The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Alex is in a relationship with Kris, who’s in a relationship with Kate. Kris is devoted to both Alex and Kate. Alex is considerate of Kris’ feelings, responsive to Kris’ needs, and has worked to build a healthy, reciprocal relationship with Kris. Kate…well, Kate is happy enough to have Kris in her life, so long as Kris is the one to put the effort in. Kate shows up when she feels like it. Kris rarely knows where they stand with Kate.

Alex has spent countless hours processing with Kris about the relationship with Kate. Alex has held Kris while they cried, given advice, helped distract Kris from all the complicated feels about Kate.

In other words, Alex provides most of the emotional support for both Alex’s relationship with Kris and Kate’s relationship with Kris.

But it doesn’t stop there. Alex has another partner, Jordan, whom Alex turns to when they need support for their relationship with Kris. Because Alex is doing work on behalf of the Kris-Kate relationship, and in truth, all the energy Kris puts into the relationship with Kate means that a lot of the time, Kris doesn’t have much left over for Alex. So it’s a good thing for everyone that Alex has Jordan to lean on. (Depending, of course, on how Jordan feels about it.)

Welcome to the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain.

Emotional labour, if you’re late to the party, refers to all forms of effort involved in caring for another person’s feelings, from remembering birthdays or food allergies to listening to a friend vent to holding someone’s hand while they’re suffering or grieving. There’s a lot of it. And it’s not inherently a problem: it’s the glue that holds society together. The major problems that arise with it—and the reasons so many people are talking about it—are twofold: societally, the expectations for most emotional labour fall on women, and it is chronically undervalued as a form of work.

The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain occurs any time there’s a problem in one relationship that spills over into the other relationships in a network. The emotional labour pours inward, from person to person, toward the source of the problem—as each person in turn leans outward, toward a partner who has emotional labour to give. (This happens in friend groups, too. But often the expectations are higher in romantic relationships—and boundaries can be harder to set.)

I have been part of polyamorous emotional labour daisy chains more times than I can count. I have lost friends and nearly lost partners by leaning out too hard and taking the availability of emotional labour for granted. I have also been the one to process with my partners, over and over, about their hurtful relationships; I’ve been the shoulder they cry on.

Sometimes the problem is an abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s a dysfunctional pairing of an anxious-attached partner with an avoidant-attached one. Sometimes it’s a chronic or acute illness, addiction, financial stress, a new baby, grief, or some other crisis or major life event. Sometimes someone is just being a jerk.

Not all instances of the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain are actually dysfunctional. At its best, it’s really just a special case of the ring theory of caring for people in a crisis. This is how families, communities, and societies work—when they are working well. People take care of each other. People give when they have it in them to give, and they receive when they are in need. When that happens in a poly network and it works well, for everyone involved that’s awesome.

And so I don’t want you to read this piece and think there’s anything wrong with seeking support from your partners. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you find yourself the focal point of the chain because something stressful or awful is going on in your life. You deserve love and support. And I definitely don’t want you to use this piece as a weapon for shaming partners for having needs.

However, if you do recognize an emotional labour daisy chain that you’re a part of, it never hurts to check in with everyone else to make sure everything that’s going on is consensual and is working for everyone involved. A lot of times, these things work right up until they don’t—and people need to know it’s okay to express when it stops working for them, before resentment starts to build.

And.

Sometimes things get set up in such a way that certain people are expected—or even required—to consistently provide emotional labour, while others are consistently exempted from it. Case in point: As mentioned above, the first major discussions of emotional labour centred on the ways in which women are socialized (and expected) to provide emotional labour to men. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that often you see similar patterns play out in poly relationships. But that’s not always the case: I’ve seen—and been in—plenty of situations where one or several men form crucial links in the daisy chain.

One specific example of a structural imbalance in emotional labour is the unicorn-hunting couple. If you look closely at what they say they’re looking for, often it becomes clear that what they want is a woman to provide emotional labour for the two of them, while expecting little to none in return. What makes this particular situation especially messed up, though, is that often they’ll say that they don’t want her to have other partners—in essence, denying her the ability to seek out emotional care from others.

