Posts Tagged ‘polyamory’

2011 17 Mar

The Sex-Positive Documentary Film List: 2011-2012!

pro-SEX, pro-QUEER, pro-KINK

a FREE documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn and the awesome Sex+++ Committee!

+ Join our Facebook group, and invite all your friends!
+ Join our Google Groups mailing list to receive updates!
+ Want to volunteer to help out? Join our volunteer mailing list!

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2nd Tuesdays at 7PM
Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted

Sex+++ is a film series and discussion group that’s open to all, where we discuss sex, culture, and sexual fun. When I started the series in 2009, I thought it would only last 9 months (here’s the original film list) — but Sex+++ ended up succeeding beyond my wildest dreams!

This year, we’re exploring some new themes:

+ Activist Sex (how sex and activism intersect),
+ Sexual History (how sex has been viewed in the past),
+ Love And Sex (how romance and relationships shape sex),
+ and Sex Everywhere (how people think about sex outside the USA).

You can RSVP by phone if you like: 312.413.5353. If you RSVP, we’ll save you a seat — and if the venue fills up, you’ll definitely be able to attend! In other words, RSVPs are not required, but they’re in your interest. Please note that we unsave seats at 7PM.

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MARCH 8, 2011: “Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance” (1992) + “Jane: An Abortion Service” (1996)
#1: Highlights Margaret Sanger’s pioneering strategies of using media and popular culture to advance the cause of birth control, and discusses some of her early-1900s arrests and trials.
#2: Tells the story of “Jane”, the Chicago-based women’s health group who performed nearly 12,000 safe illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973 with no formal medical training.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

APRIL 7, 2011 — THURSDAY: “A Jihad for Love” (2007)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, April 7 rather than the second Tuesday in April, because the filmmaker is coming into town for a talkback!
+ Fourteen centuries after the revelation of the holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, Islam today is the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion. Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma travels the many worlds of this dynamic faith, discovering the stories of its most unlikely storytellers: lesbian and gay Muslims. After we screen “A Jihad for Love”, Sharma will talk about his more than a decade of work and experience in countries like Egypt, where he filmed in secret, without government permission, during Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.
+ Note that there will also be a brown bag lunch with Parvez Sharma at noon on April 8, on the topic of race and identity.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sex Everywhere

MAY 10, 2011: “Sister Wife” (2008) + “The Love Bureau” (2009) + “Muslims in Love” (2010)
#1: A fundamentalist Mormon woman in a polygamous marriage explains how she feels about it.
#2: Profiles a modern-day mail order bride service that specializes in matching Eastern European women with Italian men.
#3: Shows devout American Muslim young people pursuing love and marriage, searching for alternatives to arranged marriages common to traditional Muslim culture.
+ themes: Love and Sex, Sex Everywhere

JUNE 14, 2011: “Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papi’ and Wil” (2008)
A unique, sexy, thought-provoking and above all touching portrait of an interracial, polyamorous, transgender couple. The film involves several personal interviews and three explicit sex scenes: the first with Papi’ and Wil; the second involving an extra partner; and the third an S&M role play scenario.
+ themes: Love and Sex

JULY 12, 2011: “Outrage” (2009)
Examines the issues surrounding closeted homosexual politicians and their hypocrisy in voting anti-gay on measures from HIV/AIDS support to hate crime laws — and how they have harmed millions of Americans for many years.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History

AUGUST 11, 2011 — THURSDAY: “The Canal Street Madam” (2010)
+ This is a special event and will take place on Thursday, August 11 rather than Tuesday. It will also take place at the Everleigh Social Club, 939 W. Randolph St., rather than at the Hull-House Museum, because we are partnering with the Sex Workers Outreach Project on their upcoming sex worker film fest!
+ “The Canal Street Madam” follows the story of Jeanette Maier, a New Orleans madam whose clientele included a number of powerful, high-ranking politicians. When she was busted by the FBI and torn apart in the press, they escaped censure, so after her trial she set out to fight back against a system that silences the powerless and protects the elite.
+ themes: Activist Sex, Sexual History


2011 21 Jan

[litquote] S&M stereotypes, parenting, and community action

The following quotation is from an essay that tears apart awful BDSM stereotypes, and also makes a great case for coming together as a community and living our lives without shame … all in the context of parenting. It’s called “S/M Fetish People Who Choose To Parent,” and it was printed in the anthology Speaking Sex To Power by one of my all-time heroes: the brilliant and inimitable Patrick Califia.

