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.
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.
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.
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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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.
That hurts and it’s tough. And guess what? There is some social erasure going on in this.
Is it avoidable?
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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We’re still deep in the midst of editing–still finishing the final chapters to send off to our substantive editor, while simultaneously polishing the chapters we’re getting back from him to send to our copy-editor. The book is turning out to be quite a, er, substantial piece of work: currently at 160,000 words and counting, 25 chapters covering every poly scenario you (or at least we) could think of. (For comparison, The Two Towers is about 155,000 words). And it’s good. Really good (if we do say so ourselves). Alan, our substantive editor, agrees: he gave us a very flattering mention over at Polyamory in the News earlier this week.
We’ll be announcing our pub date and launch parties soon–as soon as we get the rest of this book to our editors. Which will be soon.
(See how we got to 160,000 words? Thank goodness for editors.)
But by special request, we’re setting the book aside for a moment to address another question from one of the people who backed our Indiegogo campaign last fall. This one comes from a backer who asks: What are some strategies for successfully “de-escalating” relationships, say from romantic or sexual to friendships?
We’re doing this post as another dialogue, this time with a special guest–Franklin’s sweetie Joreth, who has posted on breakups in the past on her blog here and here (we’ve also addressed breakups before from a slightly different angle, here).
Franklin: Shortly after I moved to Portland, I started a relationship with a woman who was a partner of a good friend of mine. She and I were romantically involved for perhaps six months when she decided we really weren’t terribly compatible as romantic partners. She took me aside one day and expressed that she didn’t want a romantic relationship, clearly and directly. I told her that I was completely in love with her, and that meant I wanted whatever made her most happy–if that was a friendship that wasn’t a romantic relationship, then that’s what we would have.
I think she was a little surprised; she expected a much worse response. We are still close friends, and still very fond of each other.
Eve: So it sounds like you’re saying that you think the key–or at least an important first step–in backing away from a romance to friendship is clear, open communication about what you want? I would agree; I think the compassionate and ethical thing to do is to talk to your partner openly about how you want the relationship to change. I have been in situations where a partner has tried to cool off the relationship passively, by becoming unresponsive or backing away. That’s a painful thing to experience.
For me, I think the critical element has always been time. I can’t go straight from being lovers to being friends, or at least I have no experience of successfully doing so. When I’m still in love with someone, it is painful for me to be around them without having access to them, emotionally or physically or both. I need time for my feelings to resolve before I can be comfortable in their presence. In the cases where I’ve been deeply in love but have become close friends later, usually a couple of years elapse between the end of the romantic or physical part of our relationship and the beginning of the friendship.
Joreth: I’ve been in both situations: where I was able to transition almost seamlessly from a primary-like romantic entanglement to a platonic friendship with no time in between, and where I needed a good several months or years in order to reset, as it were, the feelings category in my head. I don’t think there is a formula that will say “spend this much time apart and you can transition to another type of relationship,” certainly not a blanket one for everyone, but not even one that will apply across the board for a single person. Each relationship we have will have different needs even in the breakup, so we need to listen to what our emotions are telling us about where we should take things with each soon-to-be-ex partner. I think flexibility and letting go of expectations for how the breakup *should* go is probably the next step in a smooth transition. We can possibly have goals for where we eventually would like to end up, but how we get there will need to be tailored to the participants. That said, there are some guidelines that have higher chances of success than other methods of breaking up and transitioning peacefully.
Franklin: I definitely think clear and honest communication is a key piece of the puzzle. It’s hard, though, and I’ve fallen flat on that bit myself. Another important part, I think, is the expectation management I described in our earlier post. Letting go not just of expectations about how the breakup should go, but of expectations about how the relationship should look, is really important.
I value consent above just about everything else. I don’t want to be with partners who don’t want to be with me. I try very hard to let go of expectations that a partner “owes” me love and intimacy just because we’ve had it in the past. My partners don’t owe me a relationship; I’m not entitled to it. If I am to be serious about valuing consent–and like I said, this is really important to me–I have to acknowledge that my partners have a right to choose not to be romantically involved with me. They have a right to break up with me if the relationship isn’t working for them.
It’s not always easy. I want my relationships to continue. But it seems to me the best way to have that happen isn’t to hold on to the idea that they owe it to me, or to punish them if they don’t want to be involved with me, but rather to be the best possible version of myself. Even if I occasionally mess it up and fall short.
