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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

There’s this idea that’s been rolling around in my head for awhile. 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

Please see this FAQ page for updates on the legal status of the book More Than Two and associated properties.

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 experience harm 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.

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.

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. If this happens to you, you might think that it’s your fault that it hurts. That you just need 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.

On Consent in Romantic Relationships (guest post)

June 6, 2019

This is a guest post by my friend Shelly.

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.

The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain

June 21, 2016

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Alex is in a relationship with Kris, who’s in a relationship with Kate. Kris is devoted to both Alex and Kate. Alex is considerate of Kris’ feelings, responsive to Kris’ needs, and has worked to build a healthy, reciprocal relationship with Kris. Kate…well, Kate is happy enough to have Kris in her life, so long as Kris is the one to put the effort in. Kate shows up when she feels like it. Kris rarely knows where they stand with Kate.

Alex has spent countless hours processing with Kris about the relationship with Kate. Alex has held Kris while they cried, given advice, helped distract Kris from all the complicated feels about Kate.

In other words, Alex provides most of the emotional support for both Alex’s relationship with Kris and Kate’s relationship with Kris.

But it doesn’t stop there. Alex has another partner, Jordan, whom Alex turns to when they need support for their relationship with Kris. Because Alex is doing work on behalf of the Kris-Kate relationship, and in truth, all the energy Kris puts into the relationship with Kate means that a lot of the time, Kris doesn’t have much left over for Alex. So it’s a good thing for everyone that Alex has Jordan to lean on. (Depending, of course, on how Jordan feels about it.)

Welcome to the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain.

Emotional labour, if you’re late to the party, refers to all forms of effort involved in caring for another person’s feelings, from remembering birthdays or food allergies to listening to a friend vent to holding someone’s hand while they’re suffering or grieving. There’s a lot of it. And it’s not inherently a problem: it’s the glue that holds society together. The major problems that arise with it—and the reasons so many people are talking about it—are twofold: societally, the expectations for most emotional labour fall on women, and it is chronically undervalued as a form of work.

The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain occurs any time there’s a problem in one relationship that spills over into the other relationships in a network. The emotional labour pours inward, from person to person, toward the source of the problem—as each person in turn leans outward, toward a partner who has emotional labour to give. (This happens in friend groups, too. But often the expectations are higher in romantic relationships—and boundaries can be harder to set.)

I have been part of polyamorous emotional labour daisy chains more times than I can count. I have lost friends and nearly lost partners by leaning out too hard and taking the availability of emotional labour for granted. I have also been the one to process with my partners, over and over, about their hurtful relationships; I’ve been the shoulder they cry on.

Sometimes the problem is an abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s a dysfunctional pairing of overlapping triggers or mismatched attachment styles. Sometimes it’s a chronic or acute illness, addiction, financial stress, a new baby, grief, or some other crisis or major life event. Sometimes someone is just being a jerk.

Not all instances of the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain are actually dysfunctional. At its best, it’s really just a special case of the ring theory of caring for people in a crisis. This is how families, communities, and societies work—when they are working well. People take care of each other. People give when they have it in them to give, and they receive when they are in need. When that happens in a poly network and it works well, for everyone involved, that’s awesome.

And so I don’t want you to read this piece and think there’s anything wrong with seeking support from your partners. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you find yourself the focal point of the chain because something stressful or awful is going on in your life. You deserve love and support. And I definitely don’t want you to use this piece as a weapon for shaming partners for having needs.

However, if you do recognize an emotional labour daisy chain that you’re a part of, it never hurts to check in with everyone else to make sure everything that’s going on is consensual and is working for everyone involved. A lot of times, these things work right up until they don’t—and people need to know it’s okay to express when it stops working for them, before resentment starts to build.


Sometimes things get set up in such a way that certain people are expected—or even required—to consistently provide emotional labour, while others are consistently exempted from it. Case in point: As mentioned above, the first major discussions of emotional labour centred on the ways in which women are socialized (and expected) to provide emotional labour to men. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that often you see similar patterns play out in poly relationships. But that’s not always the case: I’ve seen—and been in—plenty of situations where one or several men form crucial links in the daisy chain.

One specific example of a structural imbalance in emotional labour is the unicorn-hunting couple. If you look closely at what they say they’re looking for, often it becomes clear that what they want is a woman to provide emotional labour for the two of them, while expecting little to none in return. What makes this particular situation especially messed up, though, is that often they’ll say that they don’t want her to have other partners—in essence, denying her the ability to seek out emotional care from others.

