The Polyamory Community Has a Huge Slut-Shaming Problem

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When I started practicing consensual non-monogamy and polyamory, I expected to get hit with slut-shaming from monogamous friends, family, and wider society. And predictably, I did. (“So she’ll just open her legs for anyone like a 24-hour supermarket?” was one memorably horrible quote said by an old childhood friend about me.)

What I never expected, though, was to encounter slut-shaming from within the non-monogamous community. But this has happened to me multiple times over the 15 years or so I’ve been polyam, as well as to many of my friends and lovers. And I have come to realise what a significant and pervasive problem it actually is.

Before I dive in, I want to shout out the other polyamory writers, thinkers, and educators who have spoken on this issue, especially Leanne Yau of PolyPhilia, Mainely Mandy, Eldiandevil, and Ramona Quaxli. Their perspectives and insights are tremendously valuable and have informed, validated, and helped to shape my own.

What is slut-shaming?

Planned Parenthood defines slut-shaming as “accusing someone — usually girls and women — of being “too sexual,” and using that as an excuse to humiliate, bully, or harass them.”

Slut-shaming can take the form of calling someone derogatory and sexual names (such as “slut”, “whore”, or “slag.”) But it can also take forms such as:

  • Criticising a person for wearing sexualised or revealing clothing
  • Blaming the victim or saying they “asked for it” in cases of rape, sexual violence, revenge porn, sexual harrassment, and so on
  • Gossiping, making assumptions, or spreading rumours about someone’s sex life or sexual behaviour
  • Criticising or shaming a partner for their sexual history prior to your relationship (or during it, in the case of consensually non-monogamous relationships)
  • Acting entitled to someone’s body because of their actual or perceived sexual behaviour (e.g. “if she puts out for other guys why not me?”)
  • Accusing someone of being a “sex addict” for their level of desire, number of partners, kinks and fetishes, or other actual or perceived sexual behaviour

In short, it’s anything that is designed to put a person down or make them feel guilty or ashamed of the ways that they express their sexuality.

But how can there be slut-shaming in non-monogamy!?

When people enter the non-monogamous community, they often come in with certain expectations. One of those expectations is that it is going to be a free love utopia, apart from and unaffected by any of cisheteromononormative society’s hangups about sex. I mean, our unofficial community Bible is literally called The Ethical Slut. We’re all totally enlightened and sex-positive over here in non-mono-land, right?

If only.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this, in the past, just as I have been a victim of it. But the polyamory and consensual non-monogamy (CNM) community has a huge, enormous, glaring, and under-addressed slut-shaming problem.

Let’s look at a few of the ways it manifests and why they’re problematic.

“It’s not all about the sex!”

Polyamory Weekly, which ran from 2005 until 2022, is by far the longest-running and best-known polyamory podcast. When I first started listening way back in around 2009, I didn’t think much of the goofy little tagline at the end of the show: “and remember, it’s not all about the sex!” On the rare occasions that I dip back into the PW back catalogue these days, I cringe a little every time I hear it.

The purpose of this section is not to call out PW specifically or exclusively. It’s a great resource. I’m glad it existed for 17 years and I’m glad its 600+ episodes live on for new polyamorous folks to find. But I do think this tagline is an example of a wider narrative within the polyamorous community.

I understand the purpose of phrases like this. Mainstream society aggressively sexualises non-monogamy and casts aspersions on our collective character as a result (itself a form of slut-shaming). In much the same way that LGBTQ+ identities had to fight to be seen as more than sexual fetishes, non-monogamists are now fighting a similar battle. But, in striving for this more nuanced recognition of our identities, we must be careful not to shame those for whom sex does play an important role in their non-monogamy.

Some people are non-monogamous, in part, to have more sex and to experience more sexual variety. As long as those people are honest with their lovers and taking reasonable steps to be safe and considerate partners? I do not think there’s a damn thing wrong with that.

Other versions of this trope include “just because I’m polyamorous doesn’t mean I’m a slut!” and “I might be polyamorous but I still have standards!”

“But amour means love”

The equally insidious sister to the above is something I see all the time in the polyamory groups, forums, and other online spaces: “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY. The amour means love!” This one comes out when a person talks about having a lot of casual sex. However, it also comes out when a person is struggling with sexual difficulties, sexual incompatibility, or sexlessness in one of their relationships. Its purpose is clear: to slut-shame the individual because sex matters to them.

If you’ve ever uttered this sentence, you might not like what I’m going to say next: for many of us, sex is part of how we love. For some people, this is intimately connected to physical touch as a love language. Sex with someone you love can be tremendously bonding and connective, helping you to feel closer and more intimate – both emotionally and physically – with your partners. Sex can make you feel desired, allow you to express love and care through touch and the giving of pleasure, and give you an opportunity to be exploratory and playful together.

In addition, in a newer relationship, sex can help you to bond, deepen and strengthen your connection, and feel out whether you’re compatible for a long-term relationship.

In short, sex is allowed to be important to you. Leanne Yau says, “I can have sex without love, but I cannot have love without sex.” I’m not sure I’d go that far for myself, but I know I would really, really struggle in a sexless romantic relationship. It is only recently that I’ve stopped feeling shame around that fact.

So yes, sure, “polyamory” means “many/multiple loves.” But love can take many forms and, if sexual compatibility matters to you or if sex is an intrinsic part of how you express romantic love, that’s not only valid but super normal and common. Those “many/multiple loves,” by the way, can also include friends with benefits, comet partners, and other forms of connection that don’t look like traditional romantic relationships, if you like.

Phrases like “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY” place non-sexual love as inherently higher, more pure, or more real than sexual love. And I think that’s bullshit.

“Sounds like you’re just a swinger.”

People outside the CNM community conflate swinging and polyamory all the time. However, while it’s certainly possible to be both, the crossover is probably significantly smaller than you think it is and they are quite different cultures. In fact, it has sadly been my experience that a lot of swingers do not like or trust polyamorous people very much, and that this feeling is very mutual. I believe this has less to do with any inherent differences or incompatibilities, and more to do with misconceptions, snap judgements, and in-group/out-group politics.

In many polyamorous spaces, there is a huge amount of policing of other people’s non-monogamies. This includes the oft-heard cry of “that’s not polyam, it sounds like you’re just a swinger!” in situations where casual sex, group sex, or promiscuity are involved.

I think it’s telling, in itself, that so many polyamorous people see “swinger” as an insult. What gives us the right to place one version of non-monogamy on a pedastal and look down on others? Sure, the mainstream hetero swinging community has its fair share of problems. However, so does the polyamorous one. When we set ourselves apart and cast judgement on swingers, all we are doing is perpetuating the same slut-shaming, sex-negative rhetoric that the mononormative world perpetuates against us. And that harms all of us.

As polyamorous people, most of us also have sex with multiple people. Do you think that cisheteronormative, mononormative, sex-negative society will spare us its judgement if the sex we have is for Twue Wuv Only while we loudly shun the swingers for their casual shenanigans? Because I promise you it won’t. But it would love for the different schools of consensual non-monogamy to get distracted tearing each other apart rather than banding together to tear down the sociocultural structures that harm us.

Whether you are polyamorous, a swinger, both, neither, or somewhere else entirely on the spectrum, I believe that all of us under the consensual non-monogamy umbrella should be allies and need to stick together. We’re on the same damn team.

The one penis policy

The infamous one penis policy, or OPP, is where a polyamorous cis man tells his (usually cis women) partners that they can date other people with vulvas, but nobody else with a penis. It’s highly problematic in a bunch of ways, from cissexism and trans erasure through to simply being a bad way to handle jealousy and insecurity. I’m going to write an entire piece about it soon.

Increasingly, I believe it is also tied to slut shaming.

At the root of the one penis policy, very often, is the belief that sex is only “real” when it involves a penis. Men who enact the OPP often believe (even if on an unconscious level) that there is something inherently bad or wrong about their female partners having a lot of sex or multiple sexual partners, but convince themselves that it only really counts if those sexual partners have a penis. This allows them to keep seeing those partners as “pure,” as long as they only have sex with fellow vulva-owners.

Many polyamorous men explicitly or implicitly devalue their female partners when or if they have sex with multiple penis-owning partners. You’d be amazed at how often, in online polyamorous spaces, I see variations on this theme: “my wife just had sex with her boyfriend for the first time and now I can’t help but see her as tainted.” Which is a pretty fucking rough deal for straight or bi+ polyamorous women.

This is by no means a comprehensive list

This piece is not intended to provide a comprehensive list of all the ways that slut-shaming shows up in polyamory and CNM. Like all systems of oppression, it is insidious and multi-faceted and not always easy to spot. It takes many forms and harms people in many different ways.

There is, however, one consistent truth that sits at the heart of this phenomenon:

It’s misogyny, isn’t it?

Purity culture is deeply and inherently tied to misogyny. Purity culture “encompasses the way society and popular culture reinforces the idea of sexual purity as a measure of a person’s worth” (John Loeppky for VeryWellMind) and is used to control, police, shame, and curtail women’s sexuality and sexual agency.

Just like mainstream purity culture, slut-shaming and sex-negativity within the polyamory and CNM communities are intimately tied to misogyny. A person of any gender can be slut-shamed. However, in reality, it is always going to mostly weaponised against, and have a far greater impact on, women, femmes, AFAB folks, and anyone socialised as female.

When we begin to unpack sex-negative and slut-shaming beliefs, misogyny – including internalised misogyny on the part of women and other marginalised genders – is almost inevitably at the core of it. To dismantle slut-shaming requires us to take a close and critical look at all the things our society and upbringing have told us about gender, sex, and sexuality, and to consider the ways in which those narratives are doing a disservice to ourselves, our loved ones, and our wider community.

Towards an expansive and inclusive version of CNM

None of this is to say that your polyamory or consensual non-monogamy must include casual sex, or must include sex at all. It is entirely possible to have no interest in sex whatsoever and to never slut-shame anyone else. I do believe, however, that everyone in these communities has a responsibility to intentionally cultivate a sex-positive attitude.

As a reminder, my working definition of sex positivity is as follows:

“Supporting the right of all consenting adults to have sex, or not, in whatever ways work best for them, free from stigma or shame.”

The point of sex-positivity isn’t that more sex is better. The point is that we all have a right to choose how much and what forms of sex we have, and that all consensual and freely made choices are of equal moral value.

We must recognise that the CNM world is not a sex-positive utopia, much as we might wish it was. The first step to addressing our sex-negativity and slut-shaming problem is to identify it, talk about it, call it out when we see it, and stop pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t an issue.

We all carry toxic beliefs from our upbringing or our society, and it is our job to address and unlearn them. This is hard, long-term, potentially lifelong work. Fighting the tide of cultural norms isn’t easy, and I am not trying to downplay or simplify it. But, if we want to build truly radical and inclusive communities, it is absolutely necessary.

Finally, we must stop this in-fighting. Stop shaming and attacking our own. Whether we’re polyamorous or swingers or relationship anarchists, whether we’re asexual or demisexual or hypersexual, whether we have orgies every weekend or only have sex in committed romantic relationships, we must stop throwing each other under the bus for crumbs of respectability from a culture that seeks to judge and repress all of us in exactly the same ways.

Cisheteromononormative society shames us all enough. We like to think we’re better than to also do it to each other. And right now, we’re not.

But what if we could be? How radical and awesome would that be?

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Sluttier in Theory: Swinging, Casual Sex and Me

I have recently been dipping a cautious toe back into some swinging spaces, albeit almost exclusively very queer ones. These adventures have brought up some thoughts and realisations about the ways that I operate in sexual spaces that I’ve been thinking about a lot. So, because blogging is cheaper than therapy, let’s talk about them shall we?

