Polyamory: the beginning of a hundred new exciting ways to screw up

So one of the problems with blogging is that sometimes there’s not much going on, so there’s nothing to write about, but then other times all sorts of exciting things are happening, so you’re way too busy to sit down and write something. This is particularly a problem if you’re like me, and a bit of a perfectionist, agonisingly conscious of writing  something vaguely interesting, while at the same time attempting to keep confidential details confidential, and not reveal too much. The results? I’ve been trying to think of a way to write this post since round about October, and failing miserably. Somehow the balance of ‘interesting to read’ and ‘being selective with information’ has been particularly hard with this. It may take a few attempts to get it right, so consider this take one. There will no doubt be a sequel.

I’ve managed to find myself in a polyamorous relationship, which is giving me countless opportunities to put what I’ve always thought in theory into practice. ((Classicist side-note: I have a real issue with the word ‘polyamory’. It’s half Latin, half Greek, and I hate words like that. The word also has a lot of history with people trying to define what ‘true polyamory’ looks like, which always sets off my bullshit detectors, but that’s the best description, so it’s the word I’m going to stick with.)) It’s been going on for over four months now, which is actually kinda significant, if not serious, especially in a university environment where a relationship that lasts more than eight weeks is considered long-term. And as this blog is about learning and exploration and basically just me throwing my thoughts into a void, it’s time to do some talking. I should also note that the title of this post is meant to be flippant, not negative. I don’t think poly relationships are any more likely to be screwed up than exclusive ones, only that now I get the chance to screw up in new ways, and that’s exciting and interesting in itself.

I’ve been in open relationships before, the kind where I was kinda seeing someone and they were also sleeping with other people. Sometimes I was sleeping with other people too, sometimes I wasn’t. This is different, because this time, I’m not the primary partner. My boyfriend (I am still getting comfortable calling him that) has been with his primary partner for something mad like ten years. They live together. She is and always will be his top priority. They’ve been poly for a couple of years, and are way better at all this than I am, and since meeting them, I’ve been introduced to the reality of a world I’d only ever seen through the distorting lens of the internet.

My past experience of open relationships hasn’t been all that positive. In retrospect, it was always pretty much an excuse to treat me like shit, intentionally or not. Salmacis, the girlfriend I met on the internet when I was fifteen, would state repeatedly that we were together, but made it clear that she was going to continue to sleep with at least a different girl every week, even though she knew that I was inexperienced and not seeing anyone else. (The one time I kissed another girl, she got intensely upset.) Alexander and I tried to be open for a year, but it pretty much turned into a competition as to who could go on more dates, thus proving that they cared the least. In the last year and half, the men I’ve  dated have all pretty much assumed that open means no commitment. If we’re not exclusive, that means there’s no real responsibility, and we can pretty much treat each other with as little respect as we choose.

This isn’t to say that I think any of these are bad people. I just think that they were bad relationships. Or at least, not the kind of relationships that I necessarily wanted at the time. I’ve tried to explain that, when I say I’d be happy to have a non-exclusive relationship with someone, that doesn’t necessarily mean without emotion. (If and when I want something utterly without emotion, I don’t call it a relationship, and even then, I have to at least like the person.)

So here is what I expect. If I have a partner, I expect them to be there for me when I’m stressed about work or when I’ve had a bad day or when one of my exes calls me to screw with my head. I have days when I come home and just want to cry, for whatever reason, and I expect my partner to be on the other end of a phone to comfort me. If we’re in the same city and it’s not massively inconvenient, there are times when I expect them to come to see me. I like to think that I would always try to do the same for them. And if things don’t go well and we have arguments and upset each other, I expect us to be able to talk about things and try to work out a solution, without resorting to the ‘well we’re not really dating so it doesn’t matter’ stance.

