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25 October, 2010

A Moment of Luminosity

Recently, I noticed myself starting to feel oddly ... monogamous ... while spending time with Margaret, who's -- depending on your definitions -- approximately my primary lover. When I investigated my feelings, I noticed something that made me feel more confident about my practicing polyamory. Intrigued? Then read on, O traveler of the blogosphere.

When I say that I seemed to be feeling unusually monogamous, what I mean is that I felt content. The two of us would curl up together and exchange words of affection, and I felt as if I didn't need anything more out of love. When I noticed that feeling, another one cropped up: guilt. If I felt complete, my emotions told me, wasn't I disrespecting or devaluing the other people I love? What if I felt this way with one of them; what would that, then, imply about my relationship with Margaret?

Putting a little more thought into it brought out a small revelation. Feeling content didn't denigrate my other relationships. Rather, it indicated something about my motivations. Specifically, it implied that I didn't have multiple relationships because one relationship wasn't enough. I didn't shop around the block because I wasn't getting enough at home or, to look at a more alarming possibility, because of some emotional pathology that prevented me from being satisfied. Instead, I realized, my contentedness was evidence that I pursued each of my relationships as things in themselves. I was content while with Margaret because I love her, because something about our relationship is worthwhile; I maintain and pursue other relationships because those dyads are also ends unto themselves. In short, the fact that I could feel content with one of my lovers just speaks to the relationship's health.

This seemed important to me. I imagine that I've said something along those lines before, and well-reasoned words are useful, but an emotional realization is far more useful, since it allows me to be more honest with myself about my own motives and about why what makes me happy makes me happy. Like monogamy, the various styles of non-monogamous relationships can be done in healthy or unhealthy ways, and it's nice to find evidence that I'm in the healthy side of the camp. I'd thus like to take this opportunity to extend an invitation: why not take a moment to investigate why what makes you happy makes you happy? I hope you'll enjoy what you see; if not, the next step is probably to take a look at that reaction. Those of you who have it all figured out are invited to mention it in the comments below. I love hearing about what's happening in other folks' minds, and maybe some future visitor will find your process enlightening.

20 September, 2010

Oh, Give Me A Home...

Discovering ethical ways to avoid monogamy while you're young can be a big advantage. Everyone who explores unknown territory makes mistakes, and it's nice to be making those mistakes at the same time as the folks you're dating, rather than at, say, 35, when you get to know a nice couple down the way who've invited you to this thing called "Dragon*Con".

Being young and poly also has some disadvantages, though. In fact, it has three: location, location, location! Now that I'm not living at school anymore, I'm unable to ignore the fact. When getting to know people after school, one is often already settled into a location: a home, a job, those tend to be place-based, and many folks--especially those in fields like academia, where jobs are scattered across the globe and one typically moves to an area following a job--don't know where they'll be working until they've been hired. If two people are in a relationship, it can be feasible for one to accompany the other in pursuit of that person's career. With three or more people in various stages of commitment, that model becomes less tenable.

I'm hoping that it will be possible to co-ordinate employment and education locations with at least one particular person. If not, at least there's thin comfort in the fact that long-distance relationships don't equate to celibacy. I don't really want to have to cultivate a new lover in a new place, though: my dance card is full now, and as much as I love sleeping around, I'd like to be able to concentrate on the connections I have. When I think about entering a Ph.D. program and spending seven years in that new environment--seven years, longer than high school, which seemed endless at the time--frankly, it's a bit intimidating to imagine facing it far away from certain persons. Online interaction can only do so much, and travel is pricey. How much will we change; what other people will we meet? That said, it's a little comforting to be operating with the values of polyamory in mind. We know that people, and thus their relationships, always change, we know that there's always someone new to meet, and, most importantly, we know that neither of those facts are reasons to end a loving relationship. I just wonder how well we'll know each other afterward.

09 August, 2010

Infrequently Asked Questions: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Being A Slut But Were Afraid To Ask

While preparing the F.A.Q. post (read: while occasionally remembering that this blog is an ongoing project), something has occurred to me. I am not especially good at polyamory. I'm great at being a slut with a girlfriend; I'd go so far as to say I've mastered that particular skill set. I'm even decent at being a slut with one so-would-you-want-kids girlfriend and one longterm mutual-disinterest-in-the-prospect-of-our-having-babies-and-a-picket-fence friend and sex partner ("girlfriend" for short, I guess). Beyond those two people, though, my track record is kind of rough.

Good for you! That means that, although I might not be able to tell you "the right way" to do non-monogamous relationship (Protip: there isn't "one right way"), I can certainly tell you some bad ones.

Q1: How is this different than cheating?

A: Lucky traveler, you have arrived at the right doorstep. An asshole once said of me: "Once a cheater, always a cheater". Well, once a self-righteous prick, always a self-righteous prick, but we cheaters have a chance to mend our ways.

"Cheating" means, at least in my book, going behind a lover's back and seeing someone on the side. A one-night stand could be cheating; a longterm lover could be cheating; heck, even a pen pal could be cheating, if you and your lover have agreed beforehand that your relationship won't involve whatever that correspondence involves. The key is that agreement.

Traditional marriage includes an agreement to sexual exclusivity and emotional primacy. The emotional boundaries vary a great deal, probably along lines of social conservatism: I've heard of marriages in which one turns away from all people of one's spouse's gender, which sound insane to me but might be normal in some places. In a non-monogamous relationship, that premise is different. It might become, "We are sexually exclusive unless you ask first and I give you the OK." It might be, "Fuck whoever the hell you want, but don't fall in love with anyone but me." The general principle is, though, that the relationship works like a contract. Everyone involved writes that contract together, and whatever its rules are, that defines what "cheating" means and what's fair.

