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The 8 Most Misunderstood Things About BDSM

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.

Gratuitous hot boys in leather.

 

Well, kinky girls wear weird shit too… it just isn’t always leather: gratuitous hot chick in latex.

Nowadays, all kinksters have the same flag, but the not-gay male kinky people are a lot less likely to wear leather.

“No flag, no subculture–that’s the rule that I just made up!” ~with apologies to Eddie Izzard

References: Fennell 2014  Lenius 2001  Richters et al. 2008 (for Australia)

 

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.

Awww, so cute! This was the #2 picture when I searched google image for “BDSM.”

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”).

It’s like facebook, except there are lots of naked pictures.

It’s like facebook, except there are lots of naked pictures.

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.

I created this diagram to illustrate my point.

I created this diagram to illustrate my point.

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.

Polyamorous life is definitely more complicated, but it’s also a helluva lot more fun.

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.

I can’t be wittier than Oscar Wilde.

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.

References:  Newmahr 2010  Sheff & Hammers 2011

 

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!”

#3 google image pic for “Swinger Party.” Real swingers tend to be a lot older than this, but just as white, and just as naked.

The only google image I could quickly find for “BDSM Party” that wasn’t from porn. As you see, sexy, but a lot less sex. Real kinksters tend to look pretty much exactly like this—just as white and just as semi-clothed, most of the time.

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.

Don’t gay guys dress like this all the time?

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.

Lots of kinky people get collared or collar someone else. Most of us don’t.

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.

Handcuffs: so kinky you can buy them at the mall at Spencer’s, along with a Superman wallet.

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.”

Dude, Mama Monster (Lady Gaga) said she was Born This Way. Why would she lie?

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.

It’s a living.

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.

You can regularly meet people in the BDSM subculture who will assure you that all women are “really” submissive, and all men are “really” dominant… although they have an awkward habit of spelling the adjective “dominate.”

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.

It’s called “switching.” It’s not surprising that mainstream imagination tends to forget its existence, since the BDSM subculture tends to forget about it too.

References: Lindemann 2010  Wismeijer & van Assen 2008 (the Netherlands)  Bienvenu, McGeorge, Jacques 2002

 

1. “It’s all about sex” 
This pseudo-myth actually gets debated a lot among people in the BDSM subculture themselves. Witness the following:

I admit I find this attitude pretty funny myself, but it’s kinda popular.

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.

This looks pretty fucking kinky to me. That’s some serious bondage.

 

In case you were wondering, people don’t usually fuck when they’re tied up like this.

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.

 

BDSM can turn your body into a religious work of art. I wouldn’t recommend having sex like this, but you theoretically could…

 

Kink, religion, or both? If the people weren’t white, would your answer change?

References:  Newmahr 2010  Livescience Fennell 2014

 

 

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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!

Men’s Orgasms: A Woman’s Perspective

I’ve never heard anyone complain that a girl cums too fast. For that matter, in real life, I’ve only occasionally heard girls complain that their male partners cum too fast. Meanwhile, most guys obsess about cumming too fast themselves. It’s often nothing to do with sexual satisfaction; actually, it frequently seems to get in the way of sexual satisfaction–especially their own. It’s not about anybody feeling better or having a better time–it’s about pride and some weirdly misplaced sense of virility. Well, screw that. I value our sexual pleasure more than your masculine values.

I was introduced to this notion in an amusing exchange with a boyfriend at the time:
Him: If you cum, it means I’m doing a good job. If I cum, it means the fun’s over.
Me: That sounds like terrible conditioning. But why do we have to stop just because you came?

There’ve been a series of related post-coital conversations I’ve had with guys that go something like this:
Him [looking slightly confused and embarrassed]: …I came too fast.
Me: Did you have a good time? [“yes”] Did it feel good? [“yes”] Okay, great. I came a lot. So please stop looking embarrassed, and shut up and fuck me again as soon as your dick recovers.

And another annoying, but also related conversation:
Him [looking slightly confused and embarrassed]: …I can’t cum because I spent too long trying not to while I was fucking you.
Me: Why on earth would you do that?
Him: …Because I don’t want to cum as soon as I enter you.
Me [eyeroll]: Check my fetish list on fetlife, dumbass. I’m into that.

…Okay, I’ll confess that I’m not the most compassionate of lovers sometimes, but I really have never claimed that I’d have sex with anyone to validate their sense of masculinity. I’ve said the opposite before (I’m great at validating androgyny and genderqueer), but seriously: I have sex to have awesome sex, and your need to feel like a good lover by postponing your orgasms mostly just gets in the way of my good time. Cum too fast? Okay, fine, whatever. Shove your hand in me, shove a toy in me, eat me out, or do all three. But being embarrassed about finding me pleasurable isn’t particularly hot.

I’m regularly amused that the sexual encounters I have with women are often about half as long as the sexual encounters I have with guys. Sure, some of that might be biological, but I think that most of it is that women have no shame about cumming as soon as we start having sex. Once we’ve both cum 4 or 5 times, it seems like pretty awesome sex to me, even if it only takes 10 minutes. I refuse to let culture dictate to me what good sex is: if I’ve cum so hard that my ears are ringing and my legs shake, I don’t really care how long it took. And most women I know agree. But lots of guys think that if they only have sex for 10 minutes, even if we’re both totally happy, they’ve failed somehow.

I realize there’s a lifetime of baggage attached to all of this that I’ll never erase with a single fetlife post, but I really wish we could try to shift cultural perspectives in two ways. First, I’d rather men found sexual pride in pleasing their partners than in how long their cocks stay hard. I get actively annoyed when guys seem more concerned about how long their dicks stay hard than they do about my satisfaction. For the record, it is totally irrelevant to me if your dick is only in my vagina for 5 minutes if you make me cum the entire time (yes, this is possible). In fact, that sex is almost always preferable to me compared to sex where I get fucked for 30 minutes straight and briefly cum once. I really don’t understand why so many men have difficulty understanding that. It’s a total falsehood to imagine that a hard dick and a lengthy sexual encounter automatically makes a satisfied partner. If they’re less satisfied by shorter sex, that’s a different issue, but they seem way more hung up on pride than pleasure much of the time. And I would assume that sex that just feels good is more satisfying than sex where they spend a good portion of their time trying hard not to cum.

(While I’m on the subject of men’s orgasms, can I tangentially punch the person who decided that men were supposed to cum quietly? This one is totally on women and men both, since I’ve actually heard women mock the noises men make during sex. Newsflash: if you’re fucking my pussy or my ass, I really mostly can’t tell if you’ve cum unless you say so or make some noise, especially when there are condoms involved. So I find silent orgasms slightly disconcerting, and, pardon the pun, anti-climatic. (Although it does amuse the shit out of me how guys often say, “I’m going to cum!” like they’re very surprised or expect this to require some sort of preparation. I’ve never heard a girl say this). Moreover, I promise that tantric wisdom teaches us that both men and women have better sex and better orgasms when they breathe deeply and make noise. In short, guys: you have a right to cum just as loudly as girls do, and it’s sexy when you do.)