And you know what? Taking care of each other, supporting each other and helping each other out is cool. But setting up structures whereby certain people are consistently excused from performing emotional labour and certain people are expected to always provide it is not cool. It’s not cool in society, and it’s not cool in a polyamorous network.

And those structures are really just a special case of the general case of entitlement to emotional labour. Like all forms of entitlement in relationships, the moment you start feeling like someone owes you emotional labour, things will get fucked up.

Another place the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain causes problems is when there’s someone who has a hard time setting boundaries and consistently accepts poor treatment from partners. Often it’s these kinds of people who have a chronic tendency to be at the centre of the circle. They may consistently give more to certain relationships than they get back, and they may feel like hey, it’s okay, they have that to give.

Except that sometimes the reason they have so much to give is that there’s another partner in the background (or more than one)—people like Alex in our story—performing the emotional labour for both their own relationship and the other, lousy one(s). I think sometimes such a setup can even provide a kind of backup energy source for shitty relationships that really ought to end. I think sometimes they can make it so that even though they hurt, it never hurts quite enough to leave. So if you’re that person who can’t leave the bad relationships, think on that—because often what it means is that there’s another person absorbing your pain.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. But I know one thing: Taking care of your partners means taking care of yourself, too. And that means setting boundaries with people who treat you badly—no matter how much you love them. And it means limiting what you give to relationships that don’t give back. You may think that love conquers all; you may think that you can endlessly pour your love into someone in the hope that they’ll return it someday; you may think these are your decisions. And they are. But understand these decisions are not just about you. People you love will feel it. They will pick up the pieces.

For those of you waiting for Part 3 in my hierarchy series…I’m still working on it. I’ve hit an unexpected logical puzzle that I need to work through, and that’s taking some time. I hope to have it up in the next couple of days. This post was the one I needed to write today.

Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 2: Influence and control

June 11, 2016

This is part two of a three-part series inspired by the question Can a hierarchy ever be ethical in polyamory? As I said in Part 1, I have come to the conclusion that this is the wrong question to ask. To get to the right questions, we need to drill down deeper. Part 1 talked about how we define hierarchy, how hierarchies reflect power dynamics within relationships, and why they’re so hard to talk about. In this instalment, we’re going to look closer at some of those power dynamics.

Influence and Control

Any healthy relationship involves a certain amount of influence. While it’s not a good idea to rest your hopes for a relationship on your partner changing, or to make your partner into a project, good partnerships do change the people in them. You may learn new habits, new skills, new hobbies, new ways of communicating. But you also have to learn to prioritize another person’s happiness as well as your own. That means allowing your partner to influence you: it means paying attention to what your partner’s experience is, what their needs are, and working with them to help them get their needs met, along with yours. It means sometimes not doing something you want to do, and sometimes doing something you don’t really want to do, in order to make the relationship work for both of you. It means give and take.

In a healthy relationship, this give and take is negotiated and consensual. Boundaries are respected, bottom lines are recognized and not pushed. You may have to give up pizza on Friday because you’ve had it three date nights in a row and your partner’s craving Thai, you may have to move to a city that’s not your first choice (or even on your list), you might have to take a lower-paying job to make more time with the kids—you may have to make big sacrifices or small ones. But you won’t have to give up friends, family, economic or emotional security, self-worth, self-expression, or any of the things that are important to making you you. And this influence is reciprocal: your partner listens to you and seeks compromise just as much as you do. You both prioritize each other’s happiness and well-being.

The other side of this coin is control. Control is what happens when the give and take stops being consensual and reciprocal, when you stop respecting a partner’s boundaries, when you make your own happiness and meeting your own needs more important than valuing your partner’s agency. It may involve emotional blackmail tactics like threats, shame, gaslighting, withdrawal of affection or resources, or, in extreme cases, physical or sexual abuse. It’s important to recognize that an ongoing pattern of coercive control is the definition of intimate partner abuse—and those tactics I’m talking about are part the power and control wheel that’s used to pinpoint abusive behaviours. However, these coercive tactics are used all the time in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships without rising to the level of abuse.

In poly relationships, control can also manifest through hierarchical agreements where partners give each other the power to make unilateral decisions over other relationships.

You might ask how such agreements might qualify as control if they’re negotiated. That’s because of who’s missing from the negotiating process: the other affected partners. Usually, in hierarchical agreements, the rules are presented to secondary partners as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, without an opportunity to shape their creation—either in the beginning, or in the future. (This discussion makes up the bulk of chapter 10 in More Than Two.)