Being exclusive or non-exclusive doesn’t change any of that. The fact that my partner might be seeing other people should not give them a free pass to just ignore the parts of being in a relationship they don’t like. In an ideal world, I’d have a partner who loved and valued me and considered me their primary, with a relationship strong enough that we could see other people on the side, without either of us confusing ‘non-exclusive’ for ‘non-committed’.

Of course, what’s interesting about my current relationship is that I’m not the primary. My boyfriend has a long-term partner, and from what I’ve seen, that’s pretty much the dynamic they have. They love each other, and no amount of sex with other people is going to change that. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just an additional extra. But the strange thing is, I feel more secure in this relationship than I have in any other. The main restriction is time, followed by geography. He can’t drop everything to come to another city to see me when I have a difficult day, and the amount of time he can spend with me depends partly on her schedule. That said, he’ll make time to speak to me on the phone, to look after me if I’m upset, and to make sure I feel valued and special within the context of our relationship. When we have issues, we talk them through and work out compromises. And as for my side of it, while I know he has other people to look after him, I try to make sure he knows that I care too, from a hundred miles away. I don’t expect him to put me before her, but I know that, if there were a crisis, he’d make sure I was okay, and if my emotions aren’t the top priority, well, at least they are a priority.

In a strange way, I am being treated far better than when I was the primary in an ‘open relationship’ which was really just an excuse not to have a relationship at all. In some ways, I am being treated with more respect and understanding than in the one ‘real’ monogamous relationship I’ve had. And though it’s not going to last all that long and is very emphatically not ‘going anywhere’, I am very grateful to be experiencing something like this. It is still new and strange and I am learning a lot, and no doubt all my usual neuroses and insecurities are going to start crawling out of the woodwork before long. (They kinda already have, but I think I will save that for Polyamory Part II.) But as someone who has been told that I’m not secure and well-balanced enough to handle something like this, that I get too jealous and irrational, it’s beautifully refreshing to discover otherwise. I’m happy, I think, if temporarily, and that’s the strangest feeling of all.

((I am still trying to think of appropriate names for this couple. So far the best suggestion as been Cadmus and Harmonia, but I wonder if that’s a little dark….))

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Ask a direct question, get a second-guessed answer

I’m about to go all relationshippy. Are you ready for relationships? No? Well neither am I, but I’m going to try anyway. For the last few months, I’ve been seeing a guy called Polites. We started off both saying that we weren’t at all interested in having a relationship, just wanted a casual fling, but we got on really well and ended up spending basically all our time together, so that by the end of term we were seeing each other almost every day, and talking on the phone and online and by text all of the time. In short, not just a relationship, but a pretty close and intense relationship. We were both still sleeping with other people, but one of the nice things I discovered was that I could come home from spending the night with someone else (the charming womaniser, for instance), and tell Polites all about it while he cuddled me. Some of my poly friends would probably call this a ‘primary’ poly relationship, which I guess makes sense. We certainly weren’t exclusive, or even hugely committed, which is how mainstream society tends to define relationships, but we were close and it was nice.

Polites, bless him, is nineteen and has never really been in a relationship before. He is, by his own admission, ‘allergic’ to them. He told me right at the beginning that he is scared of commitment and hates feeling pressured or obligated. This is not a problem in itself, it just means I have to be careful with him, and try not make assumptions. (See my earlier post about dating a younger person.) We’ve had a couple of moments where I’ve felt exploited or he’s felt trapped, which have led to some Deep Meaningful Conversations, but overall we’ve managed to work things out. Talking about stuff tends to help, and Polites is slowly learning that these difficult DMCs, though not much fun at the time, can really improve things in the long term. As for me, I’ve been learning how to coax someone else to communicate better and take the lead, rather than passively making the other person explain my emotions for me. It’s all good.

