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Barrier Protection

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I love and hate the way poly people use condoms.

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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.
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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.

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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.


12 Comments

  1. nemorathwald says:

    I strongly agree, but what concrete, describable measures can we take to detach emotional baggage from this? (Or from anything?) If we tell each other “stop feeling that way”, does that ever work?

    • The Slut says:

      It’s a good and valid question. I was originally addressing this more as a community-level problem than an individual-level problem. I think in this case, I see this starting at the community level in terms of consciously adapting norms: increased discussion about the idea of poly fluid-bonding, and getting a discussion out into the open instead of just happening behind closed doors. I also think that a lot of these emotions are ones that people have never really examined or challenged, so there is actually a chance that thinking hard about something might have an impact. Perhaps I’m just being an idealistic sociologist.

  2. shaunphilly says:

    Reblogged this on atheist, polyamorous skeptics and commented:
    I think this is a wonderful article, and I’m passing it along.

  3. Keizick says:

    There is also another aspect to consider. It is difficult to find non-latex condoms. Even when you have them, they are nowhere near as effective as latex condoms. For those that are allergic to latex or certain plastics, there’s a whole other health concern involved. Even if their partners use latex with others, if they’re not careful and the allergy is severe enough, they can still cause reactions in the allergic person. So I definitely agree, the trust and being “safe enough” matter more than an arbitrary line drawn between who you have to use condoms with and who you don’t.

    • The Slut says:

      Actually, the poorly named female condoms are non-latex, and extremely safe and reliable (better, IMO and many other people I know than male condoms). I actually have a post about them in my archive, and instructional videos on xtube as IPCookieMonster on how to use them. Female condoms are great!

  4. This is an even-handed, insightful exploration of how complex the question has become.

    I’d be curious to know your take on the recent flak in the California porn industry re condoms in adult film shoots.

  5. ” Statistically speaking, if you’re not in a gay anonymous anal hook-up,”

    Er, excuse me?! I was loving this post until I reached this part, which reads as reinforcing the idea that being a gay man = full of STIs. Can you rethink it?

    • The Slut says:

      Um, most gay men don’t engage in anonymous sex, and even fewer of them have unprotected anal anonymously. The gay hookup norms are much more pro-condom than the straight hook-up norms. But that doesn’t change the fact that statistically, MSM’s (men who have sex with men–and the ones who are most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors usually don’t self-identify as gay) in the U.S. are far more likely to get HIV than any other group, and anal sex transmits HIV more readily than any other type of sex. And being a person with a penis who has sex with other people with penises was, last I checked (I may be out of date), still the highest risk group for HIV. Notice that I specified anal here, which about a quarter of gay men don’t even have (according to the last set of statistics I saw, which again, might be out of date). It sucks that people take statistics and leap to unfair conclusions, but it doesn’t make the statistics themselves untrue.

  6. Simone says:

    so your take on condoms is you don’t like how they get in the way of you doing whoever you feel like doing however you feel like doing them whenever you feel like doing them….hardly original. you go from not wanting to have sex with people you’re not building relationships with to needing condoms when sleeping with people you’re not romantically involved with….is it just me or is there a relationship to you wanting more sex and you wishing you had less standards? non romantic sexual relationships….wow how much time do you have on your hands? sounds to me like the “romantic” aspect of your life is draining away at a rapid rate and you are not the only one it’s happening to with lots of people’s primaries no longer actually being their primary in reality. if your primary isn’t the person you’re with more than anyone else sexually why would you keep calling them your primary….poly sexual denial? trying to keep some semblance of loyalty that actually isn’t there? funny how a main partner doesn’t want you to get prego with someone else. not cause he’s not fine sharing your body. so is pregnancy some sign of his having lost you cause that’s sad. or is it he doesn’t want the financial obligation of paying for years for someone else’s pleasure cause dude he’s already there unless you are financially independent from him – to say nothing of time demands. sounds like he’s having a hard time accepting the truth that you are not loyal solely to him and he’s holding onto apron strings. from the start of this article to the end is one sad journey into a physically active and emotionally lonely future.

    • The Slut says:

      I do not consider this response to be sufficiently cogent or intelligent to warrant much of a response of my own other than to link to another writing of mine. However, I think it is reasonable to leave up opposing viewpoints, so I have not deleted the comment. I do not, however, consider this a legitimate rebuttal of my original article.

