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Those of us who are active in alternative relationship and sexuality communities such as polyamory, consensual non-monogamy, and kink like to believe that we’re operating in a utopia. We so want to think that our little bubble is apart and separate from the rest of the world, unaffected by society’s ills. It’s a seductive narrative, but it is a lie. Today I want to talk about one of the most pervasive and insidious issues I experience as a sapphic, non-monogamous, kinky femme in these communities.
A quick note on terminology: I can’t write about this topic without acknowledging the ways in which the the anti-transgender hate movement has co-opted the concept of “lesbian erasure.” Anti-trans activists often erroniously claim that to accept trans women as women is to erase or undermine lesbian identities and that cis lesbians routinely experience pressure to transition to male. I absolutely and unequivocally reject these ideas. Trans women are women. Trans sapphics are our sisters and are just as much a part of the community as their cis counterparts.
With that said, I want to talk about the systemic erasure and devaluing of sapphic, lesbian, and women-loving-women (WLW) identities and relationships within polyamory, consensual non-monogamy, kink, and other adjacent communities.
Who Counts as a Couple?
Let’s start with the obvious: many non-monogamous spaces, particularly those geared around casual sex and swinging, are simply not set up in a way that allows for any configuration of people that isn’t “one man and one woman in a relationship” or “a single cisgender person.” The most obvious example of this is gendered pricing. This has tonnes of its own problems anyway and completely falls apart when you account for anyone who isn’t straight, cis, and in a relationship that appears monogamous from the outside.
Many lifestyle events, clubs, and parties would class my girlfriend and I as two single women if we attended together. (Whereas, of course, if I attended with a male partner they’d class us as a couple.) Two women could be literally married to each other, and this would still be the case. Because in the eyes of those spaces, a “couple” is a man and a woman.
“But you’ll get in cheaper if they count you as two single women!”. Yeah, this isn’t the gotcha you think it is in this situation. I’d much, much rather pay the same rate as any other couple rather than have my relationship minimised, othered, and erased on account of our genders.
It’s often more insidious than these fairly blatant forms of discrimination, too. When people talk about “couples” in non-monogamous spaces, they will often casually refer to “the man” and “the lady” (or, worse, “girl”) as if that is the only configuration for a couple to take. If I refer to a partner without gendering them, most people will assume I am talking about a man. I really don’t believe this is malicious in 99% of cases. At worst, I think it is privilege-blind and clueless. But that doesn’t make it any more right or any less hurtful.
The Aggressive Gendering of Kink
I love the BDSM community in so many ways. I’ve been finding my home, my place, and my people within it for the best part of 15 years. But the longer I stick around, the more I see that the kink community still has a fairly pervasive gender-norms problem that we still need to address.
Absent very explicit context to the contrary, people will still broadly assume that men are Dominant, that women are submissive, and that kinky and D/s relationships will look broadly heteronormative. And sure, Femdom exists. But all my Dominant women friends have countless stories of men treating them as little more than fetish dispensers, expecting them to service those men’s needs and follow precise directions while pretending to be in charge and without regard for their own needs and desires.
There is very, very little representation of kinky sapphic relationships of any description in our media, our online spaces, our educational materials, or our event leadership demographics. Why is that? Because it sure as hell isn’t “because kinky sapphics don’t exist.”
I suspect it’s for a few reasons. First, a lack of imagination that assumes all kinky relationships must play out a sexy version of 1950s gender roles. Second, because cisheterosexism still means that – even in alternative spaces – men are more likely to hold positions of leadership and influence. And third, because certain parts of the community can be pretty damn unwelcoming and unsafe for queer people and especially for queer women.
More than once, when I’ve played with other women in public kink spaces, we’ve been interrupted by men either trying to give unsolicited advice or trying to insert themselves into our scene. On one memorable occasion, I was topping for an impact play scene with a friend (who, in her words, was “having a perfectly lovely time”). Out of nowhere, a man I’d never met came over and tried to physically grab my flogger out of my hands.
Because I was a woman, I was assumed to be incompetent. Because we were two women playing together, we were assumed to need a man. Our happy little play bubble was totally ruined by some random dude’s ego and entitlement.
This isn’t an isolated incident, either. Virtually every queer woman I know who plays in mixed kink spaces with other women has a similar story. Is there any wonder we’ve started making more and more of our own spaces?
To be fair, this does seem to be slowly getting better. But there’s some way still to go.
“But You Still Like Men, Right?”
When I mention my girlfriend to people who know I’m non-monogamous (or can reasonably make that assumption, such as at a lifestyle party or social), one of the first I’ve been asked on numerous occasions is whether or not I also date or fuck men.
My friend Violet calls this the “are you heteronormative enough for my comfort zone?” question. Which… no. No I am not. #toogayforyourcomfortzone.
My usual response to this, until now, has been to say yes but emphasise that it’s fairly rare for me to fancy a man enough to want to do anything about it. In the future, though, I think I might change my response. “Why do you ask?” or “well I’m not sleeping with you if that’s what you’re really asking” are currently strong contenders.
I want people who ask me this question to ask themselves why it’s the first place their mind goes on learning that I’m sapphic. After all, if a woman mentions a boyfriend or husband, almost no-one is going to ask her “but you still date women too, right?” Ultimately, what they’re asking is whether I am still sexually available to men – a thing that patriarchy both demands of women and villifies us for.
There’s a strong connection between all of this and the commodification of sapphic sexuality in service of the male gaze.