In a poly relationship, intimate influence may affect the choices you make about how you interact with other people. It may mean that you don’t date someone you want to date, or you limit the amount of time you can commit, or you put the brakes on a relationship that’s growing too fast and big…because of the way it might affect your other partners, or because of concerns they have. It might even affect your decision whether to be poly at all.

Or, you might make all those same choices because you have a partner who’s exerting control over your other relationships—whether as part of a negotiated power hierarchy, or as part of a pattern of coercive control.

It can often be difficult to tell the difference between the two from outside a relationship—especially if you’re affected by the choices being made.

Let’s give an example. In her memoir The Husband Swap, Louisa Leontiades describes her metamour, Elena, giving an ultimatum to Louisa’s husband, Gilles, who was also Elena’s boyfriend: It’s her or me. Elena made it clear that she could no longer remain in a relationship with Gilles as long as he was in a relationship with Louisa. I won’t spoil the book by telling you what he chose…or how Elena responded. But while I was working with Louisa on the companion guide to the memoir, Lessons in Love and Life to My Younger Self, the two of us had a discussion about whether Elena’s actions constituted a veto of Louisa.

An outside observer who did not know Elena would in fact not be in a position to say whether her actions were a veto or not. Why? Because the difference comes down to expectation and intent. Elena had every right to set boundaries concerning what kind of a relationship she was willing to be involved in—up to and including who she was willing to be metamours with. But in giving Gilles an ultimatum, was she prepared for the possibility that he might say no—thus leaving her in the position of having to make good on her promise to end her relationship with him? Or was she working from an expectation that he would say yes—thus making the ultimatum dangerous for only Louisa, and not for Elena? What would her response be if Gilles said no? Would she be angry? Consider his choice a betrayal? Use shame and guilt to try to get him to do what she wanted? Or would she accept his decision—and leave the relationship?

An underlying element of all these questions is this: Did Elena feel entitled to have Gilles choose her? Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express our needs and desires, but it’s when we feel entitled to have our partners do what we want that things go off the rails. Entitlement makes us feel like it’s okay to overrule our partners’ agency (and that of their partners). If we’re part of a socially sanctioned couple, this is especially dangerous, because we’ve got lots of societal messages feeding that sense of entitlement. And the most damaging parts of hierarchical setups tend to come about when we enshrine entitlement into our relationship agreements.

Back to the Tower

At this point, I really hope you’ve read Part 1, because we’re going back now to our tower and village.

If you can manage to get away from the tower argument of “hierarchy means unequal distribution of resources” and start discussing the real issues (usually this happens when you stop trying to discuss “hierarchies” and instead get into specific kinds of rules, or arrangements such as vetoes), the new tower argument becomes the question of influence. I want to be able to ask for what I want, express my concerns about my metamours to my partners, tell my partners how their other relationships are affecting me, and so on. This is a relatively easy position to defend, because in healthy relationships, partners can influence each other.

Once the tower of intimate influence is defended, however, we see the village once again reoccupied. The village is things that a person feels entitled to control in their partner’s relationship, or rules and structures that are put in place to ensure that one person’s needs are always favoured in the case of resource conflict.

Tower: I want to be able to tell my partner how I feel about a potential new partner and have them consider my feelings in their decision.
Village: I expect my partner not to get involved with a person I’m not comfortable with them being with.

Tower: I want my partner to be available to me during emergencies or when I am struggling emotionally.
Village: I expect my partner to be willing to cancel plans with other partners in order to be with me whenever I’m having a hard time.

Tower: I have a lifetime commitment with my partner, and I want to feel like they will make choices that honour that commitment.
Village: I don’t want other partners to express desires for commitment from my partner, because I fear it will undermine their commitment to me.

At the same time, I think a lot of people, when they say “I need hierarchy” (or “I need veto”), are really saying “I’m afraid I won’t be able to influence my partner.” It’s not that they specifically want control: it’s that they want influence, and they either haven’t been taught healthy ways to have or use it (especially in poly situations), or they have only been in crappy relationships in the past where they didn’t have influence—so they don’t know what it feels like.

Now, it is a fact that for most people most of the time (but with many exceptions), longer-established, more committed or more entwined partners are likely to have more influence on a pivot partner than newer, less committed or less entwined partners. And that influence is going to affect what happens in other relationships. Sometimes, it may mean not starting a new relationship, or even ending an existing one—even when no pre-established structures are in place to ensure that certain partners are always favoured, even when there’s no control.

