Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Common Poly Challenges #17: "Out-ness" Incompatibility

Here's a hypothetical & somewhat over-dramatized scenario loosely based on a real-life issue that arose for a friend of mine this past week:

Person A and Person B have been dating for about a year.

Person A is part of a network of pansexual, kinky, totally-out-of-the-closet poly folks. Person B is one half of a heterosexual couple who opened their marriage not long before Person A entered the picture. Person B's primary partner is introverted, somewhat conservative, and plans to stay in the poly closet indefinitely.

So A and B have weekly dates but do not interact much socially, or hang out with each other's families, other than a couple of perfunctory "let me introduce you to my important people" meetings. 

Then Person B's child and Person A's child end up registering for the same summer camp, quite by chance.

Person B figures out the coincidence and asks their in-the-closet spouse, "Hey, can I tell our kid that Person A's kid will be at camp too? 

The spouse says no, fearing that this piece of information will lead to a conversation about just who Person A is, anyway, which would totally open that closet door.

Person A, who would like to tell their kid that Person B's kid will be at the same summer camp, now feels duty-bound to respect the wishes of Person B's spouse. So even though Person A feels weird about this level of secrecy, they don't say anything to their kid either.

The two kids head off to their 3-week summer camp, each unaware of the existence of the other. Can you guess what happens next?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

8 Pro Tips for Great Group Sex

Hey, happy 4th of July to all my 'Merican readers! Here, as promised, are my tips for how to engineer a non-disastrous group sex experience. Let the fireworks begin!

1) Start with Social Intercourse

In other words: talk first, play later. Yes, sometimes these things happen spontaneously – and isn’t that fun! – but I guarantee you, you’ll all be happier on that fabled “morning after” if you take some time out to check in with each other first. If you’re not sure how to have The Talk, I recommend this website on the STARS approach. The letters stand for STI status, Turn-ons, Avoids, Relationship intentions, and Safer sex etiquette. Before any group sexual encounter, it’s imperative at least to exchange information on STI status and come up with a game plan for safer sex that will work for everyone involved. You can have this conversation electronically or in person – just make sure to have it! I also highly recommend an upfront discussion about “avoids” – that is, anything off-limits. It’s easier to navigate the complexities of group sex when everyone has a clear idea of how much territory they’ll be exploring together. However, both “avoids” and “turn-ons” can safely be discussed (or otherwise communicated) as they arise, even if the event is already in full swing, so it isn’t strictly necessary to check them off beforehand. As for having a conversation about “relationship intentions” – well, that’s up to you. In my experience, group sex is remarkably free from the “What does this MEAN for us?” sorts of questions that tend to arise after two people have sex with each other. And that’s part of its charm! However, if there is potential for jealousy to arise after the feel-good waves have subsided, it is definitely a smart move to discuss this with anyone who might be in the emotional tsunami zone.

2) Pack Lightly

You’ll enjoy yourself more if you go into group sex without a lot of expectations, especially if the dynamic is a new one for you. Bring your curiosity, your willingness to experiment, your sense of humor, and a commitment to honor your own and others’ personal boundaries. Leave the rest behind.

3) Keep Consent in the First-Person Singular

In a dyadic sexual encounter, it is up to each person to communicate a clear “yes” or “no”. It shouldn’t be any different in group sex.

If you are part of a couple, and you have made prior agreements about what you can and cannot do in group settings, it is up to each of you to keep those agreements as individuals. Don’t expect other participants to “respect your relationship” – that’s your job, not theirs. Keep your partner’s feelings and preferences in mind when deciding what your personal boundaries are, and take responsibility for communicating those boundaries to other participants using “I” statements. Check your codependency at the door.

4) Find a Focus

Group sex can be chaotic. It’s like playing in a band: if everyone shows up to the jam session with a different idea about timing, tempo, and musical genre, and then everyone proceeds to play a different instrument in a different key, it’s going to be cacophony. Not even the most coordinated drummer could keep the beat in that scenario. But if everyone in the band works together, it’s pure music. There are several ways of finding a focus and thereby increasing your chances of playing harmoniously. You can agree on a song beforehand; you can have a “conductor” who gives everyone their cues or a “soloist” whom everyone else is accompanying; you can structure the piece around a duet, with other instruments simply keeping time; or you can take turns improvising, the way they do in jazz ensembles, so that every player has a chance to shine. Mix and match, as desired.

