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The Big Lie (guest post)

March 31, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on January 16,2015. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Most of us will do the most damage to others when we are in pain. Not when we’re angry or bitter or vengeful. No. I will hurt other people, I will drain other people, I will fail other people and I will fail to consider other people the most when I am hurting the most.

And I truly believe that the only way out of toxic self focus is loving self focus. I believe that the only way you can regain the capacity to see other people and to care for other people is to see and care for yourself.

And the interesting thing to me, is that when faced with that reality, I fought tooth and nail to discard it. It’s a pile of cliched self help bullshit — it’s just a justification for selfishness and self indulgence, I thought.

It was trivial for me to accept the harm that my self hatred did to me, I bore it stoically. And even when faced with the harm it did to people who cared about me, I still wanted to cling to it. Because self hatred felt noble, and self care felt selfish, and I wanted to believe that I was noble, and so my identity became more important than the reality of what was happening.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think there’s an intentional mind-fuck that most of us have been subject to, that keeps us from showing ourselves compassion and acceptance. It keeps us from setting boundaries and asking for what we need and filling our tanks up. It keeps us from getting angry at how we’re treated, and demanding that we be treated better. Ironically, because we’ve been told that our self hatred makes us better than our self love ever could.

But that’s a lie. From every angle. I’m quite certain of it now.

“Whispering Little White Lies,” © Danny O’Connor 2012, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

The Windows Were Fine to Begin With (guest post)

March 24, 2021

This is a post written by my friend Shea Emma Fett on her personal blog on December 5, 2014. She has given me permission to repost some of her essays here as guest posts.

Imagine someone walked around your house, and busted every window with a sledgehammer. And at first you pretended that they weren’t broken, and you slept with the cold and the rain blowing on you, and somehow people believed you, even though you looked in the mirror every morning and saw twigs and mud in your hair. And imagine one day that you picked up a hammer and wood, and started to repair. Imagine how good it felt, to finally board the windows up and sleep in a dry room. But then it started to snow, and you needed warmth, so you got a book on rebuilding windows, and you began the painstaking process of rebuilding every window. This time they were strong. This time they were beautiful and clear. But the job was never done, and the project became a drain on your energy, eating up everything you had leftover after you took care of your survival. Eating up everything for years.

But you looked at the windows, and you saw that they were beautiful and strong. And you started bringing friends over, to show them how to build their own windows, and how to look for cracks. And you thought to yourself, maybe something good came out of all of this. Look at what we’ve done.

But at night, you remember all the rooms that are still dark. All the rooms where the wind still blows and the floors are wet and dirty. And you cannot escape the reality that you lost all that time, and the original windows were just fine.

Sure, the original windows weren’t perfect. Some were foggy, some were dirty and some had cracks. But they were your windows, and they were just fine. And you think about all the time you used to have. Time when you didn’t have windows to rebuild. Time when you could just be. And you wonder if you’ll ever have time like that again.

I didn’t understand this. I think a lot of people don’t understand this. This is the long term tragedy of abuse, and rape and choicelessness. I wanted to tell myself a story that I was better for the experience. But this is the tragedy that persists long after you’re safe, long after you finally told your story, and long after the point when you are supposed to be better. That all the strength and beauty was always in you. Someone smashed the windows and there’s really nothing you got out of it that you didn’t already have. And you’ll never get back the time that you lost.

The windows were fine to begin with.

A broken stained-glass window set into a brick wall.
Broken stained glass window at Kinnell Church, ©Neil Williamson 2012, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

Notes on an Unfinished Goodbye

March 15, 2021

I wish I could tell you

I want you
to find joy

without restraint
or dread
of what comes next
or what you might lose
or what you might owe.

I want you
to learn
what it’s like
to feel everything

without resistance

secure in the knowledge
that you will not 
be drowned.

I want you
(just once)
to feel what it is like
to love
with an open heart
and receive
the same in return.

I want you
to feel
what it is like
to be seen
and known
and truly met

without fear.

I want you
to love someone
who embraces 
and adores
every part of you
without reservation

who celebrates you

who can gently
walk with you
through the thickets of your nightmares
until you come out together
on the other side.

I want you
to find your way free
of the clouds of razor wire
and broken glass
that bind your mind
and your heart
coalesced over a lifetime
to keep you safe from others
but also
from yourself.

I want you
to feel
in your bones
that you are worthy
that you are good
that you deserve
this love.

I want you
to be

I want you
to free 

“Razor wire at dusk.” Photo © Isabelle Prondzynski 2019, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Canada Defines Love—Exclusively (with Carrie Jenkins)

October 31, 2020

Originally published on Medium.

Early this month, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship announced that unmarried romantic partners of Canadians would be allowed to cross the border and, after quarantining, finally see their loved ones. For many, this is desperately welcome news. The headlines proclaimed “tears of joy” as couples learned they could reunite after months apart as a result of COVID-19 border restrictions.

But for Canadians in consensually non-monogamous relationships, those tears quickly turned to tears of a different kind when we read the fine print, which limits entry to partners in an “exclusive dating relationship.”

Non-monogamous relationships are not “exclusive,” according to the common usage of the word. But they are just as committed, loving and meaningful as monogamous relationships. Our partners are part of our families, and we have suffered just as much from being separated from them during this pandemic as those who have forsaken all others.

It’s 2020, nine years since a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling clarified that our relationships are not illegal under Section 293 of the Criminal Code (known as the “polygamy law”), provided we do not perform marriage-like ceremonies with more than one partner. Yet by choosing the word “exclusive” to define the kind of relationship worthy of visiting rights, our government is signalling to us that our relationships are still officially worth less.

That week, polyamorous people across Canada frantically contacted our MPs to ensure we, too, would be able to see our partners soon. What exactly, we wanted to know, does “exclusive” mean? Could the word choice be altered? This is where the story gets strange. Later in the week, the ministry published their definition of “exclusive dating relationship”: a romantic relationship of at least one year, where you have spent time in each other’s physical presence at least once.