Going back to the diagram from More Than Two that I shared in Part 1:

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

More Than Two p. 182, illustration © Tatiana Gill 2014. All rights reserved.

As explained in the book, the arrow coming from the left and making the circles on the right is power from within the relationship on the left, affecting the level of intensity and commitment in the relationship on the right. But what we don’t really talk about in More Than Two is the fact that the power arrow can come from influence or it can come from control. And if you are the person on the right, your experience of the pivot’s decision may be very much the same regardless.

As a result, as I mentioned in Part 1, in any situation in which there is an unequal distribution of resources—or influence—the person with less may be inclined to look at the situation and say “This is a hierarchy.” And this is where I think the questions of What is a hierarchy? and Are hierarchies ethical? are not the right questions. Because what the person on the right is saying is really “I feel disempowered.” And that matters—and is what we really need to pay attention to.

That will be the subject of Part 3.

Can polyamorous hierarchies be ethical? Part 1: The tower and the village

June 10, 2016

Awhile back, Tikva Wolf, creator of the excellent webcomic Kimchi Cuddles, posted a query on her Facebook page: Can hierarchical relationships ever be ethical? I’ve been chewing on a response to that question for some time, because the answer is not simple. I mean, we spend probably a solid 50 pages in More Than Two trying to tease apart how to make relationship agreements ethical—and we still don’t really answer that question. I finally realized, that’s because it’s the wrong question. If we’re concerned about treating our partners ethically, then the right questions are not Can a hierarchy be ethical? or Is this a hierarchy?

But in order to define the right questions, we need to talk about hierarchy. And that’s a long enough discussion that I am going to break it into three parts. When we get to part three, I’ll talk about the questions we really need to be asking.

Defining Hierarchy

It seems to me that basically every discussion of hierarchy in polyamorous relationships eventually circles back to a discussion of what people mean by the word “hierarchy”—and then stays there, unable to reach escape velocity from the gravity of that never-ending semantic debate. I do not want to continue that debate here. Rather, I want to try to shed some light on why we keep having it. I don’t actually think it’s because people have different definitions and we can’t all agree. I think something a little more subtle is afoot.

I originally penned the definition of hierarchy that would eventually become Chapter 11 of More Than Two in a post here back in early 2013. In that post—and later in More Than Two—I focused on the power structures that you often see in poly relationships that are defined as hierarchical, especially those where the terms “primary” and “secondary” are preferred. Specifically, I said there:

A poly hierarchy exists when at least one person holds more power over a partner’s other relationships than is held by the people within those relationships.

Essential elements of a poly hierarchy defined this way are authority, where a person (the “primary”) has the ability to make rules about a relationship that they’re not in, and asymmetry, meaning that others don’t have the same authority over the primary relationship.

In More Than Two, cartoonist Tatiana Gill helped us portray this visually, where power from within one “primary” relationship was used to restrict the levels of connection and commitment permissible within another, relationship:


Such hierarchies are typically expressed through rules that may be more or less complex: things like limits on money or time spent together, sex acts that can be engaged in, and even feelings that can be expressed may all be included. Vetoes—which we define as one partner being able to unilaterally end another relationship without discussion—are common in such hierarchies, but are neither universal nor their defining feature.

Now, we know this isn’t how everyone uses the word. We acknowledged as much in More Than Two. It is, however, one of two prominent definitions used among poly people. So let’s talk about the other definition.

Many people claim that a hierarchy is any poly situation in which one relationship gets more time, energy, priority, commitment, sex, or other resources than another relationship.

So what’s wrong with that definition?

Well nothing, specifically. Except that it’s useless. For starters, that’s basically all relationships. This is the position advanced by people (including us) who argue against use of the word hierarchy in this sense.

Did I say it’s useless? I didn’t mean completely useless. It has a use, but it’s not the one you think. To the people who promote this definition, the usefulness doesn’t have to do with communicating an idea. It has to do with obscuring another one.

Things are about to get a little abstract here, but bear with me, because I’m about to talk about something that happens all. the. fucking. time. in poly communities—and it has a name.

