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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 an anxious-attached partner with an avoidant-attached one. 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.

And.

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:

6-restrict

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:

motte-and-bailey

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.

7 Things Never to Say to a Polyamorous Lesbian (guest post)

February 9, 2016

Or: How to make your coed polyamory group welcoming to lesbians.

This is a guest post by Sophia, a friend on mine who has organized poly groups and events, especially for women and LGBTQ folks, in the Vancouver area. This post arose out of some thoughts she shared with me, which Franklin and I wanted to signal boost because they represent a perspective and experience that we feel doesn’t get a lot of airtime in our communities or our literature.

I’ve been a lesbian my whole life and a polyamorous lesbian for the last five years. The city where I live has a fairly active polyamorous community, with discussion groups and social events. The most active of these are the ones that welcome all genders. I love sex-positive people: We talk freely and mostly without shame about sexuality and relationships. We can be frank and fun people. Experienced and successful poly people often have great communication skills. I have not met with a lot of overt homophobia in polyamorous social environments, probably because about 80% of the women are bisexual. Many of the men are lovely and profeminist as well, and I have some good male friends among them.

However, environments that welcome people outside the norm also often attract people who transgress social boundaries in ways that harm other people. Tolerating poor behaviour from these individuals will, over time, drive away the people you want in your groups.

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Here are some things not to say to a poly lesbian. Most of them should seem obvious, but all of them are real examples. Many of them also apply to other queer women as well. 

1. “I slept with a lesbian…”

If you are a man, never, ever tell your lesbian friend or acquaintance about the “lesbian” you slept with. The polite way to treat a lesbian is “off limits to you or any man” sexually. Like a nun. Or your sister. Or your best friend’s monogamous wife. Or your straight best male friend. None of these people want to hear about you having sex with someone just like them. It’s saying “your stated boundary that you are not into men doesn’t matter because this other woman said she didn’t want sex with men but had sex with me anyhow.” Accept that not all women are sexually available to men, and move on. If someone tells you she’s a lesbian, by using that word, she is clearly communicating that she does not consent to receive sexual attention from men. Respect that. Do not be hopeful that this particular lesbian will sleep with you just because another woman did. It’s more than just rude and creepy—it’s a consent violation.

2. “You and your girlfriend are so hot. I’ve been having fantasies about you.”

A man actually said this to me yesterday. No lesbian (and very few queer women, period) ever wants to hear this. Similarly, do not ask to watch. There are no words to express how deeply creepy this is.

3. “Will you date me and my husband/wife? We had a threesome with a lesbian once…”

Don’t ask a lesbian out on a date that involves a man. Don’t even suggest it, hint you are available for a threesome or anything of the sort. Even if she’s friendly. She’s just being polite and assumes you know what the word lesbian means and that you have the class to respect her boundaries. Have that class. (This applies equally to online dating.)

4. “Your girlfriend looks like a man, so why don’t you sleep with men?”

Butch women are women. Lesbians are into women. That’s the point.

5. “I know what toys you girls like…”

Don’t start talking about dildos or strapons. Just. Don’t. It’s none of your business. Again, lesbians are into women. Anything done between women is not about men.

6. “I just thought you might not have had the opportunity to sleep with a man…”

This is laughable. Most women, lesbians included, have to refuse advances from men on a regular basis.

7. “Oh, you’re a lesbian. I could never be a lesbian, I like cock so much. Let me tell you all about what I like to do with men…”

I get it, you need everyone to know you’re not gay. I’m not going to hit on you. And frankly, details about sex with men gross me and a lot of other lesbians out. Like most lesbians, I’ve had sex with men before I came out. I know how it works. It’s not a topic of interest or appeal to me. It’s like forcing a vegan to listen to all the things you like about meat.

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Obviously, these are things that are rude and inappropriate to say to any lesbian in any setting. But the frankness about sexuality and relationships in poly and kink communities specifically can give people a false sense of permission to be intrusive or to fetishize sexual minorities, and that’s not okay. Lesbians who run into this kind of behaviour in poly communities may choose to stay within queer communities, or to segregate themselves from bi and straight people to avoid these types of unpleasant situations—which I think is a loss of community and possibilities for understanding and connection on both sides.

