Tag Archive: non-monogamy

One of the unfortunate things I’ve run across in some sex-positive communities is the idea that there’s a “right way” to do a certain kind of practice.  There’s a “one true kind of D/s play,” the “real kind” of (insert meaningless garbage here).  And I think that’s really hurtful, to people who are still trying to figure out their identities and sexual practices without feeling judged.  For those of us who feel confident in our preferences, it’s just bloody annoying.

I’ve seen this most often in the polyamorous community.  I’m not going to hypothesize why this is, but it really upsets me, considering how difficult it already is to identify as poly in our society.  Taking flack from within your own community about the different ways people perform polyamory is a burden no one needs.  ((BTW: If you want a refresher on what polyamory is: check out this Q and A with XeroMag))

So what are some of the bogus arguments you may come across?

Poly isn’t about the sex.

Bullshit it’s not about sex.  I strongly dislike polyamorous people who lord the sanctity of their emotional bond over people who have casual sex.  Yes, the idea behind poly is that you can not only have sex, but also a loving emotional connection to more than one partner, but when poly people use love as a prerequisite for the identity, they are doing everyone a disservice.

understanding nonmonogamies book

Boring book cover, great book. Click through to buy on Amazon!

There is a great book, called Understanding Non-monogamies, which is a collection of essays on different types of non-monogamy (yes, my nerdiness is showing) which has a really amazing section on how poly communities use “love discourse” like the “Poly isn’t about sex” line to reinforce monogamous beliefs.  Think about it—conventional, monogamous marriage is all about prizing one emotional bond over all others.  It exists to the exclusion of all other sexual partners because their love matters more than the physical pleasure of random sex.  By saying, poly isn’t about sex, poly people are using the same logic of monogamy to exclude people who do relationships and sex differently.  They are saying: you are not as good as us.  Your relationship doesn’t deserve recognition, because it’s not built on the foundation of love that makes ours REAL.

That is of course, a load of crock.  Only you can give your own relationships and hookups and friends with benefits meaning.  A casual sexual partner can often be hugely important in your life, even if the emotional commitment to a long-term relationship is not there, the same way a monogamous person can have a one night stand after they break up with a partner and have it be completely game-changing for them.

You aren’t really poly if you don’t love your other partner- you’re just using them.

B….S….  This is tied right in to the first argument, that poly relationships are about love, and sex is just a side benefit.  By extension, if “real relationships” are about love, then a poly relationship where you don’t love your other partner is really just using them.

I’m sorry, I forgot when it became ok for others to place value judgments on what my relationship means.  If my partner feels like ze ispoly heart: couple in the middle with arms extended to multiple partners on each side not being respected enough, ze can leave.  One thing poly really is about is honesty, so I can understand this argument if a person is lying to their partner, saying ze loves them, but really doesn’t.  However, beyond situations where one partner is obviously lying to the other partner, and those two people are not asking for the same things out of a relationship, there’s nothing wrong.

Swingers are inferior to poly people.  We’ve figured out how to make sex with multiple people meaningful.

Gararrarrrawrrrrr.  (that’s my angry noise)

There’s a surprising amount of ire between poly people and swingers.  Polyamorous people often think of swingers as cheapening non-monogamy by making it all about sex, or by having so many rules or so much jealousy around the issue of sex.  For me, this is kind of a no-brainer.   People are wired for different kinds of monogamy, and different kinds of non-monogamy.  Some people can let their partner have casual sex, but they want no part in it.  Some can let their partner have casual sex, but only if they ARE part of it.  Some people aren’t wired for jealousy.  Some people can have emotional attachment to multiple people.  Some partners don’t want that.  You have to work within the context of your own needs, your own limitations, and those of your partners.  The hardest situation to navigate is when an established, monogamous couple contains one partner who wants to open up the relationship.  There are a lot of degrees to which this can be done, and swinging is one of a variety of options.  There’s no reason to look down on couples that swing, because that is what works for them.  It respects boundaries, is consensual, and the people involved enjoy it.  Isn’t that what we all want?

Two fingers pointing in opposite directions, captioned "I'm with them"

You’re not really poly if you have a primary partner. 

