Posts Tagged ‘monogamy’

2012 20 Nov

[postsecret] Stories of People Whose Partners Cheated

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating. But it’s a complicated topic, and I try to acknowledge its complexity alongside my emotional baggage.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret, an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. Last month, I posted a bunch of PostSecret snippets about what it’s like to cheat. There were a lot of interesting comments on last month’s post, so I decided to do a followup: postcards that hint at the complex stories of folks whose partners cheated.

* * *

(Picture of a baby, then text): “I hate that one day I’ll have to tell him that fucking other women was more important to you than we were.”

At first glance, this strikes me as the archetypal narrative of a woman who was cheated on. But I have a lot of experience with polyamory — that is, open relationships — and I wonder whether there’s a different story here. Maybe this woman’s partner was faithful to a monogamous standard, but tried asking for an open relationship. Perhaps they discussed it, disagreed, and then broke up.

Either way, I have sympathy for the person who wrote this postcard. Breakups are hard. I just can’t help wondering whether they broke up over a betrayal or a disagreement.

* * *

“For a scary, intoxicating moment I thought you were telling me you’re leaving your wife. But you meant you are moving away with her.”

This, on the other hand, is the archetypal story of the “mistress.” And as I said in the previous post, I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

Yet sometimes I think that the best argument against being a cheating facilitator has nothing to do with the pain you cause other people. Sometimes I think that the best argument against being that person is the amount of pain you can open yourself up to. Especially if you want the cheater to eventually commit to you … despite the fact that they are, of course, already a cheater.

It’s also clear that, for some people, being the cheating facilitator is a painful pattern:

“Always a bridesmaid mistress, never a bride …”

* * *

Aaaand finally:

“I feel guilty for making my husband break up with his mistresses.”

I assume that this writer is female. (If the writer isn’t female, then there’s a ton of other potential stories wrapped up in the card!) The postcard talks about how she feels guilty for making her husband break up with his “mistresses,” which leads me to wonder how long she knew about the situation, and whether her guilt is due to breaking some kind of relationship agreement.

Did they basically have an open relationship for a while — where she overlooked the situation deliberately? And does she feel guilty because she suddenly rescinded that tacit permission?

This is one of the most complicated postcards I’ve seen. I can think of several other readings off the top of my head, but if you folks have thoughts, I’d rather hear them in comments.

* * *

(Please note that there are many PostSecret books available for purchase, including A Lifetime of Secrets, and Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives, and Confessions on Life, Death and God, and others.)

* * *

2012 24 Oct

[postsecret] What It’s Like To Cheat

I’ve always had Strong Emotions and Serious Opinions about cheating, mostly due to background info that I won’t write about today. I’ve always maintained that it’s almost as bad to be the “cheating facilitator” — i.e. the person who a cheater hooks up with — as to be the cheater themselves.

I have also always maintained that it’s entirely possible to cheat even if you’re polyamorous: cheating means breaking the relationship agreement, it’s not about the exact mechanics of the sexual act. So, for example, say that you agree with your partner that you can both have sex with other people, but not kiss them. In that case, if you kiss someone else, it’s still cheating!

With age, however, I have become less fierce about the topic. (I guess people get less fierce about everything, with age.) I am now more willing to listen to reasons that cheating might happen, and what it means to different people. I still don’t advocate cheating, and I don’t think it’s right, but I can understand it better now.

Lately, I’ve been featuring postcards from PostSecret. It’s an online community art project to which people send postcards featuring a secret they’ve never told anyone. I’ve been reading PostSecret for many years, and I’m uncertain when I began saving postcards, so I can’t date the following cheater-derived images ….

* * *

“I rationalized that having an affair was justified because my wife didn’t seem to trust me, whether I was faithful or not. I figured I had little to lose. I was wrong. I gave up being the guy who would never hurt her like that. Forever.”

This postcard resonates most with me, presumably because the writer seems to take the emotional harm he’s caused as seriously as I do.

* * *

“I’m sleeping with both of you so I can be both halves of who I really am: Innocent / Freak.”

Sometimes, a PostSecret card comes up that makes me wonder whether the writer is talking about cheating … or consensual non-monogamy. For example, maybe this person is being honest with all involved partners. I certainly hope so!

