Blog Archives

Applying Universal Access to Love and Polyamory

This post is the final one in a four-part series on polyamory, healing, and societal wounds. Start with part one.

multiple people supporting each others' wrists in a formationThis post is something of a footnote or a wrap-up to the Poly in Practice series. We started with talking about equity vs. equality in poly, then moved on to how capitalism fucks us all up, and then in the last post talked about some of the particular challenges of healing from past relationship trauma. Now, I want to come back to a theme I only briefly touched on in posts two and four: how we might tie disability justice ideas, and specifically the concept of universal access, in with practicing polyamory.

Really, ableism runs throughout this topic, and throughout the models of poly I’ve been challenging as too limiting in this series. The concept of equality is often applied in ableist ways, as is capitalism. Disability justice reminds us the playing field is not, in fact, level. Not everyone can reach the same milestone of equality by pulling on their bootstraps—nor should they. The concept of universal access suggests that the solution, however, isn’t necessarily trying to level the playing field by changing the milestone for people with disabilities, or helping with the bootstrap-pulling through charity or medical advances. Instead, entire systems can be designed from the ground up to be accessible to everyone—whether we’re thinking about architecture, communications infrastructure, or even relationship models.

Universal access focuses not on the “person with disabilities,” but on the range of ways in which people work, live, move, and communicate. Rather than “accommodating” one person or group of people, this model looks at how everyone can benefit from a broader definition of accessibility. Here, I’m thus going to make an effort to apply the idea of universal access to love—focusing on how poly communities can radically change the way we look at love and access to love with a focus on community growth rather than individual relationship challenges.

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Practicing Polyamory While Healing from Relationship Trauma

This post is part three of a four-part series on polyamory, healing, and societal wounds. Start with part one.

In thinking about models for polyamory that don’t revolve around competition and scarcity, I couldn’t help thinking about healing and recovery. In the last post, I talked about healing from the societal wounds of capitalism and an alternative model for poly relationships. In this post, I’d like to talk about a different kind of healing, from interpersonal relationship trauma. This post does not describe details of my relationship history, but it does provide some thoughts on healing from emotional abuse and how abusers can manipulate a scarcity mentality. It also draws parallels with my experience of EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). For this reason, I’m putting most of the post below the cut tag. Please proceed with caution if this content may be triggering for you.

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Practicing Polyamory While Healing from Capitalism’s Wounds

This post is part two of a four-part series on poly in practice. Read part one.

Card reading In the first post in this series, I talked a bit about how some societal norms around the relationship escalator have pushed me into an inadequate framework for looking at relationships, particularly in the practice of polyamory. In this post, I’d like to dig more into those societal norms, and particularly into how we can practice polyamory in a healthy way while healing from the wounds a capitalist society constantly and pervasively inflicts on us. I’ll note by way of introduction that I have some privileges particularly relevant here: I’m white, college-educated, and benefit financially from the capitalist economic system in the United States. While I’m ideologically opposed to capitalism, it’s important to note that I also materially benefit from it (and often allow my 9-to-5 work to get in the way of active resistance). I imagine that many of these points apply even more starkly to working class people and people of color.

So to start, I think it’s no surprise that a capitalist, data-driven culture can affect our romantic relationships. I talked in the last post about the dangers of a framework of equality in relationships, and I think it’s this culture that creates the myth that equality is possible. The bootstrap mentality encourages us not only in work but in our relationships to focus on competition, rather than on community: when we allow this poisoned economic model of relating to gain a foothold in our lives, our romantic relationships become tainted by a feeling of scarcity.

I frequently hear poly folks talking about their struggles with a fear of scarcity, whether the scarce resource is time, energy, or even love. We often forget to talk directly about that fear, though, and are afraid to ask for what we actually need from our partners or our metamours in this perceived scarce environment where naming a need means acknowledging that a scarce resource may not be available to us. Instead, we expect that our needs will be met and feel hurt if they are not. This is no surprise, given how most of us spend most of our time at work in environments with limited resources and no salary transparency. We become accustomed to a culture of hoping that if we do our best (in work or in love) we will get what we need without any direct negotiation.