I mention all this now not because I’m getting all bouncy and excited about my shiny new relationship (it’s not particularly shiny or exciting, and even if it were, that’s not really what this space is for), but because an interesting issue came up last night that reminded me yet again that people are different, and assumptions are bad. I like long phone conversations. I’m not sure why, but I always have. I can spend hours on the phone (thank you unlimited minutes, and skype) without it feeling like a waste of time. I have realised that a lot of people are not like that. Salmacis and Alexander both found long phone conversations boring and unproductive, and much preferred talking online. I therefore got used to asking before I called them, to check that it was a convenient time and that they wanted to talk. Often, it wasn’t, and they would tell me that. This was occasionally frustrating, but was overall much better than me just calling whenever I wanted to and trying to pressure them into talking to me. Communication win.

Or so I thought. Term ended a week ago, and Polites and I are not going to see each other again until September. We’d been texting and talking a lot online, and every so often I’d ask if I could call him. He would say yes. This was fun and exciting for me – finally, someone who likes to talk on the phone as much as I do! So I would call up, and he would be sulky and irritated on the phone, and I would ignore it because re-adjusting to living at home after being at uni is stressful, and sometimes you just need to let it go.

Except that last night, during one particularly difficult and frustrating conversation, Polites finally admits to me that he doesn’t like phone conversations. They feel like a waste of time to him. He didn’t refuse when I asked to call him because he was worried it would upset me, but he expected me to get the hint after a while. Of course, I didn’t, because as far as I was concerned I was asking direct questions, and getting direct answers. I assumed that, like Salmacis and Alexander, he would tell me clearly when he didn’t want to talk. Conversely, he assumed that I would pick up the signs he was sending me and stop asking.

This to me seems like a great example of why ‘communicate better!’ isn’t a quick-fix solution to everything. We both thought we were communicating. In fact, we were both making an effort to communicate, but previous assumptions still got in the way, to the result that we ended up arguing over a problem that could have been solved a week ago. And really, I’m not sure what the moral of this is, except that it’s never okay to get complacent. You can practise good communication and honesty and all the other rules for a healthy relationship, but it is still going to get all screwed up and explode in your face sometimes. And there is nothing you can really do about that, except try to remember in the heat of the moment that it really isn’t anyone’s fault. People are different, and everyone comes to the table with a different set of experiences that they assume are the norm.

Relationships, even super-casual non-exclusive short-term relationships, are hard work. Who knew?

Lessons in intermediate-level kink

So after my last post, I got a couple of e-mails from people who have had similar experiences (from both sides), some offering advice, some just acknowledging that this kinda thing really is an issue. And it got me thinking that damn it, I have a sex blog, I should really make an effort to learn something here. So on the advice of one of these helpful e-mailers, I joined FetLife (the Facebook for kinksters) and started reading up. And, much to my amazement, my small university town does in fact have its own kink community. (From what I can work out, there is no official University Fetish Club, but Rule 34 and all that, it’s only a matter of time.) Not only does it exist, but I discovered that they have monthly meetings where everyone can get to know each other and share tips and advice, as well as eating a lot of pizza. Who knew?

Well, I’ve been complaining for ages that there’s no decent scene or good way to meet other kinky people, plus I keep talking about how good it is to learn new things, so I figured it was time to put my money where my mouth was and see what it was like. Which was, of course, easier said than done. It wasn’t until I was standing outside the relevant pub, desperately wishing I’d worn my collar, that I realised how nervous I was. What was I meant to do? Go in and say to the barman ‘Hey, I’m a sub and semi-masochist – I  heard there were some kinky people around, maybe playing with some rope’? I hung around in the doorway for a bit, wondering if maybe it was a good idea to go home and live a comfortable life of vanilla sex, in a monogamous heterosexual relationship with 2.5 kids and a labrador. (I am being flippant. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that vanilla sex is boring on any less worthy than kinky sex. Also labradors are adorable. Just not quite what I need right now.)

Anyway, eventually I stepped inside and noticed a group of people all wearing friendly-looking name tags. I was only hovering for a second before a woman in a tightly-buttoned waistcoat came over to ask if I was okay and would I like to come over and join the group. She had two very obvious purple bruises on one of her breasts, which was how I knew that I’d probably found the right people.

