Archive for July, 2007

love on the menu
July 31, 2007

Girls who want boys / Who like boys to be girls / Who do boys like they’re girls / Who do girls like they’re boys / Always should be someone you really love

- Blur, “Girls and Boys”

***

Fuck me like you hate me.

- Slogan seen on a t-shirt during Pride weekend

***

You know, much as I enjoy that song and much as I laughed at the t-shirt slogan when I saw it, I really must disagree with both of them.

This weekend, I was wandering through the Village after Pride celebrations, and I ran into a bunch of friends. One of the people with them, someone I’ve only met a couple of times, was singing the Blur tune, and it occurred to me to ask, “What if it’s not about love?”

The person proceeded to give me a miniature lecture on polyamory. “You can love more than one person!” and so forth. I replied that yes, of course it’s possible to love more than one person at once, but that’s not really the point. What if it really isn’t about love?

It was Pride, people were overheated and drinking beer out of paper bags, it was loud and there were happy crowds everywhere. Not the best time for a philosophical discussion with a relative stranger, so as you can imagine the thread got dropped pretty quickly in favour of less weighty pursuits. But the question remained in my mind.

Sometimes I think we elevate love to such heights in our culture that other things get dropped in the process. Does a student need to love a teacher to learn from them, or a teacher the student in order to teach with grace and skill? Does a doctor need to love a patient or client in order to provide care? Does a minister need to love every person in a congregation to provide them with spiritual direction? Does a bootblack need to love every person who sits at their stand in order to buff the perfect shine into their toe caps?

Do we need to love the people who write books, make art, create delicious food and gorgeous music to enjoy the fruits of their work? Do they need to love us? Do we need to love someone in order to save their lives, massage the knots out of their back, buy them a thoughtful gift, drive them home after they’ve had one too many, help them down a steep flight of stairs? Do we need to love someone in order to be kind, respectful, generous?

And more to the point for this particular discussion: do we need to love someone to look at them from across the room and feel a buzz somewhere deep in our guts because of the way the light catches the side of their jaw or the way their hair falls in their eyes? Do we need to love someone in order to enjoy their company, savour their kisses, go to places of vulnerability and pleasure together? Do we need to love someone in order to take them on a journey of erotic pain or power? Do we need to love someone in order to taste them and bite them and breathe them and hold them and stroke them, and to find deep connection and joy in those experiences together?

Perhaps for some people the answer to all these questions is yes. Perhaps for others the anser is yes to some, but not to others. For me, the answer is no across the board.

In no way am I saying that love is a bad thing, or an unworthy thing. I’m not the least bit bitter or angry or lonely or jaded. I just think we need to see more nuance in the question of love than we currently seem to have much room for. Love is a many-splendoured thing; love is a battlefield; love is heaven for the lonely; it makes us move mountains, it makes the world go ‘round. I get it! I really do. I just think that if we think anything outside of earth-shattering soul-wrenching mind-blowing love is all that’s worth enjoying, we’re setting ourselves up for some serious disappointment.

Some people really do believe that sex should only happen between people who love each other. I think sex is about pleasure, and that pleasure can be experienced in a myriad of ways with people in many types of relationship and degrees of connection.

Do I think it’s a good idea to have sex with someone you don’t feel connected to? No, not really. I suppose maybe on occasion it could work, but I generally find it distasteful, and it’s not the kind of experience I want to pursue. The idea of having sex with someone out of sheer loneliness, or revenge, or boredom, or total lack of self-worth, or whatever other creepy dysfunctional reason you can come up with – no, no, no. Not good, at least not in my books.

But from there to saying you need to want to buy china together before you can get them in the sack – good lord, what a bore. Talk about finding a great way to kill spontaneity, and dismiss the sheer joy that can be taken in a magical moment with a person you’ve just met… or the deep satisfaction of having warm and caring sex with a friend you aren’t in love with but with whom you share an enduring attraction… or the intensity of making out with someone you haven’t seen in years and may not see again… or the deliciousness of sharing a sensual experience with a kinky person who’s outside your usual orientation pattern but who’s just damned good at a particular sort of play you like… or the enjoyment of the exquisite energy that rises when the stars line up right and three, four or more people tumble into bed together in a tangle of limbs and mouths and more.