Q2: Don't you get jealous?

A: Yes. But when I feel jealous, I work hard to not just let it eat me up. I ask, "Why am I feeling this?"

Jealousy is an emotion that -- correct me if I'm wrong -- sprouts from a seed of fear of being abandoned or supplanted. If you fear that your lover is going to abandon you, ask yourself why. If the fear is rational, then, damn! Jealousy just did you a good turn! Talk with your lover and work out the problem (or DTMFA if it's a bad situation). If the fear is irrational, then, hey! You have an opportunity to learn something about your own psychology, and then to work to change it. Jealousy did you another, eh?

I'm writing blithely, though, about what can be a serious problem. I hope you'll forgive me, because I don't speak from ignorance. I've felt jealousy like a knife in my stomach, and it is crippling. Jealousy can drown a person. When that happens, you have to, have to, reach out to your lover and say, "Help me out." If your lover's worth your time, ze will take the time to reassure you. And remember: if you want to be worth your lover's time, make certain that you're there to do the same in turn.

Q3: Is there a wrong way to do polyamory, or nonmonogamy in general?

A: Yes. Definitely. Take it from me.

When one agrees to get sexy with a new person, it behooves one to make sure that one will actually have time to at least try out the kind of relationship that the two of you are going for. If you're shooting for a proper "dating" scenario and you're only seeing each other once a week, when your partner makes a huge effort to wrangle you out of your schedule, that might be a sign that something's not quite right. So is having a different set of goals for the relationship.

Not agreeing on a set of ground rules is also an instant microwave recipe for heartbreak. In fact, any story that includes not talking about it in the first scene is on the way to destruction. Likewise, picking a set of rules that are bound to break is another bad move. (Some contend that "Don't fall in love with anyone but me" is such a rule.)

The rest of these questions should fill out the picture of "what not to do".

Q4: Sex. It's great. But won't we get chlamydia and die?

A: Not necessarily! Many people make agreements with their partners about what is and isn't allowed in sexual forays with new partners. For instance, one might agree among a whole poly web that each of them will use barriers (e.g., condoms, dental dams) with any and all new sex partners until such time as that new person has been tested for STDs and given a clean bill of health.1 Keep in mind that a test isn't a confirmation of health but a failure to confirm illness. Many people use stricter standards than what I've just described, and that choice does them credit. It seems to me that poly folk, since they're obliged to have explicit conversations about sexual health, tend to be better informed and thus safer than the received picture of the average Citizen Sex.

Q5: How do I bring up the oh-so-touchy subject of [X]?

A: That depends.

Nice advice: Start gently, say by mentioning a friend who's had a problem like yours or a TV show you've seen where the problem came up. If it's medical, for instance your safe sex rules, you could mention that you have a doctor's appointment coming up, and you wanted to know whether to ask about something; if it's likely to cause a lot of drama, as might saying that you can't stand one of your partner's partners, you might point out before speaking your mind that saying nothing would just have delayed the resolution.

Real advice: Practice talking about touchy subjects. Practice being calm when your partner says something that would otherwise offend or alarm you, and your partner will be better able to do the same. Take time to look at your own reactions, if you have touchy subjects that your partners want to discuss, and determine whether your emotions are helpful or harmful to your overall happiness. Notice that I'm not telling you to throw your defenses out the window. Emotions are an organism's way of opening communications with itself (Sam, take note), and strong feelings are usually there for a reason.

You could even set a clearly defined time for such conversations, like: "Every Friday, we'll bring up any problems we've noticed" or "Whenever you set your eyes on a new partner, we'll review our safe sex rules". Your group can't solve a problem that no-one but you knows about. Just suck it up and get used to talking!

Q6: What kind of rules are normal?

A: That really varies. It's 100% normal (and smart) to have well defined rules about sexual protection. Please, don't be afraid to talk about it. Asking what your partner does for safety doesn't indicate distrust, just a need for information, and we need to be able to talk about sex and love without blushing if we're going to live in this world.

Some folks have "veto" clauses, allowing each partner the right to put the kibosh on a partner's new partner. This might be more common in open relationships that started as dyads; I'd love to see data on that. Others, perhaps of the socially liberal mode, find that oppressive and have very few guidelines. In some partnerships, there is an explicit primary partner, a person who takes precedence over others in some defined way (but that way varies from couple to couple: it might be emotional, sexual, or commonly both; it might even be financial). New partners are relegated to secondary or tertiary status. Other groups find that a similar hierarchy forms naturally, perhaps as a function of relationship age or simply of relative chemistry, but that's not exactly a "rule" situation.

I've seen people discuss rules about emotion, but I'm not sure how those are supposed to work. I have experienced the feeling of withholding emotions from a new partner, but it wasn't exactly conscious. Could I consciously hold back from falling in love with someone? Maybe; and maybe someone else would have an easier time. My two cents, though, say that making rules about what your partners can and can't feel about you or other people is a quick ticket to Failsville.

Some folks prefer to set different rules with different partners. That can be sensible: no-one's quite the same, and I can imagine that a partnership equivalent to marriage (we'll be legal some day, mark my word!) might call for different behavior than a partnership consisting of occasional hookups, when you happen to be in the same country. One of the more common nonmonogamies is the long-distance "I don't want you lonely!" arrangement, which is pretty much based on having two rule sets: one for the longterm lover back home, and another for fooling around.