I have always figured that if there’s a sexual desire that can’t be met by a current relationship, then the first step should be to try and negotiate an alternative sexual outlet. For example, if this person wants some BDSM (as the image seems to imply), but has a partner who doesn’t want to do BDSM, then it’s totally legit to say “Honey, can I take on a BDSM partner outside our relationship?” — even if they’re monogamous most of the time.

I know that a lot of people don’t think that way, though. So one of the first “cheating sympathies” I ever had was this: if a person asks their partner for something they feel is important, but the conversation is shut down or ignored … or even if there’s good intentions on all sides, and many attempts have been made, but there’s no apparent compromise. I can understand why cheating happens, then.

* * *

“Because of my husband’s sexual dysfunction, I have been celibate for over a decade. I am not proud of my fidelity. I feel ashamed that I stay.”

This, right here. This seems like the perfect time for a careful conversation about sexual needs and an honest, straightforward request for an open relationship. But I understand why that would be incredibly hard, and I just feel so bad for everyone involved. No one should have to feel trapped in a sexually unfulfilling relationship, but some people are terribly hurt by the idea that their partner would sleep with someone else, and it can be so hard to talk about ….

(more…)

2012 7 Jun

“The S&M Feminist” NOW AVAILABLE, plus: reading tomorrow in Berlin!

At long last!

I’ve learned from my previous experiences. This time, I’m releasing all formats of The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn at the same time.

* Click here to buy it for Amazon Kindle for $5.99.

* Click here to buy it for other ebook formats at Smashwords, also $5.99.

* And click here to buy it in paperback for $14.99.

* Also! If you’re in Berlin (or you know someone who is), I will be reading from The S&M Feminist and answering questions at Schwelle 7 on Friday at 8pm. Here’s the event on Facebook. I have totally gone international!

For this collection, I included all the articles that readers requested, and many more; I’ve written quite a lot since I started in 2008. There are 48 pieces in all, plus introductions describing the context in which I wrote them and thoughts I’ve had since writing them. Plus cute “study guides” in case you like that sort of thing! I recommend S&M resources, too, and have a glossary of common S&M terms.

The amazing adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, of Good Vibrations fame, has already posted a great review of The S&M Feminist. Excerpt:

Clarisse isn’t afraid to talk about her own experiences with BDSM, relationships, and sexual politics. But she’s also not afraid to explore some of the issues around consent, violence, and safety that a lot of the kink cheerleaders would like to sweep under the rug. She brings a refreshing honesty to her writing that is often lacking. Add to that a deep commitment to feminism and sex-positivity, and you have an amazing combination.

The tension between kink and feminism is a tough one to hold onto and most people end up firmly in one camp or the other. What makes Clarisse’s writing phenomenal is her steadfast refusal to avoid doing that. The clarity with which she discusses both sides without resorting to caricatures or stereotypes is simultaneously inspiring and challenging. If you’re interested in either or both, I can’t recommend her enough.

Thank you, Charlie! And on Facebook, the writer Alyssa Royse said:

I’m not especially into S&M and struggle with the word “feminist.” But Clarisse’s writing about autonomous sexuality is second to none. She can help you find peace and power in your own ideas of sexuality in a way that few can, simply by being brazenly and powerfully true to herself, in the gentle way that only someone who isn’t trying to please anyone else can be.

Now just for completeness, here’s the full book description:

Clarisse Thorn is a sex-positive activist who has been writing about love, S&M, sex, gender, and relationships since 2008. Her writing has appeared across the Internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, Feministe, Jezebel, The Good Men Project, and Time Out Chicago — and this is a selection of her best articles. Also included is Clarisse’s commentary on the context in which she wrote each piece, the process of writing it, and how she’s changed since then. Plus, there are “study guides” to help readers get the maximum mileage from each section!

Clarisse has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including museums and universities across the USA. In 2009, she created and curated the ongoing Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s historic feminist site, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. In 2010, she returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable S&M institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. For anyone with an interest in activism, S&M, polyamory (open relationships), dating dynamics and/or sex theory, this book is guaranteed to give you plenty to think about.

