I’d be really disingenuous if I claimed that I have ever at any point in my poly life engaged in full fledged anarchical poly. My entire poly life, I’ve been happily married and sharing a bank account and living quarters with the same person. But at some point I got frustrated with purely hierarchical poly for myself and sort of kind of mostly gave up on relationship labels and hierarchies in my other relationships. Over time, I accumulated an increasingly large collection of “partners” of various sorts, and the dynamics have only gotten weirder and harder to catalog.
But let me start with what anarchical poly means to me.
I guess to me anarchical poly is about loosely defining relationships. It means committing to a person more than committing to a particular relationship dynamic. It also means being flexible about redefining and reconfiguring relationship dynamics based on life changes (whether that’s new partners, new interests, new jobs, new life circumstances, or whatever). Sometimes it means that relationships get primarily defined by an activity (in my life this is especially true for rope partners); sometimes it means that they get primarily defined by emotional attachment (most obviously love); but more often, it means that they get defined primarily by time and energy.
For all that anarchical poly claims not to be hierarchical, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who managed to do it with no hierarchies at all. In practice, there almost always ends up being at least one simple and important kind of hierarchy amidst the anarchy: people I make time for, and people who get the time that’s left. And in reality, there’s often still a hierarchy of people I make time for (“Joe is busy and so is Mark, so I can go out with Ellen”). So maybe I’m just really bad at this anarchical poly thing. Or maybe it’s just a fairly theoretical ideal to start with.
Time is fluid
Because I’ve mostly built my anarchical relationships around the idea of time spent together, it’s easy to define the relationships in those terms as well. But the sticky thing there is that time is fluid. Being a professional teacher, I get summer vacation, which means that I have a lot more time in the summer. If I had a partner who was a teacher too, we might get to spend a lot of time together in the summer, but a lot less time together when school started back. It would seem really sad to say that our relationship was “less serious” because school was back in, but in some sense, it might be true.
And this is where anarchical poly feels very different than more standard hierarchical arrangements. If my “girlfriend” and I both have summers off and then start back to work again in the fall, I don’t think that either of us would be likely to perceive ourselves as being more or less girlfriendly based on our employment situation. But in an anarchical poly situation, we’d sort of be (at least temporarily) redefining our relationship dynamic as “more serious” in the summer and “less serious” in the fall if we use time as our key relationship metric.
Conversely, if someone gets overwhelmed at work, and you barely see them for a month, in an anarchical arrangement, does that mean that you don’t really have a relationship with them anymore? In my mind, the answer is, “it depends on whether you’re holding space for them.” By “holding space,” I mean if you’re not really trying to replace them in any sense, and if you expect them to go back to basically the same place in your life that they were in before they got overwhelmed at work.
But the one that can get really weird is polyunsaturation. Polyunsaturation is, of course, a classic situation for poly dominoes because it’s easy for people to “upgrade” relationships beyond where they belong. You and your partner both break up with more serious partners, and both find yourselves with way more available time than you once had, and end up filling it with each other. Sometimes, this ends happily; often, it doesn’t, because there was a good reason (or ten) that the two of you were less serious to start with. Lacking firm definitions and clear boundaries about what your relationship means, is, and should look like (this was the point of the anarchical poly, right?), you just sort of drift into a new relationship pattern that doesn’t necessarily work well.
On the other hand, the whole point of the anarchical poly was supposed to be that you were flexible, right? You can enjoy spending a bit more time with a polyunsaturated partner, or a temporarily underemployed one, or one on a protracted vacation, and you can promise yourself that you’ll adapt when things change again. Because that was what you signed up for. (And by the way, you have to do that in hierarchical poly too. Or monogamy. It’s called “life”). But it can be disconcerting if you let yourself wonder too much what things will look like once whatever the situation is changes.
It’s so goddamned easy to just walk away
This is, unquestionably, the thing that I hate most about anarchical poly. If you make no promises to someone beyond, “I’ll stick around until I don’t,” you’ve made it ridiculously easy by definition to just walk away. And the problem with that kind of flexibility is that real relationships (friendships as well as romantic relationships) get messy sometimes, and take effort and work and thought and time and energy. In hierarchical poly and more traditional relationships, there usually are a lot of pragmatic considerations that help keep people together which often aren’t part of anarchical poly life. Fortunately for me, I’ve never really thought this way (knock on wood), but if I ever got super super pissed at my husband, the shared bank account, mortgage, cats, and friend networks would provide a helluva lot of pressure for us to work things out. But if I get super super pissed at my “partner,” the ties that bind are pretty fucking loose. What does leaving really cost me? Changing my google calendar and updating my fetlife relationships?
I’m enough of a relationship anarchist at heart that I really WANT my husband to stay with me just because he wants to and not because of the bank account/mortgage/cats/etc, and I really WANT my partner to stay with me just because he wants to and not because I’ve let him store a bunch of shit in my shed. I want all of my partners to think that I’m awesome enough that that alone motivates them to work stuff out with me when things get hard. But I think it would be the height of naivete to pretend like the practical shit is unimportant when life gets messy. After all, shared living quarters kind of necessitate working shit out with my husband, but a shared google calendar doesn’t really force me to work anything out with anyone else. Especially when there were no promises made with that calendar.
I don’t think there’s any way around that problem. I think a lot of people are attracted to anarchical poly because it’s easy to leave. But the converse is rather comforting: people are more likely to be with you because they genuinely want to be rather than because they can’t figure out how to leave.
It’s tricky to change with someone
People change. All the time. Sometimes they change for the better, sometimes they change for the worse. But I can just about guarantee that whoever you’re with will probably be fairly different in a year than they are right now. And this inevitably means that the shape, color, dynamic, and structure of your relationship is likely to change too. The art of successful long term relationship management is the art of changing with someone. Your partner decides they need to lose weight, so you find a shared exercise regimen. Your partner decides they need to get out and socialize more, and you both join a gaming group together. Your partner decides they need more variety in their sex life, so you both join the BDSM scene together… etc. etc. And part of the reason why that happens is because committed relationships mean committing to work with and move with someone as they change and grow.
But doing that in anarchical poly dynamics is a lot more difficult. In more traditional dynamics, the relationship itself defines the relationship. Your boyfriend is your boyfriend because he’s your boyfriend. But anarchical poly relationships often seem to get largely defined by what people do together (“my dom,” “my skiing buddy,” “my rope top”) and if one or both of them stops doing the thing, the relationship falls apart quickly. Or if time spent together defines the relationship, there is an inevitable degree to which that tends to be time spent doing a thing.
Which means that as people and their interests shift, it can be difficult to keep the relationship together in a meaningful way. Really, it often only works when people coincidentally change at the same time, because there’s just so much less motivation (or more depending on how you look at it) to change with the other person. When you use yourself as your own anchor rather than another person, when you get tired of the harbor, it’s pretty easy to just haul up and move along. But when you’re anchored to someone else, you’re kind of forced to move together or move apart.