The Tower and the Village

About a decade ago, neuroethicist Nicholas Shackel coined what he called the motte and bailey doctrine. The name refers to a kind of castle that was popular in Western Europe in the early medieval period. The motte is a hill topped by a fortified keep and often surrounded by a ditch or moat. The bailey is basically the rest of the castle: a bit of land containing the rest of the buildings and surrounded by a fence or wall (and possibly another moat). To make this a bit easier to follow, I’m going to refer to the motte as the “tower” and the bailey as the “village,” as shown in the following image:


Now the tower, being on a hill and fortified as it is, is much easier to defend than the village. So when the village is attacked and the walls are about to be breached, everyone can run to the tower, bar the doors, and dump boilng oil on top of the attackers (or whatever other horrific defence strategies were employed in the 12th century). But no one really wants to live in the tower very long—ultimately, they need the village. So the tower is only defended until the attackers have been beaten back or have moved on, at which point everyone reoccupies the village.

The motte and bailey doctrine describes how this same tactic can be used in an argument. You have two positions: one (the tower) is easy to defend, but ultimately not the one you really care about. The other (the village) is a lot harder to defend, but it’s also the thing that matters to you. So in an argument, you defend the village—until you can’t, at which point you retreat to the tower, and defend that. Once the pressure has lifted, you can relax and head back out to your village.

A good example comes up sometimes when trying to converse with people who believe strongly in astrology. If you don’t, and say as much, there’s a response that some people will bring out: “Well, you can’t deny that the moon and the sun have some influence in our lives! Just look at the tides and the seasons.” And, well, sure. No one can deny that. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing, circadian rhythms are a thing. As for the moon…that’s out of my wheelhouse, so I won’t comment, but I wouldn’t find it all that surprising to learn that there’s empirical data supporting some effects of the moon on our mood, emotions or hormonal cycles. So that’s the tower: some celestial bodies affect our lives in some ways. That’s relatively easy to defend.

The village, of course, is the idea that there’s some complex system through which dozens of celestial bodies affect our lives in intricate ways that can be predicted by mathematical formulas—right down to who’s the best partner for us or what day is a good day to sign a contract. If you want to convince me of that, well…you need to have more evidence than pointing out the tides and seasons.

The motte and bailey doctrine is an indispensable part of the way poly communities talk about hierarchy and whether it’s an ethical way to structure your relationships.

In this version of the argument, the hierarchy-means-everyone’s-a-special-snowflake argument is the tower. It’s easy to defend, because this is true of, well basically every relationship on the planet. No two relationships—even those prescribed by rigid gender and social roles—are or can ever be exactly the same, and no sane person would argue that they should be. The counterpart to this argument is the notion that “egalitarian” polyamory entails an expectation that all the relationships be the same. As we say in More Than Two, “Expecting the same level of commitment and entwinement from each [of your relationships] would be high-order foolishness.”

The fact that this form of hierarchy exists in every human being’s relationship life does not, as one might expect, make it a useless concept, though. In fact it’s a very useful concept indeed—because it doesn’t actually exist to communicate an idea. It exists to protect the village.

The village is the definition of hierarchy I gave at the beginning: where certain partners expect to be able to control other relationships that their partners are in. It’s usually clear that this is what’s really going on because people don’t tend to stay in the tower very long. Once someone has defended their tower—getting everyone to agree to the obvious statement that yes, all relationships need and consume different resources and have different priorities—you can often see them creeping back out onto the village.

An example of this is when people start talking about the idea of “respecting” the primary (or marital, or nesting, or parental, or whatever you call it) relationship. With the possible exception of some relationship anarchists, most people will accept at face value the idea that you should respect a partner’s other relationships, in that it’s a good idea to support your partner in keeping their commitments and doing things that support the health of their relationship life, and also in that most people understand that long-established, entwined relationships (particularly with children) tend to involve more time, energy and priority than newer or less entwined relationships (tower).

But are members of a couple saying that “respect” means not voicing criticism of abusive or manipulative behaviour? Not advocating for your own needs in a relationship? Not expressing your own feelings of love or attachment? Never asking for your relationship to take some priority some of the time? Then that’s a power hierarchy: the village. Watch what happens when you challenge this. Does the couple retreat to the tower? Do they say things like “Well you wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house on the first date!” “We’ve been together 10 years, we just have more sweat equity!” “You can’t expect everyone to be equal.” And the classic “We have to put our children first.”

The thing is that none of these statements are wrong. That’s why someone is saying them—because they’re the tower, easy to defend. But it’s not about these things, not really. It’s about the village: how much control someone has over what happens a relationship they’re not in.

Defining egalitarian polyamory as “everyone gets the same” and hierarchical polyamory as “every relationship is different” makes non-hierarchical poly seem easy to dismiss, and people who try to practise it, impractical ideologues. This conversational trick is devastatingly effective at shutting down discussions about the ethical implications of power dynamics in poly networks.

