In February, Robert McGarey's partner of 24 years died. It was the most devastating loss McGarey had ever encountered, and yet, there was a silver lining: "I had this profound sadness, but I don't feel lonely," McGarey told me. "I'm not without support, I'm not without companionship."
That's because he has other partners: Jane, who he's been with for 16 years, and Mary, who he's been with for eight. (Those are not their real names.) And while his grief for Pam, the girlfriend who died, was still immense, polyamory helped him deal with it.
There's not a lot of research into how poly families cope with death—probably because there's not a lot of research about how poly families choose to live. By rough estimates, there are several million poly people in the United States. And while polyamory can bring people tremendous benefits in life and in death, our social and legal systems weren't designed to deal with people with more than one romantic partner—so when one person dies, it can usher in a slew of complicating legal and emotional problems.
"Whether people realize it or not, the partner to whom they are married will have more benefits and rights once a death happens," explained Diana Adams, who runs a boutique law firm that practices "traditional and non-traditional family law with support for positive beginnings and endings of family relationships."
Since married partners rights' trump everyone else's, the non-married partners don't automatically have a say in end-of-life decisions, funeral arrangements, or inheritance. That's true for non-married monogamous relationships, too, but the problem can be exacerbated in polyamorous relationships where partners are not disclosed or acknowledged by family members. In her work, Adams has seen poly partners get muscled out of hospital visits and hospice by family members who refused to recognize a poly partner as a legitimate partner.
McGarey and his girlfriend Pam weren't married, so the decision to take her off life support had to go through Pam's two sisters. The money Pam left behind—which McGarey would've inherited had they been married—went to her sisters too, who also organized Pam's funeral.
This kind of power struggle can also happen among multiple partners who have all been romantically involved with the deceased. The only real way to ensure that everything is doled out evenly is to draft up a detailed prenuptial agreement and estate plan. Adams works with clients to employ "creative estate planning" to ensure that other partners are each acknowledged and taken care of. ...
I was definitely at the right address. Tara Indiana, a professional dominatrix, emailed it to me earlier that day. Yet all I could see was the back entrance to a Japanese restaurant and some kitchen workers on their smoke break. There was no way that the sex dungeon I was looking for was in a sushi restaurant…right? Then again, what did I know about sex dungeons? I’d only started exploring kink two weeks earlier, and now here I was searching the back of a sushi restaurant for the sign of the class I’d signed up for, “Secrets of the World’s Greatest Dominatrix.”
More from Narratively: “The Truth about New York’s Legendary ‘Mole People'”
“You looking for Cyn Studios?” asked one of the men, startling me. I nodded, and felt my confidence increase just a tiny bit; if this stranger could possibly imagine me in a room filled with whips and floggers, maybe I wasn’t so lost after all.
The man directed me up eight flights of stairs, and as I began my ascent up I awkwardly sidled past another man who glanced at me quickly and then stared, hard, at the floor. Did he think that I was a dominatrix on my way to work? To my surprise, the way he looked at me, with utter submission, made me feel powerful. And sexy. When I arrived at the top of the stairs, I felt less shaken than I had on the street, albeit out of breath.
After a woman in a business-casual outfit signed me in at the front desk, I peered into one of the studio’s rooms. It was surprisingly classy, lavishly decorated in black leather and red velvet. If you forgot about all the men that had been tied up and whipped in there, the room could almost pass for a fancy hotel lobby.
I was led into a large, open room. Behind a pillar I could spot hidden toys that must be used in some of the dominatrices’ scenes: St. Andrew’s crosses, chains, and what looked like an operating table. (I would later learn that medical play is a fetish.) On a table in the front of the room were props that I tried to pretend I’d seen a million times before — spiky collars, leather cuffs, paddles and whips to name a few. Ever the diligent student, I sat on a hard folding chair in the front row and took a deep breath, ready to begin.
There were a few other women in the class. We all smiled awkwardly at each other and made small talk while we sat in folding chairs. We pretended we weren’t about to take a class that promised to teach the psychology of a submissive male, how to manage a stable of men, and, my personal favorite, how to harness your pussy power.
I was there to finally change the pattern of my love — and sex — life. ...
The life of Catherine Robbe-Grillet makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a Disney movie. In 1951, she became the mistress of the writer—and accomplished sadist—Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom she later married. Today, an 83-year-old widow, she is France’s most famous dominatrix. Visiting the 17th-century château where Robbe-Grillet conducts some of her rituals, Toni Bentley delves into the world of a modern-day Marquise de Sade, her relationship with the much younger Beverly Charpentier, and her journey from submission to dominance.