Yes! Buy it! Kindle. Or Smashwords. Or paperback. And tell your friends. Your lovers. Your reading group. Your local dungeon. And anyone who’s anywhere near Berlin. (San Francisco, I’m coming for you next ….)

2012 1 May

Relationship Tools: Monogamy, Polyamory, Competition, and Jealousy

This was originally published at the gender-lens site Role/Reboot, under the title “When Jealousy is a Turn-On.”

* * *

The above image is from the art site PostSecret.com. People send postcards to PostSecrets with real secrets written on them. This one says, “I wish you would stop comparing me to your kinky ex.”

* * *

Last year, I wrote a piece called “In Praise of Monogamy.” I currently practice polyamory in my relationships, but I spent years dating monogamously. I’ve noticed that when people talk about monogamy, they usually either assume that it’s the only way to go … or they assume that it has to be thrown out the window entirely.

I think this either-or approach is completely wrongheaded. So the goal of “In Praise of Monogamy” was to talk about the advantages of monogamy in a more neutral, nuanced way. Different relationship models are all tools in a toolbox, and some people are better with some tools than others.

“In Praise of Monogamy” was probably one of my most successful articles ever — it was republished at a ton of websites, including high-profile venues like The Guardian. Simultaneously, the article received mixed comments. Some people felt that I wasn’t praising monogamy enough; others felt that I wasn’t praising non-monogamy enough; there were lots of other frustrations too. My big takeaway was that these conversations don’t happen enough, most people aren’t used to having them, and it’s really hard to know where to start.

Jealousy is one obvious starting point, because people always bring it up in conversations about non-monogamy. I talked about jealousy in “In Praise of Monogamy.” Specifically, I wrote:

Some people experience jealousy more than, or less than, or differently from other people. Plenty of people in non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy — and plenty of non-monogamous people handle it just fine, through open-hearted communication. (Often, jealousy is managed through very detailed relationship agreements such as this fascinating polyamory “relationship contract”.)

But there are also plenty of people who appear to lack the “jealousy chip.”

And then there are plenty of people who experience so much jealousy, who feel that jealousy is such a big part of their emotional makeup, that the best way to manage it is simply through monogamy.

Personally, I used to get a lot more jealous than I do now. I think I’m less likely to get jealous these days partly because I’ve gotten better at finding low-drama men. Jealousy has a reputation for being an irrational emotion, and sometimes it genuinely is an unreasonable, cruel power-grab. But I think jealousy is often quite rational, and often arises in response to a genuine emotional threat … or deliberate manipulation.

There’s another reason, though … I’ve also noticed that some switch in my brain has flipped, and I’ve started to eroticize jealousy. I occasionally find myself fantasizing about men I care about sleeping with other women, and sometimes the fantasy is hot because I feel mildly jealous. I cannot explain how this happened. It surprised me the first time it happened, believe me. What’s really fascinating is that I think the same part of me that eroticizes jealousy, is the part that used to make me feel sick at the thought of my partner sleeping with someone else. S&M masochism: the gift that never stops giving!

I think it’s important to note here that I didn’t become less jealous because I felt like I “should,” or because I was told not to be jealous. In fact, I had an early boyfriend who acted like I was a hysterical bitch every time I got jealous … and he made things much worse. With him, I just felt awful when I got jealous; I couldn’t get past it. I felt like he was judging me for something I couldn’t help; I felt like my mind was fragmenting as I tried to force myself to “think better” without any outside support; and worst of all, I felt like I couldn’t rely on him to respect my feelings.

It was the men who treated my emotions like they were reasonable and understandable who decreased my jealousy. It’s much harder to be jealous when your partner is saying, “I totally understand,” than it is when your partner is saying, “What the hell is the matter with you?” Maybe that’s what makes monogamy such an effective jealousy-management tactic: monogamy can be like a great big sign or sticker or button you can give to your partner that says, “I respect your jealousy.” Which is not to say that monogamy is always effective for this — we all know that monogamous people get jealous all the time! (Which only adds to my point that monogamy might be viewed as just one of many tactics, rather than an answer, when jealousy is a problem.)

Now, back to the current article. Jealousy is a hot-button topic, so I’m nervous about this, but let’s focus in on it a little more.