Let’s be good to one another. Sex-positive communities should be all about respecting stated boundaries and consent. The word lesbian has a very clear, widely understood meaning. I would like to see our poly communities be places where people take that meaning and use common sense to tell us how to behave to other human beings whose boundaries we recognize and respect.

Additional resources:

A great source of information for men on how to treat women of all kinds in nonmonogamous environments is Pepper Mint’s Nonmonogamy for Men: The Big Picture. It’s long, but it’s the best analysis by a man, for men, that I’ve seen of why men sometimes behave so badly in nonmonogamous environments, why the ways men have been socialized to treat women don’t work in nonmonogamous settings, and what to do about it.

Like what you’re reading on the More Than Two blog? Consider getting the book! Visit the books page to find out more.

Polyamorous holidays: When you’re the secondary (guest post)

December 3, 2015

This is a guest post by longtime poly blogger Noël Figart, author of the Polyamorous Misanthrope blog. A friend of mine sent me a question last week about surviving the holidays as a polyamorous secondary partner, and Franklin and I chewed on it for awhile before finally throwing in the towel. It sucks (I’ve been through it), and we empathize…but we couldn’t think of any concrete solutions. So we turned to someone else we trusted. I’ve followed Noël’s blog almost since the inception of my own non-monogamy journey, and she gives great poly advice that is grounded in respect, love and being a grown-up. When we cast around for someone to take this one on, she was the first who came to mind. Feel free to post your own suggestions (or empathy and support) in the comments.

I’m looking for advice on surviving the holidays as a Secondary. My only current partner is married, and also lives very close to his biological family, whom he is also very close to emotionally. He’s told at least his mother that he’s dating someone, but she has essentially bent over backwards to ignore our relationship. Although we don’t subscribe to an emotional hierarchy, there’s still the functional/social hierarchy of him living with her, being accepted by his family, etc., and holidays really seem to heighten that glitch in the matrix.

My own biological family lives too far away for me to spend time with. My partner is spending the holidays with his family (no big surprise) and his wife (also not a surprise.) We’re doing some personal celebration things on days around the holidays, but they’re very solitary activities. I find that it’s very much getting to me that I’m alone during this time of family togetherness. I’m making the best of it spending time with friends, but it hurts to not be able to spend the time with the person I love the most, and additionally to feel like I am socially “erased” from his life during this time. I’d like to know how other people have dealt with similar feelings of being the Invisible Partner during a very rough part of the year to be alone.

Ow.

That hurts and it’s tough. And guess what? There is some social erasure going on in this.

Is it avoidable?

© Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

To not be publicly acknowledged as a partner or to be erased from public celebrations can be painful. Photo © Michal Moravcik/Depositphotos.com

That’s a tough one. One of the problems with polyamory is that in general they are very much “roll your own” relationships, which means that while we’re reared to specific social expectations, the realities of our relationships often don’t follow that social expectation. Which for the hot threesome can be awesome, but it can suck when it’s bumping up against an expectation of the inherently social and community-oriented time of the holidays being something you expect, are taught to value, and to be frank… Kinda do value! So to not be acknowledged and to be erased from the more public celebrations can be painful.

In my perfect world, families of origin would be accepting of the people who are close to their members and welcome them into family celebrations. I’m sorry that it doesn’t work that way all the time. It hurts like crazy.

That doesn’t mean you’re totally helpless in the face of the situation, though.

Let’s break this down in terms of relationship skill sets. I’m sure you’ve run across the idea before that it’s important to ask for what you want. It is crucial, so get it out there. Don’t worry about whether what you want is too much to ask: once you know what you want, ask for it. This can be scary, but I think all good relationships require a bit of courage. Yes, you’re setting yourself up for a refusal, but if you don’t ask, you don’t give them the opportunity to say yes.

So try it out, “Honey, I feel really alone during the holidays. Since we are partners, I feel like we’re family, too, and I want to be able to be included in some big holiday gatherings. Is there any way this can happen at all?”

Notice that this is open-ended. You’re asking for what you want, but you’re not telling anyone how to give it to you. That’s good, because chances are better that you’ll get some suggested solutions that you might not even have thought of.

