly motivated to make some form of ethical non-monogamy work in their lives in a way that most polyamorous folks are not.
There’s something kind of tacky about admitting that you want to fuck your ex, isn’t there? Most of my friends’ relationships failed in part because the sex/chemistry was bad. Honestly, in some ways, I envy them that—it sounds easier. But I know I’m not the only person out there whose nipples traitorously harden remembering the earth-shattering sex they had with someone they. Just. Can’t. Get. Along. With.
It feels like some sort of curse. Statistically, humans tend to forget bad things over time. Experimental evidence has shown time and again how perversely cheerfully we remember the past. I would like this to be true of my erotic memories of my ex. I would like to be able to tell myself, “That is an idealization of the past. It wasn’t anywhere near as awesome as you remember it.” Unfortunately, as you may have observed, I have a habit of obsessively chronicling my life (and you never see the hundreds of my journal pages that never find their way to the internet). This meticulous writing tendency permits me the unenviable luxury—which I mostly scrupulously deny myself—of strolling back through my past and confirming that, no, it really was that good, dammit.To keep myself sane, I usually only permit myself to read about my past in a detached way—with even more detachment than I would read about a fictional character’s life, actually. I try to maintain more of the kind of attitude I would keep to if I was going to, say, edit a friend’s novel. And yet, even with that emotional detachment, I irrevocably find that my body aches with memory at a long string of really good nights… afternoons… mornings. Sigh. You get the idea.
It’s pretty telling that I originally started writing this a year ago. I waited that long to post this because I wanted to see if what I wrote was still true after not having slept with him for longer than we slept together. After all, the conventional wisdom is that you can’t hold on to an unfulfilled sexual desire for that long, especially if you’re constantly surrounded by a sexy human buffet. I feel like our culture assures us that the heat of that kind of desire can only persist in some sort of sexual desert (You’ll forget! You’ll get over it! You’ll move on!). It’s not like I wander through life in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction, looking back to my time with my ex-boyfriend as the only time I was sexually fulfilled. Quite the contrary, actually. Up until pretty recently, my life really was a splendid banquet of fuck. None of that makes the memories of what I had with my ex any less mouth wateringly sexy. It was just that good. I am sorry to say that the conventional wisdom proved to be bullshit on this one.
I expect this would be easier if he were a bad person, instead of being absurdly sweet and charming. If he actually broke my heart instead of just being jealous and judgmental and needy, I expect I could have convinced my body a long time ago that that awesome sex—sex we used to joke was “fictional sex” because it felt like sex described in an erotic novel—was fictitious, not merely fictional. But he didn’t really break my heart; he just bruised it to the point where even that goddess-damned sex wasn’t worth staying with him… Oh, but that was a hard call.
I never used to understand why people would keep sleeping with their exes, often over and over again. (And I still don’t understand why they do it with people who were cruel and hurtful). The problem is that for all that there is some overlap, sexual chemistry and relationship chemistry just really aren’t the same thing. One of the sayings in my tribe is “crazy smells good,” by which we mean that the kinds of people who will bring unwanted drama into your life are often exactly the kinds of people that you find most attractive. Sadly, realizing that the person is crazy is no real help for convincing your body that the sex isn’t amazing. And who wants to try to pretend to themselves that a night—and especially a long string of nights—that changed their life didn’t happen? That’s a lot to try to make yourself forget, and I know I don’t want to forget.
Is there a magic solution to this problem? I have a friend who has the same problem, and her solution was to limit herself to only sleeping with her sexy ex once a month. Those are the kinds of improbable solutions that poly people can sometimes indulge in, but fucked if I know what monogamous people do.
One of these days, I’m going to survey people and ask them how many have jerked off while thinking about an ex from more than 2 years ago. I suspect the number is much higher than that lie of conventional wisdom would tell us.
It is one of the most often misunderstood truisms of hierarchical polyamory that stable and highly functioning primary relationships are essential for successful (hierarchical) poly life. It’s not the truism itself that people misunderstand; it’s that most people misunderstand *why* you need a stable and highly functioning primary relationship for a successful hierarchical poly life.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to rely on a metaphor of architecture and houses. In this metaphor, hierarchical polyamory tends to involve building a house with someone (your primary), and then coming up with ways to incorporate other partners (a guest bedroom; four guest bedrooms; a cottage in the back; a shed in the back; a dungeon in the basement… you get the idea).
