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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.
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.
Good friend: “Welllll… You guys are ‘European married.’ It’s not really what other people think being married means.
I’ve been asked the question before: “If you’re going to fall in love with and sleep with other people, why did you bother to get married?” The answer for me personally remains pretty straightforward—because I wanted my now-husband to be the person who decided what happens to my broken body if I get in a car wreck, not my parents. While that was the most pressing point, there are a whole host of other social and economic benefits that come from being married, including tax breaks and insurance… Although I am personally very much opposed to the legal institution of marriage, trying to live up to that particular principle is a pain in the ass, and my now-husband and I were both quite poor and financially desperate when we got married, so we weren’t really in a position to do a complex dance to try to take advantage of the legal parts of being married that we liked while sidestepping the social bullshit we didn’t. And so we wrote monogamy out of our wedding vows and moved on with our lives.
Did I surprise you with how unromantic that explanation sounded? Oh… sorry. To my way of thinking, a legal marriage is a business contract. It’s the relationshipthat is loving and romantic, not the marriage.
I could rant for hours about all the reasons that I hate the social institution of marriage. I hate the trappings of marriage and the way that people take the label “husband” so much more seriously than that of “partner” or “boyfriend.” And despite the teasing of one of our dear friends, who has pointed out repeatedly that our idea of being “married” and most people’s idea of being “married” have little to do with one another, the label does fit pretty well. My husband and I started dating at my 18th birthday party, and we never even did that teenage make-up/break-up thing. We’ve been together for very close to half our lives at this point. We’ve been together longer than many people a decade older than us. Our relationship is a huge part of who I am as a person, and I think that’s a big part of what people think “spouse” means.
And for all that I grumble about the social institution of marriage, I think I understand pretty well at this point what commitment looks like to me and my husband. Other people may be confused by it, but unless they’re emotionally involved with us, I don’t really give a fuck what they think about it. For us it’s about spending an agreed upon amount of fun-time (including sex and cuddles and lounging-doing-nothing) and responsible grown-up adulting time together, loving each other and our cats, building and maintaining a home together, keeping each other physically and emotionally safe, sharing a bank account, planning to retire together, planning everything from tomorrow night to future retirement together, and–most importantly–planning to continue doing all of these things together indefinitely. I’ve been doing this whole committed-to-my-husband for a long time now, and I think I’ve got this one figured out (knock on wood).
But goddamn am I confused about what commitment should look like in my other (real/wistful/hypothetical) relationships.
I don’t think it’s just the fact that I’m married and trying to be in relationships with other people that creates the confusion. I think that if I were “single” and poly, I’d be every bit as confused (and there’s just no world in which I can imagine being monogamous, so don’t even ask me to try. It’s like telling a gay person to imagine their life as a straight person). I think some of that confusion is personal; I think some of it is the particular confusion of a very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous cis-femme; and I think a lot of it is because dating norms in America in general are in a state of mad flux.
I don’t really struggle with the “relationship escalator”—the idea that people just automatically expect a relationship to take a very specific trajectory of increasing seriousness that eventually leads to marriage, childbearing, and a white picket fence. I never expected to get on that escalator in the first place, since I grew up planning to live a communal poly existence, not a normal marriage. I don’t sit around biting my nails, thinking that if I don’t share a bank account and a mortgage with someone and hyphenate our last names, it means we can’t have a “real” relationship. But I do sit around a lot wondering what the fuck commitment means in these non-standard relationships, what it looks like, what its value is, and why—in spite or because of my very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous nature—I still crave it like whoa. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
- Commitment is the security blanket that supports my feeling that I can safely trust you. It doesn’t have to be a relationship title, but commitment is an implicit promise that you value our relationship enough that I can believe you won’t break your word to me; not just because you’re a good person, but because you value our relationship and don’t want to damage it. It means that you really don’t want to do things that would hurt our relationship because you want the relationship to stay strong and healthy.
- Commitment is the security blanket that helps prevent jealousy and insecurity. If you make a commitment to me and honor it, I don’t have to worry that just because you hooked up with that pretty young thing last week that you’re just going to meander away from what we have together in a fit of twitterpated distraction. Of course, I might still worry anyway, or you might still meander anyway, but that’s why it’s a security blanket–not a guarantee (ditto with the trust thing above).
- Commitment is the thing that makes me feel like I can plan my life with you. Not necessarily in that “let’s build a house together and plant a garden of hopes and dreams together” way, but in that “I want to know you’ll make it worth my while to not date other people” way. I know planning makes some people twitchy, but NOT planning is the thing that makes me twitchy. I’m enough of a relationship anarchist at this point that I don’t see the symbolic representation of a relationship in a title; I see the symbolic representation of the relationship in its cumulative presence in my google calendar. But “commitment” isn’t about the past there: it’s about the future, and about the times we expect and plan to spend together. It’s the promise to make time and energy for each other in the foreseeable and unforeseeable future. I see commitment in all the marked and unmarked places we make time for each other in the future.
- Meanwhile, without commitment, it feels like any declaration of my own needs or an objection to the way the “relationship” is going is practically an ultimatum. We haven’t agreed to try to improve our “relationship” at any point because we haven’t agreed we have one. So if I/you don’t like the way things are going, do we just give up and stop seeing each other? Relationship processing is an inevitable and necessary part of having a healthy relationship, but how can we have a serious conversation about the state of the relationship and how things are going when we haven’t agreed to HAVE a relationship? The idea of trying to fit needs, wants, and desires together without commitment just feels like a confusing and hopeless proposition to me.
