Originally published in The Lifted Brow #21, February 2014 (with thanks to TLB deputy ed. Stephanie Van Schilt)
Every now and then, I manage to pause The X-Files, leave the house and make a friend. Why? Because I’m low on Vitamin D, sunshine loves company, and sometimes so do I. But I hit a dilemma in every ice-breaking chat: I have to decide, in a flash, whether to mention my multi-partner status.
It’s inevitable. New friends ask each other about work, passions, partners, cats (mostly cats). When I answer, do I mention only one partner (erasing any others)? Do I merge them, transformer-style, into one, very talented mega-boyfriend? I could be up front – but honesty comes with complications.
I’m used to being quizzed about relationships and sexuality. For a fairly vanilla slice, I’ve dated across spectra of gender and age. I’ve had lovers live in my pocket and live overseas. I even once went out with a reverend. Mum has ceased to express surprise. Yet, of all the questions I’ve been asked, this one remains the most challenging: “How did you talk two men into this?”
The answer depends on the audience. There’s the cop-out quickie: a sly, flirty eyebrow-raise (see below). The quip: “The harem is very comfortable.” And then there’s the real answer: my partners are intelligent adults who give their informed consent. When I started out with Poly 101, back in 2011, it took a year’s worth of reading, thinking and conversation to graduate. The truth is that the only thing I trained my boyfriends in is how I like my morning cup of tea.
The long answer might be the one I prefer to give — I don’t want to end up listed in anyone’s phone as “Hugh Hefner” — but it’s a gateway to stickier topics: ethical nonmonogamy and consent. Critical discussion surrounding these concepts remains relatively new. Consent, on its own, has been waiting since the dinosaurs to become a hot topic; it was Jaclyn Friedman’s 2011 essay “The (Nonexistent) Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Consequences of Enthusiastic Consent” that got the ball rolling for me.
Consent is easy to pigeonhole as “getting permission to fuck someone”, but as a concept, consent is much broader than that. It’s a key part of any good communication: continuously observing verbal and body language to ensure that your partner (in bed, in crime, in the boardroom, in the classroom, on the phone) is enthusiastically participating in whatever you’re up to together, from business to conversation to intimate touch. This shouldn’t be an inconvenience; it should be an ingrained behaviour as part of Not Being a Dickhead.
Even though the discourse surrounding consent (or nonconsent) now extends beyond feminist literature and the blogosphere, what it means to consent within nonmonogamy is still a niche discussion. When it comes to open relationships, stereotypes of begrudging compliance persist: the downtrodden wife tolerating her husband’s affairs; the impressionable young woman drawn in by a charismatic Casanova; the gutless boyfriend whose wild gal refuses to settle down; and the perennial favourite, the tragicomic love triangle. In polyamorous networks, informed and enthusiastic consent means ensuring that everyone involved is on board with safer sex strategies as well as the network’s structure, rules or boundaries. (These can be as diverse as the people involved, but here are some examples: check in with existing partners before hooking up with a new lover; introduce existing partners to new ones within a certain timeframe; change the sheets after a sleepover. For me, I like booking in time to reconnect with my live-in partner after one of us has spent time with another lover. Usually poly boundaries help manage time, space and the needs of each partner.)
Thus, my long answer might not sound like a high romance; our narratives of romance, after all, foreground spontaneity. But the implied alternative — that I keep two malleable men (and sometimes other people) bound around my little fingers, attending to my every whim — is far less attractive. I can’t imagine anything more gross than coercing someone I love into a putting up with an Other Lover without their enthusiastic consent and participation in nonmonogamy.
For a quick brush-up: ethical or consensual nonmonogamy is a nifty blanket term that includes polyamory, polyfidelity, open relationships and swinging — basically, it’s the antonym of cheating. Some of these terms are slippery, with meanings and usages not yet fixed. There are infinite ways to structure nonmonogamous relationships, and therein lies the challenge of writing about them.
Polyamory can be broadly described as the practice of maintaining (or being open to) multiple intimate relationships, whether romantic, sexual and/or loving. We described my first polyamorous network — or polycule — as an open ∨. This refers to the shape: in this scenario, two people, who do not date one another, date me — think of the shared lover as the ∨’s pivot — though each is free to extend that network to include other people. In that ∨, my two relationships did not cross over; there were occasional social hang-outs as a trio, but beyond that, our love and sex lives never intersected.
