Monday, February 17, 2014

Safety In Numbers: A Polyamory Primer

Tricity Vogue goes under the covers to find out how polyamorists share their love around

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Erotic Review  and was republished on on 25 October 2012.

I used to think having sex with more than one person at a time was just bad behaviour. Not that this stopped me doing it. But the good news is that it’s possible a slut and have ethics at the same time. There’s a whole movement dedicated to the belief that you can have more than one significant other without being a cheat, that ‘sex is nice and pleasure is good for you’, that satisfying your desires is not a sin, and that it can even make you a better person.

The movement is called polyamory, meaning “loving more than one”, and it started in San Francisco in the sixties thanks to pioneers such as sex-positive guru Dossie Easton, co-author of polyamorist bible The EthicalSlut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures.  And it’s still alive and well, flourishing in the rain-soaked British Isles as well as on the sun-soaked Californian coast.

Having your cake and eating it?

Mae West famously said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful”. Polyamorous relationships are uncategorisable by their very nature, coming in an infinite variety of combinations, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re not monogamous.  This doesn’t mean that polyamorists are all commitment-phobes. Quite the reverse, in fact. In the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of alt.polyamory serial monogamy is referred to as “trading people in and out like baseball cards,” whereas polyamory means “not refusing commitments because something better might come loping down the path” - in other words, more commitment rather than less, because you’re committed to more than one relationship. 

Does that work in practice? Is it a utopian ideal, or a nightmare-in-the-making? I’ve seen Jules et Jim, I know that three-way relationships can result in at least one party driving themselves off a cliff, at least they can if you’re French. Reading the polyamorist manifesto was one thing, but to get an idea of what happens in the real world (ie the rain-soaked British Isles), I decided to talk to some real people.  Polly and Amy are partners, but they both have another girlfriend each, as well as several other lovers.  They’ve both been polyamorous for about two years. Richard Evans-Lacey is a sexual healer and co-founder of The Love Cult with his female partner Max. He’s also an established psychotherapist with a practice in Bethnal Green.

Amy told me one of the most galling misconceptions she’s encountered from friends and acquaintances – that it won’t matter if she gets dumped, because she’s got a spare.  She points out that having two girlfriends also means you can get dumped twice in one day.  Many polyamorous, or ‘poly’, people contend that they’re more romantic than monogamists, not less.  “It’s not like sharing a cake,” says Amy, “it’s like having more than one child. Your love expands.”

For Polly, it’s about identity and independence. She hates the idea that in a monogamous relationship a bit of you belongs to the other person. She doesn’t want anyone else to have rights over her. Polly knows about monogamy; she was married to a man for ten years before discovering women and polyamory in one go.  Even though she suffers far more from jealousy and insecurity in her multiple relationships with women than she ever did in her marriage to a man, she believes that’s a good thing, “Polyamoury is more appealing because you get to know people more thoroughly. You can’t avoid things as easily, you have to deal with them. And that’s revealing about yourself, and why you think the things you do.”

Richard always found it difficult to be monogamous. His pattern for many years was to try and find someone who was perfect, in the hope this would stop him wanting to wander. He would oscillate between being a tart, free but lonely, and finding companionship but feeling trapped. Neither state was satisfactory. What he really wanted was someone he could be with – a really good friend – so that together they could have sex with other people. His current partner told him it was okay for him to date other girls, but he still felt trapped and resentful. “Surprisingly, the freeing thing for me is for her to go off with other people. It makes her feel more attractive to me, because other people want her, and I’m happier with her.”

Does Your Mother Know?

Coming out as a polyamorist is not unlike coming out as gay.  In some ways, poly people are even more marginalised in society, since civil partnerships can only be made between two people, and you can only have one legal next-of-kin.  Social systems are set up for singles or couples, and polyamory is outside most people’s frame of reference.   “Office parties and weddings are difficult,” says Polly. “You get an invitation for you plus one, so you either have to get back to them and say, ‘Can I have a plus two?’ or go on your own.”

