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Yearly Archives: 2015
The Slut (IPCookieMonster) was recently interviewed on the Kinkycast. Check it out!
Good friend: “Welllll… You guys are ‘European married.’ It’s not really what other people think being married means.
I’ve been asked the question before: “If you’re going to fall in love with and sleep with other people, why did you bother to get married?” The answer for me personally remains pretty straightforward—because I wanted my now-husband to be the person who decided what happens to my broken body if I get in a car wreck, not my parents. While that was the most pressing point, there are a whole host of other social and economic benefits that come from being married, including tax breaks and insurance… Although I am personally very much opposed to the legal institution of marriage, trying to live up to that particular principle is a pain in the ass, and my now-husband and I were both quite poor and financially desperate when we got married, so we weren’t really in a position to do a complex dance to try to take advantage of the legal parts of being married that we liked while sidestepping the social bullshit we didn’t. And so we wrote monogamy out of our wedding vows and moved on with our lives.
Did I surprise you with how unromantic that explanation sounded? Oh… sorry. To my way of thinking, a legal marriage is a business contract. It’s the relationshipthat is loving and romantic, not the marriage.
I could rant for hours about all the reasons that I hate the social institution of marriage. I hate the trappings of marriage and the way that people take the label “husband” so much more seriously than that of “partner” or “boyfriend.” And despite the teasing of one of our dear friends, who has pointed out repeatedly that our idea of being “married” and most people’s idea of being “married” have little to do with one another, the label does fit pretty well. My husband and I started dating at my 18th birthday party, and we never even did that teenage make-up/break-up thing. We’ve been together for very close to half our lives at this point. We’ve been together longer than many people a decade older than us. Our relationship is a huge part of who I am as a person, and I think that’s a big part of what people think “spouse” means.
And for all that I grumble about the social institution of marriage, I think I understand pretty well at this point what commitment looks like to me and my husband. Other people may be confused by it, but unless they’re emotionally involved with us, I don’t really give a fuck what they think about it. For us it’s about spending an agreed upon amount of fun-time (including sex and cuddles and lounging-doing-nothing) and responsible grown-up adulting time together, loving each other and our cats, building and maintaining a home together, keeping each other physically and emotionally safe, sharing a bank account, planning to retire together, planning everything from tomorrow night to future retirement together, and–most importantly–planning to continue doing all of these things together indefinitely. I’ve been doing this whole committed-to-my-husband for a long time now, and I think I’ve got this one figured out (knock on wood).
But goddamn am I confused about what commitment should look like in my other (real/wistful/hypothetical) relationships.
I don’t think it’s just the fact that I’m married and trying to be in relationships with other people that creates the confusion. I think that if I were “single” and poly, I’d be every bit as confused (and there’s just no world in which I can imagine being monogamous, so don’t even ask me to try. It’s like telling a gay person to imagine their life as a straight person). I think some of that confusion is personal; I think some of it is the particular confusion of a very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous cis-femme; and I think a lot of it is because dating norms in America in general are in a state of mad flux.
I don’t really struggle with the “relationship escalator”—the idea that people just automatically expect a relationship to take a very specific trajectory of increasing seriousness that eventually leads to marriage, childbearing, and a white picket fence. I never expected to get on that escalator in the first place, since I grew up planning to live a communal poly existence, not a normal marriage. I don’t sit around biting my nails, thinking that if I don’t share a bank account and a mortgage with someone and hyphenate our last names, it means we can’t have a “real” relationship. But I do sit around a lot wondering what the fuck commitment means in these non-standard relationships, what it looks like, what its value is, and why—in spite or because of my very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous nature—I still crave it like whoa. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
- Commitment is the security blanket that supports my feeling that I can safely trust you. It doesn’t have to be a relationship title, but commitment is an implicit promise that you value our relationship enough that I can believe you won’t break your word to me; not just because you’re a good person, but because you value our relationship and don’t want to damage it. It means that you really don’t want to do things that would hurt our relationship because you want the relationship to stay strong and healthy.
- Commitment is the security blanket that helps prevent jealousy and insecurity. If you make a commitment to me and honor it, I don’t have to worry that just because you hooked up with that pretty young thing last week that you’re just going to meander away from what we have together in a fit of twitterpated distraction. Of course, I might still worry anyway, or you might still meander anyway, but that’s why it’s a security blanket–not a guarantee (ditto with the trust thing above).
- Commitment is the thing that makes me feel like I can plan my life with you. Not necessarily in that “let’s build a house together and plant a garden of hopes and dreams together” way, but in that “I want to know you’ll make it worth my while to not date other people” way. I know planning makes some people twitchy, but NOT planning is the thing that makes me twitchy. I’m enough of a relationship anarchist at this point that I don’t see the symbolic representation of a relationship in a title; I see the symbolic representation of the relationship in its cumulative presence in my google calendar. But “commitment” isn’t about the past there: it’s about the future, and about the times we expect and plan to spend together. It’s the promise to make time and energy for each other in the foreseeable and unforeseeable future. I see commitment in all the marked and unmarked places we make time for each other in the future.
- Meanwhile, without commitment, it feels like any declaration of my own needs or an objection to the way the “relationship” is going is practically an ultimatum. We haven’t agreed to try to improve our “relationship” at any point because we haven’t agreed we have one. So if I/you don’t like the way things are going, do we just give up and stop seeing each other? Relationship processing is an inevitable and necessary part of having a healthy relationship, but how can we have a serious conversation about the state of the relationship and how things are going when we haven’t agreed to HAVE a relationship? The idea of trying to fit needs, wants, and desires together without commitment just feels like a confusing and hopeless proposition to me.
- Without commitment… it feels like the “relationship” only exists as long as things are going well. If my mom is dying in the hospital, and I’m crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I feel like you’re not going to want me anymore because all I’ve really signed up for is to be your sexy entertainment. If your mom is dying in the hospital, and you’re crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I don’t know how to support you because that’s not really the role of an entertainer either. You can’t hold me up in crisis, and I can’t hold you up in crisis, if the most we’ve agreed to be to one another is a party date next week.
- And so… If you feel like you can’t ask me for help, and if I feel like I can’t ask you for help, our relationship dynamic is doomed to superficiality. One of the most important ways that humans connect and build intimacy between each other is by asking for help when they need it. But if we feel like we’re not allowed to ask each other for help, or if we’ve just made the unfortunate decision to be fiercely independent, we’re basically guaranteed to hit a terrible ceiling on intimacy that has nothing to do with the relationship escalator.
