Naughty or not

So recently, as my last post hints at, I had sex with another man in my boyfriend’s presence. Don’t go feeling bad for my boyfriend — we were swapping, so he had a lovely lady to keep him occupied as well. We met this couple — I dub them Nate and Anna — at a poly meetup recently, and we all liked each other right away. We’ve all spent one very pleasant evening together already, and we’re hoping for many more.

But this is what I wanted to talk about: hanging out with these people, swapping partners, lying around naked on the bed chatting afterward… these things are supposed to be naughty, right? Thinking about it in retrospect, I should maybe be feeling a thrill of transgression? If I told my co-workers, I’d get some shocked responses and some “oooh, Ginny’s a bad girl!” teasing. But it didn’t feel like that at all to me. It felt like, “We liked these people, there was attraction in at least four directions, so we hung out with them for a while and fucked each other.” Like ya do. Like, when we hang out with a couple that likes to play Spades, we play Spades… when we hang out with a couple that likes to have sex, we have sex. What could be more natural?

I dunno, I don’t get the whole “taboo” thing. Another partner of mine, Brendan, has talked with me a few times about how weirded out he is when kinky people play up the “ooh, we’re so naughty” aspect. He feels, and I feel, that you like what you like and you do what you do, and as long as it’s all safe, sane, and consensual, there’s no “naughty” about it.

I realize that some people get off on the thrill of transgression, and hey, that’s cool too. I’d rather someone be turned on by the idea of harmless “naughtiness” than be repressed or condemnatory about it. But I don’t seem to have had my naughtiness sensor installed. Rolling around naked in bed with three other people, with all the laughing and teasing and squeals of pleasure… to me that’s just good, clean fun.

One year later

A year and two days ago, I had sex for the first time. At 28, I was very late to the party. I already knew, from my experiences learning to masturbate (which I started doing at 25), that it would take a while not only to figure out what I liked, but to like what I liked. My thinky-brain works very fast and is always on the spot; my feely-brain works very slow, and doesn’t update me on recent events until they’re long past. What I mean is, I usually don’t know I’m angry about something until a few hours after it’s happened (that number has gone way down… it used to take days). And my body doesn’t know whether it likes a new sensation until it’s had it a few times.

So, while my darling Shaun was very considerate, that first time, about asking what I wanted, what I’d like him to do, and how I liked what he was doing, I wasn’t really able to give an answer. Now, a year later, I feel like my sexual response patterns have stabilized a bit, and I’m better able to answer those questions from a new partner.

One odd thing to me is the way I orgasm. I don’t know how many other women operate this way, and I don’t know if it’s partly a result of inexperience/late blooming, or if this is just the way my body works. I don’t really have hard, explosive orgasms in partnered sex. I do when masturbating: the typically-described crescendo, climactic spasm, and then happy exhaustion. But I’ve never had that experience in partnered sex. Instead I seem to hit a run of mini-orgasms that can go on pretty much indefinitely — ebbing and flowing a bit, but neither rising to a sharp climax nor collapsing into the post-orgasmic refractory period.

I’d love to know how many other women come like this, either sometimes or always. It used to worry me a bit, like maybe I wasn’t really coming, but I never have the sense that there’s a further peak to be reached. I think this is just how my body works, at least for now. While I’d like to experience that sharp orgasmic peak with a partner, it is nice to be able to just keep going and going and going… (last night my boyfriend told the other guy who was fucking me “yeah, she’s like the Energizer Bunny.”) And — what really helped me come to terms with the way I come — one time after some slightly kinky play with a friend, I reached this hyperaroused state where my whole body was one big erogenous zone, and even a touch on my back or neck triggered those mini-orgasmic spasms. That was awesome.

So, a year later, I feel like I’ve established some sense of sexual identity, of “what I’m like” in bed. I’m sure it will continue to evolve, but I have a foundation of sorts.