- Without commitment… it feels like the “relationship” only exists as long as things are going well. If my mom is dying in the hospital, and I’m crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I feel like you’re not going to want me anymore because all I’ve really signed up for is to be your sexy entertainment. If your mom is dying in the hospital, and you’re crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I don’t know how to support you because that’s not really the role of an entertainer either. You can’t hold me up in crisis, and I can’t hold you up in crisis, if the most we’ve agreed to be to one another is a party date next week.
- And so… If you feel like you can’t ask me for help, and if I feel like I can’t ask you for help, our relationship dynamic is doomed to superficiality. One of the most important ways that humans connect and build intimacy between each other is by asking for help when they need it. But if we feel like we’re not allowed to ask each other for help, or if we’ve just made the unfortunate decision to be fiercely independent, we’re basically guaranteed to hit a terrible ceiling on intimacy that has nothing to do with the relationship escalator.
Through all of those positives and negatives, the best definition I’ve come up with for commitment in the context of relationships (romantic and otherwise) is simply the mutual promise to share and maintain things of value for that relationship. That might be the promise of time, energy, affection, shared information, shared activities, and/or a relationship title. Without those things, it feels like what you’re left with is an easily disposable fragile semblance of a relationship. As long as you’re having fun and things look shiny and pretty, it’s fine; but as soon as challenges arise—as they inevitably do—what then?
Both intellectually and emotionally, I want to believe that my partners (including my husband) are with me just because they want to be. I don’t want to believe that they stay with me because they feel obliged to by legal, social, or economic necessity. I want regular affirmation that people are in relationships with me because they want to be. But for those “relationships” to mean more than just “we hang out and have a good time together,” I think there has to be something that looks like… commitment.
I’m in the middle of writing an academic paper on the effect of drug and alcohol use on contraceptive decision-making [edit: I actually originally wrote this post a couple of years ago, and the paper was eventually published here]. For many years, I’ve been a researcher in the public health world. But I’m a long way from being one of the people who actually has much influence over what doctors and public health professionals actually do.
When I started this research years ago, I’d never slept with anyone except my husband. I wasn’t exactly one of the people that public health professionals spend much time worrying about. And while I’ve still never had a drink or smoked a cigarette, I’m continually frustrated by the abysmal failure of the public health world to cope with the real lives of people like me, who live relatively “high-risk” sexual lives.
For starters, there’s the fact that my insurance doesn’t want to cover multiple STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection) tests a year. What the fuck??? When I went to the doctor in March and asked for more STI tests (I had been tested in January), they told me that it had been too recently since my last test. I blinked at them and sputtered, “But I’ve slept with a lot of people since then!”
It’s clearly in the best interest of the public as a whole (not to mention me and my partners) for me to get tested regularly. For Goddess’ sake, I can’t even calculate the extent of my overall potential disease network (I can calculate the very short fluid-bound intercourse network, but not the condoms-and-unprotected-oral-sex network). I would wager large sums of money that within three degrees of separation (my partners’ partners’ partners) that there are well over 100 concurrent people in it. It might very well be a helluva lot more than that. That’s an entire small community worth of people. Can’t my doctor just declare me to be a “high-risk case” and recommend me for more testing? Instead, I had to learn the code words that “a condom broke” or a “partner experienced symptoms” to get my insurance to cover more tests. Good grief. I’m 31-years-old and I don’t enjoy going to the doctor’s. I don’t get tested for kicks.
Then there’s the fact that the public health people really really really don’t get it. My doctor asked me if I had had “any new partners” since the last time I was in for an appointment. I realize that I haven’t explained my life in very great detail to her, but I’ve explained that I’m non-monogamously married, so she should know that me having a new partner only encompasses a relatively small portion of my overall STI risk. Back to that whole disease-network issue: what matters is what me and my partners and my partners’ partners are doing. The public health community really isn’t prepared to grasp the particular STI risks of people who maintain concurrent multiple partners.
And then there’s the way that the places that do offer cheap or nearly free testing tend to treat people when they go in. So far, I’ve been fortunate and never once been condescended to by a doctor when I went in for STI testing, but I’m guessing have a Ph.D. helps a lot with that. My husband complains that every time he goes in for testing, the doctors just look at him skeptically and seem to be assuming that he’s cheating on me (we got around this tidily one time by simply going in together, but that isn’t always practical). Other partners of mine have complained that doctors were extremely patronizing to them when they went in for testing. Medical condescension is not helpful. If you’re smart enough to be at the testing clinic, you’re smart enough to know that what you’re doing is risky. Doctors don’t need to lecture the people who are there getting responsibly tested. The people they need to lecture are the people who aren’t there. Lecturing people who’ve had the good sense to calculate their level of risk and realize that it’s not low just makes those people not want to come back and do the right thing. It’s like when teachers yell at the beginning of class about how “many students are late to this class”: it’s an understandable frustration directed at the wrong people. When people show up for preemptive testing (that is, symptom-free testing), say, “I’m so glad you’re here. Do you have any questions? Have some condoms! Please come back soon!”