If I had a dollar for every time a friend or stranger has asked if poly means tapping into a fountain of fuck-fests, I’d have enough money to visit a long-distance sweetie. Here’s your chance: the answer is … sometimes, but not always. In that particular ∨, nope, never, no-how — and that’s fine. If we’d instead been trio in bed and in life, we’d have been called a triad: less of a ∨ and more of a Δ. In a different scenario, “polyfidelitous quad” would be a fitting term for four people who all date one another, but aren’t open to dating anyone else. Some structure their relationships hierarchically: they might have one primary partner — a main squeeze — with one or more satellite partners. Many poly folks (the author included) prefer to let their networks grow without predefined structure. These aren’t fixed labels; instead, they serve to illustrate the potential diversity of nonmonogamous relationships, which might encompass romantic relationships, sexy friendships, lifelong partnerships, one-night stands, romantic friendships, asexual partnerships, long-distance relationships and everything in between.
“We need to talk; I think there can only be one cat.”
My current network looks more like a spider-web or family tree. I have two partners — who have partners, who have partners. We all communicate and socialise as friends (sex toy reviews and cats are popular discussion topics for us collectively), and occasionally our love or sex lives might intersect. It’s a configuration that’s grown a great sense of community and a lot of support, and it’s enabled me to challenge ingrained societal narratives of other-women-as-competition; my partner’s partners — metamours — are super awesome. But there’s no one right way to be nonmonogamous, so long as everyone involved gives informed consent.
But how does consent actually function in ethically nonmonogamous relationships? It’s easy, a comfy few years down the line, to say, “Oh, my partners consented!” but how was that consent negotiated in the first place? And we’re not just talking about consenting to sexual boundaries; there are relationship boundaries, sexual health boundaries, and privacy boundaries to negotiate. My first step in planning for this article was to ask for my partners’ (and their partners’) consent to publish such a thing — and I confirmed that consent before sending this to print.
Poly isn’t a better relationship model than monogamy; they’re both perfectly reasonable choices, each with their own challenges. Like monogamy, every poly arrangement is different, with its own set of individuals involved. For me, polyamory is a particularly interesting queered space in which to build relationships. A friend recently commented to me that he’d realised the only really explicit consent society would expect him to negotiate in his monogamous, heterosexual relationship was an “I do” to the question of marriage. I know him well enough to know he’d seek consent above and beyond puttin’ a ring on it, but still, his experience got me thinking about my own: because polyamorous relationships don’t have a socially-sanctioned template as an option, each successful polyamorous group starts from scratch to negotiate, define and consent to its own terms. To clarify, not every monogamous relationship fits or needs to fit the template, but it’s there as an option.
My poly adventure began with nonconsensual nonmonogamy. Yep, I cheated. At the start of 2011, I’d been living with my partner (he’s decided to call himself “Alex” here) for a year and, concurrently, maintaining a close friendship — hanging out, snuggling, flirting — with “Boston” (a name also chosen for privacy’s sake here). That fateful Australia Day, Boston and I had a boozy picnic in the backyard and wound up kissing. It wasn’t just the alcohol at fault; our friendship had been hotting up for a while. Tensions were, if you will, rising. I went home and told my partner, and apologised. It didn’t take long to realise that to be ethically monogamous, I’d need to choose: I had to cut one or the other off. Bugger.
So I asked Alex whether he’d consider exploring nonmonogamy. I’m sure you can imagine the potential shock that comes with being asked that question. We grow up believing that “being in love” is an area in which humans cannot multitask (unlike platonic or familial love). We still go “aww” at Plato’s story of the matching blobs, spliced apart by cranky gods, finding one another and, in that, fulfilment. There’s a quote attributed to Johnny Depp that does the rounds pasted over vintage-filtered vistas on Tumblr: “If you love two people at the same time, choose the second. Because if you really loved the first one, you wouldn’t have fallen for the second.”
I felt the weight of all that guilt as I explained to Alex, my live-in love, that I also loved Boston.
It’s one thing to hear that your partner wants to sleep with other people. Sexually open relationships with clear boundaries are increasingly less taboo. But for Alex to hear that not only was I in love with someone else, but I didn’t want to leave him either — well, it’s an idea that continues to spin heads. We associate this kind of love triangle with melodramatic teen indecision more than with reality.
