Seven Articles in Seven Days – 4: Polyamory and Consent

 

**Trigger warning for talk of consent violations and coercive behaviour.**

Consent can be a tricky thing at the best of times, but the importance of it cannot be overestimated. We’re all familiar, I’m sure, with the basic ‘no means no’ model, and probably also with the more recent extension of this suggesting that ‘only yes means yes.’ Of course, this method isn’t flawless – sometimes a very clear non-verbal signal is just as good as the actual word ‘yes,’ and on the flip-side, there can be circumstances under which a ‘yes’ is less reliable because the person’s ability to say ‘no’ is in some way compromised.

There have been many, many arguments around each of these models, as well as all the others out there, and the point of this piece is not to add to those. Instead, I want to look at just a few of the issues of consent which relate directly to non-monogamous relationships.

Full Disclosure and Consent

At what point, polyamorous people wonder and debate frequently, should we tell someone we might be interested in about our relationship style?

I’ve heard it argued that it’s perfectly okay to sleep with someone first, and tell them later. I, I’m afraid, absolutely and vehemently disagree.

I believe the ‘informed’ in the phrase informed consent is as important as the ‘consent’ part. And somebody can only make an informed choice if they are aware of any other relationships I’m currently involved in. Obviously, someone isn’t going to know absolutely everything about me before we end up in bed together, but facts which are likely to influence their decision, one way or the other, about whether they want to end up in bed with me, are facts which need to be disclosed. And being polyamorous, in my opinion, absolutely without doubt comes into that category!

So pulling that cute girl at the gay club, bringing her home, then telling her tomorrow morning that I have a boyfriend, but it’s all open and honest and fine? Not going to happen.

The ‘you’ll do it with them, why not me?’ Argument

Sex which is had due to one partner feeling under obligation is not, in my opinion, truly consensual. This has the potential to become very tricky when multiple partners are involved, if one is less concerned than they should be about consent.

I’ve experienced it, and heard stories of similar from other women, far too many times. For people to whom sex is a commodity, something to be gained at all costs, something which can be bought or traded or owed, the belief seems to be rather prevalent that if their partner does something sexual with somebody else, it automatically entitles them to the same.

‘You’ll put out for him, why not for me?’

‘Why does he get to fuck you when you won’t let me?’

I’m sad to say those are actual quotes. And how does anybody answer that? What option does that give, beyond having an enormous fight, or giving in? Okay, it’s easy to say that the correct response is ‘get lost!’ or something similar, but lines can get seriously blurred when you are in love with somebody, and then there’s that little voice in the back of your mind telling you that maybe they’re right…..

This is a rather non-monogamy-specific form of a fairly common tactic of coercion – playing on someone’s guilt to get what you want. Ethical? No. Consensual? I’d say not!

I’m sure I am preaching to the choir here, given the readership of this blog, but it does bear saying: please don’t ever play on a partner’s guilt to make them do something you want. Yes means yes, at that time, to that thing, with that person. Sex is not something which is owed. Ever.

Meta-Consent

(Or, consent between metamours.) The ethos of polyamory is ethical, responsible and consensual non-monogamy. I’m talking about a slightly different type of consent here – and that is being sure that everyone involved really is aware, on board and happy with the situation in a non-monogamous relationship.

I find I gain huge amounts of respect for partners (or potential partners) of somebody I’m involved with, if they actually bother to ask me if I’m okay with it. This happens rarely. Okay, the opportunity doesn’t always present itself, and that’s fine – but when it does, this courtesy goes a long way to helping me feel good and secure about that person. Since I realised this, I’ve made it a point to try to do the same. It’s been mostly a hypothetical so far, as it’s been quite a while since I’ve been involved with somebody new, but is something I’m going to try really hard to remember to do in the future. It’s fine to trust your partner to tell you the truth – and I do trust my partner absolutely – but nothing puts your mind at rest quite like actually asking that person. Similarly, that way they’re more likely to feel they can approach you and talk to you if anything does come up, which could help head off small issues before they become big issues.

Really, we’re not directly talking about sex here, but the principal of consent is the same – if there’s any doubt at all, it’s really important to ask!

Similarly, I feel the same if a new person checks with me ‘how does your partner feel about this?’ and I think it’d be even better if they asked him themselves. Respecting my partner’s consent is a really big deal to me!

Easy example: at 19 and new to polyamory, I had an agreement with my primary-at-the-time that we wouldn’t have intercourse with new partners for a while, until our comfort levels had been established. I took two new partners within the space of a few days. When I explained this caveat, one repeatedly pushed the issue, tried to persuade me to break my agreement, and even came to the point of attempting physical force. The other shrugged and said ‘that’s fine, let me know if it changes, but if it doesn’t that’s completely okay.’ Guess which of those relationships worked out??