Through all of those positives and negatives, the best definition I’ve come up with for commitment in the context of relationships (romantic and otherwise) is simply the mutual promise to share and maintain things of value for that relationship. That might be the promise of time, energy, affection, shared information, shared activities, and/or a relationship title. Without those things, it feels like what you’re left with is an easily disposable fragile semblance of a relationship. As long as you’re having fun and things look shiny and pretty, it’s fine; but as soon as challenges arise—as they inevitably do—what then?
Both intellectually and emotionally, I want to believe that my partners (including my husband) are with me just because they want to be. I don’t want to believe that they stay with me because they feel obliged to by legal, social, or economic necessity. I want regular affirmation that people are in relationships with me because they want to be. But for those “relationships” to mean more than just “we hang out and have a good time together,” I think there has to be something that looks like… commitment.
This is erotica… There are probably many things in it that are inadvisable for real life. But that’s why it’s called a “fantasy.”
“Where can I touch you?”
“Anywhere that’s not covered by my underwear.” I don’t think it’s the response you were looking for; I know that Look. It’s a look that speaks volumes in desire. A look that wants to ask for more but is afraid to do so. “Look, just seduce me,” I say.
“What does that mean?” you ask in optimistic confusion.
“Show off and convince me to fuck you… If that’s what you want,” I add, as if there’s a question. There’s no question. “And if you’re persuasive enough, I’ll say yes.”
There is already rope in your hands, and I watch with amused arousal as you stroke it without realizing you’re doing so.
“I’ll tell you if I want you to stop,” I say, in a voice that is intended to sound more like an invitation than a reassurance.
“You’re fucking with me,” you say. You try to make it sound like a joke, but I can hear the reluctant desire in your voice as you say it.
“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” I say wickedly. There’s a charged moment when I feel you try to decide if you actually want to play with this shit… and then decide that of course you do. You start pulling more rope out of your bag and half-throwing it onto the mat in front of you. I’m not used to watching riggers placing rope feeling like foreplay, but this does. This feels exactly like throwing down a glove to challenge someone for a duel—but your rope is thrown down over my verbal challenge.
Once you’ve done, you stand up and look at me expectantly, hesitating for a moment before saying, “Take off your clothes.”
“If you want them off, take them off,” I say, still challenging you.
I watch you one more time make the decision to do this. Then you walk up to me until your lips are just an inch from mine, look straight into my eyes, and inform me, “You want me. And you will beg me to fuck you.”
I say nothing as you reach your arms around me, as if to embrace me; but instead you pull me violently towards you by my hair with one hand, and slowly and deliberately unzip my dress in the back with the other. It falls down around me into a pool of satin at my feet. I’m not wearing a bra, and I instantly feel exposed and stripped bare, my nipples now colder and hard.
You turn me around roughly so that my back is to you and begin ungently pulling rope around my chest and arms. I don’t fight you or struggle as you quickly build a TK tie, but I am still impressed by how quickly you can constrain me. You’re moving so fast it feels like I’m being tied by an aggressive whirlwind. I hear you panting behind me, and I deliberately rest my weight gently against you, my ass against your crotch. I want to know if you’re panting in exertion or arousal, but I can’t tell if your dick is hard through your jeans. I move my hips against you in a way that almost could be accidental.
Since I’m now solidly ensconced in your chest harness, you reach around and yank me by the front of it and push me up against the side of the rig, your lips against my ear as you whisper fiercely, “Stand still.” …Apparently, my wiggle didn’t feel so accidental after all.
You pull me back to the center, and start throwing lines from my back to the ring above me, and at this point I’m pretty well caught standing up. I watch you decide whether or not to tie a hip harness on me, and then reluctantly decide to do so. Down on your knees, with your face in front of my crotch, I know that it’s inevitable for you to smell my pussy and inevitable for you to smell how turned on I am. But I deliberately keep my legs closed to see what you’ll do. You could tie them closed after all, but what would be the fun in that?
“Spread your legs,” you order. It’s an order that makes me wet under most circumstances, and I wonder what state my underwear—now in front of your face—might be in. Your hands go around my waist and my thighs, and rope drags through my crotch. I try not to show how arousing those fleeting brushes are across my covered labia, but at this point I’m so aroused that faint brushes of your fingers, rope, or anything else only makes me harder.
“I could just slide my fingers up under your underwear,” you inform me, looking up at me.
“It’s true,” I say, as if I’m unmoved by the prospect. And I think, tie me, hit me, pull my hair, step on me—but I still have the power of this “yes.” That control feels so good it is almost literally a sweet taste in my mouth.
You shake your head in irritation, and quickly bind my ankles. Then you stand behind me and start throwing lines from my ass up to the rig. But the entire time, you’re running your lips slowly down my shoulder and my back, and biting the spot where my neck meets my shoulder. You don’t actually let go with your teeth until the moment you start hoisting me into the air, and the transition from being held onto by your teeth on the ground to painfully floating in the air in your ropes is so sudden that I gasp.
In no time, you hoist my ankles up high, and I find myself floating in mid-air in an excruciating upright back bend. You stand in front of me, my face level with the base of your neck, which is literally dripping with sweat. It’s very hard to breathe with my chest pulled up so high, but the temptation to lick that sweat off of you is positively tantalizing anyway. You unbutton your shirt right in front of my face, and the combination of your smell and my dizziness from not being able to breathe is intoxicating. Stripped to the waist, still standing in front of me, my face pressed against your chest, you start tying my hair, but you leave it free. Only as you walk behind me do I realize that you’ve left my crotch at the perfect height for yours, and that you’ve left my legs splayed open.
Standing between my legs, with the heat of your hips against my crotch, you grab hold of the line attached to my hair and yank my head back towards you. It is nearly impossible to breathe with my head pulled back so far. “Are you going to let me fuck you?” you demand.
“I will if you can make me cum,” I gasp out.
You snort and roughly let go of my hair. You let down the line on my chest so I’m level with my hips, which gives me a moment to catch my breath a bit. You lie underneath me on the floor, looking up at my face and inform me, “Your underwear is a mess, you greedy fucking slut.”
“You’re the one trying to get into them,” I say, able to talk again.
You sit up and smack both my tits simultaneously, which makes the ropes shake, and makes me scream. Then you stand up and untie the lines holding my ankles up, leaving me caught in a strange position, with my toes just barely brushing the ground, and my hips and chest still levelly suspended. You come up behind me again, and I realize you’ve still left me in a new perfect position to fuck me. But you don’t offer this time. You just let the realization sink in.
Instead, you lay down underneath me again, a couple of the ropes that are tied to me in your hand.
“What do you want, slut?” you ask me.
“Your hard cock poised just outside my pussy and you begging to fuck me.”
“Be careful what you wish for.”
You pull on the ropes in your hand, and I abruptly plummet down to just two inches above you. The impact is intense, and it’s like you’ve punched my chest and my hips with your ropes. I scream, completely disconcerted. You slowly lower me until I’m lying on top of you, no longer tied to the rig at all. And I realize through my pain and endorphin rush that this is, unquestionably, the sexiest thing that has ever happened to me in rope.