That said, separate rulesets are not always compatible. Funny story: inequality isn't that great. Be careful writing rules. Consider their implications; consider how you'd feel if someone asked you to follow that same rule; consider how your other partners would feel. If the rule seems to make your new partner a second-class citizen, it might be problematic. And then, here's the biggie, consider what you'd do if someone broke the rule.

Q7: What do we do when someone breaks the rules?

A: Now that is a proper question! Thanks, anonymous questioner, for asking that.

There is no point to having rules unless you know what happens when somebody breaks them.

I'm just going to let you sit back and decide for yourself whether that general statement makes sense. I'm sure someone is thinking, "But the existence of the rules makes it less likely that anyone will perform the behaviors and find out the consequence," but that person has never met children. Rules need consequences. Undefined rules, when broken, lead to finger-pointing and confusion rather than resolution and communication.

The obvious punishment in a romantic relationship is breaking up, but that's severe. I don't recommend that for a first offense, especially if the offender is newly non-monogamous. We little tadpoles can make a lot of trouble. A reasonable consequence for sleeping around without a barrier, for instance, might be that the uncautious party has to wait a month and then get tested before so much as smooching you (the month's wait is not a punishment but is instead required because many diseases' antibodies won't show up in blood work until the bug's been in one's system for some time). Hash it out, though, when trouble happens. Sit down around the table and talk it to death, whatever it was. The airing of social mishaps can be a punishment in its own right, for some, and if one isn't breaking up with the rulebreaker, one will need to make sure that one understands why the problem happened in order to prevent its reoccurrence.

If it happens again, hey - maybe then it's time to dump the motherfucker already.

Q8: So do you have threesomes all over the place?

A: I wish! Actually, I haven't had a lot of group sex. What I have had was mostly with people with whom I wasn't in a relationship (although I did start seeing one person regularly afterward.) I hear there's a secret code that unlocks the threesome bonus level, though. Good luck finding it.

Seriously, though: being interested in having sex with more than one person isn't the same as being interested in having sex with more than one person at once. Sure, in my case they overlap, but I'm not the only one in the relationship.

Q9: Mormons?

A: No.

That's the short version. The medium version is that, in the Church of Latter Day Saints, wives beyond the first were supposed to be rewards from the Big Man for especially holy men. What that translated into, in practice, was that men with the authority to declare themselves extra holy could handpick new wives for themselves. Because the LDS church, at least at the time, had a clear rule that sex and love were the territory of marriage, women beyond adolescence were usually married already. You can imagine the result: grey-haired patriarchs decide God owes them some tail, and the available women are all 18 and under. It's not a pretty picture. No doubt that's why today's LDS church repudiates their ancestors at every opportunity, making every effort to distance themselves from polygamy. Good for them, I say; but now that we live in a more egalitarian society, we secular folk have the chance to perform multiple marriages ethically and without a sexist or authoritarian structure. Let's make good on that opportunity.2

Q10: What if my sweeties and I really do want to get married?

A: Have you ever noticed those folks who get real worked up about gay marriage and become Constitution scholars just because they like it and they want to put a ring on it? Be like them.3

Q11: What kind of relationship should I have with my partners' partners?

A: That's a question we'd all like answered. For one thing, don't think for a moment that everyone has to date each other. Your relationships are your business; so are your lovers'. If you do end up dating the same people, so much the better, but forcing the matter only invites drama. That said, I think a close rapport with your lovers' OSO ("other significant other", for later reference) is a laudable goal. In my ideal world, everyone my lovers dated would be a close companion of mine, someone whom I trust and respect just as well as I do my lovers. Unless my lovers started dating each other, however, they'd have an awfully small pool from which to draw.

In the real world, a large part of that answer lies on their shoulders. There's a relevant expression about the tango. I'd like to know the people my partners date, in theory, but if Margaret's lad on the other coast doesn't ask after me when they talk, that's enough for this introvert to end pursuit. Distance, available time, and even the simple matter of whether one already knows the person may be major factors. If you live nearby and have the chance, though, it's almost certainly worth putting a face on the names you hear when your lover tells you about their dates. If you have major problems with jealousy, meeting the "other woman" (or "other women", or men, or what have you) might be what you need to humanize the intimidating mental image you've drawn up. If you aren't your lover's primary partner, it seems unambiguously worth knowing someone as central to your lover's life as hir primary. There are always exceptional circumstances, but generally speaking, I think that knowing the rest of the web is most congruent with an openly loving attitude. That compassionate attitude is what makes ethical nonmonogamy the special beast it is, I'd argue, just as much as the fun of having a sailor on every ship.

Q12: So I'm going to have a latex-clad encounter session with my common-law wife and her lovers before I dump them for doing it bareback with the wrong person? Where's the sexy?

A: That's the scrubbed-clean, PC, middle-class liberal U.S. version of polyamory, I guess. Is that us at our best or at our most self-parodic? I can't quite tell.

Q13: Wow, now I'm really looking forward to all this hard work and blind trust. Yeah. Love that labor. And what happens if I date someone who really is just fucking around, someone who hasn't read this list or doesn't care and, after I work through my childhood abandonment issues, get poked with awkward nurses' needles, buy a king-sized mattress and invest in a six-subject day planner with a special section for the phone numbers of his ex's kids' guardians, just up and dumps me one day to go and marry his little blonde "secondary" because she gives better head than I do and all he really wanted in the first place was to test-drive a few trophy wives?

