I’ve spent roughly the last decade being the poster child of liberated sexuality. I’ve been advocating for exploring non-normative ways of relating for about as long as I’ve been of legal drinking age, because I think the default box we get for our relationships (the typical heteronormative relationship escalator marriage-oriented checklist) is quite obviously broken judging by the success rate of today’s relationships.
The trouble is, it turns out that there’s a huge fireswamp of pitfalls outside the default relationship box too. And sometimes they’re even harder to call out, because like newly minted atheists coming out of repressive Churchianity backgrounds, we so want to be right — we so want to be on the correct side of a black-and-white binary where we are free and the unawakened are trapped, and unfortunately that desire to be right blinds us from a lot of the pain that happens, because facing it means we might be wrong about the very thing that freed us. It’s amazing how much we as humans, even those of us who brand ourselves as free thinkers, rely on the worship of ideologies for security.
I’ve spent the last six months thinking about the ways that things like non-monogamy and BDSM are not working for me, and it’s been some of the most difficult yet liberating contemplation I’ve ever done. I absolutely intend at some point in the future to write a lengthy post about that process, about how I had to let go of everything I held as my identity in order to attempt a breakthrough to the next level, but for now let’s just say that Sri Krishna Menon once said, “That which a man considers his virtue can arrest his development far more than that which he considers his faults,” and man, that’s real.
I’ve spent the past few days talking a little bit about this on social media, and I’ve gotten both backlash as well as a few people saying “thank fuck someone finally said this.” Over the summer I came out in a Facebook post as not-polyamorous, which is a very strange coming out to have to do. I named seven ways in which polyamory was not only not working for me, but actually hurting me and slowly eroding my self-esteem. It ended up getting shared out in my community over 140 times, so clearly it resonated with some folks.
I’m not saying polyamory and BDSM are unhealthy, unnatural, or inadvisable. I’m just noting that they’re not the cure-all that we often like to think they are, and that their constructs, great on paper (like communism), too often hold the power to sanction abuse disguised as lifestyle guidelines. And because of those sanctions, nobody around notices the abuse. Instead they respond with aphorisms like “trust the guidance of your Dominant in loving submission!” or “jealousy is just an opportunity for deeper connection!” and I just fucking can’t, you guys, I fucking can’t with this anymore. Your emperor is naked.
Here’s a thing I’ve noticed about myself, in a summary that is far too brief to do justice to what I unpacked but which will have to suffice for now: I grew up with abuse. As a coping mechanism, I learned to dissociate from the abuse, because by mentally leaving the abusive situation as it was happening I was able to survive it. Using dissociation as a coping mechanism meant that I created a disconnect in the dialogue between me and my body, thereby creating an inability to tell when my body was or was not enjoying something. I retreated into the safety of my logical brain, which was able to analyze and discern a best course of action — or what would have been a best course of action, had it not completely disregarded the fact that my body was, unbeknownst to me, storing all the trauma I was putting it through. (I just ordered The Body Keeps the Score and it’s on my reading list now as I continue to attempt undoing this crap.) What this meant was that I suffered a great deal of assaults and boundary crossings because it didn’t feel logical to make a fuss about them, nor even, in some cases, to remove myself from the situation. I couldn’t hear my body anyway, so it didn’t feel like it mattered.
Here is what I did know to be true: I wanted to be loved. I desperately, desperately wanted to be loved, and I wanted to be protected, because growing up in an abusive household while watching movies like The Princess Bride and Labyrinthwill give you some serious ideas about what a relationship is supposed to offer you. Most of all, I wanted not to be abandoned, and in order to not be abandoned (I inferred unconsciously), I had to be, above all, desirable. Because only women like Robin Wright and Jennifer Connelly were worthy of rescue.
When I found BDSM — and in it, submission — it was a relief in ways I could not describe, because suddenly all my desires and fantasies made sense. I wanted to surrender to a man who would take responsibility for me, who was capable of protecting me. I internalized this as identity: I feel this way, therefore I am a submissive. Throughout the years, I heard counterarguments of all kinds from people saying, “Are you sure you’re not just internalizing toxic patriarchal norms?” which is just a hair away from saying “ugh how can you be submissive and still be a feminist,” so naturally I rejected them (especially since they were mostly from people who did not look like me and clearly did not hold the same values), and for the most part I still do. What nobody thought to ask me, however, was “Are you sure that your submission is not just a plea-bargain for love and protection from someone you feel is more capable of keeping you, as a woman, safe from the evils of a patriarchal world?”
And so I gave myself, time and again, to men who I perceived as more powerful than me, and I happily submitted to their desires so they wouldn’t reject me, because nothing felt better than feeling safe. I loved the structure of D/s because of the clear directive it provided me: I was given explicit instructions on how to live my life, which meant that a) as long as I followed those instructions I would continue to be kept safe, and b) I didn’t actually have to check in with my body and decide what I wanted, which, after so many years of dissociation, was something I was almost entirely unable to do anyway. (Side note, my most recent ex once praised me for being someone who actually meant it when I said “Oh I don’t know, you choose,” as opposed to, I guess, his other friends who would say that and then secretly resent him for choosing? Either way, pretty fucked up in all regards.) On paper (communism!), this should have been the best arrangement ever. In practice, I was far more often endangered, abused, and abandoned without warning by the men with whom I entrusted myself.