Yes, I’m presuming good will here. After all, you’re partners and you love each other, right?

You mention that you’re doing a small, private celebration with your partner. Maybe it shouldn’t be (just) a small, private celebration. Maybe at some point a big holiday party that you and your partner and metamour host might be a good idea. It doesn’t have to be a holiday in and of itself. I used to throw a big tree decorating party the first of December ever year.

As for the specific holidays themselves, I used to be a member of a group marriage. While we got enough wrong that it did eventually dissolve, one of the things we got right was that we hosted holidays at our house. That kept us from having to choose among families of origin. People who wanted to visit on a holiday were welcomed. It worked out okay. Nothing’s perfect, but it was a good solution for us, as it did keep us on more equal ground with each other.

For those of us who have the couple privilege—that is, those of us who are in public, socially recognized and sanctioned couples—I do think we need to have a heart here. While I’m certainly poly enough that I don’t think it is healthy for anyone to be anyone else’s sole social and emotional support, at least one of the factors incumbent on polyamorous relationships is the reality that romantic relationships are often our most deeply intimate ties. As such, the social bonding rituals that celebrate and reinforce these ties need to be recognized, and all our partners included.

I encourage anyone who is in this situation to try to think of ways you can show your partners how loved and valued they are as members of your personal community.

You can follow the Polyamorous Misanthrope on Facebook.


If you like what you’re reading, consider buying one of Eve’s books.

Resources on Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships

February 21, 2015
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Abuse is, unfortunately, common in polyamorous relationships, just as in monogamous relationships. Polyamorous abuse can look different from abuse in monogamous relationships because of the characteristics of group dynamics. In addition, most polyamorous relationship advice assumes non-abusive relationships, but may be harmful when applied to abusive situations, and many resources for abuse survivors aren’t necessarily friendly for polyamorous people.

Several of the resources below contain checklists of behaviours common to abusive relationships and to healthy relationships; however, the following are some possible signs of abusive polyamorous situations, specifically*:

  • You feel frequently demeaned or humiliated by a partner or metamour.
  • You feel that acceptance by your polycule depends on your participation in group sex.
  • A partner or metamour reads your messages, emails, journals or other private information without your permission.
  • You find yourself doubting your own grip on reality, especially as it pertains to a relationship or your polycule.
  • You feel like a partner or metamour is “two different people,” or like you never know whether a partner or metamour will hurt you or support you in any given moment.
  • You feel discouraged from communicating with your metamours.
  • You feel you are expected to keep secrets from or about your partners or metamours.
  • You only or primarily hear negative things about your metamours.
  • The things a partner says and the things your metamours say often don’t seem to match up.
  • You’re made to feel that you are “not really polyamorous” if you express a concern, ask for a limit, or communicate your feelings.
  • You feel shamed for seeking out social supports outside your polycule.
  • A partner or metamour invalidates your feelings or internal experience.
  • A partner or metamour claims to be a gatekeeper, or the only or best source of reliable information about polyamory.
  • You feel that no one else will want to be with you or “put up with you” if you leave.
  • You feel like the sole problem in a relationship or polycule.

Resources and reading

The following are some resources that you may find useful to help you decide whether your situation may be abusive, help others, or heal from abuse:

Here are some books:

  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft—hands-down the single best resource available for understanding abusive men and patterns of misogynistic abuse. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern. This is the book that originally popularized the term “gaslighting.” (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems by Alexandra Stein is great for understanding the kind of abuse that can happen in abusive polyamorous networks. (Powell’s | Indiebound |Amazon)
  • The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • The Verbally Abusive Man – Can He Change? A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go by Patricia Evans(Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You by Susan Forward. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You by Patricia Evans. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)
  • Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival by Kelly Sundberg is a heart-rending memoir of surviving and leaving an abusive relationship. (Powell’s | Indiebound | Amazon)

First-person accounts

Enough people have come forward describing their own experiences of abuse in polyamorous relationships that there’s now enough for a whole section on first-person accounts.