But this is not what “exclusive” means in romantic contexts. It means that other people are excluded — that both of you have agreed not to see other people. So while our non-monogamous relationships technically appear to qualify* under the ministry’s bizarre definition, polyamorous people remain confused, and very nervous about signing a notarized attestation declaring their relationships exclusive.

The apparent intent of the “exclusivity” language, as it’s spelled out, is to limit access to partners in a serious relationship — measured by duration (which one might also quibble with, but let’s not for now). The only other requirement, physical presence, is presumably there because an all-online relationship wouldn’t necessitate a physical visit now. Neither duration nor physical presence has anything to do with exclusivity.

Words matter, and despite what appears to be the hastily added clarification, the words chosen for the new rules reflect the values of those who wrote them. Using “exclusive” as a catch-all for these other metrics lays bare a huge assumption: that any serious relationship would (obviously!) be an exclusive one.

But perhaps you’re thinking this is not based on assumptions or bias, but rational risk assessment? Surely someone romantically involved with more than one person is a greater COVID threat?

This smacks of the old (and empirically discredited) stigma that non-monogamous people are vectors of disease. In fact, we are well-accustomed to thinking about and discussing bubble size and the careful minimization of infection risks. Moreover, the ministry’s regulations are not concerned with bubble size in any other instance. They aren’t saying your son-in-law can only come in provided he hasn’t been dating around lately, or that your grandma can only visit provided she doesn’t live with your grandpa. If these considerations don’t apply to others, why are they relevant for us?

Some have suggested it’s “about numbers” — as though polyamorous Canadians collectively have thousands of lovers lined up, ready to rush the border on their way to a massive orgy. This, too, is a gross stereotype. The number of long-term polyamorous partners abroad who otherwise meet the definition and have time for a visit that involves a 14-day quarantine is miniscule compared with the numbers of grandparents, siblings and monogamous lovers now allowed in. And again, nowhere else in these rules are numerical considerations in play: you can have as many step-siblings come visit as you like.

No, this is not about bubble size, or even risk. It is about what counts as a “real” relationship, in Canada’s eyes. It’s literally about how we define “family.” Canada is attempting to define love, and in doing so, seems to be defining ours out of existence.

Carrie Jenkins, author of What Love Is (And What it Could Be)
Eve Rickert, co-author of More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory

*UPDATE November 2, 2020: Eve’s MP’s office has investigated this issue, and the ministry has confirmed that polyamorous relationships are not eligible for visitation under the guidelines. So what now? 1. Polyamorous Canadians should contact their MPs and ask them to advocate for inclusion. 2. Canadians with partners abroad should submit the application anyway, and include an explanatory letter outlining why they believe they should be included. If you are denied, contact your MP’s constituent services office and ask them for assistance.

Untitled artwork © Carrie Jenkins 2020, released under a CC BY-SA licence.

Bees in the Closet: A Polyamorous Parable

February 16, 2020

Adapted from a comment at Polyamorous Black Girl.

There’s this idea that’s been rolling around in my head for awhile. It’s related to what Ginny Brown referred to as “But you never said —!” in their blog post “Abuse in polyamory, 2019 edition.” I call it “bees in the closet.”

You live with a partner. You come home one day and open the door to the closet in your shared bedroom. Hundreds of bees swarm out. You run shrieking to your partner, “Why are there bees in the closet?!”

Turns out he’s decided to try beekeeping, and he’s moved in a hive. Into the closet.

As you gingerly pull stingers out of your arms, your heart still racing, you ask him what the hell he was thinking, and why he didn’t ask you first—or even tell you before you opened the closet door.

“Well, you never said you had a problem with bees. How was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader. You have to communicate your needs if you expect to have them met.”

There’s this thing I see happening a lot in polyamorous circles—and it’s happened to me in my own relationships. (If I’m honest, I’m pretty sure I’ve done it, too.)

Polyamorous folks who lean toward a less structured approach focused on “agreements and boundaries” rather than rules will often talk about how each relationship can be negotiated differently, with different commitments and expectations, based on the needs and desires of the people in it. This is the idea of “designer relationships.” And like many good ideas in polyamory, it’s true—to a point.

The problems start cropping up when this idea becomes weaponized to promote a notion that no one can or should have any baseline expectations in a relationship, that everything needs to be negotiated case by case, and that any hurt caused by a violation of baseline expectations is the fault of the person who held the expectation, for not communicating or negotiating it first.

This is tricky, and it’s one of those places where any good advice can be twisted to harm, because it is also true that some people do use unspoken expectations to manipulate others: “If you loved me, you’d just know…” When this is being done in a manipulative way, though, it tends to be about things that are either very specific, personal and obscure, or that shift frequently and without warning—or both.

You tell your partner you need him to move the bees outside. He says “But you didn’t negotiate a boundary about bees before I moved in. Now you’re changing the rules on me after the fact. Also, you’re trying to control my living space, and that violates my consent.”

And yet…certain actions simply are incompatible with being in a loving relationship with someone. And all of us can, should and do have baseline expectations that are, for the most part, universally understood. For example, at an absolute bare minimum, most of us expect our relationships to be free from physical violence. Most of us expect our partners to tell us the truth. If these things are to be negotiated away in a relationship, the onus is on the person who wants to get rid of them to define that as an exception—not on the person who wants them to explain why they should have them. At a higher level, most of us expect some amount of empathy and—if someone cares about us—to be consulted on decisions that directly affect us before they’re made. Like…keeping bees in the closet.

But a skilled manipulator can make any of these requests sound unreasonable, even controlling. And this is especially true in alternative subcommunities where we’ve already rejected some social norms—and aren’t entirely agreed on which ones we do accept.

Your long-distance metamour, who’s never been to your home and hasn’t talked to you in months, starts posting Facebook posts about people with mental illnesses (for example, and as a total hypothetical that’s not at all related to any real-life events, melissophobia, an irrational fear of bees) needing to get help for themselves instead of making their partners responsible for taking care of them.

Oh and also, just as an aside, if your partner wants to control what you keep in your closet, that’s a red flag for abuse.