 5) Share the Spotlight

This is a no-brainer: don’t hog all the attention; don’t take all the space; don’t block all the access. Even if everyone else agrees that you are the star of the show, and it’s all about your pleasure, no one should feel left out. Try to interact with each person at some point, even if it’s just a smile or a hand on the arm to make them feel included. And remember, it’s always okay to take a break and let others play without you. Conversely, if you are generally a more timid sort, don’t be afraid to ask for attention or take a turn directing the action.

6) Better Underdone than Overdone

I realize this sounds a little bit silly in the context of group sex, which is so gloriously excessive by nature, but that’s kind of my point: since you already have so much more – more arms and legs and naughty bits, more positions, more possibilities – it’s wise to dial it back in other ways. As one of our recent fivesome participants put it, “I’d rather do less, and want to play again, than feel bad that it went too far.” The same “less is more” guideline applies to the use of alcohol and recreational drugs as part of a group sex experience: substance-inspired is fine, but since substance-impaired is such a problem, you’re better off playing it safe and avoiding substances entirely if you don’t think you can keep your consumption in check. If you have to get completely fucked up to do what you’re doing, chances are you shouldn’t be doing it.

7) Slow Down!

There’s a lot to process during a group sex experience. Give yourselves plenty of time to savor all the sensual sights and sensations.

8) Don’t Forget the Aftercare

The BDSM concept of “aftercare” is useful in the context of group sex, even if your favorite flavor is vanilla-on-vanilla-on-vanilla. So, when everyone’s sexual energy is spent, share some group affection: give each other high-fives, take turns massaging each other while you go over the highlights, enjoy a sandwich hug or cuddle puddle – whatever feels right. Use this winding-down time to check in with each other. Then, once the group has disbanded, check in with yourself: do you need some alone time to re-center? If you are part of a couple, check in with each other: do you need some just-the-two-of-you time to reaffirm your relationship? If you are new to group sex, you may find some parts of the experience intense, or even unsettling in retrospect. Maybe you discovered something about yourself or a partner that surprised you. Maybe you thought you would enjoy something you ended up not liking, or maybe you enjoyed something you hadn’t realized you would like. Good aftercare, dispensed in a spirit of generous camaraderie, will go a long way toward smoothing any ruffled feathers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How-To's for Having Non-Disastrous Group Sex (Part I)

Ten years ago, someone I had recently met at a writers' conference emailed me with a question he hoped that I, as the only “out” polyamorous person he'd ever met, would be able to answer for him: how does one go about having group sex?

I felt a bit sheepish about admitting that I had never participated in any kind of group sex. Yes, my marriage had been actively open for close to a decade by then, but my husband and I had always dated separately. Nevertheless, here was someone soliciting my opinion on a topic that was immediately relevant to his personal life – he identified as bisexual; he and his wife were talking about opening their marriage; he had always fantasized about sharing a sexual experience with an MF couple – so I cobbled together a list of my best how-to guesses and sent them off. That list has since been lost in the mists of time, which is too bad, because I'd be curious to see how well it matches up with the list I am working on now.

I do still recall one piece of advice I gave my writer friend, and that is because I absolutely failed to follow it when I experienced my first (and, to date, only) foursome. I had told him to avoid any scenario in which group sex functioned primarily as an excuse to interact with someone who would otherwise be “off-limits” to him. Wouldn't you know it, six months later, I found myself in a hot tub with my husband, my husband's girlfriend, and my husband's girlfriend's other boyfriend – who was otherwise off-limits to me. Not because any of us had talked explicitly about relationship agreements or personal boundaries, mind you. No, we had jumped right over the “good communication is key” guideline we all professed to follow, and tumbled pell-mell into the deep end together. It was exciting, no doubt about it – but it was also a huge mistake. At least one friendship ended as a direct result of that not-so-blessed event.

Good thing I'm so much older and wiser! I'm totally beyond the stupid shenanigans of my early thirties! I'm Group Sex Guru material now, for shizzle!