Amy decided to introduce her mother to both her girlfriends at once. Polly and Amy’s other partner were both terrified.  Amy’s mother was bemused, but mostly glad that all three of them seemed to be happy. She smiled sweetly, asked both girlfriends what they did, then they all went shopping.  Polly hasn’t told her own mother yet, partly because she has a closer relationship with her and speaks to her every day, which makes it harder.  She has told her sister: “It was hilarious. She said, ‘I know, I’ve been stalking you on facebook.’”

Polly explains that although she doesn’t know anyone whose parents have reacted badly, some friends are less accepting, often out of concern. “They’re worried about your welfare – they think you must be being taken for a ride.” Monogamous friends can be frightened by a more flexible alternative to their own relationship model, particularly those who are married with children, who only have one choice: divorce or stay together for life. Some friends’ partners feel threatened: “You’re going out with that polyamorist, she’s gonna brainwash you into sleeping with her.”

“That’s all very modern”

Polly tells me about the time her other partner was trying to explain her love life to her father, who’s a vicar: “I suppose Polly is my girlfriend, and Adam is my boyfriend.” “Oh, that’s all very modern,” replied her father, “you’ve got one of each.”

Is polyamory really very modern, though? This morning, coincidentally, I finished reading a novel by Colette, Claudine en Ménage, written in 1902, which tells the story of the 20-year-old heroine’s ménage a trois with her 45-year-old husband and her female lover. Claudine’s indulgent husband sets her up with a shag pad she can take her lady friend, then moves in on Claudine’s lover himself. Our feisty young heroine catches them at it and flounces off to her father’s country house, where she sulks a bit before realising that the problems between her and her husband are nothing to do with the other woman and everything to do with bad communication between them; basically, the archetypal polyamorous ethos that sexual experimentation can only work alongside openness and honesty.  Ah, but that’s fiction, you say. One look at the author’s own life will reassure you that, if anything, she was even more of an unapologetic polyamorist in life than she was in art.

100-year-old polyamory may seem impressive, but the recently published book Sex At Dawn ( ) goes even further back. A lot further back. It turns out prehistoric man lived in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, yes, sexual partners. So polyamory came before monogamy, which is, in fact, the Johnny-come-lately of sexual mores, not the original model after all (sorry, Adam and Eve).

The Green Eyed Monster

Jealousy is the elephant in the corner of every polyamorous relationship. At least it would be the elephant in the corner if polyamorists behaved like most people and avoided talking about the aspects of their relationships that discomfited them.  But poly people are unafraid of tackling their relationship insecurities head on. Or rather, they might be afraid, but they do it anyway.  Some poly people don’t have a problem with jealousy, while others have to work at it – but there are a whole host of community support structures in place to help them, including conferences and away weekends such as OpenCon.  Amy explains the poly line on jealousy by quoting Dossie Easton, ‘the goddess of polyamory’, at a relationship workshop: “Treat jealousy like flu. Eat ice cream, wrap yourself up in a blanket, try and work out how you got it. Then work out how to make yourself stronger so you don’t catch it again.”

Polyamorist ‘London Faerie’ says “A key thing for me about poly is the way it enables us to grow emotionally and become more conscious. For example dealing with jealousy helps many people to learn what is underneath these feelings ('not good enough', feeling left out etc).  Through this journey we often become stronger, get to know ourselves better and become more emotionally adept in a host of different situations - not just our love relationships but also work, with children and so on.”

Making up your own rules

The poly scene has co-opted a word for the obverse of jealousy – compersion. It means feeling happy that your lover is happy doing something without you.  For example, you might be sitting in watching TV, feeling glad that your lover is out on a date with someone else, especially if they’ve been a bit down lately, and being asked out has cheered them up. It’s not a word with an exclusively polyamorous meaning, as it can also apply to parents enjoying their children’s happiness, but it’s a concept that poly people find very useful to counteract the negativity of jealousy. But then, they’re a pretty positive bunch all round.