If you need immediate help, assistance with safety or exit planning, or just need to talk to someone, you can call the Network/La Red hotline at (617) 742-4911, or the National Abuse Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

A NOTE ON TRANSFORMATIVE JUSTICE AND COMMUNITY ACCOUNTABILITY: There are people in polyamorous and sex-positive communities offering their (paid) services as consultants or trainers in this field. Many of the most well-known of these people have harmed survivors without accountability of their own, and I strongly recommend against working with any independent “professional” to support you in an abusive situation. Work only with established, credible organizations with clear structures of accountability, and find out in advance what recourse is available to you if you are further harmed. Be wary of any public process where survivors are invisible or disappear, do not have their own voice or are not encouraged to talk directly; stay away from professionals who speak dismissively of survivors from past processes; and listen to the words of survivors from these processes.

*Thanks to Samantha Manewitz, LICSW and creator of Safety Beyond Safewords, for assistance with this list of red flags.

Relationship rights: Can you negotiate them away?

January 18, 2015

Franklin and I had an awesome interview on Friday with blogger and journalist A.V. Flox. We talked for almost two hours—I’m kind of scared, actually. A.V. is a fantastic interviewer. She’s the kind of person who makes you want to tell her everything. Everything. So I’m a little nervous about what incriminating (or at least embarrassing) things I may have said during the interview.

One of the things we talked about was the Relationship Bill of Rights, and specifically some thinking I’ve been doing about it lately. The RBoR was tough to come up with, in large part because we were having a hard time defining what was a “right,” and where to draw the line between a “right” and something that’s just really, really helpful. As Franklin has talked about before, we ended up turning to domestic violence prevention resources for inspiration, because those folks are pretty much the only people out there actually talking about relationship rights. In the end, we sort of dodged the question of definition, though, stating that for the purposes of our RBoR, we were basing our “rights” on principles that we felt polyamorous communities should uphold as part of our attempts to be basic decent human beings.

I don’t agree with that definition any more.

I’ve been thinking about this because the idea has come up in a few places that people can negotiate their relationship rights way, as though relationship rights are part and parcel of whatever your larger relationship agreement is, and you can pick and choose from them. And I think that’s a problem. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems clear to me that you cannot negotiate away your relationship rights—even if you want to, or think you do. And that, in fact, may be exactly what makes them rights, and not just general principles for good relationships.

Now I know there’s a libertarian wing of poly thinkers, and this is going to piss a lot of them right off. There are a lot of people who argue quite vehemently that anything people consent to within their relationships is okay. That comes from an understandable place: most of us are used to being judged in our lifestyles, most of us are used to demands that we follow other people’s rules. We’re reluctant to sign on to anything that looks like someone else telling us how to conduct our relationships.

The problem is, that  argument can bring you to some seriously messed-up places.

There’s a reason domestic violence prevention websites have lists of your rights in relationships. It’s because the places you tend to see rights violations tend to be abusive relationships. It’s because rights violations tend to lead to abuse. Do abuse victims “consent” to be in their relationships? On the surface, perhaps it looks that way, but that is rooted in a victim-blaming, “why doesn’t she (he) just leave?” mentality and a serious oversimplification of the psychological dynamics of abuse. Abuse relies on tearing down your partner’s sense of self and personal agency to the point where consent is really no longer valid. And it doesn’t take physical violence to make a relationship abusive.*

I believe that if you’ve come to a place in your relationship where someone has negotiated any one of their rights away, that relationship includes coercion, and that invalidates consent. Staying doesn’t mean your partner’s not hurting you. The fact that your partner submits to you doesn’t mean you’re not being an abusive asshole.

By way of example, I want to look at a couple of the rights we list in More Than Two:

  • To revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time.
  • To end a relationship.

These are really two facets of the same principle, since ending a relationship is revoking consent to intimacy—but the second right is such an important corollary of the first, we felt it needed to be stated on its own. It is, well, pretty much the most obvious and inalienable of the rights. And yet…there are people who think you can negotiate this one away. It’s most common to see such thinking in D/s relationships. Franklin likes to tell the story of a couple he used to know who were in a Master/slave relationship that the Dom insisted was “real.” He owned his wife, he swore, just as surely as he owned his toaster oven. He continued to maintain this right up until the moment his wife had him served with divorce papers.