I’m not sure I was ever really a swinger, to be entirely honest. Years ago, I wrote about things I disliked about the mainstream (read: hetero) swing community, from the weird prevalence of sexual racism to the casual kink-shaming. And I don’t think I’m really a swinger now, either. Or at least, claiming that label feels disingenuous when the last time I did anything more than hand sex with a stranger was literally years ago.

I’m a polyamorous and consensually non-monogamous person who also enjoys some casual sex with lovely people every now and then. (Exactly where the dividing line between “swinger” and “whatever the fuck I am” lies, I am truly not sure.)

Thing is, I’d really like to be sluttier than I am. In theory, at least, I’m a huge Ethical Slut. I love flirting, giving and receiving sexual attention and interest. I love making connections, making plans, making out, that slow but certain escalation when it becomes apparent that yes, this thing is ON. And I love sex. I’m a high sexual desire person (it’s not a drive!), and in an ideal world I’d be having sex several times a week at least. Yes, I’m a horny fucker.

So why do I find it so fucking hard to actually make that leap and do the things in a more casual context?

I’m envious of people who can just dive in. People who can pull a stranger or leap into the centre of an orgy without thinking too hard about it. I wish that could be me. So why don’t I and why isn’t it? Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to untangle.

My Sexuality is Complicated

Being very sapphic certainly complicates things. The overwhelming majority of people in swing and casual sex spaces are cis man/cis woman couples, most of whom – as is typical in that community – do things exclusively together. This is tricky when I don’t fancy very many men, though.

I’m not going to fuck a guy I don’t fancy just so I can play with his partner, and I’m not going to tolerate hands wandering after I’ve set boundaries about who can and cannot touch me and where. Realistically, I’m also not going to fuck a woman for a man’s enjoyment. Performative queerness does nothing for me. Less than nothing – it’s an active turn-off.

So where does this leave me? Probably limited to playing one-on-one with other women, playing with very trusted friends, playing with couples where the guy will happily accept “I’ll fuck your wife with you but I’m not going to fuck you”, or waiting for the cases where I am attracted enough to both/all parties to also fuck the guy(s.) The last two scenarios on this list? Well, they’re rare. In practice, my sexuality limits who will be interested in me and how I can play simply because I don’t typically offer much for the guys.

Hitting on women is hard, too, for a simple reason: I don’t want to make other women feel the way that creepy men make me feel. (Yes, there’s a whole other post in this, too.) More than once I’ve noticed an attractive woman at a party and then totally failed to even talk to her. I always kick myself afterwards, of course, but I haven’t figured out a way to overcome this one yet.

Sexual Health Fears

There’s also the sexual health angle. I got an STI about a year ago (ironically, during a particularly non-slutty phase) and it really rattled me. Though it was dealt with, I have no desire to ever repeat that experience. I feel like I’d be absolutely furious with myself if I inadvertently contracted something and then passed it on to one or both of my partners.

I preach open communication about sexual health constantly, but in reality it can be really hard to be the person saying “hey when were you last tested?” when no-one else in the room has raised it.

The reality is that, if we are going to be sexually active, there is a risk of STIs. This is even true in monogamy, because people can cheat and people can have symptomless infections for years without knowing it if they’re not testing regularly. There is no way to be a sexually active human and totally eliminate this risk. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. If anything, it gives us a greater responsibility to take the reasonable steps we can to mitigate the risk to ourselves and our sexual partners.

In some ways, this is probably the easiest issue on this list to solve. This one can probably be solved with practice and giving fewer fucks about seeming like a buzzkill for being the person to open the conversation.

“I Shouldn’t Be Doing This”: Internalised Shame

On a less practical and more cerebral level, I think I’m probably still dealing with some internalised shame around casual sex. Like so many of us, I grew up in an intensely sex-negative society and “slut” was one of the worst things someone could call you. (I got called it for having sex with my one boyfriend of well over a year when I was sixteen, but that’s another topic for another day.)

“But Amy, you’ve been polyamorous your entire adult life!” I can hear some long-time readers saying. And yes, I have. However – and this is also going to be the topic of another post soon – the polyamorous community has a massive slut-shaming problem.

Hang out in polyamorous spaces long enough and you’ll often hear phrases like “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY” to deride casual sex. You’ll also hear derisive language used towards swingers (and anyone sluttier than the name-caller approves of), as well as assertions that casual sex “ISN’T REALLY POLY.” Mainely Mandy did a fantastic video on this subject. It’s over an hour long but I really urge you to watch it all if you can. Mandy is insightful, engaging, hilarious, and just so right about this topic.

I suspect there’s still some internal work – and probably work with my therapist – to be done on unpacking this shame. I find it so easy to celebrate others getting all the hot sex they want with all the partners they want, as long as it’s ethical and consensual. I’m not sure why I am finding it so hard to extend that to myself. But I do know that once in a while, I get hit with this overwhelming feeling of “I shouldn’t be doing this”. And that’s a mood-killer if ever there was one.

Vulnerability is Fucking Hard

Finally, there’s also the fear of making myself vulnerable. I know not everyone will agree with me here but to me at least, there’s an inherent level of vulnerability to sex (or at least to good sex.) If I stay completely detached, there’s just no point. I’m not going to enjoy it and will probably end up feeling used rather than fulfilled.

But as the title of this section says: vulnerability is fucking hard. Vulnerability, in my experience, often leads to pain.

Of course, on the flip side, vulnerability can also lead to some trancendently wonderful experiences. Vulnerability has brought me beautiful relationships, deeper communication and intimacy with my partners, hot sex, leg-shaking orgasms, the kind of memories that still get me wet when I recall them years later.

But it’s really, really hard to be truly vulnerable and it does not come easily to abuse survivors in particular.

So… What Now?

I don’t really know, to be honest. Maybe I need to just be brave and take bigger leaps into the things I want before overthinking gets in the way and stops me. Or maybe some things do need to remain “in theory.”

I sent a draft of this post up to this point to my girlfriend, having no idea how to finish it. Because she’s brilliant, she made this suggestion: “Imagine someone has written that post and sent it to you asking for your advice.” A lightbulb went on instantly. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The conclusion of this piece will take the form of an open advice letter from me to me.

Open Advice from Me to Me

Hey Amy. This sounds legitimately complicated and like there are numerous different factors at play.

First I want to validate something for you: this stuff is complex. I’ll also let you into a secret: it’s complex for almost everyone! Those people you see at parties, who seem to be having all the casual sex all the time without a care in the world? That’s probably not their reality. Behind the scenes they are likely thinking things over, considering their boundaries and desires, perhaps discussing things with their partners. They probably have many of the same insecurities as you, and plenty of their own unique struggles too. So first, please don’t think you’re alone or weird for feeling conflicted about this. You’re not. What you see at parties is, in all likelihood, the smallest tip of the iceberg.

Next I want to tell you that your sexuality is perfect as it is. We live in a deeply, aggressively heteronormative world and it can be hard when you fall outside of that. You never, ever have to have sex that you don’t want to have. If you want to have sex but only with a certain gender or genders? Awesome! If you’re open to other genders but only occasionally, sporadically, or circumstantially? Great! If some types of sex appeal to you but not others? Excellent self-knowledge, well done.

I would advise simply being very upfront with potential playmates about who you are, what you want, and what you can offer.

Will this mean some people aren’t right for you? Yes, absolutely. And that’s okay! No-one is everybody’s cup of tea, and having incompatible needs with some people doesn’t mean that your needs are wrong (or that theirs are.) If someone isn’t into what you’re offering, you can wish each other well and move on to more fitting connections. If someone deliberately breaches boundaries you’ve set or oversteps your consent? Get up and leave. You deserve better.

I hear your frustration that suitable connections seem to be relatively few and far between, possibly due to your low interest in men. But a small number of great connections is vastly preferable to a lot of bad ones. You seem to be doing this already, but continuing to prioritise explicitly queer and queer-positive spaces is much more likely to get you the kinds of experiences you want.

Your sexual health concerns are also valid and understandable. They particularly make sense with the context that you’ve had an STI in the past and do not want to repeat the experience. Sexual health is a sensible thing to be concerned with. Most STIs are not a big deal – they are treatable, curable, or manageable. However, some can have a significant or even life-changing impact, and antibiotic-resistant strains of certain infections are a growing concern in the medical community. Even easily curable STIs are, unfortunately, still heavily stigmatised.

I know you know this, but you are not being a buzzkill for raising this topic. If someone rejects you or gets annoyed with you for discussing it, they’re not right for you. By having this conversation before hooking up, you’re being a responsible partner and caring for both your own and your partners’ sexual health.

One possible way to become more comfortable with this conversation might be to have it in advance where possible. Are you chatting to people online prior to meeting them? If so, raise the topic during your pre-party flirtations. Are there online spaces, such as forums or Discord servers, where party or event attendees hang out? If so, why not get a sexual health discussion thread going in those spaces? This takes the “in the moment” pressure off. It also normalises the conversation and allows you to get a feel for people whose risk tolerance aligns with yours.

As a general rule, sexual health practices should default to the boundaries of the most cautious person. If you want to use a barrier, for example, then your prospective partners can either use that barrier or decide not to hook up with you under those conditions. What they cannot – or should not – do is try to talk you out of your boundaries. Trying to change your mind about sexual health protocols is a major red flag, and one you should not ignore.

Internalised shame and fears around vulnerability are, unfortunately, harder to overcome. You’re right that we live in an intensely sex-negative society. It also sounds like you have some personal experience of people weaponising sexual shame against you. Shame is complex, multi-faceted, and unpacking it can be an ongoing (even lifelong) process.

Next time they arise, I invite you to sit with those feelings of shame and ask yourself what they are telling you. Then hold those ideas up to your values and beliefs about the world. Do they align? And if not, where did they come from?

For example, perhaps you realise that your feeling of shame is telling you “people who respect themselves only have sex in committed relationships.” Do you really believe that is true? Presumably not, since you accept and embrace the fact that casual sex can be a positive and joyful thing (and that sexual behaviour is not correlated with self-respect.) Okay, so where did that belief come from? Perhaps it was your parents, your peers, school, the media, or the religion you were raised in. By unpacking the things shame is telling you, you can take more control over which of those beliefs you internalise and which you choose to consciously reject.

On your fear of vulnerability, I want you to know that it makes perfect sense. Existing as a woman or femme in this patriarchal society is hard, and doubly so for survivors of abuse. When vulnerability has been used against you or resulted in pain in the past, it can be incredibly difficult to let yourself go there again.

This fear is your body and brain’s way of keeping you safe. Try to remember that when you’re feeling frustrated with yourself. All those positive things you identified that allowing yourself to be vulnerable has brought to you? What do they all have in common? They all had to happen from a place of safety. This likely meant coming to vulnerability in your own time, not forcing it from yourself. If getting to that baseline of safety takes you longer than it takes other people, or takes you longer in some circumstances than others, then that’s okay.

One vital thing I want to invite you to do is just to listen to yourself. Your body is deeply wise and intuitive. Try to tune into what it’s telling you in any given situation. Try to learn what your personal “yes, more, this” feels like, as well as your personal “no” or “ick” or “I’m not sure about this.” What does safety feel like? What does it feel like when you truly, deeply want something?

Learning to follow those intuitive clues will teach you to trust yourself. It will also help you to come into a deeper understanding of what you really want and don’t want, both in the big-picture sense and in any given moment. In time, you’ll learn how to move towards your “yes” and away from your “no” more authentically.

Finally: remember that there’s no right or wrong here, and you’re not in competition with anyone. You are not less of a non-monogamous or sex-positive person if you’re slower to warm up and get comfortable with being sexual. It’s okay to be a “yes” on one occasion and a “no” on another. It’s okay to be choosy, to be selective, to make sure any given situation is right for you.

It is okay to explore, try things out, surprise yourself. To like things you weren’t sure you would, and do dislike things you were sure would do it for you. And it’s okay if some things need to remain “in theory,” for now or forever.

Breathe. You’re doing fine.