Joreth: There’s a whole episode in the TV show Sex and the City about the worst way to break up with someone. I will be referencing this in my upcoming workshop on breaking up. The punchline is that Carrie says, “There is a good way to break up with someone, Alan, and it doesn’t include a Post-it.” She points out in her rant that people just want a breakup that honors what they had together and offers them some closure. Normally, I would tend to twitch a little bit at typical pop-psych words like “closure,” but if you are the one doing the breaking up, and you want to transition to a friendship or FWB, you will have better luck if your breakup conversation is one that expresses your honor and respect for your former partner and what you had together and, as said above, clearly closes the door on this particular chapter of your relationship, to mix a metaphor.
Eve: I want to address the “good way to break up” (without a Post-it) idea. A lot of people, I think, get hung up on the proper medium for breaking up (with emails and text-messages being universally frowned upon). A lot of people will say that the only acceptable way to have a breakup is in person. Dan Savage did a column awhile ago about the text-message breakup, where he says, “When I listen to someone complaining about how he was dumped, SMS, what I often hear is someone complaining that he was dumped.” I think often the medium can be a distraction: people latch onto it as a way to make their ex the bad guy–look at how mean he is, he dumped me by email. A considerate, well-thought-out email can be a good way to handle a breakup, if a partner is someone you don’t see often. So is a phone or Skype call. I think it’s more important to be direct and clear, and not leave it to linger once you’ve made your decision. And, if you are hoping to keep a connection with this person long-term, to keep a two-way line of communication open for the person to express their feelings about the change.
I also don’t think it’s possible all the time to go from a romantic relationship to something else. The obvious case is when there’s been abuse, of course, but many romantic relationships end after there’s been a serious breach of trust or breaking of intimacy. Those things, when they can be repaired, take time and work. Often, when a person isn’t willing to put in the time and effort to fix them within a romantic relationship, they’re certainly not going to do so outside of one. That was the case with my last partner.
Franklin: Yeah, that’s kinda the thing about transitioning a relationship to a friendship–it only takes one person to end the relationship, but it takes two to keep the friendship after.
I think a lot of the problem people have with the idea of a breakup in an email or text message is that it feels like the initiator isn’t really being sensitive to the recipient of the breakup. That’s what it felt like when a partner broke up with me in instant message a long time ago. But looking back on it now, it wasn’t that she broke up with me in IM, it was that she didn’t have any sensitivity to my feelings. Had she dumped me in person, I think that would still have been true.
Joreth: I agree that we get too hung upon the medium, as if the communication tool is solely responsible for the pain the breakup caused. But, at the same time, certain mediums are more challenging to that goal of showing your honor and respect of the relationship that you are now trying to end. A post-it does not show respect because it is not enough space to give explanation, it doesn’t give that two-way line of communication, etc. Making public declarations like changing a Facebook status before you’ve had the conversation in private: also much more challenging to honor the relationship in that method, because the other person doesn’t have the opportunity to be vulnerable and to react in a safe space. Expecting one to handle a vulnerable moment and react authentically in public is kind of the opposite of being respectful.
There’s also a lot of truth in that it takes one person to end a relationship but two to keep the friendship after. That’s why I do not make a goal of becoming friends with my exes–that requires my exes to acquiesce. Instead, I make the goal of being a friendly ex. That places responsibility entirely on my own shoulders for my own behaviour towards my exes. And I believe that giving someone the space they need quite squarely falls under the heading of being “friendly.”
Franklin: Refocusing a little, are there strategies beyond being flexible, managing expectations, and being a friendly ex, that help make the transition easier? I’ve rarely been the initiator in a relationship ending, I’m more often the recipient. What can the initiator do to make the transition easier?
Eve: I, too, have usually been the recipient. The first time I was the one to end a relationship, I actually found it harder than being the one on the receiving end–and have consistently ever since. But it seems to me that our experiences on the receiving end should give us some good perspectives to offer on how to make it less painful. The short answer to that is: you can’t. Losing a relationship you value–and “de-escalating” is a loss, of intimacy, of physical closeness, perhaps of a shared vision of a future together–is going to hurt, and there’s not much you can do to soften that initial blow, I think. But I do think you can create a space where healing will be able to happen in the future.
