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“I found your website while trying to find and answer to the following question, which has been surprisingly difficult to get ANY real information on:
Last month, I inadvertently found some VERY violent pornography among a loved one’s belongings — extreme stuff by any standard: mutilation, broken bones and torture, even hints of necrophilia and snuff, all sexualized in one way or another.
He’s long been quite vocal about being a kinkster, and I understand that much of this is “play” — “like a violent video game,” as it’s been described to me. But is material this extreme something to worry about, in your opinion?”
The short answer is that it’s probably not a big deal. The slightly extended answer is that no one really knows, but it’s probably not a big deal.
Very long answer:
So I’m not really sure how you came to be exposed to this information about the person you love, nor what the nature of this pornography is, but I’ll make some guesses and move on to the important issues…
There are basically two angles I see to answering your question: 1. Should you be worried about this person actually going out and raping/torturing/murdering people? And 2. Do I personally believe him watching/owning this is immoral?
Should I be worried about him actually going out and raping and murdering people?
…Probably not. There’s a pretty big difference between watching fucked up shit and doing fucked up shit. There’s at least one study (which to the best of my knowledge has never been replicated) that found that in countries where (fake) child porn was legal, child molestation rates were much lower (see Perv). Thus there’s actually some reason to believe that people watching “bad” porn might make them *less* likely to do “bad” things (I know I get therapeutic experiences from playing violent video games, and I think there’s every reason that the same idea could be applied to violent porn).
I have a partner who jerks off to (free and publicly available) videos of people being (actually) tortured because he figures the videos have already been made so he might as well as enjoy them. He’s not even looking at “porn”–just eroticizing the torture that someone else experienced, which might objectively be way creepier than what your friend is doing. Yet I’m fairly certain that my partner’s not likely to go on a serial killing spree any time soon, but I guess you never know. All of which is to say that watching, reading, and jerking off to “extreme” stuff doesn’t necessarily make someone more likely to do those things. If he’s deep into the BDSM subculture, a big motivation for a lot of kinksters is to find ways to do super fucked up things in safe(ish) and consensual ways.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no reputable or meaningful academic studies that have looked at the actual violent tendencies of people who watch extreme porn. There’s good cause for them to look at it, too, because merely possessing such pornography became a crime in the UK in 2009. For a great look into all this, check out Clarissa Smith’s chapter on snuff (link) and Jonathan Clough’s article on extreme pornography (link).
Okay, now I know you’re thinking about the three million studies you read where a psychologist took 36 undergraduate men, showed them some violent porn, and then they said they thought the idea of raping women was more appealing. The problem is that those studies have nothing to do with real world behaviors. And lest you appeal to the “common sense” argument here, let me point out a “common sense” contradiction between experiments and real-world findings that is much better understood: condom use while intoxicated. Common sense says that people are less likely to use condoms when they’re drunk, experiments say that men who are drunk find condoms less appealing, but… real world data say that there’s just no connection (I wrote a paper on this in 2013). Really, the question that they should be researching is if a taste for violent pornography is linked to actual violent behavior, but I can’t find anything that does that.
And I know you’re thinking about all those news stories about the crazed serial killer rapist dude with his terrifyingly creepy porn collection, and forensic researchers who insist this is real evidence. The tricky thing there is that’s a one-way correlation: my understanding is that there are pretty decent odds that people who do fucked up things will watch really fucked up porn. But the correlation doesn’t necessarily go both ways: there’s decent reason to believe that lots of people watch really fucked up porn but don’t do the really fucked up things. I think Smith’s article (cited above) does a pretty decent job of explaining why that might be.
But what about the moral implications?
For me, it mostly depends on whether the people making the pornography in question are doing so in an ethical way. According to Smith, a lot of these websites promise that no one was actually harmed in the making of their pornography. To that, I say, cool. If the porn is not ethically produced, then I think it’s super creepy to financially support it (and kind of neutral to say, steal it off the internet). But people buy stuff that’s immorally produced all the time (from illegal drugs to the literal clothes on our backs), and I personally think that anyone who’s supporting the Mexican drug cartels has way more to answer for than people supporting an itsy-bitsy basement industry of criminally produced pornography. They’re both terrible, but… hey, that’s just me…
The British government, by the way, decided they didn’t care about the ethics of production. They decided it was just bad, end of story. So if your loved one lives in the UK, he’s in potential legal trouble, regardless of the ethics of the thing.
The thing that actually matters
True story: I once went on a date with a guy who did in fact commit first degree murder just a couple of years later. After that single date, I decided there was no way I would ever go out with him again because he was “clearly too violent.” This was blindingly obvious to me, but clearly not quite as clear to many of his friends…
My point here is that the majority of the time, people don’t randomly turn out to be serial killers and rapists; there are usually a thousand clues around them that have nothing to do with porn and everything to do with how often they’ve beaten people up, talk about beating people up, and how much they believe “women really want sex from you even when they say no”. There are a small number who aren’t so obvious, and they generally have NO friends; the ones who actually have friends and still manage to pass as normal people are absurdly rare.