Amy x

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Why I’m No Longer Using the Term “Fluid Bonding”

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In the decade and a half I’ve been non-monogamous, I’ve had numerous conversations about so-called “fluid bonding.” I’ve negotiated the circumstances under which it is okay, not-okay, and maybe-okay to do it in various relationships. I have discussed the potential risks brought about by myself, my partners, or even my metamours choosing to fluid bond in certain relationships, and how those impacted might protect their sexual health. I’ve had literally hundreds of conversations involving this subject.

And I’m rejecting the term. When I talk about barriers, safer sex practices, and sexual health, I will no longer be using the term “fluid bonding.”

Here’s why.

“Fluid Bonding” is Vague

If you ask ten polyamorous people what “fluid bonding” means, most of them will probably tell you something like “having sex without barriers.” In practice, though, the term “fluid bonding” is far more specific in its widely accepted meaning than that. When most people say it, they are referring to the act of having penetrative penis-in-vagina (or, less commonly, penis-in-anus) sex without a condom.

Under this definition, I have only ever “fluid bonded” with two people in my entire life, including my current nesting partner. But that feels like a ridiculous, reductive, and wildly inaccurate assessment of how I have had sex over the years.

Notice I said most people use the term this way. Not all. And I’ve definitely seen instances where people thought they were on the same page about its meaning, leading to hurt and even feelings of violation and betrayal when it turned out they were not.

When we assume we all use a term in the same way, miscommunications are inevitable. Nowadays, if a partner or prospective partner tell me they’re “fluid bonded” with this or that person, or expresses a desire to fluid bond with me, I’m going to be asking far more questions rather than assuming I know what they mean.

“Fluid Bonding” Makes it Harder to Have Accurate Safer Sex Conversations

Here’s the reality: semen is one bodily fluid, but not the only one. And semen going into a vagina is just one way of sharing bodily fluids in a sexual relationship (and one way you can transmit an STI.)

If you’re having oral sex without a condom, dam, or other barrier, you are exhanging fluids. If you are touching your partner and then yourself with your hands (or touching more than one partner’s genitals in one session) without changing gloves or handwashing in between, you are exchanging fluids. Any kind of kink activity involving blood, such as needle play, is a fluid exchange risk. Hell, even saliva is a bodily fluid. So if we’re getting really technical about it, kissing is a form of fluid exchange (a low risk one, but some STIs can be transmitted in this way.) And that’s before we even get into the fact that for some STIs to spread, skin-to-skin contact is all you need.

I’m not telling you any of this to scare you. Quite the opposite, actually. STIs carry a heavy stigma but most of them are also easily avoidable, treatable, or manageable. I’m telling you this because having the correct information is how we can all make better choices to keep ourselves and our lovers safe and healthy. Regular testing, clear and specific negotiations about barrier use or lack thereof, and knowing the facts is how we do that.

I’ve also seen people, particularly non-monogamy newbies and those not clued up on sexual health, assume that if they are not “fluid bonded” (i.e. having unbarriered intercourse with a penis) with any of their partners, then they are free from any sexual health risk and can eschew testing. The reality is that anyone who is sexually active should be testing at least occasionally, if not regularly.

Continuing to use this term makes it harder to have accurate conversations about sexual health. It perpetuates the idea that penetrative sex with a penis is the only form of sex that carries a risk. This belief is simply inaccurate and frankly dangerous. It prevents people from being fully informed and protecting their sexual health accordingly.

“Fluid Bonding” is Heterocentric and Cissexist

Part of rejecting “fluid bonding” is tied to my broader and long-standing desire to completely decentre penetrative sex with a penis as some kind of pinnacle of sexual experience. Penis-in-vagina intercourse is one type of sex. It’s not “full” sex (look out for my rant on that subject, coming soon to a sex blog near you!) It’s not “real” sex. When we centre it above other activities in our discussions about sex, we are perpetuating cisheteronormativity.

When we talk about “fluid bonding”, we are assuming that one partner in the equation has a penis and the other has a vulva. This may or may not be true. Further, even if this does happen to be the combination of bodies we’re working with, penis-in-vagina (or anus) intercourse may or may not be a part of that couple’s sexual relationship.

This is heterocentric. It is also cissexist. In reality, relationships can include any combination of gender identities and genital types that you can think of. In reality, penetrative sex is a part of some sexual relationships but not all. And any sexual relationship likely involves at least some form of fluid exchange unless you’re covering your entire bodies in latex prior to sex and not kissing.

“Fluid Bonding” is Emotionally Loaded

If having unbarriered sex with your partners is emotionally meaningful to you, I’m not going to tell you it shouldn’t be. I also prefer to have unbarriered sex in situations where it feels safe and comfortable to do so! As I said, I’ve only had unbarriered penis-in-vagina sex with two people in my entire life. This should tell you that I do not, personally, consider it trivial.

However, I think we should be very, very careful about applying emotionally loaded terms to conversations about safer sex.

A relationship with Partner A isn’t less emotionally meaningful than a relationship with Partner B just because you use barriers with one partner and not the other. There are so many reasons you could make this choice. Perhaps one partner has much more casual sex outside of your relationship and using barriers makes you feel safer. Maybe you or one of your partners is trying to get pregnant in one relationship but not another. Perhaps one penis-owning person has had a vasectomy and another hasn’t. So many possible reasons, and none of them are “I love this person more than that person.”

With that said, some people do use so-called fluid bonding as a sign of emotional significance in a relationship. Again, I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t do this. The emotional weight you apply to sexual decisions is highly personal and up to you to negotiate with your partner(s.)

However, I believe the term “fluid bonding” automatically confers this emotional weight, whether or not the people in question believe in or experience it. That feeds into problematic (and often heteronormative and mononormative) assumptions about which sex acts do and don’t carry emotional significance.

Sex without a barrier is not inherently more connective (or “bonding”) than sex with one.

So What Am I Using Instead?

My overall goal in rejecting this term is to get far more accurate and specific in my conversations about sexual health. It might seem useful to have a shorthand but, as we’ve seen, that shorthand is so imprecise as to be functionally useless.

So instead, when negotiating sexual health, I’ll talk about what I am actually doing with whom. How many people am I having sex with? What barriers am I using or not using for which activities? How often and in which circumstances do I have casual sex, and what precautions am I taking when I do? How often do I and my partners test, and what were our most recent results? And so on.

Does it take longer? Sure. Is it a little clunkier? Yes. Can it feel more vulnerable, or even embarrassing, to get so specific? Yes. But it’s a hell of a lot more useful for everyone.

FYI: this post contains affiliate links.

Everything I Got Wrong About Hierarchical Polyamory

I’ve been thinking about this for a very long time now, and writing this post on and off for a couple of few weeks months as new thoughts occur to me. I’ve had this blog for six and a half years now (!) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t feel the same way about some subjects as I did at the beginning of my sex writing journey. One of those subjects is hierarchical polyamory.

I’m not saying I got everything wrong, necessarily. I still stand by my original assertion that a complete lack of any kind of agreements or structure in relationships sounds incredibly stressful to me. But I was definitely coming at many aspects of the subject from a place of unaddressed trauma, deep unhealed wounds, and a hell of a lot of anger that coloured my perception. I definitely got a lot wrong.

I’m a few years older now and I’ve had a fucktonne of therapy, got to know myself a lot better, and spent countless hours deconstructing and reimagining basically everything I thought I knew about sex, relationships, love, and – yes – polyamory.

So what did I get wrong, and what do I believe now?

There’s Such a Thing as Too Much Control

When I first started out in polyamory, way back in the Dark Ages of early 2009, it seemed that virtually everyone in the polyamorous community was operating in the primary/secondary structure. Under this system, one partner (very occasionally more than one, such as in the case of “co-primaries”) is designated as “primary”, and all others are “secondary.” The primary partner typically has some level of control over their partner’s external relationships, and may be afforded certain privileges that secondaries are not. Back in the day, some even went as far as to designate some partners as “tertiary” – what we might now call a comet partnership or friend-with-benefits. I rarely see “tertiary” used any more, though the primary/secondary structure is still used by some.

My nesting partner, Mr C&K, and I stopped using the term “primary” to describe our relationship a few years ago, but not because our importance to each other had lessened. We simply found that it no longer conveyed the reality of how we wanted to operate in our polyamorous dynamic. (And he got there before I did!) Specifically, we no longer wanted to operate under a lot of rules that stressed us out, likely disenfranchised our other partners, and didn’t even achieve what they were designed to achieve. (More on this last point later…)

At one time, I believed that it was appropriate for a primary partner or spouse to set pretty much any rules and restrictions they wanted on their partner’s external relationships. That is largely because my first (and for a long time, only) exposures to polyamory were almost entirely to this type of dynamic. When proponents of non-hierarchical versions of polyamory did show up in our community media landscape, they were generally in the “fuck my partners’ needs, I do what I want” school of thought that is now sometimes called Relationship Libertarianism. Not exactly a glowing recommendation.

My long-term ex and his wife had a lot of rules, many of them subject to arbitrary changes, and a veto agreement[*]. Pretty much everyone I dated had a list of rules and limitations, ranging from “I have to love my primary the most” to “I’m only allowed to see you once a month.” And so, thinking this was how it was done and being the inexperienced newbies in our polyamorous network, my “primary” boyfriend at the time and I followed suit.

I carried this belief forward, operating on the basic assumption that a primary or spouse would – should – always get final say on any aspect of an external relationship. If they say no, it’s no. If they say yes, they can revoke that permission at any time and for any reason. I do not believe that any more. In fact, I now think that that kind of dynamic is likely to be deeply harmful to everyone involved. I also think that veto, specifically, is inherently abusive in almost all situations, whether it’s actually used or simply held over someone’s head as a potential threat.

I now believe that it is entirely possible for a partner to have too much control over their partner’s external relationships, and that this is something we must take care to avoid. It is this control that ultimately defines how hierarchical a relationship is, or if it is hierarchical at all (more on that shortly.)

[*] Veto: when someone can order their partner to end or deescalate another relationship at any time and expect that they will comply. Veto is usually a clumsy tool used to access a sense of security and safety – “if this all gets too much I have a kill-switch.” It is also generally considered extremely cruel, deeply unethical, and highly unlikely to achieve the desired effect of managing jealousy and building security.

Considering Your Partner’s Feelings and Needs is Not Control

With that said, it’s important to draw a clear distinction between considering your partner’s (or partners’) feelings and needs in the decisions you make, and allowing them to control your actions. Nothing we do exists in a vacuum, and part of loving people is considering them in the things we do and the ways that we operate in the world. This is one of the reasons I believe that relationship agreements and personal/interpersonal boundaries are so important: they allow us to show up consistently for one another and balance independence/autonomy with interdependence/mutual care in all of our relationships and as members of a polycule, network, or community.

This line isn’t always easy to draw, though. What seems like arbitrary control can actually be a good-faith attempt to get a need met, and what seems like an effort to care for a partner emotionally can actually be the result of control.

Let’s take a hypothetical example: your partner has a dramatic emotional meltdown every time you go out on a date. Eventually, you cancel all your dates and break up with your other partner(s) because this behaviour is just too stressful to deal with.

In this hypothetical example, control is taking on the slightly more subtle form of emotional manipulation. But it’s still control, even if it doesn’t look like slamming down a veto and saying “I forbid you to go on dates.” It’s very possible – even probable – that the person having the emotional meltdowns is doing so due to some unmet need, deep fear or insecurity, trauma, or some combination thereof. They deserve to have these needs and feelings addressed and cared for, and in a healthy non-monogamous relationship it is actually very possible to achieve that without them needing or being permitted to control their partner’s other relationships.