It really doesn’t sound like it on paper, but I still have a lot of faith that anarchical poly is actually the most sustainable form of poly over the long haul. Except for my husband, all of the partners I’ve been able to hold onto for the longest were ones to whom I committed to them and not to a particular relationship dynamic.
After a few years with someone, I learn not to be insecure about it. But in the salad days (which I’ll go ahead and admit are way longer than I would like) of relationships, I still can’t help but feel insecure about it.
Consider this performance a love letter to the ball of amazingness that is Murphy Blue. Because really, that’s what it is.
You may figure this out watching it, but there just. is. no. one. else. like. him.
Okay, so a little bit of backstory. I started planning a musical for RambleGRUE ’15. I worked on it for MONTHS. It was totally the fulfillment of a childhood dream for me. I had wanted to have a “backyard” musical since I was 7 years old. 4 hours before the show, I completely and utterly lost my voice. I had to just play my songs and perform without singing. Graydancer took pity on me and invited me to repeat my performance with Murphy at RopeCraft Austin ’16… small catch that there would now be an audience more than 3 times as large in a barely mic’d ballroom.
But it happened anyway. And it was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Huge thanks to the people that made Ropecraft happen. And huge thanks to @TwistedView for videoing this.
by J.M. Green
From the Slut: J.M. Green is a friend who very recently completed law school and was gracious enough to write a detailed explication of an extremely complicated case. Much appreciation!
Dr. Slut has asked me to weigh in on a recent case decided in Virginia. I’m both delighted and flattered to be guest blogging here. My goal is to offer a solid understanding—legally and factually—of what the case actually decided, what it means that a court made this particular decision, and what actually happens now that the decision has been made.
What follows is a very detailed explanation of the case, and for people looking for the short takeaway, here it is: a Virginia District Court made several rulings in a complicated case of college date rape which purportedly involved BDSM. The alleged rapist, who had sued the school over how the school dealt with the case, won most of what he’d asked the court for. The only thing he didn’t win was a claim that the university was required to consider the BDSM context of his relationship, but his own admissions would damn him as a rapist in most BDSM communities. Legally speaking, he argued that he has a Constitutional right to engage in BDSM and the court used easily disputable logic to claim otherwise. The court’s ruling really doesn’t mean much, and it doesn’t apply in a very generalizable way. Moreover, it is suspect in terms of its legal reasoning, its simplistic treatment of BDSM, and its treatment of sex in general.
Now. For people who want to understand everything that happened in depth, here goes.
There has been has been a bit of rumbling and a bit of bumbling in the media recently about a Federal District Court’s decision in the case Doe v. Rector & Visitors of George Mason Univ., because the court spent a handful of pages (about 4 out of 45) analyzing whether the United States Constitution protects an individual’s right to engage in BDSM sex. A shorter version of that already short analysis? “Nope.” The decision is poorly reasoned on the question of the Constitution and BDSM. Critically, however, the “BDSM as Constitutional Right” issue (mostly) didn’t change the case’s outcome in the real world, and the hullabaloo around the decision is a bit silly.
However, the court’s analysis didn’t begin with the BDSM/Constitutional question—it took 40 pages to get there—nor did the court’s answer to that question dictate what actually happened to the people involved in the case. That was decided in the first 40 pages.
Yet, in every discussion I’ve read, the fact that the plaintiff (called “John Doe,” meaning he filed the case without disclosing his name) won nearly all the relief he asked for—the same person who claimed a right to BDSM sex under the Constitution—is glossed over. And yes, you read that right: he won. Without this context, much of the discussion that has followed is nonsensical. So, let’s start here with what happened in the first 40 pages of the decision.
Here’s how we’re going to proceed. First, I’m going to talk about what a “Constitutional Right to BDSM Sex” might look like. Second, I’m going to discuss the non-BDSM holdings in the case, so we have some perspective. Then, I’m going to discuss the BDSM related Constitutional holding (the holding that there is “no Constitutional right to BDSM Sex”) in Doe’s case, and break down how things work in the relevant area of Constitutional Law. Finally, I’m going to talk about why the legal impact of the BDSM related Constitutional holding is pretty much zero.
I. (Most of) what was actually decided in the case.
John Doe was expelled from GMU after being found “responsible” for “sexual misconduct.” At issue was whether, in the course of his relationship with a woman the court calls “Jane Roe” (for her privacy), Doe had engaged in sexual activity with her, without her consent. If so, he was in violation of school policies he’d agreed to in attending the school, and thus subject to expulsion. In terms of the school procedure and relevant facts (we’ll talk about the BDSM stuff in part II, but it’s not strictly relevant here), here’s what happened:
- Roe and Doe dated.
- Roe and Doe broke up.
- Doe sent Roe a text message threatening to kill himself if she did not respond.
- Roe made a formal complaint to GMU about things various Doe did, specifically including events on October 27, 2013 and the text message.
- GMU emailed Doe informing him he was the subject of (1) an alleged violation of GMU’s sexual misconduct policy and (2) charged with four violations of the code of conduct. Specifically, (1) “infliction of physical harm on any person(s), including self;” (2) “Deliberate touching or penetration of another person without consent;” (3) “Conduct of a sexual nature” and (4) “communication that may cause injury, distress, or emotional or physical discomfort.”
- Doe was given a hearing before a three-member panel of the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board, where he prevailed and was found “not responsible” as to any charge.
- That decision was appealed by Roe.
- Roe’s appeal went to an administrator named Ericson, who reversed the panel’s decision and found Doe “responsible.”
- Doe then appealed the appeal—apparently a unique event in GMU’s history—to Dean of Students Blank-Godlove (what a name!).
- Blank-Godlove affirmed Ericson’s decision and Doe was expelled.
After this series of events, Doe brought a lawsuit against the school, with a variety of claims, including the one that the school violated his Constitutional right to engage in BDSM sex.
The opinion that came down at the end of last month was a ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment. All “cross-motions” means is that both Doe and GMU are asking for summary judgment. Summary judgment is something granted by a judge where, if no relevant facts are in dispute, the law requires a particular result.
For example, let’s pretend Dr. Slut sued me for insulting her by saying “you’re stupid.” After we have each gathered some evidence, each of us looks at what we have and discover there’s no factual question of whether I said “you’re stupid:” it looks to both of us like I did say it. So, I go to the court and say “here are the facts we agree on, I think that there’s no legal reason I can’t say “you’re stupid” to Dr. Slut. Dr. Slut does the same, but in reverse, essentially saying “he admits he said ‘you’re stupid,’ and the law says I get money if he does that.” Then, the judge rules on what the law says. With me still? Cool. Let’s look at the opinion.
In this case, the court made three separate rulings. Two were about summary judgment, while the third gets a bit more complicated, so let’s start with the first two:
- Ruling: GMU violated Doe’s right to have “due process” before he was expelled.
Explanation: The “Due Process” Clause of the Constitution requires a certain amount of notice to be given to people like Doe in disciplinary hearings. Doe was given fair notice that his actions on October 27, 2013 were at issue, but not that his actions on any other day were. Because the decisions in the appeal process were based on things Doe did on other days, his Due Process Right was violated.