I’m not going to try to give these people pseudonyms, mainly because most of them had two name tags already, one with their real name and one with their FetLife name, or ‘scene name’ as someone called it. They were all, without exception, incredibly friendly and welcoming. For the first time in years, I was the shy awkward girl in the corner, stammering nervously whenever I tried to talk. This was odd for me. Luckily, no one else seemed to mind, chatting happily to me about xkcd and pizza toppings and the best techniques for Japanese ropeplay (seriously). One guy, who was a photographer, had brought his portfolios, and I spent ages admiring some gorgeous fetish shots, which led to him asking if I’d like to model for him at some point. Cue more flustered mumbling that sounded something like ‘umm thank you, I’ll think about it?’. Which I actually will, because the pictures were really lovely.

What else did I learn? There is a monthly kink club, which is more focussed on play than costumes, and which I’d be very welcome to attend. One of the guys there introduced himself as a slave, while another woman kept referring to her master. Both were eating pizza at the time. I tentatively asked for some advice on the subject of what had happened with Gaius, to which the waistcoat-and-bruises lady replied ‘You’re training tops? How wonderful for you!’. At one point in the evening  a guy I’d been discussing Japanese ropleplay with earlier approached me to say his pet had asked to be tied up, and would I like to be tied up too? I politely declined, but I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued by how pretty it looked. Maybe next time? I’m not sure.

It was obvious that the most important point to grasp was the asking permission. For everything. It was quite crowded by the end, but even as people struggled to make their way to the bar, the care they all took not to accidentally touch anyone was clear. One guy with some interesting spiked gloves demonstrated their effect by scratching my neck, but only after I specifically asked him too. (The result had me purring like a kitten, which I think was the idea.) He told my I’d been pretty brave to show up on my own without knowing anyone there, and I confided that I felt rather out of place without a collar. It was strangely flirtatious, whilst remaining entirely non-sexual, which is quite a strange combination for me. I guess the whole evening was a bit like that: people talking about their most extreme kinks and fetishes in such a casual off-hand way that they ceased to feel like kinks and fetishes at all, and became everyday conversation. It was like a snapshot into a the sort of ideal world I keep trying to advocate, but actually being there living it was a lot stranger than I’d anticipated. I think I need more practice.

The final thing to mention is that as I was leaving, someone mentioned that the woman running it was trying to get rid of some corsets she was selling for a friend. So I messaged her, and the next day I went round to try some on (and came away with two gorgeous corsets that I can’t wait to wear out somewhere, but that’s beside the point). It wasn’t until I was standing completely topless in her kitchen, looking at different fabrics, that I realised how nice it was that this felt totally normal and not at all weird, even though usually I don’t get semi-naked around strangers. Not in a non-sexual way anyway. She also made a point of asking me if anyone had said or done anything which made me uncomfortable the night before, and told me I could come straight to her if they ever did. She may have said this while lacing me into one of the corsets, or while packaging them up while I looked for my bra. I don’t entirely remember, but it was very much appreciated all the same. I’m not sure whether I’d been feeling at all worried or not before, but I know I felt safer after.

So, that was my introductory initiation into the not-all-that-scary fetish scene. I’m hoping it will help me with boundaries and communication and being confident around others who are new to it, while hopefully giving me some new ideas and a safe space in which to experiment. At the very least, I met some exciting people and have some new corsets. As for the rest, we shall see.

The feminism will return to this blog shortly, when my brain has recovered from a term of missed sleep and too much coffee. There may even be the promised kittens. It’s all happening here.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson (kinda, not really though)

The play is over, which I am both relieved and very sad about. It went incredibly well, and was a lot of fun, and I am so very pleased I took the time out of my degree to really give it everything I had. And now it is over and normal life resumes. Hello normal life! How have you been? I missed you.