What might caring for your partner’s feelings look like in this situation, without allowing yourself to be manipulated or your other relationship(s) to be controlled? It might look like some of the following[**]:

  • Providing verbal affection and reassurance to your partner before/after a date
  • At a separate time, talking and processing with your partner to help them get to the bottom of their difficult feelings and work through them
  • Consistently telling your partner the truth (it can be tempting to falsely downplay other connections to make an insecure partner feel better. Don’t. This will bite you later when they realise you’ve been hiding the truth from them.)
  • Sticking to any relationship agreements the two of you have made
  • Planning a nice date or some one-to-one quality time with your partner to ensure they feel loved and special
  • Giving your partner plenty of affection, positive reinforcement, and focused time consistently and regularly. Ironically, this can be particularly important for nested couples (i.e. don’t rely on “we live together so you see me all the time” to carry your relationship in lieu of quality time together.)
  • Going to therapy with your partner to work through the worries and insecurities that are coming up for them
  • If you live and/or coparent together, making sure that your partner also has free time away from the home, children, and other responsibilities to do the things that matter to them (whether that’s going on their own dates, seeing their friends, doing hobbies, or just playing video games)

Considering how your actions impact your partner and caring for them emotionally isn’t a sign of being controlled. It’s a sign of being a good partner. Knowing the difference isn’t always easy, and the former can slip in via the backdoor of the latter. But with good communication, love, compassion, emotional intelligence, and strong personal boundaries on both sides, you can take care of each other without controlling each other.

[**] All of this is assuming that you and your partner have both consented to a polyamorous/non-monogamous relationship. Poly-under-duress is a whole different thing and not something you should either tolerate or do to another person.

If Control is Necessary to Get Your Needs Met, Something Has Gone Wrong

It’s fair to say that a few years ago, I was desperate for any semblance of a sense of control I could get my hands on. After years with my abuser, I’d felt so utterly out of control for so long that I just needed predictability and stability more than anything. So, because that was the model I’d seen and emulated for so long, I thought the way to get those things was to place a lot of rules and restrictions on external relationships outside of my nesting partnership.

The problem is that polyamory does not work like that. Neither does security. I still value stability and security in relationships highly, but those things come from having partners who value your relationship and honour their commitments to you, not partners who will capitulate to any arbitrary restrictions you set.

Security comes from knowing and feeling deeply that your partners love and value you. It does not come from partners who will agree not to have sex with anyone else in the Reverse Pile Driver position[***] because that’s our position, damnit! And it certainly doesn’t come from being able to unilaterally force your partner to break up with someone else they love.

I never did the veto thing personally, but I’ve known a lot of people who do and have. It never leaves anything but pain and destruction in its wake. In fact, the most common outcome I’ve seen when a veto is slammed down is that the primary couple breaks up over it – maybe immediately, or maybe after months or years of the simmering resentment it causes.

Looking back with the knowledge and (relative) wisdom I have now, I think one of the reasons I was formerly so (relatively) uncritically in favour of hierarchical dynamics is that I’d fallen into a really unhealthy pattern of believing that strict rules were the only way I could get my needs met. Because that’s what I’d witnessed again and again.

After coming out of an abusive relationship, and other dynamics that don’t rise to the level of abuse but were certainly neglectful and unkind, I had absolutely no idea how to go about getting my needs met in a relationship. Talking to those partners hadn’t worked. Begging them to please listen to me and give a damn about my feelings hadn’t worked. Eventually becoming unbalanced and hysterical and “crazy” because I felt so profoundly unheard and gaslit hadn’t worked. And no, trying to set rules hadn’t worked either. Nothing would have worked, because those partners did not love me and want to treat me well.

It has taken years of self-work, and of building a secure base in a safe and stable relationship, to truly internalise these two important messages that I now take forward into all my relationships:

  1. My feelings and needs in any given relationship, and my partner’s needs and feelings, are equally important and deserve to be equally heard and honoured
  2. If a partner loves me, they will make a good faith effort to meet my needs in a relationship as long as doing so doesn’t harm them or anyone else. If they don’t love or care about me, no amount of rules and restrictions can compel them to do so.

Ultimately, you cannot compel your partner to treat you well with giant lists of “thou shalt not”s. A partner who wants to love you and honour your relationship will do so. A partner who doesn’t will find a way to loophole their way around any rules you set down or agreements you make, anyway… if they don’t just flagrantly break them.

Next time you think about making a restrictive rule, ask yourself what purpose it is intended to serve. If it’s intended to address an unmet need or eliminate an insecurity, ask yourself if there aren’t better ways to get those things.

There’s a reason I now have a print on my office wall that reads I am the one thing in life I can control.

[***] Actually a thing, though I am not convinced it is physically possible.

Legislating Your Way Around Difficult Feelings Doesn’t Work

Another common reason people give for having exhaustive lists of rules is “because I’d feel too jealous [sad/scared/lonely/insert difficult emotion here] if my partner did that thing.”

And I get it, I really do. None of us want to feel those types of feelings! They suck! Jealousy, in particular, can feel like the absolute worst. It’s visceral, physical, painful, often overwhelming in its intensity. But here’s the thing: you can’t actually legislate yourself (or your partners) out of feeling things you don’t want to feel. It’s also healthy, normal, and human to feel difficult feelings sometimes. Yes, including that j-word that so many polyamorous folks are so terrified of.

If you’re using the most strict and stringent form of hierarchy to avoid difficult feelings, I’d also challenge you to consider this: are you in fact outsourcing the experience of difficult feelings to someone else?

What do I mean by that? For example, let’s say you have made a rule that says your partner cannot say “I love you” to anyone else, because that privilege is reserved for you alone. In creating a sense of security for yourself by keeping expressions of love exclusive to you, you have potentially created a situation in which your partner feels forced to repress their emotions and your metamour(s) feel unloved and undervalued because the person they’re dating cannot express love to them. All so that you don’t have to confront the insecurity behind the fear behind the rule. Is that fair? I don’t think it is.

It’s also not fair to you, by the way! Tremendous personal growth can come from confronting and deconstructing difficult feelings. And trying to legislate them away, then police the keeping of those rules, will actually just stress you out and drive you mad. Forbidding someone from expressing something also doesn’t stop them from feeling it, but that’s a whole other conversation.

I’m not saying that you can never object to something in a partner’s other relationship, of course. If you see a legitimate issue in how your partner is being treated or if you are being directly negatively impacted, you should raise it. That saying about not setting yourself on fire to keep someone else warm applies here. But I am saying that outsourcing feeling bad (“Your other partner must feel unloved so that I can feel secure”) is deeply unfair. In other words, don’t set your partners or metamours on fire to keep yourself warm.

Priority and Hierarchy Are Not Synonymous

The more I think about it, the more I realise that this is probably the crux of the issue. I think this is one of the key things that our community most often misunderstands and mixes up when it comes to this issue. It’s likely the reason we have been having the same “hierarchy: good or bad?” circular debate in the community for at least a decade. It’s also the reason I think that’s the wrong question to be asking.

When I used to say that I needed hierarchy, what I actually meant was that I needed to be secure in the fact that I was (and would remain) a priority to my partner.

When people advocate for an anti-hierarchy stance, it can sound like (and occasionally even is) another way of saying “you have to treat any new partner exactly the same as your spouse right out of the gate.” Which is, objectively, utterly ridiculous. In my experience, very few people actually believe this is a reasonable, sensible, or even possible thing to attempt. But relationships looking different from one another – based on their longevity, level of seriousness or entanglement, all kinds of factors from geographical distance to childrearing, and just what the people in them want – isn’t hierarchy. (We’ll delve into this in more depth in the next section.)

When we don’t deconstruct and understand the difference between priority and hierarchy, a non-hierarchical approach can also sound like “placing a high priority on your existing relationship(s) is bad.” There is, unfortunately, a vocal subsection of the polyamory community that has successfully pushed this narrative to the point that people believe taking their existing partners into consideration when making decisions is Bad, Actually. I do not believe this. I think this is ridiculous. Relationships need to be given a consistent level of priority in order to survive and thrive.

But hierarchy isn’t about priority. We all have different priorities in our lives. If you have children, they are likely your number one priority much of the time. People with jobs or businesses sometimes have to prioritise our work over everything else, because if we don’t keep our employers and clients happy, we get fired or don’t get paid. There are times when our number one priority might be a sick family member, a friend going through a crisis, a pet, a university programme, our own physical or mental health, a time-sensitive project, or any of a vast array of other things. But prioritising any of those things at a given time would never lead us to say “I am in a hierarchical relationship with [this aspect of my life.]”

It is also generally assumed that priorities are not necessarily entirely fixed. They shift and change according to circumstances. If I’m working on a deadline, that project is my priority until it’s submitted. If I’m on a date with a partner, that partner is my priority for that pocket of time. And if there’s an emergency, dealing with that is likely to supersede doing fun things in the immediate aftermath. None of these things imply hierarchy. They just imply… being a person who is able to manage different pulls on my time and energy along with my own and others’ wants and needs.

What I’m trying to get to here is that hierarchy is not, ultimately, about priority. Hierarchy is about power.

In what I now define as a hierarchical relationship, one partner has a level of control and influence that is not afforded to others outside of that designated “core couple.” An example might be “I need permission from my husband to have a date with my boyfriend, but not the other way around.” It might also imply a situation in which the wants of one person always come before the needs of another, such as “my date with my wife comes before my boyfriend’s medical emergency because my wife is my primary.”

It’s appropriate to give a high level of priority in your life to a person or people with whom you have built a long-term relationship, and to the agreements and commitments you have within those relationships. It’s appropriate not to move your brand new sweetie into your house, not to give your new metamour co-parenting rights to your children, and to make sure the mortgage is paid before splashing out on extravagent dates. Exercising fair and proportionate prioritisation in your life is not the same as automatically disempowering or placing unilateral limitations on anyone else you or your partner dates. In other words, it’s not hierarchy.

Want an example of what this looks like in practice?

“My spouse and I have a standing date night every Thursday, so I’m not usually available on that day, though I can occasionally move things around for really special occasions or emergencies.” = Priority, not hierarchy

“My spouse says I’m only allowed to see you once a week and it has to be while they’re at work.” = Hierarchy

“My nesting partner just got laid off and money for rent is tight, so unfortunately I can’t afford to go on a date to that fancy restaurant right now.” = Priority, not hierarchy

“My nesting partner has a rule that I can’t go to that restaurant with anyone else because sushi is our thing.” = Hierarchy

If I’m dating someone, I want to be treated as a priority to them. Not necessarily the top priority, and certainly not all of the time, but a priority nontheless. And they, of course, will also be a significant priority to me. But if no-one has power over anyone else? That is, by definition, not a hierarchy. And I do not want to be in relationships or polycules where anyone holds or wields power over anyone else.

Different Types of Relationships Aren’t Hierarchy, Either

Another thing that drives me mad about the hierarchy discourse is the assumption that to remove hierarchy is to have all relationships look the same. This is – as we touched upon above – impossible, unrealistic, undesirable to almsot everyone, and would be absolutely maddening to even attempt in practice.

All relationships look different. Even if I were dating identical twin siblings[****], had started dating them both at exactly the same time, and did all the same activities with each of them, the relationships would still be different. Because they are different people.

People want different things out of relationships. Not every relationship is well-suited to nesting, sharing finances, or raising children together, just as every relationship isn’t well-suited to being a casual “we’ll see each other and have sex once in a blue moon” situation. And the same is also true of every single possible place on the vast spectrum in between these two extremes. Connections, dynamics, and desires will be different with every person you are in relationship with. Not only is this normal, it is – in my opinion – one of the most beautiful things about polyamory.

It is my firm belief that one of the biggest sources of misery I see in polyamory is caused by people trying to force relationships into structures they’re not suited to. And this applies both ways: trying to force naturally-casual relationships to be serious, and trying to force naturally-intense relationships to be casual. It’s easy to fall into this trap if you think that removing hierarchy means that your relationships all have to operate in the same way.