- Ruling: GMU violated Doe’s right to “free speech.”
Explanation: The Free Speech protections in the First Amendment protect speech in the form of text messages, but “true threats” do not have any First Amendment protections. GMU’s policy banning text messages that are “likely to…cause injury, distress or emotional or physical discomfort” bans more than just “true threats,” without justification. The court thus ruled that because Doe’s text message does not satisfy the legal definition of a “true threat,” it may not be the basis for an expulsion. The court is careful to note, however, that the issue was with the expulsion and its relationship to the policy; GMU would have been perfectly okay to have a policy that when such text messages were sent, students were sequestered and evaluated by mental health counselors.
So, there’s a lot there. Let’s break it down even further: (1) Doe wins. (2) Doe wins.
The court then addresses what remedy Doe gets. The court rules that Doe should be reinstated in the school, but the school CAN hold a new hearing on the same issues. It also rules that it will decide some related issues—like whether Blank-Godlove and Ericson are too biased to fairly run the new hearings—after more briefing and arguments.
II. A Constitutional right to BDSM sex
I think the most important thing in any discussion of a Constitutional right, especially when it is a discussion that probably involves non-area experts, is to set a clear definition of the right you’re discussing, or at least note the potential different definitions in play (I’m looking at you, Mr. Volokh). So what form does a Constitutional right to engage in BDSM sex take? What conduct does it protect? What conduct doesn’t it protect?
Constitutional rights, generally, are rights against the government. Because of the nature of government funding of universities, universities are considered government actors for a lot of purposes. So I have a right to free speech against a university, but not against an individual. If I make posts arguing that sex is morally reprehensible on Dr. Slut’s blog, she’s absolutely free to ban me without violating any right of mine. Not quite so for the government/a university. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot bar a protester from wearing a jacket with the slogan “Fuck the Draft” from entering a courthouse.
However, rights are never absolute. In classic terms, my right to freely swing my fist ends where your nose begins. So, let’s pause and assume there’s a Constitutional right to BDSM sex. Where would such a right end? The most sensible place, it seems to me, would be with consent. This squares with the case Doe cites as the source of his right. Doe cites Lawrence v. Texas, a Supreme Court decision about “homosexual sodomy” as establishing that “all adults have the same fundamental liberty interests [and therefore Constitutional rights] in their private consensual sexual choices.” BDSM only becomes more interesting if you assume it includes consensual non-consent-type play.
Thus, we might see two versions of the right. In the Lawrence case, Mr. Lawrence ended up in court claiming his right because the police broke down the door to his house and arrested him when they found him having a kind of sex Texas had made illegal. Applied to this case, we could imagine a set of facts where a roommate reported Doe and Roe for their sexual practices, and the school expelled him without Roe’s complaint. In that case, we’d have a question of whether a school could—consistent with the Constitution—ban BDSM practices altogether. The other form of the right—the one Doe’s case seems to present—is a question of where Doe’s rights end and Roe’s rights begin.
III. The other part of the case.
In the 4½ pages at the end of the opinion, the court rejects an argument that the university violated his “substantive due process” rights. Before we talk about what this means, we should lay two pieces of ground work: the facts and the law. I should also note that while it’s probably important to know the facts here, the law of substantive due process is pretty technical. While writing this piece, I’ve been able to get laughs from other law people by simply stating that “I’m writing a piece that explains substantive due process to a non-law audience.” So, please feel free to skip ahead to part IV.
First, the facts (we’ll unpack them a bit more below):
- To use the court’s stilted language, Roe and Doe were in a “romantic relationship” which “included certain sexual practices known collectively as ‘BDSM.’”
- Roe and Doe agreed upon and used the safe word, “Red.” They also seem to have agreed that their sex would include consensual non-consent play (“stop” doesn’t mean STOP; “no” doesn’t mean NO).
- On October 27, 2013, Roe and Doe had a play session in Doe’s dorm room. Apparently during this session, Roe pushed Doe away, and when asked whether she wanted to continue sex, Roe said “I don’t know.” Doe then resumed activities, according to the court, “despite the equivocation, given that Roe did not use the agreed safe word ‘red.’”
- After they broke up, Roe made reports to both GMU and the GMU university police about a variety of things Doe did, including various sexual encounters where she felt he violated her consent.
- According to the facts considered at summary judgement (this only means that there was some argument about the facts—not that there was an ultimate factual determination) Roe did not use the safe word on October 27.
- However Doe has admitted he has failed to stop sex and play when Roe safe worded, and even admitted this in his GMU hearing:
- On a call that Roe and the GMU police recorded, Roe asked Doe “why [he] never stopped when [she] used the safe word,” to which he replied that he “felt like [she] could handle it.”
- At the hearing before the Sexual Misconduct Board, Doe was asked if there were instance outside of October 27 when Roe used the safe word and he refused to stop. His response was it happened in “very rare” and “unusual circumstances” because he was “set in the routine of things.” He qualified this by saying when Roe said “red” again, he would then “stop immediately.” He apparently also assured the Board that he would “not just blatantly ignore and then continue.”
- The 3-person GMU Sexual Assault Panel found Doe “not responsible” as to the October 27 incident.
- Roe appealed and (ignoring the procedural issues in part I) Ericson investigated.
- Ericson found that Doe was responsible for sexual assault, specifically violations of GMU’s ban on touching or penetration “without consent.” However, his formal announcement did not explain the facts supporting or the reasoning of the decision.
- Doe appealed the appeal, and Dean of Students Blank-Godlove investigated.
- Blank-Godlove reviewed “only those portions of the record identified by Ericson as supporting his decision.” She upheld Ericson’s determination.
- Apparently those portions were not just about October 27: later, during the lawsuit, it was revealed that Doe was “expelled for conduct other than what occurred on October 27.”.
With the facts covered, let’s dig into the law of substantive due process, and look at what it means in this case:
First, for those unacquainted with Fourteenth Amendment law, let’s start with what the words mean. Drawing some very rough lines, a “substantive” right is a right to some actual thing in the world, as opposed to a right to some kind of process. If I have a substantive right to free speech, for example, I have a right that involves actual speaking. This stands in opposition to a “procedural” right, which is a right to some kind of process. For example, if I had a procedural right to free speech, I’d have a right to have a certain amount of process take place before my speech rights were taken away.
Substantive due process is about a set of rights that are so fundamental that they are implied in the Constitution, rather than explicitly stated. The doctrine has a storied history. For example, in 1905, the Supreme Court used substantive due process to strike down minimum wage and other labor laws because the Court saw those laws as infringing the fundamental right of individuals to freely contract (Lochner v. New York). More recently, decisions have taken a liberal turn, and notable “fundamental rights” include a woman’s right to control her own body and have an abortion (Roe v. Wade); in an individual’s right to engage in consensual “sodomy” (Lawrence v. Texas); and the freedom to marry a person of one’s choice, regardless of gender (Obergefell v. Hodges).