Second, I think it’s stupidly unfair that we put all the responsibility for good intercourse on guys: if he cums before she does, he feels bad. But you know what? In this theoretical universe of sexual responsibility, women have an equal responsibility to cum quickly. That sounds like a stupid construction of sexuality to me, but seriously–shouldn’t men and women have equal responsibility for their own and their partner’s sexual satisfaction? I don’t actually want anyone to feel bad for how quickly or slowly they orgasm, but I think it’s absurd for men to feel bad about cumming “too fast” when in reality “too fast” is a totally relative speed that just means “faster than her.” I’m okay with a universe in which both people value their partner’s sexual satisfaction more than their own (I think I prefer that one, actually, as long as it isn’t an extreme). However, I think part of being a mature sexual participant is understanding that (1) what you and your partner find pleasurable is way more important than a load of cultural bullshit, (2) most women need more than just a deep dicking to get off (hey, I’m not knocking it though), and (3) just like men, women are at least partially responsible for getting themselves off, and if they can’t, their own sexual satisfaction is likely going to suffer. I’m not saying that some guys don’t, by some vaguely objective measure, cum too fast. But I am saying that women aren’t entitled to expect men to totally sacrifice men’s sexual pleasure on behalf of women’s.

Maybe you don’t cum too fast. Maybe she just cums too slow.

Poly Architecture 201: Compersion Is a Threeway Street

…or: “how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”

Polyamorous folks often celebrate and idealize the concept of compersion, which has been defined as the “opposite of jealousy.” Compersion can happen whether you’re in a hierarchical dynamic, or an anarchical poly dynamic. The shape and feel of compersion changes, depending on which of those dynamics you’re in, but the overall idea stays the same. I would go so far as to say that the poly subculture tends to imply that if you don’t feel compersion, you’re not a twu poly. Since poly folks have a bad habit of not understanding jealousy well (more on that in a later post), it’s not surprising that they have a bad habit of not understanding the “opposite of jealousy” well either. People tend to mistakenly assume that the capacity for compersion is a characteristic of individuals, rather than a characteristic of a complex interplay of relationships.

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Let’s start with you. I’m not going to assume that you’re someone like me, who was born thinking monogamy was stupid, and who informed her first boyfriend when she was 17 that she didn’t think she could ever be monogamous[1]. I’m going to assume that you’re what seems to be an average polyamorous person, who comes in two types: 1. The person who’s only had one or two very serious relationships in their whole life, and somewhere in their late 20’s/early 30’s decides after a lot of discussion to “open up” with their partner (I technically also fall into this category myself) or 2. Someone who was never very comfortable with monogamy, but had several serious relationships that were ostensibly monogamous, usually with very poor results and has decided to kind of give up on monogamy (either as a single or as part of an existing pair). People arrive at polyamory from lots of different directions, but these seem to be the most common.

So as an average poly person with sense, you approach this whole poly endeavor with a certain degree of nervousness. In particular, you worry that your partner won’t have enough time and energy for you once they have someone else, that they might be more attracted to the other person more than you, and that you’ll get jealous (if you’re genuinely worried about them leaving you for their other partners, then just don’t even try this poly thing until you feel more secure. It won’t go well for anyone). You do the thing that naïve poly people love to do (I did it myself), and reassure yourself by getting “veto power” over your partner’s other potential partners. You tell yourself that it’ll be okay, and that they won’t date anyone that you don’t like.

Except that it turns out not to be that easy. Your partner meets someone on okcupid, and you’re nervous about it. You tell them not to have sex until you’ve approved the relationship, but they want to know what counts as “sex.” The other person is new to this too and feels awkward about the restriction, but goes with it. Finally, the three of you arrange to meet, and you feel pressured to agree to let them have sex, and so you do—even though you (correctly) felt like you barely know the person, and are feeling super-insecure about where this new relationship might be headed.

But it turns out that the new person is super needy, kind of obnoxious, and no one that you’d ever want to hang out with normally. You keep trying to get along with them, but it really doesn’t work. Nothing about the relationship seems to make your partner really happy either; they come home stressed from almost every date, but they insist that the relationship is going great. And you wonder: what the hell ever happened to compersion? You feel no inkling of joy at the idea of your partner with this annoying, clingy person, and you’re genuinely irritated that they spend so much time together. And whenever you express concerns about the other relationship, your partner gently dismisses your concerns as symptoms of jealousy, and assures you that you have nothing to be jealous of. And your protests that you’re not jealous don’t sound very convincing to either of you… and both of you wonder if you’re “really poly.”

You keep reminding yourself that you’ve got that veto card in your back pocket if this ever really gets to be too much for you, but eventually you learn the hardest lesson of hierarchical polyamory: “veto power” is nothing more than a brutal ultimatum where you say to your partner, “them or me.” Those aren’t words that wise folks say after their partners are in love and in an established relationship. Veto power really only works at the very beginning of a new relationship, but if your partner really wants someone, they’ll probably just try to talk you into giving it a chance. It turns out that the heart of successful polyamory is being able to trust your partner enough to believe they’ll make good relationship choices in the first place.

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It may sound like I’m voicing some sort of bitter personal experience here, but I’m not (knock on wood). I’m actually describing a pattern that I’ve seen over and over again among poly folks of my acquaintance (and that I feel I have inflicted on my poor dear husband a few times). Again and again, I hear people asking in hushed, and sometimes even skeptical or suspicious, tones: how does one manifest this elusive emotion known as compersion? Is its absence symptomatic of imminent poly demise?

The simple answer that people lose sight of over and over again is that compersion is a three-way street. It’s basically impossible for you to be happy about your partner’s new relationship if you think that relationship is crap. Also, you tend to end up feeling lessened because your partner is spending time with someone you perceive to be so inferior instead of spending time with you. The reality is that it’s really, really hard to experience compersion unless you feel comfortable with your partner’s partner and their relationship. If your partner seems unhappy and stressed about their relationship—and especially if that stress takes a toll on your relationship—it’s really fucking hard to feel happy about that relationship. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up feeling jealous over a partner’s bad relationship with someone else unless you view it in fairly condescending terms (“Well, they have to make their own mistakes.” “Well, at least they’re dating somebody.” “Well, I know I’m gone a lot, so they need company.” And my personal favorite: “Well, hopefully dating that crazy asshole will just make them appreciate me more.”).

In some ways, I think it’s easy to overstate the importance of compersion for successful poly dynamics. Generally speaking, cheerful tolerance of a partner’s other relationships is sufficient to maintain a happy poly existence. In my experience, cheerful tolerance rarely results in profoundly compersive feelings. Outside of my triadic experience, or some group sex experiences that I was actually present for, I can’t honestly recall ever feeling some strong sense of compersion. When they’re with people that I like who seem to be making them happy, I’m happy that my partners are happy. I have learned that the name for this general feeling of being happy at the happiness of others is mudita, and it’s a much better characterization of my experience of vicarious poly. There’s not a big difference for me between feeling happy about my husband being well fucked, or my feeling that he’s happy about being out to dinner with his friends. However, in general it feels more like the absence of jealousy, and I can’t really characterize it as a strong or even particularly meaningful emotion. I do think that compersion is essential for a successful triadic+ dynamic, however. In order to maintain a complex three+-person relationship, you’d damned well better be a lot more than merely cheerfully tolerating your partners’ relationships with each other.