I think most of us accept the concept that we have different types of relationships with our friends and family members. For example, you might have the friend you go on wild nights out with, the sibling you binge-watch Netflix with, the friend you tell all your deepest darkest secrets to, and the cousin who rocks up in town once a year at Christmas and whom you don’t talk to much in between. Why, then, is it such a stretch to believe that we also have many different types of relationships with our partners and lovers?

My relationship with one partner isn’t more or less valuable because we do or don’t share a mortgage, have children together, or make joint decisions about what colour to paint the bathroom. It’s just different. Because ultimately, the value of my relationships comes not from the external trappings, but from the people involved and the unique and beautiful ways in which we connect, share time and space and energy, and show up for each other with love.

[****] Which I obviously never would, but you’d be amazed at how often “is it weird to be metamours with your sibling?” comes up as a question in the polyamory groups. I’m making an executive ruling on this: you do you but yes, it’s weird.

“But What If Both Your Partners Were Dying at the Same Time?”

I saw a post in a polyamory group recently that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and it was one of the catalysts for revisiting and finally finishing this piece. Paraphrased slightly from memory, it said this: “I love my boyfriend and husband absolutely equally and we don’t have a hierarchy but, if they were both on their deathbeds at the same time, I would be with my husband absolutely no question.”

When monogamous people ask me which of my partners I love the most, they get frustrated when I reject the premise of the question. I don’t believe in talking about who I love “more”. I don’t know how I would even begin to quantify that! They then try to come up with elaborate hypotheticals to “trick” me into answering the original question. If I allow this conversation to go on long enough, it will usually wind up in roughly the same place as the post I referenced above: “If they were both/all dying at the same time, who would you be with?”

Setting aside, for a second, the sheer unlikeliness of this scenario ever occuring in reality. The assumption is that, when all comes down to brass tacks, we want to be placed above and before everyone else in our partners’ lives. And I feel like this is a sad misunderstanding of what polyamory can be when it works at its best.

If an emergency were happening for both me and my metamour at the same time, I would hope that our shared partner would make an effort to support and be there for both of us in whatever ways were possible and made sense. And, partially because we’re polyamorous, we have a big extended support network who can also step in and offer love and care to whoever is going through a crisis.

I don’t want a polycule that’s a competitive power struggle for limited resources. I want a polycule that’s a committed to the health and happiness of all its members. My metamours aren’t my competition for the one and only spot of “Top Dog”. They are my teammates in the quest of making the amazing person we both love happy.

What Do I Still Believe About Hierarchical Polyamory?

Phew, that got long, didn’t it? So after all this, after all the things I no longer believe about hierarchical polyamory, what do I believe now?

I think when we talk about hierarchical polyamory, we have to be very clear what we are talking about. Do I think it is ever okay for someone who is outside of a relationship – including another partner or metamour – to have as much or more control over it than the people within it? No, I do not.

However, I don’t think that means we have to default to absolutely structureless, boundary-free chaos, either. It’s perfectly possible to build relationships and polyamorous networks with structures and agreements that work to meet everyone’s needs without disempowering or disenfranchising any members.

I also think that what some people might term “rules” can be perfectly fine and even healthy, up to a point (I’ve written more about this on a couple of occasions!) However, I also think that anything we could consider a sensible and ethical rule is probably more accurately called a relationship agreement since it should be flexible, adaptable to circumstances, renegotiable if necessary, and open to the input of everyone it affects.

As such, we all have a responsibility to behave with compassion, integrity, and to try to live up to our ethical standards. We also have to accept that we are all human, we make mistakes, and we deserve grace to learn, grow, and become the best possible versions of ourselves.

These days, if someone I’m interested in[*****] says that they have a hierarchical relationship, I’m going to be asking more questions rather than assuming I know what they mean. Does “my wife is my primary” mean that your wife is tremendously important to you, will always be a major priority in your life and that you’re not leaving her for anyone, or does it mean that your wife will be able to control how/if we can have sex or get the final say on whether we can even be in a relationship? Because those two things are wildly different. The first one is fine, even positive. Someone who has a track record of maintaining, nurturing, and honouring a long-term relationship is a huge green flag for dating! (Though I might gently encourage you to reconsider the hierarchical language in this case, as many experienced poly people will be put off by it.) The second is an instant dealbreaker.

So conclusions, if there are any to be drawn from all this? Fundamentally, I now believe two things:

  1. That the actions we take in polyamory impact not only ourselves but usually our partners, often our metamours, and sometimes our wider polycule or network. We all have a responsibility to be kind and thoughtful, to honour our agreements and commitments, to tell the truth, and to give each other space to make mistakes even as we’re doing our best.
  2. That nobody should be controlling a relationship that they are not in.

[*****] Extremely hypothetically, given that I’m very polysaturated with two partners and occasional casual encounters right now!

So Where Does This Leave Us?

This post is five thousand words long and comprises months of thinking and on-and-off writing, and I’m still not entirely sure how to wrap it up properly.

I guess all that remains to say is that I’m glad my thinking on this subject has evolved. It’s actually left me in a much happier and healthier place, better able to have positive relationships with my partners and metamours. It’s also improved my relationship with myself, started to heal some of my trust-based trauma, and allowed me to show up more fully and authentically for the people I love.

And for any incorrect and harmful ideas that appeared in my previous writings on this topic, I’m truly sorry.

My thanks go to Mr C&K for proofreading a draft of this post and offering his insights before publishing!

Five Tools I Use to Deal with Jealousy

Something I feel very strongly about non-monogamy, and relationships in general, is that jealousy is normal. It’s a human emotion and something that the overwhelming majority of us will feel from time to time. It is not the devil. And with a little knowledge, practice, and self-compassion, it’s actually not that hard to deal with jealousy without allowing it to run roughshod over your emotions and relationships.

When people claim to be immune to jealousy, I suspect that they are either suppressing their feelings to an unhealthy degree or that they simply have not encountered a jealousy-inducing situation yet. You can no more be immune to jealousy than you can be immune to happiness, sadness, grief, anger, or any of the rest of the vast array of feelings that make up the human experience.

So when I say that I’m polyamorous and people ask “but don’t you get jealous?”, my answer is “sure, sometimes.” That tends to throw people off, as they seemingly expected me to say “nope, never!” The key to a healthy polyamorous relationship, though, isn’t to never feel jealousy. It’s to deal with jealousy (again: a normal human emotion) in constructive rather than destructive ways.

To that end, here are five tools I use to help me deal with jealousy on those occasions that it does arise. If any of them resonate with you, as always, take what works and leave what doesn’t.

Fake It ‘Til I Make It

Sometimes, I like to ask myself “what would the best possible version of Amy do in this situation?” Then I simply do that thing! It might feel a little forced at first, but it usually ends up feeling natural quicker than you might expect.

What would the best version of you do? Perhaps they would be super kind and welcoming to their new metamour, even if they were feeling a little threatened by them deep down. Or perhaps they’d tell their partner they were happy for them after an amazing date, even if they were also feeling really wobbly about it. The point isn’t to lie or to hide your emotions, it’s just to lead with your best foot forward.

This strategy won’t be right for everyone. Some people will end up feeling angry, resentful, or even gaslit if they take this route (this is especially true if their jealousy is actually trying to tell them something important – see the next section for more on that.) But if you’re in the place where you know rationally that things are actually safe and okay, and you’re just waiting for your heart (and nervous system) to catch up to your head, this trick works surprisingly well.

Put simply, sometimes I deal with jealousy by simply choosing to act in the way a not-jealous person would act in that moment.

Ask What It’s Telling Me

Jealousy is a complex emotion, and often a composite one. This means it is made up of numerous other different emotions. However, I have learned that when I feel jealous, there’s usually a fear at the root of it. This means that one of the best ways to deal with jealousy is to identify that fear and face it head-on.

Am I afraid my partner likes this other person more than me? If they did, what would that mean for our relationship? Do I see any actual evidence that that’s what is happening? Or perhaps I am afraid that this person is “better” than me in some way (smarter, prettier, kinkier, whatever.) Again, what would it mean if this was true? Even if it was, I’m not in competition with my metamour… so what’s awesome and loveable about me?

Cunning Minx from Polyamory Weekly uses a version of this that she calls the “and then what?” exercise (learn more about it in this episode). It’s all about exposing what lies at the heart of those probably-irrational fears.

Occasionally, your jealousy will have something productive to tell you. It might indicate, for example, that you don’t feel like you’re getting enough of your partner’s attention or that you’d like more one-to-one special time with them. By taking a step back from the immediacy of the emotion, I can assess whether or not it’s telling me anything useful. If it is, I can address that issue by communicating with my partner, finding other ways to meet the need, or – if necessary – remove myself from the upsetting situation. If it’s not, it makes it easier to put the bad feeling to bed.

Talk About It (If Necessary)

The polyamory community preaches “communication, communication, communication”, and this is good advice in so far as it goes. However, something immensely valuable I’ve learned in the years I’ve been doing this is that not every single fleeting emotion needs to be communicated about.

Sometimes, in service of feeling like I had to communicate every feeling no matter how small, I’ve ended up having an hour long conversation with my partner over a tiny emotion that lasted no more than a minute. Nowadays that feels like an enormous waste of everyone’s time and energy. If I feel jealous for ten seconds or ten minutes or even an hour or two, I’m unlikely to communicate it to my partner unless I’ve determined that the feeling is trying to tell me something important (see above section).

However, if the jealousy lasts longer, is more intense or pressing, or is communicating something important, then talking to the partner(s) in question about it is the next step. This doesn’t always need to happen immediately, and often shouldn’t. I’m not going to pull my partner away from a nice date to discuss it, for example. It also doesn’t necessarily need to be a long discussion. Sometimes just a disclosure, a request for reassurance, and a hug is all that’s needed.

When communicating jealousy, it is best to speak as calmly as possible, approach the subject without blame, be vulnerable, and ask clearly for the support you need.

Many times, I’ve used sentences like “I just wanted to let you know that I felt a little jealous when I saw you kissing X yesterday. Obviously you didn’t do anything wrong but I’d love it if you could reassure me that your feelings for me haven’t changed.”

Practice Self-Care

After many years of doing this, I’ve gained a pretty good handle on what helps me in the moment when I’m feeling jealous. Fortunately, many of the things that help are things I’m able to give to myself without anyone else’s input.

I tend to save particularly loving or affectionate messages from my partners so that if I’m feeling low and they’re not around to offer reassurance, I can give it to myself by rereading some of the things they’ve said about me. Getting some love from elsewhere, such as by calling a friend or another partner, can also help to soothe the part of my brain that’s telling me I’m not loveable or not good enough.

Other things that can help include something that takes me out of my head and grounds me in my body, (masturbation is particularly helpful for me but sometimes exercise and yoga also work), warmth and cosiness (a bath, snuggling under a blanket, cuddling my cat), distraction (reading a book, watching TV, playing a game, doing a task), doing something creative, or just taking a goddamn nap.

Release the feelings

I very rarely feel intense jealousy these days. In the past, though, I’ve felt it powerfully enough for it to be overwhelming. In these instances, some kind of physical and/or emotional release can help to let the feelings out and, ultimately, lessen them or at least make them feel more manageable.

Of course, it’s important to choose a safe outlet or target. Yelling at your partner is not an acceptable emotional release for your jealousy! Some strategies I’ve either tried or heard others recommend include screaming into a pillow, venting to a consenting friend, doing some kind of intense physical pursuit such as running, dancing or weightlifting, hitting a pillow or punching bag, drawing or writing how you feel (which you can then share, keep, or tear up as you choose), laughing, playing loud music and singing along… whatever helps you to feel more relaxed, less tense, and to let out some of what you’re feeling is a great option.

You might find afterwards that you no longer have the difficult feelings any more… or that if you do, you feel more centered and ready to deal with them in a productive way.

How do you deal with jealousy and other hard feelings in relationships? Have any top tips to share?

So You Want to Find a Unicorn?