Doctrinally, here’s how you win a substantive due process claim. There are two kinds of review that a substantive due process claim can be given: strict scrutiny review and rational basis review. Winning cases essentially requires getting strict scrutiny review. When conducting strict scrutiny, courts use a lot of phrases like “substantially further a compelling government interest” and “least burdensome means,” which boil down to “government, if you want to restrict this right, you better have a damn good goal and no other way accomplish it.” Thus, it is exceedingly rare that a regulation can survive that test. On the other hand, courts doing rational basis review will ask if the government has a “legitimate interest” (and there doesn’t need to be a single piece of evidence that the interest identified in court was what the people passing the restriction had in mind) and whether the restriction is “rationally related” to that interest. Just as exceedingly few laws survive strict scrutiny, exceedingly few laws fail a rational basis test.
So, how do you get strict scrutiny? You must establish that the right you’ve identified is “fundamental.” The easiest way to do this is to find a case where the Supreme Court has already identified a fundamental right, and argue your right falls under that larger heading. If the right has not already been identified, or a court disagrees with you that your right should fall under a pre-existing right, there are two ways to show a right is fundamental. You can show either that your right is (1) “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” or that it is (2) “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937); Moore v. City of East Cleveland 431 U.S. 494 (1977). Most arguments will cover both bases.
As you might guess, the most important fight in determining whether a right is fundamental is the fight over how—and at what level of generality—the right at issue is defined. To show you what I mean, let’s talk about the decision in the Lawrence v. Texas: the case that is the source of the fundamental liberty interest Doe claims. Lawrence was about a Texas law that banned “deviate sexual intercourse,” which was defined to mean “anal intercourse with a member of the same sex (man).” Police, responding to what was apparently a false report of a “weapons disturbance,” entered the home of John Lawrence and his partner. The police found them making the beast with two backs, and arrested them for violation of the Texas “Homosexual Conduct” law (the one I mentioned above). They were convicted, and appealed that conviction to the Supreme Court, saying the law violated their substantive due process rights.
Ultimately, the Court decided that “all adults have the same fundamental liberty interests in their private consensual sexual choices,” and that this right extended to Lawrence and his partner. However, Texas didn’t argue that all adults did not have a fundamental interest in “private consensual sexual choices.” Instead, Texas argued that there was no fundamental “right to engage in homosexual anal intercourse,” and argued vehemently that even if there was a right to engage in private consensual sexual choices,” that right didn’t help them because they could not “establish a historical tradition of exalting and protecting the conduct” (read: anal sex) “for which they were prosecuted at any level of specificity.”
In Doe’s case, the most sensible approach would have been to start from what is clear in the law; Lawrence unequivocally stated that there is a fundamental interest in “private consensual sexual choices.” The proper question left for Judge Ellis to decide was not whether there was a fundamental liberty interest in “freedom from state regulation of consensual BDSM activity,” but whether the regulation of consensual BDSM activity violates broader right to “private consensual sexual choices.” I am not suggesting that would be an easy constitutional question; but I am saying it’s the right one to ask. Instead, Judge Ellis takes a nonsensical perspective and argues that “Obergefell [(the gay marriage case)] explicitly establishes that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses are interlocking and each leads to a stronger understanding of the other” (quotation marks removed). While it is true that this is the case in Obergefell, the claim that Obergefell somehow ruled that all Substantive Due Process claims must have an Equal Protection element is an absurd one, and one I can’t find being made anywhere else.
I should also mention that at least some BDSM communities would recoil in horror at Doe’s attitude towards safewords, and thus it’s far from clear that the BDSM context wasn’t (or couldn’t have been) taken into account. Recall that Doe admitted at the hearing he did not always immediately respond to safewords, sometimes because he was “set in the routine of things.” Clarisse Thorn wrote a fantastic piece on safe words several years ago, and has cited approvingly to Thomas MacAulay Millar’s annotated version of it. In the annotations, Millar writes that it “can’t be emphasized enough” that “Tops Can Never Be On Cruise Control!” (emphasis and capitalization from the original). Along a similar line, one major online resource for submissive partners in BDSM relationships (the “Submissive Guide” by lunaKM) instructs that “[i]f used, the ‘stop’ safeword should be respected unconditionally. After the bottom uses the safeword, the activity or entire scene is over, inflicting pain or any physical forcing should be stopped and all restraints should be removed immediately. Ignoring safewords is considered dishonorable and a deeply immoral practice in the BDSM community” (emphasis added). While this by no means speaks for everyone in the community, Doe’s admissions about his behavior regarding safe words would be plenty in at least some BDSM communities to—with the BDSM context he asks for!—determine he had violated consent; he failed to stop “immediately” because, as he describes it, he was “set in the routine of things” (in other words, he was “on cruise control”).
IV. What is the impact of this decision?
Of course, none of the above may really matter; the impact of the BDSM portion of decision is (next to) zero. To explain this, I want to start with what will happen to John Doe now.
John Doe has a right to a new hearing because the appeal process for the original hearing was found to be Constitutionally inadequate. Let’s talk about what that means in light of what we know Doe did. Doe claims that Ericson and Blank-Godlove did not take account of the BDSM context of his relationship in his appeal. However, if that was strictly true, it’s hard to see why they would have needed to rely on events OTHER THAN the October 27 incident. On October 27, we know that Roe physically pushed Doe away and expressed disinterest in continuing sex, which Doe responded to by continuing sex. Without a BDSM context, that is a pretty clear violation of consent.
Even with a BDSM context, we know that Doe admitted he did not stop activity when Roe used her safe word, and we know that he did this more than once. This is legally relevant because it means that the court’s decision on the Due Process right is a decision on a question that was not appropriately before it; on the undisputed facts, Doe’s right to private consensual sexual choices was not violated when the school enforced a consent policy against him. Moreover, as far as I can tell, his argument that BDSM community norms would compel a different result on a consent determination is simply wrong about community norms.
I should also explain a little bit about what it means that this case was decided in a Virginia District Court. The court is in the federal system, which is structured as follows:
- United States Supreme Court (top)
- Federal Appellate Courts
- Federal District Courts (bottom)
In this system, decisions by a higher (closer to the top) court must be followed by that court, and any courts below them. Additionally, a judge at the same level as another may explicitly overrule the decision of that judge, though such decisions are less common. So, the Virginia district court’s (the bottom rung on that ladder) decision only requires another court in that same district to follow its results, and even then, it is not exactly required so much as strongly suggested. Furthermore, because as I mentioned above, it was not necessary to decide the Constitutional question to reach the result in this case, another district court might call the decision “dicta.” What that means is that the court was expressing an opinion on an issue it didn’t need to decide, and therefore that opinion is just that: an opinion, and not a binding judicial decision.
Finally, I want to express one last opinion. Because this case is a district court case, its influence is only as great as its reasoning is convincing. Judge Ellis’s reasoning is not convincing, and here’s why: it is entirely consistent with both Lawrence and the result in this case to say that (1) Doe should lose on the Constitutional issue, and (2) there is a Constitutional right that protects BDSM sex. Recall that Lawrence was about a legislative ban on a victimless crime. By contrast, Doe had a victim. The facts of a case that would actually require a court to decide whether Lawrence’s right to consensual sex includes BDSM would look more like this:
- Doe and Roe are in a BDSM relationship.