So. In my opinion, the real question isn’t, “Should I be concerned that my friend has creepy taste in pornography?” but far the far more complex, “Does my friend seem like someone who gives a shit about the well-being of both men AND women in general and his partners specifically? Do his partners seem afraid of him? Does he seem to have violent tendencies in general? Does he often cover up things, lie, constantly make excuses, hypocritically slut shame, seem really into sex but weirdly and disproportionately uncomfortable talking about it in a personal way, or massively exaggerate?” Even in the BDSM scene, I’ve met a number of people who were really bad people, and every single one of them so far was easily identifiable to me by one of those traits. And in my experience, those are the things that separate the kinksters with disturbing tastes from the future convicts of the world.
And believe me when I say I know, have played with, banged and AM a kinkster with slightly disturbing tastes.
Valentine’s Day draws nigh, and we’re about to be treated to another installment of the 50 Shades movie and Christian Grey’s twu domliness (ignoring the inconvenient part where in the book his character was once a sub, because he was apparently underaged so it doesn’t count…). And of course he’s a dom. He’s a guy. In American films, you’re not likely to see masculine high-power business executives or action heroes who get chained to beds when they get home any time soon, because we mostly treat masculine submission as humorous and often absurd (if you haven’t seen it, check out this hysterical segment of Conan). Gods, in a world where we think men being actually raped is funny (check out the Wedding Crashers or to a lesser degree Almost Famous), it’s no wonder that we think the idea of men consenting to submission is just downright absurd.
It’s the twenty-first century, and I’d personally love to see the idea of gender done away with entirely. I want to make very clear at the start that I prefer living in a world where no one gives a shit about gender, and most of what I’m about to say is irrelevant to assigned-male-at-birth people who identify as genderqueer, genderfluid, trans, or even (a la Eddie Izzard) as “executive transvestites.” But since we seem to be stuck with gender for the foreseeable future, I want to make sure that we get something clear as a subculture, because right now the mainstream culture seems to have made us a bit fuzzy on this point:
submission is masculine too
I’ve never heard anyone suggest that a submissive woman isn’t a “real woman,” but the idea that submissive men aren’t “real men” is one of the most pernicious concepts that pervades much of traditional femdom sub-sub-culture. I don’t pretend to know what a “real man” is, so I figured I’d check the internet for help. The difference between men and women on most personality characteristics is so small that it’s barely scientific to discuss it, but the words that show up as associated with masculinity are:
independent non-emotional aggressive tough-skinned competitive clumsy experienced strong active self-confident hard sexually aggressive rebellious
Now if, for some reason, you’re deeply committed to being a twu manly man and holding onto these values, I want to point out how you can hold onto these characteristics and still be a twu sub too (Goddess help us all). Here goes.
- Independent: while crazy doms might like someone who is financially and emotionally dependent on them, most sane and healthy doms agree that they actually prefer subs who have their shit together and can take care of themselves. To go back to my car analogy of ages ago, most doms prefer a sub who can drive, but just likes it better if their dom does.
- Non-emotional and tough skinned: don’t underestimate the appeal of a stoic bottom. It’s super hot when you beat the shit out of someone and they barely show any response, even as the welts appear (it’s also super hot when they scream. My tastes are many and varied).
- Aggressive and clumsy: okay, I can’t make those work. But they’re also super unappealing qualities anyway, and wouldn’t be nice in a dom either…
- Competitive: by all means, be competitive–just love to lose. And compete with yourself (just how big a dildo can you take up your ass without getting injured? hm?) Also, develop a perverse affection for rigged games (“let’s play rock paper scissors to see who’s going to be on bottom! You can only do paper.”)
- Experienced: while cherry popping and innocence are easily compatible with bottoming and submission, you can go so much further with someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing.
- Strong: yes, please. Give me a strong masculine sub, and I’ll do fucked up shit like kick him while he holds his arms plank position until he falls onto my torturous acupressure mat in exhaustion and I get to step on him. No fun to do with someone who’s weak.
- Active: contrary to popular belief, submission and bottoming are not passive positions. It’s like getting fucked: to be good at it, you still have to actually be DOING something.
- Self-confident: one of the unsexiest things is people who seem to be submissive because they’re too insecure to be anything else. And they’re way more satisfying to dom because it feels like you’ve achieved something.
- Hard: I mean, I don’t want to make people who have erectile problems feel bad, but I must admit that I prefer guys who get and stay hard easily. This is equally true for subs and doms, because I’m going to want to fuck them either way.
- Sexually aggressive: I would love it if we could stop equating “passion” and “dominance.” You can absolutely still be the sexual aggressor and be submissive. Slam me against a wall and kiss me to get me horny, and I’ll still force you down to your knees to worship my pussy. You can still be the one who initiates the sex… by pleading.
- Rebellious: my sub rebels all the time; I keep a list of strike marks on my phone and beat him later accordingly. Everyone is still happy. Alternatively, you could argue that one of the most rebellious things a guy in our culture can do is stand up and say, “yeah, I fucking love it if my wife kicks my ass.”
Am I stretching things a bit to make this work? Yeah. But we’ve spent the last 70 years passionately re-working the concept of “feminine” to include the idea of “dominant,” and we’ve done an okay job at that (enough that a woman won the popular presidential vote by a substantial margin–something that would have been impossible 50 years ago). It’s high time we started working on the converse of that idea and started thinking about healthy ways to let men be submissive.