I know, I know, love exists in all kinds of permutations too—not just the china-buying kind. If you want to get really woo-woo about it, you could even say that every form of intimate connection is a form of love. Perhaps, in that sense, the bootblack really does love every boot-wearer who comes their way and the minister does love every member of the congregation; perhaps in listening to Beethoven’s sonatas we really are feeling love across the boundaries of death, or in eating the perfect chocolate brownie we truly are ingesting a baker’s love at its most nutritious. Perhaps every time I kiss someone it’s actually a form of love, even if we don’t know anything beyond one another’s names and the pull we’re feeling towards each other.

But most of the time when someone says “save sex for someone you love,” they’re implying a package deal that includes a fairly strict form of love in a fairly strict form of relationship. It’s about commitment, and sticking it out for the long term, and using words like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “partner” or “spouse.” Among non-poly people, it implies monogamy. Among poly people, it implies that the pleasure of an excruciatingly hot fling is somehow lower on the legitimacy scale than the pleasure of making love to your LTR honey.

I guess what I’m driving at is the following: underlying the discourse of “sex goes hand in hand with love,” I often catch the rotten scent of sex-negativity. It’s the stink of Christian repression and white Western antisepticism, the stench of colonial pleasure-quashing and the patriarchal marriage imperative, the misguided push towards monogamy as a solution for the AIDS crisis, the loaded use of the term “promiscuity” in sociological and medical literature, the very fairy-tale romantic but unfortunately inaccurate idea that love gives every story a happy ending. It smells the same coming from a radical queer as it does coming from an evangelical wingnut. It pisses me the fuck off.

Sex does not need love to be legitimate. Sex and other forms of pleasure are just fine on their own, thank you very much, and have been for millennia despite every effort to enforce the contrary. Sex is beautiful and deep and meaningful and shallow and fleeting and fun and mind-bending and disappointing and sad and exciting and painful and spiritual and educational and pleasurable and yes, sometimes loving. But only sometimes. I could keep adding words to that menu all day long, and they’d probably each be true for someone somewhere—to varying degrees and seasoned to taste.

I fully support some people’s choice to restrict their sexual pleasure as something to be shared exclusively in the context of a loving relationship, but only if it comes in the context of a choice… not as an approach that’s imposed on everyone else and used as a tool for making value judgments about them. Some of us have tastes that are more varied; not everyone has to indulge in a cornucopia of sexual relations, but I can’t help but think we’re all going to be hungrier in the end if we don’t have the full menu to choose from in the first place.

pride lessons
July 31, 2007

Things I learned at Pride this year, either at community day or during the parade:

1. A lot of people are completely clueless about the existence of the bi flag and the leather pride flag. Luckily, they ask questions. I don’t think I’ve done that much basic education in a long time!

2. Some gay men are intrigued by kinky women, but those same ones also tend to be very nervous about us. At least in Montreal. What happens is, they recognize something in the outfit, and their minds jump instantly to “kindred spirits!” except then they also notice the boobs or some other telltale sign, and they aren’t quite sure what to do. Sometimes they take photos and then run away. Sometimes they stop and have a conversation with one another while staring in the kinky women’s general direction. Sometimes they give you the eyeball and deliberately walk by. However, when you’re in Toronto or San Francisco, they compliment your outfit and want you to hit them or want to make out with you. Really, can’t we import some of that? Pretty please?

3. A true friend is she who runs up to you, as you march in the searingly hot sun wearing head-to-toe black PVC and absolutely melting, and hands you two bottles of chilled water with a big grin. (Note to self: next year, plan to ask a friend to do that on purpose, rather than being desperately mewlingly relieved when it happens by chance.)