A primary partnership in poly relationships is the pair that stays together for the long-run, that has primacy over other relationships, and should be respected above all else.  Some poly people (often those that militantly advocate group relationships, poly circles, etc) take issue with the idea of a primary partner, because it devalues other relationships with a paired person.  And in a way, that’s true.  If you live with, marry, and spend the majority of your time with one person,  your secondary partner is not going to have the same value to you that your primary does.  It’s right there in the vocab: primary, secondary.

However, that doesn’t exclude you from polyamory, and it’s not abusive to your secondary partner.  If you assume an open structure on both ends (you can have multiple partners, and so can your secondary), then your secondary partner is open to finding a primary of zir own.  That’s pretty darn poly-like to me.

And there’s a reason that the pair-relationship model has lasted so long.  It’s awfully nice to know you can come home to the same person every night, to have someone to depend on no matter what, to be there for you through everything.  But that doesn’t preclude other relationships.  It doesn’t preclude anything.  The coolest thing about relationships is that you can make your own rules for them.  As long as everything is consensual, and you strive to do right unto everyone you spend time with… then love whoever you want.

Go on, I give you permission.

Stay cool, queer kids.


Three’s Company

For one of my classes this week, we had to watch the movie, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (And Your Mother Too), which is, among other things, a very overtly sexual coming-of-age story.  In one of the pivotal scenes (spoiler alert!), the two main characters- two male friends who talk about their exploits with girlfriends and lovers non-stop)- get really drunk on mescal and eventually have sex with each other.  There is a moment in that scene, when the woman they were both originally trying to seduce falls away from view and they truly catch sight of each other, that gets me at the core.  The next moment they are embracing, kissing, and falling onto the bed before the inevitable camera cutaway.  Watching this, I found myself once again confronted with a familiar feeling from my childhood of obsessive romantic-comedy watching.  Though I find nothing that inherently sexy about gay male sex, watching this scene, I’m smiling like a goofy little girl, content as can be.  I’ve fallen in love with the relationship of the actors.

Perhaps some of you have felt this also- where you look at a couple and are completely overcome with happiness or jealousy or some kind of intoxicating emotion.  Looking more closely, you realize that you don’t want to be either of the people in the couple- you want to be the couple. When speaking about this with Beth, we compared it to rooting for a couple that you know to be doomed, because they mean something more together than the individuals do by themselves- they are beautiful, lovable, etc. because they are together.

I found the most marvelous article in Nerve about a woman who has been in a lot of threesomes which actually speaks to this idea.

“I came to realize I was more attracted to couples than I was to individuals. I might not remember some of these people at all had I hooked up with them one-on-one. But as a pair, I would fall in love with their familiarity; their affection for each other got me off. The most recent couple I fell for, James and Noël, were rock stars, straight up. They were reckless drunks, bursting with manic energy as bright and chaotic as their tattooed sleeves. After five minutes with them, it was clear: they were it for each other — and I was smitten. I found myself flirting shamelessly with both of them, slyly working to command their collective attention and approval.”

I find this equation for intimacy to be at once incredibly beautiful and intriguing.  I’ve never been in a threesome, nor have I had the opportunity presented to me, nor had I (until recently) even thought seriously about the idea, as I simply assumed that feelings would inevitably complicate things.  However, this article, and the sentiment of falling in love with couples, makes me hopeful.  I have always felt bizarrely attached to couplings I witness- in movies and tv shows, in real life, in books, and so forth- to the point where I feel that I almost love their relationship.  Somehow, within the context of this paradigm, such feelings seem more normal- and more explorable.

For most of society, the primary opposition to threesomes comes from the debasement of intimacy that they supposedly cause. Because sex is “made for two people,” the introduction of a third simply demeans the closeness of the interaction.  Now I don’t hold  it against anyone who does believe this, but I find two things troubling about that format for me:  first is the presupposition that all sex must be for love, which I honestly believe it does not.  This isn’t anti-romantic, simply practical.  As a sexual being, one can have sex without committing to the full spectrum of emotion that a long-term, committed relationship demands.  Second, however opposite, is the assumption that threesomes cannot be intimate.  For this, I’d like anyone who agrees to read this lovely article on intimacy by Greta Christina.  All of the things she talks about- listening to your partner(s), being engaged and attentive, being selfless and selfish simulteously, giving yourself over to the moment- can all happen in the context of a relationship, or a one-night stand, or a threesome in any form.  It simply takes the right people and the right situation.