After reading and talking about polyamory, I’ve come away with the impression of a group of people who are thoughtful, fair-minded, diplomatic, and, most of all, honest.  Not all their relationships work out, but they think it’s worthwhile to keep trying, because they believe in what they’re doing.  Polyamorists are pioneers, explorers.  And whether or not we follow them down the path they’re taking, the things they’re finding out at the coalface of relationship experimentation can be applied to all bonds, whether sexual or not.  After all, if, as polyamorists do, you believe that intimate relationships are equally valid whether or not they include sex, then more or less all of us are polyamorous in one sense. Anyone who’s got a close friend who knows them inside out, and who they’d drop anything for, has already got a relationship just as important as the one with the person they happen to have sex with. That’s if you look at it from outside the monogamous romantic model that most of us have accepted without question from childhood.

Living outside of monogamy, whether in an open relationship or a full-on polyamorous concatenation, is neither better nor worse than choosing to be faithful to one partner, as far as the people I spoke to are concerned, it’s just what works for them best right now, and they don’t judge anyone else’s choices – not even those of the people they love. Especially not those of the people they love.  I’ve come a long way from thinking that having sex with lots of people is a form of bad behaviour – if you’re going to do it properly, you need integrity. And the one thing that strikes me about the poly people I’ve talked to is that I’d feel very safe getting into bed with all of them.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Room To Swing A Cat: A Fairy Tale


There was once a prince who was held captive in a tower by an enchantress for seven years, until he was rescued by a lady minstrel. It's a fine story, but this story begins where that one ends.

The prince was grateful to the minstrel, and loved to listen to her songs, so he asked her to return with him to his own kingdom. The minstrel agreed, in part because the prince was very beautiful and she loved to look upon him, and in part because she loved to journey to strange new lands, and she had never visited the prince's kingdom before on any of her travels.

The prince's kingdom was far away in the mountains, but the minstrel's songs made their journey pass quickly. At last they arrived at a harsh, cold land, where wolves roamed by night, and vagabonds by day. But the prince's castle had high walls of thick stone, and nothing could get inside once the door was barred.

The prince was welcomed back with much joy and feasting by the king and queen his parents, and by all their people. The minstrel was toasted for returning their beloved prince, and all listened with joy to her songs. Outside the snow fell, and the blizzard howled, but inside the fire in the great hearth never went out.

The prince asked the minstrel to be his bride, and the minstrel, who had travelld far and seen many things, but had never before had a hearth to call her own, accepted.  But on the night before her wedding, the minstrel remembered the cat imprisoned in a bag that her prince had brought back from his tower of captivity. The minstrel did not know the cat was an enchantress in shape shifting form, she only knew that the cat had once scratched her, and in her fury she had spun the cat around her head and flung it through the window of the prince's tower.

The minstrel was superstitious. She would not enter into marriage without putting right her past wrongs, so she went to the room at the top of the castle where the prince had left the cat in the bag, unlocked the door with the tool she kept in her instrument case for such purposes, and tried to untie the silver chain that held the bag fast.  But the silver chain was enchanted, and burned her hands. The minstrel dropped the bag with a cry.

A voice came from inside the bag. "Only the prince can untie the silver chain."

The minstrel was alarmed. "But you are a cat - how can you talk?"

"I may be a cat, but I am also an enchantress," the bag replied, "And I have been bound by my own enchantment."

So the minstrel went to the prince on the eve of their wedding, even though it is bad luck for the betrothed to see one another on that day, and asked him to release the cat.

"I will never let the cat out of the bag," he replied. "She is an enchantress, and she kept me prisoner for seven years."

"She may be an enchantress," replied the minstrel, "But she is also a cat." Like all musicians, the minstrel was fond of cats, for cats, like musicians, come and go as they please. But this cat could not go anywhere.

But the prince would not be moved, so the minstrel returned to the cat and told her that the prince refused to set her free.  The minstrel asked the cat, "Will you at least forgive me for throwing you through the tower window after you scratched my face?"