4. At every Pride parade and related major queer outdoor event in every city in North America, there will be at least one bald shirtless muscleman with a live snake wrapped around his shoulders. Or so it seems from recent years. Maybe it’s the same guy and he just travels all over the place. Luckily, he’s very tolerant of strange women running up and wanting to pet his snake; he doesn’t make the obvious jokes, and he takes no offense that you’re much more interested in his scaly friend than in him.

5. Every year during the Pride parade, at least one person you know will be outed as something to someone they hadn’t told before – as gay to their work colleagues, as kinky to their gay friends, as poly to their straight friends, whatever. It never fails. Generally speaking, though, if the friend or colleague is at the Pride parade in the first place, they don’t have a major issue with your identity, whatever it may be.

6. Little old ladies fucking love dominant dykes. I have never experienced so many wizened specimens of womanhood giving me gleeful sly grins and mimicking spanking their husbands while they aren’t looking. They are absolutely delightful.

7. If you are going to spend six hours walking around in 7-inch-heel bitch boots, line up a friend to rub your feet for a loooong time afterwards. I neglected to do so this year, and am regretting it still. Anyone?… Anyone??…

8. There is a suspiciously enormous degree of overlap between the gender-bending queer population and the sadomasochistic queer population. I am not entirely sure what this is about, but it’s really quite fascinating. And hot. Did I mention the hot part? Just checking.

9. When you’re sitting at a booth for a queer women’s BDSM-related organization, it’s really easy to suss out a woman’s motivations when she approaches. They generally land in one of the following categories:

a) Methodically curious about each booth on the street and approaching as a matter of principle.

b) Giggly and titillated and wanting information to further both states, à la “Hee hee hee! So do you, like, whip each other an’ stuff?”

c) Clueless about BDSM, and while perhaps a bit adventurous in bed, not quite connecting with the leather/SM culture per se, and trying to figure out if the group holds any appeal or if it’s simply nice to know we’re out there. 

d) Quietly taking in the fact that yes, kinky queer women do exist, and good lord, that means they might finally have found their home. That doesn’t mean they’re ready to jump in with both feet, but they clearly belong with us and they know it. This last one often cruises by several times before approaching.

10. The best moments of Pride are the ones that nobody plans for. The chance encounters, the unexpected. Not that planning is bad… simply that Pride is full of surprise of the very best kind.

pride: queer in triplicate
July 26, 2007

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received dozens of phone calls, e-mails and in-person questions from people wanting to know what the heck is up with Pride this year. I find this particularly funny because in all my years of queer organizing in Montreal, I have never played any part in managing our Pride festivities. Even funnier, though, the fine folks from Célébrations LGBTA decided they should let me know what was up too, so it worked out that I have had information to give the people who were asking. It’s so odd how these things work out…

Anyway, so in addition to playing the role of unofficial point de chute, I’ve now had the pleasure and privilege of doing the official version. Last week I got to yak with the very cheery and energetic Éric Pineault, president of Célébrations LGBTA, and put together an article for the Mirror that sums up what they’re doing – specifically, this coming weekend’s community day and parade. Plus, I got to do another short piece about the kick-off of Divers/Cité on Wednesday, August 1, which will be followed up by a few more articles in next week’s paper covering some neat queer stuff both related and unrelated to the D/C festivities – I’ll post the links when those ones are published.

Y’know, I’m always happy about Pride as a general thing. I like the official glitzy events (well, some of them), I like the underground events, I like the house parties, I like the scores of hotties who show up to our proud city and make it even sexier than it already is, and I most definitely like having the opportunity to enjoy excessive amounts of sleep deprivation and dehydration and the occasional sunburn in service to the organizations I volunteer with all year. This is all kind of a given. But it’s even cooler when the people organizing the whole thing are so inspired and so interested in commemorating the rich history of queer activism while creating spaces for that activism to flourish today. Éric Pineault has a lot of good shit to say, and the activities the new group has organized really reflect a consciousness of and respect for our history. It makes me all wiggly. Add the Divers/Cité photo retrospective covering ten years of drag shows and I’m in historical heaven.