At the same time, I don’t want to downplay the importance of constructing a cooperative poly dynamic. If you ever find yourself faced with the unlikely choice between the girlfriend you adore who your wife can barely tolerate, and the girlfriend you are quite attracted to who your wife gets along with great, pick girlfriend #2 every time. Compersion may not really be necessary for most poly dynamics, but it sure as hell makes them way easier. And if you’re wondering how you do that, the answer is simple but annoying: date people your partner(s) already like. And if you’re waiting for the answer to the question I posed at the start of this post–“how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”–the answer is: you can’t.

There’s nothing easy or automatic about compersion. Its absence should never be used as the litmus test for whether an individual is “really poly,” nor is it necessarily a sign that a relationship set is doomed. The appearance of compersion, on the other hand, is usually a good sign that everyone is doing well together, and that is undoubtedly our poly ideal. But I say: let’s settle for an absence of jealousy, and not try to demand its opposite to call our dizzyingly complex poly lives “successful.”

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[1] For purposes of simplicity, let us forevermore refer to all such people who are “innately poly” and who usually depend upon variety in some degree for sexual satisfaction and interest as “polysexuals.” This helps distinguish them from folks who are “polyamorous”—people who, for whatever reason, seek multiple intimate relationships. Polysexuals are often polyamorous, but polyamorous folks are only sometimes polysexual; polysexuals tend to be extremely highly motivated to make some form of ethical non-monogamy work in their lives in a way that most polyamorous folks are not.

Poly-Architecture 101: Building Hierarchies

It is one of the most often misunderstood truisms of hierarchical polyamory that stable and highly functioning primary relationships are essential for successful (hierarchical) poly life. It’s not the truism itself that people misunderstand; it’s that most people misunderstand *why* you need a stable and highly functioning primary relationship for a successful hierarchical poly life.

 

For the rest of this post, I’m going to rely on a metaphor of architecture and houses. In this metaphor, hierarchical polyamory tends to involve building a house with someone (your primary), and then coming up with ways to incorporate other partners (a guest bedroom; four guest bedrooms; a cottage in the back; a shed in the back; a dungeon in the basement… you get the idea).

 

Fact: You need a firm foundation so the house doesn’t fall down

When most people think about the idea that you need a strong primary relationship for your poly life, they think that it’s only for this reason. And Goddess knows it’s important. Almost any relationship stress will threaten to compromise an unstable relationship–from the death of a loved one, to a sick pet, to having a baby, to losing a job, to a partner getting a lover. (By contrast, lots of things that could be stressful—such as having a baby or a partner getting a lover–can become a bonding mechanism for strong relationships). If the foundation isn’t firm, then any outside pressures threaten the stability of the house.

 

In my experience, people rarely say to themselves, “Well, yeah, we’ve got some serious problems in our relationship, but we’ll be fine being poly together.” Far more frequently, people say to themselves, “Well, sure, we’ve got some problems in our relationship, but everyone does. We’ll be fine being poly together.” It’s easy to underestimate how big those small problems can become as those niggling insecurities and lack of faith and trust can erode the things holding your house up. Sure, the plumbing doesn’t work during the day, the floors are uneven, there are mice in the walls, and there’s duct tape on half of the windows, but none of that’s going to make the house fall down, right? I mean, it’s cozy, and it’s home. But bring someone else into the house, and you end up seeing it with new eyes. Suddenly, those small problems can start to feel a lot bigger (probably bigger than they actually are) when compared to the shiny glow of New Relationship Energy with another partner. You end up seeing the house through a stranger’s eyes, and all those comfortable imperfections start looking a lot less homey. And just to make it even harder, the guest room has carpets over the uneven floors, frilly curtains to hide the duct tape on the windows, and a canopied bed so it’s easy to ignore the rest of the house… Which only makes the rest of the house feel more derelict by comparison.

 

And of course, none of that even begins to encompass what you’ve done to the house by trying to build on that guest room/cottage/shed, etc. Some houses accommodate the additions easily, and others find that the cracks in the foundation were spectacularly compromised by the building process alone. I could keep elaborating on this metaphor, but I think it’s relatively intuitive: if you want to keep your primary, you’d better have a pretty fucking solid relationship with them if you want to do poly with them. The things that matter most here are a sense of real relationship trust—the belief that your partner loves you, is good for you, that you’re good for them, and that they know all of these things too. Everyone has occasional doubts, but anything more than that is likely to start nibbling away at the foundation of your dear domicile.

 

Fact: You need a sizable well-built house to accommodate those new people

It’s easy to see how having boyfriends and girlfriends could further de-stabilize a rocky marriage. What most people miss is the major problem that your unstable primary relationship will jeopardize your OTHER relationships. Oh, it won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen for several months or possibly longer, depending on how serious those other relationships are. But given time, any guest who spends long enough in your house is going to step on a mouse in the middle of the night, get annoyed that the damned toilet doesn’t flush half the time, and try to open those duct-taped windows. Tolerance on the part of guests is, of course, essential. However, you will probably notice over time that it gets increasingly difficult to attract partners with high self-esteem to stay for long in your derelict domicile. The people who will stick around in your guest room are the people who (at least feel like they) don’t have anywhere else to go.

 

You and your primary are the ones who build the guest room, but if you don’t clean it (sometimes together) between relationships, it can accumulate an astounding amount of junk. People are used to talking about “relationship baggage” as an individual property, but in Poly World, the relevant baggage can accumulate between you and your primary, not just you. A series of annoying and possessive ex-boyfriends can make your husband incredibly mistrustful of the newest one, because he just looks like another one in a long string. And if your husband is still mad about Boyfriend #2 and you’re on #5, you’d probably better do some spring cleaning. Constantly tripping over the open suitcases from your exes isn’t going to endear you to your new significant others.

 

I recently astounded a long-term poly friend with the observation that he couldn’t expect his girlfriend to get along with his wife better than he did. I pointed out that as long as he and his wife were arguing (especially about things that tangentially or actually related to his girlfriend), the girlfriend was bound to end up accumulating irritations and resentments at one or both of them. But as long as she actually liked him, most of that resentment was likely to end up at the feet of his wife (probably unfairly), since the wife came across as the person interfering with their relationship. Moreover, the girlfriend lacked the background to fully contextualize the arguments, and didn’t get any make-up sex either. And I further pointed out that if his wife didn’t trust him, is it really likely that she’s going to trust his girlfriend? It’s possible, but unlikely, even if she likes her. Succinctly put: if you try to build serious, close relationships with other people, your primary relationship is bound to affect and impact those other relationships. It’s a transitive property of relationship tension: if things are tense between you and your primary, isn’t that likely to make your secondary feel tense about your primary, too? And then to make things tense with your secondary too?

