Popular Posts

10 December, 2009

A Brief Interlude

I've been amused lately by checking out how and whence people come to visit this blog. I'm pleased with the exposure I'm getting, given that I haven't really worked on it: I'm not sure how or why folks from Bucharest and San Paolo would make their way here or how I get direct views from Delhi and Porto Alegre, but that's the glory of the interwebs and I love it! My favorite data, though, is the search terms that bring people here. People string together the most marvelous phrases - things like "serotonin girlfriend" (which would make a great name for a rock band). Recent searches that have brought people to my blog include:

what is polyamory kissing

polyamory bunnies

yay serotonin

avoid monogamy

polyamory pornography

rhythms ringo brain chemistry

Yes, that's right: "rhythms ringo brain chemistry". I am, of course, the first Google result for that oh-so-frequent search. Speaking personally, I'd also love to have a few polyamory bunnies hopping around in the backyard. No doubt that surfer was seeking this facebook group (or maybe midgets?). Giving me almost as much amusement, this blog is in the first page of Google results for "polyrhythms". Yes, I'm somehow even in front of the blog that snatched the hyphen-free version of the URL. The text preview only shows the sidebar explaining the blog name; those poor music majors won't know what hit them! By the way, if we have any repeat customers here: did you find what you were looking for? If not, feel free to request a post. I'm always looking for an excuse to write things here (or at least for time to do so).

Anyway, this is just to say that I love you all forever.

03 December, 2009

Polyamory seems to thrive at the intersection of several subcultures. I do mean polyamory, specifically: the celebration of non-monogamous love and, often, fidelity, as opposed to the more sex-based side of nonmonogamy (like swinging, sometimes set up against poly in the dark twin role). Poly is tied in pretty thoroughly with geek culture, and there's also an association with modern Paganism, enough so that there's a Livejournal community devoted to the intersection of bisexuals, polyamourists, Pagans and geeks with about 1500 members. And they have a guild.

I'm curious: why would modern Paganism correlate with an interest in polyamory? The geek connection seems normal to me, probably just because I am a geek. Geekiness kind of makes sense: the engineer contingent likes to take things apart and see how they work, while the analytic demographic (hi, me!) is always questioning rules and social structures. We also love science fiction and fantasy; in other words, we're familiar with changing the premises. SciFi is especially known for playing with hypothetical social & sexual relationship structures. People who like to use their minds as playthings are just generally more likely to question and to enjoy novel solutions, so it's no surprise that openness to social change might correlate with those who care about intellect. If anyone's going to try it, it'll be the geeks. But why does today's Pagan culture start to overlap with polyamory?

If one is Pagan in this country (that's the U.S.A., in case you're just tuning in), that also bespeaks a willingness to step out of the expected lines and open a different kind of social discourse. By the capital P in "Pagan", let me be clear, I mean to denote not the category of polytheistic religion in general but the specific, modern trend toward nature-based spiritual practices (often syncretically self-sculpted) of which Wicca is the exemplar. So, they have that much in common with my intuitive sense of why poly folk are often geeky. But is a willingness to seek novel social arrangements the only thing linking these two groups? If you're surprised to hear me claim "no", you probably haven't read many essays. I've got a theory. And yes, it does involve bunnies.

The theory in question is "Terror Management Theory". A professor introduced me to it this semester with a paper called "I Am NOT An Animal: Mortality Salience, Disgust, and the Denial of Human Creatureliness", by one Goldenberg & company. TMT1 is a larger topic than I care to deal with in full, but the critical element is that it regards our fear of death. Mortality salience comes into play as things around us remind us of death; when we have death on our minds, humans change their behavior in predictable directions, typically doing things like retreating to the trenches of one's own culture, especially religion. It's often a subtle effect. It comes into play with little events like seeing roadkill or grand ones like the country's political shift following the World Trade Center attack of 2001. The theory was inspired by the observation that when faced with the thought of death, people were more likely to espouse transcendent beliefs - a belief in one's immortal soul, for instance. The effect is tied closely with religion and spiritual beliefs, but it extends to many cultural elements, especially on the conservative side of things.

The gist of this specific paper is its evidence regarding disgust responses to animals and their relationship to mortality salience. The authors claim (and neatly support through experiment) that when humans are disgusted by animals, or by acting against culture - acting "like an animal" - the reason it disgusts us is that it reminds us of our own animal bodies, the very things that doom us, ultimately, to death.

Behavior that isn't condoned by one's mother culture can fall into that category. When humans act like animals, it upsets many of us. The participants in these particular experiments, when reminded of their own oncoming deaths, were less forgiving than the control group was of an essay arguing for a materialist, evolutionary account of humanity and more accepting of an essay praising humans as special, unique, above animals (and I use "animals" in opposition to "humans" purposefully). The U.S. is home to pretty solid trends toward both materialism and Christianity, each of which are vulnerable to animal-triggered disgust. Animals can remind Christians of our dying human bodies, the thought of which (as in the research inspiring TMT) sends them back to the comforting thought of the immortal soul and the meaningful nature of all life in the context of a loving creator. For materialists, the situation is even more distressing, as we have no such reassurance. We atheists have similar retreats, though. I know I, for one, still use the Godspell soundtrack as comfort music.

So, what the fuck does this have to do with today's putative topic? Funny you should ask! Unlike the prevailing opinion of animals in the U.S., which puts them both practically and symbolically in roles that are starkly divided from humans and clearly place them below us (or on our plates), a Pagan view of the world holds all natural things in the category of the sacred. Modern Paganism, to quote one website created as a waystation for individuals interested but without local resources, is a "nature-centered spirituality"; animals, along with everything else in the world, are part of a transcendent system of meaning. "It may not seem like a spiritual exercise," writes the site's author, "but every time you do something to help animals, or for that matter any part of our environment, you are engaging in a spiritual action." If the natural is conceived of as a sacred category, then actions seen as in keeping with nature can acquire a sense of sacredness. And, hey, is there anything more natural than fucking like animals?

Not exactly bunnies, but you get the idea.

It's important, though, that polyamory isn't just about getting your end off. In poly culture, there's an emphasis on multiple loving relationships. Nature red in tooth and claw might happily hop from one person to another, but a transcendent, sacred account of nature tends to emphasize sublime beauty and the perfection of the natural. As a casual example, take this page made by a Pagan circle in Leeds; they quote many people who've spoken on the beauty of nature but none who speak of predation or starvation. The dangerous elements of nature could be held as sacred and have been, by other groups, but they are not the centrally emphasized element here. Instead, the chosen emphasis is on beauty, playfulness, and the universal - or rather undifferentiated - availability of a worldly joy in that which surrounds us. Polyamorists, similarly, sometimes chose to draw a sharp line between poly and swinging: the one concerned with intimacy and love, the other concerned with physical satisfaction. At other times, poly folk acknowledge the indistinct line separating the two, but - what a shock - usually follow that acknowledgement with a restatement of polyamory's interest in "real intimacy" (and note that when I went searching for an example, the one I found was from a group of Christian polyamorists). That is, the discussion of swingers tends to lead polyamorists to reiterate the system of meaning and values that motivates their behavior. I think I see a touch of TMT at work here, don't you? I'm aware of exceptions, such as this little essay, but take note of its date: 1995. As far as the history of "polyamory" goes, that's awfully early; the definition was still taking shape. Make of that what you will.

This is more or less what ran through my head when I learned about terror management theory. Finally, I had figured out one reason polyamory and Paganism have overlapping appeal! If the natural, as today's Paganism creates the category, is sacred, and sex is natural, then it's not as large a leap to consider sharing that sacred sexuality with more than one other human animal. Animals and animal-like behavior (and let's face it, sex is not the most flatteringly cultured activity) have been reframed in the Pagan worldview: instead of reminders of our own death, they're reminders of our own natural sacredness. Pagan nonmonogamy is like a little prayer circle. It's true, this is no great empirical work - consider it a theory paper - but it seems to make a kind of sense, and I hope I've described terror management theory sufficiently for it to seem sensible to you, too. It also leaves me with a fonder attitude toward modern Paganism than I used to have. And, if nothing else, the dangers exposed by terror management theory are worth keeping in mind. Don't let death play the peer pressure game with you. Our bodies are the best toys out there; so what if they'll kill us? We might as well enjoy them first!

Now to figure out whether I'll send this essay to that professor. Probably not.

1Which looks temptingly like TMNT, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles".

