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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.


  1. "Emotions are an organism's way of opening communications with itself (Sam, take note), and strong feelings are usually there for a reason."

    When I get a memo, I read it and then I set it on fire.

    Also, you have two Q5s.

  2. I mostly wanted to know whether you'd agree with my assessment of the role of emotions in general, and whether you use them in that manner. (I love getting into your head!)

    Also, BLARGH! I frakkin' double-checked that.