The state does seem to have a vested interest in preventing anyone who is sexually different from raising a child. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories of custody battles involving polyamorous people, pagans, transsexuals, sex workers, and members of the BDSM-fetish community, not just lesbians and gay men. The people who go through these battles usually do it alone, and they usually lose. But that story can change when there is enough publicity to generate community support.

In early 1995, members of the BDSM-fetish community in the US and Canada were appalled to learn that a couple in the scene had had their children taken away. The Canadian fetish magazine “Boudoir Noir” established a defense fund for the unlucky pair, known as the Houghtons. As we had for the Spanner defendants, the community banded together and raised enough money to allow Steve and Selina Houghton to hire a decent defense attorney. Selina ultimately pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, and her husband to one count of endangering the welfare of a minor, a Class E misdemeanor. They were also ordered to continue to receive family counseling …. Although they did not receive jail sentences, their privacy and home life had been badly damaged by the intrusive actions of the police. When the Houghtons got their kids back, they moved suddenly, disappearing from the scene, probably to protect themselves from further persecution.

This tragedy occurred because the pair had made a videotape of a scene they did at a dungeon party in a bordering state. A family member and friend who babysat for the children apparently unlocked the box where the tape was kept, revealed its contents to at least one of the Houghtons’ children, told them their father was abusing their mother, and sent a copy of the videotape to the police. No minors were featured in the videotape, and S/M activities did not take place in the Houghtons’ home. Nevertheless, the videotaped evidence of kinky sex was enough to bring down the wrath of Child Protection Services, who removed the 7- and 12-year-old and kept them in foster homes for more than a year. This was in spite of testimony by one of the law guardians, who told the court the children would be better served by returning them to their parents.

… It’s interesting to think about how we might feel about being parents if we lived in a society where S/M was not stigmatized. … One of the smartest things I ever heard about S/M was uttered by a gay man, Steven Brown, who used to pair up with me to do educational lectures about the scene. He once said, throwing up his hands in despair about the suspicious grilling we were getting, “I do this because I am a loving person. I love and respect the people I play with. And that includes being able to embrace parts of them that are supposed to be unlovable.” This foundation of acceptance and empathy seems to me to be potentially quite useful to a parent, who must be able to see things from a child’s point of view, and deal with a lot of behavior that is extremely trying.

As a top [i.e. a dominant/sadist], I’ve learned how to communicate in terms that will make sense to the other person. I’ve learned patience. I have a deep love for the vagaries of human nature and respect for the wisdom of the body. I am able to create a positive experience within a framework of limitations handed to me by another person. Of course, some idiot will probably assume that by making this list I am saying that I am going to somehow top my child. That would be asinine. I’ve learned how to keep my intense sexual experiences from spilling over into parts of my life where that kind of role-playing would not be appropriate. That is, if anything is, the First Principle of participating in these kinds of erotic fantasies. In order to be a responsible, safe player, you have to know when to be your scene-self, and when to be your mundane self.

I still remember how crushed I was when I read Story of O and Return to the Chateau [two famous BDSM novels] and came to the ending, where Sir Stephen loses interest in O and tells her to kill herself. I can also remember being furious with the way Nine And A Half Weeks (the book, not the movie) ends. The submissive woman has a public breakdown. She begins to cry hysterically, and is abandoned by her master, so that strangers have to obtain help for her. One of the cruelest stereotypes of S/M people is that we don’t love each other, that there is something about our sexual style that makes our relationships mutually destructive and predisposes us to suicide. We are supposed to be content with existing as two-dimensional caricatures of vanilla people’s erotic paranoia, emerging from our warrens only after dark, always clad in body-hugging fetish gear, having no real lives outside of public dungeon clubs and “violent” pornography. What’s really sad is the fact that a number of us buy into this insane picture of how a “real sadomasochist” is supposed to behave. It’s a good way to end up burned out, disillusioned, and in exile from the realm of pervery.

2011 16 Jan

The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team

This was originally posted on September 28, 2010 over at Feministe, where it picked up a fair number of comments. I’m posting it here today partly because I’ve been reflecting on my identity as a feminist and partly because there is an upcoming Chicago workshop on abuse in the BDSM community — it will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, February 12, at a local dungeon.

* * *

BDSMers face a lot of stigma around our sexuality, and this can be a major problem when BDSMers are trying to deal with abusive situations. I’ve written before about generally negative conceptions of BDSM — they can briefly be summarized as:

* S&M is wicked,
* abnormal,
* a sign of mental or emotional instability,
* inherently abusive,
* or even antifeminist.