02 December, 2009

In the Grim Darkness of Nonmonogamy, There is Only Communication

In the grim darkness of the setting for the tabletop miniature game Warhammer: 40K, there is only war. Nonetheless, it holds some lessons relevant to our own daily lives.

The game simulates war in distant planets between various human and alien factions. It is a setting of crushing despair and little hope, in which humanity's only savior has been approximately dead for millennia and only keeps a pulse by eating the souls of hundreds of psychics every day. It's lovely. In the game itself, one commands a small army of metal and plastic figurines representing one of the many factions.

During a typical player's turn in Warhammer, each group of figures on the battlefield gets to run through several phases. First, one moves the troops. Then one can either fire on the enemy or, if one is close enough, engage them in combat: the Assault phase. Depending on how that goes, many things can result. You can force your opponents to flee, if they have taken heavy casualties. If they stand their ground, you may take a consolidation move; those of your models that are not in immediate contact with enemy models may move up to three inches (where a normal Move Phase allows six inches' movement). If you destroy the enemy unit, you move the unit forward a number of inches equal to one roll on a six-sided die. If you overwhelm the enemy, you may attempt to force them to break and run in a Sweeping Advance. If the advance succeeds, you instantly wipe out the rest of that troop. You then get the same 3" consolidation move that you would if they'd stood their ground. At the end of consolidation, if I recall correctly, any models not within 2" of another member of their unit are removed from the game, undoubtedly eaten by a grue.

This is not merely the recounting of an arcane and monetarily draining pasttime. No; there is a deeper lesson to be gleaned from the grim troop movements of the 41st millennium. It is the value of consolidation.

When my space orks slaughter a squadron of Imperial guardsmen, they do not simply bathe in the enemy's blood and raise skulls as goblets. Drippy, drippy goblets. Not in the least! They pause, collect themselves, and make certain that they haven't lost anyone needlessly in the scuffle. If anyone is more than 5" away from the nearest model, I can move the flank out to catch the poor boy. If my troops are packed so tightly that they'd be destroyed by a single shot from the Guardsmen's devastating Basilisk cannon, I can spread them apart. But, spread the troops too thin and I risk losing some to the attrition of the 2" rule in the next combat.

What I'm getting at here is resource management. Yes, I love crushing my foes in battle as much as the next fellow - even more, if we're operating on a metaphorical level here - but I know that there's more than just battle at play here. I have to maintain the cohesion of my unit, and if I let the thrill of battle motivate my every move, I can end up spreading my troops so wide, hoping to engage more of the enemy, that my offensive line breaks and I lose sight of my stalwart ork minions. I must keep the longterm health of the group in mind when I commit to any given action.

Likewise in nonmonogamous relationships. One has a finite amount of resources to commit, any one of which may prove to be a limiting factor; for me, that factor did not come from the sector I'd expected. Time, I thought, was the greatest of my romantic limitations. Recently, however, I have drawn a different conclusion. I've had great fun this semester, engaging in a variety of hand to hand encounters, and they've all been great fun. In this blog, I've been shying away from the term "polyamory" because it seems like I'm tending more toward the swinging side of things, pursuing more or less casual sex without making longterm commitments outside of the sexual realm, beyond the central commitment I've been holding for some time now. Suddenly I realize, though, that if I engage with many more troops, I will be spread to thin to enjoy it. The limiting factor isn't my time resources but my emotional resources. Every combat encounter will begin to seem the same: move phase, assault phase, resolution, and then consolidation, withdrawal or advance. I don't simply want to sweep through every unit in my path. I want to draw out the engagements, make them last, savor them. And (I begin to suspect), if I encounter too many more units, the savor will out.

I have a new strategy: consolidation. The troops have already engaged; the initial hand-to-hand stage is resolved. What's left is to think small: take those three inches1 of movement and see to the unit as a whole. Are all models within 2", maintaining group cohesion? Are they densely packed, inviting area attacks? Are they within assault range of another enemy troop; could they edge out of the way? Do I really know all the people I'm sleeping with, and isn't it worth pursuing those relationships in more depth before trying to ... um ... close with more ... enemy units? In other words, I'm on the downswing from quantity and moving back toward quality and depth of relationships. Oddly enough, this actually seems to have been sparked by my interaction with a young woman who, just as I did, explicitly declared her interest in a relationship predicated on getting it on and not worrying about the traditional courtship portion. Getting together went so well, though, that it got me questioning my actual wants ... and a pleasant evening spent with another friend of mine brought me some awareness of my own sexual saturation. I have enough partners; I just don't see enough of them. Time to consolidate.

1 And don't even think about a size joke, because you and I know exactly how irrelevant that is.2

2Actually, three inches is pretty frighteningly large when a marine is one inch tall.3

3Well, there's an image I didn't need in my mind.

16 November, 2009

Kiss Me Like A Scientist

Today, I'm going to play the role of godless social liberal and talk about why it would make sense for people to mess around a little before they so much as agree to a dinner date.

Relationships, as almost all human behavior is at root, are about feeling good.1 Personally, I wouldn't want to commit to a relationship unless I had reason to think that the new lover and I might get along smashingly. I do see dating (or "repeatedly hooking up", or whatever one does these days) as a way to get to know someone, but it seems imprudent to get that process rolling if there's not yet a reason to think that she has the sort of personality I enjoy. Committing to a steady relationship is a big investment, and I want to be sure the odds of enjoyment are high.

The same principle applies to sexual interactions. I wouldn't want to start dating someone I hadn't kissed yet. For one thing, that's because I love the attitude of people who think it's fun to start with kissing and go from there! Aside from the personality considerations, though, there are some concrete reasons to kiss first and ask questions later.

Sometimes, a kiss is a moment of bliss that can't be described through language. The first time I ever kissed someone, I instantly understood why people would do such a bizarre thing. Every sensation other than that one point of contact seemed to vanish, and those lips against mine defined the scope of my reality. That went on to be an amazing, life changing relationship. I don't mean to imply cause & effect, but I do think that those two facts may have had a common cause. On the other hand, I once kissed a lesbian friend of mine on whom I had a bit of a crush at the time, and we both decided that there was just nothing happening there. I was definitely interested, but ... nope. Nothing. It was as though we'd taken our faces and pressed them up against each other such that my lips rested on hers, and we just weren't sure of what to do about that. It lacked that elusive ingredient, that ... spark!

Yes, That Spark

I mention that kiss because it demonstrates that the emotions involved might not be the only factor determining the pleasure of a kiss. Yes, I enjoy kissing more when I'm excited or in love with the person I'm kissing, but that night, although I was definitely interested, neither one of us got much but disappointment (well, that and precious knowledge - we are scientists, after all!). A kiss seems to exchange more than just tactile expression of emotion. Dr. Helen Fisher, a prolific sex researcher whom I'm sure I've cited at least once in each year at college, says whenever interviewed on the subject that kissing involves an exchange of chemical information between partners, but I can't seem to discover the studies from which she draws that information.

I have read studies discussing the possibility that testosterone is exchanged through saliva, one of the things Fisher mentions. I seem to recall also reading that men are more enthusiastic about french-kissing than women, at least in whatever sample group participated in that study; this is noteworthy because testosterone is critical to female sexual behavior. Further, a friend of mine tells me that communication on the level of the immune system takes place (not surprising, given our apparent subconscious concern with difference in immune systems, which seems pretty important, given the possibilities for disease exchange between sexual partners). Intriguing data, but - since the citations elude me - somewhat unreliable. If one of you has superior google-fu, please feel free to post the original papers.

My point, spotty data aside, is that kissing appears to transmit more than just the obvious behavioral information. When two people kiss for the first time, they get a preview of their basic physical compatability. Yes, some people are just better kissers - either that or everyone who's kissed a certain friend of mine has immune systems remarkably different from hers - but it's not just about skill. There appears to be a physiological exchange, not yet fully explored by Glorious Science,2 that partially determines just how enjoyable sexual interaction will be. Kissing isn't the whole scope of sex, sure, but I call it a poor plan to find out whether you'll enjoy kissing someone only after you two have exchanged your class rings. Futhermore, if the information exchanged is actually part of the suite that influences attraction in general - immune system information, for instance - then it is indicative of how well that sexual relationship can go. Sexual compatability also relies on the psychological side (hello, kinky), but common interests can only take you so far if you don't have the chemistry.