I could go on, but those were the main three consent issues relating to polyamory that I wanted to discuss, and this post is becoming rather long! What about you, lovely readers? Any experiences or thoughts relating to any of these to share? Any other polyamory related issues of consent you can think of and would like to share?

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16 thoughts on “Seven Articles in Seven Days – 4: Polyamory and Consent

  1. pir says:

    “I gain huge amounts of respect for partners (or potential partners) of somebody I’m involved with, if they actually bother to ask me if I’m okay with it.”

    This is another thing that varies widely. I’ve had partners with exactly the opposite reaction to being asked if they’re ok with someone getting involved with me.

    • missamaranth says:

      Really? That surprises me, but is very interesting, so thanks! If you know and feel comfortable sharing, could you explain a little about *why* they had such a negative reaction to it?

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts :-)

      • pir says:

        I think in part because of the issues around possession and ownership (permission has all kinds of implications that I dislike), hierarchy… but mostly (in the case I’m thinking of) because she didn’t think it was any of her business, nor was she overly interested, if other people wanted to sleep with me or not. If I wanted to talk to her about it, sure, but she was fairly restrictive on who she wanted to talk to about what she considered private and/or personal matters. Having a random person open up communication with her to discuss the possibility of sleeping with me was a boundary issue and something she actively discouraged.

        It also puts the askee in the position of making a judgement and telling the person what your judgement is. Do you say “Yeah, sure, that’s fine.” and mean it? What if you don’t want that person sleeping with your partner? Do you really want to be put in the position, right then, of saying “Well, no, actually I don’t want you to.”? If you are always going to play nice then there isn’t much point in being asked in the first place and if you’re not then it puts you in the position of bad guy and (in my experience) makes it more likely for resentment and possibly deceit to happen.

        Personally I’d rather there be some communication between people I’m involved with if needed (because as has otherwise been pointed out being an information conduit between two lovers is rife with potential problems) but the issues around if I should be involved with a person at all are between me and that person not another of my lovers and that person. Any agreements I have with existing partners are mine to discuss with those partners and to determine if they’re happy with decisions I make.

  2. I’m so glad to see other people talking about meta-consent. It’s something I’ve cared about for ages but have sometimes struggled to explain why.

    I think it’s a tricky area, because it can so easily sound like, “I am asking for permission to do your lover”, and I do have a problem with that “your”.

    The way I understand it nowadays is that, perhaps there is an enlightened polyworld in which everyone is perfectly responsible, all boundaries are absolute, we all have infinite emotional resources and nothing that happens in one relationship ever, ever affects anybody outside of that relationship.

    Scratch “perfect”, actually, because that sounds like a libertarian nightmare. Give me this messy world, in which occasionally things leak from relationship to relationship. Give me the chance to comfort or support a partner, or share in their joy.

    And in this world, the messy one, what happens in one relationship does affect people outside of it, particularly partners outside of it. And that’s why I like meta-consent: because I’m not saying, “Permit me to do your lover”, I’m saying, “This thing I’d like to do will affect you. Because it affects you, I’d like to talk to you about it directly and not make one person (our mutual beau) take responsibility for the actions of two people (our beau and me).”

    Of course, there’s an awful potential for going behind someone’s back – like any communication practice, it can be done for good and bad reasons, done sensibly and stupidly or even dangerously. But done right, I think it takes a huge pressure off the person in the middle to be a translator/ambassador/messenger, as well as opening up important channels of communication between metamours – so vital for preventing misunderstandings and for everyday negotiation – and also goes a long way towards building metamour relationships into friendships.

    • missamaranth says:

      Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it for ages and been unsure how to explain why I think it’s so important.

      The ‘your’ thing is something I have a bit of an issue with, too. I dislike it partly because I think it falls too far into heirarchical styles of relationships, which I fundamentally don’t like (although accept that a lot of people do.)

      I think you’ve really hit the proverbial nail on the head with what you say about relationships affecting other people and other relationships. It took me a while to understand this when I first started practicing poly, and for ages I was actually pretty scared of approaching metamours (I think it was cultural mono-programming telling me ‘you’re sleeping with her partner, of course she hates you!’) But when things are always being passed through the ‘person in the middle’ (ie the mutual partner) not only is it unfair to them to always have to play messenger, but there is far more potential for messages to become (unintentionally) incomplete or ‘not quite what I meant’ and misunderstandings occur so much more easily.

  3. Putting this in a separate comment as it’s a different subject. Please let me know if it feels like I’m spamming your comments section and I’ll step back!

    Any other polyamory related issues of consent you can think of and would like to share?

    Apart from the ones you’ve already mentioned, a big one which springs to mind is, You’ve got to be ok with this, because it’s what poly people do.