* * *

The Feeling of Jealousy

Jealousy and its cousin, competition, are both things that happen a lot in relationships. Some people are so uncomfortable acknowledging this that they repress those feelings, or ignore the behavior that goes along with them … but I’ve rarely seen that end well.

I believe that some people lack jealousy and competitive urges … but I’ve also seen a lot of people who feel those things but can’t admit it. Not even to themselves.

I dated a guy last year who told me at the start of our relationship that he never got jealous. At first I took him at his word, but I quickly noticed that he changed the subject aggressively when I mentioned past lovers. We had a mutual friend with whom I had a lot of chemistry; when the three of us were together, my boyfriend acted uncomfortable and irritable, and when I specifically acted in ways that made it obvious I was with him — like by giving him Public Displays of Affection in front of the other guy — he relaxed.

I sighed internally when I observed this, and I felt frustrated, but wasn’t sure how to talk about it without sounding like I was calling him a liar. Fortunately, he brought it up later. “I think I do get jealous sometimes, and I just don’t like to think about it because it makes me feel like a bad person,” he said, one night while we were making dinner. In that moment, my respect for him skyrocketed. It’s hard for people to keep track of themselves like that, and to shift their self-image when confronted with new evidence.

Some people seem to interpret their lovers’ jealousy as a sign of love. I’ll admit that I’ve had moments of being flattered or pleased when my boyfriends show signs of jealousy — or when they act a little competitive. Sometimes those things are scary, though … or threatening … or frustrating, like in my example above. It’s complicated!

However, I often see those dynamics play out in ways that the participants won’t admit, no matter how much evidence comes up. I think it gets especially complicated when people experience jealousy as a sexual thing, a turn-on. Most people have a hard enough time discussing their sexuality in the first place. When you add an ingredient as controversial as jealousy, the potential discussions become much more combustible.

When I was researching pickup artists for my awesome book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, I found a number of discussions in that community that praise competitive feelings because they’re seen as making the relationship more fun. A lot of these guys say competition among different lovers within open relationships is awesome because it keeps everyone a little uncertain, and encourages them to be “on top of their game.” This contrasts drastically with most polyamorous perspectives; in my experience, poly folks see jealousy and competition as things that should be compartmentalized and managed very carefully, rather than encouraged or exalted. For polyamory theorists, a feeling of safety is often the goal, as opposed to a feeling of competition.

And emotional safety is certainly a concern, because jealousy is one of the most intense and overwhelming emotions out there. It’s a hard feeling to sit with and work through. My worst experiences of jealousy felt like I was choking, like I couldn’t breathe, like I was sick to my stomach, like I was terribly obsessed, like I couldn’t think of anything but the jealousy and how much it hurt. And yet … I’ve occasionally felt jealousy that was weak, almost nice, where I felt a little twinge of it and turned to my lover and got reassured … and that made me feel more safe, more cared for, more loved.

The bottom line is that people experience jealousy and competitive urges in many different ways. It’s important to acknowledge that and honor it. I don’t see it as productive to frame things like “jealousy is bad,” or “competition is awesome.” I’d much rather frame things like: “Jealousy and competition happen sometimes, and how do we deal with them when they come up so that everyone involved feels comfortable and happy?”

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2012 1 Apr

I Found The Answer

I am surprised to find myself writing this blog post. But I always try to leave space for my feelings to evolve, and I’m really happy to say that I think I’ve come to a new and much healthier place.

Honestly, I’ve had a rough year. I broke my neck, I emerged from a toxic obsession with pickup artists, etc. At times I despaired of whether I could ever possibly find True Love.

But I’ve met this amazing man, and I know it sounds so cliché, and I am just embarrassed to be writing this right now. But like the Beatles say, “Love is the answer.” He caught my attention by saying that I have the second prettiest hair he’s ever seen, which showed me that he reads my work and can effectively throw a neg. He’s in a monogamous marriage, but he’s cheating on his wife with me, so it seems obvious that there’s room for this to develop into genuine polyamory.

And … this is so important, but I don’t know how to say it in a way that you will all understand. I’m going to give it a shot, though. I recognize now that my standards for consent and communication have been much too complex, and I need to just put all my trust in a real man. Actually, it makes me genuinely happy to be in a relationship where it’s my job to make him happy, no matter what. That’s what submission really means. I hope you all can support me in this decision, even if you don’t agree with it.

