Our lives and loves sound complicated, and the world doesn't really understand -- but the truth is quite simple
by Angi Becker Stevens
My family is very ordinary to me. We eat dinner together. We gather in the living room and watch movies. Last weekend, we went on a camping trip and sat around the campfire making s’mores, the grown-ups enjoying a few beers while my 9-year-old daughter challenged us with endless rounds of “would you rather?” It all feels so wonderfully mundane that sometimes I have to remind myself that most people view us as strange at best, depraved at worst.
I’m polyamorous, which means I believe you can love multiple partners at the same time. I’m in a relationship with my husband of nearly 17 years, and my boyfriend, with whom I celebrated my second anniversary in May. (In polyamorous lingo, our relationship is known as a “V”; I’m the “hinge” of the V and my two partners are the vertices.) People often say our lives sound complicated, but the truth is, we’re quite harmonious. We often joke that we’d make incredibly boring subjects for reality TV.
That hasn’t kept the world at large from condemning us. The right has spent years warning that we are the travesty waiting down the slippery slope of same-sex marriage. With every stride forward for marriage equality, I can count on turning on the TV to find conservative talking heads lumping families like mine in with pedophilia and bestiality. But liberals, for the most part, don’t treat us much better. They’re quick to insist that same-sex marriage would never, ever lead to such awful things — failing to point out how multi-partner relationships between consenting adults do not exactly belong in the same category as “relationships” with children or goats.
Even people who don’t vilify us still have a great deal of misconception. Aren’t you just “having your cake and eating it too,” they ask me? Isn’t this unfair to the men? Doesn’t this hurt your daughter? The confusion is understandable. Many people have never seen a polyamorous family like ours before. So let me explain how it works — or, at least, how it works for us.
My path here was a long one. As far back as I can remember, I felt that loving one person romantically did not preclude the possibility of loving another at the same time. It seemed natural and intuitive to me. But I had no models for that way of living, so I assumed there was something wrong with me.
I married my husband and remained in a monogamous relationship with him for many years. I knew I wanted to be with him for the long haul. But I was never entirely fulfilled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that some part of me was repressed.
When I learned about polyamorous relationships, I knew that’s what I wanted. My husband wasn’t so sure, though. It sounded fine for other people, but just not him. And it still seemed unrealistic to me, so I never pressed the issue.
When I returned to school to finish my bachelor’s degree in my late 20s, I became friends with a man who changed my mind about all that. He believed in polyamory, too, and we had long conversations about it together: how it could work, how it was truly possible.
One night, I sat down with my husband and spilled everything. I told him that being polyamorous was a part of who I am, and I asked if he would at least do some research and give it serious consideration before dismissing the idea. He understood that I never would have asked this if it hadn’t been extremely important.
That conversation could have ended our marriage. But instead, our journey into non-monogamy began.
One of the biggest hurdles in non-monogamy — probably the hurdle — is jealousy. My husband was an incredibly jealous person back then, but he began to question its usefulness and purpose. Jealousy is born from a fear of losing a partner; if you believe that love and intimacy can be shared, and are not diminished by sharing, then that fear loses a lot of its power. It was liberating for my husband to step outside of the box that saw everyone else as some kind of threat.
Once he became comfortable with the idea, I began dating my friend from school. Those early days were not without challenges. Choosing to be polyamorous doesn’t mean you instantly flip a switch that extinguishes all jealousy. But it does mean that we seek to understand why we’re feeling insecure. Rather than saying, “You can’t do this with this other person,” we try to pinpoint what’s missing from our own relationship. We say things like, “I’m having a hard time, and I could really use some quality one-on-one time with you right now.” Being able to ask for what you need — rather than direct negativity at a partner’s other relationship — is vital in a polyamorous relationship. Opening ourselves up in this way was a revelation for my husband and me. We became more connected with each other than we’d been in years.
That first romantic relationship of mine only lasted 10 months (though he remains one of my closest friends). Afterward, I didn’t actively seek another partner. I was hurting from the breakup and not in any rush to put my feelings on the line again. Still, I was happy knowing I had that freedom when the right person came along. ...
Even after reading Rolling Stone’s recent article “Tales From the Millennials’ Sexual Revolution,” you might not have realized it was about polyamory. It was easy to miss. In several thousand words, the term appeared only one time. And no one could be blamed if the phrase that author Alex Morris chose in its stead caused even more confusion: “The New Monogamy.” Huh?