 

Put the house in good repair before you invite guests into it. Otherwise, their stay isn’t going to be very comfortable, is it?

 

Some people try to circumvent this problem by having a metaphorical cottage or shed in the backyard for guests—by trying to compartmentalize their relationships and shield them from each other. In some sense, this strategy can be pretty successful (it’s the only way to have any hope of trying to sustain relationships with other people if your primary relationship isn’t so hot). But usually, it turns out that the cottage is missing a few walls, or alternatively, that it’s so damned cramped in there that no two people—no matter how claustrophilic—could possibly fit. After awhile, this strategy a. this starts to feel a lot like cheating (“I know he has a wife, but he almost never talks about her… It’s weird”) and b. it usually seriously curtails intimacy and trust (“hey, it’d be great to be fluid-bound with her, but I’ve only met her husband once and I have no idea how he’d feel about it. Also, I’m not even sure they still have sex…”). (For a more humorous take on this arrangement, see my friend’s tumblr)

 

Fact: You need to respect the threshold

When it comes to both real and metaphorical poly households, threshold maintenance is a helluva tricky affair. You and your primary build the guest room, but your primary has to leave you and your secondary to mostly decorate it yourselves. If you and your secondary have a really different decorating style than you and your wife, that can require some major adjusting. The biggest problems arise if people are criticizing the décor on either side, or trying to deliberately rearrange things on either side of the threshold. It’s especially hard because one of the things that makes for successful poly is if your relationship with your wife is distinctively different from your relationship with your girlfriend, but that’s exactly the thing that can make it hard for everyone to get along unless they are all very respectful of those differences.

 

For primaries, there’s such a fine line between making sure the guest room is tidy, and interfering with the decorating scheme. For secondaries, there’s such a fine line between politely requiring that the room remain decorated to your tastes, and making unreasonable demands. And no one should be doing things that could damage the integrity of the structure as a whole!

 

Fact: You are very unlikely to be able to build your house over your guest room

It is one of the great puzzles to me of poly architecture that I have never even heard of anyone building a primary relationship (even one that quickly failed) around a stable very serious secondary relationship without the secondary relationship promptly falling apart (and I’ve rarely even heard of people getting that far. Usually the secondary relationships were a disaster before the primary relationship appeared). I know a lot of people with very serious secondaries who really want primaries… and all of them have literally been looking for years. It feels like the poly equivalent of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

 

But consider the construction process of hierarchical polyamory: you can imagine building a house over top of some pitiful shed in the backyard, but it’s pretty hard to imagine building your own house over the fancy guest quarters you have set up at someone else’s house. How do you have time and energy to build a house with a potential husban when you keep spending lots of time in your nice guest suite at your boyfriend’s house? There are a whole host of reasons why it’s hard to build a primary relationship over a preexisting sturdy secondary one. But perhaps the most salient of these is that your very hypothetical starter home with someone can look awfully pitiful compared to the comfy guest quarters you already have.

 

In conclusion, for better or for worse, hierarchical poly life is almost always a trickle-down affair. Successful hierarchical poly really has to start with a stable primary relationship (please, by all means, someone tell me how wrong I am, but I know of no examples), and the stability of that primary relationship is the groundwork for all the other relationships. Primaries come first, literally and figuratively, in hierarchical poly life, and all poly relationships have to be built with care. Of course, all relationships should come with a “Warning: Under Construction” sign, but I think we all know that some relationships have a lot more repairs and maintenance to do than others.

 

Build your nice, sturdy home. Then build your guest room(s). You and your guests will be very glad you did it in that order. Then make sure that everyone is committed to keeping it running well.

Barrier Protection

I love and hate the way poly people use condoms.

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Before I go any further, I suppose I should explain that I spent years theorizing and researching the way men and women around the world make decisions about and negotiate contraceptive use; it’s what my dissertation was on, and I have written several academic papers on the topic. Amusingly, my academic background makes me at best only slightly better at actually negotiating contraceptive (condom) use with real people than your average monogamous person, and I’m definitely less skilled at it than your average poly slut. I manage it, but without much finesse. Instead of being helpful, my academic background just makes me very conscious of how profoundly mediocre I am at it, and leaves a voice in the back of my head continually affirming a theoretical paper that I wrote in graduate school arguing that contraceptive negotiations are all about power, trust, and pleasure.

When my husband and I finally set out to become practicing (as opposed to merely theoretical) polyamorists nearly six years ago, we did so outside the context of the BDSM scene and its strictures about condoms. Neither of us had ever slept with anyone else, and we weren’t sleeping with people who were particularly slutty. Since he cared a lot about the idea of me getting pregnant by someone who wasn’t him, I got an IUD right before we embarked on this poly excursion. And after that, for years, we were relatively carefree about condom use with our partners. We weren’t hooking up, we weren’t dating casually, we were only having sex with people we really liked and were forming relationships with. I keenly remember the first time he had sex with another woman–who was my girlfriend at the time, in a threesome. He was having condom issues, and she said, “Oh just don’t worry about it.” And he didn’t. And I didn’t. And she didn’t. Because she and I had been in a relationship for months, she knew he’d never had sex with anyone else, and we all knew she was using birth control.

And even though I think that decision was completely reasonable (I certainly did at the time, and I still do in hindsight), I hesitate to write it here. Because I’m afraid of the judgments that might rain down.

But eventually, he and I got immersed into the BDSM scene, and became more accomplished sluts. For better or worse, at that point, we started absorbing the sense that Condoms Are Very Very Very Important. And they are. Please don’t think that I’m suggesting otherwise here. Condoms save lots of lives, no question. But in the process of saving lives, they’ve accumulated an irrational symbolic value in our subculture that I kind of hate.
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What I love about the condom culture of the (poly) Scene

There don’t have to be any condom negotiations. That’s what I love. Outside of this beautiful bubble, an astounding amount of heterosexual casual sex (I suspect the majority, based on my research) happens without condoms. Inside of the bubble, if a person with a penis says they want to fuck me, I really don’t worry much about whether they’re going to put something in between their dick and my pussy. I just take it for granted that they will. I think most people in the Scene would actually be a little insulted by any condom negotiation other than, “so which kind should we use?” I can just imagine the look on some guy’s face if he said he wanted to fuck me, and I said gravely, “well, you have to use a condom.” I think their response would be, “um, duh.”

I love that condom use for PIV/PIA is the norm in the scene, in public or in private. I love that it’s expected, and I love that it’s followed. I even, to a more limited degree, love the way that there’s some social pressure to enforce these norms. Responsible condom use feels like part of someone’s overall good reputation.

What I hate about the condom culture of the (poly) Scene

The default norm of condom use has some serious costs in the Scene, the highest being an anomic situation with regards to fluid-bonding. Anomieis just a fancy French sociological term for saying that we lack clear social norms to guide us in a particular situation, and that that lack of norms creates anxiety and uncertainty, often with a dollop of guilt and shame as well. Since I happen to have an extensive collection of fluid-bound kinks, I find it pretty annoying that my subculture of sexual deviance has so little social support for my kinks–kinks which aren’t even all that kinky, and are in fact shared by a lot of people.