Spend ten seconds on any polyamory forum or Facebook group, and this question will come up. “We’ve decided to be polyamorous! He’s straight and I’m bi. How can we find a unicorn to join our relationship?” (The hapless couple might also refer to the unicorn as “a third” or, even worse, “a female.”)

The community, particularly people who have been doing this for a long time, have little patience for this phenomenon. Commenters may be fairly harsh towards the couple in question. And I get it! I too roll my eyes every time I see yet another iteration of this.

However, yelling at and berating people doesn’t help to educate them. It just turns them off and pushes them away. And it’s not as though any of us learned how to have healthy polyamorous relationships during sex ed. (Hell, most of us didn’t even learn anything useful about how to have healthy monogamous relationships!)

So I thought I’d address this issue in depth here. What is this “unicorn hunting” thing all about, why is it problematic, and what options do you have instead?

What is Unicorn Hunting, Anyway?

A “unicorn”, in polyamory[1], is a woman[2] who is willing to join a pre-existing couple to form a triad[1] relationship. It is usually understood that the relationship will be closed (i.e. no additional partners outside the triad) and that the unicorn will be expected to conform to an array of rules that the couple determined ahead of time with no input from her.

The reason this phenomenon is called “unicorn hunting” is that it’s typically so hard to find this person that she might as well be a mythological creature.


[1] In swinging, the term is sometimes used more broadly to refer to single women who are willing to play sexually with couples. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

[2] There is some debate in the community over whether there is any such thing as a male unicorn. Some believe there is, others believe that unicorn hunting is a strictly gendered phenomenon. I have seen a male unicorn be referred to as a “Pegasus” or a “Dragon”, but these terms don’t seem to have caught on very widely. In this post, I will sometimes use “she/her” pronouns to refer to unicorns as that is by far the most common iteration of this trope. However, the advice here applies no matter the genders of the couple or the incoming partner.

[3] Three-person romantic relationship, also sometimes called a “throuple.”

Who Am I Talking To Here?

First, let’s establish who I am not talking to in this post.

Did you have two partners, who then met and also happened to fall for each other? Or maybe you were one of two partners to a hinge person, then you also fell for your metamour. Perhaps you and your partner made a friend or started a casual sexual relationship with a lovely someone, and romantic feelings developed between all three of you. Or possibly you’re currently partnered and just open to the idea of a triad or another group relationship, if the right person comes along.

If any of these situations, or something like them, match yours then I am not talking to you. Your situation (or hypothetical situation) is what I’d call an organically formed triad. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with those!

If, however, you’re a couple who has recently (or not so recently) opened up your relationship and decided that what you really want is to find a unicorn – a bisexual woman to form a closed triad with you both, I’m talking to you. I’m going to be as kind as I can, but I’m also going to say some things you might not want to hear. I gently challenge you to make it to the end of the post with an open mind and consider whether you think I make any good points.

The purpose of this post is to educate and encourage you to think more critically about this dynamic. It is not to berate you, scold you, or push you away from the polyamorous community.

Why Do You Want This Specific Dynamic?

I have often asked couples trying to find a unicorn why they are looking for this set-up in particular. I have rarely received satisfactory answers. So before you go any further, if you’re trying to find a unicorn, please ask yourselves this question and really interrogate it. Why can’t you date separately, if polyamory is what you want? Why don’t you try swinging instead if casual sexual experiences together are your priority? What is it specifically about a closed, three-way relationship with a bisexual woman that appeals to you so much?

“It’s just what we want!” isn’t an answer, by the way.

Let’s address some of the common answers I see to this question, and my responses to them.

  • “My wife is bisexual and wants to try being with a woman.” Okay, this desire can be addressed either by swinging/casual sex or by her dating women separately.
  • “My husband says other women only, no men.” This is called a One Penis Policy (OPP) and has so many issues that I’m going to write another entire post about it. In the meantime, read this.
  • “If my partner is dating someone else separately, what am I getting out of it!?” I mean… seeing your partner happy? Supporting their joy, pleasure, and exploration? The opportunity to also date people separately yourself? Viewing non-monogamy simply through the lens of “what’s in it for me?” is unlikely to lead to happiness and can lead to seeing your partner’s other relationships as comodities for your consumption.
  • “I’d be too jealous if my partner were dating someone separately/my partner would be too jealous if I dated separately.” Oh my sweet summer child. Virtually every polyamory newbie ever has made this mistake, including me back in the day! Dating together is not a cure for jealousy, which can (and likely will) absolutely crop up in a triad or other group relationship. Also, jealousy is a normal human emotion to be felt, processed, communicated about, dealt with, or just sat with until it passes. It’s not the enemy.
  • “I don’t feel safe dating without my partner/my partner doesn’t feel safe dating without me.” You may need to do some work on regaining independence, which is absolutely possible from within a relationship. It is healthy to be able to do some things separately! There are also healthy ways to keep yourself physically, emotionally, and sexually safe while dating, but doing everything together at all times isn’t one of them.

Whatever your reasons for unicorn hunting, you are likely to find that there are better and healthier ways of addressing those needs and desires.

So What’s the Big Problem with Unicorn Hunting Anyway?

“That’s all well and good, Amy,” you might be saying, “but we’re determined to find a unicorn and we’re willing to wait if necessary! What’s wrong with what we want? Isn’t this community supposed to be open minded!?”

I hear you. It’s not nice to be told that what you’re looking for is a problem. However, the reason experienced polyamorous people are wary of unicorn hunting is that we’re all too aware of all the ways it can go wrong. Many of us have learned from very bitter personal experience, on one side or the other of this equation.

So let’s look at a few specific things that are problematic about unicorn hunting.

Unicorn Hunting Dehumanises Bi Women

Bisexual women are already aggressively and often non-consensually sexualised by society. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve mentioned being bi and someone has either said “that’s hot!” or asked if I’ll have a threesome with them and their partner.

Unicorn hunting reduces bi women to a highly sexualised monolith. The reality is that we fall all over the sexuality spectrum. Some of us are very sexual, some of us are demisexual, some of us are asexual. Some of us are into threesomes, group sex, and group dating, while others are not. And yes, plenty of us are actually monogamous!

What bisexual women are not, though, is sex toys designed to spice up the bedrooms of bored couples. The idealisation of the MFF closed triad directly stems from the male gaze, the hyper-sexualisation of bi women, and the trope that sapphic love and sex exists for male consumption.

I’m a highly sexual person. I love sex, and I love folks of multiple genders. I also love group sex, threesomes, moresomes, and all that goodness when they’re in the context of a trusted dynamic with people I like. What I DON’T love is the assumption that I am available to couples in general, or the feeling that my being bisexual and having a vagina are the only reasons someone is approaching me. I’m a person, not your “two hot bi babes” fantasy.

A Person Cannot “Join” an Existing Relationship

A triad isn’t a single relationship. A triad is actually four relationships: three dyads (A+B, A+C, B+C) and the relationship between all three people. Seven relationships, if you count the relationship each person has with themself. (Which you probably should, because self-care and a stable relationship with yourself are even more important in non-monogamy.)

So an additional person cannot meaningfully “join” an existing relationship. If you’re in a relationship or married, you and your partner/spouse have a dyadic relationship that you’ve been building for however many years. That relationship will continue, though it will undoubtedly be changed, when you date other people either together or separately.

In the context of a triad, you will each be creating a new dyadic relationship with your new partner. You’ll also be contending with shifts and changes in your dyadic relationship with one another. And, of course, you’ll be creating a brand new relationship between all three of you. See how that’s much harder than just fitting someone into a vaguely person-shaped box labelled “insert bi gal here”?

Viewing the incoming partner as an “addition” to your relationship will not lead anywhere good for any of you. Treating them as an add-on can leave incoming partners feeling like little more than accessories or human sex toys. Which leads me on to…

You Can’t Expect Someone to Feel Exactly the Same Way About Two People

All the successful triad relationships I know have a few things in common, and this is one of them: they allowed, and continue to allow, the individual relationships within the triad to develop, fluctuate, change, and grow at their own natural pace. People don’t fall in love with two people at the same rate, in the same way, at the same time. Human emotions simply don’t work like that. To be in a triad, you have to be comfortable with the fact that each dyadic relationship within it will look different.

Another question I see a lot in polyamorous forums is a variation of this: “Help! We formed a triad but now it seems like our girlfriend is connecting with my wife more than me!”

In an ethical, organically formed triad, this difference in connection needs to be okay. You might have challenging feelings about it, of course. That’s normal. You may need to seek reassurance and extra affection from one or both of your partners. You may even need to renegotiate some aspects of your relationship. In a unicorn situation, this disparity in levels of connection – which is incredibly normal – can be enough to get the newer partner ejected from the relationship.

In addition, an ethical triad allows for the possibility that one (or more) of the dyadic relationships may have conflict, deescalate, or even end… without any expectations that other dyadic connections need to end as a result. If you have a rule that says your partner must date you in order to date your spouse, this leaves them a spectacularly shitty choice if they just don’t feel that way about you or if your relationship is no longer working: fake a connection to you that they do not feel, or lose their relationship with your spouse, i.e. someone they love.

Do you see how unfair that is? Do you also see how it lays the groundwork for coercion, abuse, or even sexual violence? I don’t know about you, but I would be horrified if I realised someone was having sex with me that they didn’t want, just because they thought it was the price of admission to get access to my partner.

Unicorn Hunting Centres the Couple

Unicorn hunting typically centres the original couple, even without intending to, by putting their desires and needs front and centre. Often, they’ve made the rules before a third party has even entered the picture, giving her no say in their creation. This means that the unicorn is seen as an add-on to the couple’s relationship, rather than an equal partner.

The couple often expect – even tacitly – the new partner to prioritise their needs and wants above her own. They also tend to expect that, in the event of conflict, their relationship will be the one prioritised. This is often the case even when the couple pays lip service to their new partner being “totally equal.”

The result? Once again, the newer partner ends up feeling like an accessory rather than a human being.

Think about some of the ways you’d like your relationship to look if you did successfully find a unicorn, or the rules you’d want her to follow. Will you permit her to have dates, sex, and so on with one of you without the other present? If not, will you also be refraining from any one-to-one intimacy with each other? (The answer to this is often “no” and “no”. That is, by definition, not an equal set-up.) If things go swimmingly, will you want your unicorn to move into your home? Would you ever consider moving into hers, or buying a new place all together? Will you introduce her to your family and friends, bring her home for the holidays, or tell your work colleagues about her?

When you start checking your assumptions about how your dream triad relationship will go, you might find that there’s a lot of inequality baked in. That’s because unicorn hunting is almost always couple-centric. Relationships that spring from unicorn hunting involve three people, but tend to only benefit two of them.

Most Polyamorous People Don’t Want Closed Relationships

There are exceptions, of course. Polyfidelity is a thing and can be valid! But the vast majority of polyamorous people are polyamorous, at least in part, because it enables them to be open to new connections of all kinds that may come into their lives.

If you’re seeking a closed relationship with your hypothetical unicorn, I invite you to consider why that is. Most answers will fall into one of two categories.

“I/we would be too jealous if our girlfriend was with anyone else.” Again, jealousy is a real feeling and it can be overwhelming. However, if you want to be non-monogamous, you can’t simply avoid it by setting up rules and restrictions for your partners. At least not if you want happy and healthy relationships.

If you’re not ready to confront and handle jealousy when it arises, you’re not ready to be non-monogamous. It won’t always be easy. Sometimes it’ll utterly suck. But it is necessary if you want to live this life. It is spectacularly unfair to ask a polyamorous person to cut off their chances to enjoy other connections just because you are trying to avoid a difficult feeling.

“I am/we are worried about STIs.” I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t worry about sexual health. If you’re non-monogamous, it’s absolutely something with which you need to concern yourself. However, having a closed relationship is not the only way to protect your sexual health. Everyone in your polycule and wider sexual/romantic network should be getting regular STI tests, communicating openly about their barrier usage or lack thereof so that you can all make informed choices, and incorporating risk-aware practices.