It doesn’t apply to me personally, but I’m also frustrated by the total failure of the public health community to deal with the fact that the vast majority of “high-risk” sexual encounters (that is, casual sex with someone a person doesn’t know well) typically occur under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I haven’t figured out yet how to deal with that fact better, but I know that just assuming that telling people over and over again to use condoms will solve the problem is probably insufficient. In general, one of the great paradoxes of the public health world (that the medical community is totally blind to) is that the kinds of people who are most likely to have casual sex are the kinds of people who are most likely to be lousy contraceptors (hence my paper linked to above). Currently, The Condom Message has mostly penetrated the ears and brains of the people who are actually at very low risk (obviously, me and many of my friends would be an exception here…). I don’t know what to do about this problem other than to try to teach people to put condoms on bananas while intoxicated (or encourage them to put in female condoms while they’re still sober, but Goddess help a drunk person trying to use one of those things). What I do know is that a lot more smart people need to be putting their brains into solving this problem.
In conclusion, doctors and public health professionals need to start figuring out how to politely and successfully help people manage their changing sexual health risks in a world where traditional monogamy is becoming less popular overall, and where the average age of marriage just keeps going up and up (while the average age of virginity loss stays about the same). Current estimates say that 25% of young American adults will never marry, and our best-guess data suggest that various forms of consensual non-monogamy are becoming more popular. However, I can report that a growing body of research suggests that ethically non-monogamous people are, somewhat ironically, probably a lower STI risk to one other than “monogamous” people. Here’s the most recent study to say so. Go figure.
Mic.com recently approached me to answer some common questions that people have about condoms. (These were actual questions that people e-mailed in). Although I’m briefly quoted in the article, I figured I’d share my extended responses on my own blog.
I’ll start with some answers based on my academic knowledge…
Question: Is there anyone (specifically male) out there that doesn’t mind wearing a condom?
Answer: Certainly. While I have never met or interviewed any men who said they actually liked condoms, I have met and interviewed men who said they didn’t mind them. These men are not the majority, but they are not a tiny minority either. Several men I have spoken with greatly prefer to use female condoms, although these certainly do not work well for everyone.
Interestingly, contrary to stereotype, while the slight majority of men do seem to dislike condoms (at least in the U.S.), women are more likely than men to say that they hate condoms.
Question: Stopping to ask a partner to put on a condom can be a bit of a moodkiller, is there any way to make it less awkward?
Answer: Unfortunately, the easiest way to remove the moodkill here is for the culture to change. In the swinging and BDSM subcultures, condom use is simply expected, so no one ever has to really ask someone to use a condom. Mainstream culture doesn’t seem to have reached that point yet.
I had hoped that some experienced people would answer this very question for me when I set out to interview people about their contraceptive negotiations; unfortunately, I found again and again that the people who had had the most casual sex had only occasionally or rarely used condoms with their partners.
There are two major factors that make people feel more comfortable negotiating condom use: trust and power. People need to feel physically and emotionally safe with their partner, and also feel like they won’t be negatively judged for asking to use a condom. (Contrary to popular belief, sobriety turns out not to really be a factor on this one. Our perception is just very distorted by the fact that the kinds of people who have lots of drunken casual sex tend to be the kinds of people who have sex without condoms, regardless of their level of intoxication). So the short answer is: try to only have sex with people you feel comfortable with, and you’ll usually find that it’s not nearly as hard–especially if you make it clear that condoms are expected before you ever get to the sexy times.
…Since that may be unrealistic, the rest of this answer becomes gendered. For men, it’s generally pretty easy, since usually all they need to do is put on a condom. The women I’ve met who are allergic to latex usually carry alternatives (non-latex male condoms or female condoms) around with them. While I don’t doubt that it’s happened somewhere sometime, I’ve never professionally or personally heard of women trying to argue men out of using condoms.
For women, things are trickier. Unfortunately, even female condoms require some cooperation from the man to be able to use well, so even the theoretically simple strategy of just wearing one around (which you can do for several hours at a time as long as it doesn’t annoy you) will only get you so far. If you’re trying to avoid having an awkward discussion, just handing a guy a condom at an appropriate moment will get you a long way. If he tries to argue with you, then put your clothes back on, because how many other people do you think he’s done that with? Similarly, having sex with enough light to be able to see that he actually put it on is wise. Alternatively, learning to put condoms on yourself can be really helpful (with either your hand or your mouth) and reduce some of the moodkill.
Question: What are the odds she won’t get pregnant? i.e. how effective are condoms?
Answer: This question is a very tricky one. Contraceptive statistics come in two forms: “perfect use” and “typical use.” With “perfect use” of male condoms, only about 2% of users should become pregnant over the course of a year; those aren’t bad odds considering that the same statistics tell us that without any birth control, 85% of “users” should become pregnant over the course of a year.
Unfortunately, our “typical use” statistics for condoms are a lot bleaker, and we usually get numbers between 15-18% rates of failure in those cases. However, those numbers are very distorted by the fact that people tend to use condoms incorrectly and inconsistently across time. Indeed, in typical use, male condoms are only slightly better (18% failure) than withdrawal (22% failure). Our research indicates that that’s because a lot of people functionally are just using withdrawal when they claim to be using condoms (they put the condom on after they’ve already started having sex), and because many long-term condom users alternate between withdrawal and condoms.
It’s worth noting that despite their problems with pregnancy prevention, condoms tend to be remarkably effective at preventing the spread of most sexually transmitted infections (especially HIV).
Question: What about female condoms? What are they and do they work?
Answer: Female condoms are non-latex barriers worn inside a woman’s vagina. Current statistics on female condom use in the U.S. give 5% failure rates for perfect use, and 21% failures for typical use. However, most people don’t know how to use female condoms very well, so it’s hardly surprising that the failure rates are rather high.