Given this climate, it’s not surprising that two things almost always happen when BDSM and abuse come up:

1) People of all genders who are abused are often unwilling to report. People of all genders who are abused within BDSM relationships tend to be particularly unwilling to report. Victim-blaming is already rampant in mainstream society — just imagine what happens to, for example, a woman who has admitted that she enjoys being consensually slapped across the face, if she attempts to report being raped. And that’s assuming the abuse survivor is willing to report in the first place; ze may prefer not to negotiate the minefield of anti-SM stereotypes ze will be up against, ze may be afraid of being outed, etc.

2) Members of the BDSM community sometimes push back against real or perceived anti-SM stigma by talking about how abuse is rare within the BDSM community. This BDSM blog post and comments claim that not only is abuse within the community rare, but abusive BDSM relationships seem more likely to happen outside the community. In fact, if you look then you can find posts from submissive women who found that getting into the BDSM community, being exposed to its ideals and concepts, helped them escape or understand their past abusive relationships.

I tend to think that #2 is a really good point — particularly the bit about how abusive BDSM relationships are more likely to happen outside the community, due in part to lack of resources and support for survivors. For this reason, I tend to stress the role of the community in positive BDSM experiences, and I encourage newcomers to seek out their local community. But lots of people don’t have access to a local community at all, especially if they’re not in a big city. Plus, lots of people have trouble enjoying their local community for whatever reason, perhaps because they have nothing in common with local S&Mers aside from sexuality, or because they don’t have time to integrate into a whole new subculture.

There’s also the unfortunate fact that point #2 sometimes reacts with point #1 in a toxic way — that is, it can ironically be harder for abuse survivors to talk about abuse within the BDSM community because the community is pushing back so hard against the stereotype of abusive BDSM. I’ve spoken to BDSMers who feel that the S&M community pushes back far too hard, and that survivors are being aggressively silenced simply because the rest of us are so invested in fighting mainstream stereotypes. I have never personally experienced this, but I would not be surprised if I did. And the fact is that I’m sure there are toxic dynamics in some BDSM communities — we aren’t a monolith, folks — and that even in 100% awesome communities, I’m sure there are at least a few abusive relationships. And even one abusive relationship in the community is obviously too many.

As Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote when the most recent abusive BDSM case hit the media, “Our declaration that the abusers are not us has to be substantive.” This is something we should be taking action on. But how?


2010 5 Nov

BDSM vs. Vanilla, Part 1: Why I Pretend I Don’t Date Vanilla-But-Questioning Men

I’ve been thinking a lot about “mainstream” sex versus “alternative” sex. In the S&M community we have a term, “vanilla”, which basically indicates “people who aren’t into BDSM”. But is there really a bright line between BDSM and vanilla? Probably not. Most everyone has their own specific sexual preferences, and I tend to see BDSM vs. vanilla as a continuum rather than an either-or. (Some theorists, such as the amazing Dr. Marty Klein, argue that assuming the existence of a bright line between kink and vanilla hurts both vanilla people and kinksters. There’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll save it for another day.)

Lately, I’ve been asking a lot of sexually experienced guys I know for some explicit details about their experiences with women. And frankly, it sounds like the vast majority of women — based on this anecdotal evidence — like at least a little bit of pain. One of my most promiscuous male friends was actually unnerved by this. “It bothers me that all the women I’ve slept with seem to enjoy a little bit of pain,” he insisted, with a shudder. He then added, “It’s just creepy,” which goes to show that even being friends with me won’t cure a person of their BDSM stigma.

It sounds like I, as a very heavy submissive masochist, am outside the mainstream more because of my preferred degree of intensity than anything else (although I also enjoy a lot of S&M paraphernalia that seems to be considered inherently extreme by the mainstream, like whips and needles and stuff). In other words, love bites apparently sound appealing to most people; it’s just that the kind of love bites I like most, which ideally leave bruises for over a week, aren’t.

So, is it silly that I tend to seek partners in the BDSM community rather than the mainstream? After all, during one of my recent conversations with a mainstream dude — who is very promiscuous, by the way, with a reported number of partners over 150 (and no, I don’t think he was lying to impress me) — this dude told me that a fair number of the mainstream girls he sleeps with have rape fantasies, slave fantasies, etc. And, gosh, I mean … if slave fantasies are vanilla, then sign me up: I’m Vanilla Girl.

Except not really, because there are some real and important distinctions between most BDSM communities and the mainstream. Firstly, most BDSM communities have a greater emphasis on specific communication and boundary-setting, which I love. My mainstream dude friend seems familiar with safewords (which I consider the Level 1 BDSM communication tactic), but unfamiliar with more complex communication ideas like the sterling example of checklists. Secondly, guys in the BDSM community have already overcome their sexual stigma at least enough to actively seek the community out — which is a big deal, even if they don’t feel S&M as quite a core, innate desire the way I do. And thirdly, guys in the BDSM community are much more likely to have tastes as extreme as my own, which is awesome for me.