For me, the most important thing is not to have expectations placed on me that I’ll be ready for friendship too soon. I’ve had exes want to go immediately to friends status, and that’s usually not possible for me–but then I feel like I’m the one in the wrong, because I’m being an “unfriendly” ex. So giving me time and space after a breakup is really one of the best things a partner can do for me. But another thing that’s really important is what the relationship looks like in the ending stages. Do I feel like my partner has been trying to work on issues with me, and we’ve just come to a standstill? Have they been making an effort to listen to and understand me? The hardest endings for me have been the ones where things ended long before they ended: my partner stopped seeing or hearing me well before formally ending the relationship. That’s hard to recover from.
Joreth: For me, the hardest endings (or, the endings that were the most difficult to transition from to friends or more) were the ones where I didn’t feel respected as a person, regardless of whether I was the initiator or recipient. Sometimes that meant that my space wasn’t respected and I felt imposed upon. Sometimes that meant that my feelings and opinions weren’t being heard during the breakup or in the relationship leading up to the breakup. Sometimes that meant that the method of breakup communication did not take certain things into account, like my opportunity to react, or put me in an overly vulnerable position (because being dumped is already a vulnerable position). Sometimes that meant that the reasons given felt like direct attacks on my character as a person, or on those traits about myself that are the most valuable or most important to me, like my integrity. If you want to guarantee that you hurt your soon-to-be-ex partner so much that they will not desire to transition to friends or something more, those are all good ways to go about that. Bonus points for a truly catastrophic ending if you can do all of them at once.
Franklin: It seems to me like the factors most necessary, then, are honesty, directness, flexibility, expectation management, and good faith. None of those things will guarantee that a friendship can rise from the ashes of a relationship, but if any of them are missing, it most certainly won’t.
And, as always, you can’t really control anyone else. You can do the best you can to build the foundation for a friendship, but if that isn’t what the other person wants as well, it ain’t gonna happen. Perhaps the best thing to do is to let go of attachment to just one outcome.
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This is a guest post by my sweetie Shelly, who also wrote what has been called “the best essay ever written about consent.” From her formidable mind comes this essay about primary/secondary relationships, “family” and consent. Read it. I am in awe of her mind. – Franklin
“Of course I’ll hurt you. Of course you’ll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Winter is coming…
In the morning, I like to drink coffee out of this cheerful winter mug, stare intently at something 2000 miles away and say, darkly, Winter is coming… And then I like to follow it manically with something like, “And then there will be presents!” or “And then we can DECORATE!” I do this partly because, well, it never stops being funny to me, and partly because the change of seasons is really important this year.
Transitions are really important to me right now. Memories are really important to me right now. With full disclosure, I am actually a homunculus.
“I am filled with sawdust!” I keep trying to tell people. “Nothing is there! When I look in the mirror, nothing is there!!!” … *blink*
And then the other person is like “Paper or plastic?”
It turns out that other people have a lot on their minds.
I thought I would tell you now, though, that I lost myself. No, that’s not right, because that suggests that I might be waiting in security with the lost and found. No, it would be more accurate to say that I demolished myself, and am trying, so slowly, to rebuild myself out of big dreams and little piles of sand.
So now you can determine whether I’m uniquely qualified or massively unqualified to submit this challenge. It’s all the same to me, I just have a story to tell.
We built this city**
When I first met Franklin, 12 years ago, he was in a strict primary/secondary relationship. His wife was primary, had veto over his relationships, and the two of them had worked out a long list of limitations on his other relationships out of reverence for their marriage.
Be careful about saying things that might be darkly ironic later, because they tend to end up becoming darkly ironic later. “Franklin?” I would tell my friends who noticed my googly eyes. “Not with a 10-foot pole.” What I meant, of course, was “I think I will go about rapidly falling in love with Franklin despite my better judgment.”
When you knowingly enter into a restricted relationship and then suffer over those restrictions, it’s hard not to feel like a total boob. Seriously, no matter how bad the pain gets, there’s always going to be a mocking voice that says “Seriously? You signed up for this. What did you think was going to happen?”
But, see, that’s actually an interesting question. What did I think was going to happen? What I thought I was signing up for was an emotionally restricted relationship. I thought that the risk was the same risk you have in any emotionally restricted relationship: unreciprocated investment and unrequited love. Sure, it hurts, but then it burns itself out because nothing feeds it.