Sexuality and public image

Apologies to anyone who has me on an RSS feed of any kind… a while ago I wrote a post about objectification, posted it, and then promptly took it down when I decided that it didn’t say what I wanted it to. I spent the rest of the night trying to write what I really meant, and finally gave up, deciding that my thoughts on this matter weren’t quite coherent yet. Turns out the whole question of sexuality and public presence is a complicated, multi-faceted one… who knew?

Here’s the difficulty I found myself facing: I don’t have a problem with a person looking at another person and responding to them sexually, whether the two are strangers or friends, whether the looked-at person is at all interested in the looker or not. I am inclined, however, to be defensive of people — usually women — who choose to conceal their sexual attributes if they prefer not to be considered as a sexual being in a particular context. I thought I was on pretty solid ground here, until I started wondering if this conflicted with my general values of making the world a more beautiful place wherever possible, and wondering if society ever has a right to expect a certain kind of dress from its participants, and the answer to that in my mind was “of course it does, sometimes,” and that’s when I started to realize that this whole issue was hella complicated and I needed to think about it more.

Arguing with Shaun about it, and then reading this excellent post on Lori Douglas, a Canadian judge recently forced to step down because of a sex scandal, helped me clarify one part of my confusion. In a perfect world, a woman would be able to wear a low-cut blouse to work and not be considered any less competent, serious, or professional by her colleagues. In the real world, that’s not how it works. Society may have made great strides in accepting women as able participants in the professional and academic world, but only if they are thoroughly desexualized. Let a professional woman be seen as a sexual being — whether as an object of desire or as an enjoyer of sex — and her credibility and respect takes a huge hit. It’s the Madonna/whore dichotomy for the new millennium.

This, like most forms of sexism, causes problems for everybody. Obviously it causes problems for women, who have to choose between being professionally respected and being sexually expressive — and a sub-problem for professional women, who have to be as attractive as possible without being sexy. It causes problems for men, too, who can’t acknowledge a woman’s sexual appeal without it being assumed that he’s reducing her to only her sexuality.

Women are increasingly allowed access to the professional and academic realms. Women are increasingly allowed sexual autonomy and expressiveness. But until a woman can exist publicly as a whole person — sexual, creative, productive, intelligent, familial — sexual liberation is in its infancy.

Out

9 days. The count-up has been running since I sent my mother the email: the one where I said that while I’m sorry it upset her to see me snuggling with my boyfriend instead of sleeping on the separate bed she’d prepared for me, I’m not willing to apologize for failing to respect her values. That in fact I don’t respect her values, although I acknowledge her right to enforce them under her own roof, and will not transgress on that right in the future. That in fact I’m carrying around a fair amount of anger for the damage I have suffered as a result of my blindly accepting those values in my younger days. And oh yes, by the way, that my boyfriend and I are not monogamous and probably never will be.

I said it much more sweetly than the above might imply. My mother is a wonderful, beautiful, inspiring person, and I feel my family ranked in the 90th percentile for Good Families To Grow Up In. My parents’ excellent marriage is something of a modern miracle, and I recognize that it’s founded on those very values I resent and decry, and I said all this too. I would hate to make either of them feel that I don’t appreciate the family they’ve created.

I am privileged with a capital P. Besides all that white wealthy educated American stuff, I have warm and happy relationships with both my parents and three siblings. I need more than two hands to count the friends who are also like family to me, who I know will always care about me and who I wouldn’t hesitate to call on in a crisis. These are rare blessings, even for white wealthy educated Americans, and I’m deeply grateful for them. But no blessing is unmixed, and mine have this qualifier: they make it very hard to rock the boat. With so much love, so much warmth, so much harmony, and — let’s be completely fair — so much acceptance for a great range of differences, it’s very, very hard to be the one who holds up a hand and says, “Actually, this isn’t quite working for me. Here, this is my boyfriend and our girlfriend. Can we all come home for Christmas this year?”