My partner doesn’t want me to blog about my sex life anymore, and obviously I will defer to his wishes. I’m hoping that maybe he’ll allow me to write about relationships in a more general sense — like giving advice on how to maintain a relationship and keep your man. Thank you all for reading my work for so long. I appreciate it immensely and while I know that I am taking a very different stand from my past writing, I hope that some of you will follow me if I get permission to write about my relationships again.

UPDATE, April 2: The above was an April Fools joke. :) Here’s what I actually believe about all this stuff.

2011 14 Oct

BDSM versus Sex, part 2: How Does It Feel?

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

I already wrote Part 1 of this post about the political side of this question. Now for Part 2 ….

The Embodied Side of BDSM versus Sex

Although Part 1 was all about how the divide between “BDSM” and “sex” is often nonsensical, or purely political, or socially constructed … that doesn’t mean that the divide does not exist. I once had a conversation about ignoring social constructs with a wise friend, who noted dryly that: “One-way streets are a social construct. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them.” Just because the outside world influences our sexuality, does not mean that our sexual preferences are invalid.

Some polyamorous BDSMers have very different rules about having sex with outsiders, as opposed to doing BDSM with outsiders. For example, during the time when I was considering a transition to polyamory, I myself had a couple relationships where we were sexually monogamous — yet my partners agreed that I could do BDSM with people who weren’t my partner. Those particular partners felt jealous and threatened by the idea of me having sex with another man, but they didn’t mind if I did BDSM with another man. Maybe the feelings of those partners only arose because they categorized “BDSM” and “sex” into weirdly different socially-constructed ways … but those partners’ feelings were nonetheless real, and their feelings deserved respect.

And there are also unmistakable ways that BDSM feels different from sex. There is something, bodily, that is just plain different about BDSM, as opposed to sex. I often find myself thinking of “BDSM feelings” and “sexual feelings” as flowing down two parallel channels in my head … sometimes these channels intersect, but sometimes they’re far apart. The BDSM urge strikes me as deeply different, separate, from the sex urge. It can be fun to combine BDSM and sex, but there are definitely times when I want BDSM that feel very unlike most times when I want sex.

The biggest political reason why it’s difficult to discuss this is the way in which we currently conceptualize sexuality through “orientations”: we have built a cultural “orientation model” focused on the idea that “acceptable” sexuality is “built-in”, or “innate”. Some BDSMers consider BDSM an “orientation” — and I, myself, once found that thinking of BDSM as an orientation was extremely helpful in coming to terms with my BDSM desires. But one thing I don’t like about the orientation model now is that it makes us sound like we’re apologizing. “Poor little me! It’s not my fault I’m straight! Or a domme! Whatever!” Why would any of these things be faults in the first place? Our bodies are our own, our experiences are our own, and our consent is our own to give.

The orientation model is one of the cultural factors that makes it hard to discuss sensory, sensual experiences without defaulting to sexuality. As commenter saurus pointed out on the Feministe version of part 1 of this post:

Sometimes I think that we have compulsions, needs or “fetishes” that aren’t sexual, but lumping them in with sexuality is sometimes the most convenient or socially manageable way to deal with them or get those needs met. They might even physically arouse us for a variety of reasons, but that might be a side effect instead of the act’s inherent nature. Which is not to say that every act can be cleanly cleaved into “sexual” and “non-sexual” — of course not. But I think we lack a language around these needs that doesn’t use sexuality. I see a lot of groundbreaking work coming out of the asexual and disability justice communities in this regard (which is just to say that I find the folks in these groups are churning out some incredible ways to “queer” conventional dominant ideas about sexuality; not that they never have sex or whatever).

I think one answer to that is to just open up the definition of sexuality to include these things, but as someone who identifies vehemently not as “sex positive” but as “sex non-judgmental”, I know I don’t personally want all my shit to be lumped in with sexuality. It just makes me picture some sex judgmental person insisting that “oh, that’s totally sexual.”

I, Clarisse, can certainly attest that it’s common for people to have BDSM encounters that are “just” BDSM — “no sex involved”. For example — an encounter where one partner whips the other, or gets whipped, and there’s no genital contact or even discussion of genitals. (I’ve written about such encounters several times, like in my post on communication case studies.) And I’d like to stress that when I have encounters like that, they can be very satisfying without involving sex. The release — the high — I get from a heavy BDSM encounter can be its own reward.