1 If you object to that statement, consider: actions like making war aren't necessarily about the soldiers' feeling good, but they may advance the careers or assuage the egos of politicians, which gives them a sense of triumph; the individuals involved may be motivated by anger, hatred, or a sense of injustice, and thus be about not feeling good. Actions that cause one person to suffer are often about another person's sense of comfort or power, both of which fall into the category of positively valenced emotions. Most actions undertaken by humans, though, are at the very minimum about not feeling worse than one already does (see: remaining in slavery rather than running away and being shot), which puts them into the category of things that are about moving toward feeling good and away from feeling bad (or dead). As for relationships, no doubt someone will mention arranged marriages. Consider that, in societies in which mate choice is concerned with family alliances as much as or more than with dyadic satisfaction, the goals remain emotional; it is simply the relative importance of the emotions involved that differ. If someone can find me an example of an action that is not emotionally motivated, please inform me so that I can perform a case study of the person who performed it.

2 See, we glorious scientists3 don't claim to know everything. We just claim that there's a something that can be known! Now fuck off, Derrida.

3 I hope one day to found a journal entitled "Glorious Science Monthly".

31 October, 2009

Hold the Line

After talking with my compatriot over at WrongBot, I have come to the conclusion that, no, I didn't just miss that day in middle school: I'm not the only one who's never had a word of advice on how to draw emotional boundaries or even, now that I think about it, on what emotional boundaries are. I want to spend a moment on that topic before my next post.

This might be a little tricky, since I've only become consciously aware of this phenomenon in recent years, and by its very nature, it's not something that gets tested often in my life. I've tried to find some papers defining the terms more neatly, but I don't know the jargon I'd need to put into the search field. What I mean to describe with the term "emotional boundaries" is the ability to regulate one's own emotions such that one's emotional state does or doesn't depend on emotional input from another person. If you have a mentor whose every word you hang on and she makes an off-hand comment derogating the essay you just wrote, does it wring your heart out or do you incorporate her criticism and move on? If you have a lover who doesn't make that last moment of physical contact before you part, do you spend the rest of the night unsatisfied? (Oh, curse that dopaminergic system!) I submit that it is a laudable goal to become emotionally self-contained to some degree; but, at the same time, opening oneself to emotional input from someone trustworthy can improve the depth of one's emotional experience. Is it possible to have the highs without the lows? I actually don't know; I simply try not to make myself vulnerable to anyone unless I think she'll treat me right.

In a romantic relationship, there's a huge range of feeling possible. If you had a crush on someone in middle school, you probably remember the heart-crushing emotions surrounding that person's thought and behavior: did she feel the same? Did she even know you liked her? Did she even know your name? I remember the first time I asked someone out, which was also the first time anyone turned me down. I'd spent weeks working up the nerve, and afterward, I felt destroyed. I thought I'd be happy with that person, and without her, somehow I couldn't be. In hindsight, the whole debacle following that encounter is horribly embarrassing, but it serves as a useful contrast to later experiences.

Later on, with Alma (hooo, I'd almost forgotten that I was trying not to drop real names into the ol' search engine soup!), the experience was different ... but only because we were both desperately in love. I use that adverb purposefully. If either one of us had had a change of heart back then, the other would have felt horrible emotional damage; we depended on each other, rather than on ourselves, to provide an emotional foundation. I think that he grew out of that stage a little before I did, but in the beginning, we trusted each other to deliver emotional gratification to such a degree that, if we hadn't both been engaged in the project, it would have been right to call our behavior insane. Perhaps some of you have experienced this.

Then, with Zoe, it began similarly. I was effectively single, at least while at college, and when someone promising came along and actually seemed to be working out, it was just days before the walls came down. When I say "walls", I mean my emotional permeability. Normally, if I meet some random person, I'm influenced by the expression of their emotions; I do pick up moods from other people, and if I have to deal with someone unpleasant, it upsets me. That's totally normal; one sees the same phenomenon in other primates, and some of the neural systems involved have been described in an impressive level of detail. The mirror neuron system is a part of the brain that fires along certain patterns when you perform an action - lifting a glass of water, for instance - and fires in the same way when you see someone else perform the same action. It's a powerful, and relatively new, line of research, but it's born incredible fruit. People are pursuing it as an explanation for learning, for empathy ... so, you can see how it would be relevant to the subject of picking up on others' emotions.

In a close romantic relationship (and any emotionally intimate relationship, really), there's even more at stake. The emotions that you feel might be triggered by any number of things, but they happen in you. They come from you, no matter what external reason you have for feeling them. It's easy to forget that, though, and even while remembering it, someone to whom one is emotionally anchored can shake one's emotions. In a relationship with a powerful, intimate emotional link and little or no oversight of that link - hey, you remember middle school - one's partner can cause catastrophic pain even through an accidental phrase or expression. That's why these boundaries matter. If we let ourselves open our emotional control boards to the wrong people, it can be deadly.

Oh - and, happy Hallowe'en! Say hi to the dead folks for me.

26 October, 2009

Emotional Gerrymandering

One of the big questions about how to manage nonmonogamous relationships is the question of where to draw the lines of intimacy and of commitment.1 Now that I think about it, that's a question I haven't really answered before this year - at least, not in a satisfactory manner. Even in terms of monogamous relationships, no-one ever gave me a single word of advice on how to do this. Maybe other people got this in a talk from their parents or something; I feel as though it should be taught on day one of middle school. I am the kind of person who wants to break everything down to its basic parts, but still, it's possible that what follows will read like remedial math to the emotionally competent among you.

Nevertheless, it's a question that can make or break your life. In romance, where does one draw emotional boundaries? (EDIT: see this entry for discussion of what I mean by that term.)

I can't speak for other people (although I'm curious to hear whether you've ever noticed this) but I've observed that I unconsciously sequester parts of my emotional response. I don't get the impression that I can consciously fall in or out of love with someone, but after spending a year with (primarily) one solid, longterm lover, when I started seeing another, I realized that I was guarding a part of my emotional response. I was somehow holding myself back from the crazy, precipitous "Oh god love" reaction that I get when I'm not dating anyone and strike up a promising new attachment (whether it's healthy or not!). After giving it a little thought, though, I realized that guarding myself wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might be of critical importance. I do love my friends, but I don't need to worry as much about whether we're going to live in the same city. That long-term relationship receives (and deserves) some consideration when The Future is on the table, but not every friendly hook-up needs to have that kind of importance. I don't draw a sharp line between friends and lovers, though, which means that there's a no-man's land for people to fall in before they're clearly central to my life - and I don't like to leave people in the lurch!

The Lurch

When any relationship starts to grow more central to one's life, it's important to figure out how central it is. For someone who's already in at least one serious, long-term romantic relationship, the issue is doubly complex: how does one manage one's time, and just as importantly, one's attention and emotional energy, between those relationships?


When people go head-over-heels, whatever that metaphor is supposed to denote, their boundaries fall and they leave themselves emotionally vulnerable in an almost insane way. If one of them pulls out, the other can collapse completely; a broken heart is nothing to laugh at. If they stay together, the consequences are even greater. They'll end up relying on each other through hard times (read: you'll end up having to support this person through Hell and back), they'll share the best and worst of your lives (read: you'll have to sit back when they have moments of triumph and listen to them bitch when they don't), and they'll share the mundane, as well (read: do the dishes). In other words, when relationships become committed, they're serious business. Of course, with the right people, they're also completely worth it.

When you meet someone new, though, it's hard to predict how the romance will develop. If you open your heart to every you meet, eventually you're going to get stabbed. It's worth taking care to hold back, sometimes - but if you want the joy of a deeper connection, eventually you have to erase the lines you've drawn. So ... where and how do those lines develop?


Conflicting expectations can really mess up a good thing. It's been said before and it'll need to be said again, but a kiss (or a touch, or a word) means something different to everyone. "What did last night mean to you?" is kind of an awkward question, though. You might actually get more mileage out of, "What are you looking for?"

It's worth getting your goals out on the table. It might also be a more tactful way to open a conversation about how each person involved views physical and emotional intimacy, which is a conversation that needs to happen. Put it up front, too. By making what each party wants clear from the beginning, one might be able to avoid heartache later on. If one person is looking to jump into a lifelong relationship with a picket fence at the end of the rainbow but the other just wants a friend to spend nights with, you know that neither one of you is going to end up happy in that relationship.