A: I'm sensing a lot of bitterness from your direction!

Despite my constant urge to treat the dire with flippancy, I do want to take this seriously. Emotional damage is real and raw and deadly. I've seen people drawn in to each other like spiraling singularities, celestial train wrecks that wind up dragging in everyone close to them as they do their damnedest to take each others' lives apart. There is nothing in my experience as rewarding as mutual trust and love, given without anxiety; but if one has been betrayed before, left at the proverbial (or literal) altar, the wounds are real. How can someone who's been hurt in that way summon up the trust necessary to have a healthy non-monogamous relationship?

I don't know. That's why I put this question last: I hate happy endings. They're the exclusive purview of fiction. If an ending is happy, it's not the end.

That said, I aim for the best beginnings and middles one can have, and I plan to prolong them with all my power. But how can one avoid the pain of betrayal?

What it boils down to is the same answer as in any other relationship. One has to select a partner worthy of one's trust. That is a necessary foundation point for a healthy relationship, unless I have profoundly mistaken some fact of human emotional makeup, no matter how many partners one has. Hah, do you see what I did there? I flipped the question around, showing that issues of jealousy and betrayal boil down to the same problems in any relationship, regardless of monogamy! Smooth move, Me. Maybe this is a good place to point out that, in an established non-monogamous relationship, jealousy is actually less of an issue because when one's partner is coveting his neighbor's ass, it isn't a sign that ze's considering leaving you, just a sign that ze's considering adding someone to the group. Yeah, this would be a good place.

So, honey, good luck out there. It's on your shoulders in the end, since you're the one doing the loving. And when you do find someone who deserves your trust, I hope you'll do everything within your power to earn theirs.


1I have seen many people object to the use of the "clean" and "dirty" binary when describing health. The claim goes that, by using terms associated not only with literal dirtiness but also with metaphorical purity, one stigmatizes the ill. I sort of agree; I also have little problem with the turn of phrase. An illness isn't necessarily the fault of the ill person, but that doesn't mean I'd take a chance using even the best brand of condoms with someone who'd contracted HIV. There is literally a foreign substance in the bodies of anyone carrying a virus (which includes you and me, if you've had the cold or have ever been vaccinated), and some of those substances are deadly.

Illness doesn't make one underserving of love. Illness does make one ill. Ignoring that reality would be irresponsible.

2Long version available upon request.

3Also buy a nice ring and have a private ceremony with your lover's other significant others. Also be patient.

25 July, 2010

F.A.Q.?

A few people have told me that they've sent friends, or even students, to this blog for advice. As the size of the archive grows, it occurs to me that the sidebar should have a link to some sort of introductory post. But for that, I'd need the post.

Dear readers: what are some questions you wish you'd been able to ask when you started out? If you had a chance to ask them, so much the better. I'd be obliged if you'd comment here with one or two questions, along with any answers you feel like including. The questions can be as practical or theoretical as you please. I expect I'll include some items like, "How do I ask my partner about opening our relationship?", "When and how do I inform someone I like that I'm dating seventy people?", "How should one broach the subject of disease and sex safety?" and "Do I really need to read Stranger in a Strange Land?" Oh, and I don't know that it's frequently asked, but this should be: "When should I not start seeing a new partner?"

EDIT: That post now exists, and it's here: Infrequently Asked Questions. Feel free to drop me a line and ask a new question; I'd love to help! If you have a really specific question, though, you might be better off asking a professional advice-giver like Dear Sugar or the Polyamorous Misanthrope. They will not give you any BS, and they'll just work to help you be you.

01 July, 2010

In Defense of Explicit Consent; Or, If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free

I don't want to seem like a polyamory evangelist. Non-monogamy is my life, not my mission. My mission, at least on this blog, has a little more to do with ethics (as much as I've complained about that construct in the past) and raising consciousness of basic social freedoms we may tacitly deny ourselves and our loves. It has to do with what we expect of each other.

It's not true that I can't even imagine living in the contemporary norm, a putatively monogamous lifestyle. If I had never heard of ethical non-monogamous practices or managed to think of the notion myself ... well, we'd be in a universe so vastly improbable that speculation is hardly useful, but I can easily imagine myself with--where'd I leave that pseudonym cypher?--Margaret until the end of my days. Yes, knowing myself, I probably would have one or more sexual betrayals (if I somehow believed I couldn't simply ask for approval ahead of time), but I can imagine myself holding the same person's hand on my deathbed and smiling because of it. It's not hard for me to imagine a couple that doesn't need or want to be with anyone else. That said, I can also imagine a future in which that dyad is not "monogamous" as we know it today.





I'm quoting Sting above not just because he's stuck in my head but also because I think his cliché song has an insight into the nature of romance and human interaction. It strikes me as unethical, and gallingly arrogant, for one person to make an assumption that they have a claim over another's emotion. Rather than swearing an oath to shun all others' affection, I imagine, the happy couple swears simply that they love and honor each other and hope to do so until time parts them; no caveats. As the decades pass, the two grow more familiar, finding new ways to annoy each other and always forgiving each other in the end. Their love becomes something I don't think I can imagine, two decades in to their seven, and as they lie dying, a friend comments on how odd it is that they never married a third or fourth. They shrug and give each other a knowing, loving, look. "Simple tastes," they say, or, "Sometimes one's all it takes." The punster quips, "I bet you they could eat just one! Pay up!"