The major problems with female condoms are that they can get bunched up inside the vagina during sex if you’re not careful, or the man can miss the condom and accidentally go around it. Some men report that it feels like they’re “having sex with a plastic bag.” However, there are some serious benefits of female condoms, not the least of which is that both men and women often report that once they get going, they can barely tell they’re using anything. They also almost never break, and they don’t need to be sized.
…Okay, from here on out, I’m going to answer questions based on educated opinion and personal experience, not academic research.
Question: I’m having exclusive, partnered sex with someone who’s been tested negative for STIs and I have too. And I’m on birth control. Should I still use a condom?
Answer: It all comes down to your and your partner’s tolerance for risk. The pregnancy related questions are: (1) What kind of birth control are you on? For example, the failure rate for the birth control pill is considerably higher than for an IUD. (2) How good at taking it are you? (A wonderfully irrelevant question with an IUD). (3) How disastrous for your lives would a pregnancy be? If a pregnancy would completely ruin your life, then you might want to keep using condoms unless they’re ruining your sex life. If it would merely be very inconvenient, then you’re probably going to be okay.
As for your risk of STI’s, it really comes down to how much you trust your partner. With the exception of a few things like HSV-1 and yeast infections–both of which you can get from all kinds of non-sexual activities and sexually transmit–STI’s pretty much by definition have to come from having sex. And if you’re both negative, they have to come from having sex with someone else.
Question: If you and your same sex partner are both clean, do you still need to wear one?
Answer: I’m going to assume that this question pertains to men having sex with men, since women having sex with women usually use gloves and dental dams for protection, not condoms.
As with the above question, this one comes down to risk tolerance: how certain are you that your partner isn’t having sex with anyone else (or if they are, that they’re using protection with them)? If you feel pretty good about that, then you’re probably fine.
Aside: It’s also probably worth taking a moment to consider the implications of the term “clean.” Do you really think people with STI’s are “dirty”?
Question: Can the type of condom make a difference in achieving pleasure? Do studded or not studded actually make a difference? Does ribbing actually make a difference?
Answer: To some women, yes. My personal favorite male condoms are a brand called Wild Rose, which are ribbed. I don’t think they make a huge difference, but they do make a small difference. But I’m a masochist who likes highly frictive sex, so I’m certainly not representative of the general population.
However, it’s important to note that the biggest factor in condom pleasure AND effectiveness is having them sized correctly, not whether they are ribbed or studded. Finding a condom that fits is what really matters.
Question: How do sizes actually work?
Answer: Unfortunately, they mostly don’t in the U.S. The reasons are much too complicated to explain here, but there’s a good in-depth explanation here on slate.
As a guy, your best bet is to buy a bunch of condoms and practice masturbating with them to see what feels best and fits best on your penis before you try to stick it in someone else. Or to get good at using female condoms.
Question: Are flavored condoms really bad for non-oral sex?
Answer: This depends on how much you like the natural taste and smell of vaginas or anuses. Unless they have sweeteners on them (which they certainly should not–sugar in the vagina causes yeast infections–but most of them unfortunately don’t come with an ingredients list), there’s nothing wrong with using flavored condoms for vaginal sex. There’s never anything uniquely risky about using flavored condoms for anal sex; personally, I prefer the smell of fake banana to natural shit, so I call that a win. It is true that you tend to end up with artificially fruity-smelling genitalia after having sex with flavored condoms, but that isn’t necessarily bad.
Question: Really, is there any way to have sex with a condom that’s as good as without?
Answer: Sort-of. As a woman, I can honestly say that the best sex I’ve had with a condom has been better than the worst sex I’ve had without one, and I’ve talked to many men who have said the same. Will the best sex without a condom be as good as the best sex with a condom? Probably not. But I think this is an instance when the perfect is the enemy of the good.
I read this blog post awhile back on casual love, and the idea instantly resonated with me. My take on the basic idea is this: falling in love doesn’t have to be a devastating, life-altering event. In a world that is not constrained by monoamorous expectations (i.e. the idea that you can only be in love with one person at a time, and ideally you should only ever fall in love with one person in your life), romantic love can just be a thing that happens between two or more people with no real expectations or needs. It doesn’t mean we should pick out china patterns, or spend the rest of our lives together, or even share google calendars. It can just be a fact: I love you.
It just so happened that I originally read this post a couple of days before demo bottoming for BlueRisk’s “In the Lover’s Ropes” class. The class is about what I think of as Tantric Rope (where rope both substitutes for and augments the role of breath in traditional tantric practices), but I think most rope people including BlueRisk would be more likely to just label it “Connective Rope.” Be that as it may, his teaching in the class was grounded in an implicit ideology of what was basically casual love–the idea that you can go have deeply connective, intensely intimate, and even romantic rope scenes with people, with the option of then hugging and saying, “toodles.” In the lazy cuddly post-class aftercare, I told him that I thought he had been preaching “casual love,” which I summarized as “I love you. No big deal.” He thought about it for a moment, and then said wisely, “I think it’s better to say that casual love means, ‘I love you, and it is a big deal, but not necessarily in the way that you think it is.’” Amen.