And you know what? Taking care of each other, supporting each other and helping each other out is cool. But setting up structures whereby certain people are consistently excused from performing emotional labour and certain people are expected to always provide it is not cool. It’s not cool in society, and it’s not cool in a polyamorous network.

And those structures are really just a special case of the general case of entitlement to emotional labour. Like all forms of entitlement in relationships, the moment you start feeling like someone owes you emotional labour, things will get fucked up.

Another place the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain causes problems is when there’s someone who has a hard time setting boundaries and consistently accepts poor treatment from partners. Often it’s these kinds of people who have a chronic tendency to be at the centre of the circle. They may consistently give more to certain relationships than they get back, and they may feel like hey, it’s okay, they have that to give.

Except that sometimes the reason they have so much to give is that there’s another partner in the background (or more than one)—people like Alex in our story—performing the emotional labour for both their own relationship and the other, lousy one(s). I think sometimes such a setup can even provide a kind of backup energy source for shitty relationships that really ought to end. I think sometimes they can make it so that even though they hurt, it never hurts quite enough to leave. So if you’re that person who can’t leave the bad relationships, think on that—because often what it means is that there’s another person absorbing your pain.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. But I know one thing: Taking care of your partners means taking care of yourself, too. And that means setting boundaries with people who treat you badly—no matter how much you love them. And it means limiting what you give to relationships that don’t give back. You may think that love conquers all; you may think that you can endlessly pour your love into someone in the hope that they’ll return it someday; you may think these are your decisions. And they are. But understand these decisions are not just about you. People you love will feel it. They will pick up the pieces.

 

For those of you waiting for Part 3 in my hierarchy series…I’m still working on it. I’ve hit an unexpected logical puzzle that I need to work through, and that’s taking some time. I hope to have it up in the next couple of days. This post was the one I needed to write today.

Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 2: Influence and control

This is part two of a three-part series inspired by the question Can a hierarchy ever be ethical in polyamory? As I said in Part 1, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong question to ask. To get to the right questions, we need to drill down deeper. Part 1 talked about how we define hierarchy, how hierarchies reflect power dynamics within relationships, and why they’re so hard to talk about. In this instalment, we’re going to look closer at some of those power dynamics.

Influence and Control

Any healthy relationship involves a certain amount of influence. While it’s not a good idea to rest your hopes for a relationship on your partner changing, or to make your partner into a project, good partnerships do change the people in them. You may learn new habits, new skills, new hobbies, new ways of communicating. But you also have to learn to prioritize another person’s happiness as well as your own. That means allowing your partner to influence you: it means paying attention to what your partner’s experience is, what their needs are, and working with them to help them get their needs met, along with yours. It means sometimes not doing something you want to do, and sometimes doing something you don’t really want to do, in order to make the relationship work for both of you. It means give and take.

In a healthy relationship, this give and take is negotiated and consensual. Boundaries are respected, bottom lines are recognized and not pushed. You may have to give up pizza on Friday because you’ve had it three date nights in a row and your partner’s craving Thai, you may have to move to a city that’s not your first choice (or even on your list), you might have to take a lower-paying job to make more time with the kids—you may have to make big sacrifices or small ones. But you won’t have to give up friends, family, economic or emotional security, self-worth, self-expression, or any of the things that are important to making you you. And this influence is reciprocal: your partner listens to you and seeks compromise just as much as you do. You both prioritize each other’s happiness and well-being.

The other side of this coin is control. Control is what happens when the give and take stops being consensual and reciprocal, when you stop respecting a partner’s boundaries, when you make your own happiness and meeting your own needs more important than valuing your partner’s agency. It may involve emotional blackmail tactics like threats, shame, gaslighting, withdrawal of affection or resources, or, in extreme cases, physical or sexual abuse. It’s important to recognize that an ongoing pattern of coercive control is the definition of intimate partner abuse—and those tactics I’m talking about are part the power and control wheel that’s used to pinpoint abusive behaviours. However, these coercive tactics are used all the time in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships without rising to the level of abuse.