- They are having a consensual non-consent type scene in Doe’s dorm room.
- Doe’s roommate walks in, and immediately calls the GMU police.
- Doe is brought before a Sexual Misconduct Board, where Doe’s roommate testifies to what he saw Doe doing to Roe.
- Roe either testifies that she had negotiated with Doe, or is for some reason unavailable to testify.
Whether that case would come out differently is perhaps underscored by the fact that Doe was found “not responsible” by the Misconduct Board, even when he explicitly admitted he didn’t always follow safe word practices appropriately.
So what does all this mean? Doe is now a student at GMU again. He’s going to have another hearing. However, there is no reason that he needs to be found “not responsible” in that hearing. Based on what appear to be uncontested facts, in that hearing, a panel could take into account BDSM context and still find him “responsible” for sexual assault. Doe clearly won the battle here, but it may be something of a pyrrhic victory. But none of that should make us worry deeply about the Constitutional status of BDSM. This case has no binding effect decisions by future courts in cases where an actual ban on BDSM practices is enacted, nor does it have any binding effect on cases where there is no victim. It is unfortunate that even in the legal field, sometimes very important complexity is lost in translation, and that has certainly happened in reporting on Doe’s case.
I also want to take one last moment to focus on the impact of this decision on Roe. Tragically, the University’s handling of this case probably forces her to make the horrible choice of going through a hellish proceeding again or knowing that Doe will go unpunished. It seems clear to me that a little less squeamishness around the BDSM element of the case would have gone a long way: if the administrators had looked up BDSM community standards on safewords, Doe’s testimony would have damned him, and they could explicitly say “we took into account the BDSM context, and in that context, you were responsible for sexual assault.” Perhaps we can hope this case teaches universities that lesson.
 A big thank you to my dear friend Maya (mayashakti) for help in trying to make this understandable to non-lawyers.
 For those familiar with some parts of Constitutional law playing along at home, you may notice that it’s kind of weird that a University can violate Constitutional rights. That’s a complicated story, but it can be reduced to “Universities are basically government/state actors in some cases.” It’s also worth noting that the court mentions that its second holding may be moot—that is, not relevant anymore—because it rules in Doe’s favor on the first, and the relief Doe requested is the same for each violation.
 For those keeping score at home, this actually isn’t the first time this was addressed in this case. Doe’s substantive due process right to BDSM sex claim was actually dismissed back in September. See 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125230. Doe raised the issue again with a motion to reconsider. The analysis is substantially different, so I’m going to talk exclusively about the February decision.
 The court is not particularly clear on whether Roe explicitly agreed to consensual non-consent, though it notes that “according to [Doe,] the ground rules for his BDSM relationship with Roe included that [Doe] should not stop sexual activity unless or until Roe used the safeword.”
 The court treats this like it was a surprise to Doe, but at least one charge—the charge related to his text message—was clearly about a non-October 27 event. That said, it does seem reasonable to say that, with regard to the allegations of consent violations, this may have come as a surprise to Doe.
 I am only treating the kind of substantive due process claim made by Doe. There are some other modes of analysis out there that I’m not mentioning because this is already way too complicated. See, for example, Justice Souter’s dissent, proposing sliding scale-type analysis in Washington v. Glucksberg (a case about assisted suicide case), suggesting that the test should be comparing the importance of the right asserted with the importance of the state interest.
 There is a variance in terminology, and the opinion in Doe’s case uses both. Just know that “implied fundamental right,” a “fundamental right,” and an “implied fundamental liberty interest” mean exactly the same thing.
 Yes, they made super-duper clear they were only going after homosexual dudes. Heterosexuals and lesbians could apparently have all the anal sex they wanted.
 There is also an equal protection story here, but let’s put that aside.
Tonight, March 6, the Slut will be interviewed on the People of Kink Radio at 7 PM EST! You can call in and ask questions:
Call via Skype for free by using the Skype ID of “thepeopleofkink”.
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Back in the fall of 2015, I gave an academic-ish talk for a group called We Are Takoma. I threw in some bonus bondage performances as it was also an arts venue. The talk explains why people engage in BDSM. The bondage performances are a sexy bonus.
The talk is by me
The first performance is by Sardonic and WigglyBunny
The second performance is by me and Greneydathlete
This Slut got strung up by the darling MonkeyFetish
I mentioned in my earlier post on how to manage and deal with new relationship energy that people have a bad habit of cursing NRE (New Relationship Energy) when what they’re actually cursing is the fact of new relationships. It’s really tricky to separate out which one of these things is the “real” problem, especially when they tend to be so intertwined and both can cause problems. Frequently, you kind of need to take all the things that I mentioned earlier about managing NRE into account and all the shit that I’m going to explain here about managing new relationships into account as you’re trying to grow your poly garden.
Hey, I never said poly was easy. RELATIONSHIPS aren’t easy. With poly you just get (all that relationship trouble)^(number of people involved).
Everything that I’m going to talk about here applies to basically all poly, whether you’re doing more anarchical or more hierarchical poly. However, things manifest differently depending on which one of those you’re doing. The real wrench is circumstances: whether you’re transitioning your previously more-or-less monogamous relationship into a polyamorous one; or you’re a previously not-poly person entering into someone else’s already well-established polyamorous relationship dynamics; or you’re trying to start a new relationship (or set of relationships) and keep them poly from the start; or you’re in an existing poly relationship and starting a new relationship (which feels like it should be the easiest of all of these, but isn’t always).
(I’ve noticed more and more people sort-of drifting into poly recently in a way that didn’t used to happen much. I’m getting more “please help!” messages from people that go something like, “Well, he was poly when I started dating him, and it seemed like the thing to do, but we never really talked about it, and man… that shit got messy fast.” Call me crazy, but to me, that’s kind of the relationship equivalent of saying, “Well, he was into skydiving when I met him, so I figured, ‘why not?’” That might turn out awesome for you, but chances are, it’s going to get messy and need a lot of frantic education and training in order to avoid a messy crash. All of which is to say that ANY poly that isn’t pure luck requires some real thought and serious communication if it’s going to be anything other than a set of very casual disconnected relationships. And that adding new partners in a poly dynamic where everyone is just sort-of “dating” or doing that “I’m-not-sure-what-we-are” thing looks pretty different than adding new partners when you’re, say, married.)
So. With all that as background, here’s some advice on how to deal with new relationships in the midst of previously existing relationships. I’m writing this in problem-solving mode, but it’s entirely possible that everything goes just fine and none of these problems appears. You know, in fantasy relationships…
First off, always remember that “dealing with new relationships” is a three+-person endeavor.