So you want to be a masculine submissive (please note that this is not necessarily the same thing as being a submissive man). And I would love for you to. You know, like the cover of a trashy romance novel, except you’re wearing a collar. How do you make that happen?
First, let’s go to a couple of awesome fantasy series for inspiration: Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books, and Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. In both cases, super badass manly men lovingly and happily take the backseat to even more badass chicks, and use the same phrase as they do: “protect and serve.” They take a traditionally masculine role (“the Protector”) and use their skills to serve and please the women in their lives. They’re physically and emotionally strong, clever, resourceful, and good in bed… And they seek out women who are even more badass than they are themselves so they can use their abundant personal resources to do what those women tell them to.
Sure, it’s fiction, but that sounds pretty fucking awesome to me.
But let’s talk about the real world. Here’s a few points of inspiration for you:
- I think it’s wicked hot if a guy walks around a dungeon in a suit being led around by his necktie (what convenient leashes those are!).
- And what fun if a guy is strong enough to pick me up and fuck me standing up while carrying me… but isn’t allowed to cum until he’s made me cum three times and has to ask my permission.
- Tough guys can take a lot of pain, and it’s extra fun to watch them suffer. It’s an especially beautiful thing is to watch super strong guys tied up with almost no rope lines on them, basically stuck in a pull-up position… Their muscles inevitably start trembling, and then they finally collapse into the agony of their viciously unsupportive lines.
- Our culture has become a little obsessed with the idea that part of being manly is being able to please one’s sexual partners. I think that obsession is pretty unhealthy, but if you’re going to cling to it, it’s super easy to make that compatible with submission. (Pleasing one’s partner is one of those ideas that’s easy to interpret in support of any identity, conveniently enough). But I certainly want a sub to be good at pleasing me and enjoy pleasing me, and I think it’s pretty easy to make that compatible with common masculine identity values.
The thing we seem to have the most trouble with is the idea that erections and being on the giving end of PIV/PIA sex are submissive. This idea is a big part of why fem dom stuff tends to put a big emphasis on chastity play and penis cages: the implication is that in order to control a man, you have to get control of the root of his power, i.e. his dick. We’re stuck in an archaic patriarchal conceptualization where penis = power. This is just silly. Men are amusingly weakened in so many ways when they’re hard. It’s hard for them to pee; a lot of times they walk funny; actually, it’s often difficult for them to do much of anything non-sexual when their dicks are hard–especially, say, math. Men are exposed (literally) and vulnerable when they’re hard, and most of them have been taught by society to feel extremely self-conscious about their erections (you want to quickly humiliate most guys: keep their belt on so their pants stay up, unzip their fly, keep their boxers on, and make them hard anyway so their dicks are sticking out of their clothes. Then make them, say, go to the bathroom across the room in a dungeon to get you a kleenex).
Screw this idea that penis = power. The root of anyone’s power–and the site of everything that controls submission, switching, and domination–is never the genitalia. It’s the brain. You get hard for me. You fuck me for my entertainment and my pleasure. You cum when I tell you you can. Done. That’s what submission is. There’s no need to emasculate yourself in order to be submissive, and I’d personally mostly rather that you didn’t.
Oh, and did I mention the most ironic part? The sooner we embrace the idea that submission is masculine, the easier it will be to find hetero-attracted women who want to be dominant. For many or even possibly most (potentially) dominant hetero-attracted women, submissive men are hot because they’re submissive men. And that’s not just about some sort of fetish for the taboo or defying gender expectations by getting a MAN to submit to them. It’s also just about finding conventionally masculinity hot in a context of submission.
In conclusion, I’m not just saying that it’s okay for guys to submit, or that it’s okay for guys to wear collars. I’m not even just saying that it’s hot for guys to do these things. I’m going several steps further and saying: if you are a masculine person who likes to submit and/or identifies as a sub, that can in fact boost your masculinity rather than reducing it. And I’m not just basing this on some subjective idea about “gender is in the eye of the beholder/keeper” (although it is), or some desperate attempt to re-work masculinity for my own mischievous fem-domly aims (although I am). You really just don’t have to work hard to make your identity as a guy compatible with your identity as a sub, for one simple and basic reason: with the right dom, being masculine is likely to please and arouse them, and isn’t that what submission is about?
A while back, a sex toy company called Mystery Vibe emailed me to ask if I’d be willing to review a product for them for my blog. I said, “Sure!,” cheerfully ignoring the inconvenient fact that I detest vibrators. So they sent me this fancy schmancy device called a Crescendo.
Now your response right now might be, “What the fuck, you don’t like vibrators?!” followed by, “Why the hell should I read the rest of this review?” Well, to answer the first point, I find vibrators tolerable when they’re ridiculously slow and have irregular rhythms. But mostly I just think they’re incredibly uncomfortable. I enjoy making women happy, however, so I like to keep a handy arsenal of vibrators around. Which brings me to the second question about how I reviewed this toy: I did what any sensible slut would do; I took it to a Victorian-themed kink party, and treated a couple of lovely ladies for hysteria. You know… for science!
Okay, so first off, the selling points from the company. What does Crescendo have going for it? It’s a rechargeable flexible toy with six independent vibrators that you can (theoretically) control with an app on your phone, and it’s fully submersible. It can be many different shapes, as the website shows: It currently sells for $199 (with free shipping right now), so it’s not a small investment in pleasure.