People who care deeply about their partners’ autonomy and agency, who feel empathy for their partners and want them to be happy, are especially susceptible to this kind of manipulation. We’re the ones most likely to suppress our gut feelings, take on any pain as ours to deal with, resist participating in any behaviours that could remotely be seen as infringing on our partners’ rights, and rationalize and normalize things that most folks would recognize as really not okay.

And if anyone outside the situation says, “Hey, that doesn’t look right,” it’s easy to say, because of how far outside the norm we already are, that they just don’t get how we do relationships.

You start to think that you overreacted about the bees. Maybe your feelings about bees really aren’t his problem. They’re his bees after all—why can’t you just deal with it?

So you shut up about the bees, and you get used to the feeling of them crawling on your skin at night, and to shaking them out of your clothes, and you tolerate all the little stings. You start cleaning up after them, too, to make up for being so unreasonable about the bees to begin with.

And even though you never really feel comfortable in your home again, eventually you can’t remember why—except that somehow it had something to do with how you tried to control your partner.

But you’re not like that anymore.

An 1840 naturalist's colour illustration of three black-and-yellow bees on a black-and-white line drawing of a flower.

Common Humble-bee. (B. terrestris.), by Mr. Westwood in Jardine Naturalist’s library, 1840. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

What I Got Wrong in More Than Two: The Dark Night of the Soul

November 29, 2019

There are a lot of things I fucked up in More Than Two. I recently wrote about how hard it is for me to even look at the book, and how it’s going to be awhile before I can really dig in to what I think the problems with it are.

I want to start with an apology to Inês Rôlo, and what I know I got wrong—and have known for at least a year.

Inês recently posted an essay on Medium: “I was in a polyamorous and abusive relationship for 7 years… here’s what I learned.” There was a lot in that essay that hit close to home. And while she never calls out More Than Two specifically by name, one passage in particular gets to the heart of what I see as one of its core problems—teaching you to ignore your pain:

Most of the poly literature I read kept telling me I could do it no matter how much pain I felt. It taught me to put bandages on it, to strategize around it, but never to listen to it.

Poly is very critical of feelings as commodities, of love as a scarce resource. It’s supposed to be something that values love and feeling, but instead it tackles feelings as things to be dealt with and over with. It doesn’t recognize that feelings might be there for a reason. Feelings are not meant to be simply overcome. Sometimes, they’re meant to be felt.

She’s right.

There’s a passage in More Than Two that I profoundly regret. I don’t know if it’s the most harmful thing in the book, but I know it underpins a lot of other harm. And unfortunately, I wrote it:

Eve has called this kind of time the “dark night of the soul” moment. Unless you are truly exceptional, you will experience it at some point, usually early on. Maybe your partners are struggling. Maybe you’re tired of fighting your inner demons. And this is when it really matters whether you’ve committed, with all your heart and soul, to being poly. If you don’t commit, if you aren’t ready for that dark night of the soul, and you back away in fear when it comes, then you and people you love are going to get very hurt.

So be ready. Because if you step into it and keep walking, you will get through it. It ends. Know that you’re not alone: thousands of people before you have walked this path—not exactly yours, of course, but just as dark and scary. It ends. And it’s better on the other side. Getting through that dark night removes its power over you, and that’s what it takes to get you (and your partners, and their partners) onto a solid footing that will lead you to happiness, a place where you can make clear-headed decisions focused on the good of everyone.

The longer people avoid confronting that dark night of the soul, the more power it has over them and their relationships. Some people elaborately construct their entire lives to avoid confronting fear. Many people use the hearts of their lovers or their metamours as sacrifices to the unknown beasts they think live within the darkness they’re not willing to explore.

We urge you, if you are going to explore polyamory, don’t just dip a toe in. One, that’s not going to give you the strength and tools to succeed. Two, you’ll be treating people as things.

Of the people who do decide to make that commitment, to live polyamorously and treat their partners ethically even when it means confronting those heart-shaking fears, no one makes quite the same trip. Everyone charts a different path through that dark night. But it begins with commitment: knowing you are going to do this, and that you can.

Oh god. Y’all, please don’t listen to me. Please.

I mean it sounds all inspirational and stuff, doesn’t it? You can do it! DO THE THING! It gets better! Just keep going!

Except it’s fucked up. Because Inês is right. Pain is a signal. Sometimes—very often, in fact—it’s a signal that you’re being hurt, and need to stop what you’re doing. My advice in More Than Two worked for me once, when I needed it…and then later, it led me to endure years of abuse without ever realizing what was happening to me, because I believed that if my relationship hurt, it was because I was unlearning conditioning, or needed to fix something in myself, or just get through it—until I was past the point of no return, and the damage to my psyche was irreparable.

Inês wrote:

I didn’t know that pain is always a warning. Our bodies and feelings know what the deal is before we do. Even if our brains convince us otherwise. Paying attention to what I feel was one of the biggest lessons I learned.

I said that I’ve known about this problem in More Than Two for over a year. It was in the summer of 2018 that I received an advance manuscript for the book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond by Matthew Remski.* The title of the book is a reference to the way in which an abusive yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois, and his many enablers silenced questions and complaints about his behaviour through a relentless focus on the practice—using a method common in cults:

There’s always a bigger story going on, and you’re not enlightened enough to see it. But if you mind your own business, and focus on your own practice, all will become clear. Practice, and all is coming.

After many interviews with Jois’s dedicated students, I began to wonder whether the incredible focus for which they are known, their dedication, their ability to tolerate pain…were tangled up with what they had to do to manage this shame, consciously or not. I wondered whether their ardor held back the dark of a shared secret.

This was one of many points in the book where I felt a chill of recognition—and began to regret the focus in More Than Two on just pushing through your pain.

And then I listened to the Escaping NXIVM podcast, and learned about Keith Raniere and the “fright experiments.”

NXIVM was a self-help multilevel marketing cult. Basically they sold the idea that all the barriers in your life were self-imposed, and all your problems could be overcome through self-improvement—which happened, of course, through the expensive seminars offered by NXIVM. Keith Raniere was its founder and central figure, but his recruiters were primarily intelligent, successful women who were drawn in by his charm and his messianic promises that they would save the world.