In poly relationships, control can also manifest through hierarchical agreements where partners give each other the power to make unilateral decisions over other relationships.

You might ask how such agreements might qualify as control if they’re negotiated. That’s because of who’s missing from the negotiating process: the other affected partners. Usually, in hierarchical agreements, the rules are presented to secondary partners as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, without an opportunity to shape their creation—either in the beginning, or in the future. (This discussion makes up the bulk of chapter 10 in More Than Two.)

In a poly relationship, intimate influence may affect the choices you make about how you interact with other people. It may mean that you don’t date someone you want to date, or you limit the amount of time you can commit, or you put the brakes on a relationship that’s growing too fast and big…because of the way it might affect your other partners, or because of concerns they have. It might even affect your decision whether to be poly at all.

Or, you might make all those same choices because you have a partner who’s exerting control over your other relationships—whether as part of a negotiated power hierarchy, or as part of a pattern of coercive control.

It can often be difficult to tell the difference between the two from outside a relationship—especially if you’re affected by the choices being made.

Let’s give an example. In her memoir The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades describes her metamour, Elena, giving an ultimatum to Louisa’s husband, Gilles, who was also Elena’s boyfriend: It’s her or me. Elena made it clear that she could no longer remain in a relationship with Gilles as long as he was in a relationship with Louisa. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what he chose…or how Elena responded. But while I was working with Louisa on the companion guide to the memoir, Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self, the two of us had a discussion about whether Elena’s actions constituted a veto of Louisa.

An outside observer who did not know Elena would in fact not be in a position to say whether her actions were a veto or not. Why? Because the difference comes down to expectation and intent. Elena had every right to set boundaries concerning what kind of a relationship she was willing to be involved in—up to and including who she was willing to be metamours with. But in giving Gilles an ultimatum, was she prepared for the possibility that he might say no—thus leaving her in the position of having to make good on her promise to end her relationship with him? Or was she working from an expectation that he would say yes—thus making the ultimatum dangerous for only Louisa, and not for Elena? What would her response be if Gilles said no? Would she be angry? Consider his choice a betrayal? Use shame and guilt to try to get him to do what she wanted? Or would she accept his decision—and leave the relationship?

An underlying element of all these questions is this: Did Elena feel entitled to have Gilles choose her? Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express our needs and desires, but it’s when we feel entitled to have our partners do what we want that things go off the rails. Entitlement makes us feel like it’s okay to overrule our partners’ agency (and that of their partners). If we’re part of a socially sanctioned couple, this is especially dangerous, because we’ve got lots of societal messages feeding that sense of entitlement. And the most damaging parts of hierarchical setups tend to come about when we enshrine entitlement into our relationship agreements.

Back to the Tower

At this point, I really hope you’ve read Part 1, because we’re going back now to our tower and village.

If you can manage to get away from the tower argument of “hierarchy means unequal distribution of resources” and start discussing the real issues (usually this happens when you stop trying to discuss “hierarchies” and instead get into specific kinds of rules, or arrangements such as vetoes), the new tower argument becomes the question of influence. I want to be able to ask for what I want, express my concerns about my metamours to my partners, tell my partners how their other relationships are affecting me, and so on. This is a relatively easy position to defend, because in healthy relationships, partners can influence each other.

Once the tower of intimate influence is defended, however, we see the village once again reoccupied. The village is things that a person feels entitled to control in their partner’s relationship, or rules and structures that are put in place to ensure that one person’s needs are always favoured in the case of resource conflict.

Tower: I want to be able to tell my partner how I feel about a potential new partner and have them consider my feelings in their decision.
Village: I expect my partner not to get involved with a person I’m not comfortable with them being with.

Tower: I want my partner to be available to me during emergencies or when I am struggling emotionally.
Village: I expect my partner to be willing to cancel plans with other partners in order to be with me whenever I’m having a hard time.

Tower: I have a lifetime commitment with my partner, and I want to feel like they will make choices that honour that commitment.
Village: I don’t want other partners to express desires for commitment from my partner, because I fear it will undermine their commitment to me.