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Equity in Non-Hierarchical Polyamory

This post is part one of a four-part series on poly in practice. Look for part two next week.

Fortune cookie fortune reading

Nope.

Inspiration comes in odd places sometimes. I’d hardly expect the kind of mandatory culture-building sessions I take part in from time to time at work to have an effect of how I think about practicing polyamory, but I’m finding an interesting parallel. We talk a lot in my organization about equity versus equality: how the goals of social movement work aren’t grounded so much in a straight-up definition of equality (i.e., everyone is “the same”) but rather in a desire for equity (solutions that make sense for the actual humans and communities involved in a problem). I’m finding this framework to be equally useful in addressing the challenges of practicing non-hierarchical polyamory.

My knee-jerk tendency, I’ve realized, is to look for equality in relationships. Particularly when I find myself in what I would consider a similar position to a metamour’s (we started dating a partner around the same time, we have similar relationship desires and needs, etc.) I have a hard time not drawing comparisons and setting the bar down on a level playing field. The problem with this approach, which may be obvious, is that the level playing field isn’t really something you can see when it comes to relationships. So this approach has a tendency to create a couple of different problems—when I’m with a partner who does practice hierarchical poly and has a primary, it leads to the feeling of not being treated “equally” because of that prioritization, and eventually to resentment. Even when my partner also practices non-hierarchical poly, this approach can lead to insecurity or a fear that my partner is starting to lean towards the hierarchical when some relationship “milestone” happens: i.e., “you don’t feel that thing or aren’t at that milestone with me, and therefore we’re unequal and your other partner is really first.” Though I know those feelings don’t make sense in the non-hierarchical poly model, it’s still hard to get past them.

And so I’d like to start thinking about relationships in a slightly different way: thinking about whether I’m getting my needs met in non-hierarchical poly should actually be about equity, not equality.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 3: Why Checklists Are Sexy

For the third day of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Beyond Yes or No: Consent As Sexual Process.”  I can’t agree more with the main idea of this essay: that consent shouldn’t just be the absence of “no,” or even a simple “yes,” but a conversation between sexual partners about desires, fear, likes, dislikes, and all the rest.  However, I did have some discomfort in parts of the essay as someone who doesn’t find it easy to ask for what she wants.

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Thoughts on communicative sexuality

Note:  the below is crossposted from my book journal.  No Tati Tuesdays this week b/c I didn’t actually have much to report, though I do recommend Jon Stewart’s interview with Barney Frank on Monday.

I’m reading an anthology on date rape, edited by Leslie Francis, and I was particularly struck by the first two articles.  The first, by Lois Pineau, proposes a new communicative model of sexuality to replace the contract model frequently used in understanding sexual relations in rape cases.  According to the contract model, the idea is that if the victim consented, then a contract was established and the perpetrator did nothing wrong.  Pineau argues that this allows perpetrators (males) to get away with a lot because the evidentiary standard for showing consent is relatively low.  The alternative she suggests is a communicative model, where sexuality is thought of not as a contractual relationship but as something akin to friendship or conversation.  Under this model, the presumption would be nonconsent in the case of any noncommunicative, aggressive sexual interaction.  The defendant would then have to offer a reasonable explanation for his belief that the victim was consenting, despite the lack of communication between the two.  I like this idea, because it encourages communication and makes it more difficult to argue “I thought she was consenting.”  I also think, based on some psychological pieces I’ve read, that many men would be less likely to rape if the situation was not “blurry,” as I’ve read quite a few accounts of men who seem to honestly believe that their behavior was okay, based on certain actions or words of the victim.  In an open, honest, complete dialogue, they would have more trouble convincing themselves that it was okay to force sexual contact on the victim.