You roll me over, taking your weight off me, and ask me wryly, “Am I allowed to put my hands under your underwear to make you cum?”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” I agree, enjoying the stupid haze I’m still in, feeling your ropes still digging into the bruises on my skin from the impact of the drops.
You push two fingers into my pussy, my underwear pushing up on my labia, and your other hand playing my clit. I try not to cum for as long as I can, but it takes no time at all before I’m convulsing all over your fingers. You laugh in triumph as you lean down towards my face and say, “Are you seduced now?”
I smile lazily and say, “Yes.”
You turn me over and haul me back onto my knees, my ass in the air. This is awkward since my hands are still tied behind my back, and I have no way to hold myself up. I hear you unbuckle your belt and slide your pants to the floor, and the sound makes my pussy contract in desire. “I’m going to rip your underwear now,” you inform me. It seems reasonable, since the ropes from the hip harness are still in the way of getting it off. “Go ahead,” I agree. The sensation of the fabric ripping along my pussy lips makes me scream, and I feel the fabric clinging wetly to them in spite of the tear.
I hear you put on a condom, and then you use the ropes on my back to pull me up a semi-level position. I realize that you’re about to use me as leverage to fuck me, and I know this is going to hurt.
But I scream anyway as your cock enters me, because it’s much bigger than I expected, and because the position I’m in gives me no way to adjust to the sensations inside me. Through the haze of my pain, I realize that there’s something almost extravagantly sexy about the fact that your cock is now bruising my cervix, but I’ve never seen it, felt it, smelled it, or tasted it. The intensity of your desire has driven you inside me without any conventional preamble, but there’s part of me that still wants control. I feel you trying not to cum, I feel you trying to get reign in your desire, but I deliberately clench my pussy down around you hard again and again. It takes no time at all for you to cum, shuddering inside me while I continue to scream from the intense sensations.
You pull out of me suddenly, and I’m surprised when the next thing I hear is your belt coming off. My hips instinctively fall to the ground now that you’re not holding them up, and when your belt connects with my ass, I can’t help but grind my crotch into the mat beneath me in masochistic delight from the stinging pain. “You bitch,” you say, hitting me again. “You deliberately made me cum too fast.”
“Just to make sure you’ll fuck me again,” I gasp, pain and pleasure going through me as you hit me again and again. You turn me over so that I’m lying on my back, and it hurts to have my weight on the fresh welts on my ass. And my hands still trapped underneath me. You’re between my legs, and you start hitting my clit with your belt too. Even though I try to move, there’s not much I can do to stop you. I can almost cum from this, but not quite, and you laugh at the way I writhe.
“Why don’t you cum, you greedy slut?” you ask.
“I can’t quite cum from this,” I squeal.
“Did you even cum from me fucking you?”
“No,” I admit.
You hit me harder, and I scream. You pause for a moment in these exertions to finally take off your boots and your pants and even your underwear, adding it to the wrinkled pile of dress. “Will you untie me while you’re at it?” I ask.
“How’re your arms doing?” you ask.
“They’re okay,” I say. “But I’m better at sex if my hands are free.”
“I don’t think I want to risk that. I think I’m not going to untie you until you’ve cum on my cock.”
“My hands are really helpful for that,” I say helpfully.
You glare down at me. “You cumming was the price of me getting in, now it’s the price of you getting out.” There is something so unquestionably fair about that logic that I don’t bother to argue.
“It’s hard to make me cum with just your cock,” I warn.
“‘Hard’ is not the same thing as ‘impossible’.”
“I think that means you’re just going to have to tell me some secrets.”
I feel strangely trapped by this line of reasoning. “It’s no great secret,” I say. “Leave me on my back. Go slowly for longer than you think, and keep pulling all the way out.”
I take a moment to admire your naked body for the first time, now in front of me, covered in sweat, before you stick your cock in my mouth. It gets hard quickly, and I wriggle with desire, wanting it back in my pussy. You put on another condom, and then deliberately leave your cock just outside my pussy.
“Beg,” you say. This was not how this was originally supposed to go in my head.
I say nothing, even as my hips seem to move upwards of their own accord.
“You want me inside you, and you want out of those ropes sooner rather than later, right? Beg.”
“Please fuck me,” I whisper.
“I couldn’t really hear that.”
“Please fuck me!” I say louder.
“I think you could make that more believable.”
“Please fuck me!” I beg. I hate you a little bit right now, until you thrust inside me and all I can think about is the way you are filling me up.
You drag this out. You’re following my directions perfectly. I actually give an involuntary scream of aroused frustration when you don’t quite fuck me fast enough, but that’s what my pussy perversely likes. I whimper and moan, and finally, my body gives in, and my orgasm is deep inside me.
“Do I get untied now?” I ask, a little bit stupidly.
You grin at me. “I didn’t say how many times you had to cum before I’d untie you.”
I moan, my pussy aching as you relentlessly plunge your cock into it.
“I guess I earned this, didn’t I?” I gasp.
“No. I did,” you say, plunging your cock into me so hard that I scream in pleasurable agony, cumming for what feels like forever as you lean down and kiss my mouth for the first time, your tongue going inside my mouth as your cock goes further into my pussy, cumming with me and filling me.
The Slut will be presenting an academic-ish talk live and in-person at the Takoma Park Community Center in Maryland this Thursday titled, “BDSM: Sex, Hobby, Religion, or Art?” It’s free and open to the public! Come check it out!
A guest post by Bianca Palmisano, founder and owner of Intimate Health Consulting.
“The gynecologist assumed that because I’d had male and female partners within the last year, I was irresponsible somehow. And to top it off, she didn’t even know what a dental dam was, when I told her I’d been using protection.”
“Even in trans-inclusive spaces, I’ve had a hard time accessing care that feels comfortable. Because I have not legally changed my name, doctors/practitioners consistently use my birth/legal name, especially when calling my name at the beginning of appointments and addressing me when asking questions.”
“When I went to the doctor in March and asked for more STI tests (I had been tested in January), they told me that it had been too recently since my last test. I blinked at them and sputtered, “But I’ve slept with a lot of people since then! I had to learn the code words that “a condom broke” or a “partner experienced symptoms” to get my insurance to cover more tests.”
These reactions by medical providers to sexual health requests from patients would be embarrassing if they weren’t so appallingly commonplace. The sad truth of the matter is that if you identify as some kind of sexual or gender minority—LGBT, non-binary, asexual, kinky, non-monogamous—you probably have a terrible doctor story of your own.