But let’s just go ahead and get one thing out of the way at the start. A friend of mine at the party where I tried out Crescendo noted that with vibrators, it’s usually a case of Rechargeable, Waterproof, Powerful: Pick 2. Crescendo, alas, is no exception to this rule. It’s rechargeable and waterproof, but if you love Hitachi-style genital abuse, save your money. I tried Crescendo out on two different women, and Test Subject #2 just basically stared blankly at me and the poor toy with that tragic, “Is something happening to my genitals? I can’t tell” look. We knocked the Crescendo up to high, and she continued to just look vaguely uncomfortable; we gave up. Her opinion was basically 0 stars.
So, assuming that you’re not the sort of person who likes to feel like a car engine is revving up against your bits, what can Crescendo do for you?
For our experiment, our victim who I’ll call Meredith, found a random girl to stuff some fingers inside her, and a very well endowed gentleman whose dick she could suck, while another woman physically manipulated the Crescendo against Meredith’s bits and I controlled the app for the Crescendo on my phone. If this sounds like a lot of people were trying to make her happy, it’s true. During this phase, the Crescendo stayed completely on the outside around Meredith’s clit.
For most of the second phase of this experiment, Meredith just jerked herself off without all her assistants. For this, she kept the toy bent into a U-shape, so that half of it was inside her and half outside. She noted that while the flexibility of the toy was potentially awesome, in reality, her own pussy muscles kept trying to bend and straighten it back out of shape. This really limited its power as an insertable toy.
Hypothetically, the Crescendo with this shape should be able to provide a really subtle and magnificent experience, since you can have higher levels of vibration on the inside or the outside, depending on your preference. In practice, however, this turned out to be pretty difficult to manipulate. As long as you want a clear difference between them, it’s fine; but if you want the power to be more evenly distributed, you’re in trouble. None of us (and there were a lot of smart people around) could make the vibrator have evenly distributed intensity throughout. There was always more intensity at the base, which meant that you had to pick which side you wanted the stronger vibration on.
We ran into a whole host of other practical problems. The toy has buttons on both its sides, and it’s really hard not to end up bumping into them while you’re playing with it. On several occasions during our experiment, we accidentally turned it off. It’s also really hard to touch those buttons yourself if you’re jerking yourself off with it. Unless you’ve memorized where these tiny buttons are ahead of time, you’ll have to take the toy off of you in order to adjust its intensity–not so great in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t any easier to adjust if you were another person manipulating the toy.
Theoretically, the app should keep you from having to worry about those problems. But at its current stage of development, the app is mostly just bewildering. Most importantly, as far as me, an engineer, a computer scientist, and a graphic designer could tell, the app doesn’t really let you control intensity of vibration. Only the physical buttons on the Crescendo itself do that. On top of that, there’s no easy way to manipulate the six different vibrators in the Crescendo. You have to keep scrolling around between a lot of different options, most of which just don’t make sense. It would be way more reasonable to be able to directly control each of the six vibrators and their respective intensities.
Ultimately, Meredith rated the orgasm she had from the Crescendo as “outstanding and excellent,” but said that the complications and inadequacies of the toy would be unlikely to make it her go-to vibrator. Her opinion of it was basically 4 stars.
During our experiments, we did not attempt to use Crescendo for penis-in-vagina sex, nor did I find any people with penises who wanted to try it on themselves. Given the current limitations of the toy, I would be reluctant to try to use it for PIV sex, although I definitely think it has potential for that (like a WeVibe).
All of us who participated in the experiment felt that Crescendo has a lot of potential. We felt that the key problems that we hope the designers would fix in a later version would be:
- Actually having some sort of on/off switch. Preferably one that’s hard to hit during play. The current lack of one is extremely annoying.
- Other than the on/off switch, getting rid of the physical buttons entirely would be helpful. Substituting a remote control would be easier and reduce the chances of accidentally turning it off or up/down while using it.
- Improving the app to provide much more control. Nothing about the app is intuitive presently, and it also just isn’t very useful. It doesn’t let you do any of the things you would most want to do. You should just be able to tap any of the six vibrators and set the rhythm and intensity, and adjust the intensity by dragging up or down. It would also be fucking fabulous if the app had an option to make your phone vibrate in some approximation (at least the rhythm) of what you’re doing to the person. That way, if you’re manipulating your partner, you have some clue what you’re doing.
- Having a sturdier charging base. The base fell off a low table to the floor, and basically fell apart. My two very mechanically savvy partners managed to put it back together, but that shouldn’t be necessary.
 For the record, I have seen the same thing happen with Sybians, which many people claim are amazing. I was once at a sex party where someone brought a Sybian. I watched three folks with vaginas ride it. The first just looked bored. The second had approximately the appalled look on their face that a woman would have if a man with a soft dick had repeatedly tried to penetrate her belly button. The third had many noisy and happy orgasms. All of which is to say, sex toys are definitely not one-size-fits-all propositions. I myself would literally not ride a Sybian with a ten-foot-pole.