This wasn’t one of those matters we resolved in a cute montage of chats. We had no poly friends at the time (that we knew of). We were yet to read Tristan Taormino’s excellent guide to open relationships, Opening Up, or the poly classic The Ethical Slut (Dossie Easton and Janet M. Hardy). More Than Two (essential reading, published late 2014) was only a twinkle in Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert’s authorial eyes. Neither of us was prepared, yet, to give informed consent. We had nothing but questions, confusion, fear, and guilt. After all, our culture doesn’t view romantic love in terms of abundance. We live in a world where some high-school sex educators use a “stickytape metaphor” to illustrate the (entirely erroneous) idea that each new sexual partner reduces your ability to produce oxytocin, the bonding hormone, thereby making each new relationship less likely to stick than the last. (Yes, that crap actually gets trotted out in Australia.) Love is viewed in terms of fulfilment and lack: a lover completes us (especially if we’re female), while being passed over for love indicates our inability to fulfil. Among Alex’s fears of abandonment, he wondered what Boston had that he didn’t? (Nothing. And ditto vice versa.) Among my fears, I worried I was being the greedy, needy bisexual slut I’d been told I was in the past. I even checked in with my psychologist who asked what made me feel like I needed two partners?
My psych’s question was useful in that it revealed the error in my guilty thinking — and my answer challenged everything I’d learnt growing up. I didn’t need two partners; I didn’t have a compulsion to collect their heads and put them on the mantelpiece. That would be weird. No, I was already a complete, whole person before I met Alex or Boston, or anyone before them, or my partners now. I love each of my partners because I love their brains, their company, their bodies, and their fortuitous shared appreciation of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse — and in each of their very different companies, I feel comfortable being the complete Zenobia package: happy-grumpy, critical, touchy-feely, anxious, stubborn, sleepy, and excessively fond of the Whedonverse. Also: sometimes naked. And, in my company, each seems comfortable to be the complete them (again, sometimes naked).
We don’t question this shit when it comes to friends. The only thing that legitimately limits the number of friends you’re allowed is Facebook (5,000 before it cuts you off), but even ol’ FB doesn’t trouble itself with how much or in what manner you adore your besties, pals and acquaintances.
Poly author Franklin Veaux (More Than Two) describes the “Magic Genital Effect”: “the notion that sex changes the game in such a way that the person we’re having sex with is somehow less human, less deserving of autonomy, less able to negotiate around complexities, or otherwise less worthy of being treated as an individual human being than someone whose genitals we aren’t rubbing.” We strip away a lover’s autonomy and humanity by assuming that, for our sake, their brain has put the blinkers on: the ways in which they love and lust are suddenly limited or, better, nullified. The marker of love becoming “official” is exclusivity; we assume that, in entering a relationship, our sweetie only has eyes for one. This is not to say that it’s not perfectly okay to be monogamous. But monogamy, like polyamory, is healthiest when critically discussed and actively consented to — not assumed. (Remember folks, only yes! means yes.)
Alex’s initial reaction was not enthusiastic consent. And fair enough — I remember his discomfort when, early on in our relationship, I’d half-jokingly said I wouldn’t deny him the opportunity if Zooey Deschanel came knocking. While our “celebrity free-pass” joke was a throwaway, Alex reports that it was looking back on this conversation that got him thinking seriously about nonmonogamy.
So now I had them both. Was I satisfied? Veaux argues that we use the Magic Genital Effect to turn our lovers into “fulfilment machines”, obligated to meet our every need. Herein we return to my psychologist’s question — a good one because of a common problem within polyamorous relationships: the fallacy that taking multiple lovers enables us to fulfil all our needs, where one lover couldn’t possibly be expected to. Veaux links this attitude to the “friendzoning” phenomenon, wherein guys complain that spending “niceness points” ought to earn them sex from their lady-friends; when relationships are viewed as exchanges of needs-fulfilment, they start to seem less like spaces for mutual trust and support, and more like vending machines. Monogamous relationships can fall into the trap of expecting one another to be Everything. (How many of us have seen our friends vanish into a new relationship, only to emerge post-honeymoon period, often sheepishly hungry to reconnect?) Poly networks can fall into the trap of collecting lovers to fulfil an ever-expanding set of needs.
One can see this at work in poly folks who go looking for a particular type of relationship. For example, my partners and I acknowledge that nonmonogamy is a way for queer-as-fuck me to remain open to relationships with people other than my cis-boyfriends — to the point where Boston worried that, in dating him, I was stalling my opportunities to meet ladies. It took a while to realise that polyamory is a potential space, not a gaping vortex; rather than needing to hunt down exactly the right human right now, embracing poly means allowing myself to explore potential relationships as they arise (if they arise), and allowing them to grow without trying to squash them into a readymade template. It’s common to see couples looking for a “unicorn”: the rare bisexual lover instantly attracted to both parties. Sure, loving triads happen, but only when the right people stumble, enthusiastically and consensually, into alignment (hopefully in winter, when three to a bed sounds pretty great).