For most of us, it’s hard to understand the rationale behind these kinds of experiences: why can’t healthcare professionals just reserve judgment, treat everyone like a human being, and ask questions when they aren’t familiar with a certain community or practice?
The answer of course is inexcusably simple—because they don’t have to—but that apathy towards quality sexual healthcare is rooted in some complex medical, public health, and sociological issues.
Most medical professionals have been trained to address the malfunctioning of a specific body part: the broken bone, the fatty liver, the unexplained rash, the sexually transmitted infection. The disconnect between symptom and holistic patient experience is so marked in this profession that it’s spawned a whole offshoot of practice, osteopathic medicine, that shifts the medical gaze from symptomology to patient wellness. But most of us don’t see osteopathic physicians. We see MDs and their nurses, who have been rigorously engaged in this disconnected style of diagnosis for many years.
It’s pretty easy to see where I’m going here: when you see the symptom instead of the patient first, it’s a lot easier to discredit the importance of clinical empathy, compassionate non-judgment, cultural competency, and all those other important “soft skills” that make us more likely to actually LISTEN to our doctors. Doctors see a problem: you have an STI. They know the solution: a course of antibiotics and hearty dose of shaming so that you “never do something so reckless and irresponsible as to exposure yourself again.” The social and emotional implications of that shaming? Not really within a doctor’s scope of practice.
And where does that shaming come from? In part, medical shaming comes from the same toxic, sex-negative, intolerant society that we live in every day. Unfortunately, you can generally ignore or avoid the biphobic rants of your next door neighbor Randolph, but you’re wholly reliant on a doctor (and their attendant prejudices) to access your basic healthcare needs.
Even when doctors aren’t actively shaming their patients, they often simply lack up-to-date information and skills for talking about sexual health. The average MD receives barely 3-10 hours of instructional time covering sexual health topics over the course of a 4 year medical program. None of that is devoted to discussing bedside manner, unpacking prejudices, or confronting stereotypes. So if your doctor came into medical school thinking that queer people are promiscuous and deserve all the STIs they have coming, they’ll most likely leave medical school the same way. This lack of instructional time is compounded in shorter programs for nurses, medical assistants, phlebotomists, nursing home aids, and any number of other care professionals you might encounter.
Many educational programs are starting to incorporate content around LGBT health specifically, which is a good step, but even those efforts ignore so many communities and sexual health issues. Even public health, which has long claimed to be ahead of the larger medical community on minority health, has a limited lens through which to discuss sexual health. The public health model utilizes its own special cocktail of stigma to address groups that the CDC considers “high-risk”—primarily gay and bisexual cis-men, transgender women, Latino and Black cis-men, and Black cis-women. For these “high risk” groups, the prevailing understanding of the disease network is that individuals are sexually non-monogamous with many partners who rarely communicate their status. In the case of transwomen, the primary assumption is that most of their sexual partners are clients from sex work. While there’s some reality to those framing assumptions, the model doesn’t leave a lot of room for people who aren’t monogamously partnered or traditionally “high risk,” to say nothing of folks who fall into high risk categories but counter those expectations with low or no-risk activities.
And regardless of the healthcare domain or the amount of schooling, the vast majority of healthcare professionals will have had no exposure to BDSM, asexuality, polyamory, trans*-competent care, nor an understanding of how those identities and practices relate to risk reduction.
A truly great doctor (and a few of them do exist!) will have taken the initiative to self-educate on some of these issues, and will be proactive in their engagement around sexual health during an appointment. That means the first time you see a new provider, they should be taking your full sexual history, which is more than simply asking if you are sexually active. You should be hearing your doctor ask open ended questions like, “Tell me about any sexual concerns you would like to discuss,” and “How does the problem affect your life and relationship(s)?” or “What are your goals for your sexual health?”
Ideally you should know that your doctor runs an informed and inclusive practice as soon as you step into the waiting room, because the medical paperwork you fill out includes spaces to identity your sexual orientation and gender identity. A separate form might even offer a place for you to note other relevant social information, like whether you have an invisible disability or identify as a survivor of assault, stalking, or intimate partner violence.
But there aren’t a lot of stellar medical practices out there. And those that really do care and invest in a patient’s sexual health might not be good at signaling it to the outside world in their advertising or patient materials. Frequently, finding the right provider is a crapshoot where some get lucky and plenty more get disappointed.
Suffice to say, shit is hard. It’s going to take a huge investment of energy and a large culture shift from within and beyond the medical community to change these realities. My advice to those who are suffering the ignorance and prejudice of systems right now: if you have the means, vote with your voice, your dollars, and your feet. Promote the few really great doctors out there through social media networks, word of mouth, and review sites like RadRemedy, HealthGrades, and Vitals.com. Refuse to stand for ill treatment by those who are less informed and hold your healthcare provider to the highest possible standard. It is your health, after all, and you deserve informed, respectful, affirmative care. Full stop. No qualifications.
I’m in the middle of writing an academic paper on the effect of drug and alcohol use on contraceptive decision-making [edit: I actually originally wrote this post a couple of years ago, and the paper was eventually published here]. For many years, I’ve been a researcher in the public health world. But I’m a long way from being one of the people who actually has much influence over what doctors and public health professionals actually do.
When I started this research years ago, I’d never slept with anyone except my husband. I wasn’t exactly one of the people that public health professionals spend much time worrying about. And while I’ve still never had a drink or smoked a cigarette, I’m continually frustrated by the abysmal failure of the public health world to cope with the real lives of people like me, who live relatively “high-risk” sexual lives.
For starters, there’s the fact that my insurance doesn’t want to cover multiple STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection) tests a year. What the fuck??? When I went to the doctor in March and asked for more STI tests (I had been tested in January), they told me that it had been too recently since my last test. I blinked at them and sputtered, “But I’ve slept with a lot of people since then!”
It’s clearly in the best interest of the public as a whole (not to mention me and my partners) for me to get tested regularly. For Goddess’ sake, I can’t even calculate the extent of my overall potential disease network (I can calculate the very short fluid-bound intercourse network, but not the condoms-and-unprotected-oral-sex network). I would wager large sums of money that within three degrees of separation (my partners’ partners’ partners) that there are well over 100 concurrent people in it. It might very well be a helluva lot more than that. That’s an entire small community worth of people. Can’t my doctor just declare me to be a “high-risk case” and recommend me for more testing? Instead, I had to learn the code words that “a condom broke” or a “partner experienced symptoms” to get my insurance to cover more tests. Good grief. I’m 31-years-old and I don’t enjoy going to the doctor’s. I don’t get tested for kicks.