Sometimes people ask me, “Can you date vanilla guys?” That question has a very complicated answer. When I date guys who aren’t in the BDSM community, I find that they’re open to some stuff. But:

(a) Vanilla-but-questioning guys are usually open to a much smaller amount of stuff, with sharply delineated boundaries against anything perceived as too “weird” (such as flogging), and a lot of struggling to differentiate themselves from “those people”. I once had a long-term relatively-vanilla boyfriend with whom I did semi-intense BDSM on a regular basis — and yet when I confessed the fact that I had BDSM fantasies starting at a very young age, he replied, “Oh, you’re one of those people.” He was kind of joking, but he also kind of wasn’t. It was important to him that I, as a relatively hardcore self-identified kinkster, be different from him. Other. “One of those people”. And I am frankly a lot less interested in fucking a guy who insists on putting me in an “other people” box (especially when he himself is doing “that stuff” with me).

(b) Recently-vanilla-turned-BDSM guys can’t be relied on to take responsibility for their sexual desires, to do research or think deeply about their sexuality — maybe because they’re too busy fighting off stigma. People in the BDSM community are likely to have processed least some of the stigma around sexuality, especially BDSM sexuality, such that we aren’t likely to freak out randomly and we’re much more able to really get into things. This is presumably true of women too — a mostly-vanilla lover told me recently, in a marveling tone, that a lot of the women he hooks up with request a little bit of pain … but “I mean,” he said, “it’s true that you like pain more, but also it’s amazing how okay with it you are.” I guess he can tell by my whole body, all my reactions to what he does, just how much I’ve relaxed about wanting the BDSM I ask him to do.

(c) A lot of the time a relationship with a recently-vanilla guy will slide, apparently inevitably, back into vanilla territory. In other words, I don’t trust vanilla-turned-SM guys to stick with it. Most of them simply don’t stay SM, and worse, I’ve had cases where a partner will then start getting anxiety because he’s aware that he’s not meeting my needs. Whatever people may say, I’m not so sure it’s sustainable for people to be into something just because their partner is; not in the long term. Doing something new can be exciting, but if it’s extreme and a person isn’t personally drawn to it, then in my (sad) experience, that person won’t retain enthusiasm for it. I’ve met BDSM people who report success with “converting vanillas”, but I tend to suspect that those “vanillas” were already drawn to BDSM.

In many ways I’m lucky, because I prefer to live in large cities and large cities usually have BDSM communities. Also, I can be open about my BDSM identity among my friends, though not with my employers. This removes a lot of potential barriers around finding BDSM partners. At the same time, though, I still find myself interested in apparently-vanilla guys sometimes — partly because vanilla guys often think they’re way more into BDSM than they are, usually due to stereotypes of BDSM as “advanced sex” (rather than “just another flavor of sex”, which is a lot closer to the truth).

Yeah, of course I meet hot vanilla-but-questioning guys, and I always go through this process in my head where I weigh up the emotional risks. It goes beyond questions like “what if he can’t understand how deep-rooted this is for me?”, which is something I can handle pretty easily. It’s more like: “What if he’s all gung-ho about BDSM at first, and then loses interest only after I fall in love with him?” This has happened to me. “What if he freaks out and decides that although he likes me and he thinks I’m awesome, this sexual territory is just too scary?” That’s happened to me, too.

When people ask me, “Can you date vanilla men?” I’ll often say “No,” or “Not unless there are extreme extenuating circumstances,” or “It never seems to work out when I try.” But the truth is that I frequently end up going for it anyway. There are some seriously attractive vanilla guys out there, and non-BDSM sex is still fun, and you only live once!

And fortunately, this is all a lot easier now that I’m determinedly experimenting with polyamory. One thing that makes me glad that I finally feel comfortable messing with poly is the fact that if there’s something I want to do sexually and my partner doesn’t, I can go do it with someone else. So simple! The flip side is that sometimes you deal with two quasi-breakups in the same morning, but this is also a topic for another day.

UPDATE: I want to be sure that I don’t come across as saying that dudes who aren’t BDSM, can’t be sexually adventurous. Of course they can!

2010 30 Jun

Love Bites: An S&M Coming-Out Story

My coming-out story was first published in February 2010 by “Time Out Chicago”.

* * *

I was very drunk. My perceptions had a frame-by-frame quality, and the evening didn’t seem immediate: pieces of it were foreign, disconnected as a dream. I was being bitten very hard on the arm. It would leave marks the next day.