I've seen too many people assume that we have the right to expect certain behavior of our significant others, even without having discussed it--some folks seem to think that even after a reasoned discussion, one party ought to be angry if the other sleeps around, as a rule. Conversely, of course, it would be callous and shameful to assume that one's new relationship is completely open without discussing the details. Those silent assumptions (and, at times, noisy complaints) are what I hate to see. None of us belong to the others; we give ourselves as gifts, and a gift given under duress is nothing to celebrate. I hear plenty of people say that they're happy being monogamous, and I believe them. I also respect the ones who don't extract promises of monogamy from their partners like blackmail. Talk about it, make agreements, but don't just talk about what you want; talk about what you want for each other, what you deserve. The promises we make between ourselves are our own concern, but if you've told your partner that seeing another person would crush your heart and you still feel the need to extract an oath in public, it's worth asking yourself why.

I know I flirt with cliché, but if you love somebody, set them free. If they don't come back, you were never meant to be monogamous in the first place.

22 June, 2010

Kids, Try This At Home

I've been off this site for months, and that's no good. It's time to get back into a regular posting schedule, if possible.

Might be tough, though. I've been having what one might call motivational difficulty, a.k.a. "failure to give a damn". Toying with certain variables in my daily life seems to offer the possibility of ameliorating or exacerbating the problem, but it can be difficult to ascertain connections between any given cause and its effect. That's bad enough when I'm only considering myself, but then, just imagine the project on a larger scale ... but, we don't have to imagine! Dealing with the unpredictable behaviors of our fellow humans is a daily activity. And it's fucking hard.

In nonmonogamous relationships, the variables increase at a terrifying rate. One needs to consider not only what one's mate thinks of oneself, but also what one's other mate thinks of one's antecedent mate, what one's antecedent mate thinks of one's other mate, what each thinks of oneself, what one's antecedent mate thinks of what she thinks one's other mate thinks of oneself ... and by the time one gets into third-order theory of mind in a triadic interaction, it can all get a bit messy.

Communication can help, that's one well known item in the toolbox. But communication doesn't solve every problem, especially if some folks in the extended relationship network have conflicts. Perhaps sitting down to council allows those who are more or less already on the same side to iron out minor problems, but it's both impossible to convey the entire contents of one's mind and unusual that any given person conveys so much as a bare majority of the thoughts to which they even have conscious access. In other words, even when your partner is working to communicate, they may miss something that, had you known it, would have altered your behavior in the perfect way. With that one fact missing, though, some conflict springs up and it's back to the drawing board.

Communication isn't the only necessary tool. The attitude with which one approaches that communication can completely alter the course of subsequent events. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, at least in long-term relationships, the key to satisfying human interaction, assuming in good faith that the reader has mutual satisfaction as a preexisting goal, is trust.

If you and your partners (and partners' partners) all talk together and work to hash out some problem you've been facing, there are at least two directions in which the conversation could easily go. In one, people assume that whatever's being said isn't the whole story. They assume that no matter what each other person says out loud, there are secrets, resentments, hidden agendas and attempted manipulations. They believe the task of the meeting to be seeing through any attempted deceptions, predicting the mental states of the others at the table, keeping their own secrets, and saying little more than what they think necessary to make sure that their own goals are met. I don't mean to sound Machiavellian; if I do, I imagine it's because of the paragraph's directness. My intention, however, was to describe a normal conversation.

In the other scenario, all that changes is the assumption. Instead of assuming deception, this scenario's population assumes frankness. The participants assume that, whatever's being said, it's as true and as complete as the speaker can make it. Such an assumption demands reciprocation. And that's the key, right there.

If reciprocal honesty is a premise, genuine communication can begin. Honesty is dangerous, though; we all know the truth of that. If I'm talking with the only other person who has a serious love relationship with the person I hold dearest and that other partner does have it in for me, being honest about my feelings could put me in a world of heartache! If folks are reluctant about perfect honesty, that's no surprise, and I don't want to imply any censure of folks who hold back! I do think, though, that the key to getting from a collection of relationships to a group of stable allies is reciprocal trust.

One problem is that even telling the truth isn't enough, if one's conversation partner believes one to be dissembling. Trust on the listener's part is necessary if one is to be believed. But, lacking direct access to that other person's thoughts, one can never really know whether that listener believes and trusts. It's a bit of a dilemma. One doesn't know what the other party is thinking, but one does know that the best outcome is one in which you each choose to trust each other.

That's the moment in which one takes a leap of faith. I honestly don't recommend so much as thinking about this in a short-term relationship; those are what they are, and they differ so greatly that I'd be a fool if I thought I could give general advice (beyond "use barriers during sex"). But, in long-term relationships, one wants them to be as satisfying and as free of worry as possible. So, take the leap. Trust is a fiction, but when all parties buy in together, it's a self-fulfilling fiction. By choosing to trust each other, the group creates a situation in which their trust is deserved.

Each person knows that honesty, that total trust, will lead to the best situation for everyone in terms of communication and thus in terms of outcome. When we trust each other, we can frankly discuss our emotional needs without fear of rejection; we can ask for affection or distance or a roll of toilet paper, whatever, and retain the security that comes from believing that the person whose hand you're holding will always be on your side. Each person has no reliable way of knowing what any other human is thinking, although we get good at guessing about people we know best. Make no mistake, one defector is all it takes to sour the system. When someone breaks a trust offered unconditionally, even if the break is a genuine accident, repairing the emotional fallout from that episode might take an exceptionally long time. But, and this is why I qualify my recommendations as advice for the longterm, these are the people with whom you've chosen to spend your life. If that's true, trust each other enough to make that first leap together and become unquestioned allies. And, once that step is taken, honor it.