Anyway, I’m totally not interested in taking sides in the whole politicky thing that’s been going on between Divers/Cité and Célébrations LGBTA. As far as I’m concerned, the way things are working out this year, I get the chance to do all my activisty stuff this coming weekend at the Célébrations events (community day and the parade), and then I get to chill and enjoy the Divers/Cité festivities for a week after that. Plus, I’ll surely be checking out a few of the hip happenings put on by Pervers/Cité, the radical queer response to the commercialization of Pride.

Lest you get your political panties in a knot, allow me to point out that I am definitely not the only person in this town who’s planning to march in a parade run by one organization, catch a couple of huge stage shows put on by another, and attend grassroots events coordinated by a third… none of which particularly like or agree with one another’s approach. I suppose if you really wanted to, you could see that as a bad thing. But really, when a single city has three different groups putting on three entire ranges of activities to celebrate queerness, not to mention all the little things that individuals and community groups are setting up to complement the big events (myself included)… well, the last fucking thing I’m going to do is start complaining. There are times in life where it’s important to just sit back and count your blessings, and this is one of ‘em.

the layers of lolita
July 25, 2007

Not too long ago, my book club – the Queer Ladies’ Reading Society – read Vladimir Nabokov’s classic work of fiction, Lolita.

It amazes me to think about some of the things that made it into print in the repressive 1950s. Lolita was published in 1955, and it’s pretty darned scandalous even by today’s standards – in subject matter at least. Not so in graphic explanations. There is nary a four-letter word in the book, not to mention you won’t find a single explicit description of any bodily activities. I had to morbidly giggle to myself when, in the last 30 pages of a novel entirely dedicated to a grown man’s sexual obsession with a pre-pubescent girl, the narrator/protagonist conveys Lolita’s crass reference to a blow job in these words: “She used, in all insouciance really, a disgusting slang term which, in a literal French translation, would be souffler.” You know, because “disgusting” applies to sexual slang, but child-molesting is just pristine. Gah.

If you look at the reviews, a number of them – including the foreword of the book – point to the fact that Nabokov produced a work of literary genius here. Case in point (full review here):

Lolita, light of so many lives, fire of so many loins, has become so much more than merely the book Nabokov wrote. The story of the young nymphet, Dolores (Lolita) Haze, and her seducer, Humbert Humbert, lives beyond the confines of the novel. In all the fuss about the story (and the films and Lolita-variations that keep appearing) Nabokov’s novel is sometimes forgotten. This is unfortunate, because Nabokov’s novel is a remarkable work of artistry, among the finest written in English in the second half of the twentieth century.

Admittedly, the quality of his writing is luminous. Especially considering that Nabokov’s first language was Russian, it’s a gorgeously written book, with some of the finest uses of English vocabulary I’ve had the privilege of enjoying.

It still creeps me the fuck out.

Not necessarily for the obvious reasons. A lot of people go batty when they think about intergenerational relationships – in other words, young folks paired up with folks much older than they. Certainly, the recent Conservative frenzy to bump up Canada’s age of consent is fitting testament to that, and don’t even start me on the sheer insanity south of the border. Read Judith Levine’s brilliant book Harmful to Minors if you want a beautifully articulated and extremely well-supported argument about how the paranoia around kids’ sexuality is actually what’s sending scores of kids to the hospital with rampant STIs and rising rates of teen pregnancy.

What I’m getting at is, a lot of people get upset about anything hinting at sexual relations prior to or in the early stages of puberty, particularly when an adult is involved. And while I fully support the idea that such relations are very often a bad idea, I’m more concerned about the power balance than I am about the numbers on a birth certificate.

I dunno. Maybe it’s because I’m a sadomasochist that I’m so sensitive to the nuances of power. When you spend enough time playing with power in really intense and deliberate ways, I think it can produce a heightened awareness of everyday power dynamics, kinky or not. These days, it’s hard for me to stomach a lot of the courtship rituals that most people seem to think are completely normal – let alone the ways that some couples behave with one another, the ways that some bosses keep their employees in line, and the ways some doctors treat their patients, just to name a few.