At the same time, I think a lot of people, when they say “I need hierarchy” (or “I need veto”), are really saying “I’m afraid I won’t be able to influence my partner.” It’s not that they specifically want control: it’s that they want influence, and they either haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it (especially in poly situations), or they have only been in crappy relationships in the past where they didn’t have influence—so they don’t know what it feels like.

Now, it is a fact that for most people most of the time (but with many exceptions), longer-established, more committed or more entwined partners are likely to have more influence on a pivot partner than newer, less committed or less entwined partners. And that influence is going to affect what happens in other relationships. Sometimes, it may mean not starting a new relationship, or even ending an existing one—even when no pre-established structures are in place to ensure that certain partners are always favoured, even when there’s no control.

Going back to the diagram from More Than Two that I shared in Part 1:

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

As explained in the book, the arrow coming from the left and making the circles on the right is power from within the relationship on the left, affecting the level of intensity and commitment in the relationship on the right. But what we don’t really talk about in More Than Two is the fact that the power arrow can come from influence or it can come from control. And if you are the person on the right, your experience of the pivot’s decision may be very much the same regardless.

As a result, as I mentioned in Part 1, in any situation in which there is an unequal distribution of resources—or influence—the person with less may be inclined to look at the situation and say “This is a hierarchy.” And this is where I think the questions of What is a hierarchy? and Are hierarchies ethical? are not the right questions. Because what the person on the right is saying is really “I feel disempowered.” And that matters—and is what we really need to pay attention to.

That will be the subject of Part 3.

Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 1: The tower and the village

Awhile back, Tikva Wolf, creator of the excellent webcomic Kimchi Cuddles, posted a query on her Facebook page: Can hierarchical relationships ever be ethical? I’ve been chewing on a response to that question for some time, because the answer is not simple. I mean, we spend probably a solid 50 pages in More Than Two trying to tease apart how to make relationship agreements ethical—and we still don’t really answer that question. I finally realized, that’s because it’s the wrong question. If we’re concerned about treating our partners ethically, then the right questions are not Can a hierarchy be ethical? or Is this a hierarchy?

But in order to define the right questions, we need to talk about hierarchy. And that’s a long enough discussion that I am going to break it into three parts. When we get to part three, I’ll talk about the questions we really need to be asking.

Defining Hierarchy

It seems to me that basically every discussion of hierarchy in polyamorous relationships eventually circles back to a discussion of what people mean by the word “hierarchy”—and then stays there, unable to reach escape velocity from the gravity of that never-ending semantic debate. I do not want to continue that debate here. Rather, I want to try to shed some light on why we keep having it. I don’t actually think it’s because people have different definitions and we can’t all agree. I think something a little more subtle is afoot.

I originally penned the definition of hierarchy that would eventually become Chapter 11 of More Than Two in a guest post on Franklin’s LiveJournal back in early 2013. In that post—and later in More Than Two—I focused on the power structures that you often see in poly relationships that are defined as hierarchical, especially those where the terms “primary” and “secondary” are preferred. Specifically, I said there:

A poly hierarchy exists when at least one person holds more power over a partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships.

Essential elements of a poly hierarchy defined this way are authority, where a person (the “primary”) has the ability to make rules about a relationship that they’re not in, and asymmetry, meaning that others don’t have the same authority over the primary relationship.

In More Than Two, cartoonist Tatiana Gill helped us portray this visually, where power from within one “primary” relationship was used to restrict the levels of connection and commitment permissible within another, relationship:

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

Such hierarchies are typically expressed through rules that may be more or less complex: things like limits on money or time spent together, sex acts that can be engaged in, and even feelings that can be expressed may all be included. Vetoes—which we define as one partner being able to unilaterally end another relationship without discussion—are common in such hierarchies, but are neither universal nor their defining feature.

Now, we know this isn’t how everyone uses the word. We acknowledged as much in More Than Two. It is, however, one of two prominent definitions used among poly people. So let’s talk about the other definition.