Much of the time I’m sufficiently opinionated that I just write unsolicited sex and relationship advice. But this time, someone actually asked a solid question and said I could answer it publicly. This person, who I’ll call Jo, had been to my poly architecture class and heard me make the claim that it’s ridiculously difficult (nigh unto impossible, it seems) for people in very serious secondary relationships who want a primary to find one. She wasn’t questioning the claim. But she was concerned, because she already has a wife and a serious girlfriend, but she just met The Perfect sub For Her (™). The problem is that Perfect sub, who I’m going to call Amy for the sake of simplicity, doesn’t have a primary and definitely wants one, and lives a long way away anyway. Jo was worried about Amy finding a primary if Amy was always sitting at her feet whenever they went to events together, and asked for my advice.
My advice is… hoo, boy, that’s a tricky one.
On the one hand, in some ways distance can work in your favor in that situation, because it tends to place automatic constraints on how serious the relationship can get (there’s only so much time you can practically spend with someone who lives a long way away). On the other hand, poly long distance relationships have a habit of becoming vacation-ships–you know, the kind where you don’t get out of bed for two days, do all your laundry and clean your house before and after “the date,” and ignore most phone calls from other people when you’re together? Vacation-ships are a big problem when you’re trying to build other actualrelationships because they make the other relationships seem so much less fun by comparison. Vacation-ships are like dessert, but people need solid meals to be healthy and happy. And yet. You need to eat vegetables, but they don’t look very tasty next to cheesecake, do they? Of course, you’ll actually enjoy the cheesecake a lot more if you eat your veggies. Go figure.
The other way that long distance becomes a problem here is that it makes my first automatic advice a lot more difficult to implement, which is: assuming that Amy is the kind of person who meets people at events, don’t go to many events “together”. For most kinky folks, even if they don’t actually meet a Person at events, they socialize and network at events in ways that ultimately can help them meet a Person. So if you go to an event and spend all of your time with the Person you already have, limiting your opportunities to meet new people, you make it really difficult to acquire the missing Person you’re looking for. BUT if you’re long distance, events often become your chief opportunity to spend quality time together.
The temptation here is the Rotten Compromise, where you say, “We will go to this three-night event, and even though we will be sharing a hotel room together, Amy and I must spend one evening apart so she can look for a date.” It sounds eminently reasonable, but sadly, it’s really not, in my experience. At a bare minimum, even people who are quite capable at the Pick Up need one night to search and another night to cement their search, so you really have to promise to spend two evenings apart. But if you’re sharing a hotel room (or cabin or tent), it’s ridiculously easy to just chuck your good intentions entirely and decide that a “night” apart in that context is from 7 pm to 10 pm. Suddenly your resolution not to spend too much time together and to enforce socialization with other people gets flushed down the toilet. Do I sound like I’m speaking from experience? Yeahhhhh…
And I haven’t even gotten to the basic day-to-day stuff where Amy struggles not to text you all the time, because she knows she’s not supposed to depend on you too much emotionally, but she still values you and the support you give her so much. And even though she knows she shouldn’t let it happen, you kind of become her rock. And dammit, she never meant for that to happen, but how is she ever going to find anyone who’s even as remotely awesome as you?
That latter point raises an important point that a lot of hierarchy discussions leave out: there really are some people who are That Awesome. I know a number of folks with a zillion partners, and several of their partners say they’d ideally rather have a primary; but since Awesome Person already has a primary (or two or three), they’ll settle for mostly being Awesome Person’s secondary or tertiary because Awesome Person is That Awesome. So if you’re That Awesome, it’s possible that Amy might kind of give up the hunt for other partners. Be prepared for this possibility. It’s happened to a lot of the people I know.
But let’s say you’re trying to stay super committed to helping Amy find a primary, and let’s hope that you’re better at managing all of this than I have historically been. What do you do?
Dump her. No, I’m kidding. Well, I’m kind of not… Except, you’re not going to, and I sincerely hope you aren’t the sort of person who’d do that because I told you to anyway. It’s still good advice, but I hope you, like me, are unwilling to take this good advice.
So what else do you do? First, you have to be very clear about the relationship boundaries and possibilities. Say, “I have a wife and a girlfriend, and I love you, but I cannot be the Person that you need, and I want to actively support your quest to find that Person.” Try not to accidentally raise unrealistic expectations. At the same time, don’t try to force yourself to stick to unnecessarily harsh relationship boundaries as a matter of principle. There’s a balance there, and no one but you and your partners can find it. That’s a matter of trial and error. If Amy asks you to do or be something for her, and you have the time and energy and inclination to do it, do it. Don’t say “no” just because you’re afraid she’s getting too dependent on you or that it will raise her expectations too high. Constantly doing boundary maintenance for the sake of boundary maintenance is futile and exhausting, in my experience. To use a plant metaphor, don’t try to create relationship topiary: get an approximate sized box to grow your relationship in, and don’t freak out every time it looks a little too big or too small.
Next, you should try be very careful about how you spend time in public places where Amy has good opportunities to meet other people. Unless Amy is the sort of person who is constitutionally incapable of meeting people in large gatherings, or the sort of person who goes to events all the time without you, try not to be her Event Girlfriend. Try to make sure that she goes regularly to quality places where she can meet–and will basically be forced to interact with–quality people without you. You can’t force her to meet other people, but you can make sure that you aren’t the human security blanket that most of us kinky oddballs love to have when interacting in big groups.