I am going to meet the most famous dominatrix in France. It is a gray but bright day as the taxi drives from Paris through the lush green fields of Normandy. It is late afternoon. I have been invited to dinner and don’t want to be late. The address I have been given is so abbreviated as to be comical: no numbers, no street, no postal code, just the name of the château and the province in which it resides. The G.P.S. is having none of it.
I had asked in an e-mail a month earlier if I might observe one of Madame’s sadomasochistic rituals. I was told “no one observes, there are only participants.” I replied—what the hell—that I was willing to participate, imagining that I might be given a candle to hold in a doorway. “Madame is doubtful,” I was told, “but said she will think about it. But absolutely no photographs.”
The driver finds the concealed turnoff, and I see the white gate I was looking for. A sharp right and we are thrust instantly into a Louis XIV fairy tale. An enormous horseshoe drive embraces a vast green field dotted with thousands of yellow buttercups. At its turn, the 17th-century Château du Mesnil-au-Grain sits in full glory and perfect symmetry. The black car drops me off and departs. I climb the stairs to the main entrance, where I am greeted by a tiny lady wearing a white scarf wrapped stylishly about her head, slim white cotton trousers and blouse, and a fluffy, sage-green mohair cardigan.
It is well known in France that this woman has une chambre secrète (a secret room), but no one knows quite where it is, though Edmund White has written that she “tortures” people in the “dungeon of her Norman castle.”
Catherine Robbe-Grillet is the 83-year-old widow of Alain Robbe-Grillet, theoretician, novelist, filmmaker, sadist, member of the Académie Française, and acknowledged “pope” of the avant-garde literary movement known as the nouveau roman. He is perhaps best remembered as the writer of Alain Resnais’s 1961 masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad.
The young Robbe-Grillets bought the château in 1963, making them only its fifth owners since its construction, around 1680, and the first without aristocratic lineage. Despite their modernist leanings, the young couple dreamed of being châtelains, and thanks to a loan from Alain’s courageous publisher, Jérôme Lindon (famous as the French publisher of Samuel Beckett), the deed was done.
“Bienvenue,” Madame Robbe-Grillet says to me. (She does not speak English.) “Un petit château pour une petite dame!” (A little château for a little lady!) As she says this, she dips girlishly in a small curtsy, a charming, and disarming, gesture. The power she wields, standing at a majestic four feet eleven inches and weighing in at 88 pounds (she has worn a child’s size 10 her entire adult life), is obscured, though not for long, behind the most courteous carapace of the smallest and sweetest little old lady one might ever meet.
Having read her 1985 book, Cérémonies de Femmes (Women’s Rites), where she writes wryly, “You absolutely must believe that Sisyphus is happy!,” I knew that this lovely woman was a modern-day Marquise de Sade, and had, over the past four decades, pierced and cut some of her guests with hatpins—she has many varieties with beautiful ornaments that she keeps in a white lace pin cushion—locked others in small iron cages, crowned them with acacia thorns, handcuffed them to chains on walls, and basically beaten the shit out of a rather large number of people, male and female. ...
Whips, chains, collars, gags, blindfolds, handcuffs, knives… My eyes roam the soundproof room in which we are enclosed. The subject of our conversation is BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism), a discipline that includes a wide variety of consensual power-exchange activities suggested by the various implements on display.
“Whether they are soldiers or victims,” Leslie Rogers explains, “there is nothing that binds people together better than war. What I'm re-creating in BDSM is like war—but in re-creating war, I'm ending it. I'm going to a place with you where I shouldn't go, and we’ll meet there, and in the end we’ll realize that we are still capable of being loved.”
I am talking with Rogers in a dungeon beneath a cabin in Salinas, California. The burly 36-year-old has one hand on the bar of a jail cell. The other clutches the nape of his partner’s neck, 33-year-old Tani Thole.
“We come across as really straight and vanilla,” Thole noted with a grin. “I have this soccer-mom vibe, and Leslie has a businessman vibe. People are very surprised when they find out who we really are.”
The American Psychiatric Association has its own definition. Rogers, a self-identified dominant, enthusiastically endorses having “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the physical or psychological suffering of another person.” In her desire to be the object of that suffering, Thole, a self-identified submissive, is his mirror image and ideal mate. Respectively, they meet all primary criteria for Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism Disorders.
However, rather than experiencing “significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” the pair credits their lifestyle with producing dramatic improvements in mental health. While conventional psychotherapists still debate the ethics of hugging their patients, Rogers and Thole have pioneered a form of intensive therapy that incorporates consensual BDSM activities into their sessions with clients. The objective is to activate repressed emotions in order to process them in a safe and supportive environment.