I’ve also had BDSM encounters where I got turned on … (more…)

2011 9 Jun

In Praise of Monogamy

There are lots of different ways of approaching non-monogamous relationships, such as:

+ Polyamory: Usually emphasizes developing full-on romantic relationships with more than one partner. Lately I’ve been pondering and working on a number of tricky questions about implementing polyamory. (I’ve been researching polyamory since my teens, but only in recent years did I decide to actively pursue it.)

+ Swinging: Usually emphasizes couples with their own close bond, who have relatively casual sex with other partners. (Another difference between swinging and polyamory is that swingers tend to be more at home in mainstream culture, whereas polyamorists tend to be geeky or otherwise “alternative”. Here’s a great, long piece on poly culture vs. swing culture.)

+ Cheating: One partner does something with an outside partner that wasn’t accepted or understood in advance. In monogamous relationships, cheating usually involves having sex with an outside partner. Cheating exists in polyamorous or swing relationships as well: for example, a person might cheat on a non-monogamous partner by breaking an agreement — an agreement such as “we don’t have unprotected sex with other partners”.

Just in case it needs to be said: I never advocate cheating, ever. As for the first two, I know both poly people and swingers that I consider totally decent and wonderful folks! I have more personal experience with and interest in polyamory, though.

Yet one thing that often gets lost in conversations about all these options is the advantages of monogamy. Of which there are many. Although I don’t currently identify as monogamous, I had a very strong monogamous preference for years. I knew that polyamory existed, and I thought about it a lot, because it’s interesting — but I just didn’t feel like it was for me. (In fact, my most adamantly polyamorous friend used to call me his “reasonable monogamous friend”. He said I had examined polyamory enough to reasonably reject it, whereas he felt most people never consider polyamory deeply enough to have a thoughtful opinion.)

And lately lots of my monogamous friends have been getting married. So I’ve been thinking about the positive aspects of their relationship choices as I dance at their weddings, devour mini-quiches, flirt with their brothers and try to avoid offending their parents. (Okay, I’ve actually only flirted with one brother. So far.)

A Few Advantages of Monogamy (this is not a complete list)

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2010 30 Jun

Love Bites: An S&M Coming-Out Story

My coming-out story was first published in February 2010 by “Time Out Chicago”.

* * *

I was very drunk. My perceptions had a frame-by-frame quality, and the evening didn’t seem immediate: pieces of it were foreign, disconnected as a dream. I was being bitten very hard on the arm. It would leave marks the next day.

I was so muddled by assorted things that even now I can’t sort out how I felt at that moment. When Richard’s nails scored my skin I gasped, but I didn’t ask him to stop. I flinched away, but he kept a firm grip on me. “Beg for mercy,” he said softly.

Frame. Skip. I discovered that a mutual friend of ours had seen us, stopped, and was sitting on the grass across from Richard. “Hey,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“It’s okay,” Richard said, “she likes it,” and pulled my hair hard enough to force me to bow my head. I do? I managed to think, before thought vanished back into the blur of alcohol and pain. Our friend’s face loomed over me, concern sketched vividly on his features.

I closed my eyes.

“Mercy,” I whispered.

* * *

(more…)

2010 11 May

Am I evolving away from monogamy?

I’m just getting back from vacation, and during my trip a friend turned to me and asked, “So what’s up with you and polyamory?” So it seems like as good a time as any to post this rambling ….

Many alternative subcultures — including my main squeezes: science fiction and fantasy, gaming, and goth — overlap considerably with radical sex subcultures. That is, if you’re in one subculture, you’re likely to be familiar with the others. There’s an especial lot of overlap with consensual non-monogamy, particularly polyamory. (The other “main” sex subculture for consensual non-monogamy, swing, is better-represented among the mainstream.) The famous science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was a fierce proponent of polyamory; indeed, when I first read his book Stranger in a Strange Land in middle school, I felt super frustrated by how negatively he portrayed monogamy.

