plural perspectives

Not too long ago, I gave the keynote address at PolyCamp, a wonderful weekend in the woods of Ontario during which a bunch of poly people got together and talk about any number of relevant topics. I titled that address “Plural Perspectives.” It occurred to me that it might be fun to post the meat of it here. Enjoy!

Oh, while I’m at it, I should also encourage you to go check out my cover article on the latest issue of the Toronto Xtra, entitled “Sex in This City.” It’s a rundown of my take on four different sex-positive venues in the fine town of TO, in the context of the city’s changes since the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that legalized private sexual gatherings. I’m just grouchy that I was out of town when they did the photo shoot. Hot damn, those are some sexy models! Grumble. I’ll just have to console myself with the thought that my words got ‘em naked. Okay, so it’s a bit of a stretch, but please allow me my small pleasures.

And a quick note for those who were planning to attend tomorrow night’s Café Scientifique (“He’s a player, she gets played: Challenging gendered stereotypes about youth sexual health”) at Buddies – it’s cancelled. Or rather, postponed until further notice. What a bummer. Good thing there’s still a female ejaculation workshop to keep me busy that night. Heh.

Moving right along… here’s that address!

***

We all know that communication can be challenging between two people… let alone three, or four, or twelve. More often that we’d care to admit (myself included), our communication approaches rest on a range of assumptions. Of course making assumptions always gets us into trouble, but we still do it. Have you ever assumed you knew what the plan was for the weekend, who was bringing the condoms, where you’d be meeting up with your new date, how many partners someone has, whether or not you define “poly” the same way as the person you’re cruising? Yeah. Me too.

Assumptions get made when we forget that we may function with…

  • Different definitions of terms or use of language
  • Different values – and it’s even more confusing when some of them are the same and others aren’t!
  • Different tastes and preferences
  • Different goals, ambitions, and definitions of failure vs success
  • Different emotional reactions and patterns, such as ways of experiencing jealousy or anger or even joy

Now, the same kinds of problems we encounter within our intimate relationships, we can also see in the ways different groups deal with one another. Especially between different elements of a loosely related community, things can get even more complex—like, say, between heterosexual(ish) married polyamorous tantrikas and radical non-monogamous queers.

To illustrate one of the ways this seems to play out, I’ll refer to a discussion* I had online with someone just over a year ago. Her name is Janet Kira Lessin. She and her husband live in Maui and they run the School of Tantra and the World Polyamory Association. They speak at poly and tantric conferences all over the world. Janet frequently posts essays she writes about tantric connections and polyamory on various lists, including the Poly Canada list, of which I’m a member.

(*I should clarify that it was more like she posted an essay and I responded to it. The discussion ended there and I have no idea if she even read what I wrote. Oh well.)

Before I launch into this, I should mention that I’m very interested in tantra. In fact in the last couple of years I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to the principles and practices of tantric sex, because something has to be able to explain the kind of intense spiritual and physical energy that I’ve experienced in my sexual and BDSM play. So I’ve been reading and taking workshops—Barbara Carellas in particular has a wonderful take on the topic, with her recent book Urban Tantra.

I should also say that I’m not out to get Janet in particular. I am, however, going to play our discussion out as a perfect example of the sorts of problems we run into when people (and communities of people) like Janet encounter people (and communities of people) like me. Janet simply did an excellent job of putting into words the precise things I’ve observed at various conferences and discussions, and sometimes just in the flavour of things in certain poly environments, so I’d like to thank her for helping me figure out where these intra-community differences lie.

Now, Janet lays out a number of ideas that I can totally stand behind. In her list, “The Benefits of Being in the Polyamorous Lifestyle,” she mentions things like the following:

  • “Learning & growing within yourself & with your partners. This makes you happier & healthier therefore your relationships are happier & healthier.
  • Cutting back on all the cheating & lying that goes on in mainstream relationships
  • It takes a village to raise a child. Guess what… now you have more adults to do just that.
  • If you are bi, you don’t have to give up one gender for the other.
  • Financially even though people still have to work in a poly family, there is more to go around because there are more people contributing.
  • Building a community where everyone around you doesn’t judge you, is open & honest.”

That last one is a bit of a problem, as when I read her list I actually felt very much judged. And the most significant place where things started to go wrong was around the question of sex. I’ll get to that in a second.