But primary/secondary structures tend to leave a special kind of emotional wreckage. While I freely admit that it is often a mutually beneficial model for all involved, there is a hidden trap. Because sometimes we walk into this structure, with heart in hand, and sometimes our partner meets us there. And then the structure becomes a maze of slamming doors and booby traps. When your partner meets you with real intimacy and love within an externally enforced and non-negotiable framework of limitations, the emotional experience of the relationship is of being simultaneously pulled in and violently shoved out. The cognitive dissonance is even worse. Self-advocacy is often interpreted as homewrecking, and disruptions to the status quo are seen as a hostile act. Remember, you signed up for this, you’re breaking the contract, you’re the bad guy. But don’t be cruel and break his heart, don’t be disruptive and speak for your own. just… just want something else, feel something else, BE SOMEONE ELSE.
So, there is a special place, at the bottom of all of that, where you realize that the only truly “right” thing you can do is just… find a way to disappear. But not with an explosion (you drama queen). Just find a way to disappear quietly so that no one notices. Do the right thing and just… go away.
But then, somewhere in that mess Franklin held his hand out to me and said. “Maybe it’s not you, Shelly. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with you. Maybe there’s something wrong with the structure.”
Like most things, primary/secondary works great, you know, until it doesn’t. And it does actually matter how we handle that.
** How long was Jefferson Starship running through your head? Yeah, I did that on purpose.
An answer to the question
Can I just take a moment to call attention to the fact that we are all making this up as we go along?
I remember reaching for the words to describe what I was searching for in poly. An image in my mind of shared experiences and shared love, of voices in the kitchen, of shared meals and lots of feetsies under the covers. Family.
Family was a word I struggled to find and then struggled to define. But it was also an answer to the question that remained when I walked away from forced hierarchical relationships. Family was an answer to the question of loss. How do we stave off loss in poly? It’s like when you’re a vegetarian and someone looks at you sadly and says “what do you eat?” because all they picture is canned green beans and a slice of Wonder Bread. “Why would you be poly? You just lose time and resources and security.” But…but…do you realize that there are like five kinds of animals that we regularly eat, and, like, literally a kazillion other kinds of foods? I just. Argh!
What about going to a movie with your partner and your metamour? Or hell, your partner is out and you just call your metamour up? What about group dinners and big parties and ALL the cuddles and always having someone there for you because you have many points of failure instead of one, and (bom chicka) group sex and… just ALL THE DIFFERENT FOODS?
Family is a counter to zero-sum arguments.
Franklin has written about this, but it boils down to this:
The objection: Poly is bad because it means you have to divide all your time up and everyone gets less.
The response: Well, that’s true if you think of relationships as zero-sum. However, that ignores the possibility that you could spend your time with more than one person and then everyone gets more.
I remember long conversations with Franklin where we talked about this idea of family, of sharing a life together. And the more he and I developed this dream, the more his wife dug in to preserve the life they had built, where Franklin could only live with her, could only be primary with her. And the more I pushed this dream of family, and eventually did move in.
But, wait, hold on. Before I sell you this Cadillac, I really feel compelled to warn you that it blows up sometimes. No, really. Hold on.
Consent is something I’ve become deeply concerned about, both personally and culturally. While consent is something most people associate with sex, I think consent is important for every kind of personal boundary. This isn’t just a philosophical musing, and it’s not even really an ethical one. I care about this because weak boundaries and consent violations degrade the self. No, really. Let’s sit with this. Your self? That’s it. That’s what you’ve got. That’s all you’ve got. Degradation of the self is a living death.
I say this as someone who happily, righteously participated, for years, in coercive relationship structures. I architected some, defended others, used them as weapons and ultimately sacrificed my self for them.
Franklin and his wife eventually separated. And it certainly was not a matter of him choosing me over her. He chose one dream over another, one life over another. And I felt with self-satisfaction that I had won some kind of poly moral victory. Because inclusiveness was right and exclusiveness was wrong.
I look back, with a non-trivial amount of horror, at the fact that—even as I felt that Franklin’s wife was trying to coerce him into one kind of life—I was trying to coerce her into another. How often does it happen when someone ends up in the intractable center of a miserable V (or star), that they start to search for some kind of moral basis to make a decision (because it’s just not OK to do anything that resembles leaving one relationship for another)? How often is that moral basis “I’m going to choose the person who is most inclusive, and I am going to leave the person who is, well, trying to set boundaries?”