I was so muddled by assorted things that even now I can’t sort out how I felt at that moment. When Richard’s nails scored my skin I gasped, but I didn’t ask him to stop. I flinched away, but he kept a firm grip on me. “Beg for mercy,” he said softly.

Frame. Skip. I discovered that a mutual friend of ours had seen us, stopped, and was sitting on the grass across from Richard. “Hey,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“It’s okay,” Richard said, “she likes it,” and pulled my hair hard enough to force me to bow my head. I do? I managed to think, before thought vanished back into the blur of alcohol and pain. Our friend’s face loomed over me, concern sketched vividly on his features.

I closed my eyes.

“Mercy,” I whispered.

* * *


2010 11 May

Am I evolving away from monogamy?

I’m just getting back from vacation, and during my trip a friend turned to me and asked, “So what’s up with you and polyamory?” So it seems like as good a time as any to post this rambling ….

Many alternative subcultures — including my main squeezes: science fiction and fantasy, gaming, and goth — overlap considerably with radical sex subcultures. That is, if you’re in one subculture, you’re likely to be familiar with the others. There’s an especial lot of overlap with consensual non-monogamy, particularly polyamory. (The other “main” sex subculture for consensual non-monogamy, swing, is better-represented among the mainstream.) The famous science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was a fierce proponent of polyamory; indeed, when I first read his book Stranger in a Strange Land in middle school, I felt super frustrated by how negatively he portrayed monogamy.

As I got older and started integrating into alternative subcultures, I got more and more exposure to polyamory. I also got more and more exposure to “polyvangelists”: people who, like Heinlein, scornfully dismiss monogamy as “less evolved” or “less intelligent” or “more selfish” than polyamory. It enraged me. “Honestly,” I always said, “I really don’t care if you want to have multiple boyfriends and/or girlfriends, but quit telling me I’m wrong because I don’t!”

I toyed with poly — over the course of my first and longest-running relationship, I took a semester away in Europe, and my boyfriend and I decided to have an open relationship while I was on another continent. During that time, I started dating a European, and I was basically as monogamous as you can get while having another boyfriend across the ocean. I wasn’t remotely interested in dating other locals. My version of poly was as monogamous as possible, and when I returned to America I assumed my boyfriend and I would return to our previously-mono ways. He, however, didn’t assume the same thing. He wanted to stay poly.

Unfortunately, this became one of the biggest contested points in our relationship. We went back to being monogamous, but it was an uneasy dynamic. I tried to find compromises; I was comfortable saying that he could hook up with men but not women, for instance, which he did. At one point, I even said that although I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of being poly, I thought I might be able to handle it as long as he could assure me that he wouldn’t fall in love with his other sexual partners; he decided that he couldn’t promise that. He then cheated on me, which did not help the situation at all. (Responsible polyamorists don’t advocate cheating, by the way — if either partner is dishonest, most polyfolk will bristle and say “that’s not poly!”)

Being fascinated by sexuality and relationships, I’d already thought a lot about polyamory and monogamy, but the situation with my boyfriend threw my brain into overdrive. I tore myself apart trying to figure out why, although I was okay with other people being poly — I even argued in defense of poly when mainstream people stereotyped it! — I couldn’t stand the idea of being poly myself. I felt attacked, under siege, like I constantly had to defend or justify my preference.

I finally settled on thinking of monogamy as a “sexual orientation” or a “kink”: I figured that monogamy was just wired into me, sexually, the same way homosexuality might be for a gay person. (And I’ve met others who feel the same way — who characterize their monogamy as “innate”.)

Time passed. I came into my BDSM identity. I finally broke things off permanently with my first boyfriend; then I had two deep, intense, happily monogamous relationships. I still thought about polyamory sometimes, because it’s interesting, but I no longer felt anxious while doing so. One of my aggressively polyamorous friends characterized me as his “reasonably monogamous” friend, and told me that — although he feels most monogamous people don’t think hard enough about polyamory to justify dismissing it as an option — he thought that I certainly had. I accepted this accolade with a smile.

Then I got my heart broken. Badly, and dramatically. And ever since then … I’ve been feeling less and less monogamous. I still identified so strongly with my “monogamy orientation” that I told people monogamy was what I wanted, and I had some monogamous relationships … but I felt mounting unease. I wanted to be conducting relationships with multiple people; not just that, I also found myself fantasizing about sex with multiple people. Cautiously, I started negotiating limited forms of polyamory (for example, my last relationship and my current one have both been monogamous in terms of “traditional” sex, but not monogamous in terms of S&M partners) … but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to start experimenting with full-on polyamory and/or maybe to swing. In fact … I still … do?