That last is a hypothetical — Shaun’s and my outside relationships are all still quite casual. I could pass for monogamous without too much strain, and in a lot of places I do. My plan, in fact, was to continue to do so with my parents as long as that was the case. I wasn’t going to lie, I just wanted to keep them on a need-to-know basis. I figured it would be easier for everybody that way.

This worked great as long as I wasn’t actually around them much. When we visited my hometown, though, I found a host of tensions and discomfort arising. Probably the worst part was feeling like I was closeting my beloved Shaun, who has worked hard and sacrificed much in order to live honestly and openly.

I don’t think I’m a naturally honest person. If I’d grown up in a more hostile environment, I can easily imagine being one of those people who creates elaborate personas, different ones for different situations, who finds honesty and consistency across relationships almost impossible. I’m keenly aware of the way I “spin” myself depending who I’m talking to. I don’t particularly like this about myself, though it’s a useful skill. I’m trying to do it less. It’s a scary thing. In that interest, I’m starting to write under my real name, and give my boyfriend his (all other people I write about will still get their pseudonyms, unless they request otherwise.) I want to take steps to unify the slightly-fragmented identities I present to the world. It feels a little bit like an adventure, or a roller coaster. All this identity-management business, for me, is mostly about control: I like to think that I have some control over what people will think of me, how they will receive me, by managing what I tell them about myself. It’s bullshit, of course. Being closeted, in any way about anything, buys control at the cost of freedom, and of the two I prefer freedom. But letting go of control comes with some thrills and chills. It’s been nine days since I wrote my mother; I got a brief acknowledgement, and reassurance that she loves me, but I’m still waiting for a real response. I feel like I’m hanging on to the bar, waiting to see where this ride will take me. I’ll let you know.

jealousy and insecurity: a beginner’s guide, written by a beginner

Today’s “things even monogamous people can learn from polyamory” is brought to you courtesy of Shaun’s mother, whom we’re visiting this week. He’s been open about being polyamorous for years, and while she doesn’t seem to have any moralistic objections, it makes her anxious. Particularly, she’s convinced that jealousy and insecurity are inevitable, and will cause the downfall of any non-monogamous relationship. Hearing that I went on a couple of dates before our trip, with gentlemen I hope to see again, she asked him, “Aren’t you afraid, if she keeps seeing these guys, she might start to like one of them better than you?” (And now I know where he gets his bluntness.)

So we’re going to talk about jealousy and insecurity.

One of the most common misconceptions in people who are just learning about polyamory is that successful poly folk claim to never jealous. I thought that myself, and I was a little nervous. My jealousy quotient is fairly low, but I have felt it pretty intensely two or three times in my life, so I didn’t know that I’d be able to keep up a “never getting jealous ever” kind of lifestyle. When I did a little deeper reading, though, I found that this wasn’t the expectation. In most of the blogs and forum posts I read, mature people in secure poly relationships acknowledged feeling jealous and insecure from time to time. The difference is in how they treat these emotions.

For some reason, we tend to view jealousy as a fire that needs to be put out. Stop the presses, hold the phones — if someone is feeling jealous, then something is WRONG and everything else in the relationship needs to be on hold until it gets fixed. But jealousy is a feeling, and like any feeling you can choose how you deal with it. You can suppress it and pretend it’s not there, you can attack and blame yourself for feeling it, you can attack and blame the other person for making you feel it, you can succumb to it entirely and let the feeling make all your decisions for you.

Any of those approaches will do damage to you and your relationship. But you can also take a meditative, accepting approach, which goes something like this: Acknowledge what you’re feeling. Acknowledge that it hurts and it sucks. Remind yourself that this feeling does not define your emotional landscape, and that like all feelings it will fade. Promise yourself that when it has faded, and your rational brain is freer, you will assess the reasons behind it and see if there’s something you need to address or adjust.