The truth is that I fall in love almost embarrassingly easily, and not just with living people. I’ve been far more passionately in love with some characters in novels than several people that I’ve dated for months. I have fallen in love like falling off a cliff: I have fallen in love at first sight, and I have fallen in love with someone I barely knew with a kiss—one minute I wasn’t in love, and the next moment I was. I have also fallen in love with dear friends in such a slow and gentle fashion that I couldn’t possibly have told you when it actually happened because it never really did. No lightning bolts there–more like a sensation of slowly sinking into a calm and warm ocean.
Even though (and perhaps because) I fall in love so easily, I remain ambivalent about engaging too much in casual love for myself. Once I give someone a piece of my heart, I tend to let them keep it unless they do something really hurtful that forces me to try to get it back. Getting it back is a lot of work; it can take months to get a big piece back that I handed over in a reckless and passionate night. Consequently, I personally prefer to only hand out pieces of my heart to people who I’m reasonably certain aren’t going to require an arduous reclamation process. Call it “safer love.” I’ve never gotten good at doling out teeny-tiny pieces of my heart that I figure I won’t miss much; I tend to give out pretty big chunks, and when I love, I love for keeps. The metaphor of “falling in love” is good: it’s easy to fall off the cliff in love, but getting back up requires climbing equipment, the help of friends, and a lot of time and work.
And yet. And yet…
Falling in love may be easy. Staying in love in a consistent and committed way takes a lot more effort.
A common poly aphorism is that “love is infinite; time is not.” I think that’s certainly true, but I think there are a lot of subtleties and nuance to the nature of romantic love and relationships that it misses. Just for starters, it’s hard to stay in love with someone without some sort of regular communication or contact. It’spossible, but it’s hard. There are people who you can just sort of meander in and out of their life, and it’s almost like you fall in love with them all over again every time you get a chance. That’s sweet and lovely, but rare, and not really conducive to building a long-term relationship. For many people like me, falling in love takes almost no work at all; but for almost everyone, relationships require considerable feeding and care.
A dear friend and I fell in love with each other, and his initial response seemed to be, “Well, this doesn’t really change anything except that we feel more for each other, right?” And my response was, “It doesn’t have to, but if you want promises that this warm fuzzy feeling will stick around, and more out of this overall, you’ll have to put more in.” And his reasonable response was, “More what?” The answer isn’t simple, because “more” is everything that makes a relationship: time, communication, energy, thought, understanding, commitment… and romantic feelings. I usually think of those as the things that nurture romantic relationships (although I assume that people prioritize them differently).
Romantic relationships usually require a seed of romantic feelings to become possible, but they do not suddenly burst forth into being fully sprung because two people say, “I love you.” Sustainable relationships require: both active and passive time spent together; open and honest discussions of needs, wants, desires, and the sometimes bewildering way those can shift and change; a desire to support the other person in good times and bad; taking the other person into account in thought and deed; understanding the other person and being able to reasonably accurately predict how they will think and feel; and some sort of assurance that the level of these things will remain basically the same for the foreseeable (and in some cases the unforeseeable) future. Time is only one aspect of the fundamental limitation on sustainable relationships: the major limitation is how well you and another person can fit each other into your lives overall. The depth of the sustainable romantic attachment you can cultivate with someone is ultimately going to be more-or-less proportional to the degree that you can make room for each other in your lives.
I tend to think of strong relationships as being like nice sturdy evergreen trees; but there are also wildly passionate relationships that are more like flowers that bloom seasonally; and then there are those pretty flowers that bloom for a night and maybe they’ll be back next year if the weather is good. I’m a greedy relationship Whorticulturist, and I like keeping a nice variety of plants in my relationship garden. But those trees are definitely the backbone and center of the whole affair. And sheer will and pure affection are insufficient to nurture and sustain those demanding trees, no matter how sincere, well-intentioned, or passionate that will and affection.
I know some people are able to flit about and engage in intensely emotional connections with people and then just walk away. I’m not dissing that; I envy it, because I suck at it. I don’t like engaging in intense physical intimacies that I then abandon, and I sure as hell don’t like engaging in emotional intimacies that I then walk away from. But I can’t deny that my heart does seem to have a great capacity and tendency to develop attachments that vastly exceed its ability to form sustainable romantic relationships from. Casual love is easy; casual relationships are possible, but always inherently limited. And so most of the time, I end up harshly reminding myself, “I can love you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I can do much else.”
…Because no matter how much I might want them to be simple, easy, and free, the truth is that real relationships take real work.
By now I’m guessing that a lot of you have heard over and over again about what a bad book 50 Shades of Grey is, and how its portrayal of BDSM and kink is horribly inaccurate, blah blah blah. Well, I’m assuming that the millions people who are fans of the book are probably especially tired of listening to a lot of people bitch about a book that they loved and enjoyed. As someone who is deeply involved in the kink scene, I also think that it’s okay for a work of fiction to show fallibility in its characters, especially when they are fallibilities that appear a lot in the real world. And so the case with 50 Shades, I think. I believe one of the reasons the book so annoys the kinksters who’ve actually read is that they know too many people like Ana and Christian (minus the billion dollar financial empire…), and wish they didn’t.
Also, unlike many of the people who are railing against the book, I’ve actually read it (twice) and seen the movie. I can’t honestly say that I found any of that to be especially pleasurable, but I at least know what the hell I’m talking about. I should caution that I haven’t read the subsequent books, though, so I’m really only talking about the first book. My understanding is that Ana and Christian stop being kinky in the second and third books anyway.