In BDSM, some of us may play with non-consent. But—and this is going to piss some people off again—the key word here is playing. It’s a game, and at some level deep down, even when you’re absorbed in the role, you always remember it’s a game. But even in a 24/7 relationship, even when you say you agree to be another person’s slave—what happens when you step outside the role? If you say, “Whoa, can we talk, I need to renegotiate some things here”? Or even, “I’m not into this anymore, I don’t think it’s working—I need to move on.” Is that okay? It needs to be. Because you can’t, literally can’t, negotiate away your right to leave a relationship, or to revoke your consent.

You’ll see arguments against this outside BDSM circles sometimes, too. In the flush of NRE, it’s really tempting to say things like, “I will always love you.” “I won’t ever leave you.” Wiser folks who have been through a few heartbreaks may tend to resist the urge to utter such things in the heat of the moment. But even if you do… you can’t be held to them. These are not promises you can keep. You cannot promise to feel or want something forever; you cannot pre-consent to intimacy.

Yet there are people who believe that they can hold their partners to these kinds of promises—even extract such pledges of eternal love early on. There are people who will shame and coerce their partners to keep them from leaving—and if your partner is trying to keep you in a relationship that you don’t want to be in? That’s abuse. No matter what you said before. You can never. Negotiate away. Your right. To leave.

I could make a similar argument for many of the rights in the RBoR. But this line of thinking has forced me to re-evaluate the RBoR from the standpoint of this new definition of rights. If a right is something you cannot give up in a relationship, do all of the rights in our RBoR still stand as rights?

To answer this question, we need to consider, for each right, what it means for that right to not exist in a relationship. Does consistently violating that right lead to coercion? Does it violate ongoing, informed consent? Will it lead to abuse?

I read through the RBoR again with these questions in mind. Amazingly, I found that all of the rights still meet the bar for being a right. There are certainly cases where you might choose not to exercise a right. It might be easy enough to say you don’t need the right to leave when, well, you don’t want to leave. But when you decide you do want the right? It’s still there.

And that’s what makes it a right.

 

*Read more about abuse in poly—and all—relationships here.

 

 

Evolution of the More Than Two book cover

December 27, 2014

Like most of the rest of the book, creating the cover for More Than Two was something of an adventure. We’re quite pleased with it, and so are most of our readers—the response to it has been overwhelmingly good. We thought you might enjoy knowing a bit more about the process that took us to the final cover, as it says a lot about the evolution of our own thinking about polyamory and the book itself.

About a year and a half ago, in one of the first posts published on the More Than Two blog, Franklin wrote about why we decided to change the More Than Two logo from the image he’d used on the site and his own LiveJournal blog for years: three people working together on a heart-shaped blueprint. He was responding to an idea we developed later in the book: relationships are grown, not built. So he revised the logo slightly (and very quickly), so that the three people were working on a garden, not a blueprint:

blueprintlogogardenlogo

© Franklin Veaux 2013

Of course, as many people commented there, there were a lot of things wrong with the second image (for one, you don’t use ladders to work on gardens in the air). And certainly, it was no book cover. We were also troubled by the “polyamory is a closed triad” stereotype that the image seemed to promote—we’ll come back to that later.

During last year’s crowdfunding campaign, we bought a stock image to use in our social media and marketing materials, building on the idea of “growing” love:

heart tree small

© Shutterstock/musicman

In December, we shared Franklin’s post about the two images with our cover designer, along with some additional feedback: we wanted to move away from the idea that poly is a couple opening their relationship, or three people in a triad. We wanted to make the book accessible to people of a wide variety of poly persuasions, and to give people new to poly the idea that there were lots of configurations available.