I recommend this approach for dealing with just about any negative emotion. These feelings, like physical pain, are signs that something is wrong, misaligned, damaged. The difference is, while for many of us our bodies are in good working order most of the time, our emotional and relational centers are pretty well battered before most of us hit puberty. From our parents onward, the people we loved and depended on have failed to give us all the support, the care, the attention we needed from them. We have to think of feelings like jealousy and insecurity the way a veteran thinks of an old injury that still hurts from time to time. There are circumstances that trigger the feeling, but the damage that it springs from was caused long ago, and no amount of frantic questioning, pleas for reassurance, or desperate ultimatums will cure it. It’s a chronic ailment that we simply have to live with, and deal with as best we can.

When not in the grips of the pain, we can take various steps to become healthier and stronger, to quiet that old war wound and make it less sensitive to flare-ups. I’m not an expert in this area, since as I said I suffer from jealousy and insecurity only rarely. But generally I find that things I tell myself rationally, and dwell on contemplatively, eventually make their way into the deeper levels of my psyche. So here are a few rational thoughts around jealousy and insecurity.

1 – Love is not a zero-sum commodity. I think of two people I love very deeply and intensely, and consider how little my love for each of them has to do with my feelings for the other (unless they are close themselves, in which case my feelings for both of them usually enhance each other). They are entirely separate, and they co-exist in my heart without difficulty. Why should it not be the same for my lover and anyone else they love?

2 – I am lovable. Few of us escape childhood and adolescence without the delusion that we are unlovable, that the warmth and care that we feel for other people is never truly extended back toward us. We need to recognize that this is a delusion, and that most of the people around us feel the same way. And when our lovers say “I love you,” we should try to believe them.

3 – I am irreplaceable; I offer things to my lover that no one else can give. This, like the previous one, is a negation of a delusion most of us seem to have. When my lover starts spending time with someone new, I look at all the wonderful qualities she has, and think, “I could never compete with that! Of course he’s going to love her more than me.” When I catch myself doing this I find the best strategy is to remind myself of some wonderful qualities I have that she doesn’t. If need be, I ask my lover to name a few. I don’t ever try to get an exhaustive list, because that tempts me to start comparing lists to see which of us stacks up best overall; the idea is just to give myself a concrete reminder that I bring some things to the table which nobody else does.

4 – If my lover ever does end the relationship, it will be because of inadequacies in this relationship, not the allure of another. This one requires more partner participation than the others. Novelty has its own unique appeal, and I and my lover both need to know how strong this appeal is for us and how far we’re going to indulge it. But if a person desires a long-term, stable relationship, novelty itself is not likely to pull them out of a good one. I need to trust that my lover and I understand our needs and desires, and are continually communicating them. I am responsible for making sure my lover knows how to make me happy, and I need to trust that he is accepting the same responsibility. If all this is happening, there is little need to fear that I will be left for someone else, and if I am, there should be plenty of warning.

None of these considerations are going to help when you’re in the grips of roiling jealousy or insecurity. At those times, you just have to ride it out. But when you’re calm again, meditating on them and doing your best to internalize them (it takes time) can help a lot.

Shades of Past Lovers: or, what I learned from my wacko fundamentalist past

This is part 1 of a possibly one-part series (I’m notoriously bad at follow-through) on “Things even monogamous people can learn from polyamory.”

We’re going to talk for a minute about serial monogamy vs. absolute monogamy. It’s something a lot of people don’t think about, because a lot of people don’t even contemplate absolute monogamy. I grew up in a nice little conservative religious community, so I did; in fact I planned on it. I bought into the “courtship” model and read all of Josh Harris’s books. I thought that if I was going to have only one lover in the course of my life, I should really have only one lover: no boyfriends, no passionate but doomed affairs. Even if I never had sex with a previous boyfriend, the emotional entanglement would taint my future relationship. I would be giving my future husband a heart that had already been passed around a few times. It sounds ridiculous, but I was sixteen and a romantic. I wanted to save love, intimacy, and sex for one man and one man only.