But despite the understandable confusion, Morris’ article was, at least in part, about polyamory. Novel terminology aside, it was the same old story about nontraditional relationships.
While well researched and amply quoted, Morris’ article engaged in an old, ugly trend of mischaracterizing polyamory as some kind of newly emerging phenomenon, discovered by Morris while investigating a “new sexual revolution.”
It isn’t that Morris’ profile was explicitly hostile, or even all that wary of non-monogamous arrangements. Rather, the well-intentioned reporting falls victim to an old laundry list of misapprehensions. Polyamory, according to Morris and countless other writers who have taken on the topic, is about frivolity and sex. That’s why it fits in an article that also deals with teenage promiscuity statistics and typical head-scratching over the vagaries of “hookup culture.”
I understand: Sex sells. Youth sells. Transgression sells. Package all three together and you’ve got a hot story.
But misleading stories about polyamory do a disservice, both to the immense diversity of polyamorous practice in this country and to readers who might be genuinely interested in exploring that diversity.
So, if I may temporarily take the dangerous step of speaking for my community, here are some common misunderstandings that have come out of these stories, and some clarifications for future stories:
Polyamory isn’t a trend among young people. It never was. Among the non-monogamous, there is everything from the youngish hipsters Morris profiles to long-standing domestic families with mortgages and children. Some are even on Social Security. The only common thread is deviation from strict, traditional fidelity.
Polyamory doesn’t entail a particular relationship structure. I’ve seen everything from the so-called open relationship to groups of three or more partners -- but for whom any outside entanglement would be a form of infidelity. And everything in between. The point is that those in every relationship get to figure out what works best for them. ...
This generation is radically rethinking straight sex and marriage, but at what cost? In Part One of a two-part series, Rolling Stone goes under the covers in search of new approaches to intimacy, commitment and hooking up. Read more: http://www.rollingst
By Alex Morris
By the end of their dinner at a small Italian restaurant in New York’s West Village, Leah is getting antsy to part ways with her boyfriend Ryan, so that she can go meet up with her boyfriend Jim. It’s not that she means to be rude, it’s just that Jim has been traveling for work, so it’s been a while since she’s seen him. Ryan gets this. As her “primary partner” and the man with whom she lives, he is the recipient of most of Leah’s attention, sexual and otherwise, but he understands her need to seek companionship from other quarters roughly one night a week. Tonight is one of those nights, and soon Leah will head to Jim’s penthouse apartment, where the rest of the evening, she says, will probably entail “hanging out, watching something, having sex.” “She’ll usually spend the night,” Ryan adds nonchalantly, which gives him a chance to enjoy some time alone or even invite another woman over. He doesn’t have a long-standing secondary relationship like Leah (“I’ve actually veered away from doing that”), but he certainly enjoys the company of other women, even sometimes when Leah is home. “I like everyone to meet each other and be friends and stuff,” he explains.
When Leah and Ryan met at a wedding four years ago, they didn’t expect to develop this type of arrangement. Neither of them had had an open relationship before, though it was something that Leah had contemplated. “I remember the first night, I was telling him about my difficulty with monogamy,” she says. “I don’t know why I felt the need, but it must have been on my mind a lot.” In almost every relationship she’d had, she’d found herself cheating, though she didn’t know if this was a character flaw or a problem with the conventional system. For his part, Ryan was unfazed. “I was just trying to get into your panties,” he says to her, laughing.
Because they started off dating long-distance (Ryan was living in Colorado at the time), it was understood that they would not be exclusive: They initiated a policy Leah describes as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But when Ryan moved to New York and began living with Leah a year and a half later, he assumed they would transition immediately into monogamy. “I thought, ‘All right, the long-distance shenanigans are over now, we’re moving in together, and it’s time to have a real go at this,’” he says, taking a sip of his beer. He was therefore surprised when the first thing Leah gave him after the move was a book called The Ethical Slut, considered to be a primer on how to handle a non-monogamous relationship.