Then there’s the fact that the public health people really really really don’t get it. My doctor asked me if I had had “any new partners” since the last time I was in for an appointment. I realize that I haven’t explained my life in very great detail to her, but I’ve explained that I’m non-monogamously married, so she should know that me having a new partner only encompasses a relatively small portion of my overall STI risk. Back to that whole disease-network issue: what matters is what me and my partners and my partners’ partners are doing. The public health community really isn’t prepared to grasp the particular STI risks of people who maintain concurrent multiple partners.
And then there’s the way that the places that do offer cheap or nearly free testing tend to treat people when they go in. So far, I’ve been fortunate and never once been condescended to by a doctor when I went in for STI testing, but I’m guessing have a Ph.D. helps a lot with that. My husband complains that every time he goes in for testing, the doctors just look at him skeptically and seem to be assuming that he’s cheating on me (we got around this tidily one time by simply going in together, but that isn’t always practical). Other partners of mine have complained that doctors were extremely patronizing to them when they went in for testing. Medical condescension is not helpful. If you’re smart enough to be at the testing clinic, you’re smart enough to know that what you’re doing is risky. Doctors don’t need to lecture the people who are there getting responsibly tested. The people they need to lecture are the people who aren’t there. Lecturing people who’ve had the good sense to calculate their level of risk and realize that it’s not low just makes those people not want to come back and do the right thing. It’s like when teachers yell at the beginning of class about how “many students are late to this class”: it’s an understandable frustration directed at the wrong people. When people show up for preemptive testing (that is, symptom-free testing), say, “I’m so glad you’re here. Do you have any questions? Have some condoms! Please come back soon!”
It doesn’t apply to me personally, but I’m also frustrated by the total failure of the public health community to deal with the fact that the vast majority of “high-risk” sexual encounters (that is, casual sex with someone a person doesn’t know well) typically occur under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I haven’t figured out yet how to deal with that fact better, but I know that just assuming that telling people over and over again to use condoms will solve the problem is probably insufficient. In general, one of the great paradoxes of the public health world (that the medical community is totally blind to) is that the kinds of people who are most likely to have casual sex are the kinds of people who are most likely to be lousy contraceptors (hence my paper linked to above). Currently, The Condom Message has mostly penetrated the ears and brains of the people who are actually at very low risk (obviously, me and many of my friends would be an exception here…). I don’t know what to do about this problem other than to try to teach people to put condoms on bananas while intoxicated (or encourage them to put in female condoms while they’re still sober, but Goddess help a drunk person trying to use one of those things). What I do know is that a lot more smart people need to be putting their brains into solving this problem.
In conclusion, doctors and public health professionals need to start figuring out how to politely and successfully help people manage their changing sexual health risks in a world where traditional monogamy is becoming less popular overall, and where the average age of marriage just keeps going up and up (while the average age of virginity loss stays about the same). Current estimates say that 25% of young American adults will never marry, and our best-guess data suggest that various forms of consensual non-monogamy are becoming more popular. However, I can report that a growing body of research suggests that ethically non-monogamous people are, somewhat ironically, probably a lower STI risk to one other than “monogamous” people. Here’s the most recent study to say so. Go figure.
Mic.com recently approached me to answer some common questions that people have about condoms. (These were actual questions that people e-mailed in). Although I’m briefly quoted in the article, I figured I’d share my extended responses on my own blog.
I’ll start with some answers based on my academic knowledge…
Question: Is there anyone (specifically male) out there that doesn’t mind wearing a condom?
Answer: Certainly. While I have never met or interviewed any men who said they actually liked condoms, I have met and interviewed men who said they didn’t mind them. These men are not the majority, but they are not a tiny minority either. Several men I have spoken with greatly prefer to use female condoms, although these certainly do not work well for everyone.
Interestingly, contrary to stereotype, while the slight majority of men do seem to dislike condoms (at least in the U.S.), women are more likely than men to say that they hate condoms.
Question: Stopping to ask a partner to put on a condom can be a bit of a moodkiller, is there any way to make it less awkward?
Answer: Unfortunately, the easiest way to remove the moodkill here is for the culture to change. In the swinging and BDSM subcultures, condom use is simply expected, so no one ever has to really ask someone to use a condom. Mainstream culture doesn’t seem to have reached that point yet.
I had hoped that some experienced people would answer this very question for me when I set out to interview people about their contraceptive negotiations; unfortunately, I found again and again that the people who had had the most casual sex had only occasionally or rarely used condoms with their partners.
There are two major factors that make people feel more comfortable negotiating condom use: trust and power. People need to feel physically and emotionally safe with their partner, and also feel like they won’t be negatively judged for asking to use a condom. (Contrary to popular belief, sobriety turns out not to really be a factor on this one. Our perception is just very distorted by the fact that the kinds of people who have lots of drunken casual sex tend to be the kinds of people who have sex without condoms, regardless of their level of intoxication). So the short answer is: try to only have sex with people you feel comfortable with, and you’ll usually find that it’s not nearly as hard–especially if you make it clear that condoms are expected before you ever get to the sexy times.
…Since that may be unrealistic, the rest of this answer becomes gendered. For men, it’s generally pretty easy, since usually all they need to do is put on a condom. The women I’ve met who are allergic to latex usually carry alternatives (non-latex male condoms or female condoms) around with them. While I don’t doubt that it’s happened somewhere sometime, I’ve never professionally or personally heard of women trying to argue men out of using condoms.
For women, things are trickier. Unfortunately, even female condoms require some cooperation from the man to be able to use well, so even the theoretically simple strategy of just wearing one around (which you can do for several hours at a time as long as it doesn’t annoy you) will only get you so far. If you’re trying to avoid having an awkward discussion, just handing a guy a condom at an appropriate moment will get you a long way. If he tries to argue with you, then put your clothes back on, because how many other people do you think he’s done that with? Similarly, having sex with enough light to be able to see that he actually put it on is wise. Alternatively, learning to put condoms on yourself can be really helpful (with either your hand or your mouth) and reduce some of the moodkill.
Question: What are the odds she won’t get pregnant? i.e. how effective are condoms?
Answer: This question is a very tricky one. Contraceptive statistics come in two forms: “perfect use” and “typical use.” With “perfect use” of male condoms, only about 2% of users should become pregnant over the course of a year; those aren’t bad odds considering that the same statistics tell us that without any birth control, 85% of “users” should become pregnant over the course of a year.
Unfortunately, our “typical use” statistics for condoms are a lot bleaker, and we usually get numbers between 15-18% rates of failure in those cases. However, those numbers are very distorted by the fact that people tend to use condoms incorrectly and inconsistently across time. Indeed, in typical use, male condoms are only slightly better (18% failure) than withdrawal (22% failure). Our research indicates that that’s because a lot of people functionally are just using withdrawal when they claim to be using condoms (they put the condom on after they’ve already started having sex), and because many long-term condom users alternate between withdrawal and condoms.