People often create fluid-bound poly groups, but the social norms in favor of condom use are so restrictive that people almost never discuss those fluid-bound groups publicly. Indeed, people are often embarrassed to admit that they’re fluid-bound to multiple partners, even if they’ve been with those partners for years. As a result, there’s no sense of what’s “normal” in a fluid-bound poly group: how long/well do you have to know each other for it to be reasonable to become fluid-bound? How intimate should the relationship be? What rules should guide the behavior of people in a fluid-bound poly group? Without more open and honest discussion about poly fluid-bonding, I think we cause people a lot of undue stress as they end up constantly trying to anxiously reinvent the wheel. I posted my own poly contract long ago on fetlife in an effort to try to get more discussion going in the community, and I regularly get emails from strangers thanking me for providing them with something to go on.

I also hate the way that condoms become symbols of power and status in polyamorous dynamics (mainly through their non-use). The thing is, once you’re fluid-bound with someone, it’s reasonable to give them at least a little control over who you sleep with (in reality, they should probably have some say about your exposure to whatever pathogens you might transmit to them sexually, but people tend to lose sight of that fact). In hierarchical polyamorous dynamics, the norm is that primaries are fluid-bound (which is sometimes very ironic, since many poly people have more sex with people who aren’t their primaries). Consequently, a lot of fluid-bonding negotiations in poly life end up with husbands and wives trying to obtain the privilege of fucking their girlfriend or boyfriend without a condom. I’ve been privy to a lot of these conversations, and most of them are almost comically far removed from concerns about physical safety. Really, the real concern often seems to come down to primaries wanting to preserve their status as primary by ensuring that their partner doesn’t get to have unprotected sex with anyone else. Which is their prerogative, but I personally find it obnoxious.

The amusing corollary of this hierarchical power/status principle is that in anarchical polyamorous dynamics, people tend to assume that fluid-bound partners must be primaries–even if, in reality, you just happen to be fluid-bound to the person that was using birth control, or the person who hates condoms the most, or the person you have the most sex with. Anarchical polys often end up not being fluid-bound with anyone because they don’t want to give up or negotiate the kind of control that happens when you have to worry about someone else’s safety instead of just your own.

I hate the particular way that condoms are symbols of emotional intimacy (again, primarily through their non-use). Really, it’s the converse of this fact that I hate: if non-use of condoms is a sign of emotional intimacy, it means that using condoms is a symbol of emotional distance. Public health campaigns can tell us all they want that loving partners use protection, but we all know that not using condoms is a sign of trust… which inevitably seems to mean that using them is a sign that you don’t fully trust the other person. Or that your fluid-bound partner doesn’t (see above).

The idea that condoms symbolize trust is definitely prevalent in monogamous world as well, but in a very different way. It’s fairly common for monogamous couples to have sex about three times with condoms and then stop using them. But in poly world, that seems shockingly cavalier, since the relationship isn’t “serious enough” at that stage to warrant fluid-bonding. It rarely seems to occur to poly people that because condoms are symbols of emotional intimacy, not using them actually meaningfully contributes to the process of BUILDING intimacy and trust (whether we like that fact or not). Because of the way we treat condoms, we end up insisting that people try to establish relationships and then stop using condoms once they’ve trusted one another for a long time (with no norms about how long is long enough)… and we ask them to ignore the cognitive dissonance that emerges from trusting and loving someone and insisting that for some unclear reason, they still need to use this thing that not using would show that they trusted and loved the person. In short, I hate the way that we use condoms as symbols of emotional intimacy and trust and then try to ignore the implications of doing so, or just pretend that we don’t.

To summarize, what I hate about poly condom culture in the Scene is the barriers that it creates to normal sexual relationship building.

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What happened to safety?

I’m constantly amused when I listen to people go on at length about the importance of having safe sex, and then go outside to smoke. Or ride a motorcycle. Statistically speaking, if you’re not in a gay anonymous anal hook-up, smoking and motorcycle riding are much more dangerous. But I realize that in poly life, unlike smoking or motorcycle riding, the safety associated with fluid-bound decisions isn’t just about you. You end up having to make risk calculations for yourself and other people that you love. And that can be really intimidating and frightening.

Let me be very clear: I’m not suggesting some radical shift in how we as a subculture deal with condom use. Not at all. I just want us to be able to have honest and sensible conversations about the non-use of condoms in long-term relationships without so much baggage. I want us to be able to take power and status and nervous shame and bullshit emotional feelings out of decisions about fluid-bonding. I realize that’s a tall order, but when you come right down to it, fluid-bonding is about two things: better sex and trust. You need to want to have better sex with someone, and you need to trust that they’ll follow whatever rules you agree on for having safer sex with other people. That’s it. There are lots of other things that are optional (I personally have no desire to be directly fluid-bound with someone that I’m not romantically involved with, for example), but those are the only things that are necessary.

And when my partners come to me wanting to be fluid-bound with someone else (thus resulting in me being indirectly fluid-bound with someone), my only calculations are these: do I trust that person to follow our safer sex agreements? And if I don’t see that person much, do I trust that my partner is in a position to ensure that person will follow our safer sex agreements? Can I still easily calculate my web of risk if I include this person? And if the answer to those questions is yes, then I say yes.

Because I don’t think we should use condoms as barriers to intimacy, or security blankets of relationship status. I think we should use them to keep everyone as safe as possible from sexually transmitted infections (and pregnancy). And at some point, we should be able to agree that we’re safe enough.

The trick is learning what “safe enough” looks like. We just need more subcultural support to figure that out.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

{Warning: this will take you off site to xtube}: ALS Ice Bucket Challenge… the kinky way

I’ve already tagged 3 friends here, but I hope that my kinky peeps will make more scenes for charity!

On Relationship Statuses and Labels

“Boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “husband,” and “wife,” are really the only labels that we grow up learning a pseudo-intuitive meaning for in our culture. Of course, as it turns out, everybody’s definitions are different for those terms, so they’re nowhere near as helpful as we fantasize they are. That is, we think we know what they mean, but in reality, everyone has highly individualized notions, expectations, boundaries, and “meanings of relationships.”

Even in monogamous world, those labels have proven spectacularly inadequate. Young people tend to participate in a hook-up culture these days, which deliberately blurs the lines between “in” and “not in” a relationship. Even older friends of mine who have tried to date monogamously seem to have found that dating in our culture has become—to use sociological jargon–anomic. That’s a fancy way of saying that nobody knows what the hell the rules are anymore, and that dating tends to be accompanied by a lot of angst and uncertainty partly because the rules are so vague.

But as crazy as things are in MonoWorld, they’re a helluva lot more complicated over here in PolyWorld.