Me, of all people! The “monogamy oriented” girl! The “reasonably monogamous” one! The one who considered it all so carefully and knew exactly what she wanted! How did this happen?

I broached the subject with my current boyfriend a few months ago; he reacted with unease, and later wrote me an email that said: I do not want to come between you and your explorations.  My presence would not entirely hamper them (as I understand the things you’ve listed), but I think that I might well resist swinging or (particularly) polyamory. I’d hate to think I’d circumscribed you with regard to S&M, but I feel much more ambivalent about swing and poly, things less compelling to me, which conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner. If there’s one sticking point I have that’s actually (contrasted with apparently) going to be extremely difficult to negotiate, it’s monogamy.

“Conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner”: I read that with bemusement. Not because I can’t understand his perspective, but because the words sound exactly like something I would have said two years ago. Back then, my ideal partner was someone who would commit to me, monogamously; that’s reflected in everything I thought and everything I wrote during that time, including my recently-published coming-out story. But now ….?

How tempting, to blame my old heartbreak — maybe I’m still “really” mono, but I’ve got emotional baggage? Maybe I’m just afraid of commitment, afraid of putting “all my eggs in one basket”, in the wake of that experience? Maybe I’ve finally been (as “Moulin Rouge” would have it) cured of my ridiculous obsession with love, and I’m ready to take a more realistic view — one that doesn’t expect one person to be everything to me? Maybe I was only ever determined to be mono because I felt as though people were attacking me for being mono, and I had to resist? Yet this all seems so facile, so pop-psychological. My heart’s been broken before, for one thing.

Still, here’s another pop-psychological twist: recently, I’ve not only fantasized about sex with multiple people; I’ve fantasized about partners hurting my feelings by having sex with other people. Remember folks, I’m a submissive masochist, and when I’m in the proper mood I like it when my lovers make me cry — though it never occurred to me that I’d get turned on by the idea of so much emotional pain. Turned on by the idea of a lover savagely breaking my heart, leaving me for someone more beautiful, successful, etc ….

Most unsettlingly, I’m afraid that not only am I still “really” mono, but that going for poly relationships will end up screwing me. I’m afraid that if I were to fall blazingly, consumingly, totally in love again … the poly leanings would disappear. Here’s the scariest question: is this attraction to polyamory simply coming up because I’m not perfectly in love?

If my ideal partner would be monogamous, but I want to be poly because I’m not sure I can find my ideal partner, then that doesn’t just seem dangerous; it seems … dishonest. I know polyfolk who have been really hurt by newly-poly people who thought they were open to a poly relationship — but then the newly-poly person finds The One, feels a strong pull back towards monogamy, and dumps her poly partners. Certainly, if I were a poly person reading this, then — looking at my own reservations — I wouldn’t date me. But then again, what if this really does mark a sea change in my outlook, and I’d be perfectly happy being polyamorous indefinitely?

I know one smart BDSM educator who makes it a point to warn kinksters just entering the community that “desires change over time”, and that one should be prepared. I thought I knew that. But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I want to end on one important point: just because I may be interested in poly now does not mean that it was the best thing for me all along. There’s a difference between these feelings and, say, my BDSM orientation. I recognize BDSM as something I’ve been looking for my entire life — but, for me, the same is not true of polyamory (although I believe that there are polyamorists out there who feel it as an innate identity, like for example Raven Kaldera). In fact, I’m sure that I would never have evolved into this interest in polyamory if I’d kept dating a partner who was pressuring me into it despite my doubts and anxieties. But this is a whole nother post, so I’ll end here.

2010 29 Jan

Sex-positive in southern Africa

Right before I came out here, I was recruited by an online magazine to write about sexuality in Africa and my experience thereof. I wrote some columns, sent them to the magazine … and was told they weren’t quite right. So I sold them to CarnalNation instead! Here’s a roundup of my first four CN pieces; I doubt this is the last time I’ll publish with them, as CN (and editor Chris Hall in particular) is very awesome.

January 7: Rest In Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
I met an incredible, high-profile lesbian activist and wanted to be friends, but soon after she was murdered … and her partner charged with the crime.

January 14: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 1: Abstinence
In which I discuss how my relationship started with my current boyfriend, a Baha’i convert who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (the pseudonym I chose for him was, therefore, Chastity Boy). I also describe some of my hesitations in promoting abstinence as a good sexual choice, even though it is a legitimately wise one in a place that’s so beset by HIV.