Most importantly, if Amy does manage to get another relationship, or even something that looks like it might grow up into one, graciously accept your back seat role. Don’t make her feel guilty for spending less time with you; tell her she’s wanted, but that you accept that whatever she is building with takes priority. Recognize that initially she’ll probably come running to you every time something goes wrong in that other relationship because you probably will remain her security blanket for some time. And then eventually she’ll either stop running to you because that relationship grows up, or for a different reason because they broke up. The hardest thing about anticipating and managing these kinds of relationship changes is recognizing that your role in her life may change completely once she gets her Person. Most of the people who are attracted to hierarchical poly over anarchical poly usually prefer stability; but when you start trying to build relationships over top of previous relationships instead of under them, you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
I don’t know how helpful this has been, because there really just aren’t any easy answers to this very serious question. To me, it often looks like one of the unintended consequences of hierarchical poly life is that some people just seem stuck in a pink-collar relationship ghetto–much like the beloved and well-treated secretary in your office who is never going to get a promotion and never going to get paid what she deserves. Everyone wishes they had a way to fix the system, but no one really has a fucking clue how. If anyone else has a fucking clue, I’d certainly love to hear it.
I wish you both (all) the best of luck.
Every year I hear a lot of feminist rants about the sexual objectification of women from Halloween costumes. There’s no question that American women’s Halloween costumes are often just an excuse to wear lingerie in public in a (more-or-less) socially acceptable way.
(Just in case you’re reading this and you’re not from America, here’s some context from the movie Mean Girls to tell you basically everything you need to know on this one):
Most of the rants I see take for granted that the sexual objectification of women is obviously inherently bad. I’m going to bracket that assertion for a moment and start with a point that I have never heard raised before in this discussion:
What if the real problem isn’t sexual objectification? What if the real problem is that women are only allowed to pretend to be sluts once a year even if it’s what they want to do all the time?
Any good student of culture will tell you that most long-lasting conservative cultures have rituals of escape. Indeed, often the most constraining cultures have the most surprisingly escapist rituals of all (e.g. the Amish and Rumspringa). These rituals are often only tolerated within those cultures because participants are viewed as having stepped outside of their normal social selves. The simplest, and very common, way to do that is by wearing masks or costumes (although other versions involve the use of intoxicants, religious trance or possession, or simply defining the participants as temporary outsiders as many coming-of-age rituals like Rumspringa do). But the point is that those rituals often involve people doing things that they are assumed to secretly want to do much of the time, but which normal social rules don’t let them do as regular members of society.
Sound a little bit like women dressing up for Halloween in America?
Basically, our culture assumes that women all want to be sluts all the time, but we don’t let them do it because… reasons. For all that we generally encourage women to dress much more sexually than men all the time, we don’t really let women loose sexually 363 days of the year (the other day they get some leeway for is their birthdays). Throw a costume on them, though, and suddenly women get some freedom to play a slut for a night before they go back to being their regular chaste selves.
Maybe it’s because I’m a slut all the time, or maybe it’s just because I’m genuinely hypersexual (you know, sort-of the polar opposite of an asexual). But to me, this idea is a huge problem. NOT (just) because women get all the sexual objectification for their Halloween trick/treat and men don’t, but because there’s another message coded in there: the only way you’re allowed to be a slut is if you pretend it isn’t really you. If we gave women legitimate sexual freedom the other 363 days of the year, their motivation to dress slutty for Halloween would almost certainly diminish considerably.
Before I got into the BDSM scene took up the life of a sluttastic dilettante, I always used to dress up in the sluttiest costumes I could find for Halloween–prostitutes, slutty fairies, you name it. Several years later, I usually forget to actually assemble a Halloween costume because I get to dress like that all the time (or not) if I want to… in a context where it’s way more socally acceptable and fun (see below). There’s no real thrill associated for me with “dressing up” as a slut at this point. I just get to BE one, which is waaaaaaaaay more fun.
So here’s a crazy thought: rather than criticizing the social institutions of Halloween for encouraging revealing costumes for women, why don’t we criticize the social institutions that make that so appealing for women who get stuck in carefully maintained de-sexualized lives the rest of the time when they’re not dressed up? Maybe those costumes are a fucked-up form of liberation for women who don’t get to be sexually free the remaining 99.4% of the year.
And maybe the biggest problem is that we tell women they have to pretend to be someone else before they’re allowed to be sexually free.
Okay, so I’m sure some of you reading this are still pretty pissy with me for hand-waving over the whole objectification thing, and that’s understandable. I’m going to try to address some of the key points of this huuuuuge question here, but recognize there’s a book’s worth of relevant information and analysis for this, so I’m inevitably going to miss a lot of things.
But I’m going to suggest that, fundamentally, ### “sexual objectification” is mostly only a problem based on equal opportunity, relative power, and social context. It’s not actually inherently bad.
Ack, I can feel lots of you revoking my feminist card as I write this, but hear me out, please! …I’ve got a pretty nice ass. I’ve walked down the street in short skirts. I’ve walked into bars in short skirts. I’ve stripped in a variety of contexts. And I’ve walked around kink events in everything and nothing. I’ve been ruthlessly objectified in all of those contexts, and I assure you, IT FEELS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. It often feels a little bit gross to be objectified when you weren’t trying to do anything sexy, and it often feels downright scary in contexts where you feel like your physical safety might be in question.