Basically, anytime there’s a power differential between two people, there’s the potential for abuse, and “abuse” in this sense isn’t just about black eyes and broken ribs. It’s when one person takes advantage of their position to make something happen that goes against the desires of the other person concerned, even if they verbally or otherwise consent to something. And this sort of imbalance can rear its head in any number of situations entirely unrelated to age and gender.

In addition to the standard “bad guy” model – in which the power-abuser is fully aware of what they’re doing and using their power deliberately in their own personal favour – I think that a lot of people in positions of power are ripe for abusing that power simply because they’re completely oblivious. They don’t understand the power they hold; or if they do, they have a poor grasp of the extent of its influence. And by the very nature of power-weilding, not only are they predisposed not to know, they are also in the midst of creating a situation in which they’re less likely to be told. Why? Because they’re in power and the ones who aren’t in power don’t want to piss the big man off. Vicious circle, eh?

That being said, I simply can’t stand it when someone takes a look at a situation, judges it by its external criteria only (skin colour, age, gender, etc.) and makes a call as to whether it’s abuse or not – without looking at the way power is balanced within a given interpersonal dynamic. Sure, these things can be factors. But there’s quite a leap between “potential factor” and “guarantee.”

To bring this all back to age-differentiated relationships… I have a long personal history of pursuing and dating people who are radically older than me, and that history began when I was 12 years old. Or even earlier, though my pursuits only really started to become successful once I’d hit puberty. And I was never sexually abused or molested by any of the people I pursued in my youth, even when those pursuits created situations that technically qualified as statutory rape. In fact I think I often made the objects of my affection much more uncomfortable and nervous than they ever made me. So I just don’t buy the idea that all kids and teenagers have no sexual agency and exist only as the potential victims of abuse until they turn 14, or 16, or 18, or whatever this year’s number is.

Now, to apply this to Lolita. Rather than reading it with the standard knee-jerk response in tow – “Humbert Humbert is a dirty pervert and Lolita is an innocent flower of childhood” – I read the whole thing with the aim of sussing out what the power balance truly was between the two characters. And in doing so, I found a number of instances where the power balance seemed not as clear as most people would like to think. For example, Lolita instigates the first kiss with Humbert, completely surprising him; she also instigates their first sexual encounter. And – spoiler alert! – as it turns out, he’s not even the first man she’s done so with; the reader finds out, quite late in the novel, that she took part in all kinds of debauched activities with an older man while ostensibly at summer camp, while successfully refusing to engage in similar activities with other men. In other words, she was at choice – she said yes or pursued when she was interested, and said no or left when she was not.

On the surface, this would serve to confirm if not a complete flip of the abuser/abused power dynamic, at least a much more layered and complex version of it.

But. And this is the killer but that makes the whole happy reading fall apart. But – history is written by the victor. The victor, in this case – narrator, protagonist, lover, pedophile – is Humbert Humbert himself. The entire novel is written in his voice, and at numerous places he gives himself away as not being particularly reliable. He glosses over the time he spends in mental institutions; he casually mentions the violence he aims at his ex-wife, as though the reader were supposed to buy into the dismissive “it’s no big deal” tone he takes towards spousal abuse; he explains away his use of drink and drugs to get through difficult times; he portrays himself as the submissive counterpart to a dominant second wife, despite how he marries her with the express purpose of getting into her daughter’s pants. He even goes so far as to develop a plan (never realized) to supposedly preserve Lolita’s chastity by drugging her and screwing her in her chemically-induced sleep, as though somehow that were less a rape because she’s unconscious for the duration.

The reader is left to decide whether his generalized creepiness really makes Humbert’s one side of a black-and-white equation, or whether somehow Lolita’s active pursuit complicates the equation sufficiently to re-think it. Those who are inclined towards black-and-white readings of things will surely fall into the “creepy guy” camp; those who are liberal-minded might be inclined to see the nuance.