It’s worth noting that despite their problems with pregnancy prevention, condoms tend to be remarkably effective at preventing the spread of most sexually transmitted infections (especially HIV).
Question: What about female condoms? What are they and do they work?
Answer: Female condoms are non-latex barriers worn inside a woman’s vagina. Current statistics on female condom use in the U.S. give 5% failure rates for perfect use, and 21% failures for typical use. However, most people don’t know how to use female condoms very well, so it’s hardly surprising that the failure rates are rather high.
The major problems with female condoms are that they can get bunched up inside the vagina during sex if you’re not careful, or the man can miss the condom and accidentally go around it. Some men report that it feels like they’re “having sex with a plastic bag.” However, there are some serious benefits of female condoms, not the least of which is that both men and women often report that once they get going, they can barely tell they’re using anything. They also almost never break, and they don’t need to be sized.
…Okay, from here on out, I’m going to answer questions based on educated opinion and personal experience, not academic research.
Question: I’m having exclusive, partnered sex with someone who’s been tested negative for STIs and I have too. And I’m on birth control. Should I still use a condom?
Answer: It all comes down to your and your partner’s tolerance for risk. The pregnancy related questions are: (1) What kind of birth control are you on? For example, the failure rate for the birth control pill is considerably higher than for an IUD. (2) How good at taking it are you? (A wonderfully irrelevant question with an IUD). (3) How disastrous for your lives would a pregnancy be? If a pregnancy would completely ruin your life, then you might want to keep using condoms unless they’re ruining your sex life. If it would merely be very inconvenient, then you’re probably going to be okay.
As for your risk of STI’s, it really comes down to how much you trust your partner. With the exception of a few things like HSV-1 and yeast infections–both of which you can get from all kinds of non-sexual activities and sexually transmit–STI’s pretty much by definition have to come from having sex. And if you’re both negative, they have to come from having sex with someone else.
Question: If you and your same sex partner are both clean, do you still need to wear one?
Answer: I’m going to assume that this question pertains to men having sex with men, since women having sex with women usually use gloves and dental dams for protection, not condoms.
As with the above question, this one comes down to risk tolerance: how certain are you that your partner isn’t having sex with anyone else (or if they are, that they’re using protection with them)? If you feel pretty good about that, then you’re probably fine.
Aside: It’s also probably worth taking a moment to consider the implications of the term “clean.” Do you really think people with STI’s are “dirty”?
Question: Can the type of condom make a difference in achieving pleasure? Do studded or not studded actually make a difference? Does ribbing actually make a difference?
Answer: To some women, yes. My personal favorite male condoms are a brand called Wild Rose, which are ribbed. I don’t think they make a huge difference, but they do make a small difference. But I’m a masochist who likes highly frictive sex, so I’m certainly not representative of the general population.
However, it’s important to note that the biggest factor in condom pleasure AND effectiveness is having them sized correctly, not whether they are ribbed or studded. Finding a condom that fits is what really matters.
Question: How do sizes actually work?
Answer: Unfortunately, they mostly don’t in the U.S. The reasons are much too complicated to explain here, but there’s a good in-depth explanation here on slate.
As a guy, your best bet is to buy a bunch of condoms and practice masturbating with them to see what feels best and fits best on your penis before you try to stick it in someone else. Or to get good at using female condoms.
Question: Are flavored condoms really bad for non-oral sex?
Answer: This depends on how much you like the natural taste and smell of vaginas or anuses. Unless they have sweeteners on them (which they certainly should not–sugar in the vagina causes yeast infections–but most of them unfortunately don’t come with an ingredients list), there’s nothing wrong with using flavored condoms for vaginal sex. There’s never anything uniquely risky about using flavored condoms for anal sex; personally, I prefer the smell of fake banana to natural shit, so I call that a win. It is true that you tend to end up with artificially fruity-smelling genitalia after having sex with flavored condoms, but that isn’t necessarily bad.
Question: Really, is there any way to have sex with a condom that’s as good as without?
Answer: Sort-of. As a woman, I can honestly say that the best sex I’ve had with a condom has been better than the worst sex I’ve had without one, and I’ve talked to many men who have said the same. Will the best sex without a condom be as good as the best sex with a condom? Probably not. But I think this is an instance when the perfect is the enemy of the good.
One of the pernicious mainstream heteronormative cultural assumptions that the kink subculture can’t seem to let go of either is the idea that penetrating = being in control and penetrated = out of control. In an effort to fight this obnoxious notion, I’m encouraging pornographers and erotica writers out there to come up with sexy tales of being penetrated (any gender) and being in control. Please feel free to link to any good ones you know or wrote yourself at the end of this post. Then I figured, hell, if I write my own story, I can contribute to the process and I can plant a seed in some sexy young man’s mind and make him want to do these things to me. And so…
“Please, Mistress, may I worship your pussy with my mouth?”
“After you’ve made me cum twice with your cock.” You look so pleased by the idea, and I love how I can reward you by cumming on your face. I grab your hardening cock in my hand and look you straight in the eye. “I want to use your entire body.”
You close your eyes as a shudder runs through your body, your cock suddenly much harder. “Your pleasure is my pleasure, Mistress.”
“It is my pleasure for you to fuck me and make me cum as hard as you possibly can.”
I lay on my back, and obediently, you move between my legs, your cock poised teasingly between the outer lips of my pussy the way I like. “May I enter you, Mistress?”
“You don’t need to ask when I’ve already told you to fuck me.” But I enjoy the way you relax when I tell you that you can, and I know there’s a part of you that likes asking, and loves hearing me give you permission.
You shove your cock into me the way I like, and I gasp with pleasure. I writhe against you, enjoying the warm feel of your body above me and the way you fill me. But I love the sensation of you shoving into me more than anything, as you well know. “Pull all the way out and come back in,” I order. You do so, and I enjoy the look of deprivation on your face that not being inside me momentarily causes you. Then I arch my back in delight pleasure as you push your way back inside me. “Again.” I tell you. “Again.” “Again.” Until finally, the fifth time you enter me, I cum around you, clutching your cock with my pussy.
I sit up, shoving you onto your back as I do, so I can ride you astride. Then I deliberately turn myself around, never pulling myself off of you. Ever so slowly, I bend onto all fours, reaching back behind me at an improbable angle to pull your chest towards me by the nipples. “Get on your knees,” I instruct. “And don’t pull out of me.” Very carefully, you re-arrange yourself so that you can fuck me from behind. Your cock is very large for this, and I pant as you begin banging into my g-spot.
“Please cum for me, Mistress,” you beg, as my panting becomes more like screams. As I moan “yes,” you reach around me to play with my clit, fucking me and rubbing me at the same time. The sensation is agonizing and intense, and I cum on your hand and your cock simultaneously, feeling the orgasm wrack my entire body.
