A few days ago now, Melissa Hill wrote in her new column “Dandelion Seeds” that she thinks that “Polytheism and Polyamory are a Natural Combination.” I remember how difficult it was to be a new columnist, and how spectacularly I stuck my foot in my gob more than once, so even though Yvonne Aburrow took her to task about some of her commentary regarding polyamory vs. monogamy, I am not intending to be as harsh. But I do have some objections to things that were stated in the article.
As my regular readers probably know by now, I’m polyamorous. I live in a committed polyfidelitous trio. I am married legally to Erin; I’ve been with him for about twenty years, married for ten. We are also in a relationship with Jamie, who was a good friend and my lover for many years before he came to complete our trio two years ago. For the most part we’re just like everyone else, except that the poles around which the relationship move are different.
I have never been monogamous, as far as I can tell, though I tried; I really, really tried. To complicate matters I am also bisexual. I fully absorbed our culture’s beliefs about how “good girls don’t like sex” very well; so well that I was anorexic and bullemic by the time I was fifteen; which, experts will tell you, is partially a tool to repress one’s sexuality.
My very first long-term relationship was with my high school sweetheart. I gave him my virginity when I was sixteen after two years of dating. By the time I was eighteen, however, I was also in a relationship with a lovely girl named Erin, with full consent of both of my partners. I suppose I never would have been, since I was trying so hard to be monogamous, but my boyfriend Brian’s family moved away; he didn’t move back until I graduated from high school. I was honest with everyone; we tried to figure out how to make it all work. Rejecting the culturally-proscribed ideals of love, relationship and sex was relatively easy by then, since I’d already been required to do all of that in order to claim my sexuality in the first place and I was in the process of coming out; far more scary to me then than having two relationships.
So I’ve done this polyamory thing for a long time. I’ve joined Facebook groups and Yahoogroups before that, trying to figure all this stuff out. And I have some thoughts about the polyamory thing that are probably not what you’d expect. You see, while I was spurred to write this by Melissa’s article, I don’t think much of what I’m taking exception to is directly a fault of Melissa’s. I think a good deal of it is the narrative that the poly community spins for itself that’s the problem.
That narrative is one that was necessary in order to gain self-acceptance in our culture, in which monogamy is assumed to be the default, and people are criticized as being morally deficient somehow if they are not monogamous. But I think this narrative is immature and potentially damaging; and that’s the narrative that says that love is free and infinite; that monogamy is about possessiveness; and that the only thing that stops a person from having infinite loves are their own moral deficiencies of possessiveness and jealousy. Friends, I’m here to tell you after more than twenty years of polyamory, and some really hard lessons, it’s just not true. Furthermore, I think this attitude is reckless and can lead to heartbreak where there doesn’t need to be any.
This belief — that what we call jealousy is a result of one’s own personal failings — has led both myself and my spouse into situations in which we felt that we could not say no when the other started a relationship that made us feel threatened. When it was me who felt threatened, I felt that I had no option but to accept the new girlfriend because I was a bad person if I refused. The girlfriend was much younger than I was, and prettier, and certainly I had reasons to feel threatened. But there was also a subconscious awareness that she was not concerned about my fate at the time; she was lonely and I was an obstacle. I felt like a failure because I was unable to get over my own jealousies and self-doubts. Eventually they broke up and our relationship survived and got past the point of crisis.
Years later, it was I who was in a relationship with a much younger man and my husband and then-boyfriend who felt threatened. I was angry. When I was the one who was concerned, I was expected to shut up and swallow my fears. Knowing this, my husband found himself in a position in which he felt that he would be a bad person if he expressed his feelings and fears, and Jamie, who had never really been in a polyamorous relationship before, felt that he should follow Erin’s lead. That was unfair to them and I never should have put them in that position. But I honestly didn’t realize that they didn’t feel that “no” was an option. When I realized how badly I was hurting our relationship, I ended the affair. I didn’t want to, but that’s what our relationship needed and so I did it.
The poly community would spin this story as me being controlled by two of the three men in my life. They would be wrong. I realized that if I truly was devoted I needed to make a sacrifice, as my husband ultimately had several years ago when faced with a similar situation.
My partners and I are also swingers. We play grown up games with other people. We don’t try to have relationships with them. And why should we? I think the idea that we must love everyone we have sex with is leftover morality we haven’t seriously thought about yet. The truth is that this subconscious belief is what created the problem with the younger man I was involved with. I had a very powerful sexual attraction, and I cared about him. Surely that had to be love? Otherwise I would be a bad person, right?