I think my take is neither of these. I maintain that we, as readers, are ill-equipped to judge any of this, because the only testimony we’re hearing is that of the accused. You wanna talk power imbalance? Try this one on: 309 pages from one participant’s perspective (who just happens to be an older, educated male) and zero from the other’s. Images of Lolita may fill the novel, but she is simply there as the object of all Humbert’s lustful ravings. Nowhere does she become a subject in her own right, with a voice and a perspective of her own. We are left to filter all the information we have about her through our knowledge of Humbert’s character, which is unsavoury to say the least. Lolita does not narrate any portion of the novel; all we know of her is what Humbert sees, and while he certainly does a lot of looking, he fails miserably in the department of listening and understanding.

In the end, for me at least, it’s not so much what happens in the novel that leads me to think there truly is an abusive situation going on, but the way the narrative is set up from the get-go. Anytime we’re only hearing one side of a story, there’s a built-in barrier to understanding the truth of it, or as close as we can ever get to real truth. So whether Lolita is a clueless child or a master seductress who paints herself into a corner, or whether Humbert is a violent child abuser or simply an unpleasant man sucked deep into a spiral of overwhelming desire and attendant self-hatred, Nabokov has set it up so that we simply can’t ever know. And that, beyond the crystalline writing and the legendary status of the novel, is what really makes this a fantastic work of literature.

sex and the “single” non-monogamist
July 23, 2007

I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of non-monogamy lately. Hanging out with Freaksexual, aka my sweetie Pepper Mint, will do that to ya – he instigated a brainstorm the other day on gender-related power imbalances in various forms of non-monogamy (some of which wound up in his post here, if you’re curious), and various things have been rumbling around in my head since then.

The particular tangent I’m on today is about the idea of the “single” non-monogamist. So often, when we talk about non-monogamy or polyamory, we first think of a classic pairing – i.e. two people who are in love and in some sort of committed relationship – who choose to adopt some form of non-monogamy in which they are permitted to have relationships of whatever nature with people outside their dyad.

Fair enough; these people do most definitely exist. But so much of poly literature, poly culture, and the general mainstream cultural perception of non-monogamy presumes that this is the only or prevalent model that all the rest tend to get swept under the rug or simply ignored. This is particularly evident in the straighter elements of poly culture. (Please note I said “straight,” i.e. culturally normative and predominantly heterosexual, not the same as “heterosexual,” i.e. the biological pairing of a man and a woman, which may be quite queer and culturally non-normative indeed.) These elements of the poly tapestry tend to focus not only on the couple-centred model of poly, but specifically on the marriage model – in other words, assuming that most poly starts with a married male-female couple and moves from there into other relationships. Sometimes they focus on this to the explicit exclusion of, or at least total insensitivity to, same-sex pairings, poly people who don’t believe in or don’t choose marriage, people without kids, and more fluid forms of poly in general.

It’s certainly useful to have tools out there – workshops, books and so forth – designed to help married couples figure out how to better do their polyamory so their relationship doesn’t implode. But it bugs me that the standard straight cultural hegemony is still so present even among an alternative approach to relationships.

It also bugs me to note that so much of poly discourse is focused on this model that we neglect to address the concerns or realities of the people outside it. There may even be a question of doubting the credibility of those who do it differently. Much like the “good queers” are the ones who marry and make their lives look as much like straight people’s as possible, there seems to be a lurking idea that the “good polyamorists” focus on a wholesome, normative central relationship and their only deviance is non-monogamy, fully circumscribed by explicitly negotiated and elaborate permissions and rules – whether their rules are about sex (as in swinging), or tantra (as in some more granola-type poly communities), or how many days a week they can each see their other lovers.

As I gear up to teach another poly workshop in Toronto this coming fall, I can’t help but wonder about my own perceived credibility here. For several years I was in a central male-female relationship with my ex, T, and we each had other partners. We didn’t go for the “primary vs. secondary partner” nomenclature, but in a lot of ways that’s effectively what it was like. I was a “good polyamorist”; we weren’t married or gender-normative, but from the outside at least, we were pretty palatable and not that disturbing to the mainstream. Certainly we challenged people in all kinds of ways, but the starting point created by our relationship was a pretty typical foundation that most poly-leaning, poly-friendly and poly-curious people could wrap their heads around quite easily.