January 21: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 2: Be Faithful
Polygamy makes things difficult by setting norms that encourage lots of multiple concurrent partnerships, which is a spectacular method of spreading HIV. This was the hardest piece to write so far, because it’s so incredibly complicated! Halfway through I realized that my draft consisted of a beginning, an end, and eight incomplete sentences in the middle, at which point I freaked out and begged Chastity Boy for advice. He helped a lot with the cleanup, and I’m pretty happy with the result, although I do wish that I’d made it clearer that — while polygamy is definitely part of the problem, as is the gender gap — a bigger problem from a health perspective is that the ideal of polygamy sets the norm at multiple concurrent sexual relationships even for unmarried people (rather than the safer, though not morally superior, serial monogamy widely practiced in America).

January 28: Sexual ABCs in Africa, Part 3: Condoms
You’d think that people in a place where up to 40% of the population tests positive would be really careful about condoms, wouldn’t you? Especially when free condoms are widely available and everyone knows that they protect against HIV? You’d be wrong.

2009 1 Mar

Sex-positive documentary report #3: “When Two Won’t Do”

The topic this week at my sex-positive documentary film series was consensual non-monogamy, and it went great! One of my priorities for the screening was to have a lot of people who actually practice consensual non-monogamy in the audience — and also sticking around to participate in the discussion group. I spent a huge amount of time calling both local polyfolk and local swingers before the screening, and in the end I felt like I succeeded!

One group I got in touch with was the organizers of the upcoming Chicago Polyamory Conference 2009, slated to take place March 28-29. If you have any interest in polyamory, you should definitely attend the conference. I also talked to local poly activist Cunning Minx, whose podcast is worth checking out (and not just because she interviewed me a couple weeks ago). It was harder to get in touch with local swingers because I know fewer swingers personally — but some did attend, which made discussion all the better!

So before moving on, let’s talk about Frequently Asked Questions …. What is swinging, anyway? What’s polyamory, for that matter? The Ultimates, a swinger couple, were kind enough to send me some links to FAQs about swinging: here’s one set, and here’s another. I already had some polyamory FAQ links lying around: here’s a great one I just heard about recently, and here’s the FAQ for an old-school Usenet group on poly. (The Usenet-derived page isn’t as shiny or well-formatted as the others I’ve presented here, but it’s the link I’ve sent out to everyone who asked me about poly for years, so I have a special attachment to it. I probably have some of those answers memorized.) If you’ve got questions about consensual non-monogamy, those four FAQ links will give you a lot of insight.

Now that that’s all out of the way: my review of the third Sex+++ documentary and discussion!

The film was called “When Two Won’t Do” (screening courtesy of Picture This Productions). It was a huge hit! The place was totally packed. 70 people maybe? I’m not sure. And at least 30 for the discussion. I guess word is spreading … we might have to start turning people away!

(Our lovely and talented Hull-House Museum education coordinator Lisa and I have talked about seeking out a bigger venue, but there are many serious complications that would attend that process. Another option might be to reprise the entire Sex+++ series again in a year or two. That’d be huge, and I would not be able to take care of the details myself — at least not next year — but I certainly think it would be worth doing. As a side note, I’ve gotten a number of inquiries from far-flung locales about whether Sex+++ will be traveling. It’s very flattering! You guys must all think I have so many more resources than I actually do. I’m just a lone sex-positive activist, my friends … I’m not an institution.

Speaking of resources, we’re still looking for sponsors … :ahem:)

Anyway ….

I’d say that “When Two Won’t Do” is a fantastic, detailed, educational portrait of a newly polyamorous couple and many problems that face beginning polyfolk! There was only one thing that outright frustrated me: the film felt pretty anti-swinger. As curator of this film series, I’ve put a lot of effort into finding films that don’t come off as being opposed to any given type of sexuality. There are so many documentaries that exoticize alternative sexuality or treat it in really problematic ways — particularly marginalized sexual subcultures such as poly, swinger, BDSM. I’m watching some of these films ahead of time in order to make sure that they don’t add to that marginalization, but I didn’t watch this one, and I wish I had. If I had, then I would have made a pre-screening announcement to the effect of: “This documentary is a nuanced picture of a polyamorous relationship, but it doesn’t cover swinging very well — don’t judge the entire swinger subculture from the very narrow picture given by this film.”

I recognize that part of the film’s anti-swinger bias is simply the fact that the couple who made it, Maureen and David, didn’t feel that the dominant swinger model works for them. (In general — and this is of course not true of all swingers, but it’s a definite theme in the swinger subculture — in general, swinging emphasizes couples who are emotionally intimate with each other and have love-free sex with others. The polyamory subculture, on the other hand, generally emphasizes building emotionally intimate relationships with multiple sexual partners.) So, it’s not necessarily that Maureen and David intended to judge swingers or anything … they just aren’t into it. But the two filmmakers could easily have cut in some footage of swingers talking about issues of communicating with their main partners — that would at least have leavened the “wild, crazy and emotionally irresponsible!” portrait they painted of the subculture, a portrait totally lacking in nuance. Or Maureen and David could simply have filmed themselves saying, explicitly: “What we saw of swinging doesn’t work for us, but we can see why it works for others, and as long as other people are having fun with their consensual non-monogamy, we won’t judge their model.”