The next part of her essay is about the traits of a true polyamorous person. It starts with, “Any true poly will tell you that…”

You know that’s a bad sign. Much like in the BDSM community we have the “One True Way” phenomenon. I’m sure you’ve heard of it – you’re a real dominant if your slaves make every meal for you. You’re only a true submissive if you give over control of your finances to your dominant. You’re only really a masochist if you can have an orgasm when someone canes you.

Of course, this is all bullshit. So my warning bells went off as soon as I read the header.

Janet writes, “Even though we respect & embrace our sensuality, we are not swingers or polysexuals, so we don’t focus on the sexual or disrespect the very essence of sexuality & all its glory.”

And my response is that placing an excessive emphasis on sex may be disrespectful, depending on how it’s done, but I don’t think that focusing on the sexual is intrinsically a form of disrespect for it.

Also, while I certainly am not a swinger myself, and I find the swing culture to be highly misogynistic and homophobic and just generally kinda gross, I know a number of poly people who are also swingers, and vice versa. While the subcultural boundaries might be pretty clear, in actual fact people cross them and blur them more often than you might like.

I took the time to attend intro-to-swinging workshops, read several swingers’ association websites, get tours of more than one swingers’ club and attend a couple of events before declaring I wasn’t a member of the subculture. And even then, I don’t believe the underlying principle of sexual freedom is a bad one; I just don’t fit well with the predominant way that sexual freedom plays out in that particular culture.

Now here’s where she started to tread on some sensitive territory for me, beyond the basics. She writes, “We aren’t swingers, so we don’t use swinger terms & for the most part, most polyamorous people would never use the words… slut, whore, queer, fag etc. These are derogatory & demeaning to a person’s character plus in no way to these words have a positive meaning behind them.”

That, my friends, is a gross generalization, and shows a lack of understanding of the very people those words refer to. When people say things like this, I always want to ask, if you think that calling someone a (insert controversial reclaimed word here), have you ever met one?

Let’s take the word “slut.” Keep in mind the biggest-selling non-monogamy book of all time is called The Ethical Slut and its authors explicitly and proudly refer to themselves as sluts. I don’t personally like the term, and I don’t use it for myself, but I wouldn’t presume to dictate or judge others’ use of it.

Now let’s talk about whores for a minute. I have another book title to recommend: Whores and Other Feminists by Jill Nagle. A wonderful anthology about sex work and feminism, very enlightening. While “whore” is often used as an insult when directed at sex workers by those who disrespect them, it’s also used very positively and even affectionately among sex workers and their allies. Plus, there are poly sex workers out there… several of my friends and intimates, for starters. I’m not a sex worker myself, but I consider myself an ally and have done a lot of work with Montreal’s sex worker rights and support association. I was very flattered when a sex work activist said to me once, “Oh my goodness, I thought you were a whore!” To her, that was like calling me a sister, and I took it like the compliment it was. We can have a whole discussion about sex work some other time, but suffice it to say that there are lots of amazing people out there doing sex work in ways that have nothing to do with criminal activity, non-consent or the basic disrespect of humankind.

Queer. Let’s talk about queer!

I happen to be very proudly queer, and use that term quite liberally to describe myself—and the term has a lot of positive meaning within my community. It’s also got academic validity—google “queer theory” for example, and you’ll see numerous academic works and programs of study with the word quite happily in place. It’s derogatory if you yell “fucking queers” while throwing a beer bottle out the window of your truck at a same-sex couple walking down the street, but don’t try to tell me I can’t use the word as a positive, strong and accurate description of myself and my peers.

This is similar to the word fag. Much like “dyke” and “tranny” and other such terms, “fag” is widely used in the queer community. Some older gay and lesbian people still associate those words too strongly with a history of oppression to be comfortable with their casual use, but younger generations of the community are perfectly comfortable with them when they’re used by queers and allies (again, not so much when hurled as an insult). And again—there are poly fags out there.

I said it was going to hinge on sex, right? Here’s where she really gets going.

Janet writes, “We use the words ‘love’, ‘long term relationships’ & commitment when we talk. We aren’t crude, rude & talk about sex 24/7.”

So. I’m a sex geek. Is talking about sex a lot necessarily the same thing as being crude and rude about it? I’m a sex educator. I write about sex; I teach about sex; I give interviews about sex; I read about sex and study it at school. Really, it’s pretty close to 24/7, all things considered. And I don’t think I’m the least bit crude or rude. Unless the situation calls for it, which is probably no more frequent in my life than in anyone else’s. (Not to mention I can’t help but raise an eyebrow when someone who runs a tantric poly commune says she doesn’t talk about sex a lot… given her life choices and vocation, how exactly does she manage to avoid it? And why would one want to learn about poly and tantra from someone who doesn’t like to talk about sex? But I digress.)