Nowadays, though, I’m involved with seven different people in three different cities; a number of those relationships are exclusively or mainly experienced through a dominant/submissive paradigm, some of them are an exciting blend of friendship and sex and romance, one is completely platonic but otherwise intense, one is romantic but not genitally sexual, and some aren’t quite defined yet. And none of them qualifies as a primary or primary-like partnership, although one or two may well at some point in the future.

I’m now officially a Bad Polyamorist. I’m a free agent, a solo sexual being, not reined in by the constraints of a marriage-like relationship. It’s not that I don’t want one (the relationship that is, not the constraints part); sure, it’d be wonderful to have a darling to come home to every night, if the right person were to enter my world and be up for the job. But most of my current relationships aren’t cut out for that, for a wide variety of perfectly legit reasons, none of which involve emotional handicaps or a fear of intimacy. So I’m approaching poly as a single unit, an independent entity. My poly is my own, and those who share it with me choose to do so because it resonates with their own poly approach – not because we figured it out together from within the safe haven of an established dyad.

Pepper refers to this model as “poly dating,” which is apparently the common lingo among San Francisco poly kids. I do use the word “kids” deliberately too – it’s not a rule by any stretch, but it would appear this more free-form approach to poly is a lot more common among the younger queer-ish set than among our parents’ generation. Kids: y’know, the generation that’s eschewing marriage in greater numbers every passing year. So at least I know I’m not the only one.

The trick is, a lot of people tend to see this model as inherently unstable or less valid than the standard one. Or simply harder to understand. Even the most open and queer-friendly of poly theorists don’t always have a handle on it – for example, as a member of Pepper’s poly network, I recently answered a survey for Tristan Taormino’s upcoming book on non-monogamy, and I had to answer “not applicable” to a huge chunk of the questions in it because they focused on how things were arranged in my non-existent primary relationship. Had the questions been about how I approach poly, what my philosophies are, what my personal approach to safer sex might be, how I talk about poly with my partners, what kind of partners I seek or tend to click with, and so forth, I could have provided a ton more information… but because I don’t have A Boyfriend or A Girlfriend, I was limited in my opportunity to explain myself.

When people are stuck in a primary/secondary model, or a central/satellite one, it’s hard for them to wrap their heads that there is actually a lot of potential stability in non-primary relationships, and enormous potential depth and beauty. Especially if you look at non-normative forms of relationship on top of that. One of my non-primary partnerships has been strong and wonderful for five years now, and will likely continue to be for the indefinite future, and it’s deeply committed and completely non-sexual. One of my BDSM-focused relationships is incredibly fulfilling and full of potential, and it will simply never turn into a romantic partnership; that’s just not what we’re cut out for, even if the sex is fantastic.

These aren’t “casual” relationships. I’m not putting energy, effort and care into these partnerships just to kill the time until Mr./Ms. Right comes along and everyone else can be relegated to their proper place on the back burner with a twice-weekly phone call. They’re not secondary. They’re full and rich and wonderful, and they are exactly as they should be, and what they should be is not my One True Life Partner.

In some ways, I see the more dyad-bound sort of polyamory as an understandable starting point for a lot of very legitimate and wonderful relationships. But I question what happens when people limit their understandings of non-monogamy to something that happens with a pair at its root. It causes a number of things to go wrong, among them…

Non-monogamy as a stepping stone between relationships rather than as a fully articulated relationship philosophy. In other words, some people are really happy to espouse a non-monogamous approach when they’re in a long-term relationship that’s already beginning to fade or fail; pseudo-polyamory ensues, in which one or both members of the dyad starts dating other people, finds a better match than the original, and ditches the original partner to become monogamous with the new one. It’s effectively a new form of serial monogamy.

Non-monogamy as killing time. In this model, a person dates around casually with a variety of people until they find and settle down with The One, after which they fully opt into monogamy and then pooh-pooh polyamory as only being fit for people who don’t really know what they want or as as being “young” and figuring themselves out.