26 February, 2010

Survival of All the News that Fits

It's a cold, snowy day. Relax, if you can, and make yourself a mug of cocoa. Why don't we sit here by the fire, and I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, on February 25th, a group of researchers published an article about reproduction in fruit flies. There is a Twitter account ostensibly maintained by a professor, one Pieter Schultz, who's set up the feed to broadcast just about any post imaginable that's related to nonmonogamy. Yesterday, he posted a link to this article about the study. According to the review here, if each female fruit fly mates with only a single male fruit fly, a population can go extinct thanks to a gene that creates all-female broods. Eventually, there aren't enough males to sustain the population. (The original article, at Current Biology, explains that the SR, for "sex ratio", gene on the X chromosome causes the destruction of all Y-carrying sperm, reducing male fly's total sperm count and resulting in a brood of female offspring, all of whom carry the SR gene.) In populations where the flies are allowed the mate normally, many females are inseminated by multiple males. If both SR and normal males mate with a single female, the normal males are likely to fertilize more of the female's eggs simply because the flies without the SR gene produce more sperm overall.

You can't show that on TV.

Great! It sounds like a finding fruit fly researchers will love. If one tracks down the original article, one will also learn that the researchers were motivated by the question of female promiscuity in general. In many species, there's a high cost to polyandry (mating with multiple males), yet females still exhibit the behavior; odds are, there's some adaptive benefit that's directed the species to evolve that behavior. That same Twitter account linked to another article in which one of the researchers is quoted as saying, "We were surprised by how quickly – within nine generations – a population could die out as a result of females only mating with one partner. Polyandry is such a widespread phenomenon in nature but it remains something of an enigma for scientists. This study is the first to suggest that it could actually save a population from extinction." Ok! So now we have serious, hard evidence about why polyandry exists in fruit flies, with consistent evidence from the genome through to behavior. If you're a scientist, then (if you aren't already looking for ways to critique the methodology or theory) you're probably thinking, "This is great! I bet lots of people will be writing about this." And you'd sort of be right.

Wait, did I say "tell you a story"? I meant "subject you to a bitter tirade."

Those of you who clicked through to that second article may have noticed the ambiguous title: "Does promiscuity prevent extinction?" In fruit flies, the answer is apparently a solid, "Yes indeedy." But that title didn't mention fruit flies. I imagine you can see where this is going.

All day, the articles trickled down through Shultz's Twitter feed. Some of the early ones maintained that article's original content, but others casually twisted the language, generalized to laughable degrees, and more or less completely diluted the original findings ... until, just 24 hours after the article's publication, we have today's contender for "Facepalm of the Year Award": "Promiscuous Girls Can Save The Human Race"!

But nothing can save the Times Of India.

Nice work, Times Of India. Although I might agree with their conclusion, I admit that their logic is less than sound, especially given than most human women don't mate with multiple men on the same day (who has time for that?) and neither do they have a massive brood of eggs, all simultaneously viable, some percentage of which can be fertilized by each of the men involved. ...Unless I've just been mistaken about some basic information I took for granted in elementary school, that is, in which case I know a sex ed instructor who's about to get some angry fan mail. As things stand, though, I'm pretty sure the TOI has overgeneralized. To say that promiscuous human women saving our species from extinction is "the conclusion" of the UK study is an insult to journalism.

If you'll allow me a generalization of my own, I think you might find this one more useful: don't believe what you read in the press unless you have reason to trust the media outlet in question. Even science journals sometimes print mistakes (don't forget, if the discipline sets its p values to .05, then at least 5% of the articles out there should be dead wrong), and when the popular press articles are written by journalists who don't have serious training in biology, neuroscience, or whatever discipline is getting picked on today, the possibility for error is unbounded. The errors usually come in the form of overgeneralizations, as when someone decided that what's true for flies must also be true for humans. Then there are the blurry figures, like the contention that "Sex Chemistry 'Lasts Two Years'", a figure contradicted within the article itself. And, as Ben Goldacre is happy to point out over at the Guardian, sometimes journalists get so caught up in making a story out of the subject that they lose the important details; sometimes, as journalists misunderstand the subject themselves, their reporting degenerates into arguments from authority. Then, worst of all, reporters get a story honest-to-god wrong ... perhaps because they wrote the story they wanted to find and know that most of their audience won't have the knowledge and the journal subscriptions to contradict them. (Did I just accidentally make an argument for free, open science? Oops – I do want a paycheck at the end of the day, although I might rather have neighbors who can count to ten.)

My final point isn't just to whine and whinge about kids these days and their rock'n'roll journalism. I like Hunter Thompson as much as the next guy, I just wouldn't let him into my lab. The real point is just to stay educated, especially when the subject is something controversial ... and when one is writing about nonmonogamy, everything is controversial. When I make an argument about how jealousy works, I always hit the books because not only is "jealousy" a terribly ill-defined term but it's also under research right now; it's an open question, and the publication of new articles continues to change the "best guess" about how it works. I'll always remember something my dad told me when I was knee-high to an AT-AT. A scientific claim is just our best guess, today. Some guesses are damn good and haven't changed in a while (see: heliocentrism, evolution, Thorndike's law of effect), but that doesn't change the principle.