Another chill of recognition. That’s what my ex said to me, too—that we were saving the world. It’s a seductive narrative, isn’t it?

The Fright Experiments were conducted with some of those close to the inner circle. They were hooked up to an EEG and made to watch increasingly violent film clips graphically depicting rape and murder. After each clip, a “researcher” would calmly ask them how they felt. If they reported distress, they’d be asked if they thought there was something there they needed to work on.

Kobelt said she was in shock, with tears and snot dripping down her face, when Porter asked her once again: “What’s going on for you?”

He then suggested Kobelt should have an exploration of meaning, or EM, to find out why she had such extreme reactions to some of the clips, she said.

In the world of NXIVM, an EM is a process where a disciple digs deep into their psyche, with the help of a coach, to get at the root of an emotional reaction in an attempt to resolve the underlying issue.

At that moment, it sounded like a ridiculous idea to Kobelt.

She said she remembered thinking: “I don’t know if this is something I want to resolve. I don’t know if I ever want to be OK with gang rape. Or, you know, murder by machete.”

But another voice came into her head, she said, once again reminding her of the NXIVM lessons she’d spent years learning.

Like that she has faulty programming and limiting thoughts that have been building up since childhood and hold her back.

And that she should accept feedback.

“Jenn, you’re fighting. Stop fighting. Just take the feedback,” Kobelt said she told herself. “If you’re fighting it, it’s probably true.”

She went back to the house where she was staying, had a shower and then texted her NXIVM coach: “Hey, I really need an exploration of meaning.”

They were being trained to accept the unacceptable. To respond to real, legitimate distress at things that no one should ever be okay with with a desire to further “improve” themselves.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now obviously we’re not talking about such extremes. But the processes, I believe, are the same: Someone experiences something distressing. They have a reaction. Someone calmly watches, perhaps even displays some empathy, and then says, “Now…what do you need to work on there?” The words and the context may vary, but the dynamic is the same.

Now here’s where this gets tricky. In polyamory, there is some stuff that we may genuinely want that is, purely because of conditioning that we do want to shed, going to be uncomfortable and that we want to get okay with—and that won’t harm us if we do. I was eventually able to learn not just to accept, but to enjoy seeing my husband holding hands with his partner, or the look of bliss on his face when they kissed. And then there’s other stuff that’s really just not okay—that’s harmful or abusive. Stuff like lying. Keeping secrets. Triangulating your partners. Repeatedly springing decisions on someone that affect them, without their input, and gaslighting them when they complain. These are all things that happened to me—and for a long time, I thought it was my fault that it hurt. That I just needed to try harder.

The problem is that the social and psychological milieu that is reinforced by the popular poly literature, including More Than Two, deadens our ability to tell the difference between these kinds of pain—between the psychic equivalent of a nice, deep stretch, and the pop of a tendon tearing or shoulder dislocating. All pain is the same, all pain must be embraced and worked through. It’s not all that different, really, from the Ashtanga yogis who followed Jois.

Inês again:

When you feel different and experience discomfort, you end up thinking that’s normal. After all, you’re doing something other people don’t. Society does not get you. People discriminate against you and your way of living. So you turn to “your” people. When you’re poly, your social circle becomes the people you’re dating and the people they’re dating. Everyone I met, I met through my partners and my partners’ partners. When I left, I had almost no “outside” friends.

I accepted the unease and emotional distress because I thought they were normal. I talked publicly about those feelings and got an immense validation from my community. I thought being in pain was the deal. Suffering was part of it. Like all the books said.

And then when someone is abusive? When someone genuinely wants to undermine your ability to trust yourself, to believe in yourself, to say “ouch!” and “stop!”? When someone is genuinely more invested in getting what they want from you and others than they are in mutual co-creation of well-being? Then we’ve handed them just the weapons they need.

I’m sorry. I was wrong. It shouldn’t hurt—not like that. You know what’s best for you. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself.

Let’s do better.

*Update: In April 2021 Karen Rain, whose experiences form the central narrative of Practice and All Is Coming, published a blog post about her experience working with Remski. If you engage with or share his work, please also read her perspective.

Total solar eclipse

Total Solar Eclipse, Arco, ID. 2017. U.S. National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank Public domain.

Thoughts on the Fifth Anniversary of More Than Two

September 2, 2019

For information on the current legal situation surrounding More Than Two, see my April 5, 2022, post “Concerning More Than Two.” Please also read “What I Got Wrong in More Than Two.”

The book More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Polyamory was published five years ago today. I co-wrote it with my now ex-partner, Franklin Veaux. Completely unexpectedly (for us), it became a massive success, and is now one of the most-recommended books on polyamory out there.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel very enthusiastic about celebrating its birthday.

Image of a black leather-bound book with a red heart on the front. The heart has a diagonal line of black stitching across it. Image courtesy of kreativlink on DeviantArt.Image courtesy kreativelink on DeviantArt, © 2010

It’s been a long time since I really looked at it, except for the excerpts I would read at events, which were mostly the same passages over and over. I have a strange relationship to my own creative outputs: generally, while I love them while I am making them, once they’re out in the world, I develop an aversion to them. And the more effort went into creation, the stronger the aversion is. Truth is, I loathe More Than Two. I even hate the sight of the cover—I keep it turned spine-in on my bookshelf. There was a time, during the book tour, when it felt physically painful to have to pick up the book yet again and read from it. (I got over it, sort of—I think I finally just became numb.)

 But of course, I wanted to believe in the book. I wanted to believe it was helping people, making lives better. So many people told me it was—I couldn’t look at the content again myself, but I believed them. I certainly never wanted to believe it might hurt people. I never imagined it might, for some, become a tool of abuse. 

If you’re reading this, then you probably know by now that I have been speaking out, along with many of Franklin’s other past partners, about the harm we experienced in relationship with him. For me and at least two other women I know of—not coincidentally, the three who previously lived with him—that harm resulted in deep trauma that has left lasting scars. And so of course, people are asking questions about More Than Two.