Panting, I roll onto my back and smile up at you. “You’ve worked very hard,” I tell you. “Now you can worship my pussy with your mouth and lick up all that cum. Show me how delicious I taste.” Looking like a cat that got the cream, you bend your face down to my pussy, staring up at me worshipfully as you grind your own crotch into the bed, looking on the verge of cumming yourself. So sensitive and swollen from being fucked, it takes only a few moments of you licking and sucking me before I begin convulsing against your face. You gasp and moan into my pussy, still looking like you might cum with me. But I know you’ll only cum if I order you to, and so I simply enjoy the sight of you, looking slightly tortured, and literally writhing in desire.
You keep licking me, my hand grasping your hair to hold you in place as my hips tremble, and one orgasm melts into another, and another until I feel light-headed from the rolling sensation of cumming on your greedy lips for so long. The feeling subsides somewhat, and when I have my breath back, I tell you, “The next time I’m close to cumming, enter me. I’ll tell you when.”
I see you reach down to stroke your cock, making sure that it is hard enough to satisfy me at the right moment. I let you build up sensation in me again, letting it mellow, plateau, build, plateau, and finally begin to peak. “Now!”
Without hesitation, you thrust all the way inside me, and my body convulses in confused pleasure as the sensation changes abruptly, creating a totally different orgasm. I scream in delight, and I see your face become almost tortured with desire as my pussy squeezes your cock.
“Please, Mistress, may I cum?” you plead.
“Not yet. I want to torture you.” You bite your lower lip, and I can see that this is becoming difficult for you. Your dilemma arouses me, even as you are forced to fuck me more slowly in order to follow my command. Although you stay above me, I begin doing more of the work, wriggling my pussy up and down your cock as I savor the way you gasp helplessly every time I clench around you. “Please, Mistress…” you moan.
“No,” I say cruelly, and denying you is arousing enough to push me over the edge into cumming again myself, as I rub my clit, while your cock moves gently inside me. You are almost crying now with the effort it takes you to stay hard and not cum as I do.
“Please, Mistress, may I cum?” you plead.
“No,” I manage to respond coolly, pushing you off of me, and trying not to miss the feel of you inside me too much as your dick also slides out of my pussy. I push you onto your back and sit astride you, your cock positioned tantalizingly in front of my pussy lips. You whimper, and I chuckle. Ever so gently and ever so slowly, I graze the soft outer lips of my pussy along your dick, sliding up and down. Your hips instinctively move so that the tip of your cock is thrust inside me, but I quickly move away from it and slap your chest.
“Naughty!” I exclaim, grabbing the back of your hair, and moving myself so my whole weight is on top of you, and my face is directly in front of your face. “You only get back in when I tell you.”
I tease my tongue on your cock, not really sucking it, so much as feathering it with the lightest of wet sensations. I enjoy tasting myself on you, and you groan in what looks like agony. I run the tips of my fingers along it, then trace the same lines with the outside of my pussy again. Your entire body actually quivers underneath me as I tease you. I do this all again, and finally, relishing the way your hands dig into the mattress, clutching it as if for assistance in coping with this torment.
“Please make me cum, Mistress!”
“How shall I make you cum?”
Your voice is choked and gasping. “However you like.”
“Tell me how much you love my pussy, and I’ll let you fuck it.”
This is entirely for my own amusement. You can barely put three words together. “I live to… please you. I eat your… orgasms… I dream about… About worshipping your pussy… With my whole body…” But you can’t finish as you groan while I tease your cock mercilessly with my pussy lips. Sitting just above you, I say simply:
You don’t sound like you’re speaking in sentences anymore, just a repeated jumble of words moaning, “Please let me fuck you please let me make you cum please let me inside you please let me show you how much I love your cunt—“ until I abruptly slide all the way down your cock. You gasp, instinctively moving your hips up to meet me, pushing deeper inside me. Without separating us, I roll you on top of me. You look almost afraid as you fuck me, and I can feel the desire you have to be totally pulled inside me, and the way you fear it too.
“Please, Mistress, may I cum?” You plead.
“Will you promise to fuck me again in less than an hour?”
“Then you can cum the next time I do.”
I feel your body both relax with relief and tense with need. I actually feel your cock get larger inside me, straining with desperation. There is a vein in it that throbs as you get closer to cumming. I spread my legs further so that you are so deep inside me that it hurts, and clench my pussy around you to make you harder. You pant and sound so utterly desperate as you beg, “Please cum for me, Mistress. Please.”
I laugh. “Just so you can cum?”
“No, so I can feel myself pleasing you when I do.”
“You are a very good boy. Fuck me harder.” You obey, and I reach down to touch my clit, deliberately stroking the base of your cock in between thrusts, feeling how wet you are with me. I clench my pussy around you and revel in your gasp from the sensation, enjoying as always the look of surprise on your face from the feeling, and pleased by the sight of the sweat pooling at your brow as you work so hard to please us both.
I feel your entire body becoming focused on mine, lining up every thrust to the quivering of my hips. I consider counting down for you, but I know I don’t need to, because your oversensitive cock will know the moment I cum. You fuck me harder and then automatically slow down just as I’m climaxing, knowing it will make me cum harder. As my hips arch, I feel you surrender helplessly to my pleasure, cumming uncontrollably because I am.
Your whole body collapses on top of me, but your obedient cock stays in me as my pussy continues to tremble with the aftershocks of orgasm. “Don’t you dare slide out of me,” I whisper fiercely into your ear, licking it gently for emphasis. You moan.
As the aftershocks start to subside, I begin deliberately squeezing my pussy lips around your softening cock. The feeling occasionally causes me to aftershock again, trembling underneath you in slight orgasm. The combination is too much for you, and I feel your dick hardening inside me again. You groan in what I know is a cross between pain and pleasure, and you rise onto your arms again, yielding to the instinctive desire to begin moving your dick inside me.
I reach up and pinch your nipple hard. “You didn’t ask permission to fuck me again.”
You look at me with mock innocence. “But Mistress, I never stopped.” You bend your face down to kiss me, and the feel of your lips on mine, and your tongue deliberately sliding into my mouth as your cock slides in and out of my pussy is more than merely mollifying. You continue kissing my neck, my shoulders, and licking my nipples, while my over-fucked pussy remains just on the edge of climaxing.
“You can cum whenever you want,” I offer, pretending to be generous. “As long as you clean me up very thoroughly afterwards.”
“Mistress, you know that I can’t cum without you.” It is the correct response. I smile, stroking your cheek, kissing your lips, and deliberately clenching my pussy around your cock in praise.