"I will not give you my forgiveness until I am free," replied the cat.  So the minstrel went to be wed with her past wrong unforgiven.

But after the wedding night she forgot all about her former misdeeds, and seven years went past while the minstrel enjoyed the warmth of her hearth, and the cat remained trapped in the bag.  The minstrel's instrument, too, lay neglected in a corner for seven years, until, one day, the minstrel came to dust the forgotten room at the top of the castle.

Picking up the instrument, she tuned it and began to play and sing her favourite song. But her voice was hollow and her playing was jarring on her ears. She had forgotten her art.

"A minstrel does not have a hearth," said a voice. "As soon as you acquired a hearth of your own, you ceased to be a minstrel."

"Who is there?" asked the minstrel, for having a hearth and a husband to tend had dulled her memory.

"I am the cat you threw through the window of a tower and abandoned for seven years trapped inside a bag. But I am also an enchantress, and if you help me escape my prison, I will return to you your minstrel's art."

"But I cannot unfasten the silver chain," said the minstrel. "Only the prince my husband can do that."

"Then you must find a way to make him release me," said the cat, "Are you not his wife?"

So the minstrel went away and thought. Then she remembered she had a second trade, and that was to open doors that people needed opening. Surely, then, she could also find a way to open a bag? Or had she lost that gift too?

Presently, she began to complain to her husband that her private chamber was too small. "There is not enough room in here to swing a cat," she protested. Day after day she repeated her complaint until the prince, in frustration, cried, "Bring me a cat, and I will show you that there is!"

Now it happened that in the prince's land there were no cats, only dogs and wolves, and the prince knew this.  But he had forgotten the bag in the high room of his castle. The minstrel went to fetch the bag, and whispered to the cat as she carried it downstairs to her private chamber, "Make your tail wet and slippery."

The minstrel presented the bag to the prince. "There is a cat in this bag. Very likely it is dead. But you can still swing it and show me."

The prince did not want to untie the silver chain, but he did not want to lose an argument with his wife either.  "You will not dare," taunted the minstrel, "Because you know this room is too small to swing a cat in." And so she went on.

The prince could stand it no longer, so in fury he untied the silver chain and pulled the cat out of the bag by the scruff of its neck. He grabbed it by its tail and swung it around his head in a full circle. "See?" he said triumphantly, "There is room to swing a cat!"

But just then the cat's wet tail slipped through the prince's fingers, and the cat sailed through the window to freedom.  "Thank you, minstrel," called a voice from outside. "Your powers will be returned to you."

The prince looked at the minstrel and knew she had tricked him. "Leave," he said, "And take your instrument with you. You are no longer my wife."

So the minstrel was cast out of the castle with nothing but her instrument, and the door was barred against her. The hearth continued to burn inside, but now she was on the outside of the high walls of thick stone, with the vagabonds and the wolves.

The cat was waiting for her outside the door. "Let us travel together," said the cat, "For we are kindred spirits, you and I." And so the minstrel and the cat set off along the long road side by side.

Presently the minstrel asked the cat, "Did you know that I would be banished from my hearth for helping you?"

"It was what you wanted," said the cat.

"But I loved my hearth," protested the minstrel.

"You did," replied the cat, "But you loved your minstrel's art more, and longed for its return. Taking away your hearth was the only way to give you back your gift."

"You have used me to serve your own ends," said the minstrel to the cat, "But I forgive you. The hearth warmed me, but it burned with its own fire that did not belong to me.  I am glad to have my own gift returned."

"I know you are glad," said the cat, "For you are a minstrel and I am an enchantress, whatever other forms we may take on our travels, and we are kindred spirits, you and I."

"And now do you forgive me for throwing you through the window of the prince's tower, seven long years ago?" asked the minstrel.

"I will forgive you when you find me food and a warm place to sleep," said the cat.

And the minstrel smiled a wry smile. Now, finally, she knew the cat's nature, and knew that forgiveness would always be one more favour away, because they were kindred spirits, the cat and she.


The End.