… Family 🙁
We differentiate polyamory from cheating by the honesty, the openness and the consent. The desire for transparency in our relationships, the pull towards inclusiveness and shared time, and the emphasis on metamour relationships and communication, I think, all emerge from these principles. And these are good things. However…
When we take the principles of inclusiveness and family to the point where we build relationships that are dependent on other relationships, we are building on a foundation of coercion. Note that I am not saying that these relationships are automatically coercive, only that it’s built in. It’s that room at the back of the house you never use, you know, until you do.
What do I mean by a relationship that is dependent on another relationship? An example might be a triad where one person must be involved with the other two people, or else they can’t be involved with either one of them. Another example might be a V where there is an understanding that one or both relationships will fail if the metamours don’t “get along.” Or perhaps there are many relationships, and if you removed group time, there just wouldn’t be enough time to maintain them all.
Many (most?) poly relationships have relationship interdependence either as subtext or as an explicitly stated criterion. Why? Because time and energy are limited, the idea of family is compelling, and it just doesn’t seem like too much to ask. And if everyone is onboard with the idea, it doesn’t seem like it should be a problem.
And, like most things, group poly works great until it doesn’t. But when it stops working, it seems to create amplified feelings of betrayal and fear, and uniquely powerful emotional hostage situations. I think this is because conflict and change in one relationship typically have a cascading effect.
If I can’t share a home with my metamour, does it mean I can’t share a home with my partner? If I don’t want to spend time with my metamour, will I lose all of my time with my partner? If I break up with my partner, will I lose the support of my metamours? If I stop having sex with one partner, will our shared partner shun me? Does my dyadic relationship even exist outside of the group? Are my feelings enough to make choices, or does this need to go to committee? If I am just generally uncomfortable and need to back off of a shared intimacy, will I be demonized and shamed? If I’m not comfortable in the group, does it mean I’m not really poly? Will my withdrawal be used to build a case to eject me?
And if your romantic network is also your primary social support network—your family—then it massively amplifies disapproval and threats of loss. Social shaming and rejection can create a crippling threat that all but removes choice. If you get into an argument with your partner, and your partner says “you’re selfish and inconsistent and hurtful,” that’s pretty rough. And then you reach out to friends and family, who are essentially your metamours, and they say “how could you do that to him… you don’t care about anyone but yourself,” and then you spiral into fear and isolation and shame, and then your partner says “look what you’re doing to us, you hurt all of us,” and you feel banished and ostracized, it really takes the original conflict to an entirely different level.
When you enter into a group, knowing the contingencies that exist and the terms under which you are approved… when you enter into a group knowing you should really just be grateful for the opportunity, and then you suffer for your loss of control, and for your inability to create the life you need to feel nourished and safe, well it makes you feel like a bit of a boob. And by “boob” I mean double agent, slimy salesman pulling a bait and switch, manipulative homewrecker, monster, monster, MONSTER. Holy fuck, woman, mean what you say and say what you mean, what did you think was going to happen?
And when you really really want to make it work, despite Shakespearean levels of unhappiness, because it should work, it’s easy to start to feel like the only solution is just to try to change who you are. Just crush all of the things inside of you that aren’t working, all the things that are hurting and hurting everyone else, and just… hope something better is left.
(Hi. You there. The one crying. Let’s forget about all of those other people for a minute. Don’t do it. You won’t like what’s left, and you may never recover. And it won’t work anyways. Hey. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s nobody. Maybe it’s just the structure.)
The heartbreaking thing, I believe, is that emotional blackmail is just built into some relationship structures. Abuse doesn’t require an abuser. Sometimes all it requires is a belief.
But don’t worry. For the most part none of this will be a problem… until it is.
The foundation of consent
I believe, pretty firmly at this point, that the foundation of a non-coercive poly relationship has to be the ability to drop to zero-sum at any time, for any reason. That’s not just true for sexual relationships in a group, but also for metamour relationships. But more than that, the foundation of consent is a built-in exit clause for every single relationship. Not happy? Not healthy? It’s OK to leave.
To that end, I’ve decided there’s a bunch of coercive bullshit that has to go.
If you need more from our relationship than I can give,
it is not because you
- are insecure/too needy
- don’t care about your metamours
it is not because I
- am selfish and greedy
- am neglectful and irresponsible
if you need more from our relationship than I can give, then we have a resource incompatibility and we need to determine A) whether that resource is required for our relationship to stay intact, or B) whether it is a general resource you are missing that can be supplemented elsewhere.