And I don’t know what to tell them.

I opened More Than Two a few days ago for the first time in a long time and actually started to read. And my stomach clenched. My heart started pounding in my chest, like it still does most nights when I startle awake at 3 a.m., my lizard brain still fearful that he’s in the bed with me. It kept doing it as I sat down to write the first draft of this post. I see it—I see the harm. As Kali Tal wrote in her piece “My Life Belongs to Me,”  which analyzes More Than Two and The Game Changer in light of my and Amber’s own correspondence about our experiences with Franklin: “the abuse that Franklin’s ex-partners describe surfaces like invisible writing in these texts when the flame of testimony is held beneath their pages.” It hurts to read. The abuse that I experienced is literally, as Tal wrote, “coded into the text, like DNA.” 

The writings of Matthew Remski, author of the book Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond,* have helped me a great deal in my exit and recovery. He wrote something once that has stuck with me. One of the things that can be so devastating to survivors of cult-like groups is not the harm they experienced, but the harm they committed while in the group. Victims will themselves often enact abusive behaviours reactively, and people who would not otherwise be abusive will often abuse both group members and outsiders when under the influence of a high-control group. The shame from this can make healing much harder. Reflecting on the experience of being in a cult, Remski said, “How shameful is that? To realize that simply by loving something, you harmed people.”

More Than Two came out of love. It was written by two people who, at the time, loved each other deeply, in the ways that each of them knew how, and wanted to help other people. (At least I did. And I actually do believe that Franklin did, too.) And yet what came out of that love…has caused harm. 

And yet…and yet…it’s also helped people. I know it has; I believe it has—people have told me so. I hope it’s helped more people than it’s harmed. I don’t think it’s a bad book. But it was bad for me. 

So I really, really don’t know what to tell you.

Maybe I’m rationalizing, maybe I’ll feel differently in a few more years, but right now where I’m landing is this: More Than Two contains tools, and every tool can become a weapon in the right (wrong?) hands. And more than that, our toolkit was incomplete, and very heavily skewed toward a certain dynamic—our dynamic. Which became abusive.

I’m glad that people are thinking critically about More Than Two. I’m glad people are pointing out its flaws. This consensual nonmonogamy thing we’re all working on is not static, and no one has all the answers figured out for everyone. More Than Two represents, at best, a snapshot of what was important and how certain communities were thinking at a certain point in time, just like The Ethical Slut was two decades prior. Ideas and practices will continue to evolve, and that’s a good thing. Some or all of what’s in More Than Two may eventually be thrown out—and I think that’s okay, too. 

So I guess all I can say is: It’s flawed. Maybe it’ll help you. I hope it will. But be careful. Read other things. Take what works for you from each. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right to you, listen to that feeling. 

Your relationships should feel good. They should take care of you. They should be the safe, stable places where you gain the strength to deal with whatever battles you need to fight out in the world. They shouldn’t be the battles you’re fighting. If that’s what’s happening, and the tools you’re using aren’t helping, find other tools. You deserve to be happy.

I do have some thoughts on what I would do differently now—of course I do. But I’m going to save those for later, when I’ve had more time to process. For now, I just want to address one key thing, which is the confusion I’ve seen over who owns the various More Than Two properties, and who profits from them. 

Ownership and revenue

More Than Two, the book, is a joint work by me and Franklin. We were equal co-authors and, while I haven’t done a forensic analysis of the text, I believe we both made more-or-less equal contributions to the book. Legally, we share copyright 50/50, and neither of us can modify the text without the other’s permission (which gives you an idea of the likelihood of a new edition).

Franklin and I also share royalties from the book equally (we each get about $1 in royalties per book sold). The rest of the book’s proceeds go to Thorntree Press, the company we co-founded. I own 75% of Thorntree, and Franklin owns 25%, but the company has never made enough of a profit to pay a dividend. As of February 15, 2021, I owe 100% or Thorntree Press, and Franklin will earn no profit from Thorntree books (except his royalties on his own titles, including More Than Two) and is not involved in the company in any way. We made a conscious choice with Thorntree to support emerging authors and new ideas, and so most of Thorntree’s revenues have (so far) gone back into publishing new books, most of which don’t break even.

MoreThanTwo dot com, the website, is solely Franklin’s work (except, as far as I know, for the Relationship Bill of Rights and the Secondary’s Bill of Rights, and the PolyCat archives). I didn’t contribute to it, can’t change it and don’t benefit from it. All my blog content from there has been ported to this site. Numerous past partners of Franklin, including me, have requested that people not promote MoreThanTwo dot com.

So while I completely understand if folks don’t want to buy the book for any number of reasons, an organized boycott purely for financial reasons (no matter which of us you’re boycotting) would be…complicated, because it would create collateral damage. But, you do you.

I will suggest, though, that if you do want to buy the book (or any of our books), rather than using the referral links on Franklin’s website (the proceeds from which go entirely to him), you use the ones on Thorntree Press’s page (which support the company). There’s also a standalone ebook on jealousy that (I hope) fixed some of the problems in the jealousy chapter in More Than Two.

And I think at this point it’s pretty safe to say that you can stay away from The Game Changer.

*Update: In April 2021 Karen Rain, whose experiences form the central narrative of Practice and All Is Coming, published a blog post about her experience working with Remski. If you engage with or share his work, please also read her perspective.

On Consent in Romantic Relationships (guest post)

June 6, 2019

This is a guest post by my friend Shelly. It was originally published in October 2013 at the More Than Two book blog. It is re-posted here with her permission.

Consent is a radical idea

I would like for this to be the shortest discussion ever. I would like to say that we each have an inalienable right to have domain over our bodies, minds, and choices and end the conversation there. I mean, good people don’t violate consent, and I’m a good person, right?

Well, it’s not really so simple. If there’s one common thread through human history, it’s that we are, collectively, really comfortable violating consent. As children, we are often violated physically, emotionally, legally. As much as we are told that we always have choice, we often find that the choice is between homelessness and an abusive working environment or an abusive living situation. As much as we seem to have finally reached some kind of consensus that rape is wrong, we still seem to be having a cultural dialogue about the kinds of circumstances under which it might actually be deserved.