Ok, ok. Truthfully, I'm still pretty much a novice when it comes to group sex. Since my disastrous debut, I've had eleven more group sex experiences, for a grand total of twelve, with thirteen different participants involved in one or more of the events (other than myself, of course): ten threesomes, five of which were FMF and five of which were MFM; that one problematic MFMF foursome; and – just last week – one awesome FMFMF fivesome. But after that first fucked-up foray, all of my group sex experiences have ranged from “super nice” to "Yes!!! I'm officially winning at life!!!”, so I think it's worth sharing what I've learned so far. I'll be posting my new & improved list next Tuesday. In the meantime, let me know if you have any Do's and/or Don'ts you think I ought to include!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Few Thoughts about Consent

I was out with several friends the other night, and one of them was recounting a recent sexual escapade in which there had been, as she put it, “consent issues.” There was a collective gasp: what sort of consent issues?! “Like, we were making out, and then he pulled down my underwear and started going down on me without asking,” she said. She went on to explain, “There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have said no if he’d asked, so I don’t know if I should be that upset about it. It’s probably a generational thing – he’s quite a bit older. I guess I just wish he’d given me the chance to say yes.”

This got me thinking about consent, which is somewhat unusual for me. If I’m in a well-established sexual relationship with someone, I tend to dispense with explicit consent, at least under normal circumstances. It’s usually only if I’m with someone whose preferences I don’t know well, or whose nonverbal cues I can’t yet read, that I seek verbal consent. It seems like the polite thing to do. But it doesn’t feel like a particularly sexy thing to do, and I happen to know there are other people out there who feel the same way.

Last summer, my husband participated in a group thought experiment. The question was posed, “If you were to join a sex cult, what would you want it to be like?” Very quickly, participants divided into two completely opposing factions, based on a single issue they could not agree upon. Yup, you guessed it: consent. Group A said they would not consider joining any type of sex cult unless it had been founded on consent as the guiding principle. They wanted to be asked about everything, every time. Essentially, they wanted a culture of micro-consent. Group B, on the other hand, hated the idea of micro-consent. What was the point of joining a sex cult if it meant you were constantly having to say stupid shit like, “May I step into your personal space? Yes? Okay, how is this for you? Now, may I touch you lightly on the forearm?” For these people, negotiating consent had always been the unsexiest part of sex, and the whole appeal of (hypothetically) joining a sex cult lay in the nonverbal ease of getting laid on a regular basis. They wanted to be free. They wanted to be spontaneous. They wanted to follow their desires wherever they led, into a field of boundless possibility, secure in the knowledge that everyone they met had already said yes – unless and until they explicitly said no.

I’m not keen on cults of any stripe, but even if I were, I wouldn’t be tempted to join either of these groups. Neither one sounds like much fun. In group A, I’d be thinking about boundaries more than I’d be thinking about sex. And in group B, I’d just be saying “NO!” all the time.

Is there a middle way? Can we make consent culture a little bit sexier? What does option C look like?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Did You Miss Me?

Yesterday, I said aloud to someone, "I miss Dear Viny." It wasn't the first time I'd said it. It was probably the dozenth time. So, even though I had good reasons for shelving this blog a year ago, and even though some of those reasons are still operative, it's clearly time to give this baby another whirl.

Expect to see posts on Tuesdays, at least on most weeks.

A lot has happened in my life since my last post. Here are a few of the "While Viny Was Out of the Office" relationship-related highlights, in approximately chronological order:

* Cam (my partner of five years) moved into the same co-housing community in which Parker (my husband of twenty-four years) and I live with our 9-year-old daughter. This means we are now officially a domestic trio, and Sienna has three on-site parents. It was very exciting when we got the first piece of mail addressed to ALL of us -- from Parker's sister! One unintended but happy consequence of the move was that Cam's relationship with his wife (who still lives in their old house, with her new partner) improved dramatically, and they are back to being on friendly terms with each other -- which means that she and I are also back to being on friendly terms.

* Parker had a summer romance that began at SOAK (Oregon's regional burn) and ended, more or less, at Burning Man.

* Parker, Sienna, and I all went to Cam's family reunion in Idaho. I think Cam's extended family was a bit bemused, but everyone was lovely to us. Cam's parents in particular went out of their way to make Parker feel welcome (this was the first time they had met him). The only mishap was when Cam's cousin thought Parker was my son. Do I really look *that* much older than the man I married all those years ago? I mean, good grief: we are still the same age as each other!

* Cam and I gave a conference talk together on Sex-Positive Healthcare.

* On National Coming-Out Day, I came out as poly on Facebook. The response I got surprised me. Not only did no one unfriend me, but most of the comments were overwhelmingly positive. Several people who did not feel comfortable commenting publicly wrote me private messages of support and appreciation, and a few of these folks even confessed to feeling like they might be polyamorous themselves. On the other hand, most of my family members (siblings, cousins, etc.) were notably quiet. I'm guessing they all saw the announcement, since it was my most-liked post EVER, but maybe some of them missed it.