I chuckle. “I know. You are very well trained.” Even when I suck your cock, I have trained you not to cum unless I am. I re-position myself so that my ankles are against your shoulders, and your cock is excruciatingly deep inside me. I gasp with every thrust, opening my eyes and looking straight into yours to tell you, “You are such a good boy. Now cum for me.”
You know this cue. You know that sometimes I cum harder when I feel the helpless thrusting of your cock inside me, and obediently, you fuck me as I scream with orgasm. I actually feel your cock throbbing inside me as I cum, still surprised that it somehow got harder.
“Please Mistress, may I pull out?” you ask in abject exhaustion.
“Well, you were very good,” I say, gently rolling myself out from under you. I see the look of disappointment in your tired face as you pull out of me. And almost without thinking, I grab your hand and position it just over my clit. “Beg,” I hiss.
Suddenly alert again, you obey. “Please Mistress, may I please you some more?” I slide your fingers inside me, clenching my pussy instinctively around them, and feeling your cum run out of me and onto them as I do.
“Why yes, yes you may,” I say, cumming all over again.
I read this blog post awhile back on casual love, and the idea instantly resonated with me. My take on the basic idea is this: falling in love doesn’t have to be a devastating, life-altering event. In a world that is not constrained by monoamorous expectations (i.e. the idea that you can only be in love with one person at a time, and ideally you should only ever fall in love with one person in your life), romantic love can just be a thing that happens between two or more people with no real expectations or needs. It doesn’t mean we should pick out china patterns, or spend the rest of our lives together, or even share google calendars. It can just be a fact: I love you.
It just so happened that I originally read this post a couple of days before demo bottoming for BlueRisk’s “In the Lover’s Ropes” class. The class is about what I think of as Tantric Rope (where rope both substitutes for and augments the role of breath in traditional tantric practices), but I think most rope people including BlueRisk would be more likely to just label it “Connective Rope.” Be that as it may, his teaching in the class was grounded in an implicit ideology of what was basically casual love–the idea that you can go have deeply connective, intensely intimate, and even romantic rope scenes with people, with the option of then hugging and saying, “toodles.” In the lazy cuddly post-class aftercare, I told him that I thought he had been preaching “casual love,” which I summarized as “I love you. No big deal.” He thought about it for a moment, and then said wisely, “I think it’s better to say that casual love means, ‘I love you, and it is a big deal, but not necessarily in the way that you think it is.’” Amen.
The truth is that I fall in love almost embarrassingly easily, and not just with living people. I’ve been far more passionately in love with some characters in novels than several people that I’ve dated for months. I have fallen in love like falling off a cliff: I have fallen in love at first sight, and I have fallen in love with someone I barely knew with a kiss—one minute I wasn’t in love, and the next moment I was. I have also fallen in love with dear friends in such a slow and gentle fashion that I couldn’t possibly have told you when it actually happened because it never really did. No lightning bolts there–more like a sensation of slowly sinking into a calm and warm ocean.
Even though (and perhaps because) I fall in love so easily, I remain ambivalent about engaging too much in casual love for myself. Once I give someone a piece of my heart, I tend to let them keep it unless they do something really hurtful that forces me to try to get it back. Getting it back is a lot of work; it can take months to get a big piece back that I handed over in a reckless and passionate night. Consequently, I personally prefer to only hand out pieces of my heart to people who I’m reasonably certain aren’t going to require an arduous reclamation process. Call it “safer love.” I’ve never gotten good at doling out teeny-tiny pieces of my heart that I figure I won’t miss much; I tend to give out pretty big chunks, and when I love, I love for keeps. The metaphor of “falling in love” is good: it’s easy to fall off the cliff in love, but getting back up requires climbing equipment, the help of friends, and a lot of time and work.
And yet. And yet…
Falling in love may be easy. Staying in love in a consistent and committed way takes a lot more effort.
A common poly aphorism is that “love is infinite; time is not.” I think that’s certainly true, but I think there are a lot of subtleties and nuance to the nature of romantic love and relationships that it misses. Just for starters, it’s hard to stay in love with someone without some sort of regular communication or contact. It’spossible, but it’s hard. There are people who you can just sort of meander in and out of their life, and it’s almost like you fall in love with them all over again every time you get a chance. That’s sweet and lovely, but rare, and not really conducive to building a long-term relationship. For many people like me, falling in love takes almost no work at all; but for almost everyone, relationships require considerable feeding and care.
A dear friend and I fell in love with each other, and his initial response seemed to be, “Well, this doesn’t really change anything except that we feel more for each other, right?” And my response was, “It doesn’t have to, but if you want promises that this warm fuzzy feeling will stick around, and more out of this overall, you’ll have to put more in.” And his reasonable response was, “More what?” The answer isn’t simple, because “more” is everything that makes a relationship: time, communication, energy, thought, understanding, commitment… and romantic feelings. I usually think of those as the things that nurture romantic relationships (although I assume that people prioritize them differently).
Romantic relationships usually require a seed of romantic feelings to become possible, but they do not suddenly burst forth into being fully sprung because two people say, “I love you.” Sustainable relationships require: both active and passive time spent together; open and honest discussions of needs, wants, desires, and the sometimes bewildering way those can shift and change; a desire to support the other person in good times and bad; taking the other person into account in thought and deed; understanding the other person and being able to reasonably accurately predict how they will think and feel; and some sort of assurance that the level of these things will remain basically the same for the foreseeable (and in some cases the unforeseeable) future. Time is only one aspect of the fundamental limitation on sustainable relationships: the major limitation is how well you and another person can fit each other into your lives overall. The depth of the sustainable romantic attachment you can cultivate with someone is ultimately going to be more-or-less proportional to the degree that you can make room for each other in your lives.
I tend to think of strong relationships as being like nice sturdy evergreen trees; but there are also wildly passionate relationships that are more like flowers that bloom seasonally; and then there are those pretty flowers that bloom for a night and maybe they’ll be back next year if the weather is good. I’m a greedy relationship Whorticulturist, and I like keeping a nice variety of plants in my relationship garden. But those trees are definitely the backbone and center of the whole affair. And sheer will and pure affection are insufficient to nurture and sustain those demanding trees, no matter how sincere, well-intentioned, or passionate that will and affection.
I know some people are able to flit about and engage in intensely emotional connections with people and then just walk away. I’m not dissing that; I envy it, because I suck at it. I don’t like engaging in intense physical intimacies that I then abandon, and I sure as hell don’t like engaging in emotional intimacies that I then walk away from. But I can’t deny that my heart does seem to have a great capacity and tendency to develop attachments that vastly exceed its ability to form sustainable romantic relationships from. Casual love is easy; casual relationships are possible, but always inherently limited. And so most of the time, I end up harshly reminding myself, “I can love you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I can do much else.”
…Because no matter how much I might want them to be simple, easy, and free, the truth is that real relationships take real work.