**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.
(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?