The second piece in the anthology, then, is David M. Adams’ critique of Pineau’s piece.  He has two main objections.  One is that verbal communication is not always necessary – that men might reasonably rely on other indicators such as body language and that given the difference in how the genders communicate we should not dismiss these indicia – and the other is that verbal communication is not always sufficient – in other words, a woman might say one thing and truly feel another.  I think that both these two objections could be met by a look at BDSM sexuality.

In arguing that verbal communication is not always necessarily, Adams points out that erotic communication is often complex and that a “checklist” would take away from the sexiness of it; that the most unambiguous form of expressing desires, literally writing them down and checking them off, takes all the romance out of the equation.  In fact, this isn’t true at all.  Many BDSM couples in fact use a checklist – before the fact.  This establishes some reasonable assumptions, because partners are aware of likes and dislikes in advance.  Further, the partners are not bound by these preferences – they are free to use a clear verbal communication, in the form of a safeword, to say no.  This kind of verbal system makes it very clear when non-consent is established.  The “she said no but I thought she meant yes” strategy doesn’t fly, because there is one word that means “I no longer consent, and this is not up for debate.”  Though it’s unlikely that all couples would establish a safeword, I do think a similar model of communication both before and during erotic encounters can make the experience both sexy and mutual.  I’m also bothered by Adams example of a man establishing consent based on a look in the woman’s eye versus the example of a woman deciding not to physically resist based on a look in a man’s eye that provokes fear.  He uses this example to argue that feminists can’t have it both ways – if option B is allowed, then so too option A.  I think this is absolutely ridiculous.  There’s a big difference between establishing consent based on a look in someone’s eye, and making the decision not to affirmatively ask, and feeling instinctive, gut, fear based on a look.  Any look at the way women are raised in this society, and the fears men instil in us from a young age, would prove this point.

Finally, I also think the BDSM model is instructive on Adams’ other argument, that someone can say one thing and mean another.  In any communicative system of sexuality, part of the deal is an implicit agreement to be open and honest in communication.  This may mean that things move slower, and one or both parties may have some issues to get past in developing trust and an ability to be open.  But I think such a model entails responsibilities for both partners – first, to ask questions and affirmatively establish the partner’s desire, which includes paying attention to any red flags that come up, such as discomfort in the conversation itself; second, to be open and honest about one’s own desires, and to refuse to go forward with a sexual encounter if one is unable to do so.  Of course, without such a system, the fact is that there will be cases where a person says “yes” in an affirmative, enthusiastic way, not really wanting a sexual encounter.  In such a case, it’s hard to blame the other party – and I think the communicative model accounts for this, in that when genuine communication and affirmative assent is established, there is no rape.  But I think what it means for the big picture is that as sexual partners we need to pay close attention to how our partners communicate consent, and be on the lookout for signs that it is not enthusiastic.  At the same time, as a culture, we need to work on making it easier for women, especially, to say “no,” and not make genuine feelings about sex something that women need to be embarrassed about or feel a need to keep secret.

Quick thought on manipulation

I was just listening to a Savage Love podcast where a girl has a question about this guy who won’t have oral sex with her, and keeps insisting that she should be upset, and Dan pointed out that he’s terrorizing her by backing her into a corner so that she says “I’m not going to break up with you, I’m not going to break up with you” so many times that it ends up that she feels like she can’t break up with him. I realized that it sounded very familiar, though in a slightly different context. So lesson of the day: if you’re in a relationship with someone, guy or girl, doesn’t matter, and that person is insecure and you keep having to tell them “no you’re great in bed, you really are, no I don’t *need* to have orgasms,” etc. etc. blah blah blah, keep in mind that eventually you’re going to find yourself backed into a corner. So DTMFA.