Certainly, open heterosexual relationships are nothing new. Even the term “open relationship” seems like a throwback, uncomfortably reminiscent of free-love hippies, greasy swingers and a general loucheness so overt as to seem almost kitsch. But Leah and Ryan, 32 and 38, respectively, don’t fit these preconceived ideas. They’re both young professional types. She wears pretty skirts; he wears jeans and trendy glasses. They have a large, downtown apartment with a sweeping view and are possessed of the type of hip hyperawareness that lets them head off any assumptions as to what their arrangement might entail. Moreover, they see themselves as part of a growing trend of folks who do not view monogamy as any type of ideal. “There’s this huge group of younger people that are involved in these things,” says Ryan – an observation that seemed borne out of a monthly event called “Poly Cocktails,” held at an upstairs bar on the Lower East Side a few weeks later, in which one would have been hard-pressed to realize that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mixer (a guy who’d wandered in accidentally must have eventually figured it out; he was later seen by the bar grinning widely as he chatted up two women).
In fact, Leah and Ryan are noticing a trend that’s been on the radar of therapists and psychologists for several years now. Termed “The New Monogamy” in the journal Psychotherapy Networker, it’s a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time. Or, more specifically, that going outside the partnership for sex does not necessitate a forfeiture of it. “I was at a practice where we would meet every week, six to eight therapists in a room for teaching purposes and to bring up new things coming into therapy that weren’t there before,” says Lair Torrent, a New York-based marriage and family therapist. One of the things all the therapists had noticed over the past few years was “that couples – and these are younger people, twentysomethings, maybe early thirties – are negotiating what their brand of monogamy can be. They are opening up to having an open relationship, either in totality or for periods of time. I have couples that have closed relationships or open relationships depending on how they feel about the relative health of their relationship. It’s not so dogmatic.” ...
Local BDSM porn company Kink.com has faced growing pressure from the state legislature and regulatory agencies to use condoms on its shoots, and now, the company may confront a lawsuit from a performer who faced an HIV scare in the porn industry last year. A demand letter obtained by SF Weekly shows that an "aggrieved former employee" of Kink.com is seeking restitution for nearly 25 alleged violations of California Labor Code, including one pertaining to bloodborne pathogens.
The demand letter goes on to state that the former employee attended a shoot "wherein there was no exposure control plan, untested audience members participated, and other illegal acts and omissions occurred."
The letter also describes the porn industry's current database for STD testing, known as PASS, as a direct violation of California law. This database, the letter asserts, freely shares performers' legal names and personal medical information, including STD test results.
Kink spokesperson Mike Stabile says, "The letter is not only disingenuous, it's demonstrably false across the board, and we're absolutely fighting it."
As Kink.com faces legislative and regulatory pressure -- and a potential lawsuit -- it appears the company may pack up and leave San Francisco. Uptown Almanac reported that Kink.com, currently headquartered at the Armory in San Francisco's Mission district, had filed paperwork with the city's planning department to convert the building to office space.
The Armory, a historic building that housed the U.S. National Guard during the early 20th century, was purchased by Kink.com's founder and CEO Peter Acworth in 2006 for $14.5 million. But this is not the first time Acworth has proposed renovations to the Armory -- in 2007, he floated the idea of converting a portion of the building to condos, complete with webcams so voyeurs could watch the occupants online, and, more recently, he renovated the Armory's Drill Court for use as a community center.
However, the current proposal to convert the building to office space stems not from a desire to innovate the way porn is made, but rather to keep production the same.
As SF Weeklypreviously reported, Kink.com and other local pornography companies have faced increasing pressure to require performers to wear condoms while filming. In February, Kink.com was fined $78,710 by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration; the majority of the fine related to the lack of condom use on set. (A $3,710 portion of the fine was incurred due to other workplace safety hazards.) The complaints that initiated Cal-OSHA's investigation were filed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation on behalf of several performers. Kink.com is currently appealing the fines.
Stabile says, "Kink has always left the decision to use a condom up to the performer. Some of performers regularly use them, but most prefer not to, for the same reasons that other people choose not to. They can be uncomfortable, something that's magnified on a long shoot."
The Cal-OSHA fines come in the wake of a 2012 Los Angeles law requiring condom use on porn sets (the law was also backed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation). Since condom use became mandatory, the porn advocacy organization Free Speech Coalition reported a 95 percent drop in adult film permit applications in LA County, indicating that filmmakers are moving away from Los Angeles. Lawmakers are also pushing for a statewide law to require condoms in pornography -- California Assembly Bill 1576, which would require condom use in adult films made throughout the state, cleared the Assembly Labor Committee last week in a 5-0 vote.
Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, praised the vote, stating, "AB 1576 expands and broadens worker protections for all California's adult film workers on a statewide basis." The bill will soon be considered by the Legislature's Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media Committee. ...
Sex. It’s called the guilty pleasure. All too often - if it’s gay sex - it’s considered a shameful pleasure.