    It often but not always comes from a person who either presents themselves as more experienced in poly (and this can be as simple as having similar experience but being a guy and using that male register of “I know so many things look at me”), or a person who has more invested in poly.

    It’s a kind of, “I’m going to date the ex who tried to stab you once with a spork, and you have to be ok with it because poly people are independent and strong and this has nothing to do with you”. It takes place in the nightmare libertarian world of my previous comment, in which everyone is some kind of perfectly sealed unit, except that world is pretend and only lives in the head of the person pulling the “you’ve got to be ok with this” trick.

    It allows guilting and blaming, because if you’re not ok with anything that’s going on, it must be because you’re immature – or worse, secretly monogamous! – or, god help us, even needy. It’s used extensively but not exclusively against women, who sexism makes it easy to paint as “needy”.

    • missamaranth says:

      Yes, that’s very true! I hadn’t really considered that one, yet I’ve heard of it many times and indeed had it pulled on me more than once.

      The ‘you’re obviously not really poly if you’re not doing this/okay with this!’ argument. So problematic in so many ways! I think this is yet another flavour of the ‘playing on guilt to get what you want’ trick….

  4. Martin Roell says:

    I disagree with your view on “informed consent” from the first paragraph: If you find it important to know about my other relationships before you enter one with me, I find it is up to *you* to ask, not to me to “disclose” my relationships. I don’t know what is important to you – it could be my name, my relationships, my job, my past… I cannot guess, and I don’t want to bother you with a list of previous and current employers, lovers, girlfriends, boyfriends, acquaintances and other-facts-of-life-which-may-influence-your-decision ;-) It is up to *you* to take care of the things that matter to you, and in my view this includes gathering information that you find necessary to make informed decisions.

    • Nomad says:

      Seems like the “I cannot guess” part is a bit naive, doesn’t it? It strikes me that letting a potential partner know the list of your previous employers is not terribly likely to be important (to anyone other than potential future employers)… whereas your relationship status is likely to be important to somebody that you are entering into a relationship with. Equating them here is really just a logical fallacy.

      In a world where monogamy is overwhelmingly the norm — and many (most?) people have not even heard of polyamory, it strikes me as evasive to declare that the responsibility of disclosure lies entirely with the other person. Whenever I hear “logic” like this, it sounds very much like [flimsy] justification for avoiding responsibility.

      That said, we may be coming about this from entirely different perspectives. There are quite a few things that I would consider essential to tell a new partner, e.g. whether I am carrying any STIs. According to what you have written above, it would be fine to sleep with somebody and let them know the next morning that you are HIV positive — after all, it’s their own fault for not asking.

      • missamaranth says:

        Yes…. THIS!

        The thing you say about monogamy being the norm is really important. The overwhelming majority of people don’t know what polyamory is, which I think makes full disclosure doubly important and makes it really difficult to say ‘they should have asked!’

        Yes…. along with relationship status, I agree that sexual health status is an absolute ‘must share’ if there’s anything at all that the other person ought to know.

        Also: hi, Love! *blows you a kiss* xxx

      • Martin Roell says:

        Nomad, thank you for your answer! There are several aspects here which are tricky for me: One is timing. At what point when meeting someone would you disclose your relationship status to him? When I meet someone, I usually don’t think of him/her as a “potential partner” or of the situation as “entering a relationship”. Sometimes it comes natural to speak about my relationships, but sometimes not. At what point would you bring up the issue?

        The other is “relationship status”. I find myself in a multitude of constantly changing relationships. Explaining this to someone I don’t know well, creates a very complicated conversation. I guess I could say: “Know that I dont’ live monogamously and have other partners” and see where it goes from there, but it sounds cold, abstract, inappropriate to my actual situation and I still wouldn’t know when to bring it up.

      • Martin Roell says:

        I thought about this from the other side: What would _I_ want to know from someone i had just met? How do _I_ actually get to know people and enter into relationships?

        I find that I enjoy getting to know people in a very slow and conscious, mostly “physical” way (hard to explain, or maybe not: I met all of my current partners when dancing). I’d rather _experience_ who they are than having them _tell_ me who they are. When I meet someone, I don’t find that they have duty to inform me about anything. If they want to share something -fine. If I specifically want to know something – I will ask.

        I can see that there are good reasons for why somebody would want to know specific things before entering into a relationship with somebody (and I am glad we are having this conversation – I understand this much better now) – but I am usually fine with not-knowing and discovering as the relationship develops.

    • missamaranth says:

      Hi Martin, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! However, I have to stick to my original stance on this one. As Nomad pointed out, I think there are things which are more and less likely to influence a person’s decision. For the less-obvious things, if something is a big deal to someone which you might not guess then, yes, I’d say it’s (at least partly) their responsibility to ask. But current relationship status seems like a BIG important one to me.