New relationships affect everyone in a poly set: the old partner who might feel left behind, the old partner in the throes of a new relationship, and the new partner(s). Any of these people as individuals might be handling things badly or well, and any of the relationship units in there might be handling things badly or well. You might be insecure; your partner might be acting like an asshole; or both things can be true (I’ve learned that when people don’t treat me particularly well, it tends to make me insecure. Go figure). It’s important to notice everyone’s behavior here, and try not to pinpoint any individual as the sole source of a problem. Sure, you may be annoyed because your new metamour is texting your boyfriend constantly, but the real problem for you is that he keeps texting herback. It’s really important to keep all that in perspective and focus on the part of the problem that you can solve (i.e. your own relationship, and not the other relationship[s]).
Don’t try to pretend like nothing has changed
This is an awful strategy that people frequently employ to avoid dealing with the realities of their new relationships. Even if the only thing that has changed is that now you’re less available for spontaneous dates, something has changed. The question is whether whatever has changed matters much to you and the other people involved.
Try to have compassion for your partner’s anxieties, even when they seem weird or silly
This point follows directly from the previous one. People tend to manage new relationships (at least in their platonic ideals) very differently in hierarchical and anarchical poly relationships. In hierarchical poly relationships, new partners can pose threats to cherished statuses and relationship positions. People often take solace and security from the idea that they’re “your only boyfriend,” “your only sub,” and even weird things like “the only person who fucks your ass” (a strangely common one) or “the only person who chokes you.” People use those designations as a way to convince themselves that they’re special and matter to you. So if they suddenly find that they’re not your only boyfriend, sub, person fucking your ass, human choker, etc., they may panic and worry that they’re no longer important to you at all (even though what they actually mean is that they’re no longer important to you in the way that they were. And let’s face it—that’s probably true).
Don’t kid yourself or trivialize your partner’s anxiety about these things. There really is a pretty big difference between being your only sub and being one of two for all kinds of reasons. Also, don’t try to kid yourself into thinking that going from “being your only dom” to “being the only person who chokes you” is really going to provide the same kind of status-comfort. I try to constantly remind myself that relationships are more important than titles, but there’s no denying that psychologically and sociologically, titles and relationship distinctions mean something. There’s only so much you can do to replace them.
Don’t try to manage your partner’s other relationships for them
This one is just general basic poly advice, but still applies here as elsewhere. Your job is to state and manage your own needs/wants/desires as honestly as possible to your partner; then your partner needs as honestly as possible to tell you what they can do to meet them, given the needs/wants/desires of their other partners. You’ll create all kinds of poly stresses if you say things like, “I’m worried that you’ve been spending too much time with me and not enough with your wife.” Far more reasonable is, “Do you think that, given the constraints of your other relationships, the amount of time we’ve been spending together is going to be sustainable?” Or even, “I’m worried that the amount of time you’re spending with me is making your wife jealous and resentful towards me. This makes it really hard to spend time with the both of you. What kinds of things would help change that?”
Treat the other new relationship as an opportunity to clarify your relationship
A lot of times, especially in these days of fuzzy dating norms, people tend to drift vaguely into relationships that they don’t clearly define for themselves or each other. But sometimes, the presence of a new relationship can force the conversation where you define each other as “boyfriend/girlfriend,” or where you admit that you like each other a lot but aren’t really in love, or where you finally confess to each other that this really isn’t working as well as you want it to. You can also use the new relationship as an opportunity to try to force yourself to articulate your favorite things about the relationship and try to make sure that those things persist in it.
The subset of this one is the emotionally clueless version where you realize through your jealousy or by missing certain things how much the person meant to you when you hadn’t realized it fully before. This one is mostly problematic because it’s a lot harder to get something back than to keep it and let it grow. Generally speaking, you’re better late than never here, and you’re probably better off being honest. But ideally, you want to clarify your relationship while it’s still going strong and not after it’s deteriorated a bit from other relationships.
Use the other relationship as an opportunity to find and fix cracks in your relationship.
Following from the previous point about clarifying the relationship and what it means to both of you, new relationships tend to put pressure on small relationship cracks of existing relationships (well, they also put pressure on big relationship cracks that destroy them, but that’s a different issue). You may have been pretending that those cracks weren’t a big deal for a long time. You don’t get to do that once there’s so much outside pressure on them, and so the new relationship forces you to do some relationship housecleaning.
Unfortunately, this housecleaning often comes with the cost of harsh contrast. It’s unfortunately really common for people to be blissing out in NRE with their new partners and undergoing a lot of hard relationship processing with their older partners. This contrast only makes the new partner seem more attractive by contrast (because the new relationship feels easy by comparison). As long as you remind yourself that this is what’s happening, you can often come out of this housecleaning stronger. But it can be especially alarming to the outside person in the new relationship as they wonder what the hell kind of mess they’ve stumbled into. Don’t be surprised if they get nervous or wary as a result.
Try to stay focused on YOUR relationship
This may be one of the most effective ways I know to combat jealousy, and it’s also a way to combat the temptation to try to manage your partner’s other relationships. Stay focused on what the new relationship is doing to yourrelationship, and how it is affecting you–directly and indirectly. Try not to focus on the fact of that other relationship’s existence, but instead on the concrete ways it affects you. For example, it doesn’t necessarily matter much if her long-distance girlfriend is kind of a bitch if she always goes to visit her. If you want to live the giant poly train station house thing (where all the partners come and go frequently in a big happy poly blob), it matters a lot more. But you have to pick your partners differently if you’re committed to that fantasy than if you’re not.
New relationships, like NRE, don’t have to mean Big Scary Relationship Doom. In the best case scenario, new relationships can mean that there’s a new awesome person involved in your life (a new metamour) and sometimes they also come with a whole package of cool friends and lovers themselves as an added bonus. Basically, in the ideal poly world, new relationships can mean new friends and new bonding opportunities. But manifesting that ideal requires some really careful and strategic cultivation of all of the relevant relationships, and preserving an underlying sense of security among everyone.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s plenty of research that suggests that NRE (New Relationship Energy) is basically a drug. The process of falling in love tends to be accompanied by all kinds of gooey endorphin rushes that our bodies and brains are programmed to think are delightful. But as with most drugs, NRE-endorphins might feel great to some people, fine to some, awful to some, and like The Best Thing Ever to others. Which in practice seems to mean that most people seem to really enjoy NRE, some people are just kind of meh about it, others despise it, and some people lovvvvve it. The people who lovvvvve it are the ones who usually become NRE addicts. Please note that a lot of kinksters are endorphin junkies (it’s part of what many people love about kink), so it should come as no surprise that kinky poly NRE-junkies are also a common feature of the scene. Thus you get people like my husband (who ironically isn’t an NRE junkie) who like to say that their “vices are adrenaline and women.”
I’m not going to spend too much energy or too many words trying to parse the difference between NRE addiction and polysexuality. I define polysexuals as people who eroticize the experience of sexual difference and variety (unsurprisingly, they polysexuals tend to be switches). I think of it as the defining aspect of my own sexuality. It’s entirely possible for people to be polysexual and not be polyamorous, and for those people things like swinging can be very appealing because their priority is sexual variety. It’s also possible to be an NRE addict and monogamous, but it pretty much always leads to serial monogamy. I think of NRE addiction as being fundamentally about feeling perpetually enthralled, aroused, and excited by the process of getting to know new “partners”; while sex and/or kink is usually part of that, it is more about the thrill of getting lost in a person and a partnership than just getting lost in the sex/kink.