Ah, if I could see me now.

What I’ve learned since, of course, is that that whole story is a fairy tale. I got over the extreme version of it by the time I was nineteen. But I was still troubled by the pattern of serial monogamy. I don’t let people go easily: if I’ve loved someone once, I love them forever. A new lover might get all of my current attention and my future dreams, but the new relationship doesn’t erase the connection with the old lover. There are precious memories and specific joys I shared with that person that I can’t share with anyone else. In that respect, the Josh Harris ideology was quite correct. My past relationships form a part of who I am, for better or for worse. The emotional ties that ran between me and my former lover don’t just dissolve; I feel differently about them than I do about a friend or acquaintance I’ve never been intimate with.

I don’t know why I was so sure that this was a bad thing. I guess it was part of the “one true love” idealism, so persistently displayed for me in stories, and reinforced by the ridiculously functional marriage of my ridiculously functional parents, neither of whom (as far as I’m aware) had any significant exes. I just thought it would be better that way, better to avoid the complications and possible confusion of having to acknowledge my profound love for one person then, and my equally profound love for a different person now. Better to just have the one lover for past, present, and future. Much simpler that way.

Well, now… how can I put this delicately?…

Fuck that shit.

Simpler is for babies. We repackage the world into simple truths in order to give children some sense of orientation, some sense that they can cope with reality — a reality which, they will eventually discover, is hella complicated. “Love” is not this discrete feeling, identifiable in a lab; it’s a mishmash of emotional and physical responses to someone, layered on top of past experiences and future expectations. It’s a useful category, but if we make the mistake of thinking it’s something simple, we are going to miss out on what reality has to offer us. And what reality has to offer us is a whole array of kinds of love, degrees of love, moments of feeling profound love for someone you’ve barely met and will never see again (Christian of Berlin, I’m looking at you), old loves that reach from the past to enrich our lives (and, yes, sometimes confuse them), new loves that open wide new vistas of possibility to us. Reality, real life, grownup life, is carving your twisted path through all these different manifestations of love, steering as best you can according to what seems most important to you, but always, always, with gratitude and rejoicing at the different loves that are available to you. Because love, my friends, is one of the great beauties of this human life, and if we hide from it or try to compartmentalize it out of existence, we impoverish ourselves.

So. I started off saying this was something that monogamous people could learn from polyamory, but for me it happened the other way around. Coming to terms with the “consequences” of serial monogamy, i.e. having more than one lover in my world, (even if all but one of them were officially retired), made it easy for me to accept polyamory. But serial monogamists (yeesh! Written like that, sounds like I’m talking about some kind of sociopath, doesn’t it? I really don’t mean it that way… some of my best friends are serial monogamists, honest! … um, let’s try this again.) Serial monogamists People who date one person at a time can benefit from recognizing the truths that poly folk have to come to terms with very quickly: love is complicated, love is many-faceted, and the intensity of your feelings for one lover (even if they’re in the past) does not detract from your feelings for another. Instead of trying to deny the feelings you had for a previous lover, let them exist as part of your sense of who you are. In some way, they helped get you here, and if they have some role to play in your current and future life, that’s not a disaster. And extend the same grace, the same confident understanding, to your lover’s exes. They’re probably only a threat if you make them one.

How we got here

Having now read all of Sex at Dawn, I’m going to tell you why I think it’s an important book.

It’s not important because it tells us something we didn’t already know. There’s no new research (as far as I can tell), and it doesn’t question common understandings of the way we are today. Its interest is in how we got here. One could claim that its basic message is trivial: that the confused sexual structure we currently live in (ideals of monogamy but frequent rule-breaking and temptation) is the product not of our evolutionary roots as a species, but of adaptations to the changed environment we created with agriculture. That’s it. “We are the way we are because of something that happened 10,000 years ago, not because of something that happened 200,000 years ago.” That’s the basic message, and one might be justified in asking, “So what?”