As I got older and started integrating into alternative subcultures, I got more and more exposure to polyamory. I also got more and more exposure to “polyvangelists”: people who, like Heinlein, scornfully dismiss monogamy as “less evolved” or “less intelligent” or “more selfish” than polyamory. It enraged me. “Honestly,” I always said, “I really don’t care if you want to have multiple boyfriends and/or girlfriends, but quit telling me I’m wrong because I don’t!”

I toyed with poly — over the course of my first and longest-running relationship, I took a semester away in Europe, and my boyfriend and I decided to have an open relationship while I was on another continent. During that time, I started dating a European, and I was basically as monogamous as you can get while having another boyfriend across the ocean. I wasn’t remotely interested in dating other locals. My version of poly was as monogamous as possible, and when I returned to America I assumed my boyfriend and I would return to our previously-mono ways. He, however, didn’t assume the same thing. He wanted to stay poly.

Unfortunately, this became one of the biggest contested points in our relationship. We went back to being monogamous, but it was an uneasy dynamic. I tried to find compromises; I was comfortable saying that he could hook up with men but not women, for instance, which he did. At one point, I even said that although I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of being poly, I thought I might be able to handle it as long as he could assure me that he wouldn’t fall in love with his other sexual partners; he decided that he couldn’t promise that. He then cheated on me, which did not help the situation at all. (Responsible polyamorists don’t advocate cheating, by the way — if either partner is dishonest, most polyfolk will bristle and say “that’s not poly!”)

Being fascinated by sexuality and relationships, I’d already thought a lot about polyamory and monogamy, but the situation with my boyfriend threw my brain into overdrive. I tore myself apart trying to figure out why, although I was okay with other people being poly — I even argued in defense of poly when mainstream people stereotyped it! — I couldn’t stand the idea of being poly myself. I felt attacked, under siege, like I constantly had to defend or justify my preference.

I finally settled on thinking of monogamy as a “sexual orientation” or a “kink”: I figured that monogamy was just wired into me, sexually, the same way homosexuality might be for a gay person. (And I’ve met others who feel the same way — who characterize their monogamy as “innate”.)

Time passed. I came into my BDSM identity. I finally broke things off permanently with my first boyfriend; then I had two deep, intense, happily monogamous relationships. I still thought about polyamory sometimes, because it’s interesting, but I no longer felt anxious while doing so. One of my aggressively polyamorous friends characterized me as his “reasonably monogamous” friend, and told me that — although he feels most monogamous people don’t think hard enough about polyamory to justify dismissing it as an option — he thought that I certainly had. I accepted this accolade with a smile.

Then I got my heart broken. Badly, and dramatically. And ever since then … I’ve been feeling less and less monogamous. I still identified so strongly with my “monogamy orientation” that I told people monogamy was what I wanted, and I had some monogamous relationships … but I felt mounting unease. I wanted to be conducting relationships with multiple people; not just that, I also found myself fantasizing about sex with multiple people. Cautiously, I started negotiating limited forms of polyamory (for example, my last relationship and my current one have both been monogamous in terms of “traditional” sex, but not monogamous in terms of S&M partners) … but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to start experimenting with full-on polyamory and/or maybe to swing. In fact … I still … do?

Me, of all people! The “monogamy oriented” girl! The “reasonably monogamous” one! The one who considered it all so carefully and knew exactly what she wanted! How did this happen?

I broached the subject with my current boyfriend a few months ago; he reacted with unease, and later wrote me an email that said: I do not want to come between you and your explorations.  My presence would not entirely hamper them (as I understand the things you’ve listed), but I think that I might well resist swinging or (particularly) polyamory. I’d hate to think I’d circumscribed you with regard to S&M, but I feel much more ambivalent about swing and poly, things less compelling to me, which conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner. If there’s one sticking point I have that’s actually (contrasted with apparently) going to be extremely difficult to negotiate, it’s monogamy.

“Conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner”: I read that with bemusement. Not because I can’t understand his perspective, but because the words sound exactly like something I would have said two years ago. Back then, my ideal partner was someone who would commit to me, monogamously; that’s reflected in everything I thought and everything I wrote during that time, including my recently-published coming-out story. But now ….?