What I'm saying is, if you spot an article with the word "science" anywhere in it, don't rely on the reporter to get the story straight. Before you mention it to a friend, track down the original article. If you don't have access to the journal's website, maybe you have a friend on a college campus who can get it for you. I know time is precious, though, so just keep in mind the difference between evidence and proof, the realities of the way that scientists use statistics to decide not whether something is true but whether it's likely, and – most of all – the fact that people are stupid.

Yes. That's the Aesop. Everyone is stupid. So sue me, I'm in kind of a realistic mood today. I think it's possible, though, to learn to live with our own foolishness in such a way that one grows less stupid over time, rather than more. I wish us all the best of luck in this endeavor.

EDIT: Carnal Nation followed up with a terribly embarrassing version of this phenomenon, but the author actually retracted it at my request. Redemption! Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the news hit the actual poly community and someone got it facepalmingly wrong.

15 February, 2010

The Polyamorous Perspective

EDIT: Friends of mine have pointed out that the story of the game is ambiguous such that the ethical situation can imply dark deeds. I assumed that the bargain discussed below was a mutual decision, suggested by the woman involved, while other people reading the same lines assumed that she was coerced by the game's protagonist. If the game itself features the latter, it is unambiguously reprehensible, but the conversation itself still stands as an example of the phenomenon under discussion.

Since I committed to nonmonogamy, my worldview has definitely changed. I just don't see the world around me as I used to, especially when it comes to fiction. Take an example.

Some friends of mine were telling me about the demo for the new video game loosely based on Dante Alighieri's Inferno (and I use the word "loosely" loosely). Apparently the game's Dante, who is a crusader (what?), is on a quest to save the soul of his murdered lover. According to these friends of mine, she was killed because, back in the Crusades, Dante cut a deal with a woman: if she slept with him, he would save the life of her brother. (That's a potentially icky bargain, but for a video game designed to court scandal, it's no surprise.) Except that it wasn't her brother, my friends tell me, but secretly her husband! So he goes north and murders Dante's lover ...

Wait. He does what? At this point, they kept talking, but I was still stuck a line back. Didn't Dante save this man's life? Why the heck would he want revenge on the man who — OH! Dante slept with his wife! I guess that's a bad thing.

But come on, what's not to love about this guy?

It took serious thought (well, as much serious thought as one can do in fifteen seconds) for me to realize that saving someone's life wasn't all that was going on here. This isn't the first time that I've been flummoxed by the mass media, though (drat their mononormative biases!). Nearly every romantic plotline in the shows I watch could be solved if someone had just said, "Wait a tic, why don't we both date you?" No, my apologies; make that simply "nearly every romantic plotline".

You must choose! ... and why isn't that the title of a TV Tropes article?

It's strange, being aware of solutions that never emerge as possibilities because of unspoken assumptions. It definitely makes some of the shows and movies available less interesting; there really isn't a lot of fiction, outside of some SciFi novels, in which the characters have group romances that aren't train wrecks or dishonest affairs. I used to be easily engaged in romantic plotlines, but they're definitely less gripping now than they once were. It's almost as though the fiction has to stand on its own legs rather than relying on a cheap gimmick to provide tension. Fascinating!

The prolific Alan, who publishes at "Polyamory in the News", wrote a post that I admire related to this subject. He mentions a talk at a poly conference by one Cunning Minx (I kind of hope that's not a pseudonym), who claims that it's time to move "from education — explaining polyamory to people who've never heard of it — to culture-building — creating recognizable pop images of the polyfolk-world that represent us well, that we can be proud of, and that will appear in people's minds when they think of us". The basic concept is that, as one can see by checking the archives of a surprising number of advice columns and newspapers, polyamory is here. People have heard of it. Now, we have the chance to step up and do right by the nonmonogamous community by adding more representative characters and plotlines to the simmering muck that is pop culture. I suppose I'll just have to start writing, eh?

09 February, 2010

But Can I Afford It?

Some of you may be familiar with a concept in psychology called "affordance theory". The concept is basically that one can best understand behavior--interactions of agents, like you and me, with each other and the rest of our environments--in terms of what the environment affords the agent in question.1 An affordance is the inherent possibility that exists between an agent and something external to it. So, for me, this laptop affords a number of possibilities for online engagement, communication, pornography, and (in desperate circumstances) a last-ditch weapon to fend off hungry zombies. If I have a Twitter account, the laptop affords me the opportunity to satisfy my terrible addiction check my friends' updates; if you don't have an account, it doesn't have the same affordances when considered in relation to you. Affordances are a weird category because they exist in the world, you can't touch them, but they are integral to our experience of the world. They are a property that emerges only between agents and environments; an environment with no agents affords no-one anything.

So, how am I going to relate this one to polyamory?

Yes, keyboards by Howie Robbins! Of course! It's all coming together. No pun intended?

Sex is complex. We know this. But it's through affordance theory that I'm starting to realize a useful way to discuss that complexity with lovers. Sex affords different things to each of us, and looking at sex through that lens can be a powerful tool for communication. (One of my lovers will be reading this and thinking of an email exchange we just had.) Most people find that sex affords them bodily pleasure (e.g., orgasm), but that's hardly where it ends. For me, sex affords a necessary physical satisfaction; not everyone is as sexually driven as I am, or so my comrades have told me. It's also one of the major tools I use to gauge the health of a relationship, and it's an activity that brings me closer, emotionally, with my partner. Sharing a sexual experience, whether it's intense, silly, brief or long enough to leave us both exhausted, leaves me feeling as though I could just lie back with that person and talk or cuddle forever. It's a special space, emotionally, mentally, that I almost never enter except immediately after having sex.