For the addicted
I’m going to take for granted that you understand the myriad ways that NRE addiction can potentially hurt you and your other relationships. So if you’ve realized that you are a bit addicted to NRE, you really have four choices: 1. Try to kick the habit 2. Become one of those “solo polyamorists” who never seems to have a “relationship” that lasts longer than a year (and to clarify, that is not all solo polyamorists by any stretch. I’m referring to a specific group of people) 3. Find that your “long-term” relationships usually fizzle or blow up like Pompeii because of the way you dis/invest in them or 4. Acquire some strategies for becoming a functional addict. I personally picked #4, and here are some of the ways that I manage my life.
- Find an exceedingly tolerant primary partner. While I don’t doubt that someone somewhere out there has successfully managed their NRE addiction by becoming a hardcore poly anarchist, I’ve never personally seen it work for even a year. In poly anarchy, unless you try to keep some pretty strict rules about date nights, communication (phone calls, texting, etc.), and all the other little things that make relationships function (and at that point, how anarchical does it really look?), NRE addiction tends to lead to constantly wildly shifting and overhauling relationship dynamics (not to mention relationship neglect) in a way that burns the relationship candle out quickly. Poly anarchy is attractive to NRE addicts because it’s so flexible, but in my not-so-humble opinion, it’s not a good relationship strategy for managing the addiction; it’s more a way to FUEL the addiction. If you want to MANAGE your NRE addiction, your best bet is to find a staid primary partner with whom you establish clear patterns and expectations, an adventurous secondary partner or two who like to go out exploring with you, and then get a good rotation of other people to keep your interest going without having to constantly form new relationships (see below).
- Deliberately form relationships with people who are not easily available because of distance or time (don’t try emotionally unavailable. That’s always messy). If you’re one of those people who is innately awful at keeping in touch with people by text, IM, or phone—work on that. It’s worth your while to get good at this, because one of the easiest ways to maintain NRE-like feelings without having to constantly acquire new relationships is to have a bunch of people with varying degrees of relationship seriousness that you actually don’t get to see very much or spend much time with. Then when you see them, it’s a big thrill! Plus people tend to do those relationships as “vacation-ships,” which has an NRE-ish thrill all its own (“I can’t do laundry tonight! My partner-who-I-never-get-to-see is over!”).
- Be honest with yourself about your addiction, and don’t treat every new person you have a crush on/fuck as The New Big Deal. There is, in my experience, exactly NO correlation between NRE and functional long-term relationships. Remind yourself of that fact a lot, no matter how full of sexy cotton candy fluff your brain might be with Pretty Person #102, and don’t neglect good solid relationships in favor of relationship junk food.
- Be conscious of the “I’ve never been in love like this before!” trap, for it is a trap that is especially easily for NRE junkies to lose vulnerable parts of their anatomy in. Among other things, NRE addiction tends to be fueled by an excitement from/eroticization of difference. What’s easy to lose sight of is that every new love is new and different from every other because every person is a special unique snowflake, so of course you’ve never been in love like this before. So what?
- Get really fucking good at doing all the things I described in my previous post about managing NRE. Go out of your way to make sure your long-term partners feel desired and are comfortable with your new relationships. Don’t expect them to take your new relationships seriously just because you do. Be respectful to everyone—old and new—with your time and energy.
- Always make everyone believe that you’re happy to see them.
But let’s say you’re partnered to someone who’s an NRE addict. What do you do?
Although I do have some experience on this side of the equation, I’ve never lasted more than six months on it (…see the above part about being an NRE addict myself), so I turned to my husband for some truly expert advice. It’s a good thing that I know that he loves me well, because the picture he painted was a rather bleak one; I’ve woven his advice into what follows. He warned that one of the hardest things about being in a long-term relationship with an NRE addict is that you usually lose one of the best weapons against jealousy in poly life: befriending the metamour. He says that NRE addicts have (I warned you this was bleak) an “assembly line” of relationships, where there are always ones going in, ones currently in production, and ones going out. According to him, it’s hard to keep up the motivation to really get to know people after a while because they come and go so easily.
Conversely, you have no fucking clue why the person is staying with you once the NRE is gone in your own relationship. All you really can do is just have faith that they’re going to keep coming back and aren’t going to get bored with you. And the only way to do that is to believe that the life you’ve built with them is interesting enough to make up for the fact that you aren’t new and shiny any more.
- If you want to be in a serious long-term committed relationship with an NRE-addict, you generally have to accept a position as the Comfortable Partner. Accept the fact that they’ll run off and sow wild oats and come home to you. Take that homecoming as a sign of their love and devotion, instead of reading the sowing of wild oats as a sign of disinterest in or boredom with you. Remember that when this all works well, they’ll bring home a big blaze of twitterpated enthusiasm that can reignite your own relationship as well, and just bask in the reflected glow.
- Be super clear about your relationship needs/wants/desires and able to assert them if necessary. Ideally, your partner is checking in with you regularly, but if you don’t respond honestly when they do, it’s not going to do either of you any good. People often don’t know how to articulate the little things that matter to them in relationships that can vanish when a partner falls into another person—the daily text messages that diminish, the cooking of random special foods, the special way you dress for Your Person. But as best you can, it’s good to stay aware of the things that are important to you so you can describe them and ask for them.
- Get a life. I don’t say that to be snarky—again, I’m quoting my dear spouse. It’s true in any poly relationship, but having hobbies and things that you enjoy doing with or without your partner is a strategy for success. Keep in mind that for a lot of NRE addicts, relationships and sex are hobbies in and of themselves. If those aren’t hobbies of yours, get a different hobby.
- Cultivate other relationships and just ride the waves. If you’re not an NRE addict and your partner is, chances are pretty decent you’ll have one other very serious relationship to their 10 it’s-complicateds at any given time. Great. That gives you an even firmer emotional cushion against the bumps from their relationship roller coaster ride.
I promise, being partnered to an NRE addict can still be lots of fun and interesting and really crazy wild ride… You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. It can be worth it. I swear.
The Slut (IPCookieMonster) will be one of the presenters and performers at an awesome bondage event called RopeCraft Feb. 19-21, 2016. For more information, check out: http://ropecraft.net/
One of the biggest challenges in poly life is new relationship energy, often abbreviated to NRE. My best friend and I actually worded that acronym (pronouncing it nuh-ree) and would go around squealing it whenever relevant like a couple of birds. (me: “omg she is so cute have you seen her hair and she always wears the best shoes and unf and she texted me like 100 times yesterday” her: “nuhree! nuhree!”).