The designer we were working with at the time, Vanessa Rossi, wasn’t an illustrator, so we started out trying to see if we could find some stock images, or illustrations we might be able to buy, that fit the bill. Vanessa filled a Dropbox folder with images, and we picked a few that were headed in the right direction, but not quite right:

tumblr_mp5e2a9Q7w1sxmo85o1_500  diversity-people-tree-set-336d656   23514923-dna-molecule

Images © Rene Campbell 2013Shutterstock/Cienpies Design; 123RF/Olga Ieromina

Of all of these, the people-tree was the best, but the couple-plus-child wasn’t the right base. In fact, we were worried that any image involving more than one person as the trunk would invoke the couple-centric idea that becoming involved with someone who is already in a relationship is “entering” that relationship, or else imply a default primary-secondary model of relationships. We decided the trunk needed to be a single person, with deep roots (the self-work we stress in the book) sustaining many loves.

So Vanessa did a second round of research:

isolated-diversity-tree-people-2474d2e stock-vector-spring-tree-with-women-silhouette-45949855 Isolated Diversity Tree hands

© Stockfresh/cienpies; Shutterstock/Lindwa; Depositphotos/cienpies

Closer—so much closer—but still not there. We could get one person as the trunk, but no people in the tree, or people in the tree, but no person as the trunk, but not both. At that point, Vanessa advised us to hire an illustrator. We were fortunate enough to be able to engage the very talented Paul Mendoza, who reviewed the research done so far, as well as the blog post, and came up with some quick sketches.

Morethantwo_sketch_composite_1 cropped

© Paul Mendoza 2014

We liked the colours in the top right thumbnail, but wanted something less stylized and more like a watercolour painting, more akin to the lower right. I had imagined the trunk and roots fairly rich in detail, something like Mercer Mayer’s depiction of Father Forest from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, one of my favourite childhood books (seriously, it’s beautiful—buy it).

FatherForest

© Mercer Mayer 1987 

We also went back and forth about the hand-holding figures in the top right image. One of the things Franklin had liked about his original images was the sense of everyone working together to build something. At the same time, we were afraid that having all the beloveds holding hands would, again, promote a stereotype: of closed-group polyamory, “polyfamily,” group intimacy or polyfidelity.

We had both grown quite wary of the “polyfamily” concept as a normative model as opposed to one option among many. Not everyone wants that model, not everyone who wants it is able to create it, and not everyone can be close, or even get along. All of that’s normal, and people in poly networks need to learn strategies for building relationships that work within the particular dynamics of the people involved. We didn’t want a cover that implied that the circle of happy people holding hands was what poly is “supposed” to look like, and people who don’t achieve that are somehow doing it wrong. So, no hand-holding. But Franklin has on a few occasions since then expressed some wistfulness that the cooperative sense of the early images was lost. In retrospect, it might have been nice to have had some people in the tree holding hands. But the cover as it is offers a snapshot of where we were in our thinking at the time, as we worked to integrate our new insights about polyfamily and consent into our own ideals about polyamory.

So Paul tinkered a bit, and came up with a more detailed “painting” (in quotes because he created it digitally):

Morethantwo_B

 © Paul Mendoza 2014

At this point, we (well, I) decided to post the work in progress to the More Than Two Facebook page. That turned out to be a mistake. I’d intended it to be a “whee! Look what we’re doing! Isn’t it exciting!” post. Our readers understood it as a “Hey, look what we’re doing, we’d like your feedback and input!” post, and we immediately got an onslaught of comments and suggestions, many contradicting each other or our own creative vision. Many commenters would have had us essentially go back to the drawing board—likely thinking that this was just a rough concept sketch, and not the culmination of what was, at that point, several months of research and revisions.

After some discussion with Paul of the feedback we’d gotten, he offered the following sage advice:

The moment we allow Facebook posts to become the art director, we enter an new type of hell. One thing we learned a long time ago is to never post pre-production work as it was being done, just as an after its done insight into the process. Otherwise we suddenly got far too much advice. It can be helpful to an extent, but you can never make everyone happy.

So, concerned that we were miscalibrating expectations by posting the work in progress, we took down the post. We had gotten some useful feedback in the process, though: the drawing was too diffuse and floaty, too grey and “haunted”-looking. And most of this mirrored what we’d already been thinking: we knew we needed more detail, brighter colours, and a sharper “face” in the tree.