      Example which springs to mind: I had an experience a couple of years ago where I started a ‘thing’ with someone who led me to believe they were interested, and neglected to tell me that they only had permission from their partner to sleep with me ONCE (I was the ‘bi experiment,’ if you like)…. but I don’t think that was my fault for not asking ‘hey, are you going to use me for a one-night-stand then never speak to me again?’

      Personally, if someone wasn’t being upfront about their relationship status, I’d be worried what else they might hide from me further down the line.

      • I think that disclosure early on in relationships can be very tricky territory, and it’s good to be careful to avoid using “one size fits all” rules to decide when disclosure is appropriate. Conversations on disclosure run from STI disclosure, where the consensus tends to come down on “you must disclose”, to transsexual disclosure, which is still a very heated area. The latter’s why I personally feel very twitchy whenever I see disclosure discussed in broad terms, because kinds of disclosure like the STI example are often used as arguments for why people should disclose a transsexual history, when my feeling is that this isn’t a duty.

        I think that when deciding whether or not to disclose, someone has to weigh up a whole bunch of different factors, which include: How safe am I to disclose? How likely am I to get hurt if I don’t disclose? How likely is the other person to get hurt if I don’t disclose? If I don’t disclose and they get hurt, what kind of hurt is it – will they hurt because it means they won’t get their privileged way? How does disclosing and not disclosing affect the chances of success for this relationship? What kind of relationship am I looking for and what constitutes success? What kind of relationship do I think they are looking for? How likely are they to already know? How likely are they to suspect? How unusual is the information I’m thinking about disclosing? If I do disclose, how likely are they to get the right idea? And will there be opportunities to disclose later on in the relationship which change the balance of all these factors for the better?

        It’s so difficult to weigh up these factors that most folks tend to draw up their own personal cheat sheets, even if only unconsciously, which contain their explicit or implicit decisions about what kind of things they disclose or don’t. The further you go from mainstream relationship scripts, the more likely it is that individuals’ cheat sheets will be different.

        Personally, my cheat sheet says that I disclose early for non-monogamy, because I’m not likely to get hurt by someone reacting badly, and not disclosing might hurt them and/or hurt chances for the relationship. I can definitely imagine people whose life situations might mean that the right situation for them is not to disclose, or to disclose later.

      • missamaranth says:

        Yes, I understand these things can be very tricky issues and in some areas there is still a lot of debate about what level of disclosure is necessary. I’m very glad though that, for example, the issue of STI disclosure tends to be generally agreed on as a ‘must share.’ I think anything that’s a matter of something as important as health shouldn’t be negotiable when it comes to sharing.

        The transexual example is particularly difficult, and something I don’t feel particularly qualified to give an opinion about, given that I’m cisgendered. From the other side, I think I would _like_ to know from somebody I was potentially getting involved with…. but the information itself wouldn’t matter to me (ie wouldn’t change my interest in a person.) Again, given that I’m cis I don’t feel right in making a judgement about whether I think disclosure of being transexual is necessary or not. But I think your list of questions to think about when it comes to disclosing is really interesting and makes a lot of sense to me.

        My personal ‘cheat sheet’ is largely based around the fact that I don’t have casual sex and tend to take relationships really slowly – the issue of disclosing is somewhat negated in that anybody I’m going to be getting physically or emotionally intimate with beyond a ‘friend’ level will already know me pretty well by the time we get to that stage. I think we all find our own ways depending on our circumstances and how we do relationships.

        As I just said to somebody in a different thread, the thing with relationships – especially the non-normative kind – is that we’re all kind of writing our own scripts as we go along.

  5. Serina D says:

    I personally expect myself to always let a potential new partner know about being poly (although not giving details of partners) before I sleep with them. Hypothetically, if I was planning to sleep with them once and then never see them again, I might not tell them about the poly thing but I would tell them about my plan to never see them again. This situation hasn’t ever happened, to be fair, so this is just what I *hope* I would do.

    Also, my response to the ‘you’ll do X with them, why not me?’ tends to start at ‘because you’re the type of person who would ask that kind of question’. If they treat activity X so lightly, as if it were something I could offer interchangeably, then maybe they’re not the person I want to be doing X with.

    And finally: meta-consent. Some people (especially if they’re new to poly) find it difficult or awkward to talk to a metamour. My usual method is to ask my partner to pass along a message that I’m perfectly happy to meet up and chat about or negotiate things if the new metamour in question would be agreeable to that, but that I would leave it up to them. That means that it is a totally pressure-free offer, and they don’t even have to say no to my face – they can pass the refusal back via our mutual partner. On the other hand, if they would like to discuss it, it’s a good opportunity to check they’re ok with how things are progressing or if they have any worries or issues they’d like to bring up.

    Personally, I like that all my partners have met and are friends with each other, but not everyone is happy to do that.

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