Janet writes, “We don’t consider humans sex objects or seek out people for self gratification. That’s disrespectful of humankind.”

Agreed. But objectifying people and using them for self-gratification is not the same thing as sharing sexual experiences with people outside the context of a committed relationship. That is quite an equation to posit. Also, sadly, being in a committed relationship is no guarantee that there’s no objectification or self-gratification going on. Wouldn’t it be nice if things were that simple…

Janet writes, “Polys are NOT here for sex or sex play !”

And I’d respond that we’re certainly not having problems with marriage laws, child custody and society’s prejudice for all those multiple non-sexual relationships we get into… now are we? Of course sex may or may not be the first or most important thing we seek out in a relationship, but from there to saying we’re not here for sex… simply not true.

Of course, it’s unhealthy to pathologically pursue empty, meaningless sex with strangers, but that simply isn’t the way every non-committed sexual encounter takes place.

It seems like there’s a subset of poly folks who are so intent upon the “purity” of poly that they forget, or would like to forget, the natural human instinct to fuck. Sometimes sex is deep and meaningful, sometimes it’s superficial and fun. Sometimes it happens in the context of a 20-year-long relationship, sometimes it happens with a person you’ve known for two hours and will never see again. Sometimes it’s rough and fast, sometimes it’s sweet and sensual. Attributing validity to only one kind of it, and only then behind closed doors and closed mouths, only serves to alienate the people who are proudly poly and do their sex in other ways (often in addition to, not instead of, the long-term committed kind), and to dismiss the incredible richness and power of other kinds of experiences.

This brings to mind an experience I had a couple of years ago. I attended a poly workshop at a conference in which a well-known speaker turned up her nose at fetishists and people who do BDSM, saying that they didn’t see sex as the spiritual union it’s supposed to be. I was appalled at her prejudice and lack of comprehension. I have met some of the most highly spiritual people I know among BDSMers and fetishists, and we often incorporate intense spiritual meaning to what we do in bed (and out of it). In fact, in my experience, people who pursue the intensity of BDSM are often some of the most spiritually articulate people out there; with the exception of some people’s (potentially enjoyable) Catholic guilt, we just happen to refuse the separation of the sacred and the profane, choosing instead to view them as parts of a whole that’s worthy of exploration as such. The BDSM community is blessed with a plethora of writers, speakers, conferences, websites, online discussion groups and other cultural manifestations of deep engagement with and commitment to spiritual growth. You don’t even have to look that hard.

I’m always puzzled by people who live out one non-traditional way of doing relationships and/or sex and/or gender, and who want so badly to remain acceptable to the mainstream that they loudly disavow any association with other non-traditional groups, or deliberately misunderstand them, or simply fail to learn enough about them to accurately represent them, even if they don’t share their views. It seems to me that alternative communities make much better allies than enemies, especially since so many people are members of more than one non-traditional group at once.

People often seem to think that the only way to deal with clueless non-poly folks’ assumptions—i.e. that poly is “all about sex”—is to go too far in the other direction and say “it’s not about sex at all.” In truth, poly relationships are as much about sex as any non-poly romantic relationship is—in other words, sex may not be the be-all and end-all, but you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s not important! I posted about this in the first two weeks of my blogging career, and have banged away at the same point more than once (like here), but dammit, it just seems to keep coming up.

All of this to say that while I agree with and stand behind many of the values that Janet lays out in her list, when it comes to sexuality, I’m not interested in the sex-negativity, judgmentalism and general lack of understanding that the above points convey. I find it really unfortunate when people explain poly in this way because it leaves out substantial numbers of people who adhere to a poly relationship style and creates an unnecessary and inaccurate hierarchy that ultimately does nobody any favours.

6 Responses

  1. “It’s derogatory if you yell “fucking queers” while throwing a beer bottle out the window of your truck at a same-sex couple walking down the street…”

    In that context, ANY word would be derogatory. “Fucking homosexuals!” – hell, “Fucking Homo Sapiens!” – would be just as bad. It’s the intent, the context, and the accompanying actions, not the particular cluster of letters you choose.

    I’m queer, too, and i use that term happily.