If it is amenable to creative problem-solving, let’s try to solve it. If it is not, then it’s OK to end the relationship.
If I am not comfortable sharing any kind of intimacy with your other partners,
it is not because I
- am trying to cowgirl/cowboy you
- am not really poly
- am not really trying
If I am not comfortable sharing intimacy with your other partners, and that takes us to unacceptable levels of resource scarcity, then A) I hope we didn’t build a deeply attached and committed relationship based on coercive intimacy because B) these things aren’t sustainable, and this is going to hurt.
We have the opportunity to re-invent relationships. We will mess up. Things that really make sense and seem right, even righteous, might have hidden explosives. It matters what we do when things go wrong. We should not assume first that our relationship expectations are right and our loved ones are broken. We should assume that we will make bad choices, build bad structures, and subscribe to damaging beliefs. We should be willing to question all of them. We will be blind to many things until we are not. We need to admit that sometimes there are no solutions, that sometimes relationships should end or change, and sometimes it won’t be fair. Relationships require maintenance, resources are limited, and so is love. It’s ok. Follow your heart, honor your own humanity and that of the people around you. Do your best. Show yourself compassion even when, especially when you’re the only one who is.
There are no good people or bad people here. We only risk becoming something static when we decide that we’ve got it all figured out and that our moral code can be absolute. We will all do good things and bad things, and we will all hurt the people we love. Sadly, we will probably hurt them the most in the service of what we believe is right. What makes you good is not perfection in action or strictness to code, but the willingness to question, to change, and to listen to your heart when your life stops matching it.
In the last 12 years, I have watched all of my poly dreams go up in smoke. And what I seem to be left with, in the rubble and ashes, is just a poly life.
And I’m sorry. But you will lose some things. You will lose quite a bit of security. Stuff is going to change, and no one is going to be able to predict how. You’re going to have ideas and you’re going to build structures and it’s really going to matter what you do when those stop working, because they will. Some things might end. Everything might end. But if everyone still sees the humanity in everyone else at the end, then that is no minor victory. That’s my pitch. If you’re not ok with this, then please don’t do it.
But if you do, you might find a little bit more of your self. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you’ve got anyways, and, hey, you are amazing.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.
Note: This blog post has been translated into Italian! The Italian version is here. You can also read Shelly’s other guest post here.
This is a guest post by my sweetie Shelly. She sent it to us as an essay a few weeks ago, and it blew us away so much we asked her if we could reprint it. We’ll be drawing on these ideas in the book, possibly even using parts of the essay. – Franklin
Consent is a radical idea
I would like for this to be the shortest discussion ever. I would like to say that we each have an inalienable right to have domain over our bodies, minds, and choices and end the conversation there. I mean, good people don’t violate consent, and I’m a good person, right?
Well, it’s not really so simple. If there’s one common thread through human history, it’s that we are, collectively, really comfortable violating consent. As children, we are often violated physically, emotionally, legally. As much as we are told that we always have choice, we often find that the choice is between homelessness and an abusive working environment or an abusive living situation. As much as we seem to have finally reached some kind of consensus that rape is wrong, we still seem to be having a cultural dialogue about the kinds of circumstances under which it might actually be deserved.
We may encounter many situations in our lives where we have to put walls up and just absorb the loss of control over our lives, our minds, or our bodies. But the one place where we should never have to do that is in our loving relationships. This may on the surface, seem obvious, but make no mistake–this is a radical idea.
The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.
Consent is about me
There’s a lot of fuzzy usage around the word consent. I would like to propose a tightening of the definition, because if we are not clear about what consent is, we cannot possibly succeed in communicating about it.
Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent.
If my romantic partner goes out and sleeps with a dozen random hookups, he may have broken an agreement, but he has not violated my consent. If he then has sex with me without telling me about his actions, he has violated my consent because he has deprived me of the ability to make an informed choice.
You cannot understand consent without understanding boundaries
My boundaries are the edges of me. What is my personal space? What is it that I alone own, and you must always have permission to access?
This is somewhat personal, and we often don’t know where our boundaries are until they have been crossed. But I think you can roughly divide personal boundaries into three categories: My body, my mind, and my choices.
Poor personal boundaries are damaging to the self.