Many people claim that a hierarchy is any poly situation in which one relationship gets more time, energy, priority, commitment, sex, or other resources than another relationship.

So what’s wrong with that definition?

Well nothing, specifically. Except that it’s useless. For starters, that’s basically all relationships. This is the position advanced by people (including us) who argue against use of the word hierarchy in this sense.

Did I say it’s useless? I didn’t mean completely useless. It has a use, but it’s not the one you think. To the people who promote this definition, the usefulness doesn’t have to do with communicating an idea. It has to do with obscuring another one.

Things are about to get a little abstract here, but bear with me, because I’m about to talk about something that happens all. the. fucking. time. in poly communities—and it has a name.

The Tower and the Village

About a decade ago, neuroethicist Nicholas Shackel coined what he called the motte and bailey doctrine. The name refers to a kind of castle that was popular in Western Europe in the early medieval period. The motte is a hill topped by a fortified keep and often surrounded by a ditch or moat. The bailey is basically the rest of the castle: a bit of land containing the rest of the buildings and surrounded by a fence or wall (and possibly another moat). To make this a bit easier to follow, I’m going to refer to the motte as the “tower” and the bailey as the “village,” as shown in the following image:

Carisbrooke Castle, 14th century – model. Image © Charles D.P. Miller 2009, CC BY 2.0 (modified)

Carisbrooke Castle, 14th century – model. Image © Charles D.P. Miller 2009, CC BY 2.0 (modified)

Now the tower, being on a hill and fortified as it is, is much easier to defend than the village. So when the village is attacked and the walls are about to be breached, everyone can run to the tower, bar the doors, and dump boilng oil on top of the attackers (or whatever other horrific defence strategies were employed in the 12th century). But no one really wants to live in the tower very long—ultimately, they need the village. So the tower is only defended until the attackers have been beaten back or have moved on, at which point everyone reoccupies the village.

The motte and bailey doctrine describes how this same tactic can be used in an argument. You have two positions: one (the tower) is easy to defend, but ultimately not the one you really care about. The other (the village) is a lot harder to defend, but it’s also the thing that matters to you. So in an argument, you defend the village—until you can’t, at which point you retreat to the tower, and defend that. Once the pressure has lifted, you can relax and head back out to your village.

A good example comes up sometimes when trying to converse with people who believe strongly in astrology. If you don’t, and say as much, there’s a response that some people will bring out: “Well, you can’t deny that the moon and the sun have some influence in our lives! Just look at the tides and the seasons.” And, well, sure. No one can deny that. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing, circadian rhythms are a thing. As for the moon…that’s out of my wheelhouse, so I won’t comment, but I wouldn’t find it all that surprising to learn that there’s empirical data supporting some effects of the moon on our mood, emotions or hormonal cycles. So that’s the tower: some celestial bodies affect our lives in some ways. That’s relatively easy to defend.

The village, of course, is the idea that there’s some complex system through which dozens of celestial bodies affect our lives in intricate ways that can be predicted by mathematical formulas—right down to who’s the best partner for us or what day is a good day to sign a contract. If you want to convince me of that, well…you need to have more evidence than pointing out the tides and seasons.

The motte and bailey doctrine is an indispensable part of the way poly communities talk about hierarchy and whether it’s an ethical way to structure your relationships.

In this version of the argument, the hierarchy-means-everyone’s-a-special-snowflake argument is the tower. It’s easy to defend, because this is true of, well basically every relationship on the planet. No two relationships—even those prescribed by rigid gender and social roles—are or can ever be exactly the same, and no sane person would argue that they should be. The counterpart to this argument is the notion that “egalitarian” polyamory entails an expectation that all the relationships be the same. As we say in More Than Two, “Expecting the same level of commitment and entwinement from each [of your relationships] would be high-order foolishness.”

The fact that this form of hierarchy exists in every human being’s relationship life does not, as one might expect, make it a useless concept, though. In fact it’s a very useful concept indeed—because it doesn’t actually exist to communicate an idea. It exists to protect the village.