In order to better understand their technique, which they call Light/Dark Therapy, the couple invited me to participate in an immersion with them. For the next 48 hours, we will not leave this cabin.
* * *
While psychology has historically defined sadomasochism as strictly pathological, there is some research that supports Rogers and Thole’s perspective.
A study from the Netherlands found a greater prevalence of positive psychological traits in BDSM practitioners than in the general public. The practitioners were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, and had higher subjective well-being.
A subsequent U.S. study of BDSM-identified couples found reductions in self-reported stress and negative affect, as well as increases in intimacy following BDSM play.
According to Brad Sagarin, the effects can be even more profound. The psychologist’s latest paper investigates the potential for sadomasochistic activities to induce altered states of consciousness.
“Dominants show evidence of flow,” Sagarin explained, “a very pleasurable state that occurs when people are in optimum performance and tune out the rest of the world. The submissive seems to enter a different altered state of consciousness that the BDSM community refers to as sub-space—a pleasurable and timeless, almost floating feeling.”
Sagarin attributes the changes in a submissive’s consciousness to a temporary reduction in prefrontal-cortex activity, which is thought to be integral to the euphoric and dissociative experience of endurance runners, meditators, and individuals under hypnosis.
“One of the things that resides in the prefrontal cortex is our sense of self,” Sagarin elaborated. “When that area of the brain gets down-regulated, we can lose the distinction between ourselves and the universe.” ...
Three women have defied deeply conservative trends in Brazil by celebrating a polyamorous civil union.
The happy trio, who reportedly have shared a bed for years and say they want to raise a child, took an oath of love in early October in the presence of Rio de Janeiro notary Fernanda de Freitas Leitao.
The lovers - a businesswoman and a dentist who are both 32 and a 34-year-old office manager - have been together for three years and wish to remain anonymous.
While these are the first women to enter a three-way civil union, a similar ceremony was held in 2012 for a man and two women in Sao Paulo state.
Contrary to what you might have been told as a kid, vampires are real. At least according to DJ Williams, director of the social work program at Idaho State University anddirector of research at the Center for Positive Sexuality in Los Angeles. Williams argues not only are vampires real, they walk among us—and they deserve equal access to social services.
Williams made the case for vampire acceptance in his article, "Do We Always Practice What We Preach? Real Vampires' Fears of Coming out of the Coffin to Social Workers and Helping Professionals," published in Critical Social Work in July. While his research is focused on so-called "self-identified" groups like vampires, furries and BDSM practitioners, he said the principles of his work—arguing for more understanding of the nature of identity—can be applied much more broadly.
"We've seen a lot of people who are gay or lesbian who don't want to come out, who want to stay in the closet, because they face discrimination," he said. "It's the same process. They're the same social processes. We live in an age of technology so there are more possibilities for how people live and understand themselves. We need to be more savvy about that process so that we don't marginalize and discriminate. This isn't going to go away."
What is a self-identified vampire?
A self-identified vampire has to do with how people select that term to represent a part of themselves. They can be categorized as lifestyle vampires, in which they identify with a certain aspect or persona of the mythical vampire, versus real vampires, who use the term "real" to distinguish themselves from lifestylers. But real vampires believe they have a deficit processing energy.
What kind of energy are we talking about?
They call it "subtle human energy." They feel like they need a little extra energy to feel healthy physically, psychologically and spiritually. A lot of times when people hear "vampire" or "real vampire," people think that's very strange. It's interesting to me how the word "vampire" has a different connotation for people. Outsiders really tend to focus on the term "vampire" and the associations that come up. That gets in the way of clinicians, too.
How many vampires would you say there are in Idaho?
It's hard to say because it's such a closed community, for good reason. Our experience is that any substantial city is probably going to have a vampire community or vampires. Numbers are difficult, but our estimates are probably in the thousands worldwide. This is an international phenomenon. A vampire community study got 750 responses from over 30 countries. It gives you a little more perspective. But there's a lot of demographic diversity in this community. There's tremendous age diversity and diversity in terms of religious identification, culture and education level.
What about other self-identified communities?
We get a lot of media attention with our vampire study, but my research team studies people who engage in BDSM, and we see very similar kinds of things. A lot of demographic diversity. Clinicians are starting to get a little bit of a grasp on those kinds of worlds, but there's a lot of bias and marginalization still that needs to change.
What's the current disposition of social workers toward self-identified groups?
