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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!
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.
…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.
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. 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.
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.”
 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.
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.