It's worth questioning your own expectations, as well. First off, you'll need to know what you want if you're asking someone else the same. I know that's not always an easy question to answer. It's worth doing more than that, though, especially if you're going to be involved with multiple partners. Framing one's own expectations about a relationship can completely shift the direction it takes. Personally, I have a rough time holding back from slapping definitions on new relationships, but it might be worth doing. Or, at least, consider this: it may be easier to draw a line and later invite someone to cross it than to leap in completely and then ask someone to step back. I'm not talking about nominal definitions so much as behavioral definitions, by the way. Because expectations vary, it might not be as useful to say, "I'm your boyfriend and you're my girlfriend" as to say, "We'll spend time together whenever we can, we'll kiss, we'll sleep together, and I need to have time on the weekends to see my lover from out of town."

It just goes to show that it don't come easy. However, as snowmobiling Ringo Starr will tell you, "Use a little love, and we will make it work out better."

(On reflection, that song's verses are full of innuendo. He don't come easy, but we can open up our hearts and come together. It's here within your reach, if you're big enough to take it. Awesome.)

That Good Ol' Noun Again

What, you mean "communication"? Why would that word appear in an article on nonmonogamous relationships?

Everything written here is predicated on the idea that one is communicating with one's partners, and with oneself. I work to know what I want. I work to know what I require. I work to know whether my partners know, and so on - you get the idea, but I, at least, still need a reminder now and then. It really is key, though, to get the nerve up to answer straightforward questions like, "What would it mean to you, emotionally, if we were having sex?" or "Under what circumstances would you be open to a new relationship of the kind I want?" Think of it as part of the flirtation - you're getting to know each other.

I still haven't really answered the question I posed at the beginning: where and how should one draw emotional boundaries?

One of the biggest factors is something I can't speak to, gentle reader: your own goals. What do you want? Can this person provide it? If there is a heuristic for emotional boundaries, it might be to keep them solid until you at least know whether the person you're seeing can actually meet your wants. It's possible to get to know each other, enjoy each other, explore, but hold back on lowering the last walls until you both want to take the next step. If you're speaking clearly and making your minds clear to each other, you'll probably be able to tell.

I do want to throw out one piece of actual advice. If you - or the person you're seeing - has one or more other partners already, hedge up your emotional boundaries as you enter the new relationship. Slow yourself down. Spend time together among your friends, talk or write - you have a topic, the relationship itself, that I'd bet is hard to exhaust - and watch the emotions develop. I really am of the opinion that a dyad in a social vacuum is one of the least healthy relationship models, especially if the people in that dyad are also part of other romantic pairings or groups. Put yourself and your new lover together in your normal social environment, and let the relationship take a little time to root there. If it continues to blossom, that might be when it's time to allow the boundaries to slip.

Ok, so this isn't loving with wild abandon, throwing caution to the wind and gambling everything for love. So what? It's happiness, and that's awesome. If you know what you want and don't let yourself form an attachment to someone who's going in a completely different direction, you should be fine (unless you want your heart broken!). Know your emotions. Communicate with yourself. If you and your fuck buddy are falling in love, go for it; if one of you isn't, pull back before it gets ugly. Is it simple? Not in the real world. But reminding yourself to think might be the best tool you have.

So hey guys, what of the above is totally incorrect, flies in the face of all you hold dear, and will send newbies spinning into a hideous cycle of pain and violence? I know next to nothing about emotional experiences of this type other than the ones I've experienced firsthand, so rock out a comment or two. That's all for this time. Next time I get around to posting, I think it'll be on nonmonogamy and community.

1 I'm steering slowly away from the term "polyamory" because polyamory is specific to longterm, loving relationships and, in many peoples' definitions, doesn't cover a lot of gray area between "poly" and "swinger". I submit that we need a term other than "polyamorous relationships" to describe, as a category, ethically conducted relationships that aren't monogamous. I further submit that this new term be "awesome relationships".

07 October, 2009

American Tail

America has a bizarre relationship with sex. Our colonial ancestors shipped over here after the Great Reformation and during the Counter-Reformation, the period during which the confession became a more important part of daily life and sexuality became a more important element of sin.1 The Mayflower contingent were protestants of an unusually ascetic stripe (rumor has it that the first man to carry my family name here moved to what would later be Connecticut just to get away from those nuts!), but they were protestants, and so is a central factor in U.S. culture. We've been host to a couple of "Great Awakenings", not to mention some sexual revolutions.It's well known (pdf) that states voting for conservative Presidential candidates tend to have more online porn subscriptions, and according to the New Scientist report on that article, "Residents of 27 states that passed laws banning gay marriages boasted 11% more porn subscribers than states that don't explicitly restrict gay marriage." Hot damn, kids. What's the haps?

So, there are a couple of major trends in U.S. culture that seem relevant. I've tipped my hand a little here (I'm crap at poker); the first is Protestantism. The Reformation took Christianity and cut out the middleman, emphasizing an individual relationship between God and each worshiper. As I remember vividly from Durkheim's Suicide, which I read for an otherwise tragic sociology class, predominately Catholic regions have lower suicide rates than predominately Protestant regions; Durkheim's analysis led him to conclude that one of the main factors was not the religion itself but the greater individuation in Protestant nations. That item has stuck in my mind, and when I started to consider this issue, the individualism in the U.S., owing to the Protestant culture that informed its founders, struck me as a critical component of the American Sex Paradox (wouldn't that be a GNFARB?)
The emphasis that the U.S. places on individual rights and self-determination has lead us to a number of advances; we weren't the first country to enfranchise women as voters, but we were by no means far behind the curve. I'd say the sweet spot for that advancement was around 1910 - 1920, and we just made that range. We've also had some time periods with striking upsurges in our emphasis on self-determination: our colonial days are often seen in those terms, the "Roaring Twenties" were filled with hedonic self-interest, including Virginia Woolf's poly sister, and everyone remembers the Sixties (except the people who were there). But what of the floor show? Crap, wrong movie -- I mean, but what of the Puritans?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our friendly neighborhood Puritans were off fervently cutting holes in sheets. I'd like to imagine that, since they hailed from the UK, they had a little time to pick up on the confessional culture before heading over. The church joined back up with Catholicism for a brief period between Henry and Elizabeth, and confession to an intermediate priest is in practice today. Likewise, there's apparently some practice among Protestants of personal confessions to God, and I somehow can't imagine the Puritans missing out on a chance to count their sins. The important element here is that, with the emphasis on confession and on confession of sexual acts and thoughts, specifically, people ruminated more on their sexual failings (where, in this context, winning is failure) and internalized guilt over their naughty, naughty actions.

Now, take a peek at contemporary U.S. sexuality (Oh, close the curtains!). We're downloading porn left and right, it's almost impossible to be a pop star without being attractive (at least, if you're a woman it's impossible), there are strip joints all across the nation, and on every corner there are GODLESS HOMOS faggin' up the joint (and of all these, which is bemoaned?).2 Wow. God bless America, but despite all this interest in hardcore patriot-on-patriot action, we still have some kinks to work out. It's easy to see the resistance show up if one looks at political discussions of, say, pornography, sex work, and the like, but remember that someone voted for those old white dudes. In fact, a whole lot of someones ... someones who subscribe to more online porn than the someones who voted for the Dems who kind of keep quiet and try to pretend they weren't in that free love commune back in '68. (I do sometimes wonder whether the red state pr0n phenom only tells us that Republican voters are less likely to hit the /rs/ board on 4chan.) And let's not forget Twilight.

Oh, Twilight: in which an entire series of books is fueled by sexual tension, as the protagonist cannot shag her undead beau for fear that the sex will literally kill her. He spends hundreds of pages warning her; she, similar hundreds trying to get in his pants anyway. That's right, kids. Sex is death. But let's not forget how fun it is!

Similarly, if you are or have ever fucked a kinky person (please, give it a try!), you've probably heard someone ask to be "used" or "punished". That's a story that captures my imagination. Some quite consciously, explicitly, get off on being punished for their sexual transgressions. Some folk enjoy the thought that they're being used for sex - that the other person (or people, if you're awesome like me) is (are) using his or her body for sexual pleasure, as if anyone with the right holes would do. My thought, of course, is that this is a manifestation of the Great American Sex Paradox. Sex is no good ... but if someone else is just taking over your body and using it (how many people have a rape fantasy? Answer: lots.), then you can relax! Likewise with the punishment: how great is it to get your sin and your punishment wrapped up in one package? Think of the time you'll save! Yes, I realize how silly that might sound, but remember that we're dealing with emotions. Emotions don't stop to ask whether they make sense, they just hang out and motivate behavior.