We all have an intuition about where our physical boundaries are. Our boundaries may start at our skin, or the point where we can feel breath. They may begin on the other side of the room. It is the point where we feel touched and physically affected by another person. When we share physical space with others, which we often do in community spaces, we may need to sometimes choose not to share that space depending on where our boundaries need to be at the time. You have the right to decide if, how, and when you want to be touched. Always.
In romantic relationships we often negotiate shared physical space. If touch begins beyond our skin, we may need to negotiate some space that we can control. For some people, this may be a room of one’s own. For some, it might be as simple as asking for some quiet time on the couch. However, without individual space, or the ability to negotiate for individual space when you need it, the only option for exerting a physical boundary may be to leave the shared space.
This is your mental and emotional experience of the world, your memories, your reality, and your values. When we engage the world, we let people into this personal space. Finding the edges of your mind is trickier than finding your physical edges. We are social creatures, and even the most superficial interactions engage our mental and emotional boundaries. The boundaries of the mind are, on the one hand, the easiest for others to cross over into, and also the boundaries we have the most control over.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it”
It’s easy to say “don’t give people so much power to hurt you,” but that does not address our need for connection and acceptance. It does not account for the very healthy impulse to seek feedback on our perceptions of the world. I believe that the healthiest person, when persistently rejected, will witness either an erosion of their mental boundaries or an erosion of their ability to engage in intimacy. I also believe that the only way to maintain good mental boundaries, to counteract social rejection, and to assess when to disengage, is to have strong self-knowledge and self-confidence, and to engage in self-compassion and care. In other words, to engage in behaviors that build your self-esteem.
Solid mental boundaries require self-esteem.
When we engage in intimate relationships, we let people into our minds. We open up our mental boundaries. We let a chosen few affect us, deeply. This is beautiful and amazing, and in my opinion, is one of the things that makes life worth living. But your mind belongs to you and you only. Your intimate partners, your family, your boss and the woman at the grocery store only ever get it on loan, and if that intimacy is damaging you, you have the right to take it back. Always.
Setting mental boundaries is different than setting physical boundaries. When I set a physical boundary, I am exerting some control over what you do with your body as it pertains to my space. Do not touch me there, do not move closer to me, leave my home. But with emotional boundaries, we have to take care to not make others responsible for our mental state. When we tell another person “do not say or do things that upset me,” we are not setting boundaries, we are trying to manage people whom we have let too far into ours. This management, and the high stakes of being responsible for another’s psychological well being, quickly introduce coercion into a relationship, and coercion erodes consent. Should we make requests of others to maximize our emotional health? Yes! Should we try to honor those requests if we can do so in a healthy way? Yes! Are you responsible for my wellbeing and what I feel? No.
At every fork in the road, each of us will bring our own values and experience to an examination of the information available. How we approach this process, and the conclusions we come to, is a large part of what makes us who we are.
I am a collection of experiences, memories, preferences, and feelings. I am one of billions of unique ways to process reality. But I am also the sum of my choices. My choices are the place where I stop dreaming and start pursuing, where I stop planning and start building. Choice, in my opinion, is where human beings become truly beautiful, and sometimes truly terrible.
Choice can be the most difficult personal boundary to defend. It seems like the predominant belief is that if we are empowered to make our own choices, we will all become monsters, and we must entrust our decisions to external authority. This permeates our society and seems to inform the way we build relationships. Without engaging in a debate about whether people are fundamentally good or bad (or option C), I ask you to look at your partner and ask yourself if you respect their ability to choose, even if it hurts you, and even if it’s not what you would choose.
You cannot consent if you do not have a choice.
When we enter into a romantic relationship, we make a choice. Over time, we build a life. This may involve legal and financial commitments and responsibilities. When we make those commitments, we should do what we reasonably can to follow through. But there is a difference between life-building and intimacy. Consent is about intimacy, and in every moment of every day, we should feel that we have a choice in the intimacy we participate in.
Consent exists in the moment
You cannot pre-consent. You can state intentions. You can make commitments that don’t involve your personal boundaries. But consent exists right now, right here in this moment. Let’s say I tell my partner “I want to have sex in five minutes. If you want to, I will definitely 100% want to have sex with you. I guarantee you that it is absolutely 100% ok. I commit to it. Here is a notarized piece of paper with my signature.” And then let’s say in five minutes, I say “no.” If my partner has sex with me anyways, it’s rape. (If you engage in consensual non-consent, you will recognize that you still have to negotiate a safe word or a way to recognize when consent has been revoked. If you don’t, you’ve crossed into abuse.)