When I discovered polyamory, it made sense to me for three reasons: 1) monogamy was proving ineffective by nearly all counts, 2) allowing my partner to fuck other women could only mean that I was even more desirable than before because seriously what man doesn’t want the sexual benefits of a relationship and the sexual freedom of bachelorhood, and 3) I was far less likely to be abandoned because “cheating” was, in most instances, a non-issue — a partner could just “cheat” and then come back to me, no big deal. (Secret, you guys? I have never had a guy cheat on me and try to come back, and I actually count this as a point of shame. The guys who wanted another woman have just left me. I secretly envy women whose partners cheat on them and then come back and ask for reconciliation, because at least they’re still wanted.) If what I wanted most in my relationships was not to be abandoned, then it stood to reason that I should probably give my partner plenty of ways to get his needs met without having to abandon me.
Do you see a theme here? Essentially, I chose kink and poly — two sexually marginalized identities that are wholly defensible in the realm of identity politics — as a sanctioned way of completely ignoring my own needs in a relationship in exchange for the one blazing, howling, irrepressible need I could not ignore: don’t fucking leave me.
And anyone who came remotely close to calling me out on that (though nobody did, if we’re being honest, if I recall correctly it was all just bullshit heteronormative shaming, or at least it seemed that way at the time) got a hearty “Don’t squick my squee!” from me, because alternative sexualities get judged so much as it is that that just becomes a knee-jerk response. We’re so used to judgment that we confuse it with examination.
I’m probably not exactly monogamous and vanilla either, to be fair. I’m still doing the work to uncover what my needs actually are, because as much as I wanted to just be accepted the way I was, perfect in my imperfection, worthy in my unworthiness, I’ve realized that if you try to pretend you have no needs you’ll keep attracting people who agree with you. Trust me you guys, nobody wanted me to be able to just keep on ignoring my needs and embracing blind surrender more than I did. Tuning into my body and finding out what it wants has been incredibly painful; it has meant processing quite literally a lifetime of things it didn’t want, which has had me laid up in bed far more often than I think a productive person ought to be these past six months. But it can’t work any other way, because I’m pretty sure I maxed out my capacity to be pleasing. In order to attract a partner who believes my needs matter, I have to believe my needs matter. And in order to believe my needs matter, I need to figure out what they are. Pretty fucked up how in order to love someone else I actually have to love myself first, right??
This week I’ve seen a lot of stuff on Facebook about polyamory and how letting go of jealousy and giving a man his freedom just deepens our connection and makes him love us more, and I’m here to tell you guys, that’s just not always true. Sometimes it is; sometimes you find an amazing partner who puts your needs first and simply understands that sex with other people doesn’t need to be the threat to your love for each other that heteronormative society thinks it is. But sometimes your partner goes off to New York and breaks off your relationship over an email because he just met someone and now everything’s different. Sometimes you’re just dating a douchebag who doesn’t give a shit about your feelings, and reframes your asking for your emotions to be prioritized as your “not doing poly right.” Because it’s easier for them to blame you for not being a poly paragon than it is for them to admit they’re treating you like shit.
Here is a need I have been fighting to have for years now: My feelings need to matter. If something feels bad, I need a partner to care about that. I don’t need it to be an ultimatum, and I don’t need my feelings to dictate every law of a relationship (seriously how often do women’s emotions get unfairly painted as tyrannical as it is?), but I need a partner to actively want me to not be hurt. When I’m in love with someone and I feel them hurting, it tears me apart like it was myself, worse than myself since I can’t fucking feel my own pain anyway, and I’ll go to the ends of the earth to stop it. I want this returned to me. I want a lover who, when I’m in pain, wants my pain to stop. Instead what we end up getting in the poly community is that “Well nobody can MAKE you feel ANYTHING” bullshit, which is exactly the rhetoric my ex used to justify abusing me. Fuck that. If your choices are constantly putting me in pain and you don’t see a problem with that, then you’re the asshole, not me.
I invite you too to examine whether you’ve painted yourself into a corner of identity politics that nobody will be able to rescue you from because it feels too much like sex-shaming. Are you submissive because you fear your needs are too embarrassing, too much? Are you dominant because you fear being called out when you’re wrong, because you fear the uncertainty of what might happen if you’re not in control? Are you poly because you want to take care of multiple people, or are you poly because you don’t want to be accountable to anyone?
Unfortunately, having a cool sexual identity is not actually a substitute for doing work on yourself. There’s just as many pitfalls outside the box as in it, lovers, and not nearly enough of us creating a map.