Fact: You need a firm foundation so the house doesn’t fall down
When most people think about the idea that you need a strong primary relationship for your poly life, they think that it’s only for this reason. And Goddess knows it’s important. Almost any relationship stress will threaten to compromise an unstable relationship–from the death of a loved one, to a sick pet, to having a baby, to losing a job, to a partner getting a lover. (By contrast, lots of things that could be stressful—such as having a baby or a partner getting a lover–can become a bonding mechanism for strong relationships). If the foundation isn’t firm, then any outside pressures threaten the stability of the house.
In my experience, people rarely say to themselves, “Well, yeah, we’ve got some serious problems in our relationship, but we’ll be fine being poly together.” Far more frequently, people say to themselves, “Well, sure, we’ve got some problems in our relationship, but everyone does. We’ll be fine being poly together.” It’s easy to underestimate how big those small problems can become as those niggling insecurities and lack of faith and trust can erode the things holding your house up. Sure, the plumbing doesn’t work during the day, the floors are uneven, there are mice in the walls, and there’s duct tape on half of the windows, but none of that’s going to make the house fall down, right? I mean, it’s cozy, and it’s home. But bring someone else into the house, and you end up seeing it with new eyes. Suddenly, those small problems can start to feel a lot bigger (probably bigger than they actually are) when compared to the shiny glow of New Relationship Energy with another partner. You end up seeing the house through a stranger’s eyes, and all those comfortable imperfections start looking a lot less homey. And just to make it even harder, the guest room has carpets over the uneven floors, frilly curtains to hide the duct tape on the windows, and a canopied bed so it’s easy to ignore the rest of the house… Which only makes the rest of the house feel more derelict by comparison.
And of course, none of that even begins to encompass what you’ve done to the house by trying to build on that guest room/cottage/shed, etc. Some houses accommodate the additions easily, and others find that the cracks in the foundation were spectacularly compromised by the building process alone. I could keep elaborating on this metaphor, but I think it’s relatively intuitive: if you want to keep your primary, you’d better have a pretty fucking solid relationship with them if you want to do poly with them. The things that matter most here are a sense of real relationship trust—the belief that your partner loves you, is good for you, that you’re good for them, and that they know all of these things too. Everyone has occasional doubts, but anything more than that is likely to start nibbling away at the foundation of your dear domicile.
Fact: You need a sizable well-built house to accommodate those new people
It’s easy to see how having boyfriends and girlfriends could further de-stabilize a rocky marriage. What most people miss is the major problem that your unstable primary relationship will jeopardize your OTHER relationships. Oh, it won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen for several months or possibly longer, depending on how serious those other relationships are. But given time, any guest who spends long enough in your house is going to step on a mouse in the middle of the night, get annoyed that the damned toilet doesn’t flush half the time, and try to open those duct-taped windows. Tolerance on the part of guests is, of course, essential. However, you will probably notice over time that it gets increasingly difficult to attract partners with high self-esteem to stay for long in your derelict domicile. The people who will stick around in your guest room are the people who (at least feel like they) don’t have anywhere else to go.
You and your primary are the ones who build the guest room, but if you don’t clean it (sometimes together) between relationships, it can accumulate an astounding amount of junk. People are used to talking about “relationship baggage” as an individual property, but in Poly World, the relevant baggage can accumulate between you and your primary, not just you. A series of annoying and possessive ex-boyfriends can make your husband incredibly mistrustful of the newest one, because he just looks like another one in a long string. And if your husband is still mad about Boyfriend #2 and you’re on #5, you’d probably better do some spring cleaning. Constantly tripping over the open suitcases from your exes isn’t going to endear you to your new significant others.
I recently astounded a long-term poly friend with the observation that he couldn’t expect his girlfriend to get along with his wife better than he did. I pointed out that as long as he and his wife were arguing (especially about things that tangentially or actually related to his girlfriend), the girlfriend was bound to end up accumulating irritations and resentments at one or both of them. But as long as she actually liked him, most of that resentment was likely to end up at the feet of his wife (probably unfairly), since the wife came across as the person interfering with their relationship. Moreover, the girlfriend lacked the background to fully contextualize the arguments, and didn’t get any make-up sex either. And I further pointed out that if his wife didn’t trust him, is it really likely that she’s going to trust his girlfriend? It’s possible, but unlikely, even if she likes her. Succinctly put: if you try to build serious, close relationships with other people, your primary relationship is bound to affect and impact those other relationships. It’s a transitive property of relationship tension: if things are tense between you and your primary, isn’t that likely to make your secondary feel tense about your primary, too? And then to make things tense with your secondary too?