I’ll tell you so what. When an evolutionary psychologist says that strict monogamy is not natural to humans (and they pretty much all say that), someone usually responds, “Yes, but we have free will; we can choose to rise above our animal nature.” Now that’s a debatable point, largely depending on your definitions of “free will” and “animal nature,” but let’s set aside that question for now. A more pertinent reply to the “we can rise above our animal nature” argument is, “Maybe, but why should we?”

The standard evolutionary-psychology model, which I outlined ever so loosely here, frames nonmonogamy for both males and females as, quite literally, cheating. There’s a mutually beneficial arrangement (monogamy) to which both parties agree, but they can do even better in the grand genetic steeplechase by cheating on the agreement. It’s not pretty, but hey, red in tooth and claw. If this is the best account of the monogamy/nonmonogamy tension in society, then people have some justification for calling on us all to rise above it. We owe it to our partners to put aside our selfish urges toward outside gratification, and to devote ourselves to maintaining the pair-bond we’ve formed. If they really love us, they’ll do the same. That’s the narrative we’re often given.

Sex at Dawn takes that narrow perspective and splits it wide open, suggesting many more possibilities for human sexual behavior that are cooperative, loving, and beneficial to everybody involved. The narrative it offers goes like this: Humans evolved in small, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer communities where men and women both benefited from frequent, free, promiscuous sexual encounters. Paternity wasn’t an issue because nobody was hoarding resources to pass on to their children, and securing male providership wasn’t an issue because women were gathering the bulk of the food anyway. When we developed agriculture, suddenly it became advantageous to accumulate land and livestock, and to pass these on to your own genetic offspring. So men became concerned with controlling women’s sexual behavior. At the same time, being the bearers and nursers of children became much more incapacitating for two reasons: farming is more labor-intensive than foraging, and with property comes theft and territory conflict. So women had a much greater need for men to provide for and defend them.

At this point the narrative converges with the conventional model. Male sexual infidelity doesn’t hurt women that much (from an evolutionary perspective) since sperm is cheap and plentiful. The woman is concerned more with making sure that he continues to provide material support and defense for herself and her children. Hence, “emotional infidelity” is more of a threat to women. Polygamy works out okay for both men and women (again, from an evolutionary perspective), so a lot of societies do that for a while. Then we become more enlightened. We start to see the harm in oppressive patriarchy, the injustice of viewing women as property, and we work to correct the situation. But by this time the ideal of female sexual fidelity has become deeply engrained in our cultural morality; sexual jealousy in men has gained a strong memetic, and possibly genetic, foothold. We know the polygamous patriarchy is unfair, but allowing women sexual freedom feels “wrong.” (We’ve also, in our efforts to control female sexuality, repressed and denied it for long enough that it’s easy to believe that women wouldn’t really want, or benefit from, sexual freedom even if we gave it to them.)

There’s a parallel line of development around the “family.” Human beings need each other, need to exist in a small, interdependent network of other human beings, where regardless of how much they like or dislike one another, each one assumes some responsibility for the well-being of the others. In small hunter-gatherer tribes, the entire tribe can function as a family in many ways. Children are mothered and fathered by many adults; resources brought into the group are shared evenly with everybody. The bond each person has with their neighbors goes far beyond emotional affinity: they bear a responsibility to care for one another despite any conflicts or personality clashes.

With the advent of agriculture, territory, and a protected paternal line, this circle of familial interdependence was reduced to the immediate blood family: parents, children, grandparents. It’s been that way for so long that we’ve come to consider that kind of devoted interdependence as a unique feature of blood family relationships, and to consider other groups that have that quality (military units, for example) as an exception to the rule.