Previous consent for intimacy never, ever overrides withdrawal of consent in the present.
I’ve given a pretty extreme example, but one that hopefully everyone will agree with. However, we often make all kinds of agreements to future intimacy and then proceed like those agreements override our boundaries in the moment.
Coercion erodes choice
Being in a consensual romantic relationship means you are never committed to any future intimacy. In a consensual romantic relationship, you always choose the intimacy you engage in. Intimacy is anything that enters into your personal boundaries. It can be sleeping together, sex, hugging and kissing, emotional sharing, living together, having certain shared experiences, or making shared choices.
Again, you can state intentions, but you cannot pre-consent, and both people must recognize and respect personal boundaries right now, regardless of intentions stated in the past. The reason this is so important is that when there is an implied obligation, the relationship can easily become coercive.
It is actually really difficult to avoid coercion in romantic relationships, because boundaries are most likely to be set during the times when intimacy is already in trouble and there’s a lot to lose. When relationships are good, they make us better, they make our lives bigger, and it’s easy to forget about our boundaries, because there is no reason to enforce them. When communication erodes, when trust comes into question, when we feel out of control or deeply unhappy, and then one or both people try to set a boundary, it can be terrifying.
What does coercion look like?
Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.
If your partner is trying to set an intimacy boundary, they probably have a very good reason. It might not even be about you. The chances that your partner has had their consent violated in their life are really high, and it may have been really bad. Show appreciation for your partner’s self-advocacy and self-knowledge, be grateful for the intimacy they have shown you, and make it clear that you respect their autonomy and ability to make choices, even if you don’t understand what’s happening or why.
It’s also possible they are being manipulative and using boundary-setting as a way to coerce you. Withdrawal and silence are classic techniques of emotional blackmail and can be initially difficult to distinguish from healthy boundary-setting. It’s even possible they are setting boundaries just to punish you.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The solution is never to try to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Thank them, and respect their choice. If you can’t respect their choice, it’s time to examine your own boundaries.
Why you shouldn’t lie
I’m going to take a little bit of a detour here to talk about the intersection between mental/emotional privacy, choice, and consent. When you enter a romantic relationship, I believe there is one kind of intimacy that you must participate in, and if you find that you can no longer participate in it, you have a responsibility to end the relationship. I’m referring to honest, open communication.
Being able to share, to the best of your ability, who you are in a relationship, is critical for that relationship to be consensual. You must give your partner the opportunity to make an informed decision to be in that relationship. If you lie to your partner or withhold critical information, you remove their ability to consent to be in the relationship. The important information that needs to be shared should be negotiated early and is unique to each relationship.
Most important is to communicate those things that might be deal-breakers, or might be threatening to your partner’s emotional or physical health. Your partner deserves to have the ability to make a choice about how they want to participate in the relationship given the new information. Examples might be sexual behavior with others, drug use, the acquisition or use of weapons, violent impulses or behavior, or depression or suicide attempts.
You can force someone to make a certain choice, or coerce them into that choice, but if you lie or withhold information from a partner, you deny them even the ability to know there was a choice to be made.
Fear, the telltale sign
Why am I so afraid in this relationship when there’s no imminent physical danger?
If you find yourself asking yourself this question, check your boundaries. Do you know where they are? How much power have you given to others to affect your well-being, your self esteem, even your desire to live? Remember, when you give someone the power to affect you and to come into your mind, you are only loaning what belongs to you. If you are afraid, you have given too much. When you look forward, do you see choices? Is leaving the relationship a viable option? Is changing the relationship a viable option? Is setting boundaries a viable option? What happens when I say “no”?
You see plenty of relationships fall apart in sadness, anger, hurt, and feelings of betrayal. It is unnerving when a relationship becomes permeated by fear, but I believe this is often the trajectory of a relationship that lacks consent. It’s from here that we begin to bend ourselves around our fears instead of embracing our dreams.
The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.
If there is one safe place in the world, it should be with the people you love. I’m not talking about the safety of guarantees, but the safety to be everything that you are. It’s the safety to be dynamic, to change, and to dream. But to be safe, we have to be whole.
Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Buy the book now.