There are two basic types of polyamory that I’ve discovered: hierarchical poly and anarchical poly. Hierarchical polys try to simplify the mad complexities of poly life by labeling relationships and dynamics like crazy: husbands, boyfriends, friend with benefits, play partners, lovers… and then often surreptitiously layer labels like “primary,” “secondary,” and very occasionally “tertiary” on top of those (how often do you hear someone introduce someone with, “This is Beth, my secondary”?). Anarchical polys, on the other hand, try to disengage from the labels altogether and often pretend like there’s no real prioritizations happening between and among their relationships. They tend to eschew relationship labels and titles altogether, frequently just introducing people with the incredibly nebulous title “partner.”

For several years, I’ve been practicing my own form of pseudo-anarchical polyamory with a husband/primary and a collection of my own “partners.” Unfortunately, in spite of my current lifestyle, I don’t think that anarchical poly is my native relationship language. I like my world ordered and precise and I reeeeeeally like security and stability. All of these preferences are antithetical to the way that anarchical poly functions. And yet, I find that anarchical poly has seemed to be the best way to meet my own and my partners’ wants and desires for quite some time. The thing I find myself questioning regularly is does it meet my needs? How valuable is the security of a label?

Do you actually get more from someone because he calls you his “girlfriend”? There might be peace of mind in the label and the feeling of security that comes with it, but what does it ultimately really provide? If someone does all the things you expect a boyfriend to do, does it matter if you call him your boyfriend? Obviously, it matters to me on some level or I wouldn’t be writing this. But that doesn’t mean that it should matter.

The thing is, when you have a bad day, and you doubt someone’s feelings for you, the relationship titles give you something to fall back on. Sure, she got busy and didn’t text you this morning, but she’s still your girlfriend. At the same time, the titles can be expectation traps: it’s okay if your “play partner” didn’t text you, but it’s not okay if your “girlfriend” didn’t. In the end, what do those labels really give you except an illusion of stability and security?

I can get over the vocabulary awkwardness; but the real biggest challenges of anarchical poly life for me are 1. That it feels impossible to plan for the future more than two weeks from now (who knows what the “relationship” will look like in a month? Can we take for granted that we’ll spend time together at x event? How do we decide who’s staying with whom? Am I doing this wrong if I assume I’m staying with you?). And 2. That it feels so fucking hard to say “I love you” and have it mean the same thing to the person I’m saying it to that it means to me. At the point where you’ve abandoned all the standard social norms of relationships entirely, it’s like you need to invent a completely new vocabulary just to explain the way you feel about someone. Part of me imagines having this stupidly awkward conversation that goes something like, “I have very deep and intense feelings for you that in no way resemble the ones I have for my husband, and I would never under any circumstances consider living with you for more than a few days at a time, but I care greatly about your happiness, I miss you a lot when you’re not around, and I think being with you greatly enriches my life, so I think that means I love you.” Are you allowed to say that to someone?

In some ways, anarchical polyamory feels like a spectacularly immature way to do relationships—as if we’re bundles of hormones who are terrified of commitment because it might limit the number of people we get to fuck. In other ways, it seems extremely sophisticated and vastly more realistic than any other relationship system I can imagine. It acknowledges the ever-changing nature of humans and their relationship needs, and most importantly, I think it takes into account a truth which our society mostly just doesn’t get: love is contextual. Love—even romantic love—is absolutely not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and that was the truth which polyamory was supposed to encompass all along. You should take for granted that I don’t love you like I love my husband, because that just wouldn’t make sense anyway. You and I are what we are, and what we are is sexy and powerful and loving and special; trying to find a fetlife box to check to legitimate it in the eyes of other people or ourselves probably won’t make us even a little bit happier, and I seriously doubt that it will extend the longevity of our relationship by a day, and stressing about it is likely to shorten the length of the relationship considerably.

That sounds true, at least.

This comic is by me.

I came up with this in one of my more cynical moments

Advice for the Polycurious

I regularly have people who are contemplating polyamory with various degrees of seriousness ask me for advice on becoming poly, and for tales of my own polyamorous conversion. So here goes.

Becoming poly is a radically different proposition depending on your current relationship status. The easiest way to become poly is if you’re currently single and you decide to “try poly”; this decision usually is most successful if you’ve already made the decision and don’t become effectively coerced into it by a situation. For example, there’s a world of difference between thinking, “I don’t know about this whole monogamy thing” and falling for a married woman, versus coincidentally falling for a married woman and sort of stumbling into polyamory as a result. If you’re single and want to date poly, it’s pretty easy: get on okcupid and claim to be “available” even though you’re technically single. Voila. Go to kink or pagan events, which tend to be frequented by poly folks, to pick up partners. Go to poly meet-ups. Not too tricky.

Turning your happy long-term monogamous relationship into a happy long-term polyamorous relationship is a much trickier proposition, however. I’ll start by telling my story, I’ll review some common problems with this dynamic, and then I’ll offer some practical tips and advice, most of which apply for poly singles and couples.

My Story

Once upon a time, I was an 18-year-old high school student who scoffed at the “doomed institution of marriage,” and doubted my capacity for successful monogamy after spending the previous summer engaged in wild crushes and flirtations with at least three boys at once. Lo and behold, I met Bastard, another 18-year-old virgin high school student who was the sexy geek I never dared dream about. I told him before we ever started seriously dating, “I doubt I can be monogamous,” and he said, “Good, because I doubt I could be either.” Well, that was easy enough. Time went on, and as our relationship grew more serious, we sort-of defaulted to monogamy (neither of us was exactly drowning in options, anyway), but we were miles away from a traditional monogamous dynamic either. Eventually, after Bastard and I had been together about four years, I accidentally fell in love with a good (female) friend; although that didn’t work out, Bastard was extremely supportive, and I had great faith that we could do this whole non-monogamy thing. I eventually decided that marriage might be a redeemable social institution after all, but we deliberately wrote monogamy out of our wedding vows.

That was back in 2003, and we inhabited a different world back then. I had never been to a pagan gathering and never met anyone who identified as poly (I had only been introduced to the word the year before). I went to my first pagan gathering in 2005 and met a whole passel of practicing polys. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people who were living my nervous fantasy. It seemed possible.

Bastard was always less nervous about embarking on a poly life than I was. We talked incessantly, processing the numerous possibilities and problems that might arise once we took the “poly plunge.” (I’ve discussed some of the necessary evils of poly processing here). Some of the issues I had to work through for myself were: worrying that if he fell in love with someone else, he wouldn’t love me the same way; being anxious about spending the night alone; believing that he was as okay with me seeing other men as he was with me seeing women; working through the fact that he has always harbored the desire to “share” a woman with me–a fantasy I find much less appealing. I was never worried about the prospect of him having sex with someone else. But neither of us found the idea of swinging appealing, so I knew I had to be able to deal with the prospect of him forming a relationship with someone else. I felt reasonably comfortable with all these things by the time we finally decided to finish being monogamous. Three things precipitated the timing of our eventual plunge into polyamory: (1) me finishing grad school, which greatly reduced the overall stress level in the house, (2) the two of us playing together in a public sex space, which we enjoyed very much, and (3) my increasing desire (bordering on need) to have sex with women.