But there’s nothing in Pagan ethics that supports this need to love all of our partners. I think it’s residual societal programming; good girls don’t have sex with people they’re not in love with, after all. Well, why not? For a Pagan, there’s resounding silence instead of an answer. For a Wiccan, there’s even encouragement, because “all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals.” Surely if we believe in equality of the sexes, women can have sex because they want to, for their pleasure, also? As long as there is consent all around — from the person you’re having sex with, from your partner(s), from their partner(s) — then what’s the harm? And if there’s no harm, are we not encouraged to do as we will? ...
The recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage makes it seem as if marriage equality has finally come to the U.S. But that is not actually accurate. The celebration is great step forward, but in truth, there's more work to do if we as a nation want to truly recognize and celebrate the diversity of love, relationships and family.
For example, polyamory. Polyamorous partners do not have the privilege of legal marriage. What's worse, many are closeted for fear of discrimination in housing, employment and child custody. Prominent organizations such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) have brought attention to how polyamorists and other ethically non-monogamous people are targets for discrimination in the same way that LGBTQ folks have been. See here.
The ironic thing is, there would be no big deal about a person who just happened to be sleeping with more than one lover. But call it polyamory -- in other words, a public, ethical stance about loving more than one partner with honesty and integrity -- and that seems intolerable to so many. Currently, polyamorous people do not have equal protection under the law, because anything other than monogamy is seen as a fringe/freakish/immoral lifestyle choice and not as a valid sexual or relationship orientation.
I interviewed author and poly advocate Dr. Anya Trahan about the Supreme Court Decision, and what she sees as the way forward for those who embrace ethical loving with multiple partners.
Question: Do you think polyamory is a sexual orientation? Is it a choice or is it inborn?
Trahan: One of the great things about being human is the ability to choose the language and the labels that best articulate our values. I have heard many polys say that their way of living is a sexual orientation. That is a totally valid label, and I support anyone who wishes to use it. And, it may even be that from a legal standpoint, embracing the label of sexual orientation to describe polyamory may help prevent discrimination in the future -- because it is already commonly understood that to discriminate based on one's sexual orientation is not only wrong, but illegal.
The way I personally think of polyamory is as a relationship orientation. In my work as a relationship coach, I have found that a surprising number of my clients consider themselves "partners" or "family" with those whom there is no sexual interaction. In other words, polyamory seems to be more about coming together for the purposes of co-creating a life together, a support system, based on mutually shared values and philosophies. Responsible sexual expression may be enjoyed, of course, but that is not necessarily a prerequisite to form loving, intense, committed connections.
Question: You are a public figure, an author and a spokesperson for polyamory. Have you suffered any negative consequences?
Trahan: When I first came out as poly back in 2012, I lost a number of close friends. Members of my biological family reacted with open hostility and judgment, resulting in a period of estrangement. Since my book about polyamory, Opening Love has been published this year, I have been fired from two jobs. I have no desire to bring this to the courts (legal battles are, for me, not a good use of my energy), although I know that I would have at least a small shot at winning a discrimination case, because one of the organizations stated openly in writing that the reason I was being fired was for being openly polyamorous. In theory, I could sue on the grounds of sexual discrimination. ...
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize same-sex marriages, dissenting Chief Justice John Roberts wondered whether polygamy will be next. Some legal scholars have responded that yes, the arguments for gay marriage could apply to relationships among more than two partners, as well.
William Baude, a law professor at the University of Chicago, wrote, “By those lights, groups of adults who have profound polyamorous attachments and wish to build families and join the community have a strong claim to a right to marry.”
There’s a more basic question here: Why is government in the business of conferring a right to marry at all? What is it about this thing called marriage that justifies a grab bag of legal benefits? That would include tax advantages, inheritance rights, hospital visitations and the ability to make end-of-life decisions for one’s spouse.
The recent Supreme Court case disposed of the idea that only a man and woman can provide a stable home for children. Many gay couples do a better job of raising children than some heterosexual pairings.
And in any case, children have never been a requirement for marriage.
Baude inadvertently points to the illogic of tying any benefits to state-sanctioned marriage by using the word “polyamorous” in referring to polygamous relationships.
Merriam-Webster defines polyamory as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.”
It makes no sense that having a romance (or two or three) should entitle one to leave an estate to a partner tax-free or get in on another’s company health plan.
We can be totally in tune with the notion that such benefits help families.
And we can agree that children tend to be better off in households headed by devoted parents.
Marriage is a wonderful institution, but it does not follow that government should be defining it. Let ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and ship captains tie the marital knot. And have government recognize civil unions only.
Civil unions need not be between romantic partners. The pairing could be close friends, cousins, office mates. And of course, it could be a church-sanctioned spouse.