Lest I be accused of being too hard on primary partners, let me point out that secondary (or satellite, or peripheral, or whatever you like to call them) partners can also employ rhetorical tricks to confuse discussions of the power dynamics in poly networks.

A common one is to look at any unequal distribution of resources and call it a hierarchy. Since the idea of hierarchical relationship networks has, over the last few years, become increasingly frowned on in at least some poly subcultures, an accusation of having a hierarchical relationship is often a criticism—and can really sting if it comes from someone you love, especially if you’re actively working to avoid the power imbalances that we describe in More Than Two as hierarchies. Sometimes the accusations are true, but sometimes they point to other kinds of problems, which I’ll discuss later in this series.

Unfortunately, I do think that in many instances where I’ve seen these tactics used, the driving force behind them is just straight up intellectual dishonesty. But very often, I think it’s more innocent than that, and comes from a genuine confusion over what power within healthy relationships looks like—and from the fact that very often it can be hard to tell, from outside a relationship, exactly what the power dynamic is within it.

That’s what Part 2 is about.

10 Lines You Can Use to Defend Rape Culture

March 27, 2016

Originally published on Medium. Please update your links.

2016 is shaping up to be a tough year for rapists and other abusers. You might not think so, what with the recent acquittal of Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi and the humiliation of his victims on the witness stand — it might seem it’s as easy as it ever was to get away with abuse, harassment and sexual violence. But for an abuser, there’s a dark undercurrent to all this. People are angry. People are talking about consent, people are saying that “only yes means yes,” and #IBelieveSurvivors and #IBelieveWomen are trending. Despite abusers’ best efforts to silence and marginalize their victims, more and more people are coming forward, willing to tell their stories and even name the people who harmed them. Not even a famous radio host is safe.

But never fear. Entitlement and misogyny are still deeply rooted in our culture and — as we saw this week — built into the very foundations of our justice system. And with a little simple strategy, you too can help keep the patriarchy strong and make sure rape culture never dies. At the very least, you can avoid ever having to think too hard about it, have any uncomfortable conversations, or consider the possibility that someone you like might be a rapist or abuser. (Because as we all know, rapists don’t have any friends. That’s how you know they’re rapists. That and the black rape hats.)

As a start, memorize these ten key arguments. Pull them out in any discussion about rape or abuse and watch how quickly the discussion derails. To see these arguments in action, do a Google search for “Bill Cosby rape” and then read the comments section of any news report you find.

1. “I don’t want to take sides.”

This is always the best starter argument. It’s great, because it excuses you from having to really think about an accusation at all. I mean, it’s super uncomfortable to think about the possibility that someone you like, maybe someone who throws great parties, or whom you’re attracted to, might have committed sexual violence or abuse. So why do it?

The really awesome thing about this particular one is that it actually lets you take the perpetrator’s side while pretending to be objective and neutral. There’s nothing that says “I don’t believe” you like “I don’t want to take sides” — except you know, you don’t have to actually say you don’t believe anyone. It’s not trendy to not believe survivors, of course, so don’t give them anything they can really complain about. The survivor will hear what you’re not saying anyway, of course, and will never trust you again — but who cares about that? Survivors are so inconveniently emotional, with all their messy trauma and stuff — and you can use that in your favour. Play the rational, rise-above-it-all card, and you can keep an abuser as your friend and have everyone else follow your lead — ensuring that your community remains safe for the abuser. Which is what you want, of course.

This one will often shut things down right off the bat. But if it doesn’t work, you might need to pull out some more advanced arguments. Like…

2. “Why didn’t they go to the police?”

Everyone knows that our legal system is 100% infallible, police always take assault and abuse seriously, survivors of sexual assault are always treated with the utmost kindness and respect by everyone they encounter in the system, and rapists are always convicted 100% of the time. Also, everyone knows that all forms of intimate violence are completely and accurately covered by our existing laws, and that factors like alcohol or involvement in consensual BDSM activity play no role whatsoever in how a survivor is treated in the system or whether the perpetrator will ever face consequences. Therefore, it’s obvious that the litmus test one should use for whether an assault actually happened is whether the survivor reported it and/or whether it was successfully prosecuted.

Never mind that successful prosecutions of rape are thin on the ground to begin with, and successful prosecutions of rape in any kind of sexual or relationship subcommunity are as rare as snowball fights in the Bahamas. If you’re a rapist looking for 100% impunity to commit whatever sexual assaults you like, the BDSM community is a good place for you; to my knowledge, there has never been a successful rape prosecution in North America in which the victim and perpetrator were both involved in BDSM. (One successful rape prosecution in the US in 1996 was overturned on appeal.)