We may encounter many situations in our lives where we have to put walls up and just absorb the loss of control over our lives, our minds, or our bodies. But the one place where we should never have to do that is in our loving relationships. This may on the surface, seem obvious, but make no mistake–this is a radical idea.

Axiom #1

The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.

Consent is about me

There’s a lot of fuzzy usage around the word consent. I would like to propose a tightening of the definition, because if we are not clear about what consent is, we cannot possibly succeed in communicating about it.

Consent is about me: my body, my mind, and my choices. My consent is required to access the things that I own. You do not need my consent to act, because I do not own your body, your mind, or your choices. However, if your behavior crosses into my personal space, then you need my consent.

If my romantic partner goes out and sleeps with a dozen random hookups, he may have broken an agreement, but he has not violated my consent. If he then has sex with me without telling me about his actions, he has violated my consent because he has deprived me of the ability to make an informed choice.

You cannot understand consent without understanding boundaries

My boundaries are the edges of me. What is my personal space? What is it that I alone own, and you must always have permission to access?

This is somewhat personal, and we often don’t know where our boundaries are until they have been crossed. But I think you can roughly divide personal boundaries into three categories: My body, my mind, and my choices.

Axiom #2

Poor personal boundaries are damaging to the self.

My body

We all have an intuition about where our physical boundaries are. Our boundaries may start at our skin, or the point where we can feel breath. They may begin on the other side of the room. It is the point where we feel touched and physically affected by another person. When we share physical space with others, which we often do in community spaces, we may need to sometimes choose not to share that space depending on where our boundaries need to be at the time. You have the right to decide if, how, and when you want to be touched. Always.

In romantic relationships we often negotiate shared physical space. If touch begins beyond our skin, we may need to negotiate some space that we can control. For some people, this may be a room of one’s own. For some, it might be as simple as asking for some quiet time on the couch. However, without individual space, or the ability to negotiate for individual space when you need it, the only option for exerting a physical boundary may be to leave the shared space.

My mind

This is your mental and emotional experience of the world, your memories, your reality, and your values. When we engage the world, we let people into this personal space. Finding the edges of your mind is trickier than finding your physical edges. We are social creatures, and even the most superficial interactions engage our mental and emotional boundaries. The boundaries of the mind are, on the one hand, the easiest for others to cross over into, and also the boundaries we have the most control over.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserve it” 

It’s easy to say “don’t give people so much power to hurt you,” but that does not address our need for connection and acceptance. It does not account for the very healthy impulse to seek feedback on our perceptions of the world. I believe that the healthiest person, when persistently rejected, will witness either an erosion of their mental boundaries or an erosion of their ability to engage in intimacy. I also believe that the only way to maintain good mental boundaries, to counteract social rejection, and to assess when to disengage, is to have strong self-knowledge and self-confidence, and to engage in self-compassion and care. In other words, to engage in behaviors that build your self-esteem.

Axiom #3

Solid mental boundaries require self-esteem.

When we engage in intimate relationships, we let people into our minds. We open up our mental boundaries. We let a chosen few affect us, deeply. This is beautiful and amazing, and in my opinion, is one of the things that makes life worth living. But your mind belongs to you and you only. Your intimate partners, your family, your boss and the woman at the grocery store only ever get it on loan, and if that intimacy is damaging you, you have the right to take it back. Always.

Setting mental boundaries is different than setting physical boundaries. When I set a physical boundary, I am exerting some control over what you do with your body as it pertains to my space. Do not touch me there, do not move closer to me, leave my home. But with emotional boundaries, we have to take care to not make others responsible for our mental state. When we tell another person “do not say or do things that upset me,” we are not setting boundaries, we are trying to manage people whom we have let too far into ours. This management, and the high stakes of being responsible for another’s psychological well being, quickly introduce coercion into a relationship, and coercion erodes consent. Should we make requests of others to maximize our emotional health? Yes! Should we try to honor those requests if we can do so in a healthy way? Yes! Are you responsible for my wellbeing and what I feel? No.

My choices

At every fork in the road, each of us will bring our own values and experience to an examination of the information available. How we approach this process, and the conclusions we come to, is a large part of what makes us who we are.

I am a collection of experiences, memories, preferences, and feelings. I am one of billions of unique ways to process reality. But I am also the sum of my choices. My choices are the place where I stop dreaming and start pursuing, where I stop planning and start building. Choice, in my opinion, is where human beings become truly beautiful, and sometimes truly terrible.

Choice can be the most difficult personal boundary to defend. It seems like the predominant belief is that if we are empowered to make our own choices, we will all become monsters, and we must entrust our decisions to external authority. This permeates our society and seems to inform the way we build relationships. Without engaging in a debate about whether people are fundamentally good or bad (or option C), I ask you to look at your partner and ask yourself if you respect their ability to choose, even if it hurts you, and even if it’s not what you would choose.

Axiom #4

You cannot consent if you do not have a choice.

When we enter into a romantic relationship, we make a choice. Over time, we build a life. This may involve legal and financial commitments and responsibilities. When we make those commitments, we should do what we reasonably can to follow through. But there is a difference between life-building and intimacy. Consent is about intimacy, and in every moment of every day, we should feel that we have a choice in the intimacy we participate in.

Consent exists in the moment 

You cannot pre-consent. You can state intentions. You can make commitments that don’t involve your personal boundaries. But consent exists right now, right here in this moment. Let’s say I tell my partner “I want to have sex in five minutes. If you want to, I will definitely 100% want to have sex with you. I guarantee you that it is absolutely 100% ok. I commit to it. Here is a notarized piece of paper with my signature.” And then let’s say in five minutes, I say “no.” If my partner has sex with me anyways, it’s rape. (If you engage in consensual non-consent, you will recognize that you still have to negotiate a safe word or a way to recognize when consent has been revoked. If you don’t, you’ve crossed into abuse.)