* Since I was already on a coming-out-in-public roll, I read from my teenage diary for Mortified -- there were three Portland shows, two of which were sold out, in a theater that seats 400, which means that more than a thousand people know that my biggest fantasy as a fourteen-year-old was that I would be trapped on a tropical island with three other girls and four guys, and not just me and one other person, "because life needs to be interesting." I concluded the performance by announcing that I now lived in an ecovillage with my two partners.

* Oh yeah. The f*cking election. Did that significantly dampen anyone else's libido? For, like, several months?? Cam and I went to Hawaii in December, which helped a little, and then to Spain and Ireland in March, which helped a lot, but man, has it ever been a slog getting back to baseline. Trumplestiltskin is such a turn-off.

* Denali, my 20-year-old, has decided they are gender nonbinary. At first I thought their trans activism (and their new pronoun, which I am still getting used to) was because so many of their friends are trans, but then they came home for Parker's birthday dressed to the gothic nines, in make-up and an evening dress, and announced, "I am a girl." So I have been thinking a lot about gender lately. For example: why is it so much easier for me to say, "My son is a girl" than it is to say, "I have two daughters"?  

* There have been all kinds of interesting relationship shifts happening in the lives of family and friends, which I will not detail here, but which will no doubt furnish material for many posts to come. Stay tuned! And, as always, if you have a topic you want me to cover, or you need some Viny-style advice, comment on this post or write me a message!

Flourishes and Relishes,

Monday, May 9, 2016

"Polyamory Doesn't Work Long Term": Presenting Some (Admittedly Unscientific) Evidence to the Contrary

I can't count the number of times I have heard someone dismiss the concept of open relationships on the basis that "they don't end up working out" -- and when I counter this asinine statement by pointing out that my husband and I are still together after twenty-three years, they often dismiss my experience as the exception that proves the rule.

It makes me crazy. And I know I'm not alone in my aggrieved annoyance. (For example, see Dan Savage's response to Helen Fisher's "expert" opinion.)

Just the other day, one of my neighbors was telling me that polyamory fails much more often than it succeeds: "Out of a hundred poly relationships, there might be FIVE that could be called successful, wouldn't you say?"

Marshalling all my self-restraint, I asked her for clarification: "Are you talking about single people who identify as polyamorous, or are you talking about couples?"

"Oh," she said, as if this distinction hadn't ever occurred to her, "...uh, I guess I mean couples."

"Couples. Okay. Do you mean couples who've had an open relationship from the beginning, or couples who decide to open their relationship, or both?"

"I guess I was thinking about couples who open their marriage."

I did not ask her how many such couples she actually knows, because it was already clear that her pronouncement was not based on any actual evidence. People are biased, and they make unfounded assumptions. Shocker.

So this morning, just for kicks, I made a list of all the open couples I have known in the past fifteen years whose relationship trajectory I know well enough to chart. I came up with a total of 25, counting me and Parker, which was convenient, since I was able to multiply by four and extrapolate some percentages.

Here's what what I discovered after running some numbers:

1) Out of the 25 open couples I know, two couples have already divorced, and another four couples are currently considering divorce. In my (non-random!) sample, then, polyamory had a 24% failure rate over the fifteen-year period from 2001 to 2016. (Yes, I know, a scientist would never make such a claim based on the available evidence, but given that approximately half of U.S. marriages end in divorce, I'd say my little sample is performing quite well!)

2) After categorizing couples based on their primary "reason" for deciding on an open relationship model (FIVE couples had a pre-existing agreement, based on one or both partners stating a preference for non-monogamy; EIGHT couples experienced a crisis precipitated by one partner having an affair -- either emotional or sexual -- with someone else; and TWELVE couples opened their marriage in order to solve the problem of sexual incompatibility and/or sexual dissatisfaction with the existing relationship), I determined that couples who had opened up as a result of some form of cheating were most likely to split up later (3 out of 8, vs. 1 out of 5 couples with a pre-existing agreement and 2 out of 12 couples who were sexually dissatisfied with their originally monogamous relationship). That's not surprising.