In one sense, I value monogamy and dedication to another person.  Yet in another, I am equally devoted to the love I feel between those outside of myself and my relationship.  I find it beautiful, electrifying.  I have no idea what this means in practice, nor if or how I would carry it out, but I like the concept all the same.

I’ve written once before about open relationships and the mental/emotional puzzles that they pose, but within a very American-centric paradigm.  However, I’m finding through reading The Meanings of Macho: Becoming a Man in Mexico City, that the phenomenon of negotiated open relationships and even open marriages exists in many forms outside of my insular, highly-sexualized college sphere.

In Meanings of Macho, ethnographer and anthropologist Michael Gutmann interviews men in living in the Colonia Santo Domingo, a self-built neighborhood just outside the center of Mexico City, about the prevalence of extramarrital affairs among people in the colonia, expecting answers in line with the typical image of a machismo man who sleeps around with little regard for his wife or his family.  What he found, in many cases, however, is that not only are men have affairs, their wives are also getting around.  And more intriguing yet, some of them are negotiating marriages wherein either spouse is allowed to have one-night stands and liasons, so long as the other partner is never brought into the house or mentioned to their spouse.  Gutmann hypothesizes that a lot of this behavior is due to the surge of feminist sentiment that took root in the 1970’s in Mexico, and has allowed women to be more liberated in their own behavior.  And yet, how does this explain the way spouses negotiate open marriages?  It’s one thing to demand certain things from your husband- like doing dishes and making dinner- but one cannot simply demand acceptance of a practice so tied to the emotional roots of a marriage.

Gutmann doesn’t really deem to answer this, but it got me thinking about the way that open partnerships are navigated and the emotional costs vs. benefits of them.  I think this Sugarbutch article gives a pretty good run-down of the way one blogger and her partner have talked out and come to an understanding of non-monogamy.  What I like best about it is the distinctions drawn between different acts and their incorporations of main partners, as well as the idea of processing and outlining together what each individual incident of non-monogamy will mean.

“I know it’s possible to be attracted to or interested in more than one person at the same time, and that one does not necessarily take away from the other. Most importantly, though, I recognize that just if or when I or my partner feels an attraction, I want us to be able to talk about that, to puzzle through it, to figure out if it’s important to go sleep with that person or if flirty coffee dates or making out is enough, or if it’s a temporary infatuation, or if it should become a bigger friendship.”

In that sense, non-monogamy is really a set of decision based on mutual permission and understanding, which I can appreciate as very healthy and well communicated.  But Sugarbutch also acknowledges that the “need” for non-monogamy can change.

“We’ve been talking about this, lately. From the beginning, we’ve claimed that we were open, and for a while that meant we could do whatever we wanted when we weren’t with each other, and we didn’t need to know about it. Then, as things got more serious between us, we decided we wanted to know, which (chicken or egg?) meant that neither of us were sleeping with anybody else.

But what does it mean now, a year and a half into our relationship? I guess we’re still working that out. By “regular” standards, we are open because most folks would consider things like threesomes or making out with another person potentially crossing the lines of monogamy…. And we are open because we are acknowledge that sexual desire for someone else can happen, and we should be able to talk about that, that desire for someone else doesn’t have to have repercussions within our own relationship,  and that sex can be fun and playful and, ultimately, meaningless.”

So not only is non-monogamy fluid in practice, but it is also fluid in time frame.  Maybe for part of a relationship- when it’s more or less serious- casual hook-ups are ok, but in another phase, sex should take place only when both partners are present, even if it includes other.