But go to a kink event–where many people have gleefully pre-consented to objectification–and the experience changes dramatically. On top of that basic intentional difference of respectfully sexualized context, there’s also a much greater sense of equality: men get ruthlessly objectified as much (or perhaps even more) than women. The fact of being objectified in no way reduces someone’s social status or personal power. Finally, perhaps I’m naive, but I’ve never really worried much for my physical safety there, so objectification almost never feels like a threat.
The thing is that lots of us–both men and women–actually really enjoy being objectified. Sure, I assume that’s more common among kinky folk than the population at large, but I know lots of men and women who will guiltily confess that they enjoy being cat-called walking down the street. Many of us also enjoy being obviously checked out. It’s an ego-boost, it’s flattering, and it’s sometimes just downright funny. The problem, as I’ve said, is that even those of us who often enjoy it don’t enjoy it in all contexts: the elevator look from your waiter is not the same as the elevator look coming from your massage therapist which is not the same as the elevator look coming from your boss. Each of those scenarios changes the aforementioned dynamics of equal opportunity, relative power, and social context. (And of course, there’s always personal preference, since some people would find an elevator look uncomfortable in basically any situation).
All of this is to say that if women feel socially pressured to wear extremely revealing Halloween costumes when they don’t want to, that’s a big problem. It’s also a problem if women keep getting put on sexual display in contexts where a. Men aren’t b. Women feel disempowered in general and disempowered sexually in particular and c. Women feel unsafe. But change the fundamental composition of the social context, so that things look more like the world of the BDSM scene, and I really don’t think that sexual objectification is a big problem. I realize that the rest of the world doesn’t look like the BDSM scene, but I sure as hell want it to.
Notice that a huge part of why the sexual objetification of women is such a big problem most of the time is that women often feel like there may be serious consequences for refusing OR accepting blatant sexual advances. When those consequences are vastly reduced–and when a culture shifts from slut-shaming to slut-embracing as the BDSM culture has attempted to do–then a lot of the underlying fear that accompanies sexual objectification mostly kind of goes away or becomes irrelevant. And when women feel empowered to objectify men too, the sense of threat likewise diminishes.
… All of which is to say, I don’t think the problem is objectification itself. The problem is all the social baggage around it.
In sum: stop criticizing Halloween costumes for being sexually revealing. Criticize social pressure to don said costumes, by all means. But remember that the bigger problems are that society makes women put on a disguise to be slutty and really only lets them do it once a year, and that the problems associated with sexual objectification are more about the social context of that objectification than objectification itself.
Change the fucking social context, not (just) your clothes.
And if you want to start an odd sort of revolution, ladies, try wearing your sexy-ass Halloween costumes all the fucking time. That’s what I do. Trust me, it’ll seriously fuck with the social norms in ways you’d never expect.
Him: I feel like my life has turned into a femme dom porn.
Me: Except for the part where I’m actually sexually satisfied?
Him: Yeah, that and the bathroom rules.
Check the numbers. Guys in the divvy out to about 36% tops, 28% switch/kinkster, and 12% bottoms on fetlife. Chicks divvy out to about 11% tops, 23% switch/kinkster, and 46% bottoms. If I re-run those numbers to only include people with an easy identity in the denominator, you get 47% tops, 36% switches, and 16% bottoms for men; and 14% tops, 29% switches, and 57% bottoms for women. Although these numbers don’t necessarily represent the actual composition of real public scenes, that’s a pretty uneven distribution for hetero partnership.
Why such an uneven distribution between men and women for these identity labels? Some of it is undoubtedly weird scene gender norms. The vast majority of the serious female riggers I know self-identify as subs or slaves, and even though they like to torture people in rope, still don’t identify as switches. Which is certainly their right, but I think it says more about how women in the scene are taught to identify themselves than anything. Meanwhile, I’ve only ever personally met one sub-identified male rigger… but tons of male riggers who self-identify as “doms” even though they say they love tying for exactly the same reason that all those submissive female riggers do: because they like seeing people happy in their rope. My point here is that we teach women and men to identify themselves differently, and we don’t really encourage anyone to identify as a switch.
But when I look at that identity breakdown, I doubt that it’s as simple as traditional gender norms encouraging men to identify as dominant and women to identify as submissive, just because women identify as bottoms so much more than men identify as tops. And it’s possible that I’m asking the wrong question here, but… why so little purported enthusiasm from women for dominance?
Other than social identity pressures, I suggest that we could ignore most other aspects of gender socialization and narrow it down to this: most women–especially most kinky women–like to get fucked with something A LOT. I know that a significant proportion of kinky women like to get fucked really hard. With dicks, fingers, fists, silicone, glass–you know, whatever fits, and preferably not too comfortably–into their holes. And the problem here, as I’ve mentioned before, is that our cultural concept of submission is closely tied to the concept of penetration. So it almost feels like in order to identify as a dominant woman, you kind of have to also say, ‘I don’t really need a good fucking in order to be happy.’