  7. lovesstar says:

    fantastic! The first time I asked my husband if I could become fluid bonded with a partner I almost died. I was so scared he would freak out at me, so I worked up all my courage and spit it out and he looked at me and basically said, go for it, be responsible, and get some testing done. And that was it!

  8. msmjb65 says:

    Hi –
    I found my way to this post via a link in a poly group on Fetlife. I hope you don’t mind considering my situation – how do you feel about getting tested before there is intercourse and well before the possibility of fluid-bonding? Many of my friends who have been poly for a long time, will have all the poly partners and potential new person, tested before any of them sleep with this new person. Fluid bonding is another discussion that doesn’t happen until the new relationship becomes serious and committed. Everyone is notified of the new person prior to intercourse. I feel very strongly that this is the only way I feel like I’m being protected. I agree that this may be an illusion since you can still get a number of STIs even with condom use, but it makes me feel more comfortable, especially when the new person is unknown to all of us. (I am in a “V” dynamic with another female and male, with the male at the intersection of the V. He is also our Dom. There are a number of issues that I am contending with which all come down to communication. We never had a discussion about when testing would occur or when the other persons would get notified that there is even the potential that one of us will have intercourse a new person.

    Recently, this happened. The other sub A, started seeing new person, B. Our Dom did not tell me that A and B had intercourse – with a condom – until after the fact. Now, I want to have B get tested before he and A have sex again. At first B was refusing – this was a HUGE red-flag! He said that he was tested last April and was clean; told A that he has very few partners. But, hello! RED FLAG! Unfortunately, even with this red flag, my Dom seemed to be ok with B waiting until April. There is no plan for A and B to fluid-bond right away and I have intimated that I will not be fluid-bonded to someone I don’t know and trust. I told my Dom that I wanted B to get tested before he could have sex with A again. I know a few poly folk who do this. They also inform one another of a potential new partner. My Dom told A this was what she had to ask B to do get tested now, then B refused and my Dom balked. He basically told me that I was going too far and he didn’t think my request was valid.

    This led to a very upsetting conversation between us – that kind of by passed the fact that B was creating a trust issue by not saying- yes, I’ll get tested even if we are not planning to fluid bond right now. Eventually, he did agree. To not seem completely paranoid, I am not insisting on seeing the test results, although I know that this is de rigueur in many poly relationships. The bigger problem is, is that I don’t trust A or B. Why should I? I am also disappointed in my Dom that I knew nothing about this until after the fact. Further – this is the second time A has had sex with someone and I’m told until after – the first time happened to be with a married swinger couple. In addition, I have had 2 scares where A might have introduced HPV or Herpes into the mix, even with condom use. My only encounter was with all barriers – intercourse and oral with barriers. I asked my Dom to do the same with his only sexual encounter, but I am not insisting that A do it. My poly friends think that I am being foolish, but it is a concession that I’m willing to make right now.

    Without making an ultimatum, I told my Dom that I might leave him if he did not make this happen. He was angry with me, albeit for a short while, that I was putting him in a bad position. His dynamic with A borders on vanilla and, for some reason, he does not insist on her submission in many things that I do, without question. I still don’t understand this, but I know that A has lied to our Dom; a fact he does not want to believe. You are probably thinking that ,y poly, D/s relationship is fucked up an fraught with fundamental problems and you would be correct, but for the sake of my question, I am overlooking it and want to focus on my request for testing prior to intercourse with a new partner. My Dom and A are also living in the dark ages. Their knowledge of STIs is circa mid 90s, when IV drug users and gay men were the only people getting HIV and they were still dying from AIDS. On the other hand, I work in the substance abuse field and have been dealing with all of the changes in thinking re STIs, HIV and now, Hep B and C. My Dom wants me to find out if what I am asking is standard. Basically he wants proof that I’m not being hysterical. I don;t want to go into the problems with that, I only mention it because this shouldn’t even be a discussion thanks to Bs initial refusal to get tested.

    So this is a very long way of asking my original question: are you aware of poly folk having rules of engagement that require full disclosure to all partners when there one of us is considering having sex with a new person, as well as STI testing prior to intercourse that is not going to lead to fluid-bonding. It is just going to add an additional layer of “safer” sex practices. I hope I didn’t ramble too much and that you understand my dilemma. Lastly, you wouldn’t have any research that shows what poly folk are doing in terms of STI testing? Would you suggest a=other resources that I can go to , to find more info.
    Thank you, in advance, for any insight you can give me.
    Withholding name, to protect my anonymity.

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