Since taking the poly plunge, our greatest challenge has always been that I have a much easier time finding partners than he does. I don’t have any easy answers to that one; I wouldn’t say we’ve “solved” the problem. (For anyone reading this, my husband is an awesome catch. He’s just geeky and shy on first acquaintance). Our other big issue is the same one all poly people have: time. Our culture brings us up to believe you can’t be in love with more than one person at the same time, but I believe this is nonsense. We have an infinite capacity to love; what we don’t have is an infinite capacity to spend a healthy amount of time with an indefinite number of lovers (I’ve written more on that problem here). Again, this remains an ongoing problem that requires regular attention for us.

My Advice to Couples

As you and a partner consider polyamory for yourselves and your relationship, I would encourage you to think about some of the following things. First, what do you each of you as individuals hope to get by opening your relationship? Second, what do each of you hope that your relationship will get by opening it? Answering these questions will help you decide if you just want to “open” your relationship, or if you want to be polyamorous. This diagram (not mine) is both a hilarious and accurate depiction of the many varieties of “open relationship” forms. I don’t personally have any experience with open relationship forms other than polyamory. The term “polyamory” remains hotly debated, and in my opinion, the word “poly” is more of an identity and subcultural label at this point than a clear indicator of relationship preferences.

It’s important to discuss your biggest fears about polyamory with your partner beforehand. I think of becoming polyamorous as being very similar to the decision to have a baby: it needs a lot of talking about beforehand, and it works best when both partners want similar things. Also, much like having while it can solve some of your relationship problems, it definitely can’t solve most of them–and it can make many a helluva lot worse. The difference between poly life and parenting is that you usually have more role models for good parenting than for successful polyamory.

My Advice to All Polycurious Folks

Regardless of whether you have a well-established monogamous relationship or are a single embarking upon “poly dating,” it’s still important to try to get a sense for people’s “poly rules.” Everyone has different poly rules, and there’s no way to know what they’ll be ahead of time.
• One of the most basic has to be rules for safer sex (which I promise I’ll write a separate post about soon).
• Another common rule is that many people (including me) have primaries with “veto power” over their relationships–that is, the primary reserves the right to approve the other person’s relationships. While this rule might sound comforting to new poly couples in principle, my husband and I learned rapidly that it’s only really useful very early on in a relationship. You risk a lot less telling your partner that someone makes you uncomfortable after their first date than if you tell them after they’ve been dating for six months (at that point, you pretty much have to try to gently talk them into breaking up). If this veto power dynamic sounds appealing to you, I strongly recommend biting the bullet and introducing your dates to your primary ASAP. Yes, it’s often awkward, but not nearly as awkward as going forward with a relationship that (either) partner is deeply uncomfortable with. In short, don’t kid yourself. If you’re dating a married woman and think her husband is a douche, then your relationship probably has a quick expiration date, unless she also thinks her husband is a douche, in which case you’re going to get cooked in a hot mess.
• Try to get a sense for how much time you and your partner are willing to spend away from each other every week (both days and nights). When embarking upon a new relationship, never deceive someone about how much time they’re likely to get with you.
• Be alert for what I consider a Big Poly Red Flag: namely, extremely restrictive poly rules. Not only are these rules often very difficult to keep to (and thus a recipe for Poly Fail), to me they are also indicative of people who aren’t really comfortable with polyamory. That’s entirely subjective, but you don’t want to fall into somebody else’s poly trap, and you don’t want to create one yourself. Examples that I have seen include, “Monday night is my night with him. Period.” “No one else can call after 9 PM and on holidays” (no, I’m not making that one up). I have talked to many people, and the main reason these rules are so destructive (aside from being hard to remember) is that shit happens. People’s parents die, they fight with their best friend, they lose their job, they go to the hospital, etc. (And don’t think age negates these things. My friends are in their late 20’s, and in a single six month period, my husband’s girlfriend at the time went to the hospital, my boyfriend at the time went to the hospital, and I had to take a dear friend to the hospital. Trust me. SHIT HAPPENS). Even if they just have a really bad day, people need to be able to get (extra) support from their partners, or the relationship is doomed. (Of course, if shit is constantly happening, the relationship is likely doomed for other reasons). All partners need to understand that when shit happens, plans will fall through. If they can’t deal with that without getting sulky, angry, or depressed, they can’t deal with polyamory. Period.

After discussing angst, worries, and rules, I want to end this post on a more positive note. People tend to frame the decision to become polyamorous as one of loss and risk. They rarely consider the idea that monogamy also can be risky, as I pointed out here. Imagine if we lived in a culture where polyamory was the default and couples had to make the decision to be monogamous. Imagine the cautions and warnings we would give people: you’ll have to be really careful because most people admit that they’ve cheated on a partner at some point, you’ll lose the opportunity to enjoy and experience lots of other people, your social support network will be much more limited, you might end up trying to parent with only two people, and you’ll have to try to fulfill all of each other’s sexual needs. Put like that, does polyamory really sound like such a bad idea?

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I encourage readers of this post to reply with their own stories in the comments section and post links to favorite posts and articles. I would love to create a resource here for polycurious folks.

The Self-Defeating Flirtation

My friends and I discovered a paradox of dating/picking up long ago, which I have discussed before slightly differently: essentially, humans have an ironic and disastrous habit of assuming the people they’re more attracted to aren’t attracted to them.

Let’s take a moment and dissect that. The people you think are hottest, the people that you reeeeally think you might click with, the people that you really fucking want are the ones who you’re most likely to think, “Aw, s/he’s just not that into me.” I’ve had many conversations with people where they readily admitted that they couldn’t tell someone was interested in them because of their own interest; behaviors that appeared flirtatious from someone they were not interested in immediately became ambiguous or neutral because they wanted that person.

WHY?

Why automatically assume that someone is not interested in you if you’re interested in them? It causes a disastrous cycle of dating failure; it’s spectacularly self-defeating in three crucial ways.

The first is that whoever the object of your attraction (OYA) may be, regardless of gender, they are less likely to be attracted to you if you believe that they’re not attracted to you. Don’t believe me? True story. They did an experiment where they didn’t let some poor guys bathe for 48 hours. Then at the end of it, they let some of the guys put on some scented body spray and some of them unscented deodorant, asked them to rate their feelings of confidence and then took the guys’ pictures and had them make videos. The guys who were scented rated their self-confidence higher than the unscented guys. Now here’s the kicker: they showed the pictures and videos to a bunch of women (who had no idea what the premise of the experiment was), and the chicks thought the guys who had on the scented body spray were hotter than the guys who didn’t. Now, unless women have developed some magical method of smelling men through photographs, the logical conclusion from this weird experiment is that guys are genuinely more physically attractive to women when they feel more attractive and confident (someone should try replicating this experiment with women). Which means that if you walk up to someone you’re attracted to, convinced that they aren’t into you, the chances that they’ll be into you are probably substantially lower than if you walk up to them, reasonably certain that they will be into you (overconfidence probably goes too far in the other direction).