The village is the definition of hierarchy I gave at the beginning: where certain partners expect to be able to control other relationships that their partners are in. It’s usually clear that this is what’s really going on because people don’t tend to stay in the tower very long. Once someone has defended their tower—getting everyone to agree to the obvious statement that yes, all relationships need and consume different resources and have different priorities—you can often see them creeping back out onto the village.

An example of this is when people start talking about the idea of “respecting” the primary (or marital, or nesting, or parental, or whatever you call it) relationship. With the possible exception of some relationship anarchists, most people will accept at face value the idea that you should respect a partner’s other relationships, in that it’s a good idea to support your partner in keeping their commitments and doing things that support the health of their relationship life, and also in that most people understand that long-established, entwined relationships (particularly with children) tend to involve more time, energy and priority than newer or less entwined relationships (tower).

But are members of a couple saying that “respect” means not voicing criticism of abusive or manipulative behaviour? Not advocating for your own needs in a relationship? Not expressing your own feelings of love or attachment? Never asking for your relationship to take some priority some of the time? Then that’s a power hierarchy: the village. Watch what happens when you challenge this. Does the couple retreat to the tower? Do they say things like “Well you wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house on the first date!” “We’ve been together 10 years, we just have more sweat equity!” “You can’t expect everyone to be equal.” And the classic “We have to put our children first.”

The thing is that none of these statements are wrong. That’s why someone is saying them—because they’re the tower, easy to defend. But it’s not about these things, not really. It’s about the village: how much control someone has over what happens a relationship they’re not in.

Defining egalitarian polyamory as “everyone gets the same” and hierarchical polyamory as “every relationship is different” makes non-hierarchical poly seem easy to dismiss, and people who try to practise it, impractical ideologues. This conversational trick is devastatingly effective at shutting down discussions about the ethical implications of power dynamics in poly networks.

Lest I be accused of being too hard on primary partners, let me point out that secondary (or satellite, or peripheral, or whatever you like to call them) partners can also employ rhetorical tricks to confuse discussions of the power dynamics in poly networks.

A common one is to look at any unequal distribution of resources and call it a hierarchy. Since the idea of hierarchical relationship networks has, over the last few years, become increasingly frowned on in at least some poly subcultures, an accusation of having a hierarchical relationship is often a criticism—and can really sting if it comes from someone you love, especially if you’re actively working to avoid the power imbalances that we describe in More Than Two as hierarchies. Sometimes the accusations are true, but sometimes they point to other kinds of problems, which I’ll discuss later in this series.

Unfortunately, I do think that in many instances where I’ve seen these tactics used, the driving force behind them is just straight up intellectual dishonesty. But very often, I think it’s more innocent than that, and comes from a genuine confusion over what power within healthy relationships looks like—and from the fact that very often it can be hard to tell, from outside a relationship, exactly what the power dynamic is within it.

That’s what Part 2 is about.

7 Things Never to Say to a Polyamorous Lesbian

Or: How to make your coed polyamory group welcoming to lesbians.

This is a guest post by Sophia, a friend on mine & Franklin’s who has organized poly groups and events, especially for women and LGBTQ folks, in the Vancouver area. This post arose out of some thoughts she shared with me, which Franklin and I wanted to signal boost because they represent a perspective and experience that we feel doesn’t get a lot of airtime in our communities or our literature.

I’ve been a lesbian my whole life and a polyamorous lesbian for the last five years. The city where I live has a fairly active polyamorous community, with discussion groups and social events. The most active of these are the ones that welcome all genders. I love sex-positive people: We talk freely and mostly without shame about sexuality and relationships. We can be frank and fun people. Experienced and successful poly people often have great communication skills. I have not met with a lot of overt homophobia in polyamorous social environments, probably because about 80% of the women are bisexual. Many of the men are lovely and profeminist as well, and I have some good male friends among them.

However, environments that welcome people outside the norm also often attract people who transgress social boundaries in ways that harm other people. Tolerating poor behaviour from these individuals will, over time, drive away the people you want in your groups.

giphy

Here are some things not to say to a poly lesbian. Most of them should seem obvious, but all of them are real examples. Many of them also apply to other queer women as well. 