Put the house in good repair before you invite guests into it. Otherwise, their stay isn’t going to be very comfortable, is it?
Some people try to circumvent this problem by having a metaphorical cottage or shed in the backyard for guests—by trying to compartmentalize their relationships and shield them from each other. In some sense, this strategy can be pretty successful (it’s the only way to have any hope of trying to sustain relationships with other people if your primary relationship isn’t so hot). But usually, it turns out that the cottage is missing a few walls, or alternatively, that it’s so damned cramped in there that no two people—no matter how claustrophilic—could possibly fit. After awhile, this strategy a. this starts to feel a lot like cheating (“I know he has a wife, but he almost never talks about her… It’s weird”) and b. it usually seriously curtails intimacy and trust (“hey, it’d be great to be fluid-bound with her, but I’ve only met her husband once and I have no idea how he’d feel about it. Also, I’m not even sure they still have sex…”). (For a more humorous take on this arrangement, see my friend’s tumblr)
Fact: You need to respect the threshold
When it comes to both real and metaphorical poly households, threshold maintenance is a helluva tricky affair. You and your primary build the guest room, but your primary has to leave you and your secondary to mostly decorate it yourselves. If you and your secondary have a really different decorating style than you and your wife, that can require some major adjusting. The biggest problems arise if people are criticizing the décor on either side, or trying to deliberately rearrange things on either side of the threshold. It’s especially hard because one of the things that makes for successful poly is if your relationship with your wife is distinctively different from your relationship with your girlfriend, but that’s exactly the thing that can make it hard for everyone to get along unless they are all very respectful of those differences.
For primaries, there’s such a fine line between making sure the guest room is tidy, and interfering with the decorating scheme. For secondaries, there’s such a fine line between politely requiring that the room remain decorated to your tastes, and making unreasonable demands. And no one should be doing things that could damage the integrity of the structure as a whole!
Fact: You are very unlikely to be able to build your house over your guest room
It is one of the great puzzles to me of poly architecture that I have never even heard of anyone building a primary relationship (even one that quickly failed) around a stable very serious secondary relationship without the secondary relationship promptly falling apart (and I’ve rarely even heard of people getting that far. Usually the secondary relationships were a disaster before the primary relationship appeared). I know a lot of people with very serious secondaries who really want primaries… and all of them have literally been looking for years. It feels like the poly equivalent of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”
But consider the construction process of hierarchical polyamory: you can imagine building a house over top of some pitiful shed in the backyard, but it’s pretty hard to imagine building your own house over the fancy guest quarters you have set up at someone else’s house. How do you have time and energy to build a house with a potential husban when you keep spending lots of time in your nice guest suite at your boyfriend’s house? There are a whole host of reasons why it’s hard to build a primary relationship over a preexisting sturdy secondary one. But perhaps the most salient of these is that your very hypothetical starter home with someone can look awfully pitiful compared to the comfy guest quarters you already have.
In conclusion, for better or for worse, hierarchical poly life is almost always a trickle-down affair. Successful hierarchical poly really has to start with a stable primary relationship (please, by all means, someone tell me how wrong I am, but I know of no examples), and the stability of that primary relationship is the groundwork for all the other relationships. Primaries come first, literally and figuratively, in hierarchical poly life, and all poly relationships have to be built with care. Of course, all relationships should come with a “Warning: Under Construction” sign, but I think we all know that some relationships have a lot more repairs and maintenance to do than others.
Build your nice, sturdy home. Then build your guest room(s). You and your guests will be very glad you did it in that order. Then make sure that everyone is committed to keeping it running well.
I decided to challenge myself to write “cuddle erotica.” This is what I came up with:
It’s easy to seduce me with kisses… The Right Look… Words of desire whispered into my ears… But you have the right touch, and your cuddles are as effective now as when I first succumbed to them long ago.
When you hug me, my heart doesn’t race; I don’t feel my body trembling with desire; I don’t feel fire or electricity flickering across my skin. I have felt these sensations before with others. But you are not seducing me with that aching trembling flash cotton of desire. You are seducing me with the impossibly sexy comfort of the long steady burn.
From the moment I first let you really touch me, your flesh confidently informed me that our bodies belong together. Though my brain futilely resisted it, your body kindly, but insistently, told me of the corporeal certainty of me it already possessed. Your simple embrace embodied the very idea of carnal knowledge, as if your body had already had a conversation with mine about what I longed for. Even with all our clothes on, laying together, I know now that my flesh wondered suspiciously if you were molding yourself to me, or if you really were so well molded to me that no adjustments were necessary.