With odds like these, if you insist on taking a “cops or it didn’t happen” (or better, “conviction or it didn’t happen”) approach, you can ensure that you never have to take sexual violence seriously.

3. “Innocent until proven guilty.”

Liberal democracies have put in place a very high standard for allowing the state to take away the life or freedom of one of its citizens (unless you’re a person of colour living in the United States, but that’s another subject). That standard gives people protections, in theory at least, like “innocent until proven guilty” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is ostensibly to prevent abuses of state power, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t apply these standards to every one of your interpersonal relationships, not to mention how you organize your communities. After all, not inviting someone to a party, or not allowing them to speak at your conference, or even just telling a survivor that you believe them is every bit as serious as locking someone up in prison. So of course you would never want to do any of those things without the same standard of proof.

Look, I know what they say about Bill Cosby, but it really doesn’t matter how many people have accused someone of assault or abuse. If there isn’t iron-clad forensic evidence available in every one of the cases, you have to assume that the accusers are all lying until they can produce some kind of proof that they’re telling the truth. After all, the system assumes that the accused is innocent, but it makes no such assumptions about the accuser. Why should you?

4. “They’re both grownups; they can work it out for themselves.”

If you want to create a community that is safe for abusers and unsafe for survivors, use this one. With it, you can easily make sure no one ever speaks up about what happened to them. You’ll make it abundantly clear that if someone is violated, you won’t have their back. It also makes sure that they can’t access community spaces without running into the person who hurt them — or without first going through an “accountability process” that gives their abuser another chance to discredit and gaslight them. Conveniently, this ensures that anyone who’s been harmed will just quietly slink away when it’s all over — making sure that you don’t ever have to deal with their inconvenient accusations. It’ll just be you, the abuser, and the people who know how to play nice (i.e. keep quiet). This means you won’t have drama, and drama is way worse than having an abuser or rapist in your social circle.

5. “There’s two sides to every story.”/ “No one really knows what happened except the two of them.”

This is a multi-pronged strategy that combines several approaches (disbelieving victims, falsely appearing to be neutral, and supporting the perpetrator while appearing to rise above it all) at once.

When we’re confronted with any other kind of crime report, we don’t usually play the “two sides to every story” card. If Bob says Jake stole his car and Jake says “nuh-uh, Bob totally gave it to me,” it’s unlikely in the extreme that you’ll hear anyone say “There are two sides to every story.” (Maybe Jake took Bob out to dinner? I mean, hey, man, if you pay for a guy’s dinner, he totally owes you the use of his cool ’67 Stingray, amirite?) But with this strategy, you can totally deflect rape accusations. Maybe it…never really happened at all! Maybe they’re making it up! Because, you know, there are two sides to every story.

And if fifty women all come forward and accuse Bill Cosby of rape? Well, you know, there are fifty-one sides to every story, right? But we all know that only one of them really matters.

6. “But he’s a good guy!” (modify as needed for the gender in question)

Look we all know that rape (real rape; see #11) is a heinous crime. Of course this means that rapists are monsters, and obviously so. They have shifty eyes, wear hoodies, hang out in dark alleys and are probably Mexican. They are never star football players, or A students, or community leaders, or our lovers. They don’t seek out positions of power and influence in order to cultivate allies and escape accountability. They are never, ever charismatic or persuasive, and they certainly never identify as feminists. Obviously, they never wear different faces with different people, because that would mean they might have friends who trust them, and who will vouch for and defend them if an accusation ever does come to light. Since that never happens, all you really need to rely on is your own personal experience with a person. If they seem trustworthy to you, they are. If they never hurt you or anyone you know, clearly they never hurt anyone. Anyone who says differently must be lying.

7. “But people make fake accusations all the time!”

The real rate of false rape accusations is hard to determine, but in most credible studies, it generally hovers somewhere around 8 percent, the same as (or lower than) other types of crimes. And people who report sexual violence — especially the ones who try to pursue it through the courts — are usually subjected to humiliation and shaming. They usually lose friends, the people close to them often don’t believe them, they may have their careers damaged and may lose support in the community. But obviously they’re just doing it for all the attention. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be doxxed and get death threats on Twitter? You can’t treat every accusation as credible just because 92% of them are true — even when multiple people are accusing the same person.