3) Of the 19 open couples I know who are NOT considering divorce, I would classify NINE as married and dating -- that is, the original couple still identifies as a primary dyad: they live together, they have sex with each other, and their other sexual partners are "part time" or "on the side". SIX of these couples now belong to a stable triad or network: the couple is still together, but their family has grown to include one or more committed partners. The remaining FOUR couples now live together as nesting partners only, and may consider their other partner(s) to be more emotionally or sexually "primary".

4) Even if you discount the four nesting only couples, because they are no longer sleeping together (many monogamous marriages end up in the same boat, though, and -- I would argue -- they are more likely to founder on the rocks of sexual frustration as a result), polyamory still has a success rate of 60%. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider that 80% of the open couples I know originally decided to open their relationship either because of infidelity or because they were not satisfied with their sex life. It looks to me like polyamory might be a pretty decent solution to the kinds of problems that make many monogamous couples decide to split up.

4) Interestingly, of the 19 couples who are, in my estimation, making polyamory "work" for them, none has returned to being monogamous -- at least not with each other. I do know a few people in this sample who are monogamous despite being part of an open couple, either because they aren't currently dating, or because they are the mono partner in a mono-poly pairing, or because one or both members of a "nesting" couple have chosen monogamy with their new partner(s). Overall, though, I'd say that people who have experience with polyamory tend to prefer it as their relationship model.

5) The average length these couples have been together (counting only the 23 relationships that have not yet ended) is 15.8 years, with 30 years as the longest and 5 years as the shortest. I don't have exact numbers for how long each couple has been open, but I can say with certainty that at least 14 of these 23 couples have been open for at least five years. In other words, I'm comfortable calling these relationships "long term".

I've no doubt that there are other conclusions that could be drawn from these data (have at it, y'all!), but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any evidence here to suggest that the folks in my sample are doing any worse than the general population when it comes to the success of their relationships.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Giving Jealousy a Little Love

The following is an excerpt from an email one of my partners sent me a couple of days ago, after he realized that a group sex experience had precipitated what he jokingly referred to as a morning-after “Mini Mental Meltdown”:

I think, for me, the up-side of jealousy (thank goodness there IS an up-side!) is that it helps to maintain the balance between my individual self ("Cam"), and my (more complex and exuberant) collective self ("Cam & Viny"). This may not feel like a good thing when jealousy causes an acute shift back towards individuality because this shift is invariably accompanied by feelings – to various degrees – of loss, loneliness, and alienation, but it is nevertheless beneficial, and necessary for maintenance of a confident and comfortable sense of ME. I have no doubt you can relate to this.

What I take from
[my reaction to] this [recent experience], at this point, is that I need to cultivate a life *outside* of our life together a little bit more actively than I have been. For a time, any opportunity that I have for such things will probably be taken up by my current projects of life transition, but in the near future, I need to get out and involved in some personal growth, ya know? Perhaps get back into music, surgery, and lost wax casting?? I’ve got to have at least one foot planted in places where you do not always stand, just in case I need to temporarily unwrap my leg from yours in order to protect my heart and head from angina and migraines.

I asked Cam if I could use his reflections as a starting point for a more general discussion of the “up-sides” of jealousy, partly because it would give me an excuse to brag about him (isn't he amazing?), but more importantly because his letter reminded me of something I often forget: jealousy is fundamentally a regulating mechanism. It performs a valuable function by calling our attention to the fact that something is out of whack. Our job is to listen carefully, so that we can figure out what is out of whack, and fix it.

Unfortunately, whenever jealousy starts talking to me, all I want is for it to shut up.

“You're basing your sense of self-worth on a fucking mirage, lady. Who cares if you're smart and funny? There are lots of people out there who are smarter and funnier than you. Oh, so you think you have nice breasts? Well, I've got something for you: GRAVITY. Boom. Wake up and smell the bitter beans, 'cuz there's not a single thing you have to offer that can't be eclipsed by someone else or lost entirely, through age or accident. And what's gonna make you lovable then? Huh?”

(Good question, right? Really important stuff to consider. But boy howdy, does that voice ever grate on my nerves!)

Yes, jealousy is horribly unpleasant. But the truth is that it can be a great teacher. So I wonder: What would happen if we were to approach jealousy with curiosity, instead of dread and resentment? How might our future experiences of jealousy improve if we cultivated a sense of gratitude for what we've learned from jealousy in the past?

Maybe I owe jealousy an apology for hating on it so much. Huh. Now that's a strange thought.