10 years ago my lover of twenty two years and I recognized a social need. There was no safe secure club in New York City where men could engage in sex that wasn’t clothed in darkness or a subliminal negativity. So we opened a private men’s sex club whose purpose was to provide an environment where sex could be talked about and engaged in with a positive attitude. We felt that a safe, positive and comfortable setting such as ours would give people the freedom and security to develop healthy practices. We knew that the implicit shame in “underground, closeted” sex only fostered unsafe practices. In fact, we watched over the years as condom use increased and conversations between positive and negative men, about sex and risk, became more commonplace.
After seven years in operation we received a letter from Mayor Bloomberg’s Midtown Task Force, stating their intention to close us down. Our letter of response reminded them of our work and openness with the state and city representatives and invited them to meet with us about our business. That meeting was declined.
Then on November 16, 2006 a task force of Mayor Bloomberg’s came just as the staff had opened and rushed them out of the club, with just enough time to gather their things, and padlocked the door. In spite of our organization as a private membership club, in spite of our involvement with the city and state for three years on the Commercial Sex Venue Working Group (CSVWG) forum, we were forced to close. At the time the Gay City News reported that the summons filed by the city detailed a list of sexual acts. The majority – up to of 80% of those cited in the summons -were cited as safe sex acts.
EL MIRAGE - that was the name of the club - strived to be a good business citizen. We paid taxes, had unemployment insurance and workman’s compensation, provided CPR training/ certification for our employees. We supported groups like The Anti-Violence Project and Ryan-Nena Community Health Center. We had HIV testing and STD counseling on a regular basis. We worked with the CSVWG.
We operated strictly as a private membership club. We knew that a state health law – written in the late eighties to justify the closure of gay bathhouses - forbade public establishments from providing facilities for sex. In CSVWG meetings with health department representatives, we were even told that the officials would honor this interpretation of the law and not pursue enforcement.
Why close El Mirage? What could be the compelling reason? NO SHAME. Operating illegally, underground with no community awareness is tolerated because those in power don’t look like they are condoning gay sex.
Ted Haggard’s shame would only allow him to admit to having massages by a male while using crystal meth, asking for forgiveness for the part of his life “that is so repulsive and dark.” James McGreevy came out to divert attention from his breaking corruption scandal to gain sympathy for the “suffering and anguish” of his homosexual lifestyle. Andrew Sullivan has said he wants gays and lesbians to be considered “normal.”
Now, what is normal? Shame? Shame defined in Wikipedia is “the consciousness or awareness of dishonor, disgrace, or condemnation.
The question may be: whose consciousness or awareness shall lead us? Certainly not Haggard’s, McGreevy’s, Sullivan’s or a mayor of New York City. Any kind of consensual sex by persons of the same, or appropriate ages, should carry no shame. The dishonor, disgrace and self-condemnation are tools of the closet. As long as we are neutered, we are tolerated. But the idea that two men or two women have actual intimate physical contact brings our rights into question.
One of the philosophies from the sixties that was transformed, yet kept alive in the seventies by the gay and lesbian movement, was that of embracing our physical being as something spiritual and enlightening. Gay men developed this philosophy with more sexually expressive freedoms. Lesbians in turn developed a women’s health movement and a collective identity so beautifully proclaimed in “Our Bodies, Our Selves.”
This openness scared many people, straight and gay alike. A resurgence of shame for sexuality was re-established throughout society. And this fear of ourselves, or should I say shame of ourselves, has brought us back to the oppression we see tolerated today. This shame prevents open and educated communication concerning sex, disease, and alternative lifestyles.
Who we are physically intimate with is one facet that makes us different from others - joyfully so. It gives us a novel -even revolutionary- perspective on the world around us.
Shame is a terrible demon. After all, your shame could be considered my “normalness.” And it has no place being anywhere near sex, which is a glorious gift from the Universe.
To read more blogs by Joel, go to: http://www.tumblr.com/search/joel+czarlinsky
Last summer, I started a long-term project on consent within the Fifty Shades of Grey series as seen through BDSM and marriage contracts. Only halfway through the summer did I pay attention to reactions to the topic.
It was only after people unexpectedly failed to laugh or joke about my research that I realized I expected them to mock my work. I would be comforted if I could say these reactions center on the text alone: Fifty Shades is what it is, and the pop culture hive-mind long ago decided to create a meme of derision against the series and anyone who engages with it.