  2. As I posted on fetlife the other day, the reason I would harp on poly being not about sex is I to often will message someone saying that I am poly and get a reply back along the lines of “I’ve got a really high sex drive, too. Glad to meet someone of like mind!” This confuses me. I didn’t say a thing about my sex drive (as a matter a fact, if you must know, I think it is rather low), nor did I imply I wanted to jump into bed with you.

    I also noticed that people posted on fetlife assuming being poly was a fetish. I’m not sure what definition of fetish they are using, but, its not a fetish by mine.

    Yet, this seems to be what people think.

    So, I feel like I have to explain that, no, its not that. Yes, sex is something that is there, but its not ABOUT sex. It is about how I fall in love. What I want from relationships. All of which sex plays into, but I’m not poly because I want more sex, or sex with more people, or whatever.

    (None of this is to invalidate people who have casual sex. I don’t want it, and I don’t like when people assume I do.)

    I know this is a stumbling block and many people say what you did, well “And I’d respond that we’re certainly not having problems with marriage laws, child custody and society’s prejudice for all those multiple non-sexual relationships we get into… now are we?” And that is true. But I’d respond it is the romantic relationships we get into, though people can assume all they want abotu my sex life with my partners they don’t know. I had a partner who I never more then kissed for 2 years. Yes, sexual attraction was there, it was a romantic relationship, and people had no idea that the PDA was a far as it went. But it was. And yet, being in that challenged society’s prejudice. Hurt friendships. Did all of these things.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, its a fine line. Sex is a component. but people tend to see it as the only component. We no longer have a paradigm for romantic friendships, so it seem that romance mean sex for people, when in fact romance and sex overlap much less then that.

  3. Part of the ‘poly is not about sex’ may be a strategy similar to one sometimes used by gay people: the ‘we are just like you’ strategy. Any marginalised group may feel the need to emphasise the part that correspond to society’s values (“we, too, only have sex inside a committed relationship”) to defuse the hatred and contempt coming their way. I think it’s the wrong strategy, myself, at least for polys – not being gay I don’t presume to tell gay people how to fight their battles – but I can see whence it comes.

  4. A fabulous summation to a fabulous workshop.

    I think it all stems down to the personal definition of poly, which is something that a lot of people take differently. Just because someone comes up to me and says “I’m poly…” doesn’t mean I can safely make assumptions about their love life. They could only have one partner, be completely devoted to that partner, or on the other hand, be slightly more connected in a pseudo-swinger lifestyle than whatever their definition of swingers is.

    As always, definition is key, and assumptions always… ;)

    ~ Aiden Wrenne
    ~ PolyCamp Attendee

  5. Caroline – “Fucking homo sapiens.” Gawd, I’d love to hear someone yell that out a window at me. Hee hee.

    Ruie – Very good points, thank you. Interestingly I too have a romantic relationship with someone I’ve never had sex with, and in fact rarely even see, but boy is it ever not about lack of attraction – there are other reasons at play. So I totally get what you mean about people’s assumptions, though I hadn’t thought to work that into my rant. Well said.

    lalouve – Yeah, that’s exactly where it comes from. It’s the difference between an assimilationist strategy and an anti-oppressive / diversity-positive one. Not at all the same thing. As a raging queer, I don’t agree with assimilationism for queers any more than I do for poly folk or anyone else. Sanitizing our identities for mass mainstream consumption simply neuters the chance of anyone learning to accept difference, and let’s face it, some people are so “different” they just can’t be sanitized. This means the ones furthest out on the margins are the ones cut off from any “benefits” assimilationism might provide.

    Aiden – Thanks for the kind words! :)

  6. I always chuckle when I hear people deny that they ever use others for ‘self-gratification’ or proclaim that this is Wrong.

    Look, it’s possible – and preferable, in my world – to interact emotionally and/sexually with others in an honest, generous, and caring way. Obviously.

    But really, there is always a bit of ‘self-gratification’ (sexual or not) involved in our relationships with others. I don’t think very many people – if any – are completely and selflessly devoted to others to the exclusion of their own needs and preferences. And if they are, the relationships in question are probably unhealthy and/or abusive.

    I remember a line from the movie Black Widow (boy, that dates me!) where one of protagonists says to her lover about his other lover that she is ‘just using you’. The man replies, ‘Everybody uses everybody.’

    Why yes, yes we do. And we can choose to do so in a manipulative and completely selfish way, or in a caring and generous way, but we are still getting something out of each other, or else we wouldn’t (I hope) remain in those relationships.

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