Sorry, polygamists, only one civil union partner at a time. If your lawyers should design plausible legal group arrangements, we’ll reconsider. ...
Four days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal 5-4 decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide, a Montana threesome applied for a polygamous marriage license. If denied, the trio intends to file suit to topple the law against bigamy. Husband Nathan Collier was featured on “Sister Wives,” so “reality TV” now meets legal and political reality.
More significant was a July 21 op-ed piece in The New York Times, that influential arbiter of acceptable discourse and the future agenda for America's cultural left. University of Chicago law professor William Baude, a “contributing opinion writer” for the paper, wrote, “If there is no magic power in opposite sexes when it comes to marriage, is there any magic power in the number two?” To him, “there is a very good argument” that “polyamorous relationships should be next.”
Baude was a former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, who warned against precisely that possibility in his opinion for the court’s four dissenters. Baude observes that tacticians needed to downplay the polygamy aspect that could have harmed the same-sex marriage cause, but with the Supreme Court victory this next step can be proposed candidly.
The savvy Washington Post had a solid polygamy analysis soon after the Court’s ruling. As Godbeat veterans are well aware, polygamy was practiced in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). So it's now time to ask Jewish and Christian thinkers why it became so abhorrent and whether and why it should remain so as the post-biblical West sets out to redefine marriage.
Opponents fear powerful and wealthy male polygamists might scoop up too many marriageable women, Baude says, but in these unbuttoned times a woman may also take several husbands. Also, “plural relationships could well be (and in some circles today are) between multiple people of both sexes, not all of whom are strictly heterosexual.”
Last year the Unitarian Universalist Association rewrote its non-discrimination policy to add tolerance toward varied “family and relationship structures.” The denominational directory includes a 15-year-old “polyamory awareness” caucus, which says the liberal faith has thereby recognized “polyamorous families and relationships” as well as “a variety of family and relationship structures different from polyamory.” ...
Polyamory has been gaining publicity over the last few years, fromNewsweek’s“Polyamory: The Next Sexual Revolution?” to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer’s open marriage, to Benedict Smith’s article inVICEabout growing up in a polyamorous household. The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage opened floodgates of alarmed and snarky speculation from detractors about whether it sets a precedent for the legalization of polyamorous marriages, and the Internet has largely responded in the affirmative. And there is a growing community of polyamorous people in the Pacific Northwest—including here in Corvallis—many of whom want legal recognition of their relationships and are considering what legal polyamorous marriage might look like.
One local man, Mike, is currently in a relationship with two long-term partners and one new partner. He said, “The subject of marriage often comes up when thinking about legal issues. Emotionally, I consider both of my long-term partners wives but legally I am only allowed to marry one of them. This has caused some emotional distress.”
It’s true legalizing polyamorous marriages would be very complicated. Would a person married to multiple partners have multiple marriage licenses? Bigamy is currently illegal everywhere in the US, but even if it weren’t, how would those different marriage licenses acknowledge each other in order to avoid disputes of property distribution and decision-making? Or would three or more people need to be married under one marriage license, even if they are not all romantically involved with each other, such as in a polygamist* relationship?
Currently polyamorous people have a few legal options open to them: distribution of property can be assigned through wills and trusts; more than one person can be given power of attorney for medical decisions. But only one, legally married spouse can participate in the other spouse’s insurance coverage, and insurance companies would almost certainly oppose expanding coverage to an indefinite number of partners.
Additionally, custody arrangements might be complicated if children are involved, and polyamorous parents are disadvantaged in a number of ways. One woman I spoke to, Julia, said she had difficulty compromising with her ex-husband on how to introduce new partners to their children. Smith, in his article, writes about the time a disapproving neighbour called CPS on his parents. Polyamory itself is not a reason to remove children from their home, but it has caused parents to lose custody of children during divorce and post-divorce proceedings. As practitioners of an alternative sexual expression, polyamorous people face suspicion and discrimination, and children of polyamorous people face bullying.
Though he has not faced overt discrimination due to his polyamory except from some family members, Mike asked for anonymity because he works in the area. Julia’s ex-husband outed her without permission to her family, and she has found, “all in all, my family’s reaction has been the most difficult part of being polyamorous.” She is lucky, however, that she is able to be open about polyamory at her work.
In Portland there are several groups dedicated to polyamory that meet regularly, and fairly openly, each boasting hundreds of members. The Corvallis community is much smaller, and many of those I spoke with did not want to be named.
Perhaps a first step for polyamory activism would be to fight for anti-discrimination laws. Besides facing alienation from some resources monogamous people have access to (it can be very hard, for instance, to find a relationship counsellor who is willing to counsel a poly couple), poly people face discrimination because polyamory is not a protected class. There is disagreement, even among polyamorous people, about whether polyamory is a lifestyle choice or a more fundamental identification. ...