Sapphic, Lesbian and WLW Sexuality for the Male Gaze
People often believe that there is no sapphic, lesbian and WLW erasure issue in these communities because there are so many bisexual, pansexual and queer women in them. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. In reality, my experience – and the experience of many sapphic friends I’ve spoken to about this – is often not so much one of acceptance but of fetishisation, followed by devaluing when we refuse to conform to a safe, male-gazey idea of what our sexuality should be.
I’m reminded of the man at a polyamorous speed dating event about a year ago who aggressively quizzed me about what my former metamour-with-benefits and I got up to in the bedroom, and was then clearly bored and put out when I refused to engage. In the 16 years or so I’ve been out, I really thought we’d moved past men asking sapphics “but what do y’all do in bed anyway!?”. Apparently we have not.
I’m also reminded of the man who hit on me and my girlfriend in a gay bar on Pride weekend. Because apparently what two sapphics in love desperately needed in that moment was his dick. I have literally dozens of other examples like this that I can pull out with very little thought.
Expectations of Performativity
In sexualised spaces, people continually expect queer and bi+ women to perform their sexuality in a way that appeals to the male gaze. Two different male exes of mine became extremely upset or angry when my girlfriends were either not their physical type or not willing to sleep with them. This made me feel like my sexuality, my relationships, were only valid as long as they provided benefits to men. Which, of course, is a classic way that society devalues and commodifies WLW relationships.
One of these partners literally asked me what was “even the point” of me being queer if I didn’t perform it in a way that fulfilled his lesbian porn fantasy. Other male partners and male metamours over the years have tried to demand titillating details, photos, or even the right to “watch.” I’ve been hit on by so many men who want me to play with their wives. This is inevitably not because she wants a sapphic experience, but because he wants her to perform one for him.
Patriarchal entitlement to women’s bodies persists, even when we are tell you we are far more interested in each other than we are in you.
Unicorn hunting is another extremely common variation on this theme. In those dynamics, the original male/female couple will often pull a bait-and-switch tactic in which they use the woman to lure other queer women in, then spring the boyfriend or husband on the unsuspecting “unicorn” as a package deal. I hope I don’t have to tell you how grossly unethical this is. That’s why I now run from prospective female dates at the first signs that they’re going to expect me to be sexually available to their male partners.
And that brings us to…
Are Women Less Threatening, or Are You Just Homophobic?
This particular trope is so common within non-monogamy that it’s now a cliché. A cisgender man and woman open up their relationship. The man then tells his partner he’ll allow her to date other women, but no men. (In practice, what this means is “no-one else with a penis“, which is also transphobic.) The reason? Women are just less threatening. They don’t make him feel emasculated or threatened in the way that a man (or penis-haver) would.
The subtext? His wife could never leave him for another woman. She could never like having sex with another woman more than she does with him. She could never gain more fulfillment from a sapphic relationship than from a straight one. A man could steal her away, but a woman couldn’t. So his place in her life is safe. Right?
This comes from a place of believing that relationships between women are less real, less valid, and less important than hetero-appearing relationships. In other words it’s straight up, common-or-garden, fucking boring homophobia.
These men, by the way, are often the same men who expect their wives’ sapphic relationships to offer them something in terms of sexual access or live-action lesbian porn on tap then get very upset if they don’t.
But of course, lesbian, sapphic and WLW relationships are just as deep, meaningful, and sexually satisfying as hetero ones. Hell, for many of us they’re often more so. If you believe your wife can’t possibly glean as much happiness or fulfillment from a relationship with a woman, you might be in for a very rude awakening. If you see another man as a threat but not a woman, all this tells me is that you believe men are inherently superior and hetero relationships are inherently more desirable or important.
The fact that this practice and way of thinking is so common tells me, in itself, that there’s still a lot of homophobia towards lesbian, sapphic and queer women within non-monogamy.
So What Can We Do About It?
I try to make these blog posts something more than just rants. So if we accept that sapphic, lesbian and WLW erasure are huge problems in these communities, what can we do about it?
Here are a few of my ideas for how we, as a community, can start combatting this issue within our spaces:
- Stop all gendered pricing for events, now. If you want to limit numbers of single men, fine. You can sell only a certain number of tickets or vet them carefully or both. But pricing according to gender, and defining “couple” as meaning a man and a woman, is homophobic, cissexist, and exclusionary.
- Vote with your feet and your wallet. Attend events that are inclusive and avoid those that are not.
- Stop asking queer women whether we also sleep with men. Some of us do, some of us don’t. Either way, it is solidly none of your goddamn business unless we’re going to sleep with you. And unless we make it very clear, you should probably assume we’re not.
- Stop asking queer women for details of our sex lives. This includes asking if you can “watch,” asking for pictures or details, or treating us as lesbian porn fantasies.
- If you’re a man with a queer female partner, ensure that you are giving your wife or partner’s sapphic relationships equal weight to your own.
- Do not assume that hetero-presenting relationships or marriages are “primary,” more important, or take precedent over queer ones in non-monogamous networks.
- Push back against unicorn hunting and one penis policies wherever you see them. Let people know that they are fetishising, homophobic, transphobic, and all-round gross.
- Use non-gendered terms when talking about kink roles such as Top, bottom, Dominant, submissive, and so on. Do not assume that all Dominants are men, that all submissives are women, or that all kinky relationships are heteronormative.
- Uplift and support queer women as educators, speakers, organisers, and community leaders.
Of course, fixing this kind of stuff takes more than just a few steps. Sapphic, lesbian and WLW erasure is deeply ingrained and pervasive. Undoing it will require a massive cultural shift both within our little subcultures and in wider society. It won’t happen overnight, of course. But I do believe we can get there.