And just remember, you’re not really trying to find out the truth here. This is about preserving rape culture, which means you need to master the three Ds: discredit, deflect, derail. This argument does all three.

8. “If it wasn’t consensual, then what was she doing with him with him at the beach/in a motel room/at a club/whatever?”

These days, it’s considered gauche to play the “She must have wanted it, look at the dress she was wearing!” card. But fear not, the “She must have wanted it, why else would she be in that place with him?” card works just as well. Going to someone’s house is implied consent for sex, right? You’d never be in physical proximity to someone else unless you wanted to do the horizontal mambo, right? Even better if they meet at a club; everyone who goes to a club is looking for sex, and is open to getting it from anyone else who goes to the same club, right?

Related to this, always remember to ask if the accuser was drunk. If they were, then you’ve got a perfect out for having to take their story seriously, since a drunk person’s body is fair game for anyone who wants access to it — anyone who gets drunk knows that, so no one ever gets drunk unless they want to have sex with anyone who wants them. And since studies show that about 70% of rapists rely on intoxication, and not force, as their strategy for assault, adopting this approach means you can make over two-thirds of assaults magically disappear.

9. “It must not have been rape. She didn’t act like I think a victim should act after it happened.” (See also: “Why didn’t she leave if it was so bad?”)

Rape is a traumatic violation of bodily autonomy. Rape survivors often engage in a number of non-intuitive behaviours to deal with the violation, that may include minimization, deflection, denial and other strategies. This means rape survivors might not act like people who have experienced other forms of criminal assault, such as being mugged. And it’s hard for folks who have not experienced rape to predict how they would behave if they were assaulted.

This means rape survivors won’t always act like many people think they “should” act. And when assault survivors don’t follow the script we think they should, it becomes easy for us to tell ourselves that they weren’t really assaulted, not really. Focusing on how a person behaved after they were assaulted or abused is an excellent way to not have to think about whether it really happened. Look how well it worked out for Ghomeshi.

10. “Okay, maybe it happened, but I can’t do anything about it. It‘s not my problem’.”

This is a super-advanced tactic that is best held in reserve until you’ve exhausted all the other arguments above. Believing you are powerless to do anything to counteract rape culture absolves you from any responsibility to do so, as well as from any complicity in perpetuating it.

I mean, when you get down to brass tacks, if you’re not the one who was assaulted, and you’re not the rapist, then it really has nothing to do with you, right? It’s not as though you actually have any power to, say, create safer spaces for survivors by not inviting a known abuser to events. It’s not as if, if you run a conference or group, you’re giving a tacit endorsement to the people you give a platform to — as well as giving them social capital they can use to make it harder for victims to come forward. It’s not as if, in continuing to remain on friendly terms with a missing stair, you might be sending a message that you don’t actually believe survivors or feel that their stories are important. It’s not as if, by minimizing sexual assault and looking the other way, you are teaching abusers that there will be no consequences for their actions.

No, you’re just minding your own business. If everyone else would just mind theirs, we wouldn’t have to think about this yucky rape culture problem at all.

(Bonus) 11. “But it wasn’t RAPE-rape!”

There are lots of ways to violate consent. Just like there are lots of ways to abuse people that don’t involve raising a hand against them. It can get complicated, and the more you look around, the more common it seems to be — but you don’t need to worry about any of that if you insist that the only kind of rape that’s actually real involves a cis man inserting his penis into a cis woman’s vagina (or maybe, if you really want to be fussy, her anus). Anything else doesn’t really deserve the seriousness of the name “rape,” you know? Just like there’s no real abuse that doesn’t lead to someone going to the hospital. Of course, real rape also involves the victim being beaten and bloody — if there are no bruises, how did you know she didn’t really want it? (And even if she does have bruises, maybe she still wanted it — cf. Jian Ghomeshi.) And despite the popularity of the idea of “date rape,” there are plenty of people who still think that the only kind of rape that’s really traumatizing is stranger rape, ideally at knifepoint. Just ask Richard Dawkins.

And remember, a sex worker can’t be raped — that’s just theft of services.

If you can successfully master just a couple of these arguments, you can make sure that no matter how often we challenge rape culture, it’ll never be seriously threatened. Learn them all, and you can turn your community into an ironclad haven for rapists and abusers. Well done.

On the other hand, if you don’t actually want to support rape culture — if you want to help build a society where only yes means yes, where consent matters and abuse and assault are taken seriously — then you might want to consider banning these sentences from your vocabulary.

The choice is yours.