And so, after further adjustments, we ended up with the final image:

More-Than-Two-cover-illustration-Eve's-tweaks---small

© Eve Rickert, created by Paul Mendoza, 2014

Then came the typography, done by designer Mari Chijiiwa (after Vanessa left freelancing for a full-time animation career), who also created the book’s interior. That was yet another journey, and one I won’t go into here. However, you may notice that the image on the illustration above is flipped from what’s on our final cover: this was done because of typographical considerations. That was harder than it seems, because the background had been painted to match the tree, and it’s resulted in no end of trouble as we try to hunt down and remove any last remaining instances of the earlier draft cover, with the reversed tree, still lingering out there on the Web.

And at last, we had the beautiful, eye-catching design you see on the cover today:

cover-KDP

Image © Paul Mendoza / Typography © Thorntree Press 2014

We’re incredibly grateful to have had the chance to work with the many talented people who helped bring our vision of the book to life. Our thanks go out to Paul, Mari and Vanessa for their part in making More Than Two a success.

Like what you’re reading? Buy the book now.

There is always missing information

December 15, 2014

“Did you feed the cat?”

It’s a simple question, right? My husband and I both feed the cat, though to be honest, usually these days it’s him.

So why is it that I feel guilty and defensive when I hear it? (Oh no, was I supposed to feed the cat? She wasn’t acting hungry, I thought he fed her already!)

“Did you scoop the cat box?”

Well, actually, usually my husband does that to. But when I get a text message from him, “Did you scoop the cat box?” I immediately feel defensive. Instead of a simple “No, do you want me to?” I’ve found myself typing, “No, you didn’t tell me it was needed! I thought you did it yesterday.” And he replies: “It’s okay! I just wanted to know if it still needs to be done!”

Or how about this: we had some guests recently. When they left, they made the bed nicely. We were having another guest, and weren’t sure if we needed to change the sheets. So we sent a message: “We were just wondering if the sheets on the bed were clean.”

“Oh no, sorry! That slipped by us! So sorry.”

Well, okay, they’re Canadian. Even so. We didn’t mean to tell them they were supposed to clean the sheets! We just wanted to know!

So what’s going on here?

Well, one answer is passive communication. But this is a totally normal way for us to communicate in North American society. The question “Did you…?” very often includes the assumption that the person being asked was supposed to do the thing in question; there’s often even a veiled recrimination in the question. If your response is no, it’s a confession, not an answer.

I’ve been pondering this over the last few weeks, perhaps because I’ve been asking “Did you…?” questions a lot. And I’ve realized something.

No matter what we say or how we say it, there will always be information missing from what we say. And our brains are exceptionally good at filling in missing information.

If I ask a question like “Did you scoop the cat box?” the missing information could be that I’m at home, contemplating whether to scoop the cat box. It could be that the cat has just pooped on the floor, and I’m trying to figure out why. Or it could be that I expected you to do it, and will be upset if you didn’t.

There is always missing information.

In my case, I guess I feel pretty guilty about never scooping the cat box, so it’s pretty easy for me to get defensive when asked if I did it. Funny how that works, isn’t it? My brain fills in the missing information—He asked if I scooped the cat box. OMG I never scoop the cat box. I AM A TERRIBLE KITTY MOM—and then inserts that information into his message, reflecting back at me.

We are going to do this. We can’t stop it; it’s how our brains work. And I think a big part of the difference between direct and passive communication doesn’t just come down to how completely or directly you convey information, but how you handle it when your brain fills in the missing bits. Do you recognize it when that happens? Do you check yourself and say, “Hey, why am I feeling defensive? Actually, they just asked for information.”

Our brains are buggy. They lie to us. Our feelings lie to us. Even our gut responses to straightforward statements or questions can lie to us. A big part of good communication consists of learning to identify the information gaps in what we hear, understanding how we’re filling them in ourselves, recognizing that we’re going to get it wrong, and asking the speaker to fill in the additional information.

Another good strategy is just to take the words at face value.

“Did you clean the cat box?”

“No.”

“Could you?”

“Okay.”

It’s not always this easy, of course. Sometimes you really do need that bit of missing information. But it’s often a good way to start. And trust me, not filling in that missing information at all is a big step up from filling it in with your own story. If you’re not sure what to ask, taking their words at face value leaves space for the other person to help fill it in—if it matters.