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.