How tempting, to blame my old heartbreak — maybe I’m still “really” mono, but I’ve got emotional baggage? Maybe I’m just afraid of commitment, afraid of putting “all my eggs in one basket”, in the wake of that experience? Maybe I’ve finally been (as “Moulin Rouge” would have it) cured of my ridiculous obsession with love, and I’m ready to take a more realistic view — one that doesn’t expect one person to be everything to me? Maybe I was only ever determined to be mono because I felt as though people were attacking me for being mono, and I had to resist? Yet this all seems so facile, so pop-psychological. My heart’s been broken before, for one thing.

Still, here’s another pop-psychological twist: recently, I’ve not only fantasized about sex with multiple people; I’ve fantasized about partners hurting my feelings by having sex with other people. Remember folks, I’m a submissive masochist, and when I’m in the proper mood I like it when my lovers make me cry — though it never occurred to me that I’d get turned on by the idea of so much emotional pain. Turned on by the idea of a lover savagely breaking my heart, leaving me for someone more beautiful, successful, etc ….

Most unsettlingly, I’m afraid that not only am I still “really” mono, but that going for poly relationships will end up screwing me. I’m afraid that if I were to fall blazingly, consumingly, totally in love again … the poly leanings would disappear. Here’s the scariest question: is this attraction to polyamory simply coming up because I’m not perfectly in love?

If my ideal partner would be monogamous, but I want to be poly because I’m not sure I can find my ideal partner, then that doesn’t just seem dangerous; it seems … dishonest. I know polyfolk who have been really hurt by newly-poly people who thought they were open to a poly relationship — but then the newly-poly person finds The One, feels a strong pull back towards monogamy, and dumps her poly partners. Certainly, if I were a poly person reading this, then — looking at my own reservations — I wouldn’t date me. But then again, what if this really does mark a sea change in my outlook, and I’d be perfectly happy being polyamorous indefinitely?

I know one smart BDSM educator who makes it a point to warn kinksters just entering the community that “desires change over time”, and that one should be prepared. I thought I knew that. But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I want to end on one important point: just because I may be interested in poly now does not mean that it was the best thing for me all along. There’s a difference between these feelings and, say, my BDSM orientation. I recognize BDSM as something I’ve been looking for my entire life — but, for me, the same is not true of polyamory (although I believe that there are polyamorists out there who feel it as an innate identity, like for example Raven Kaldera). In fact, I’m sure that I would never have evolved into this interest in polyamory if I’d kept dating a partner who was pressuring me into it despite my doubts and anxieties. But this is a whole nother post, so I’ll end here.

2010 29 Jan

Sex-positive in southern Africa

Right before I came out here, I was recruited by an online magazine to write about sexuality in Africa and my experience thereof. I wrote some columns, sent them to the magazine … and was told they weren’t quite right. So I sold them to CarnalNation instead! Here’s a roundup of my first four CN pieces; I doubt this is the last time I’ll publish with them, as CN (and editor Chris Hall in particular) is very awesome.

January 7: Rest In Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
I met an incredible, high-profile lesbian activist and wanted to be friends, but soon after she was murdered … and her partner charged with the crime.

January 14: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In which I discuss how my relationship started with my current boyfriend, a Baha’i convert who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (the pseudonym I chose for him was, therefore, Chastity Boy). I also describe some of my hesitations in promoting abstinence as a good sexual choice, even though it is a legitimately wise one in a place that’s so beset by HIV.

January 21: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
Polygamy makes things difficult by setting norms that encourage lots of multiple concurrent partnerships, which is a spectacular method of spreading HIV. This was the hardest piece to write so far, because it’s so incredibly complicated! Halfway through I realized that my draft consisted of a beginning, an end, and eight incomplete sentences in the middle, at which point I freaked out and begged Chastity Boy for advice. He helped a lot with the cleanup, and I’m pretty happy with the result, although I do wish that I’d made it clearer that — while polygamy is definitely part of the problem, as is the gender gap — a bigger problem from a health perspective is that the ideal of polygamy sets the norm at multiple concurrent sexual relationships even for unmarried people (rather than the safer, though not morally superior, serial monogamy widely practiced in America).

January 28: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
You’d think that people in a place where up to 40% of the population tests positive would be really careful about condoms, wouldn’t you? Especially when free condoms are widely available and everyone knows that they protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.