Fortunately, there were swingers at the discussion group — mostly represented by the very eloquent Ultimates, who do a lot of work in the swinger community — who were able to comment and respond to questions. And not only were there both polyfolk and swingers at the discussion; there were also lots of people who had no real exposure to either subculture, which meant that they got newly educated about both! Yay!

For me, one of the most telling moments of the discussion for me was when one person asked, “Could we define polyamory vs. swinging?” Both were defined quite beautifully by audience members who practiced those respective approaches — and both definitions were, I thought, pretty similar. I understand that the polyamory community prefers to distance itself from swinging, and vice versa is probably true as well. But at heart, both swinging and polyamory are obviously about finding a way out of the conventional monogamous paradigm; both approaches, when practiced well, emphasize excellent communication skills and distancing from jealousy. I could list an awful lot of commonalities among those four FAQ pages ….

It makes me think that the really big difference between swinging and polyamory is not so much in the practices themselves, but in the people who comprise those subcultures and the cultural mores within those subcultures. Loosely speaking, I see this in the stereotypes applied to swinging vs. polyamory: stereotypes like “swingers are older suburban couples with otherwise normal, white-picket-fence lives”, or “polyfolk are younger, pagan, fantasy-reading hippies with long hair”. Those stereotypes don’t speak for everyone in the swing/poly communities, but they really do describe some major general demographics. (And I say this in the most loving possible way. I love suburbs, hippies, and fantasy fiction myself … :grin:) There are also huge differences in what’s culturally accepted within swinging vs. polyamory. For instance, I’ve noticed that swingers tend to be much more into plastic surgery than polyfolk.

In turn, this leads to the question: How does the urge towards consensual non-monogamy manifest itself in other groups, other cultures, other subcultures? Both swing and poly are extremely weighted with white, privileged Westerners. Are there consensual non-monogamy subcultures that I’ve never heard of among, say, lower-class Americans? It would make sense to me if privileged people are more likely to create these subcultures — privileged people tend to have a lot more time and money to devote towards questions of sexuality. But then again, maybe I’m just narrowed by my own surroundings, my own associates, my own subcultures, my own privilege.

Anyway, that question is tangential, and highly theoretical to boot. To return to “When Two Won’t Do”: again, I thought it was a nice portrait of beginning polyamory and the polyamory community. It showed a lot of heartbreak, a lot of negotiating and re-negotiating, a lot of “we screwed that one up so let’s try it again” — things that are so important in any committed relationship, really. It also showed some beautiful moments of love and intimacy and great communication, plus excellent relationship ideas and advice. It didn’t explicitly ask a lot of questions, but I think it created a great framework to discuss some really important ones.

Here’s one I’ve pondered a lot: is consensual non-monogamy better considered an intrinsic identity/ sexual orientation, or a chosen lifestyle? I find myself coming down on the vague side of, “Both.” I think some people are simply wired for consensual non-monogamy in ways that other people definitely aren’t. Maureen, the “main character” in the documentary, seems to know for sure that poly is what she wants; her partner David, though he’s open to experimenting, is just as clearly not into it. David’s someone I would think of as “monogamy-identified”; I consider myself to be that way. But I remember over the New Year, I had a conversation about this with one of my favorite people in the world — who happens to be poly — and she scoffed at the idea that it’s an identity/orientation. She feels that she can switch back and forth … that it’s a choice for her, not that polyamory or monogamy is an intrinsic need.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t seem to do well with messages that depend on tricky concepts like context or individual differences. So I’m not sure how best to propagate the viewpoint of “it can be chosen or an identity! whatever makes people happy!” I guess I could always just keep saying that there is no “should”.

Well, there’s more to say (as always), but I think I’ll wrap this one up. If you’d like to buy the film, you can purchase a copy on the website for Picture This Productions.

Our March 10 documentaries will all be on the subject of BDSM — my favorite! This should be fun. We’re starting with “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” by Erin Palmquist, whose title explains it all really. From there, we’ll move on to “Leather” (members of the leather community describe it), “Cut & Paste” (a personal documentary that explores the historical contexts of race, gender identity and sexual agency) and “Forever Bottom” (a clever look at the stigma attached to being on the receiving end in gay male relationships). I’m so excited!