And so, without further ado, I give you the 7 things that 50 Shades of Grey gets right:
- Many people enjoy D/s without wanting to engage in it full-time.
Despite the fact that “24/7” relationships get most of the hype both inside and outside of the BDSM scene, in actual fact, lots of very kinky people don’t do this in the context of relationships where one person is the full-time Dom of the other one. At the heart of 50 Shades is at least one nuance that Christian is basically oblivious to up until the very end (sort-of): it’s entirely possible to have a very happy D/s relationship with someone that only functionally exists inside a bedroom or playroom. Being someone’s Dom or sub all the time is a HUGE commitment, and even a lot of people who do it often finesse it by having the Dom tell the sub “you’re in charge of managing your own life.” It’s clear that what Ana really wants is a part-time D/s relationship (even though she’s terrible at articulating that), while Christian thinks they have to have a full-time D/s relationship in order to satisfy his Domliness.
This conflict is one which frequently emerges from real kinky folks all the time in both directions (i.e. subs who want their Doms to control them more, Doms who want more control of their subs, subs who feel over-controlled, and Doms who feel excessively submitted to). Christian seems to think that being the Dom, he just gets to dictate all the terms of his and Ana’s relationship, and that’s not usually a great recipe for success in D/s relationships (although a common mistake). It’s especially stupid of him, since he is obviously actually turned on by her spirited disobedience, which leads me to…
- Many subs are “brats” and many Doms are assholes
When my friends and I sat around to make collective nouns of our people (you know, like a “murder of crows”), among the ones we can up with was an AssHole of Dominants, a doormat of submissives, and a waffle of switches. All of us who hang out in the Scene know That Dom—the one who insists that because he is a Twu Dom, he gets to boss everyone around. Well, Christian Grey is That Dom, as he says in one of the first pages of the book: “Oh, I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele,” he says without a trace of humor in his smile. Sigh. For most of us, this doesn’t make our panties wet, this just makes us annoyed. But these are very real people out there who haven’t quite figured out the difference between “Dominant” and “domineering.”
Meanwhile, there’s an entire sub-class of subs who identify as “brats.” These are subs who like to be “punished,” but who, like Anastasia, don’t actually like to be punished, and indeed, are often offended by the very idea. The idea behind “bratting” (and yes, the Scene culture has actually verbed that one) is that you mouth off and misbehave around your top, and then they get to “punish” you for it, which excites everyone. The tops aren’t actually trying to change the “brats” behavior because both people enjoy having a fun excuse for a nice consensual beating. In real life, as in 50 Shades, sparks often fly in complicated patterns between some Doms who yearn for obedience but find that they’re kind of turned on and simultaneously annoyed by bratty subs. There’s something really satisfying about slapping someone who’s mouthing off to you, but if you are genuinely annoyed by their behavior, it tends to become a problem after a while. And when Those Doms try to punish those subs and change their behavior, the sexy sparks turn into a big fiery mess… just like what happens in 50 Shades.
- A lot of Doms refuse to date their subs
There actually is an entire group of Doms that refuses to date their subs. Like, as a matter of principle. I have seen posts from them on FetLife complaining that their subs keep violating their hard limits and falling in love with them! Such disobedience!
…this dynamic is not to be confused with non-sexual D/s arrangements, which are a very different thing that 50 Shades never addresses… No, I mean there really are Doms who fuck their subs and expect them to be loyal to them, but have no feelings for them. Except, you know, all that trust and submission and desire and stuff. But no feelings.
- Lots of kinky people think they aren’t
Now I admit, I’ve got my own personal biases coming into this story, but when I read 50 Shades of Grey, I read a story about a virgin girl, who’s actually quite kinky and fairly submissive, who really just isn’t comfortable admitting that. So she displaces a lot of her own feelings of guilt and anguish onto a guy who is, conveniently, pretty fucked up completely aside from his kinky preferences.
It might surprise some of you reading this to know when first invited into a private dungeon, I turned down the invitation saying “I’m not really that kinky” (that guy still occasionally mocks me for that. With good reason). It turns out that it is possible to deny one’s own kinkiness in the face of a truly spectacular array of evidence to the contrary if one is determined. And lo, we get a woman like Anastasia Steele, who can orgasm from being hit on the clit with a riding crop, (which, while I have seen people do it, is certainly an extraordinary feat, even amongst those who consider themselves very kinky)… but maintains throughout the book that she isn’t kinky. Dude, I’m jealous of that kind of fucktastic kink power. But whatever that is, it’s not vanilla…
I’m pretty sure the VAST majority of kinky folks out there are (like Ana) busy believing that they’re “just not that kinky.” I think that’s a big part of why 50 Shades is so fucking popular. It feels okay to be turned on by kink as long as you aren’t actually kinky yourself. Believe me, I know from experience.
- Lots of kinky folks worry about how others will perceive them
In one of the more telling passages in 50 Shades, Ana worries: I don’t even know how to categorize him. If I do this thing… will he be my boyfriend? Will I be able to introduce him to my friends? Go out to bars, the cinema, bowling even, with him? The truth is, I don’t think I will. Kinksters constantly complain that they don’t even know how to explain their relationships to vanilla people. And they’re clearly a bit ambivalent about categorizing their relationships themselves—people will almost always introduce a boy/girlfriend (but not spouses) more comfortably as “my Dom/sub.” On the one hand, most real-world kink couples live surprisingly ordinary boring lives; on the other hand, they often end up feeling isolated from vanillas because they’re constantly afraid of being judged.