Beside that, there's the simple reality of kink acquisition (see Holloway, Cornil & Balthazart's "Effects of central administration of naloxone during the extinction of appetitive sexual responses"). Once a connection between some arbitrary stimulus (say, high-heeled stripper boots or spanking) and sexual reward is established, according to folks like our man Holloway, it's practically impossible to extinguish that association. When the previously arbitrary stimulus appears, one gets turned on. Obviously, humans are as complex as can be, and the way in which those kinks get established is, I imagine, more complex than it is for lab animals. Nevertheless, the point of the unkillable association stands. If something becomes part of one's sexual experience, it will probably continue to be a turn-on (though not a necessary element for enjoyment).

So, the hypothesis here is that there's a trend among U.S. citizens to establish an emotional link between sex and guilt (or the feelings of breaking rules and needing punishment or an excuse). That's right, lads and lasses, to excuse our naughty behavior we've created a delightful cycle. We think about sex, and that makes us feel guilt; the guilt turns us on, so we think about sex, so we feel guilty, so eventually you just have to shag the preacher! One nation under God, baby. Or under Edward Cullen, evidently. Sex is death; therefore death is sexy.
There are open questions, though, even if this analysis is on the right track. Fro Instance: does framing sex in terms of punishment or being used allow one to enjoy what would otherwise just make one feel sinful, or does the guilt itself serve as a source of pleasure? The answer might depend on the mechanism of sexual conditioning, if that explanation has merit; and one could actually test to see whether the answer predicted by sexual conditioning theory (if that's a term) is the result we see in real live sexy people. OHO! That's right, everyone: sure, this hypothesis is thrown together from the odds and sods of half a dozen liberal arts classes and a few tipsy nights in bed with the right people, but we can still do science to it!

1The line of thinking I'll pursue here owes a lot to Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, a great read. Pick it up sometime; it's great stuff. I wanted to smack him until I started to agree with him.

2Being an atheist who's pressed his hetero self as far as Kinsey'll let him, I hope you understand me when I insist that some of my best friends are godless homos. Let freedom ring, baby.

23 September, 2009

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

Questioning sexuality and gender often seem to run together, so I hope you'll forgive me if I take a moment to discuss gender roles today.

The link occurred to me today because there seems, in recent conservative rhetoric, to be a link between the teeming evils of polyamory, pornography, and the diluted strength of gender roles. One Pat Fagan argues that "By controlling ... [education of children, sex education and adolescent health,] the culture of polyamory diminishes the influence and dismantles the authority and influence of parents of the culture of monogamy particularly in their ability to form their children as members of their own culture." Evidently we polyamorists are dissolving the family from childhood on, splashing our caustic feminism across the marble face of U.S. society. Fagan argues, among his maddened antisocialist rants, that conservative families have to model "a new 'masculinism'" for their children - that fathers must strike a strong, unambiguous pose for their children - or, in today's culture, those kids will grow up with an unhealthily confused picture of sex and gender. When you stop laughing or crying (pick your preference), some of Fagan's points may be worth exploring.

One element of the current trend for genderbending as a human rights issue is the emphasis on individual rights. One ought - and here I'll thoroughly agree - to have as much right to self-determination as one can carry! There's no coherent argument for the quashing of self-expression, as long as that expression is responsible and doesn't reach the point of shouting "Fire!" in a theater (at least, there's no argument brief enough to entertain here). In short, this argument takes it as axiomatic that human beings have the right to be left free to follow the course of their own actions.

That said, there is a case to be made for the value of clear role models. Education is a strange, liminal period, and the ethical implications of controlling childhood behavior are blurry. Children do, I believe, need guidance; they don't need a Skinner box. Growing up, it would be a bit nuts to make children follow adults' example in lockstep. It's useful, though, for children to have adults on whom they can model themselves. If we don't find a behavioral model with which we can identify during our childhoods, most of us are left confused and feeling somewhat inadequate.

The trick is that children have a problem with categorization: they can't get enough of it. It's easy for me to imagine the confusion that children will experience if (when) they encounter adults, especially when those adults are their parents, who have complex gender identities. In my own childhood, I didn't have many male role models, and most of them either bowed before women or were fictional caricatures of violent manhood. I grew up with the notion that anything a man could do, a woman could do better, with the possible exception of being an asshole, and with the implicit notion that "man" and "woman" were meaningful categories. (Then again, some of those female authority figures ruling the schoolyard were great at being assholes - but their violence was never the physical violence I saw from men in fiction.) To the extent that I self-identified with the category of maleness, I devalued myself; and, unsurprisingly, I went through a silent but memorable flirtation with gender crisis around the beginning of high school. Wouldn't a powerful, noble masculine figure have been a boon to such a child?

Now, imagine the search for selfhood in a child whose role models refuse even to stick to a category. As adults, we should and must have the right to self-determination. There simply is no tenable reason to legislate restriction of expression, as long as that expression doesn't harm others (and I am not arguing that the effects described in this essay meet that criterion). But children don't have the same depth of self-knowledge that adults eventually obtain. How is a kid to know, at the age at which it's just figuring out the concept of male and female to begin with, where it fits on that spectrum? How is it to know with what adult behavioral models it should identify itself? When puberty hits, if that kid suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of gender lines and is unable to live up to its self-image, that's when the crisis would hit as well. Children (and no doubt adults) favor their own social groups, even when those groups are created randomly for a study; imagine the pain and confusion one feels when one's body rebels against the group with which one self-identifies, as could easily happen when a child who's always identified with the gender not associated with its sex hits puberty and its hormones kick in hard. Clearly, Fagan would conclude, what would be best for children is to create an environment in which such ambiguity is not present.

I reach a different conclusion. What causes the problem in this scenario is not the ambiguity gender in the children's role models; it is instead the inclusion of gender as an aspect of self-identity. There are some elements of character that one does or has, and others that one is (or at least, that is who we conceive of them). I may have a disease, but that does not change my perceived nature; I may do a certain job, but that need not change my nature, either. Other people, though, would say that they are a member of their profession, using it as an element of identity, and the same for any other element. If maleness or femaleness were something that one had or did, rather than someone one is, it wouldn't inspire a crisis for children to realize that they don't do gender in the same way that their role models do. The answer to this problem, if we want to maintain the emphasis on self-determination that the U.S. has always loved so well, is not to lock down gender roles but to abandon the identity politics that make "men" and "women" socially differentiated.

Identity politics turn categorization into a weapon, and even the ambient category delineation that surrounds gender can cause massive collateral damage. Difference is important and worth celebrating, but the real location of difference is between individuals. No group acts as a unit. Given that, despite the existence of general, evolved trends in difference between men and women, there will be some exceptions in any individual, these categories may do more harm than help. In a future in which more people openly defy today's gender expectations, and in which medical technology will increase the resolution with which we define sex and its relationship with gender presentations and sex-typical or gender-typical behaviors, those categories will become progressively less useful. A medical distinction will continue to be useful (after all, not everyone needs to be screened for prostate cancer), but in a world where sex is just that, and gender drops from the biting world of identity politics ... well, fuck it! If sex and gender are divorced and identity politics wither, do we even need gender as a category?

Which outcome is more feasible? At this point, no-one is going to force transfolk back into the closet without some shocking and unpredicted outside event (say, to be ludicrous, global nuclear war, after which the details of U.S. culture would hardly matter). Unfortunately, identity politics seem to be a serious pillar of contemporary social liberalism. The idea of celebrating difference doesn't yet seem to be divorced from the notion of social categories, which means that gender as an element of group and personal identity probably has a long life ahead of it. Still, consider the two proposed solutions: Fagan's attempts to treat the symptoms resulting from tying gender to identity; this seeks to remove the cause.

Commentary? Dissent? When I talk about sex and gender, I usually don't have to ask for comments in order to get an argument going, and given that I wrote this between classes and during conversations, I suspect that'll be true here as well.

NB: Please do not take my endorsement of "self-determination" as an indication that I believe in the concept of "free will". The two are mutually exclusive; one is a sociopolitical concept, while the other belongs to the natural sciences.

09 September, 2009

A Piece of the Action

When you think "polyamory", what's the first thing that comes to mind? Cuddle piles? Jealousy? Day planners? An overabundance of neologisms? No, of course not - if you're anything like the rest of us, the first thing you think of is MTV!