Your hugs are a paradox of feeling: firm, but gentle; possessive, but open; desiring, but not insistent; loving, but a little nervous. Ironically, I know that hugging me does not arouse you as it arouses me, and yet I feel your desire down deep in my bones when you embrace me. Whether clothed or naked, when you hold me, in that moment, even if just for a moment, I am yours. Everything else holds still so that I can marvel again at the way you know exactly the way I like to be touched. Yet in my heart, I know that it is much more than just my skin that you are touching so thoroughly. You hold me. You hold… me.
At first I worried that you merely tolerated me twining around you in my habitual sinuous fashion. You gently mocked my perpetual need for constant physical contact. But then I saw you energized from it–a glow in your eyes from sharing space with me. Holding your hand is strangely intimate because it feels like you share your entire body with me when you do. Putting my arm around your fully clothed waist in public feels queerly like an excessive display of affection, as though we are actually standing naked with our entire bodies pressing in the middle of the street. I worry that you will feel over-exposed from these simple caresses, and that you will become tired of my curious, fascinated, and revealing touch. But every time I am afraid that I have outstayed my welcome, and think that surely I must have exhausted your patience with my clinging, you literally pull me back to you. You don’t have to force me to stay, of course. I want to; but I also want to be pulled. I feel captured; but I also feel captivated.
With my arms around you, alternately pillowing my head on your chest, and pillowing your head on mine, I am aware of the simple fact of our bodies. Not only that we have bodies, but that we have bodies. I feel how effortlessly our bodies occupy that space together, in spite of how much our brains fret. My wrist can share your back, your thigh can share my thigh, my knee can share your hip. Our bodies intuitively know and understand a shared language of skin, and their fluent communication would take my breath away if I weren’t so busy being relaxed by it. That sentence of skin to skin creates an entire story that I long to hear whispered and shouted again and again.
Ironically, of course, it is perpetually arousing to be so relaxed. Our lust is cozy because it is so easy, a simple fact of the universe of our mutual space. Your body cleverly charms me into letting down all of my guards, and leads me on with the tantalizing whisper, “you get this from a hug… What could you get from a fuck?”
If you’re into watching bondage, or into watching people being very strange in public, tune in to Morpheous Bondage Extravaganza’s live feed at http://mbeworldwide.com Saturday night! I’ll be rope bottoming at 8:15, 11:30, and 3:15 Eastern Standard Time as IPCookieMonster. I promise I’ll be sexy and pretty for the camera. I’ll also try to write a full report upon my return!
I love and hate the way poly people use condoms.
Before I go any further, I suppose I should explain that I spent years theorizing and researching the way men and women around the world make decisions about and negotiate contraceptive use; it’s what my dissertation was on, and I have written several academic papers on the topic. Amusingly, my academic background makes me at best only slightly better at actually negotiating contraceptive (condom) use with real people than your average monogamous person, and I’m definitely less skilled at it than your average poly slut. I manage it, but without much finesse. Instead of being helpful, my academic background just makes me very conscious of how profoundly mediocre I am at it, and leaves a voice in the back of my head continually affirming a theoretical paper that I wrote in graduate school arguing that contraceptive negotiations are all about power, trust, and pleasure.
When my husband and I finally set out to become practicing (as opposed to merely theoretical) polyamorists nearly six years ago, we did so outside the context of the BDSM scene and its strictures about condoms. Neither of us had ever slept with anyone else, and we weren’t sleeping with people who were particularly slutty. Since he cared a lot about the idea of me getting pregnant by someone who wasn’t him, I got an IUD right before we embarked on this poly excursion. And after that, for years, we were relatively carefree about condom use with our partners. We weren’t hooking up, we weren’t dating casually, we were only having sex with people we really liked and were forming relationships with. I keenly remember the first time he had sex with another woman–who was my girlfriend at the time, in a threesome. He was having condom issues, and she said, “Oh just don’t worry about it.” And he didn’t. And I didn’t. And she didn’t. Because she and I had been in a relationship for months, she knew he’d never had sex with anyone else, and we all knew she was using birth control.
And even though I think that decision was completely reasonable (I certainly did at the time, and I still do in hindsight), I hesitate to write it here. Because I’m afraid of the judgments that might rain down.
But eventually, he and I got immersed into the BDSM scene, and became more accomplished sluts. For better or worse, at that point, we started absorbing the sense that Condoms Are Very Very Very Important. And they are. Please don’t think that I’m suggesting otherwise here. Condoms save lots of lives, no question. But in the process of saving lives, they’ve accumulated an irrational symbolic value in our subculture that I kind of hate.