Often, when I hear “we want a closed relationship because we don’t want STIs”, what’s at the root of it is actually just good old-fashioned slut-shaming. Did you know that consensually non-monogamous people actually have lower STI rates than supposedly-monogamous people who cheat (which is a huge percentage)? They are also more likely to use barriers and to practice regular testing. (Source: Dr Justin Lehmiller in The Journal of Sexual Medicine.)

Ultimately, you have to be okay with some risk of contracting an STI if you are going to be non-monogamous… or if you’re going to have sex at all. No prevention mechanism is bombproof. People lie, people cheat, and people make mistakes in the heat of the moment. You can mitigate the risk but you cannot entirely eliminate it.

If you want a closed relationship, stay monogamous or date other people for whom polyfidelity is their ideal choice. Don’t try to push people who would prefer an open dynamic into a closed one. Polyamory isn’t just monogamy with an additional person.

It’s Just Statistically Unlikely

Back in the days of Livejournal, Emanix wrote this article outlining some of the numbers involved in unicorn hunting. Not being a numbers person, I have no idea how mathematically sound this is, but the message is clear. Unicorn hunting is damn hard, with seeking couples outnumbering interested bi women by 100 to 1[4]. There’s a reason couples sometimes pop up complaining that they’ve been looking for a year, five years, ten years, and still haven’t found their “one.”

Remember: we call these people unicorns because it is so hard to find one that they might as well not exist!

[4] I pulled this number out of the air. I have no idea what the actual figures are but suffice to say that if you’re a couple trying to find a unicorn, the odds are hugely stacked against you from the beginning.

You’re Probably Not the Exception

“We’re not like that!” you might be saying. “We’ll be different! We’ll treat our unicorn like a queen!”

I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably not the exception. This is because the inequalities, objectification, and mistreatment that make unicorn hunting so problematic are baked into the very structure.

The assumptions, beliefs, and practices that underpin trying to find a unicorn come from a place that causes harm. The only way to unicorn hunt ethically is not to do it.

So What Can You Do Instead?

If you’ve got this far and you’re still with me, great! So you want to be non-monogamous and you want to be ethical about it. Amazing! So what now?

Luckily, there are loads of ways you can enjoy consensual non-monogamy without unicorn hunting. Here are just a few for you to consider.

If your priority is enjoying sexual variety and you want to do this together, try swinging. This enables you to enjoy different bodies, different kinks, and fun experiences together with other people who want the same. Many swingers do form friendships with their playmates, and sometimes these connections can turn romantic. Be clear about what you want and can offer upfront, look for others whose desires match, and you’ll minimise the chances of hurting someone.

If you want to build more romantic connections with other people, try dating separately. It might be more emotionally challenging, but it’s also tremendously rewarding. You’ll have far more luck finding dates, particularly with experienced and skilled polyamorous people. When you free yourselves and your prospective partners from restrictive expectations, you’ll allow things to flourish naturally. You’ll also most likely treat other people, each other, and yourselves better.

It’s also important to make sure you’re not using “dating separately” as a way to find a unicorn without seeming to be looking for one. Presenting yourself as available for solo dating, only to spring your partner on your unsuspecting date with a view to getting them together too, is not ethical.

Like the idea of both these relationship styles? Yes, you can be both polyamorous and a swinger! Plenty of people do both, or a mix of the two. There’s not even always a strict delineation. Polyam people can have casual sex, and swingers can have deep and romantic attachments. Non-monogamy is a spectrum and a world of options to choose from, not a set of rigid boxes into which you have to cram yourselves.

There’s even the possibility that you can have a triad relationship without falling prey to these pitfalls and hurting someone in the process. Plenty of people do. “No unicorn hunting” isn’t the same thing as “no triads.” But it won’t happen for you by going out with a laundry list of criteria and looking for a bi woman together. If it happens, it’ll happen organically while you are out there doing your non-monogamous thing.

And if it doesn’t happen? There are numerous other wonderful, fulfilling, and healthy ways to enjoy this thing we call non-monogamy.

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[Guest Post] It’s Time for Non-binary and Polyamory-Inclusive Leather Titles by Lisa Kivok

One of the joys of publishing guest posts on this blog is that I get to enjoy a glimpse into aspects of the vast worlds of gender, sexuality, and kink that I don’t have direct experience with. That’s why I am really thrilled with today’s post in which Lisa Kivok (she/her) tells us why she thinks it’s past time for non-binary and polyamorous inclusion in the world of leather titles. It’s a thought-provoking piece that I’m thrilled to share with you all.

Amy x

It’s Time for Non-binary and Polyamory-Inclusive Leather Titles by Lisa Kivok

It’s 2022. Non-binary and polyamorous people are increasingly visible in mainstream society. Not nearly enough, of course, but still increasingly so. But the leather community, which rightfully prides itself so much on being accepting, often excludes them in its contest titles. Not always, and usually not intentionally, but still far too often.

For example, how often do you see a leather title for Couple of the Year/Region/etc.? Now, how included do you think monogamous people would feel if the title was Polycule of the Year… but hey, we’ll let couples compete and call them “Couple of the Year” if they happen to win? Just about as included as polyamorous people feel when relationships competing for titles are dubbed “couples” by default.

Instead, it’s time for leather contests to stop using Couple of the Year titles and start using titles that are neutral in relationship style and can truly include polyamorous people – for example, Relationship of the Year.

A trickier phenomenon is that of Woman/Man of the Year/Region/etc. leather titles. It wouldn’t be right for those titles to be replaced – for a lot of people, their femininity or masculinity is an important part of their connection to the leather world. That shouldn’t be downplayed by eliminating those titles. But it’s past time that leather contests acknowledged non-binary leather people by adding a non-binary title, too – for example, Non-binary Person of the Year. Just letting non-binary people compete in Woman/Man categories and changing the title if they win isn’t fair. If women and men get their own designated titles, non-binary people should, too. After all, would you expect a woman to feel included in a non-binary person of the year contest? The same is true in reverse.

Why is now the time to make these changes?

Polyamorous and non-binary people have always existed, and any time would have been a great time to acknowledge them by making these changes, as some but not enough leather contests already have. Indeed, it would have been best to start out with such inclusive titles when leather contests first began. But such changes are better done late than never, and now is an especially important time to take a stand on this. That’s because right now there is a huge backlash against diversity, especially sexual diversity.

Yes, non-binary and polyamorous people are increasingly visible in mainstream society, but that often only leads to greater backlash. You can’t turn on the TV or look at Twitter without hearing about people being called groomers for being queer in public, trans youth being denied puberty blockers, and other attempts to shove people back into the imagined Father Knows Best days that never really existed.

If even the leather community pushes polyamorous and non-binary people to the side for not being mainstream enough, where will those people find acceptance?

Lack of acceptance may drive these people away from the leather subculture, which in addition to being unfortunate for them would be unfortunate for leather society itself. Polyamorous and non-binary people have contributed much to leather society, and no doubt can and will contribute more if they were better included.

The leather subculture has never been about the “nice” people who just want to be accepted by the mainstream. Sure, they’re as welcome in leather society as anyone else. But the heart of leather society has always been people maligned and excluded elsewhere. It is hypocritical and illogical to have a subculture based in large part on a fairly rare sexual fetish, long thought of as disgusting and immoral by mainstream society, and to then exclude polyamorous and non-binary people for not being mainstream or common enough. That way lies a ”sanitization” of leather society that goes against the values the culture does, and should, stand for in terms of acceptance of people who do not belong to the sexual and gender mainstream.

Making room for people excluded from mainstream society has always been part of leather culture, and minority groups within leather culture have fought long and proudly and successfully for inclusion, including in leather titles. There are women’s leather titles, Black leather titles, and deaf leather titles, to name just a few. It’s time we gave polyamorous and non-binary people the same sort of chance. It’s time to remind ourselves that when mainstream society says “get out, freaks and perverts”, leatherfolk say, “you’re welcome here with us.”

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[Book Review] Ready for Polyamory by Laura Boyle

Books on polyamory are a mixed bag. From classics like The Ethical Slut to last year’s psychology-driven Polysecure, there’s a lot of good stuff out there. There are also texts that encourage or enable harmful behaviours, as well as those that are fine but promote a very specific agenda or relationship style.

You might think that, as someone who has been doing various forms of consensual non-monogamy for about 13 years at this point, I’d be at the point where I no longer have need for the books. You’d be wrong, though. Sure, the 101-level texts aren’t really for me any more, but even then they often introduce me to a useful concept or framing I hadn’t previously considered. And the more advanced, specific, or in-depth works that are now available are incredibly valuable, no matter how long I do this.

All this to say that when Laura Boyle of the Ready for Polyamory blog asked me to read and review her new book of the same name, I was only too happy to agree.

Ready for Polyamory by Laura Boyle

Coming in at a hefty 231 pages, Ready for Polyamory is a guidebook to many of the different aspects that go into having happy, healthy, and functional consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships. It is divided into four sections:

  • Basic Information is a kind of polyamory 101 – what it is, a very brief history of the term and the communities surrounding it, and the kinds of relationship agreements that tend to work well (and don’t).
  • Find Your Flavor of Polyamory unpacks popular terms such as “Kitchen Table polyamory”, “parallel polyamory”, and “relationship anarchy”, discussing how each one works and exploring the pros and cons of the various models.
  • Conversations to Have and Mistakes to Avoid delves deeply into some of the language that can help you, your partners, and prospective partners to talk about your relationships and your needs. It also explores some productive and destructive ways of behaving in relationships, as well as including a pretty comprehensive chapter on sexual health.
  • The Big Feelings covers all those big, scary, overwhelming, and even wonderful emotions – jealousy, compersion, and cultivating chosen family through your polycule and intentional relationships.

Like many books in this genre, it’s very much a dip-in-and-out structure. If you’re brand new or looking for a comprehensive resource, I do recommend reading it cover to cover (which I did!) But if you’re looking for information on a specific area of CNM – for example, sexual health, setting boundaries, or cultivating compersion – you can easily just turn to the chapters that speak to you.

Ready for Polyamory is written in a chatty, conversational tone. Reading it feels a little like sitting in a room with the author, sharing a cup of coffee and listening to her talk. If you read the blog and enjoy the accessible language and friendly tone, you’ll probably enjoy the book, too.

Choose Your Own Adventure (With the Help of Some Hard-Won Wisdom)

While I don’t agree with absolutely everything Boyle says in this book (which would be hard, because there’s a lot of information here!), I often found myself nodding along to her insights and underlining key passages to come back to later.

Throughout the book, she uses a recurring metaphor that really stuck with me: polyamory as a choose-your-own-adventure story. Instead of prescribing a specific way of operating or insisting on One Twue Way, she offers an array of options and trusts the reader to use the information wisely to make the choices that are best for them and their partners. In a community that is becoming increasingly dogmatic in really concerning ways, this was deeply refreshing.

This is also why I particularly appreciated the inclusion of the Find Your Flavor of Polyamory section. Many people feel very strongly that their way of doing things is the best and right way (“parallel polyam is only for when you hate your metamours!” “Relationship Anarchy is the only ethical relationship structure!”) Boyle shares experiences and lessons from her own life and the lives of people she knows, and leaves you to make your own mind up.

As an experienced polyam person, I found myself wryly nodding along to a lot of the sections about common mistakes and pitfalls. Because society is so heavily set up for the cishetero monogamous default, there are virtually no cultural scripts for polyamory yet… and those that do exist tend to be pretty dysfunctional. As a result, most of us start our non-monogamy journey from a well-intentioned place, but end up hurting ourselves and others along the way, often with the same set of mistakes.

Boyle presents compassionate and experience-based arguments for why many of the most-made polyam mistakes – from the One Penis Policy to unicorn hunting – create problems, and she offers alternatives to help readers make better decisions.