I find this fluidity attractive, but incredibly dangerous.  It’s so easy for one person’s perception of an aspect of non-monogamy to change while the other’s remains static.  If that isn’t addressed immediately (and it probably won’t- for feelings of guilt and restraint), the entire arrangement can backfire in one ugly, trust-destroying move.  However, I like the stress Sugarbutch put on discussing each sexual decision individually, as it forces the lines of communication open and keeps them that way out of habit.  When there is a problem, it will be addressed, because everything gets addressed.  I can’t speak to the effectiveness of this model, having not tried it, but I find it promising.  And as the couples in Mexico City demonstrate, their are different forms of non-monogamy that work for everyone- you simply have to find the one for you.



A Degree of Polyamory

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term polyamory, it’s helpful to understand its many manifestations.  The textbook definition (that is, only if you have a really good, progressive textbook) will explain that polyamory is a state of romantic and sexual attraction which involves more than one partner.  However, that’s far from the whole picture.  There are a lot of configurations for polyamorous relationships.  Some poly people desire to be the middle partner in relationship, where the other two partners are not attracted to each other, but only to him/her/zir.  Others prefer to be in a triangular relationship, where all members of the relationship are equally attracted to each other.  Of course, poly interactions are not in any way limited to three people, either, and can encompass all varieties of configurations and interactions.  I know of one asexual person who thought a poly relationship would suit them best because his/her/hir partners could get their sexual satisfaction from each other and their emotional satisfaction from him/her/zim.

However, polyamory takes on an even more unique adaptation, especially in the sphere of college couples, which is much more “mainstream:” The Open Relationship.  I will admit to you right now that last year, I did not understand open relationships at all.  It seemed completely unfathomable to me that two people could claim to love each other and care about each other, but see other people simply because of distance.  Now, the open relationship seems like not only a viable, but a daring solution to the societal pressure to remain faithful and the natural urge to explore variety in sexual and romantic interactions.  Usually I don’t like using Autostraddle for actual, informational articles, but this latest one about why polyamory can work in a relationship is great.

Contrary to popular belief, monogamy and fidelity are not one in the same. Take it from two lesbians – real lesbians – who have both been in serious relationships, both open and exclusive, and are still trying to figure out what exactly that means.

By nature, monogamy is insistent upon jealousy and structured according to what we feel areunrealistic expectations of yourself and your partner. There’s more room to focus on building a secure, lasting relationship when it’s not bound by or founded on obligation or a denial of attraction.”

While I don’t believe that the article hosts a completely unbiased analysis here (monogamy in a trusting relationship isn’t built on jealousy, but perhaps on respect and subsequent restraint), it does present a unique viewpoint- one where being with someone other than your primary partner is not cheating or doing something wrong, but actually a progressive movement towards honesty and a building block for a healthier, more realistic relationship.

Myself, I am still toying with the idea of polyamory.  Conceptually, it makes a lot of sense, but I’ve never been afforded the opportunity to try it in practice. I’m not by nature a jealous person (I mean, at all- when my ex cheated on me, I didn’t care about the action of infidelity, only the secrecy of keeping the information, rather than trusting me with it).  There’s potential for this configuration, although I’m not overwhelmingly drawn to it, either, except perhaps with a sexologist’s general abounding curiosity.  Which is another great point: some poly people are perfectly fulfilled at some points in their life to be in monogamous relationships (although others aren’t…).

What I think interests me most about polyamory though is the comparisons that the blogger Sex Geek draws between non-monogamy and D/S (domination and submission) relationships: transgression, specialization, spirituality, personal growth, and intimacy.  Check the full article out here.

Both non-monogamous and power-based relationships fly in the face of all manner of social norms that tell us who and how to love. So in order to do either, you have to get comfortable with the idea that you’re now beyond the pale of mainstream acceptability….

Have I ever mentioned my fetish for constant improvement? Well, I have one, and it comes into play

in both non-monogamy and D/s relationships because both involve intense trust and deep communication. They often force us to face our demons and exorcise them (or at least learn to manage them well), deal with our insecurities, figure out how to love ourselves better, and do some serious fine-tuning of our communication skills.”

My only note with all of this discussion of polyamory is an insistence on communication- on the necessity of making sure that both your partner and you want what you are pursuing (again, a parallel to important aspects of D/S).  Polyamory has the ability to tear down much more easily than it can build up, so if either you or your partner are unsure about how to navigate the territory, do so carefully and with respect for the other’s boundaries.

Stay queer, cool kids.

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