That's a very specific affordance! It's not universal, either, as far as I can tell. I could get more specific--the way that affordance theory can inform attempts to consider condom use, for instance, or the way that affordance theory accommodates accounts of social meaning--but I think this is a hefty enough topic. What does sex afford you, and what does sex afford your partners? If you conceive of sex in different ways, see it as offering different opportunities or having different meanings, that might be the subject of an especially useful upcoming conversation.


1 From the Oxford English Dictionary, "to afford": "orig. To further, promote; hence achieve, manage to do, manage to give, have the power to give, give what is in one's power, supply, yield."

01 January, 2010

Polyamory: Starting the Conversation

Back to basics, gadies and lentilmen. Friends who follow this blog might not have a lot to learn here, but you might have comments to make; I hope you will. Here's taking a swing at this blog's mission statement, reaching out to people who are new to nonmonogamous relationships. Everyone has to start somewhere: how do you begin the conversation about opening a relationship?

Every couple has a different dynamic, and that will change what the "best way" to broach the subject is. It's probably easiest when the relationship begins. With Margaret (yay pseudonyms!), we had the conversation immediately after our first kiss. We'd already talked about it when we were just friends, though, so there wasn't much of a barrier. She knew that, after my last ball and chain monogamous relationship, I wanted to be able to get to know more than one person in a romantic context. I think the key line was, "There are something like 2400 people on this campus, and at least two have to be worth dating!" Luckily for me, she agreed.

If you two have been dating for a while already, though, or if you don't know what your lover's response might be, the situation is more delicate. One suggestion I've often heard is to mention poly friends or a story or news article featuring polyamory, or even one that ought but doesn't. ("All their problems would be solved if she'd just date Oz and Tara!") If you hear a resounding "I know!", it might be the time to mention that this is one thing the viewers can try at home. If the response sounds more like these fine posts, you might have to do a little more ground work before you turn the conversation to your own relationship.

When you do broach the subject, two of the biggest concerns are about disclosure. For one thing, make sure it's explicit that you're going to tell each of your lovers about the rest. Make sure it's explicit, in general - whatever "it" is! If we lie to each other, whether through direct falsehoods or omission, that's not polyamory; it's just cheating. As one poly blogger says, "To me, the bedrock on which all good relationships lie, whether they be friend, family or romantic, is honesty."1

If monogamy has been a premise of your relationship, now's the time to drag out all the premises and see which ones work for you. In an article fresh off the Boston Globe presses, one interviewee said, “I think you can play the part of a monogamous person without necessarily having to think what it means for you. ... There’s a cultural script that we learn from movies, sitcoms, songs on the radio, and watching our parents. Because there isn’t a similar script for poly relationships, you have to think about what you’re doing and decide what you want.” It's like taking the engine out of your car for the first time. Once you're under the hood, it's a chance to see how the whole thing works. You might find parts integral to the system that you never even knew about before - expectations and assumptions that you and your lover have. You might even have different assumptions, but because you were only dating each other, they never came into conflict. It's a chance to set the stage for successful relationships in the future, but it's also a chance to rebuild the relationship that you two have and make sure it's in proper working order before you even think about getting someone new involved.

The other key point to disclose is sexual health. Go talk with your doctor and ask to get tested for every disease they know how to find. (This probably won't include HPV or herpes but will include the other famous ones: syphilis, gonorrhea, HIV, the rogue's gallery of sexually transmitted infections.) Be up-front about the results with every new partner before you have sex. Before you have unprotected sex with a new person, raise it as a question with your other partners. I know painfully well how disappointing condoms are compared to unprotected sex, but I'd rather be alive to enjoy it. Most of all, the difference between unprotected sex in a monogamous relationship and in a poly relationship is the risk to the people you love. In the context of nonmonogamy, unprotected sex can't be a decision that two people make alone. Yes, all this conversation might make sex less sexy, less spontaneous. I've screwed up and crossed that line before (happily, with no consequences worse than a couple of awkward conversations); it's always a bad plan. We have the technology. Use barriers when you do anything more involved than kissing. Then, look forward to how satisfying the night after getting your test results will be.

Now that I'm done evangelizing for the day, I want to ask about Rules. Some people build a lot of rules into their relationships, whether about protection, emotional involvement with other partners, or even scheduling challenges ("But Friday is our date night, honey!"). I don't have a lot of rules in my relationships, other than safe sex; I only have one relationship that's "Have you ever thought about having kids?" serious, but we don't use the term "primary relationship" because that would imply that no other relationship could reach that status, which isn't the case. It's just an accident of history that there's only one such relationship in my life today. So, emotional attachment isn't disallowed; neither is sex with a friend or as a one-time event, as long as everyone's well informed of the situation. There are countless variations, though. Some people guard a primary relationship by making new lovers "secondaries". Others have rules about whether one-night stands are appropriate, with whom you spend your birthdays & anniversaries, or even who can sleep in which bed. What about you? I know you folks just hate to type, but I'd love to hear about the rules (or lack thereof) in your relationships and how you reached them. If you're just surfing around the internet and stumbled across this page, that's doubly true, since you can tell me about a relationship I haven't seen play out in my own living room. If you're monogamous, I'd like to hear from you, too. What rules do you set about friendships outside of your pair? Where is the boundary between friendship and a betrayal of the relationship?

1 That particular blogger appears to have some unusual views on Christianity; see his post on human arrogance, in contrast with his constant talk of prayer.