So we as a culture have talked ourselves out of believing that women want or should have sexual freedom, and into believing that the nuclear family is somehow sacred in the kind of bonds it creates. Which means that the obvious answer to the “polygamy is unfair, women aren’t property” realization is prescribed monogamy for everyone. If women shouldn’t sleep around, then clearly sleeping around in general is wrong. If the nuclear family is the source of familial love and bondedness, then we should protect and encourage it. Hence: monogamy. Now we’re expected to fall in love with someone whose lifestyle and personality will be compatible with ours in the long run, marry them, and make that our one sexual and romantic relationship.

It’s not working all that well; anybody with eyes to see can see that. Infidelity’s one problem, but even the honorable, conscientious folks typically engage in serial monogamy, and lots of it. The age of marriage and the divorce rate have both grown tremendously. Basically, we’re really just not all that good at monogamy. Religious conservatives will tell you that it’s not working because we’re letting our fallen sinful nature get the better of us. Evolutionary psychologists in the classic vein will tell us… actually pretty much the same thing, only with a secular story behind it instead of the religious one. The writers of Sex at Dawn suggest that maybe there’s nothing specially virtuous about monogamy; maybe the fact that we suck at it doesn’t mean we’re doomed as a species. Maybe there are other ways of being, ways that still allow for love and intimacy and deep concern for the people we’re closest to.

I think that’s a damn important message.

Negotiated fidelity

I finished reading Sex at Dawn, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. The last chapter was mostly about application to modern life, and this post is taken partly from that and partly from my own thoughts and observations.

As a culture, we need to get rid of the idea that sexual exclusivity should come easily and naturally if a person “truly loves” their partner. Sometimes, for some people, deep love comes with a lack of any interest in other potential partners, but this is more likely to be true in the short term than in the long term, and should never be taken as a litmus test.

Whether a given couple should attempt sexual exclusivity is for them to decide, and ideally it should be decided after long, exhaustively honest conversations, and should be periodically revisited. Men and women both experience hormonal changes as they age, and are likely to find themselves feeling differently about ideal sexual behavior at different times in their lives.

In short, what I’m advocating for every committed couple is negotiated fidelity: a relationship where both partners can present their wants, needs, feelings, and fears on an ongoing basis, without either one feeling that the bedrock of their relationship is threatened if one of those feelings is something like, “I really like the idea of having sex with that barista.” It requires a lot of trust and security, a lot of willingness to delve into one’s own feelings and struggles, a lot of uncritical openness with oneself and one’s partner. If either party is feeling like they have to continually repress certain feelings to make the relationship work, then it is a bad relationship.

Repression is not the same as self-control. There is a huge difference between, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will refrain from having sex with others,” and saying, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will hide from myself and from my partner any inkling of a thought that I might be interested in having sex with others.” And, to be even-handed, there’s a difference between saying, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will work to get more comfortable with their interest in other people,” and, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will deny and suppress any feelings of jealousy and insecurity I experience.” In both cases, the former statement is an expression of self-control exercised to accommodate a partner’s needs; the latter is a repression that will only cause damage, both to the individual and to the relationship.

Negotiated fidelity. Give it a try.

like they do on the Discovery Channel?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say “I do whatever Dan Savage tells me to do”… but I did order a copy of Sex at Dawn pretty much as soon as I read his column on the book. I’m about a third of the way through it now, and I’m loving it so much that I expect it’s going to be fodder for several more blog posts in the near future.

It’s an attempt to rewrite the narrative of human sexuality as viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology. And let me just frame everything I’m going to say on this topic: Evolutionary psychology is a pretty soft science. People shouldn’t go claiming that Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have proven anything with their work presented in this book. We’re not looking for proofs here, we’re looking for a compelling argument. I’ve seen a couple of forum arguments around that question of proof, and it’s stupid. So let’s not have any of those, mkay?