NRE is also sometimes known as “twitterpation, ” which is a term I know some people despise as patronizing and trivializing. I think it’s adorable, especially given the original context:
The clip provides a decent overview of the concept: NRE and twitterpation are both associated with giddy and semi-obsessive feelings around the object of one’s affection. People in the throes of NRE also tend to be blind or at least uncaring about the object’s faults. And there’s a sense in all of this that NRE/twitterpation is more hormones and pheromones whizzing and banging than the kinds of feelings that help you establish and maintain lasting relationships.
One of the reasons I actually prefer the term “twitterpated” to “NRE” is because “NRE” implies that time is the crucial factor in all of this. My own experience suggests quite adamantly that it’s not always the case. On multiple occasions, I’ve become twitterpated with people I’d been playing with for over a year. Although I could argue in all of those cases that the precipitating factor was the new relationship, rather than the new relationship. My point is that the term “new relationship energy” can be misleading. If you have a years-long play partner you fall in love with for whatever reason, NRE can still apply.
Now before I go any further, let me hasten to add that NRE also still definitely happens to monogamous people. It’s also very problematic for monogamous people, as it is for polyamorous people, but for entirely different reasons that I’ll mostly elide. Suffice it to say that NRE often leads monogamous people to try to settle down with the wrong people, and mono folks who are addicted to NRE often become serial monogamists without really understanding why.
Wait, “addicted”? If that sounds like a strong term, let me assure you that it’s not. Twitterpation really basically is a drug (and psychologists have even studied it as such), and it feels reeeeeeally good. And just like with most drug addicts, there are functional NRE-addicts, and super-destructive not-very-functional-at-all NRE addicts. I’ll write a post-script post on how to deal with NRE addiction.
I don’t think most poly people are NRE addicts, but NRE nevertheless remains a very challenging aspect of poly life. The two most common questions about my life that I get from mono muggles is “how do you deal with STDs?” and “how do you deal with jealousy?” The most common question I get from more experienced poly folk about my life is, “how do you deal with NRE?” So here’s some basic advice from my own experience for managing NRE in poly life.
First off, as best you can, try to differentiate issues which arise from the “new relationship” versus issues that arise from the “new relationship energy”
This one is so tricky that most people barely even seem to try. Technically speaking, there are some very practical differences between anxiety brought on by seeing your partner form a new relationship and anxiety brought on by seeing your partner giddily forming a new relationship and not paying as much attention to you. However, these issues are in fact so different that I’m going to post separately about managing new relationships in poly life, which is a different question (and in my opinion, a much harder one).
Admittedly, this is easier advice when you’ve been with someone for, say, a decade than when you’ve been dating them for less than a year. But the fact of the matter is, you probably really have no way to tell if the person your partner is currently gooing over is going to stick around or not based on the fact that they text all the time and have 30 million photos of the person on their phone. Give your partner some time (you decide how long) to be ridiculous and enjoy the highs of this New Person, and then wait to see if this New Person actually turns into New Relationship.
For Goddess’ sake, don’t assume that NRE is necessarily a problem
Poly folks have a bad habit of talking about NRE like it’s this horrible thing that’s out to destroy them and their precious primary relationships. It really doesn’t have to be. If you have a good relationship, your partner’s NRE with someone else can actually be good for it. A rising tide raises all boats, and all that. People in the midst of NRE tend to just be happier all the way around, their libidos tend to get higher, they tend to engage in more courtly and romantic gestures… and when it works out well, everybody benefits from that, not just the new partner. Especially if your partner was previously polyunsaturated, NRE can be great.
Don’t demand compersion from yourself or your partner
Another bad poly habit is thinking that people who don’t experience compersionaren’t “true polys.” There are a lot of things that go into compersion, and you’re doing a serious disservice to yourself and your partner if you think that a lack of compersion is the same as a lack of love and emotional support. Settle for a lack of active jealousy or anxiety, and treat compersion as a bonus emotion if it happens.
Don’t trivialize the new relationship
People sometimes use “twitterpation” and “NRE” as weapons to trivialize the significance of the new relationship in contrast to their own. These are statements like, “oh, my husband is just caught up in NRE with his new girl” (with the implication of “but our marriage is real and what really matters to him”). There are some inescapable realities here—a partner’s 3-month-long relationship probably does look kind of insignificant next to your 13-year-long marriage, but you don’t need to throw that in anybody’s face. Similar comments include, “but you just met them!” Trust me, that doesn’t get you very far. Feelings are not objective rational realities, and you’re going to make things messy if you trivialize the feelings of your partner.
Don’t take the old relationship for granted
This one seems to be the one that most people fear. I love the metaphor of poly architecture, and the idea of relationship houses. On the one hand, if you’ve got a well-constructed stable relationship, it probably really does not require the kind of maintenance and upkeep that a brand-new “under construction” relationship does… but it still requires SOME. Check in with your old partner regularly to see how they’re feeling about the new partner, the new relationship, and the old relationship. There’s a beautiful world of difference between having your partner come to you and say, “How are you feeling about my new relationship?” versus having to be the person coming to the other person and saying, “I’m feeling anxious about your new relationship. Can we talk about it?” The fact that you checked in alone can go a lonnnnng way towards making the other person feel valued.
Don’t let NRE blind you to what’s happening to your other relationships
To my way of thinking, it’s okay to sink into the bliss of NRE and let yourself be temporarily blinded by someone else’s faults. Go ahead and lie to yourself that you can build a relationship with someone who’s entirely wrong for you. It feels good. You’ll learn from your mistakes. But there’s no excuse in poly life for letting NRE blind you to what’s happening in your other relationships. In poly life, you can’t calculate the cost of a relationship solely in terms of how it affects you. You have to calculate how it affects you AND your relationship set.
Don’t blow yourself out on your other partners
In the blissful throes of NRE, people have a terrible habit of cheerfully destroying themselves and their genitalia on their new partners and then coming home to their old partners exhausted and bruised. This is a terrific recipe for breeding all kinds of resentment from the old partner, who starts to really feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. On top of that, people will also sometimes further damage the old relationship by doing things like “saving their energy” up around the old partner for the new one…. Don’t do that shit. It’s really bad for you and your old relationship. Be respectful of your old partners, and try to keep giving them what they’re accustomed to in terms of your alertness, energy, sex, etc.
Try not to treat the relationship aspect of twitterpation like it’s super-special
I don’t know about you, but I get twitterpated with all kinds of shit—books, movies, and especially hobbies. Keeping me as a partner means dealing with the way I will inevitably become obsessed with something new all the fucking time because that’s just kind of the way I am. But lots of other people are like that too. It can be helpful sometimes to treat a partner’s excessive enthusiasm for their new partner as basically the same as if they had taken up running or rope or boxing with passion. You might share the interest in the hobby (and you might share the interest in the new partner), or you may be perplexed and bored by it. But you should both deal with it in a similar fashion regardless—i.e. manage how much time it takes up, how much conversation energy gets devoted to it, how distracted they are by it, how the two of you manage it together, etc.
Don’t be an asshole
I don’t know why people seem to think there’s some magical secret to managing NRE. There isn’t. It’s not special (see above). You manage NRE exactly the same way you manage everything else about your relationship: with respect, love, compassion, tolerance, and good communication.