By now, I hope my overarching theme has revealed itself: to actively seek consent is to grant full subjectivity to those you interact with. To neglect to do so — to act against someone’s consent or to neglect to seek it — is to treat that someone as an object designed only to fulfil one’s needs. To use a person is to disempower and violate them. If we emphasise compliance over enthusiastic consent, results over experience, presumption over negotiation, is it any wonder that our young men and women grow up wondering what on earth “yes” and “no” actually mean? That we invent infinite reasons to excuse or euphemise rape? That we endlessly debate the codes that sexual assault victims use (and don’t use) to signal their nonconsent?
Therein lies the thrill that ethical nonmonogamy holds for me: within my networks, poly is a space in which consent is recognised as “the foundational element of all relationships” (to quote Taormino). Ultimately, no amount of trawling through books, blogs and advice columns could be a substitute for sitting down and talking about our feelings — and not in a wafty, Kumbaya-round-the-fire way, but constructively, critically and respectfully. There’s an old-standard joke that the difference between swingers and polyamorists is that swingers have sex, while poly folk talk about having sex. It’s not entirely off the mark. Poly relationships are forged in a space that rejects arbitrary relationship-escalator models that assume courtship naturally progresses up a series of sexual and domestic steps (think “first comes love…” or even sexual “bases”). As such, poly partners (and metamours) must continually voice and address their desires, enthusiasms, concerns, curiosities and fears. You can have all this rad communication in monogamy too, of course; poly just turned out to be my ideal learning environment.
It takes practice to ensure that this kind of open communication comes naturally. There’s a commonly held view that pausing to check in (especially leading up to or during sex) interrupts spontaneity — yet I’m pretty sure that reaffirming your red-hot desire for your partner has never killed the mood for anyone. You’d even be surprised how well lovers adapt to your taking a few minutes out to check in with another significant other. (It’s a relief to know that your metamour consents to your date/sexytimes, too!)
Another cool feature of my adventures in poly was discovering that, in building new structures for each new relationship, the lines between “friend” and “lover” started to look a bit arbitrary. When you actively seek enthusiastic verbal and nonverbal consent in any relationship, you can better empathise with friends and build more intimate and trusting relationships, no matter whether you rub genitals or not. Setting consent as the baseline need of any interaction helps you view people not as “fulfilment machines”, but as actual people. Here, there’s space to be sex-positive about casual relationships by reframing them as caring friendships — however fleeting — in which the level of intimacy is negotiated, agreed upon, and renegotiated as necessary.
If this sounds like hard work, that’s because it is. But so too is making a really tasty, complex dessert. Or learning an instrument. Or setting up a new business. Or watching all nine seasons of The X-Files without becoming a bitter shut-in. There’s an art to relationships, and that art lies in negotiating enthusiastic consent — enthusiastically.
While Alex’s family isn’t conservative, his small-town upbringing brought with it an unchallenged momentum towards a suburban house, picket fence, dog and 2.3 kids. For him, polyamory became an opportunity to make conscious choices about his independence within and alongside his relationships — for instance, he and I maintain our own spaces in a shared home. For Boston, poly became an opportunity to explore self-reliance within relationships, challenge unhealthy habits, and communicate more effectively.
Alex and I recently left the beautiful world of share-housing and shacked up in an apartment, just in time for our fifth anniversary. We’re not the marrying types, but getting this close to the concept — the intimacy of peeing with the door open, etc. — made us nervous: what would happen now that our revolting coupleness had room to roam and finish each other’s every sentence. Would this closeness close us off to other relationships? Or make us, instead, retreat towards them? Neither worst-case scenario occurred (hurrah!); rather, we find that poly encourages us to make the most of the time we spend together and to enjoy the breathing space of time apart.
The cat, however, still gets veto rights.
For me, polyamory has led to uncanny and wonderful experiences, sensations and relationships — and the more I embrace them, the more I reinforce that I’m complete regardless. Poly is a space in which to challenge my insecurities, head on.
So no, I didn’t talk two grown men into anything, back in 2011, but we did talk. A lot. We talked through feelings of guilt, fear of being replaced and fear of imposing on one another’s relationships — and we talked through new relationship energy, deepening love, empathy and compersion (the opposite of jealousy — i.e. taking joy in your partners’ other relationships). By now, my network feels gloriously mundane. I used to think it was weird to ask if it’s okay to bring two +1s to a party; now I’ve been a welcome half of a +2 at a partner’s family wedding. And, frankly, it all feels less weird than that time I ate cupcakes with a reverend in an arid Carindale park. And each time a new love interest comes onto the scene, the process begins over again: we meet, talk, experiment, make mistakes, laugh, hit the books, check in, and probably watch Buffy. And sometimes, yes, get naked.