Axiom #5

Previous consent for intimacy never, ever overrides withdrawal of consent in the present.

I’ve given a pretty extreme example, but one that hopefully everyone will agree with. However, we often make all kinds of agreements to future intimacy and then proceed like those agreements override our boundaries in the moment.

Coercion erodes choice

Being in a consensual romantic relationship means you are never committed to any future intimacy. In a consensual romantic relationship, you always choose the intimacy you engage in. Intimacy is anything that enters into your personal boundaries. It can be sleeping together, sex, hugging and kissing, emotional sharing, living together, having certain shared experiences, or making shared choices.

Again, you can state intentions, but you cannot pre-consent, and both people must recognize and respect personal boundaries right now, regardless of intentions stated in the past. The reason this is so important is that when there is an implied obligation, the relationship can easily become coercive.

It is actually really difficult to avoid coercion in romantic relationships, because boundaries are most likely to be set during the times when intimacy is already in trouble and there’s a lot to lose. When relationships are good, they make us better, they make our lives bigger, and it’s easy to forget about our boundaries, because there is no reason to enforce them. When communication erodes, when trust comes into question, when we feel out of control or deeply unhappy, and then one or both people try to set a boundary, it can be terrifying.

What does coercion look like?

Coercion is when you make the consequences to saying “no” to intimacy so great that it removes any reasonable choice. There is more obvious coercion, such as threats, either externally or internally directed. But I find that coercion just sort of organically arises when you believe that your partner, in that moment, owes you intimacy. If you think your partner owes you intimacy, and you are just “expressing your feelings,” there’s a good chance you’re being coercive. If your partner says “no,” and you start preparing for a fight instead of accepting their choice, you’re probably going to be coercive.

If your partner is trying to set an intimacy boundary, they probably have a very good reason. It might not even be about you. The chances that your partner has had their consent violated in their life are really high, and it may have been really bad. Show appreciation for your partner’s self-advocacy and self-knowledge, be grateful for the intimacy they have shown you, and make it clear that you respect their autonomy and ability to make choices, even if you don’t understand what’s happening or why.

It’s also possible they are being manipulative and using boundary-setting as a way to coerce you. Withdrawal and silence are classic techniques of emotional blackmail and can be initially difficult to distinguish from healthy boundary-setting. It’s even possible they are setting boundaries just to punish you.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The solution is never to try to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Thank them, and respect their choice. If you can’t respect their choice, it’s time to examine your own boundaries.

Why you shouldn’t lie

I’m going to take a little bit of a detour here to talk about the intersection between mental/emotional privacy, choice, and consent. When you enter a romantic relationship, I believe there is one kind of intimacy that you must participate in, and if you find that you can no longer participate in it, you have a responsibility to end the relationship. I’m referring to honest, open communication.

Being able to share, to the best of your ability, who you are in a relationship, is critical for that relationship to be consensual. You must give your partner the opportunity to make an informed decision to be in that relationship. If you lie to your partner or withhold critical information, you remove their ability to consent to be in the relationship. The important information that needs to be shared should be negotiated early and is unique to each relationship.

Most important is to communicate those things that might be deal-breakers, or might be threatening to your partner’s emotional or physical health. Your partner deserves to have the ability to make a choice about how they want to participate in the relationship given the new information. Examples might be sexual behavior with others, drug use, the acquisition or use of weapons, violent impulses or behavior, or depression or suicide attempts.

You can force someone to make a certain choice, or coerce them into that choice, but if you lie or withhold information from a partner, you deny them even the ability to know there was a choice to be made.

Fear, the telltale sign

Why am I so afraid in this relationship when there’s no imminent physical danger?

If you find yourself asking yourself this question, check your boundaries. Do you know where they are? How much power have you given to others to affect your well-being, your self esteem, even your desire to live? Remember, when you give someone the power to affect you and to come into your mind, you are only loaning what belongs to you. If you are afraid, you have given too much. When you look forward, do you see choices? Is leaving the relationship a viable option? Is changing the relationship a viable option? Is setting boundaries a viable option? What happens when I say “no”?

You see plenty of relationships fall apart in sadness, anger, hurt, and feelings of betrayal. It is unnerving when a relationship becomes permeated by fear, but I believe this is often the trajectory of a relationship that lacks consent. It’s from here that we begin to bend ourselves around our fears instead of embracing our dreams.

Axiom #1

The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship.

If there is one safe place in the world, it should be with the people you love. I’m not talking about the safety of guarantees, but the safety to be everything that you are. It’s the safety to be dynamic, to change, and to dream. But to be safe, we have to be whole.

Not the Father: When Community Elders Erase Race from Polyamory (guest post by Kevin Patterson)

October 29, 2018

Originally published on Medium. Please update your links.

This is a guest post by Kevin Patterson, curator of Poly Role Models, author of Love’s Not Color Blind and co-author of For Hire, discussing a recent kerfuffle among polyamorous activists and what it means for the safety of people of colour in our scenes.

Every few years or so, someone tries to steal cornrows. To be clear, what I mean is: every few years, white folks try to colonize the hairstyle known as cornrows. By which I mean, some fair-skinned public figure appears in cornrows, or some stylist claims discovery of an identical hairstyle, and celebrity media applauds them as a tastemaker and a trendsetter. A lot of times, they even try to rename, rebrand, or repackage the style in order to get away with its theft.

Cornrows have been around since forever. Their earliest depictions are from prehistoric Africa. They can be tracked from emperors in Ethiopia all the way to southern Black girls sitting on their grandmama’s porch. They’re often used as a protective style, as they don’t require much daily maintenance. In white-dominated society, Black men and women with cornrows are often stigmatized as being unprofessional, unkempt, or thuggish.

So when the white celebrity of the day is given credit for popularizing a look that’s long been a standard in Black culture, without facing any of the social stigma involved, there’s a notable reaction. Social media takes notice, Black Twitter gets loud, a bunch of articles get written, and—usually—apologies are made. The credit that the media tried to give that celebrity gets struck down in less than a week.