A Pragmatic Guide

Ready for Polyamory‘s subtitle is “A Pragmatic Guide to Consensual Non-Monogamy”, and I think that’s a good summary. Boyle avoids making judgements, slapping down moral absolutes, or prioritising ideological purity. As a result, this book feels like – for want of a better description – a polyamory guide for the real world. A world in which feelings are messy, people mostly mean well but inevitably screw up, and sometimes pandemics throw a huge spanner in the works of your dating life.

Overall, Ready for Polyamory is smart, accessible, and practical. If you’re dipping a toe into CNM or just considering opening up, this book deserves a place on your reading list.

Ready for Polyamory is available in paperback for $17.99 and as a Kindle ebook for $10.01, sold via Amazon. For my UK readers, it’s available on Amazon UK for £13.07 in paperback and £7.26 in ebook.

This review was sponsored, meaning I was paid to read the book and provide a fair and honest review. All words and views are, as always, mine. Affiliate links appear within this post but do not include the Amazon links to Ready for Polyamory.

Empty Spaces

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I recently ended my relationship with the person I referred to as The Artist. As with the ending of any long-term relationship, the reasons were complex and I won’t be going into them here. Please respect my/our privacy and don’t ask me to spill details, because I won’t. Please don’t make assumptions or demonise them, even under the guise of being supportive.

When you end a relationship, especially a long-term relationship, it inevitably leaves empty spaces behind. People think that us polyamorous folks can just brush off a breakup. “You have other partners, right? So what’s the big deal?” they ask. To that, I want to say this: if you lose a dear friend, do you just shrug it off because you still have other friends? Of course you don’t.

Yes, I’m in the fortunate position of not being alone. Yes, Mr CK has been an absolute fucking rockstar in all this, supporting me through making an incredibly difficult decision and caring for me through my heartbreak. But you know what? I broke up with someone I loved. It still hurt like absolute fuck.

When you love an artist, you inevitably accumulate a collection of their work over the years. The choker-definitely-not-a-collar they made for me is still hanging on the back of my office door as I write this, wondering what the hell to do with it now. There are empty picture hooks on my wall where the paintings they did for me used to hang. I took them down and packed them away because looking at them was a visceral reminder of the loss and grief in the immediate aftermath. Memories shoved into a closed drawer, maybe to be revisited someday when the pain is less immediate. Empty spaces, a fitting metaphor for the total obliteration of everything we had.

After I finished taking the paintings down, I automatically picked up my phone and scrolled through messages, my fingers tingling with unsaid words. That little green bubble by their name showing they’re online, and the do-it-don’t-do-it battle not to send the message. I still love you. I’m sorry. I wish I’d had any other choice. Typing and untyping, writing and deleting, imagining them seeing the little dot-dot-dot next to my name, all the things we both said and didn’t say and probably should have said and definitely shouldn’t.

I have had a tendency, in the past, to jump from one serious relationship directly into another. Though this hasn’t always gone badly (Mr CK and I hooked up very soon after I left my abuser, after all,), I don’t think it is a healthy pattern overall. The result is that I end up basing my worth and my sense of self on my romantic relationships.

That’s why, in the wake of this most recent breakup, I decided to take a long break from dating new people. I don’t know yet quite how long this break will last or what it will look like. At the moment, I’m tentatively considering getting back on the dating apps after the new year. But right now, even thinking about it is exhausting. The idea of sitting across the table from a stranger and trying to figure out if there is any chance of us fitting together, the idea of having to disclose that I’m a survivor and have a history of mental illness and oh by the way I have a sex blog, fills me with dread.

So I’m hitting the pause button.

As a polyamorous ethical slut, there’s sometimes an internalised sense that I should always be dating new people or at least open to dating new people. Isn’t closing myself off to new connections just a holdover from monogamous culture? Well, no.

I need to get to know these empty spaces inside me that I have filled or attempted to fill with one relationship after another after another since I was fourteen.

I’m still a polyamorous person. Just having the one serious partner (as well as a couple of casual or not-sure-yet-it’s-early-days connections) doesn’t negate that part of my identity. Just like being bi isn’t dependent on the gender of my partners, being polyam isn’t dependent on the number of them there are.

I’m just doing things differently this time. Instead of trying to fill the empty spaces with another new relationship that is probably not a great fit in the long run, I’m filling them with other things that nourish me. With hobbies and friends, with self-work and self-compassion, with therapy and writing and fitness and literally anything else.

I’m lucky to be able to do this from the position of having a secure, stable nesting relationship as a base, and I am immeasurably grateful to Mr CK for providing that base. But the ending of any relationship still leaves empty spaces behind, and I am both excited and terrified to explore those spaces and see what I want to fill them with next.

I’ll think about dating again when doing so fills me with excitement.

This post was written as part of Smutathon 2021! You can check out all our work and learn more about the challenge on the Smutathon website. Please consider donating to this year’s charities, Gendered Intelligence and Trans Lifeline.

Five Good Rules for Polyamory (and Five Bad Ones)

Rules are a divisive subject in the polyamory community. Some people require dozens of rules to feel safe in their relationships, while others feel that any and all rules for polyamory are toxic.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m pro-rules as long as they serve a specific purpose and are there for a good reason (papering over someone’s insecurities so they don’t have to work on them is not a good reason).

But what rules should you have and which ones cause more harm than good?

Five Good Rules for Polyamory

Your mileage will vary, of course. There are no absolutes in something as nuanced and endlessly complex as human relationships. But here are five rules that I personally consider healthy and useful in polyamorous relationships, and that might be helpful for you to think about.

“Practice safer sex”

What this looks like will vary for each individual, couple, or network. Some people might simply decide to use barriers with all partners. Others might agree to fluid bond with one partner while using barriers with everyone else. Sometimes, a closed group will agree to get tested and stop using barriers all together while continuing to use barriers with any external partners.

There’s no one right way but it’s essential to agree on safer sex rules with all your partners, and then stick to them. Making decisions that potentially impact other people’s health and safety without consulting them is never okay.

“Tell the truth”

What separates polyamory from cheating? Honesty and consent. And those things can only exist if you tell the truth. Lies – big or small, blatant or by omission – chip away at trust. And without a high level of trust, you can’t even have a functional monogamous relationship, never mind a polyamorous one.

By the way: if you agree to always tell the truth in your relationships, you need to be prepared to hear the truth, too. This means listening without jumping to conclusions or flying off the handle. Even the most honest partner will begin to hide things if it doesn’t feel safe to be honest with you.

Rules about financial and legal responsibilities

Again, what this looks like will differ depending on your relationship structure and needs. For some, this means no significant financial entanglements outside of the nesting or spousal relationship. For others, this means ensuring all the bills are paid and then having complete financial autonomy after that.

If you share a home with one partner, you might have rules around your shared home. “We live together and don’t want to live with anyone else” is a common one.

Consider legal commitments such as marriage, too. Remember that if you’re married or in a civil partnership (or long-term cohabiting in some jurisdictions), your partner’s finances are de facto tied up with yours. You need to have ground rules and understandings accordingly.

Finally, this may include rules around pregnancy and child-rearing. While you cannot legislate for fluke occurences and genuine accidents (and should be prepared to deal with them if they arise), “do everything you can not to get pregnant/get someone else pregnant” is a reasonable and sensible rule.

Rules about public disclosure or lack thereof

Some people are completely out and open about their polyamorous lives. Others are not, and this can be for very good reason. From losing family and friends who disapprove, through to job losses and even child custody problems, being outed against your will can be a very big deal.

If this is an issue for you, consider making ground rules to protect your privacy. This might include who you tell about your relationships, whether you can be pictured or “tagged” on social media, and whether public displays of affection are okay for you.

“Allow relationships to be what they are”

Trying to force relationships into a specific model never works. Trying to legislate for exactly what form all future relationships will take is a bit like planning your wedding to someone you haven’t even met yet. It makes no sense.

Don’t try to force something casual to become a serious relationship. Likewise, don’t try to shove something emotionally meaningful and intense into the “it’s just sex” box. And please, as we’ll discuss below, do not try to force someone to feel the same way about both you and your partner.

Allowing relationships to be what they are also extends to metamour relationships. Perhaps you have a strong preference for kitchen table polyamory. That’s fine, and a great thing to aim for! But requiring that your partners and metamours must all be friends, get along, or even be comfortable with things like bed sharing or sexual interaction is coercive.

If people feel that they have to extend (physical or emotional) intimacy to others in order to continue to access intimacy with their partner, the possibility of true consent is eroded.

Let the relationships in your network be what they are. All of them.

And Five Unhealthy Rules

On the flip side, here are five rules that I believe are likely to be unhealthy, harmful, or at least manifest in damaging ways even if the intention is good.

“Don’t fall in love”

You cannot legislate emotions – your own or anyone else’s. Many couples begin their journey into opening up by saying “sex with others is okay, but no falling in love.”

And maybe neither of you will ever fall in love with someone else! Maybe you’re truly sexually open and emotionally monogamous. That’s completely valid. But making rules against feelings, rather than actions, leads to repression, lies, and resentment as soon as anyone feels the “forbidden” emotion.

This is sort of the reverse of “allow relationships to be what they are”.

Overly specific rules around physical intimacy

Those long relationship contracts about precisely who can touch which body part on whom and under which circumstances? They’re exhausting, untenable over the long term, and tend to leave people feeling disenfranchised and pissed off. I remember reading them and thinking “I’m never going to remember all of this”, which led to me pulling back from intimacy entirely for a long time out of fear of breaking a rule.

A few broad guidelines are useful, and even a couple of specific no-go areas might be okay, but tread very carefully. In general, the only people who should be making rules about physical and sexual interactions are the people actually having those interactions.

Veto rules

A veto is a rule whereby one member of a couple can unilaterally order their partner to end an outside relationship and expect that they will do it. Veto is toxic for so many reasons: it creates an unhealthy power dynamic, it puts the veto-issuer into a parental role, and it infantilises grown ass adults. It also tends to hurt everyone it impacts, including the person issuing the veto (if you force me to break my own and someone I love’s hearts, we’re not going to be in a good place).

Slightly less pernicious but still far from ideal is the “screening veto”. This is when the primary partner gets to give or withhold permission for their partner to date a specific third party, but cannot later end the relationship once permission has been given.

Screening vetos are slightly less destructive, but they still serve to create an unhealthy permission-based model and infantilise the person who has to ask their partner for permission.

“We only date together”

Don’t do this. Please don’t do this! If you and your partner meet someone you’re both into and who is into both of you, then amazing. Have fun! But going in looking for someone who will date both of you leads to toxicity and frustration.

Trying to make someone be into both of you in the same way at the same time is a recipe for failure. Human hearts just don’t work that way. Almost no single polyam people will date couples with this rule, because it’s a surefire way to getting discarded with a broken heart.

Oh, and if you’re a male/female couple looking for a bisexual woman to “complete your triad”? It is called a unicorn for a reason.

Curfews and tight rules around time

This can appear under lots of different guises.

“You can go out, but you have to be home by midnight.”
“You can see your other partner in the week, but weekends are for us!”
“I always need you to be here when I get back from work.”

The purpose of these rules is usually to ensure that needs get met. But you can get your needs met without being so rigid, at least in a good relationship! If your partner wants to spend time with you and keep their commitments to you, they will. If they don’t, no amount of rules legislating that they can only go out on dates every third Wednesday will help you.

Instead of making rigid rules, talk about needs. Do you need to spend an evening of quality time with your partner uninterrupted at least once per week? Ask for that. Do you collectively need to ensure that the kids are picked up from school or that your shared car is available when it’s time to go to work? Then discuss logistics and negotiate accordingly.

Don’t issue adults with curfews and don’t claim ownership over someone else’s time.

What rules of engagement do you and your partner(s) have in your polyamorous relationship? How do they work for you?

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