A query

Why is it that some women who are sexually dominant assume that they have license to make everyone they meet do as they please, or that women who are sexually submissive are expected to defer and automatically be interested in them sexually? I’m not saying that all, or most, dominant women are like this, but I encountered one casually (not in a romantic/sexual context) and it really baffled me. My understanding is that kinky relationships are something to be negotiated, based on trust. So perhaps that sort of dynamic would evolve within a relationship, and I can respect that. What I don’t understand is someone who assumes that because they take on this role they should suddenly have everyone wait on them hand and foot. That’s called arrogance.

Why is love the defining line?

Now that I’ve come out of my hermitage once again, I have so many thoughts to share with you!

I was thinking about love in the shower (no, no, not like that) and I came to an interesting conclusion.  I was thinking about what the function of “I love you” is in a relationship, particularly when said for the first time.  When I was dating my college boyfriend, he said those three words after about six months.  We hadn’t been friends first – we met, we started dating, and we’d been cruising along for a while when he dropped the bomb.  I said “I love you, too” instinctively, but later in the comfort of my dorm room I started freaking out with my roommate.  Do I love him?  Do I, do I?  The next morning I decided that I did, but it was something of a foregone conclusion.

So what does love mean in such a context?  A lot of things, but two major ones come to mine.  (1) The people involved have come to a certain level of intimacy and affection.  (2) It’s a signal of commitment, possibly monogamy, that you’re in it for the long haul (or feel that way at the moment).  The reason it has to serve that double function is the assumption that you didn’t start out intimate or affectionate.  Mark and I were not friends in advance, and I never would’ve come to love him on that basis – we just aren’t that compatible.  This is why I really like my current approach, i.e., I don’t have sex with anyone I don’t consider a close friend.  The fact is, I already love my close friends.  We’ve reached that level of intimacy and affection and I already trust them.  I know that I like that individual as a person before we move into relationship (or just sexual friendship) territory.  “I love you” isn’t some huge revelation.  I already did!  We love each other, yes, and I don’t mind communicating it, but it doesn’t have to serve function (2).  It’s not some big bomb-dropping.  I think it’s best not to conflate love and commitment or love and long-term relationships because there are so many forms of love.  I could name about twenty people that I truly love, and none of them am I in a relationship with.  I like being a bit more practical about it.  If I feel that I want to be long-term with someone, then we can talk about it.  It doesn’t have to be code words that confuse everyone and require long conversations with a third party.  Communication, it’s what’s for dinner.

Off to the Iowa City Women’s Music Festival: Like Michigan, but with Shirts!

(shouldn’t that be their motto?  seriously?)

Re-thinking Family

I just finished Nancy Polikoff’s recent book on her “valuing all families” approach to family law.  It’s an interesting thesis, but rather than talking about the book at the minute I’d like to share an observation.  One of the thing the book does is briefly traced the history of the marriage institution and how family structures have changed in the past thirty or forty years.  I started thinking about the people I know who are in some sort of serious relationship and how a legal system that didn’t make heterosexual marriage so legally significant might benefit many of them.  Here’s a sample of relationships among my friends and family as food for thought.  Try thinking about the people you know, and I bet you’ll come up with similar family diversity: 

  • A heterosexual couple in their late twenties who plan to spend their lives together but don’t want to marry and own a home together
  • A married heterosexual couple in their late fifties who have never wanted to have children
  • A married heterosexual couple in their late forties with two young children 
  • A divorced man and woman who are best friends, have a child together, and list each other as health care proxies and sole inheritors
  • A lesbian couple in their fifties who were recently able to marry in California and have no children
  • A lesbian couple in their thirties/forties who plan to have children, one of whom is here on a student visa and is afraid of deportation after ten or so years with her partner
  • A heterosexual married couple in their their mid-twenties with a two year old child
  • A heterosexual couple in their late fifties who don’t want to marry but may have to for health insurance reasons, in which case one member of the couple would lose subsidized housing despite not living together

When I think of all these people I love, and of my own lack of a desire to marry, it’s easy to understand the “valuing all families” approach.  I think doing away with marriage as a legal entity is unlikely, but she has a point.