The standard narrative of human sexuality from an evolutionary psych perspective goes something like this: Males need to be sure their resources are going to the support of their own offspring, not someone else’s, and females need extensive support during gestation and lactation, so women trade exclusive sexual access for long-term material support — thus is born the male/female pair-bond. But men benefit genetically from spreading their seed as far and wide as they can (since sperm is cheap), and women benefit genetically from having their babies fathered by the fittest possible man, so both men and women are inclined to cheat if they can get away with it: women at their fertile times with men whose physical qualities suggest genetic superiority, and men at any time, with any fertile-looking woman.

It’s not a pretty story, but it accounts for many common observations about male and female sexual behavior. Even if you hadn’t read it laid out like this before, you’ve probably read magazine articles or advice columns that took it for granted.

Ryan and Jethá suggest a very different context for the evolution of human sexuality. They propose that humans evolved in sexually gregarious tribes, and that both male and female bodies are wired to seek lots of sex with lots of different partners. They argue that the restrictions of patriarchy and monogamy developed in response to the economic changes brought about by agriculture.

I haven’t gotten to the part where they hash that out in detail, so I’ll talk about that later. Right now the point that’s struck me most emphatically is the utter backwardness of our cultural ideas about sexuality and our animal nature. We tend to consider frequent, promiscuous sexual activity to be “animalistic,” taking us closer to our animal relatives and further from “what makes us human.” In fact the opposite is true: humans and our close relatives the bonobos may not be the only species that has sex for reasons other than reproduction, but we sure do it way more than any others. We’ve taken this reproductive act and imbued it with tremendous social and spiritual significance. The importance of sex, particularly sex that isn’t intended for reproduction, is a big part of “what makes us human.”

(Conversely, if you think about it, restricting sexual expression to baby-making is pretty animalistic. Take that, condom-hating Catholics!)

That’s what I’ve got for now. Stay tuned for more!

monogamy vs. fidelity

I was going to title this post “monogamy vs. commitment,” but “commitment” is kind of a cold word, and what I’m talking about is warm and vital. Fidelity, faithfulness… there’s a fire under those words. Commitment allows for a certain doggedness, a certain “because I have to” quality. You can be committed to a job or a diet. You can only be faithful to a cause, a passion, a love.

You can be faithful without being monogamous.

It’s so evident to me that this is so, that there’s no necessary connection between the concepts, that I almost don’t know what else to write. But let me try to spin it out further.

“My lover and I are faithful to each other.” What does that mean?

It means that your lover’s needs and wishes affect your behavior even when your lover is nowhere near. You think about how an action will impact them, whether it will enhance or impede your ability to love them. You give the whole question “will this strengthen or damage our relationship?” far more weight and prevalence in your life than you would give the same question asked of your close friends, or parents, or siblings.

I hope it need not be said that the question whether a certain action will strengthen or damage a relationship may have very different answers for different relationships. To take a non-sexual example: religious faith. For some couples, their shared religious faith (or lack thereof) is one of the pillars of their relationship, and a move away from that shared ground threatens the relationship. For others, it’s not that important; difference in their beliefs may fuel some interesting debates from time to time, but it doesn’t have much more impact than, say, one person loving musicals while the other hates them.

Similarly, for one couple sexual exclusivity might be a cornerstone of their relationship, while for another it’s not even expected. Definitions of fidelity vary widely from couple to couple. Some people feel cheated on if their partner masturbates or looks at porn (way over on the “unreasonable” end of the spectrum, in my opinion.) In the greyer areas, you have things like going to strip clubs… flirting with other people… getting cyber-married in Second Life. And the all the way over on the “laying no claim to monogamy” side of the spectrum you have swinging, relationships open to outside flings, and polyamory.

You can be faithful anywhere along this spectrum, as long as you and your lover have a sound understanding of what you each need from the other, and how your romantic and sexual activities will affect them. Your place on the spectrum is not likely to be static — I don’t think it should be. People grow, relationships grow, life circumstances change. It’s healthy to continually evaluate your wants and needs and the reasons behind them. Regardless of what boundaries you mutually agree on, it’s not exclusivity that makes a relationship secure — it’s fidelity.

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