What I love about the condom culture of the (poly) Scene
There don’t have to be any condom negotiations. That’s what I love. Outside of this beautiful bubble, an astounding amount of heterosexual casual sex (I suspect the majority, based on my research) happens without condoms. Inside of the bubble, if a person with a penis says they want to fuck me, I really don’t worry much about whether they’re going to put something in between their dick and my pussy. I just take it for granted that they will. I think most people in the Scene would actually be a little insulted by any condom negotiation other than, “so which kind should we use?” I can just imagine the look on some guy’s face if he said he wanted to fuck me, and I said gravely, “well, you have to use a condom.” I think their response would be, “um, duh.”
I love that condom use for PIV/PIA is the norm in the scene, in public or in private. I love that it’s expected, and I love that it’s followed. I even, to a more limited degree, love the way that there’s some social pressure to enforce these norms. Responsible condom use feels like part of someone’s overall good reputation.
What I hate about the condom culture of the (poly) Scene
The default norm of condom use has some serious costs in the Scene, the highest being an anomic situation with regards to fluid-bonding. Anomieis just a fancy French sociological term for saying that we lack clear social norms to guide us in a particular situation, and that that lack of norms creates anxiety and uncertainty, often with a dollop of guilt and shame as well. Since I happen to have an extensive collection of fluid-bound kinks, I find it pretty annoying that my subculture of sexual deviance has so little social support for my kinks–kinks which aren’t even all that kinky, and are in fact shared by a lot of people.
People often create fluid-bound poly groups, but the social norms in favor of condom use are so restrictive that people almost never discuss those fluid-bound groups publicly. Indeed, people are often embarrassed to admit that they’re fluid-bound to multiple partners, even if they’ve been with those partners for years. As a result, there’s no sense of what’s “normal” in a fluid-bound poly group: how long/well do you have to know each other for it to be reasonable to become fluid-bound? How intimate should the relationship be? What rules should guide the behavior of people in a fluid-bound poly group? Without more open and honest discussion about poly fluid-bonding, I think we cause people a lot of undue stress as they end up constantly trying to anxiously reinvent the wheel. I posted my own poly contract long ago on fetlife in an effort to try to get more discussion going in the community, and I regularly get emails from strangers thanking me for providing them with something to go on.
I also hate the way that condoms become symbols of power and status in polyamorous dynamics (mainly through their non-use). The thing is, once you’re fluid-bound with someone, it’s reasonable to give them at least a little control over who you sleep with (in reality, they should probably have some say about your exposure to whatever pathogens you might transmit to them sexually, but people tend to lose sight of that fact). In hierarchical polyamorous dynamics, the norm is that primaries are fluid-bound (which is sometimes very ironic, since many poly people have more sex with people who aren’t their primaries). Consequently, a lot of fluid-bonding negotiations in poly life end up with husbands and wives trying to obtain the privilege of fucking their girlfriend or boyfriend without a condom. I’ve been privy to a lot of these conversations, and most of them are almost comically far removed from concerns about physical safety. Really, the real concern often seems to come down to primaries wanting to preserve their status as primary by ensuring that their partner doesn’t get to have unprotected sex with anyone else. Which is their prerogative, but I personally find it obnoxious.
The amusing corollary of this hierarchical power/status principle is that in anarchical polyamorous dynamics, people tend to assume that fluid-bound partners must be primaries–even if, in reality, you just happen to be fluid-bound to the person that was using birth control, or the person who hates condoms the most, or the person you have the most sex with. Anarchical polys often end up not being fluid-bound with anyone because they don’t want to give up or negotiate the kind of control that happens when you have to worry about someone else’s safety instead of just your own.
I hate the particular way that condoms are symbols of emotional intimacy (again, primarily through their non-use). Really, it’s the converse of this fact that I hate: if non-use of condoms is a sign of emotional intimacy, it means that using condoms is a symbol of emotional distance. Public health campaigns can tell us all they want that loving partners use protection, but we all know that not using condoms is a sign of trust… which inevitably seems to mean that using them is a sign that you don’t fully trust the other person. Or that your fluid-bound partner doesn’t (see above).