- It comes down to trust
In one of the wisest exchanges in 50 Shades, Christian says, “Again, it comes down to trust. Do you trust me, Ana?” Ana! “Yes, I do.” I respond spontaneously, not thinking… because it’s true – I do trust him. “Well then,” he looks relieved. “The rest of this stuff is just details.” I think one of the ways to look at BDSM is just as a giant trust-building exercise, like one of those weird camp activities where they make you fall into your friends’ arms with your eyes closed, or climb up some weird… rope… ladder. For a lot of people (like Ana and Christian), BDSM involves sex. But at its root, it’s really about finding intense and powerful ways to build trust between two (or more) people through what often feel like dangerous, risky, scary, exciting, and/or titillating activities. And it is remarkably effective at that.
What Christian constantly loses sight of is that normally, we expect Doms to have to *earn* their sub’s trust, not just hand it over after a helicopter ride and a kiss in an elevator.
- Don’t feel guilty about it
The smartest thing in 50 Shades is Christian’s advice to Ana: Don’t waste your energy on guilt, feelings of wrongdoing etc. We are consenting adults and what we do behind closed doors is between ourselves. You need to free your mind and listen to your body. These ideas are major philosophical underpinnings of the kink subculture: rather than feeling guilty about what we want to do, let’s find safe and sane ways to do what we want with people who have matching desires.
Christian spends most of the novel incorrectly telling Ana what she wants, and simultaneously correctly showing her what she wants over and over again. The best kinky fun happens when you can free yourself enough to listen to what you really want instead of what someone else or society tells you to want. So… do as Christian said, not as he did.
If you read this stuff in a novel, you probably wouldn’t believe it… Meet the real people who engage in BDSM (Bondage & Discipline/Dominance & submission/Sadism & Masochism). Kinky will introduce you to a woman who can orgasm from being whipped, a man who likes to take a woman’s entire fist and forearm up his anus, and a Queer woman who likes to groom and train people who identify as “ponies.” As a professional sociologist and long-time member of “the Scene”—the social world of people who call themselves “kinky,” Dr. Fennell describes the lives of the many kinky people she has encountered with an insider’s unique brand of empathy and playful wit. Drawing from her extensive experiences interviewing, observing, and frolicking with kinksters throughout the mid-Atlantic, Fennell explains what it is that kinky people say they do, what they actually do, and why they do it. A tourguide who knows the scenery intimately, Fennell takes you to a world that is simultaneously exotic and unexpectedly mundane, but where the rules are just… different. It’s a world where the ties that bind are tighter than those of the outside “vanilla” world, and not just because there are usually ropes or chains involved. And it’s a world where love (and sex) can get very, very big, and very, very, very loud.
Sometimes truth is so much stranger than fiction.
Want to read more? Click on the 2 sample chapters linked below! If you want to see this book in print, please vote in the poll here, so I can encourage publishers to make it happen!
Editors and publishers: I’m still looking for a publisher for my book! If you’re interested, please send me an email at email@example.com, and I’ll put you in touch with my agent.
It’s easy to mock and misunderstand kinky people. We’re weird. I know. Trust me, only kinky people know how really weird we are. But seriously, most of us aren’t that weird, especially compared to say, soccer moms. Everyone deserves to be laughed at for something, and it’s easy to poke fun at kinksters. But if you’re going to laugh, please laugh about the right things. The stereotypes and misunderstandings that “vanillas” (what kinky people call everyone else) have about us undoubtedly exceed the 8 things on this list. Lo, these misinformed stereotypes even recently appeared in a cracked.com article. We already have to deal with the fictional travesty that is 50 Shades of Grey, with its dubious conceptions of BDSM and its lexically challenged heroine. So please take a minute to learn how most of what you’ve learned about BDSM is wrong.
8. “What the hell is that acronym for anyway? Can I just call it ‘kink?’”
The acronym cheats: “BDSM” actually stands for 6 things—Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & submission (and yes, kink orthography traditionally capitalizes the “D” and doesn’t capitalize the “s”), and Sadism & Masochism. The acronym evolved over time from S&M to SM to BDS&M to just plain BDSM. Expect it to change again in 10 years.
And yes, you can just call it “kink.” Kinky people do. Just don’t be a judgmental prick about it.
For a good summary of the history, see CARAS research
7. “All kinky people wear leather. And are gay.”
Long, long ago, there was a “leather scene” primarily for gay men that involved many activities that we now tend to label BDSM. Then some straight-ish people saw what was going on and thought that that kinky shit looked fun and started building their own BDSM subcultures. To this day, gay men and… everyone else… functionally have two separate, albeit related BDSM worlds. Occasionally, we all get together at big events, but for the most part, the “pansexual” BDSM scene and the “gay men’s leather scene” are basically distinct.
Nowadays, all kinksters have the same flag, but the not-gay male kinky people are a lot less likely to wear leather.
6. “All people who do BDSM participate in ‘The Lifestyle’”
The public face of BDSM tends to be folks who are out, loud, and proud.
Cute pic, right? But in reality, you won’t find most kinksters at a pride parade or at their local BDSM “munch” or happy hour (those are kinky social networking events, FYI), or even at the local BDSM club. Despite the visibility of public kink, social scientists actually assume that the vast majority of people engaging in kink are not part of the public BDSM subculture (usually referred to as “The Scene” or “The Lifestyle”).