With BDSM, there's accumulating research now that people who engage in BDSM are normal, well-adjusted people, but there's still a lot of bias among clinicians to frame it pathologically. Now when we look at vampires as another step further, we see the same kind of thing happening. With people who engage in BDSM, we have a difficult time finding clinicians who are open-minded to work with that population. Vampires are an even more secretive, underground group, and there's even less information about this community and who these people are.
How do these kinds of biases manifest in the clinical setting?
We struggle with relationships sometimes, or career changes. That sort of thing. When somebody who's in a minority position goes to a clinician for something like that, that really should be the focus of treatment and intervention. But at the same time, the better a clinician can understand the client's world, the better the rapport is going to be between the clinician and the client. The issue is, somebody comes in and they understand themselves in a certain way, it would be really helpful if the clinician could understand that and work within the client's world to provide better treatment. ...
That’s the solution to China’s huge surplus of single men, says Xie Zuoshi, an economics professor at the Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, whose recent proposal to allow polyandry has gone viral.
Legalizing marriage between two men would also be a good idea, Mr. Xie wrote in a post that has since been removed from his blogs. (He has at least three blogs, and his Sina blog alone has more than 2.6 million followers.)
By 2020, China will have an estimated 30 million bachelors — called guanggun, or “bare branches.” Birth control policies that since 1979 have limited many families to one child, a cultural preference for boys and the widespread, if illegal, practice of sex-selective abortion have contributed to a gender imbalance that hovers around 117 boys born for every 100 girls.
Though some could perhaps detect a touch of Jonathan Swift in the proposal, Mr. Xie wrote that he was approaching the problem from a purely economic point of view.
Many men, especially poor ones, he noted, are unable to find a wife and have children, and are condemned to living and dying without offspring to support them in old age, as children are required to do by law in China. But he believes there is a solution.
A shortage raises the price of goods — in this case, women, he explained. Rich men can afford them, but poor men are priced out. This can be solved by having two men share the same woman.
“With so many guanggun, women are in short supply and their value increases,” he wrote. “But that doesn’t mean the market can’t be adjusted. The guanggun problem is actually a problem of income. High-income men can find a woman because they can pay a higher price. What about low-income men? One solution is to have several take a wife together.”
He added: “That’s not just my weird idea. In some remote, poor places, brothers already marry the same woman, and they have a full and happy life.”
Polyandry has been practiced before in China, particularly in impoverished areas, as a way to pool resources and avoid the breakup of property.
Yet much of the online response to Mr. Xie’s proposal has been outrage.
“Is this a human being speaking?” a user with the handle dihuihui wrote on Weibo.
“Trash-talking professor, many single guys want to ask, ‘Where’s your wife?’ ” a user who identified as Shanyu jinxiang1887003537 wrote.
Attempts to contact Mr. Xie on Monday were unsuccessful.
On Sunday, he published an indignant rebuttal on one of his blogs, accusing his critics of being driven by empty notions of traditional morality that are impractical and selfish — even hypocritical.
“Because I promoted the idea that we should allow poor men to marry the same woman to solve the problem of 30 million guanggun, I’ve been endlessly abused,” he wrote. “People have even telephoned my university to harass me. These people have groundlessly accused me of promoting immoral and unethical ideas.
“If you can’t find a solution that doesn’t violate traditional morality,” he continued, “then why do you criticize me for violating traditional morality? You are in favor of a couple made up of one man, one woman. But your morality will lead to 30 million guanggun with no hope of finding a wife. Is that your so-called morality?” ...
Pink Therapy is a British kink education and therapy group. They have been known to attend the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities annual conference, which will next meet immediately prior to the 2016 Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, September 24. 2016..
They have produced excellent educational materials about the handling of power and the ethical obligations of participants, leaders, facilitators, educators and therapists. I get questions all the time from therapists in training about their responsibilities at kink events. Should they even go? Do they need to sacrifice their personal sex lives to serve their clients? How long after a therapeutic relationship stops is it safe to be seen by a client at an event?
These documents, which do not answer all questions, do outline the ethical responsibilities of informed consent among participants at different levels of power and experience.
Pink Therapy has produced two sets of guidelines that can be downloaded from their website:
Guidelines for Community Members Attending Parties or Events, downloadable here:
How needed are these? The 2014 Consent Violations Survey reported that over 30% of the over 4000 respondents who volunteered to complete the survey had experienced a violation. This must not be confused with all kink event participants due to a self-selected sample, and we have no way of knowing what percentage of kinksters saw our survey, and how many of those decided to respond. But 20% of the violations involved kink event organizers or leadership in the event sponsorship. This violations were perceived not just as mistakes, but abuse of institutional authority within the community.
Please feel free to reproduce these, distribute them, and modify them as best suits your community.