The idea that condoms symbolize trust is definitely prevalent in monogamous world as well, but in a very different way. It’s fairly common for monogamous couples to have sex about three times with condoms and then stop using them. But in poly world, that seems shockingly cavalier, since the relationship isn’t “serious enough” at that stage to warrant fluid-bonding. It rarely seems to occur to poly people that because condoms are symbols of emotional intimacy, not using them actually meaningfully contributes to the process of BUILDING intimacy and trust (whether we like that fact or not). Because of the way we treat condoms, we end up insisting that people try to establish relationships and then stop using condoms once they’ve trusted one another for a long time (with no norms about how long is long enough)… and we ask them to ignore the cognitive dissonance that emerges from trusting and loving someone and insisting that for some unclear reason, they still need to use this thing that not using would show that they trusted and loved the person. In short, I hate the way that we use condoms as symbols of emotional intimacy and trust and then try to ignore the implications of doing so, or just pretend that we don’t.
To summarize, what I hate about poly condom culture in the Scene is the barriers that it creates to normal sexual relationship building.
What happened to safety?
I’m constantly amused when I listen to people go on at length about the importance of having safe sex, and then go outside to smoke. Or ride a motorcycle. Statistically speaking, if you’re not in a gay anonymous anal hook-up, smoking and motorcycle riding are much more dangerous. But I realize that in poly life, unlike smoking or motorcycle riding, the safety associated with fluid-bound decisions isn’t just about you. You end up having to make risk calculations for yourself and other people that you love. And that can be really intimidating and frightening.
Let me be very clear: I’m not suggesting some radical shift in how we as a subculture deal with condom use. Not at all. I just want us to be able to have honest and sensible conversations about the non-use of condoms in long-term relationships without so much baggage. I want us to be able to take power and status and nervous shame and bullshit emotional feelings out of decisions about fluid-bonding. I realize that’s a tall order, but when you come right down to it, fluid-bonding is about two things: better sex and trust. You need to want to have better sex with someone, and you need to trust that they’ll follow whatever rules you agree on for having safer sex with other people. That’s it. There are lots of other things that are optional (I personally have no desire to be directly fluid-bound with someone that I’m not romantically involved with, for example), but those are the only things that are necessary.
And when my partners come to me wanting to be fluid-bound with someone else (thus resulting in me being indirectly fluid-bound with someone), my only calculations are these: do I trust that person to follow our safer sex agreements? And if I don’t see that person much, do I trust that my partner is in a position to ensure that person will follow our safer sex agreements? Can I still easily calculate my web of risk if I include this person? And if the answer to those questions is yes, then I say yes.
Because I don’t think we should use condoms as barriers to intimacy, or security blankets of relationship status. I think we should use them to keep everyone as safe as possible from sexually transmitted infections (and pregnancy). And at some point, we should be able to agree that we’re safe enough.
The trick is learning what “safe enough” looks like. We just need more subcultural support to figure that out.
People often wonder how the hell poly people manage that sticky business of fluids. A couple of years ago, my partners and I decided to create an official contract so that we could be comfortable being “fluid-bound” with one another–meaning that we were going to stop using condoms with each other. Since I figured a lot of other people could use a model for creating those sorts of contracts for themselves, I decided to post ours here.
- The “polycule” defined here consists of a fluid-bound group of [partners list].
- For the purposes described here, “fluid-bonding” includes functionally all bodily fluids, both sexual and non-sexual.
- All anal and vaginal intercourse outside the polycule should be protected with barriers.
- All members of the polycule should keep an updated list of people outside of the polycule that they define as “current partners” in a shared google document.
- All members of the polycule should email the shared google group whenever they have anything that could reasonably be defined as sex with someone who is not on their list of “current partners” or in the polycule.
- Any sexual partners of anyone outside the polycule should be aware that anyone within it might ask them about their current testing status and their current partners. And they should be happy about this because it means we value each others’ safety!
- If a condom breaks or goes amiss during intercourse with anyone outside the polycule, it should be immediately reported to all members of the polycule, as should the outside partner’s current testing status, so that subsequent fluid-bonding can be re-evaluated.
- If an unintentional blood-based fluid-exchange occurs (mainly from needles), it should be immediately reported to all members of the polycule for subsequent fluid-bonding re-evaluation.
- The polycule will try to schedule a once-a-month group processing session. If there is nothing to discuss, then we will try to watch a movie together. All processing sessions are to conclude in sex.
- This polycule is not defined as “polyfidelitous”; however, there is an expectation that members will be limiting intercourse with people outside the polycule.
- Members are expected to get screened for STI’s at least once every six months and to check on the testing statuses of any partners outside the polycule.
- This agreement will be re-evaluated and re-negotiated after [date], pending the preferences of all involved, with the default assumption that it will dissolve at that time.