1. “I slept with a lesbian…”

If you are a man, never, ever tell your lesbian friend or acquaintance about the “lesbian” you slept with. The polite way to treat a lesbian is “off limits to you or any man” sexually. Like a nun. Or your sister. Or your best friend’s monogamous wife. Or your straight best male friend. None of these people want to hear about you having sex with someone just like them. It’s saying “your stated boundary that you are not into men doesn’t matter because this other woman said she didn’t want sex with men but had sex with me anyhow.” Accept that not all women are sexually available to men, and move on. If someone tells you she’s a lesbian, by using that word, she is clearly communicating that she does not consent to receive sexual attention from men. Respect that. Do not be hopeful that this particular lesbian will sleep with you just because another woman did. It’s more than just rude and creepy—it’s a consent violation.

2. “You and your girlfriend are so hot. I’ve been having fantasies about you.”

A man actually said this to me yesterday. No lesbian (and very few queer women, period) ever wants to hear this. Similarly, do not ask to watch. There are no words to express how deeply creepy this is.

3. “Will you date me and my husband/wife? We had a threesome with a lesbian once…”

Don’t ask a lesbian out on a date that involves a man. Don’t even suggest it, hint you are available for a threesome or anything of the sort. Even if she’s friendly. She’s just being polite and assumes you know what the word lesbian means and that you have the class to respect her boundaries. Have that class. (This applies equally to online dating.)

4. “Your girlfriend looks like a man, so why don’t you sleep with men?”

Butch women are women. Lesbians are into women. That’s the point.

5. “I know what toys you girls like…”

Don’t start talking about dildos or strapons. Just. Don’t. It’s none of your business. Again, lesbians are into women. Anything done between women is not about men.

6. “I just thought you might not have had the opportunity to sleep with a man…”

This is laughable. Most women, lesbians included, have to refuse advances from men on a regular basis.

7. “Oh, you’re a lesbian. I could never be a lesbian, I like cock so much. Let me tell you all about what I like to do with men…”

I get it, you need everyone to know you’re not gay. I’m not going to hit on you. And frankly, details about sex with men gross me and a lot of other lesbians out. Like most lesbians, I’ve had sex with men before I came out. I know how it works. It’s not a topic of interest or appeal to me. It’s like forcing a vegan to listen to all the things you like about meat.

I-like-my-men

Obviously, these are things that are rude and inappropriate to say to any lesbian in any setting. But the frankness about sexuality and relationships in poly and kink communities specifically can give people a false sense of permission to be intrusive or to fetishize sexual minorities, and that’s not okay. Lesbians who run into this kind of behaviour in poly communities may choose to stay within queer communities, or to segregate themselves from bi and straight people to avoid these types of unpleasant situations—which I think is a loss of community and possibilities for understanding and connection on both sides.

Let’s be good to one another. Sex-positive communities should be all about respecting stated boundaries and consent. The word lesbian has a very clear, widely understood meaning. I would like to see our poly communities be places where people take that meaning and use common sense to tell us how to behave to other human beings whose boundaries we recognize and respect.

Additional resources:

A great source of information for men on how to treat women of all kinds in nonmonogamous environments is Pepper Mint’s Nonmonogamy for Men: The Big Picture. It’s long, but it’s the best analysis by a man, for men, that I’ve seen of why men sometimes behave so badly in nonmonogamous environments, why the ways men have been socialized to treat women don’t work in nonmonogamous settings, and what to do about it.

 

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Polyamorous holidays: When you’re the secondary

This is a guest post by longtime poly blogger Noël Figart, author of the Polyamorous Misanthrope blog. A friend of mine sent me a question last week about surviving the holidays as a polyamorous secondary partner, and Franklin and I chewed on it for awhile before finally throwing in the towel. It sucks (I’ve been through it), and we empathize…but we couldn’t think of any concrete solutions. So we turned to someone else we trusted. I’ve followed Noël’s blog almost since the inception of my own non-monogamy journey, and she gives great poly advice that is grounded in respect, love and being a grown-up. When we cast around for someone to take this one on, she was the first who came to mind. Feel free to post your own suggestions (or empathy and support) in the comments.