Yes, MTV, that bastion of U.S. media and culture! Somewhere in between all those music videos they're so fond of broadcasting, they found time to shine a spotlight on reality. That's right, folks: next week, True Life, the documentary series that brought you "I'm on Steroids", "I Live in a Brothel", "I'm on Crystal Meth" and the 2006 sequel "I'm Addicted to Crystal Meth", will be screening the soon-to-be-classic "True Life: I'm Polyamorous!" You can read it all right here!

For those of you who are just tuning in, some stunningly unprofessional intern at MTV has been posting on the LiveJournal polyamory community for months, since at least last winter, begging for a poly family with an expecting mother to step in front of the camera. The backlash was incredible, even excepting the posts that were simply devoted to tearing apart the poster's grammar. You see, the last time this happened, shit went down. A trio named April, Shane and Chris lived together with April's child from a previous relationship, but when April's grandmother saw the three of them on MTV's "Sex in the 90's: It's a Group Thing" (really, guys?), she stormed off to court and convinced a judge to remove the child from their home. According to Time magazine, "the judge handling the grandmother's petition said one of the men had to move out before he would consider returning Alana" (emphasis added, because Jesus shit). April later dropped her appeal, saying that she had found herself to be an unfit mother on other grounds, but the original issue was never resolved. The legal precedent remains in Tennessee: consensual nonmonogamy is such dangerous debauchery that it is sufficient grounds for a judge to order a child removed from the custody of her parents.

Honestly, I'm curious about this documentary. I have never seen an episode of "True Life", and maybe it'll be engaging, informative, entertaining ... one out of three wouldn't be bad. Maybe one of our campus organizations could get together around a dorm's cable-equipped TV sets so that we can see for ourselves. I worry, however, that it will just be in keeping with MTV's typical reality programming: the 21st century equivalent of a traveling freaks' cage. Step right up and take a look at People Who Are Not Like Us. Aren't you glad we're all out here?

EDIT: More nonmonogamy in the media - this A Softer World comic may be the best thing ever. It is currently in contention with the rest of the A Softer World comics.

06 September, 2009

Yay serotonin!

Blast, it's been some time since my last post! I've been busy as a beaver on a flood plain, moving back into school mode and taking reunion as a cause for serious play mode. Let me tell you, going back to school makes me deeply pleased to be in a non-monogamous relationship.

I'm the sort of person who cherishes intimacy. I love the conversation space that only appears when people are lying in the dark together, naked, a little exhausted, and full of a desire to be close to each other. I don't think there's any way I prefer for getting to know people I already enjoy. There's a level of unguarded exchange that sneaks into post-coital conversation, and even if people have discussed the same topics under the sun, I see a special openness during those late-night moments.

When it comes to reasons to avoid monogamy, that's near the top of my list. I'm the sort of fellow who likes to share my favorite activities with my friends, and let's be honest here: sex is one of my favorite activities. I also treasure the trust of people I trust and respect in turn. Sharing secrets in the dark is one of my favorite ways to share and demonstrate - or, in the early nights, to create - that trust. I love that comfort, and sharing it with the people, plural, whom I love is a special source of joy for me.

But hey, you'll find a lot of praise like the above, if you go looking for it. Plenty of people online write about the joys of non-monogamy, and that's what I've mostly been doing so far. People also talk often about the troubles that arise in non-monogamous relationships - jealousy, time management, all the potential drama when people aren't seeing eye to eye - but I haven't seen a lot of serious discussion by poly folks about what you lose by being in a non-monogamous relationship. That's a category that I haven't seen acknowledged often. Since I'm hoping to gear this blog toward people in the early stages of exploring non-monogamy, it seems that some warnings are in order.

It's a category that's bound to change depending on the structure of the relationships in question, as well as the mental landscape of the people involved. First, just to restate the obvious, unless one is in a polyfaithful relationship, where more than two people engage in a closed relationship, one loses the luxury of ignoring sexually transmitted infections. I've had condoms break with three partners now, and let me tell you, that moment is both awkward and terrifying. Is there a polite way to ask whether this person you care for and respect has some kind of hideous disease? I usually just start by offering the most reassuring information I can, referring to the last time I was tested and being explicitly clear about what risks, if any, I've had since then. But, what a nightmare - if just one person who slept with you or that person since your last test had lied or didn't know about an infection, you and those you love could be in grave danger. Get tested early and often so that you can give your lover good news if something goes wrong, and if you haven't been tested yet, be ready to take that responsibility seriously if something goes wrong. Sex is great, but it's risky, and we owe it to each other to take our safety seriously.

Second, I want to mention something that's far from universal. It's a serious emotional issue, though, especially given the fairy tale expectations that a lot of us have buried at various depths in our psyches. Some folk like to imagine that their lives can be about someone else, or that someone lives for them; in a non-monogamous relationship, it's hard to pull that off without treating other partners like secondary citizens. The satellite relationships are a constant reminder that both partners are individuals with their own passions external to the dyad. That doesn't have to prevent domestic bliss, but it does change the context dramatically.

Perhaps it's just me, but that seems like a major point. Marriage - and today I mean the good old dyadic union - is still a big deal, and a lot of us grow up with a longing for that union. Intimacy you can have without monogamy; love, compassion, family are all available; but it's hard to combine polyamory with that branch of domesticity. I can't quite imagine having a permanent relationship along the fifties model, no matter how much I might love to play housewife to someone's snappily dressed gentleman husband. The fifties housewife doesn't get nights off to play the top to her submissive lover from out of town; who has time to play when there's pot roast to be made?

Many people like the comfort of knowing their role, acting it out, and pleasing the person who assigns it to them. I suspect that when that kind of codependent domesticity does manifest, it's as an escape - a kind of role-playing, not too far from BDSM in psychological terms. Sometimes that's sexualized, but at other times, it's present in the workplace or in the home (which, to be fair, might not be too far from where sexuality lives). One might be tempted to take on that role permanently, but when one doesn't live exclusively for another person, it's hard to pretend that one does. And that's definitely a healthy thing, by my book. I won't be one to advocate comfort when responsibility to one's self is at stake. (Thus my atheism.) Without monogamy, one is pushed to take responsibility for one's own feelings and not to let them rest on another person's shoulders. So. lost and gone forever are those shoulders one might like to rely on. But, if one pushes oneself to grow further, one can reach the point where the support of another isn't necessary. It's wanted - it's amazing, ineffable, the chiefest delight of my life and many others - but learning that one can live without it is a necessary step.

Any thoughts from the peanut gallery? What do we lose when we choose not to be monogamous (or when we realize that monogamy is as alien to us as heteronormativity is to Freddy Mercury)?

27 August, 2009

So Jealous, It's All I Can Do

Jealousy is the elephant in the room that you can't not discuss. It is not a problem I claim to have solved in my own life. For anyone who isn't either a powerhouse of confidence or capable of complete, unflappable trust, jealousy is bound to creep into the picture now and then. When I say "jealousy", I mean the cocktail of fear, insecurity and dread that flares up when someone perceives a threat to one of their romances. In a nonmonogamous relationship, it's a subject that must be addressed.

It seems that not everyone feels jealousy - at the very least, individuals feel it in all manner of different ways. But for people who do have the bug, it often takes a few familiar forms. There's that tightness in the chest, the accelerated heartbeat - one wants to act, but how? There's the wriggling worm of fear that squirms around one's ventricles and squeezes. Seeing your lover kiss someone else and exchange the tender looks that were once reserved only for you might set your hands to trembling. Perhaps at night, knowing that your lover will wake in another person's bed, a sense of loneliness - loss, even - steals over you. For some people, it's not half so much about sex as about the time and affection lavished on other partners.

People take any number of measures to avoid jealousy. A common theme is to structure the relationship in such a way that it's not really open. Something is allowed - only same-sex relationships, or sex without love, or love without sex - but whatever sore point triggers jealousy is packaged away and never touched. If that doesn't suit you (and it certainly doesn't suit me) then it's necessary to gird one's loins and ask, when something triggers a sense of jealousy, why does it do so? Jealousy might feel hellish, but it's doesn't arise through spontaneous generation. It's an arrow - a blinding, neon arrow, pointing to emotional issues somewhere in the relationship or in your emotional landscape at large.

The people I'm dating now both have some connection with other partners. Leilani is very explicitly head-over-heels for her other boyfriend, a longtime heartthrob who's the focus of her affections. When she talks about him, I don't feel a pang. It honestly doesn't bother me to know that I'm not her primary concern. But when Margaret, the focus of my affections, talks about her sometimes-lover, I sometimes feel the touch of that wriggling worm of fear. It's as though, with Leilani, she began turned away from me, and any time she turns my way is a bonus; I've come to take Margaret's love as such a foundation, though, that any threat of her turning away worries me. This, despite the fact that she's never given me any reason to suspect she won't turn right back to me. If I feel jealousy, it's unfounded. So, whence does it stem?