Tyler Frahme, a University at Albany junior, had never even heard of affirmative consent, the unequivocal O.K. to sex that is mandated by state law. Nor was he in the habit of asking women for permission to proceed at every new juncture of sexual activity.
He and his friend Jill Santiago, a fellow junior and psychology major, were catching up in the Campus Center near the close of the school year when I approached their table to ask about the state’s new definition — put in place last winter to guide, govern and presumably protect nearly half a million students across 64 public campuses of the State University of New York, and followed in July by a law that applies to all college students in the state.
New York’s new legislation of what constitutes consent covers a lot of ground in sobering terms:
“Affirmative consent is a knowing, voluntary and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity.”
“Consent to any sexual act or prior consensual sexual activity between or with any party does not necessarily constitute consent to any other sexual act.”
Mr. Frahme turned defensive, even a little combative, after I introduced him to the legislation.
“Do you think this is a gender-neutral policy?” he demanded. “All these policies cast men in a predatory light. Most guys aren’t like that.”
I asked a test question: Can a really drunk person give consent?
“My answer to that is no,” he said. He was right.
“Consent cannot be given when a person is incapacitated.”
Mr. Frahme posed a (not-so-hypothetical) scenario of his own: “You both get drunk and it gets heated and you get into it. If the next day she regrets it and formally complains, to me that’s just plain wrong.” The initiator, in fact, is responsible for securing consent, but because the other party is intoxicated, it may not be obtainable.
Ms. Santiago, who knew all about the issue, having helped put together university-mandated training in sexual assault prevention for her sorority, jumped out of the interpretive rabbit hole, locked eyes with Mr. Frahme and said: “If guys realize they have to ask and get permission — and I’ve been asked before, it’s not that bad — this could wind up protecting everyone.”
It wasn’t such a mood kill, she said, when a partner paused and asked: “Do you want to do this. Is it O.K.?”
But Mr. Frahme wasn’t buying it — at least not yet.
Colleges and universities have been scurrying to amend codes of conduct and refine definitions of consent. One reason for the rush is that the Obama administration, which last year launched the “It’s on Us” campaign in an attempt to make campuses safer from sexual violence, has threatened to withhold federal funding from institutions that fail to address problems.
This past year saw a blossoming in the “yes means yes” movement, an about-face on “no means no,” which suggests that sex can advance until you hear that “no.”
“Silence or lack of resistance, in and of itself, does not demonstrate consent.” ...
It's true. I never thought I'd be working in the most famous bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) dungeon in New York City. Not to mention that I'd start at the ripe age of 55. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would kick a man straight in the balls wearing six-inch heels, blood-red lipstick, black eye shadow, and false eyelashes, I would have kicked you out of my house.
I was a holistic practitioner who lost my award-winning wellness practice in the wake of the Great Recession. I was 55, with no prospects, no financial savings, no family members who would help, and friends seemed to vanish into thin air. I found myself on my own with no hope in sight. But between the thoughts of despair, worthlessness, and even suicide, I had this little voice inside of me that kept saying, "I am resourceful."
Then one day, out of nowhere, came the idea of becoming a professional dominatrix.
At the time of my emotional and financial bankruptcy I was working to earn my PhD in Metaphysical Science, studying female sexual empowerment and researching the transmutation of sexual energy. As a student of empowerment and sexuality, I wanted so badly to "walk the walk" and apply these principles I had studied and believed to my own life. But no matter how hard I tried to talk myself into such a possibility, there was nothing in my reality telling me that it was possible.
Who would hire a 55-year-old woman with no experience whatsoever as a dominatrix?
I alternated between excited hope and logical despair. I was also struggling with many negative social influences that told me how wrong I would be to make such a decision. At the same time, I felt that I needed to be true to myself and that the experience could empower me as a woman. I somehow understood that this would set me free from my own judgmental perceptions (formed through social standards) of how a woman should behave and follow the "rules." I also hoped it might get me back on my feet financially.
Then, after weeks of persuasion, I finally convinced a New York City BDSM dungeon to grant me an in-person interview. I started my dominatrix training three days later, and just like that, the scariest thing I ever did led me into the most empowering experience of my life.
The dungeon was an extreme learning environment, to be sure, but during my time there I learned to truly accept other people with an open mind and an open heart. By practicing BDSM, I've come to understand that people are different and have very different desires, sexualities, hopes, dreams, loves, purposes, ambitions, and styles. And all of it is good. In the very beginning, I had to ask myself: If something or someone brings us genuine joy, happiness, pleasure, and love, how can that be wrong? ...