So, why am I talking about cornrows? Context! And because Black Twitter doesn’t exist to defend ethical nonmonogamy. It doesn’t now, and it damn sure didn’t in the 1990s. Although ethical nonmonogamy stretches back as far as biblical times, it’s been repackaged and rebranded several times. The latest incarnation is the commonly used term polyamory.

I’ve been writing, blogging, and speaking publicly about polyamory for going on five years now. For the most part, my role has been to push the discussion surrounding the topics that my own lived experiences have uncovered. I’m known for breaking down the mistakes I’ve made and what I’ve learned from them, examining toxic masculinity and male privilege as it relates to my nonmonogamy, and most famously, navigating polyamorous communities as a person of color. One of the most difficult parts of having these conversations is being spoken over and disregarded by folks who don’t understand or won’t accept their privileged place in that conversation.

Recently, some notable names in both local and nationwide polyamory circles had a dustup that turned into exactly this sort of dialogue.

To backtrack, it began when a man reached out to Chrissy Holman, one of the organizers for New York’s monthly Poly Cocktails event. Acting in the capacity of an agent/manager, this man sought to secure an invitation and some promotion for Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, who happened to be in town. Poly Cocktails is open to the community it serves but has a no-media policy. So one of those requests was an easy yes, while the other was a firmly stated no. That’s where the problem started.

Instead of accepting that firmly stated no, this “agent” continued to push the issue while granting Oberon Zell the title of “the Father of Polyamory.” It’s a title that’s been commonly used for OberonZell-Ravenheart, a long-time partner of Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, the woman who coined the term polyamory.

Father of Polyamory.

Daytime TV host Maury Povich holds a red sweater with the words “You are NOT the father!” in white text. Image source: Instagram user officialmauryshow

When Holman discussed the pushback in this interaction on social media, it became a debate about who claims ownership of ethical nonmonogamy and what came before polyamory. Discussing the resulting backlash in full would take all the time in the world. Suffice it to say, tone-deaf white men ruled the day, as they often do.

Zell-Ravenheart flatly refused to acknowledge his complicity in whitewashing a culture that’s extended from Indigenous people and the beginnings of African and Middle Eastern civilization. He insisted, as a white man, that his communities, which are evidenced as led by and mostly composed of whites, are inclusive. He referenced his own experiences with the spurious concepts of reverse racism and sexism. He used his supposed record of dating people of color as a silencing tactic against those who were expressing hurt at his lack of consideration. In a move reminiscent of Elizabeth Warren’s recent blunder, he even went as far as claiming Native heritage for the white woman who coined the term polyamory. The entire exchange read like one of those bingo-sheet memes.

Leon Feingold, another tone-deaf white man, would then feature him in an interview that recontextualized legitimate commentary as mean words from disenfranchised youth. The Polyamory in the News blog would later repost the interview while furthering the narrative that Zell-Ravenheart deserved deferential treatment. I’m not saying that any of these guys are racist. I’m saying that there’s a specific pattern of white folks who make themselves rich and/or famous on POC customs. That pattern includes the padding of social status from other white folks and the utter dismissal of the POC who call it out.

All of this is to say that we make it really easy to write people of color out of cultural markers that were started by people of color. One of the most common questions I’ve gotten from friends and family about my polyamory has been some variation of “Isn’t that something for white people?” This is the reason why.

I’ve seen people attempt to qualify the influence of folks like the Zell-Ravenheart clan with the term “modern polyamory.” But that too is a copout, as it’s just another way to refer to the colonization point. Modern polyamory is another way of saying “polyamory from the moment on the timeline where we can lay claim over it, all the way to now.” In the same way, we live in a country called America because we don’t have a common language for what the land was called before colonizers killed the Native inhabitants.

We’ve allowed for the erasure of our past and, through naming conventions, the claiming of our present. So, with that as the framework, what kind of future are we laying out for ethical nonmonogamy?

My first kiss that wasn’t

January 29, 2018

CN: Sexual exploitation of a minor.

I recently had an epiphany about my first kiss.

The “official” story of my first kiss, the one I’ve told for my entire adult life, goes like this:

I was 14. I was with a friend at the Last Exit Cafe in Seattle—a place where I spent a solid chunk of my free time in my high school years. It was late evening, and we were sitting out on the back patio, when two men in their 20s approached us. My friend started flirting with one of them (or he with her; I can’t remember, but the flirtation was quickly mutual), and soon they were kissing on the bench across from me.

The other man took that as his cue to start kissing me. I was not into this guy at all. He smelled and tasted like cigarettes, and…that’s about all I remember of him. That and the fact that he was kissing me before I’d figured out what I wanted. And oh yeah, then his tongue was in my mouth, which was not in the least enjoyable. I went with it, though, because I didn’t want to distract my friend, who seemed to be having a great time, and because I felt like I was the only girl I knew my age who hadn’t been kissed. So, there I was.

My friend, to her credit, asked me multiple times if I was okay—she probably sensed that I wasn’t, really. But I lied and said I was.

On the bus ride home, I chewed gum to get his taste out of my mouth.

Today, I could list off all the red flags in this situation, from the age gap to the nonconsent. Then, it was just…a thing. A kind of yucky thing that I just wanted to move on from.

So that’s the story of my first kiss. Only it’s not.

My first kiss happened when I was 11 years old. I was at the home of a childhood friend, and she had another friend over whom I hadn’t met before. Somehow we decided to play Truth or Dare, and we got very quickly into the dares. We dared each other to kiss each other, and I think to feel each other up? I don’t actually remember. But I do remember kissing.

Except I didn’t remember it until very recently. I had never considered those to be “real” kisses. Maybe it was because we were playing Truth or Dare—but that doesn’t make them not real. Maybe it was because they were girls, or they were my friends—but that doesn’t make them not real, either.

I think, though, it was because they were girls. I think my mind at the time, steeped in heteronormativity, couldn’t categorize kisses with girls as a “first kiss.” So I filed it away somewhere deep in my memory, where it wouldn’t resurface again for nearly three decades.

Honestly, though? I like my real first-kiss story a lot better than the old one.