But these reactions go beyond the typical excuse of discomfort about my type of research, because being ridiculed for my obviously intensive project is only the least of my worries as a sex positive advocate. I have had to defend myself against misguided first impressions without shaming those who make choices similar to the stereotypes thrown against me. I have had to manage a mix of shame and anger when someone made joking insinuations about my personal life for months based on the fact that I write this column.
And I know I am not alone. Too many times, I have heard similar struggles from friends, classmates and strangers in and outside of campus who are passionate about sexual or romantic health. They understand that the very nature of their advocacy puts them in potentially uncomfortable, unwanted, unsafe situations.
Similar situations pop up with most advocacy work. When there is something to fight for, you occasionally encounter people or situations against which to argue. For now, I am concerned most with the response to activism surrounding sexual or romantic health. It is disturbing that the very act of talking about and advocating for these issues exacerbates the very threat of sexualized, intimate violence. Even if it is supposedly part of the job, how can it be fair that those in vulnerable positions are asked to open themselves up to even more vulnerability?
An incident I believe highlights the urgency of this issue occurred between me and a classmate last year. I mentioned my work with this column and my racialized, classed sex positivity. The student asked me about it, and we had a good conversation about porn even though he held views different than mine. However, he kept asking me about porn, called me out in class about my opinions, and forced me to defend myself after I felt we had exasperated the topic. Because I think of myself as an educator and because I was socialized through violence to always answer questions from men, I kept answering even though I found myself growing uncomfortable.
A friend checked in with me and told me something I had not considered: I could say no to his questions. That it’s okay to feel uncomfortable, even as an advocate. I realized that being made to talk about porn and sex with him brought up the feelings of embarrassment, being trapped, inability to say no, and frustration that I associate with sexual harassment. I had convinced myself I did not deserve to feel upset because the intention in our conversation was education, not a sexual or romantic pursuit.
The exchanges did not escalate to harassment. I recognize my participation in creating the situation, and I still do not completely blame him for it. That check-in helped me start saying no and tell him I was uncomfortable, and he understood the situation and backed off. But this recognition does not excuse my emotional toil, justify his obliviousness and rudeness or indicate that the situation would not have escalated the point where I felt harassed. ...
The BDSM porn purveyor Kink.com that has been operating in the Armory Building since 2007 may soon be cracking its last whip in the Mission. It’s not leaving because of the rising cost of real estate; it’s because of the cost of producing porn.
Last week, the Planning Department released a preliminary review of a plan submitted by Peter Acworth, CEO of Kink.com and the Armory Building’s owner, that would convert the building’s production studios into office space. If approved the proposal would create more than 100,000 square feet of office space in the Civil War-era building on 14th and Mission.
In an email message to Mission Local, Acworth explained that recent and upcoming legislative changes creating stricter health regulations in adult films have made the production of hardcore pornography prohibitively expensive in California. Acworth says that he may move the production arm of Kink.com to Nevada and rent out the Armory for office use.
“The fact is that new regulations threaten to essentially criminalize the production of hardcore pornography in California,” Acworth said. “Measure B in L.A. county was just the start, and now we face AB 1576 and new draft CAL-OSHA regulations that are being proposed.”
Assembly Bill 1576, which was introduced in January, would amend the California Occupational Safety and Health Act with provisions specifically for adult films. If approved, studios would have to provide documentation that all performers use condoms during scenes involving penetrative intercourse and that all performers are tested for STIs every 14 days.
“These new regulations are not yet in place and we are disputing them,” Acworth said in his email. “We hope to prevail on the basis that our protocols include strict, mandatory testing and/or mandatory condoms for all our shoots, and based on the fact that there has not been an on-set transmission of HIV in the U.S. since 2004 on any set where testing was required — not just at Kink.com but anywhere in the industry.”
Earlier this year, two performers named Cameron Bay and Rod Daily contracted HIV during the time they were also working for Kink.com. According to Kink.com spokesman Mike Stabile, Bay was offered a condom but declined to use one during her shoot and Daily, Bay’s boyfriend at the time, used condoms during all his scenes. Acworth has stated previously that he was confident these performers were infected through encounters in their personal lives and not on set, in part, because all their scene partners tested negative following shoots with Bay or Cameron.
However, in an interview with the Huffington Post, Bay has described a more complex situation in which she felt subtle pressure not to use condoms and was severely injured while on set. Her contraction of HIV led to a brief national moratorium on porn shoots. ...