The second problem with the conviction that the OYA isn’t into you is that you’re less likely to notice when they’re flirting with you, trying to make moves, or showing interest. Believing that they’re uninterested, you hesitate to interpret anything shy of, “Can we please fuck now?” as actual interest. (And I’ve even heard the insecurity extend past that point too! [Eeyore voice] “Well, she wanted me for sexxxx, but I doubt she wants to actually go out with meeeee”). If you get into a situation where both people are like this, then you have a fantastic recipe for a hookup or a relationship that is just never going to happen.

By now you should be able to see what the third problem is: if you continually “fail” to pick people up—because they’re genuinely less attracted to you because you think you’re unattractive, compounded by your failure to notice their cues of interest—then you end up “confirming” your own belief that you’re “not that hot.” Every time you fail to pick up someone you’re interested in, you become that much more insecure the next time you try… and less attractive to potential partners… and so the cycle of what we nicknamed “the self-defeating flirtation” goes.

But as obnoxious as this spiral of learned helplessness is, the thing I hate the most about the self-defeating flirtation is that it means that people often end up partnering with people that they’re less attracted to. If you’re terrified to approach the people you’re reeeeeally attracted to, and either don’t approach them at all or do so awkwardly, but more confidently approach people that you’re merely attracted to, you’re more likely to catch the people you’re merely attracted to than the people you’re really attracted to. And what a fucking waste. Go fuck the people you reeeeeally want!

“But how do I break the cycle?”

I’d be lying if I pretended like there was some easy way to just suddenly say to yourself, “I’m reasonably attractive. I might even be hot. There is a better than 50% chance that Person X that I am interested in wants me.” Me and my best friend realized that this cycle existed, and then pinky promised each other that we would try to always believe that people we wanted most found us desirable; in our cases, the pinky promise and Aphrodite worship worked. For some people, just being aware that they’re shooting themselves in the foot helps them try to change their thought processes and behaviors. If you genuinely, deeply believe that you’re unattractive, I don’t think any blog post will be enough to change your attitudes or behaviors on its own; that type of change requires something deep and powerful. But I feel like the majority of people that I know are insecure about how attractive they are in ways that are more changeable: the sort-of casual, everyday belief that one “just isn’t hot enough” has a hope of being overcome through practice, application, and the support of one’s friends.

Personally, I just find the reminder that the person is more likely to say “yes” if I believe they will to be a pretty damned good incentive.

In Praise of Female Condoms

They’re obnoxiously expensive. They’re awkward as hell. They’re so intimidating to put in that most people give up before they even try. They were someone’s misguided attempt to create female liberation on the safer sex front by providing women with a “female-controlled” method of sexually transmitted infection (STI) protection (sorry, folks, it didn’t really work out that way; female condoms definitely require a guy’s cooperation). They’re way too thick, and they occasionally make squeaky sounds when you’re fucking with them. I avoided them for years because they were so damned awkward-looking, and I only used them for the first time because I couldn’t think what else to do. I can’t for the life of me imagine successfully having sex in the dark with one (but that’s not really my thing, so whatever).

They’re incredibly poorly marketed.  They’re supposed to keep women in control of safer sex, but they require total cooperation from men in order to work effectively; the name “female condom” understandably pisses off genderqueer folks, who usually colloquially refer to them as “internal condoms” instead; and the damned things work better for anal than vaginal sex and should be selling like wildfire to gay men… who, of course, don’t realize that they could even be using them, because why would a gay guy use a “female condom”?  Worst of all,  they’re terrifying to try to figure out how to use (especially when the risks are high), and the instructions on the package are no help at all.  In fact, the instructions on the packaging are so crappy that I created a couple of internet videos to help people figure out how to use them.

And yet, after only a single personal use, I found myself online shopping for an affordable 100-pack of female condoms (your best bets are usually amazon.com vendors or condomdepot.com with a discount code).  That’s partly because my husband’s girlfriend/my play partner is allergic to latex, and the female condoms sold in the U.S. are all non-latex. But it’s also partly for me. Because I’ve discovered that despite their myriad disadvantages, female condoms can be extremely handy. And being able to use female condoms or male condoms depending on the sexual situation turns out to be quite advantageous.

In case you’re wondering what advantages could possibly outweigh all those negatives above, I figured I’d write out a list of their advantages.

  • They’re sometimes great for guys whose dicks are annoyed by male condoms.  Guys with large foreskins and guys who feel like male condoms are cutting off the circulation to their dicks often find female condoms more pleasant.
  • They’re not made of latex, so they can be great if either partner has a latex allergy.
  • You can put them in long before you have sex. No need to stop the sexy and make the condom happen. You can grind all up and down your partner before you ever fuck, and voila! There is protection.  I’ve (consensually) woken up a partner in the middle of the night, put in a female condom the bathroom, then sat on my partner’s hard cock in his sleep.  You can pull off a trick like that with a male condom, but it’s a helluva lot sexier to wake someone up by sliding your (protected) pussy down his cock than by putting a condom on him… unless you do it with your mouth.

  • You can (and in my opinion, usually should) get your partner to put it in for you.  Ignore those dumb instructions telling you the woman should put it in herself.  Moreover, unlike putting a condom on with your mouth, putting a female condom in with a finger is something that pretty much anyone can do. And thus the safer sex is naturally integrated with foreplay.

  • A guy can keep losing his erection, and your female condom doesn’t care.  Sucking a guy’s cock or giving him a handjob to get him hard again is much easier when there’s no latex in the way.

  • In general, it’s easy to pop back and forth between fucking and oral sex. Female condoms don’t really taste much at all (I can’t taste them anyway), so both people’s genitals will just taste like whatever lube you used, not latex. This also means that it’s a cinch for a guy to pull out and cum in the girl’s mouth, on her chest, or whatever.

  • They’re extremely useful for multi-person sex. If two women want to fuck one guy, both the girls can use female condoms and he can pop back and forth between them with ease. And they turn out to be pretty fucking fantastic for coitalingus–which is where a guy fucks a girl’s pussy and someone else goes down on the pair of them simultaneously. Again, there’s no taste of latex, his dick is mostly exposed, and her clit is easily exposed.

  • They’re great for giving girls hand-jobs, especially if you’re trying to give multiple girls hand-jobs. You don’t have to keep changing gloves, because the girls pretty much already have gloves in their pussies! So handy! (Pun pun)

  • Unless you mess them up (which admittedly a lot of people do), they’re better disease protection than male condoms, because they’re somewhat better at protecting against skin-transmitted STI’s like herpes.

  • They are the only thing I’ll use for protected anal sex.  Whereas male condoms have a terrible habit of tearing in tight poorly lubricated asses, female condoms are much less likely to break (although you do have to worry about them bunching up).  On top of that, you don’t really have to worry about the santorum experience so much until you’re already done with the sex and have to pull the condom all the way out.  It makes the whole anal sex experience waaaay cleaner, and it’s safer to boot.

They’re definitely not perfect. I’ve heard guys complain that they’re like fucking a plastic bag and they look weird. But they’ve got their uses.

Two cheers for female condoms 😉