Somehow, over the course of the play, I have ended up in a position I never thought I’d have to face: I slept with a younger guy. This should not be a big deal, but I have always dated people significantly older than me. Electra: two years older. Salmacis: four years older. Alexander: three years older. A mad mad French girl who doesn’t have a pseudonym: five years older. And okay, Leander was my age, but that was an exception. I have never had much time for people younger than me, male or female, at least not as sexual partners. It just didn’t seem right.

Alas, one of the downsides to being  third-year at university (other than exams and actually having to work, of course) is that the supply of people older than you tends to fade away. And what’s replacing them? Bright-eyed, naive, innocent freshers. Oh dear god, I sound like Mrs Robinson.

Marcus is certainly not naive or innocent, though I suppose he does have rather bright eyes. He is, however, a teenager. Eighteen, to be precise. And this feels rather strange for a girl who prefers experienced partners because, well, less goes wrong that way. Plus it means I can learn new things, and I enjoy learning a lot. Teaching is all well and good, but learning means you can make sex even better, then go on and transfer these amazing new skills to another partner! How awesome is that?!

So why did I sleep with him? Aside from the fact that I find him hot and want to do him (always a good start), because I spent my teenaged years spouting the mantra that age doesn’t matter, it’s the people who count. Admittedly, this was just to reassure my concerned friends that I really was alright with all these exciting older people, but there’s truth to it too. People mature at different times, and age really isn’t everything. When I was fifteen, people my own age bored me, and I really did get on better with university students. And if Marcus feels the same as a first-year, who am I to question that?

Of course, I need to be careful. Dan Savage’s ‘campsite rule’ comes into play here: if you’re the older or more experienced partner, you must leave whoever you’re involved with in the same sexual, mental and emotional state than you found them, or preferably better. Even if he’s no blushing virgin (hah), I need to make an effort not to make assumptions, to be extra clear with communication, and maybe take certain things slow.

It’s the same technique I’d use on anyone who’d never done BDSM before. Just because I’m usually the submissive one who likes to be dominated and taken, doesn’t mean I don’t have a responsibility towards the other person, making sure they’re okay with how things are going. Safewords work both ways. I know from experience that sometimes it’s terrifying being in control of someone else, and there are times when you just want to stop the scene and go back to cuddling. So if I’m teaching a new partner how to top me, even if they’re the one fastening the handcuffs, it’s still my responsibility to make sure they’re okay with that, and to help them if they’re not. And that’s mostly how I feel now, with Marcus. I trust him to tell me what he wants and does not want, but it’s still my responsibility, as the (just slightly) older woman to check that nothing makes him feel uncomfortable. Because I know, again from experience, that sometimes it’s hard to to admit that everything might not be entirely okay if you’re trying to feel all confident and grown up.

And speaking of growing up, I have to do that too. I am just a little bit used to being the one who needs looking after in any kind of relationship, letting other people take care of me and being lazy with communication and boundaries, because I take it for granted that my partner will do the hard work for me. I’m not saying for a moment that Marcus needs looking after – I don’t think he does, not seriously, or else I wouldn’t trust myself with that responsibility. But I do need to look after myself, and remind myself of all the useful tips I give to first-timers. Now is a great opportunity to put what I keep going on about into practice. I hope so, anyway. We shall see how it goes.

Other things I plan to talk about in the near future:

* One-night-stands: why do it, and how?
* Online dating and all the fun it entails
* Rape culture: an update on my own experiences
* More on privilege (everyone’s favourite)
* Feminism in real life, aka why ‘I support women’s rights but I’m not a feminist’ is bullshit

Oh, and if anyone’s wondering, I was as sexually forward and open about what I wanted as I have always been, and you know what? It worked perfectly. Screw you, Atratinus, and everyone else who thinks that sexually assertive women are broken and damaged. We are awesome, and we are having much better sex than you are. So there.