Non-monogamy as misguided entertainment. In this form, a couple may become effectively non-monogamous, but they manage to convince themselves that it’s “just about sex” and that they reserve all their emotional energy for their primary relationship. Which is great, when it works. The problem is that even among the most single-minded of swingers (never mind people who actually go on dates), there is absolutely no way to know ahead of time that it’ll work, and the premise itself prevents the dyad in question from coming up with strategies for how to manage if one of them should develop real romantic feelings for another person. It also de facto relegates all other partners to the status of animated sex toys, which is a hard thing to maintain beyond perhaps a single one-night stand – and even then, no guarantees. (I personally prefer my sex toys to be inanimate and my bedmates to be able to hold up a conversation, but I digress.)

Non-monogamy as a form of couple enhancement. Do you need someone to shore up your sagging sex life? Well, go find a hot third person to bring to bed with your hubby, and you’ll be reinvigorated with the thrill of conquest while remaining safely ensconced in your marital bed. …Eeek! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m totally not against the idea that it can be fun for a couple to go cruising together, or for a third person to hop in bed with a couple for a night of fun or even a much longer involvement. But that’s not quite the same thing as the central dyad turning into a pair of sharks, cruising the bars for their next feast and then ditching them once they’ve had their fill. This is just a collaborative version of the “partners as sex toys” problem in the last example.

Basically, a lot of the problems with dyad-based polyamory reside in the fact that it’s not actually about the “amory” – love – part of polyamory at all. Or that the model is poorly equipped to deal with actual real, solid, gorgeously blooming and growing love between people outside the original dyad. Who would truly call that kind of relationship “secondary”? When you’re talking about love, “secondary” is a pretty darned awful way of labelling it.

I think my biggest problem with the assumption of and cultural emphasis on dyad-based polyamory is that it presumes a dyad to be somehow more valid, grounded, credible and stable than the philosophy of polyamory itself. First of all, that places a huge importance on the existence of a dyad and on its quality – in terms of connection, communication, health and so forth – a quality that may in fact not exist at all. (Is every couple you know the paradigm of clean communication and emotional health? How about all the poly ones you know? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) Second, it effectively shunts all other forms of relationship into the assumed status of secondary (whether explicitly or implicitly) – even if there is no dyad in relation to which they can occupy such a secondary position. This automatically lends less weight to the value and importance such relationships can play in a person’s world; it presumes that polyamory only really counts if you’re doing it hand-in-hand with your one true honey, and otherwise it’s just a fancy way of saying you sleep around. And third, it presumes that the intrinsic value of a polyamorous or non-monogamous life approach is useless – that it’s only valid when filtered through the cultural imperative of pair-bonding rather than standing on its own as a strong, healthy and nourishing way to bring love into your world and give it to the people around you.

I’m much more interested in values-based philosophy of polyamory that remains constant within a given person, and which that person then applies to their lived practice of relationships. When poly is a value for someone, it means they’re less likely to drop me if things start going wonky with their other partner(s); less inclined to undervalue my place in their world or dismiss it as less important or worthy of respect and consideration if we’re not primary partners; less likely to treat my other partners poorly or misunderstand their value in my life; less prone to changing their approach on a whim and leaving me out in the cold.

To me, this feels much more stable than poly that’s grounded in a specific relationship; we’re talking about a value, an intrinsic piece of a given individual’s life approach. I don’t want to be with people who are willing to give this poly thing a shot to make me happy, or as a kooky experiment, or to boost their egos, or who are doing poly while they wait for something better to happen, or who will want to pack our relationship into the Primary box even if it doesn’t truly fit there. Whether I wind up in a happy central-dyad/primary relationship or not, I’m interested in dating and loving and being with people who share my philosophy of generalized openness, non-ownership, and the non-scarcity of love. I suppose in some people’s eyes, my lack of a primary partner makes me “single,” but if this is what being single is like, I’m sticking with it even if I fall in love with someone tomorrow and stay with ‘em for the rest of my life. 

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