There's a tremendously insightful pdf called Practical Jealousy Management that's available from Franklin Veaux's website. It's from a conference on polyamory in 2006. Veaux is always clever and usually helpful, even if I do hate the pseudoSocratized way he structures his FAQ. The story of jealousy has a happy ending in that handout. Of course, gentle reader, if you should have advice, complaints or stories of your own, I'd love to hear those as well.

If addressing jealousy isn't your style, though, read on! Do I ever have the hand-out for you. That's right: you never need examine the roots of your own feelings again, with this splendid new guide to Making Relationships Suck! Yes, that's right! Soon you, too, can sabotage every loving relationship in your life, alienating your intimates, enraging their O.S.O.'s, and driving everyone around you completely insane! And don't think that this guide applies only to polyamory. Oh, no! This guide will illuminate all it takes to irreparably screw up even a single relationship. You may already be using some of these techniques! Rest assured, though, that these professional tricks of the trade will add richness, subtlety and panache to your romantic mindfuck.

Edit For Synchronicity: this post from Polyamory In The Media just happened to coincide with my topic for today. It comes with the Carl Jung Collective Seal of Unconscious Approval.

25 August, 2009

What's it to you?

I know it's two posts in as many sleep cycles, but I'm curious. What is polyamory - or some other branch of non-monogamy, if that's your sphere - about, to you? For me, the "duh" definition is that it's about love, but there are any number of ways for love to enter the equation. Beyond that, it's about love with personal responsibility. Maybe you've heard the phrase "You are responsible for your own orgasm." Take that and magnify it, and you start to get the virtues of polyamory. If your partner doesn't want to have the kind of sex you do, who's responsible for seeing that you're satisfied? Not her. If you want to feel a certain way and someone you're dating doesn't inspire that feeling, is that her problem? If you're jealous of her other significant other, it's up to you to figure out the root of the problem. (But that doesn't mean our gentle reader has to work it out alone, O.S.O.! Most things are best solved with the aid of loved ones, especially when the conclusions affect them.) And, of course, if you want to be dating someone it's your responsibility to be aware of what you have to offer them. I've overcommitted before, and believe me, if you don't have enough time or interest for seeing a new partner, it's better not to get that person's hopes up. From orgasms to emotions and all the way on through, it requires serious responsibility.

What about for you? Have you thought about it before? What makes polyamory polyamory, and why?

24 August, 2009

Things That Go Wrong

Thanks to one of my friends on Twitter, I just noticed that #itsnotcheating is a trending topic. Most of the tweets are things like

#itsnotcheating if HE kissed ME!. lol

#itsnotcheating if your drunk.

#itsnotcheating if u swallow da evidence...

#itsnotcheating hahahhahahahaha no, there is NEVER an exception.

And, my favorite:

#itsnotcheating if its with obama.

I'd give that last person a free pass, too.

It raises an interesting question, though.
What happens when you and a partner of yours aren't using the same terminology?

Maybe you and your partner are starting to try out bondage, and because it's a special, intimate thing, she asks you not to do anything "kinky" with someone else. If you've just opened your relationship, your original partner might ask you not to sleep with anyone yet. It's worth knowing whether he means "have sex" or "spend the night in bed". The former is a pretty typical worry about sexual exclusiveness, maybe indicating that there are some comparison issues you two will need to discuss. The latter might signal that your partner is more afraid of lowering emotional boundaries and having non-euphemistic intimacy with other people - and that fear is pretty common, too. And then there's the most basic, and complicated, of the whole bunch: what does it mean when someone says "I love you"?

Making implicit definitions explicit can be a big step toward building harmony between partners. It's not cheating if you know what each of your partners means by the words that make up whatever agreements you've made and follow not just what you meant but what they meant, too. Similarly, people tend to have expectations about what a relationship means. Maybe those expectations are hidden within labels like "girlfriend" or "dating"; sometimes they come packaged with having sex, kissing, or just holding hands. That expectation could be anything from an implied commitment to an implied lack of the same unless otherwise agreed upon. Ask the people you date (or kiss, or have sex with) what it means to them, if anything. Talk about what "love" means and what you expect from a lover. It'll help to make your relationship a more easily navigable place, and it'll even give you something to talk about on Friday nights. ...or am I the only one who thinks that making unconscious expectations explicit is a fun way to spend a Friday night?

22 August, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful (Part Three)

Here's the big trick. Plenty of people fool around when they're young, but with polyamory, if you stick with it for the long run, your household won't end up looking much like white bread America. You might end up living in a group of people committed to each other across the board, or you might have one of your or a lover's partners as a roommate; you might be someone's "aunt" or "uncle" who spends the night after the kids go to bed. You might have to look after your own kids, and that could get problematic.

Teach Your Children

I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't expect ever to be in another monogamous relationship. I can easily imagine being satisfied with a single partner and spending years without dating another person, but even after getting married and having a child, I wouldn't want to close off the chance to pursue a new attraction. Neither would I ask my partner to promise that kind of exclusivity.

Having a child in a polyfamily creates a completely new suite of challenges. First of all, there's the problem of informing the kid. I'm a huge fan of being honest with children, but kids talk. This isn't Britain in 1966 - my dad's preschool has plenty of kids with more than one mommy - but generally, those two mommies are either monogamous lesbians or the result of a second marriage. To most ears, "non-monogamous" sounds like "sexually depraved", which is good grounds for many a conservative social worker to raise the alarms. Even worse is the problem of divorce: if a polyamorous relationship doesn't work out, all the bitter party needs to say is, "My spouse is promiscuous and doesn't maintain a household appropriate for children." Many people in the online poly community have voiced concerns that polyamory endangers their custody of their children, enough people that it's even made its way to the polyamory Wikipedia page. In my home state, I imagine the legal argument would have to be based on a risk of "Emotional Injury: an impairment to or disorder of the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by observable and substantial reduction in the child's ability to function within a normal range of performance and behavior." Luckily for me, I suspect that Massachusetts isn't equipped with a legal code that's likely to break up a polyfamily; other states might be less forgiving.

Happily, I'm only aware of one family who's actually lost a kid in this way, and after contesting the case for two years, the mother in question apparently conceded that she was actually an unfit mother on other grounds. (That case, and some of the other legal worries surrounding polyamory, appear in a little more detail on page two of this Salon.com article.) For all that talk that you'll see about the threats to polyamory in divorce courts and social services, those fears haven't been tested. I couldn't call myself a scientist if I didn't withhold judgment on the reality of those risks until I saw a case file. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to find that a court would leap on any excuse it found to break up a polyfamily; whether or not that would be the legal basis for the action, nonmonogamy disturbs many people in a deep way.

All that said, I have to make one claim about raising children in a polyamorous family. It's exactly what kids need.

I haven't been smoking the devil-weed, I promise! Here's my line of thinking. Today, given the ease and frequency of moving from one city to another, many people don't live in the regions where their parents did. My mom lives days' drive away from her family, and we almost only see my dad's at family gatherings. I get the impression that it wasn't always this way, though. When communities were more sedentary, one grew up and raised the next generation within a social network that had been slowly woven over generations. Now, people often go through a series of homes, starting out in cheap apartments and buying a home or more expensive rental place when they're ready to settle down and drop spawn. New parents are lucky if they know the neighbors' names. I know that on my street, more than half of the families we knew were the households of bullies on the bus route or just obnoxious rednecks. None of these people were really close with us; we only had one set of intimate family friends, the ones who turned us on to this town in the first place.

When your family consists not just of you and a spouse but also of your longterm lover, your spouse's unofficial husband, the girl he's been dating for a year or two, your lover's ex who's still close as family, that ex's two boyfriends and their girlfriends Sue and Jo, the cute guy from the video store you asked out this May and who seems hip to the whole poly thing ... suddenly, your circle of support seems a lot wider. Polyamory takes intimacy, communication and trust, three excellent features to have with the person who's taking care of your child while you relax for a night.