The BDSM subculture (which is most visible on the internet on the website FetLife) only represents a tiny fraction of kinky folks. Only a few kinky folks are lucky enough to live in a big city with a public BDSM scene. But even a lot of those people don’t like getting dressed up, going to parties, and doing kink surrounded by lots of other people. The public BDSM scene calls to exhibitionists and people who like doing weird things in the company of other weird people. These people also tend to be white and middle+-class.
People who participate in the public BDSM scene tend to participate in a lot of overlapping and adjacent subcultures as well, most notably the geek subculture, the pagan subculture, and the polyamorous subculture. Polyamory??? You know, that crazy thing where people get to sleep with people who aren’t their spouses, but don’t lie about it… or have meaningful relationships with lots of people… or some combination of the above.
Most people who participate in the public BDSM scene in the main urban areas around the U.S. are non-monogamous, while we’re pretty sure the people who like to play at home have more traditional monogamish relationships.
In the public BDSM scene where I live, monogamous kinksters were so rare that they tried to set up their own dating group. But there were so few of them that it rapidly vanished.
5. “Kinksters and swingers are all part of the same subculture”
Au contraire, there is actually a longstanding subcultural war between kinksters and swingers, even though—nay, perhaps because—they often have their events in the same venues on alternating nights. The hostility is so common that the primary group for swingers on the kinky social networking website FetLife is defensively named, “’Swingers‘ is not a dirty word!”
To be clear, kinksters like to play with power and pain; swingers like to have sex with lots of people. These desires occasionally overlap, but mostly don’t.
Many kink gatherings forbid sex; sex is what happens at swinger parties. Most kink events enforce strict rules about consensual touching; most swinger events operate with a “touch unless swatted” attitude. Many kink events are extremely Queer-friendly (despite a decidedly heterosexual male/bisexual female bias); most swinger events strongly discourage two men from staring at each other’s asses, let alone fucking.
Reference: Morton 2010
4. “All kinksters live in 24/7 Dominant/submissive relationships and do crazy shit like play with enemas and let people pee on them.”
Whoa, there, friend! Um, some of us do… but actually, the vast majority of us don’t.
Just like the gay guys who make the news are often wearing rainbow tutus with sparkly underwear, the people who are conspicuous among kinky folk tend to live at the extremes—but neither is really representative of “most gay guys” or “most kinksters.” Most kinky folks aren’t in 24/7 relationships, have never signed a contract that lets someone else “own” them, and wouldn’t let someone else pee on them.
Sure, lots of kinky people have done all of these things, but your average kinky person likes being tied up and beaten with a flogger on weekends, not wandering around on a leash and eating from a dog bowl in their spare time (not that I’m judging those people—those people totally hot and cool, and I sleep with plenty of them, but they’re still not the average). On Fetlife, discounting oral sex (#2) and anal sex (#5), the 10 most popular “kinks” are: bondage, spanking, hair pulling, blindfolds, biting, talking dirty, handcuffs, discipline, collar lead/leash, and lingerie.
Reference: for Sweden: Carlstrom 2012
3. “All kinky people were abused as children, or have been raped or molested.”
This one just won’t go away: the great kinky romantic comedy Secretary actually opens with the main character being released from a mental hospital; meanwhile Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey has some sort of tortured past of non-consent. Just like psychologists used to try to expend a lot of energy and imagination trying to figure out the experiences in someone’s past that “makes them gay,” the culture still tends to assume that some experience “makes them kinky.”
Despite the persistent idea of kinksters with haunted pasts of abuse and molestation, in fact, psychological research has found over and over again that kinksters are pretty damned normal and as likely to have been raped or abused as anyone else. A lot of kinky people say they were just born this way, with some suggesting that “kinky” is a basic sexual orientation the same way “straight” or “gay” is.
References: Meeker Connolly 2008 Wismeijer & van Assen 2013 (the Netherlands) Richters et al. 2008 (Australia)
2. “All Doms are men” OR “All Doms are women”
Both of these misconceptions manage to float around simultaneously. The idea that all Doms are women is fueled by the fact that most professional dominatrixes are women.
The idea that all Doms are men is driven by sexist assumptions about women all being submissive and having a deep-seated biological urge to spread their legs whenever anyone with a penis tells them to.
Nevertheless, the idea that men are Doms and women are subs turns out to have a little validity: inside the BDSM subculture, women are much more likely to be submissive than dominant. However, in defiance of popular imagination and BDSM imagination both, about a third of men identify as submissive, and switches (people who like to be dominant and submissive) of both genders are quite common.
1. “It’s all about sex”
This pseudo-myth actually gets debated a lot among people in the BDSM subculture themselves. Witness the following:
In wild contrast to the porntastic popular portrayal, many kinksters say that BDSM isn’t about sex at all, and it’s common for public kink parties and gatherings to forbid any sexual activity. When I interviewed American east coast kinksters, about 25% of them said that kink wasn’t sexual for them personally, and that they didn’t think it was sexual in general.
It may seem really counterintuitive, but lots of people do BDSM the way that other people climb mountains—like an extreme sport. Many people report the same kind of endorphin high from getting whipped, beaten, tied up, etc. that other people report from running, rock climbing, etc.
Other people really do engage in BDSM as a religious/spiritual activity, and psychologists have shown that participants’ bodies actually respond in ways that echo those of a person having any other type of religious experience to these rituals.
Please note: none of these photos except the diagram in the middle are original to me. All are live-linked back to their original sources. Enjoy!