I’m looking for advice on surviving the holidays as a Secondary. My only current partner is married, and also lives very close to his biological family, whom he is also very close to emotionally. He’s told at least his mother that he’s dating someone, but she has essentially bent over backwards to ignore our relationship. Although we don’t subscribe to an emotional hierarchy, there’s still the functional/social hierarchy of him living with her, being accepted by his family, etc., and holidays really seem to heighten that glitch in the matrix.

My own biological family lives too far away for me to spend time with. My partner is spending the holidays with his family (no big surprise) and his wife (also not a surprise.) We’re doing some personal celebration things on days around the holidays, but they’re very solitary activities. I find that it’s very much getting to me that I’m alone during this time of family togetherness. I’m making the best of it spending time with friends, but it hurts to not be able to spend the time with the person I love the most, and additionally to feel like I am socially “erased” from his life during this time. I’d like to know how other people have dealt with similar feelings of being the Invisible Partner during a very rough part of the year to be alone.

Ow.

That hurts and it’s tough. And guess what? There is some social erasure going on in this.

Is it avoidable?

© Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

To not be publicly acknowledged as a partner or to be erased from public celebrations can be painful. Photo © Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

That’s a tough one. One of the problems with polyamory is that in general they are very much “roll your own” relationships, which means that while we’re reared to specific social expectations, the realities of our relationships often don’t follow that social expectation. Which for the hot threesome can be awesome, but it can suck when it’s bumping up against an expectation of the inherently social and community-oriented time of the holidays being something you expect, are taught to value, and to be frank… Kinda do value! So to not be acknowledged and to be erased from the more public celebrations can be painful.

In my perfect world, families of origin would be accepting of the people who are close to their members and welcome them into family celebrations. I’m sorry that it doesn’t work that way all the time. It hurts like crazy.

That doesn’t mean you’re totally helpless in the face of the situation, though.

Let’s break this down in terms of relationship skill sets. I’m sure you’ve run across the idea before that it’s important to ask for what you want. It is crucial, so get it out there. Don’t worry about whether what you want is too much to ask: once you know what you want, ask for it. This can be scary, but I think all good relationships require a bit of courage. Yes, you’re setting yourself up for a refusal, but if you don’t ask, you don’t give them the opportunity to say yes.

So try it out, “Honey, I feel really alone during the holidays. Since we are partners, I feel like we’re family, too, and I want to be able to be included in some big holiday gatherings. Is there any way this can happen at all?”

Notice that this is open-ended. You’re asking for what you want, but you’re not telling anyone how to give it to you. That’s good, because chances are better that you’ll get some suggested solutions that you might not even have thought of.

Yes, I’m presuming good will here. After all, you’re partners and you love each other, right?

You mention that you’re doing a small, private celebration with your partner. Maybe it shouldn’t be (just) a small, private celebration. Maybe at some point a big holiday party that you and your partner and metamour host might be a good idea. It doesn’t have to be a holiday in and of itself. I used to throw a big tree decorating party the first of December ever year.

As for the specific holidays themselves, I used to be a member of a group marriage. While we got enough wrong that it did eventually dissolve, one of the things we got right was that we hosted holidays at our house. That kept us from having to choose among families of origin. People who wanted to visit on a holiday were welcomed. It worked out okay. Nothing’s perfect, but it was a good solution for us, as it did keep us on more equal ground with each other.

For those of us who have the couple privilege—that is, those of us who are in public, socially recognized and sanctioned couples—I do think we need to have a heart here. While I’m certainly poly enough that I don’t think it is healthy for anyone to be anyone else’s sole social and emotional support, at least one of the factors incumbent on polyamorous relationships is the reality that romantic relationships are often our most deeply intimate ties. As such, the social bonding rituals that celebrate and reinforce these ties need to be recognized, and all our partners included.

I encourage anyone who is in this situation to try to think of ways you can show your partners how loved and valued they are as members of your personal community.

 

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