Because I'm only 21 and have never raised a child of my own, I spent a little extra time online looking for resources to back up this post. It didn't take long for me to bump into Scenes From a Group Marriage, the story of a child raised during brief but rich and loving experiment in group marriage. I found the article via Practical Polyamory, a blog with a layout alarmingly similar to my own. The author, looking back on his childhood, writes, "the communal household enjoyed a kind of camaraderie I have never felt since. ... I've felt for myself the stress that our hyper-individualist culture puts on families. Few of us live with extended family; fewer and fewer of us know our neighbors, go to church or belong to a social club. We measure success by the size of our houses and our paychecks. We see child rearing as a lifestyle choice, not a community endeavor. But two grown-ups sometimes aren't enough to pay the bills, to wipe the noses, to coach the soccer team and listen to the stories of schoolyard bullying. After 17 years, my wife and I are still passionate about each other. I have no desire to engage in the bold sort of experiment my parents took on. But sometimes, even when all four of us are home together, our world feels too small, and I understand the hope with which my parents blindly plunged into uncharted love." As long as the family was stable, it created a kind of community that's hard to find today. That particular marriage ended in divorce, which threw the whole situation into chaos. A stable nonmonogamous family, though, could work wonders.

If there are short-term or unstable relationships in your poly circle, that might be less conducive to the needs of a child. Children like stability; they like to know when people are going away and when they're coming back. It's important to remember that although kids can adapt to almost anything, they're sensitive to habits and social structures and can get alarmed if either shifts too often or too abruptly. For someone who leans more toward the swinging end of the nonmonogamy spectrum than the polyfidelity end, it would almost certainly be best to keep short-term partners out of the kids' worldview -- not to lie about my practices but to avoid setting a child up for disappointment when a . If you have more than one serious, long-term lover, though, it can only benefit a child to have another reliable, loving parent figure around. In that sort of situation, I suspect that all the explanation you'd have to give your children is the simple fact of living; if the arrangement is stable, they'd grow up with that many more parents to help them and a plethora of healthy relationship models on which to base their own lives. I can hardly see how it hurts to have more love, especially when children are involved.

For now (and, if all goes as planned, for the next several years), that's all I can really say on the subject of polyamory in the big bad Real World of taxes and babies. I've talked about some of the basics and the hypotheticals in these last three articles, but next time, I think, there's call for a look at what it's like in the trenches. What does it look like when a polyamorous relationship actually happens? It might be sunshine and puppies when all parties have the same agenda, but what happens when something goes wrong? Happily, I don't have that much experience on the latter subject, but I'll do what I can.

EDIT: Despite what I said in my reboot, I can't help but want to revise this one. It's probably healthiest, if one is seeing casual or short-term partners, that one model those behaviors visibly early in the life of one's child. Better to have the child think of those things as nothing special than for them to come out years later, a situation that might lead to feelings of betrayal or distrust. Besides, what if the child someday wants to try seeing multiple short-term partners? Better to already know how than to flounder around hurting feelings. That's what parents are for: giving their children examples of some ways to live in the world, and ultimately setting them free to pick their own.

20 August, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful (Part Two)

Indulge me and pretend that you've signed on with the first principle: commitment to one person doesn't preclude simultaneously committing to another, and it might be nice to see how. Why, though, would anyone want to see a partner running off and courting other people?

I want to have control.

You might think to yourself: "I don't have a perfect body. I don't have a perfect soul. What if my partner doesn't notice when I'm not around? What if she meets someone special who floats her off to a beautiful world while I'm creeping around elsewhere and I never see them again?" Some people are upset by the idea of a lover having sex with someone else; others are jealous of emotional intimacy, wanting to reserve something special for the two of them. Even basic time management can get complicated; all told, is being able to date other people really worth letting your partner do the same?

I imagine that most people reading this post realize that it's hypocrisy of the most blatant sort to ask that you be free to date any number of people and demand that she not do the same. If the relationship is open, it should be open for all parties. But we're only human, and jealousy can be a problem. There are a few bright spots, though, to having a partner take other lovers.

One of my favorite reasons is that it's a totally new way to know a person. In a monogamous relationship, you'll never have the chance to see what it's like from a third-party perspective when your partner falls in love. You can help choose outfits for dates, talk about whether the new kid seems like good news or bad, and offer the best kind of comfort when heartbreak happens. It's easy to feel alone after a breakup; when you have another lover, that pain is a little easier to mend.

Jealousy does arise sometimes. The question isn't necessarily how to avoid it, though, but how to deal with it when it arrives. In my experience - call me out if this hasn't been true for you - the only way to deal with emotions in the longterm is to start by acknowledging them. Let yourself feel it, know it, and then you can move with it. When something stirs up jealousy, the question is, what did the stirring? What's the real source? Often, it's fear of loss: it's easy to worry whether the presence of some other significant other will draw your love's attention away from you. What if he meets someone smarter or more exciting? What if she meets someone just like you ... but a little more so? Wouldn't you be left in the dust?

There are at least three levels on which to address this fear. The first is to ask, if we were in a monogamous relationship, would the chances of your partner's leaving you be any different? My guess is, if anything, there's more danger in monogamy. In a polyamorous relationship, there's no need to end one relationship in order to pursue another. In monogamy, though, if there's a chance of happiness with someone new, one has to scrap the current dyad just to investigate it! Staying together out of fear of being alone turns love into some awful Death Cab for Cutie single. Still, the fear of being left behind - or even just the sense of loss that one might feel, having to let go of the fairy tale that what you and your single lover feel is unique and could never happen between her and another person - can be stronger than the logic of that thought experiment.

Secondly, one thing that polyamory does not foster is defining oneself by one's romances. Having dated one person through most of high school, I learned almost everything about love, sex, and romance from my experience with Alma. We talked a couple of times about whether we even knew who we were without each other. I remember thinking at some excessively morbid moments that, were he to die unexpectedly, there would be no point in my continued life. (Obviously, I got over that.)

It's easy to imagine that one's happiness comes from one's partner, and that the source of the joy one feels when one is in love is the loved one. As romantic as it sounds, it's simply not true. Every feeling that runs through our bodies begins and ends within them. Our bodies - and thus our minds - are discrete, despite our interdependence with the rest of the world, and deciding to take responsibility for one's own emotions is the key to finding satisfaction with them. It's easy to let oneself react to what the world throws at one, but in some of the situations that come to pass in polyamorous romances, it can be important not simply to react but to stay conscious and monitor your own feelings. We're the ones inside our own heads, and so we have the power to work under the hood (personally, I recommend Buddhist-style mindful meditation). When it comes to fear, or to happiness, part of the emotional maturity that polyamory demands is the ability to take personal responsibility for our experiences.

When your partner, or partners, are seeing other people, you can't let them define you in the same way that I did back in high school. They won't always be around, and they'll always be making attachments with other people. It'll save you a lot of sleepless nights if you can be satisfied as an individual.

The third element, though, is the one I find most reassuring. How realistic is that fear of loss in the first place?

The following paragraphs come from an article called "Leaving the Straight and Narrow" in issue #39 of Loving More magazine, the only issue I've read.

"When a couple with a healthy relationship decides to open it up, they might find themselves asking some common questions: Will my partner find someone else they like better? Will I be abandoned? What if the other lover is better than I, more desirable, more intelligent, and more capable? Am I enough as I am?
"What if someone else is a better lover than my wife? What if the guy down the street is more spontaneous and lively and my guy seems too serious?"

When I read those paragraphs, I realized something: I have never worried about meeting someone "better" than a current partner. Not once have I thought, "What if I like this person better than Margaret?" or "What if she turns out to be the best lover I've ever had?" I have never once worried about someone I love becoming obsolete. And when I realized that, it didn't take more than a moment for me to feel a sense of peace, thinking, "I bet my lover hasn't, either."

When your lover looks at you, she doesn't see a stepping stone to someone more enchanting - or, if she does, DUMP the motherfucker already! You deserve better, and your happiness doesn't depend on that person! Your lovers are with you because you strike them as one of the more splendid people they've met on this Earth, and I sincerely doubt that any of the people who love you are pausing to wonder whether you are in fact the most splendid or whether, no, actually you come in about third.

Sunshine and puppies indeed, yes?

I'm serious about the meditation; taking a moment to ask yourself "What am I feeling right now?" and just observing those feelings, without judging them or acting on them, will give you a kind of muscle for emotional regulation that's otherwise hard to come by. Meanwhile, there's one more reason to be cheerful: part three will be about how to score kinky threesomes with hot bisexual - whoa, wait, I was reading the wrong sheet there! Next week I'm going to talk about getting old and wrinkly and changing diapers. Sorry, kids!