At best, we let dominant hetero women ride men’s dicks (because if you’re going to be penetrated, at least stay physically on top, right?). I went to @Graydancer’s “tie ‘em up and fuck ‘em” class recently–a class which I think he’s taught for many years. While there, I was reminded how deeply ingrained some of these attitudes and perceptions are. The class, by the way, was excellent, and I highly recommend it. Gray taught a brilliantly simple technique that pretty much anyone can use to tie someone up and fuck them. And being a wonderfully open-minded sort of fellow, he showed it from both sides of the hetero equation (guy-tie-girl, girl-tie-guy). But he only showed the girl-tie-guy version initially with the girl on top until I asked him how I could tie up a guy to make him fuck me missionary (since this is usually how I cum best–and the hardest position to actually feel like I’m in control). He looked really confused for a minute, said no one had ever asked him that before, but being awesome, he promptly figured out how to do it. I’m not saying this to call him out–not at all. I’m just noting how much it apparently hadn’t occurred to anybody that a chick might want to tie a guy up and get him into a position where he could jackhammer her cervix (aka “missionary position”).
Consequently, I think a lot of women struggle with the concept of dominance. Then layer on top of those penetrated/“being fucked” = submissive problems the pernicious way that femme dom porn–which unfortunately has inspired a lot of what kinky people fantasize about and envision in terms of female domination and male submission–rarely shows dominant women orgasming at all. What. The. Fuck. It’s bad enough that kink world obsessively fetishizes the ten women in the world who can cum just from being whipped or hit; but to fetishize women who don’t even get sexual pleasure from doing the whipping is even worse. Newsflash to all the submissives out there: I’m not going to traipse around corseted so tightly I can barely breathe while tripping in absurdly high heels and NOT ORGASMING for your entertainment and call it domination. Fuck that shit.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to ponder all this lately as I slowly acquired a “slightly less fake submissive” (guy). I can never take any d/s arrangement too seriously for myself, and it really always fundamentally is a game for me. But even in our very tongue-in-cheek “d/S contract,” I wrote, “the dominant likes to orgasm. A lot. The Submissive gets to orgasm if He is sufficiently entertaining.” Because what the hell is the point of being the one in control if I don’t get to cum a lot???
To make it even less appealing to (hetero attracted) women, a lot of popular hetero femme dom activities involve deliberately de-sexualizing men as a technique of humiliation or degradation. Why the hell do I want to put men in chastity devices that keep them from getting hard? This makes no sense at all to me. My good little submissive shopped around until he found a chastity device that basically forces him to STAY hard, which is waaaaay sexier, more fun, and more useful. Here’s another newsflash: for many (perhaps most) of us folks out there who are attracted to male submission, we are actually still attracted to masculine sexuality. Erections are still super hot; precum is still really hot; wet sticky orgasms are still super hot; nicely developed chests and biceps are still hot. I’m way more inclined to train a male sub to get hard on command than to train him not to get hard.
Here’s the thing: so much of our femme dom conceipts are derived from pro doms, who aren’t allowed to have sex with their clients. To get around that fact legally and socially, they devised a few creative ways to “not have sex” with their clients that were still getting their clients off because a happy ending makes for a happy customer. So these guys pay to get fucked with strap-ons, not to apply vibrators to the lady’s bits (which also would be legal). And the concept of dom girls as practically stone just trickled down from the pro houses to the femme dom porn world to the scene. It doesn’t help that men–not women–buy all that femme dom porn too, so there just isn’t much motivation on that side to emphasize dominant women’s sexual satisfaction either. (I’m not blaming the pros for anything, mind. They’re just trying to make a living. These problems happened because of social institutions, not because of individuals).
Which is all stupid, self-defeating, and incredibly ironic since it means that domination becomes way less appealing to women for fun and pleasure, so all those guys who want to get dominated keep having to go out and pay someone to do it instead.
So as a self-identified dom-leaning masochistic-leaning switchy slut, I’m going to lay down a few basic guidelines for SlutPhD’s New & Improved World of Feminine Dominance (note that these are guidelines, not rules or laws) to hopefully make the idea of dominance more appealing to women:
- The dom gets to cum. A lot. In whatever sexual position is most pleasurable to her, in whatever hole pleases her most. Even if that’s her ass.
- Being penetrated is not inherently submissive or anything else. It just is.
- At least for the length of the scene, the sub’s entire body (unless negotiated otherwise) is there for the dom’s pleasure, entertainment, and amusement. No part of it gets locked up or incapacitated in any way unless this is pleasing, entertaining, or amusing to the dom.
- When fantasizing about impractical things, submissives are hereby directed to focus more energy on impractical fantasies that are sexually pleasing for dominants. For people with penises, this includes things like getting hard on command and cumming on command. For everyone, this includes things like getting their whole fist inside their dom, because fisting is now officially declared to be neither dominant nor submissive, dammit, because it just feels good.
- Passion and passionate desire are not inherently dominant or submissive. You can still be a dom and like being thrown against a wall and kissed or thrown down onto a bed with a raging erection pressed against your thigh.
- Doms can still enjoy being cuddled and held tenderly by someone else. And are allowed to be vulnerable and cute and whimsical and all sorts of human emotions beyond “cold and bitchy.”
- Letting a woman dominate you does not lessen you in any way, and I will personally have nothing to do with any fetishistic practices that imply otherwise.
- Au contraire, you are hotter because this super sexy creature wanted to utterly and completely have you.
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.
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
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.