Sunday, December 25, 2011

Coming Out to Family, Do They Need To Know

Many people find the holidays a stressful time, with holiday shopping and cooking and making plans to travel. For people who live alternative lifestyles it can be even more stressful. Perhaps there is a part of your lifestyle that your parents do not know about and would not approve of. Maybe they know and are openly judgmental. As the holidays approach and people go home to visit family, many people wonder if they should come out to their family.

Many people have this idea that they want to be able to tell their parents anything and everything. Some feel that they already do. If you already tell your parents everything, then there is nothing to come out about. You already told them.

If you haven't, the question is: should you? Do they need to know? If you are gay, that is something that they probably need to know. If they expect you to come home for Christmas with Eve and you bring Steve instead, they are probably going to figure out that something non-traditional is going on.

However, what about being poly or kinky? Let us address each question separately.

For many in the kink scene, it is more than a sexual proclivity, it is a community and a lifestyle. You may go to munches and have many friends you met through the scene. Your main hobbies may be scene related like rope or building rigging equipment. Obviously, the judgment of whether you should or should not come out is entirely up to you, but consider this question, does any part of this lifestyle affect your family at all. If you are only kinky in the bedroom, I would suggest that there is no reason for your family to know. You don't know what your family does in their bedrooms and you are likely happier for the lack of knowledge. Why would they what to know what you do with a rubber chicken suit and a seventy feet of silk rope in your private time? Of course, if your full time profession is making sex toys it might be good to let them in on the secret. Otherwise, simple conversations like, "how's work going, honey?" could get quite awkward.

When it comes to coming out as poly, it is a similar issue. Do they need to know? Does it affect them? This would largely depend on the nature of the polyamory that you practice. If you have a primary and a few friends with benefits, this probably falls into the kind of behind closed bedroom doors information that you family does not want to know. On the other hand, if you have two primaries who are both equally important, then you might want to explain ahead of time why you are bringing both Eve and Steve home for Christmas.

Should you decide that coming out is the right choice for you and your family, I offer two pieces of advice. Don't make it a bigger deal than it really is, and find common ground.

When I say not to make it a bigger deal than it really is, I mean that if you don't make a big deal of it, they may not either. Don't preface your explanation something like this, "Mom, Dad, I need to tell you something and I'm not sure how you'll react. I know that you always raised me to be a moral and proper person, and I hope that you approve of what I'm about to tell you but I'm not sure if you will..." That's how you introduce a confession of guilt. You should not be guilty about your lifestyle, and, if you are, you should get straight with your own morality before you go dragging your family into it. Rather, introduce the concept with confidence. If you act like there's nothing wrong with it, no one else will have a reason to think so either.

Second, find a way to explain the concept so that others can understand it. You're not coming out as a martian. We all have the same psychological needs, and we all fulfill them in similar ways. Your way might just be slightly less common than theirs. Also, it is important to understand that your family may have difficulty understanding exactly what you are saying. They may have pre-existing notions from television or other media which may be completely inaccurate to your situation. Understand that their questions are likely not meant as judgments, just as a way to gain better understanding. Unless your parents are quite disturbed, they probably have your best interests in mind and want to make sure that you are making right choices to be safe and happy.

Candy Says: I once had a very interesting discussion with a friend's grandfather about bisexuality. He asked all kinds of questions. Turns out he had no problem with homosexuality but he only knew gay and straight and was confused by bisexuality. He asked, "How do you decide which one you are? Do you flip a coin every morning?" It wasn't meant to be offensive at all. It was just the best question he could think of with the background he had.

Let's also remember that if you haven't come out to them, they haven't come out to you. For all you know, you might not be the only poly or kinky person in your family. Wouldn't it be a kick if you came out and some family member said "yeah, me too."

Whether you are out to your family, completely closeted, or about to come out this weekend, I wish you the very best holiday.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Uncoupling: Separating Marriage, Sex, and Child-Rearing

Conservatives will tell you that the advent of reliable birth control redefined sexual morality. They are entirely correct, although I would not agree with the implications of their statement. Sexual morality prior to reliable birth control was built around creating a social structure in which children would be raised in a stable family situation because it has been understood since time immemorial that children are best raised in a family of some kind, thus the premium placed on virginity traditionally.

With the advent of reliable birth control, it became possible to have sex with a minimal chance of unintended pregnancy. Suddenly, the groundwork was laid for a sexual revolution in the 1960's, when a new generation discovered that the traditional reasons to avoid premarital sex no longer existed. The concept of withholding sex until marriage was no longer as vital as it had been.

As feminism increased equality, allowing women to enter lucrative careers where they could support themselves, the need to marry for economic stability almost completely left the picture. No longer would a woman need to preserve her "virtue" to trade for economic support, as she could now support herself.

This progression opened up a vast variety of lifestyle options. With sex no longer leading to parenthood, people could have satisfying sexual relationships without them needing to provide economic support necessary to take care of children. The stability of a monogamous relationship, traditionally needed to support the family unit, is no longer necessary for many people who do not want children.

Interestingly, this same social progression has led many people to believe that marriage is no longer even necessary for raising children. In my work, meeting with parents, I find that less than 20% of the parents I meet are married to the parent of their child. Single parenting is no longer shameful, as it was in previous generations. In fact, it is not even seen as irregular.

As marriage ceases to be the norm, people feel less social obligation to take care of spouses and remain committed their relationships. As many act less trust-worthy, many choose not to trust. Expecting that they will eventually be abandoned, many people chose to develop their own independence, financial and others.

The traditional American family is no longer. The future which conservatives fear is here, and it happened long before gay marriage was legalized. Yet, even with all these fundamental social changes, society goes on, the farmers still farm, the sun still rises and sets, and chaos does not reign. We live in uncharted territory, and most of us have lived in for our entire lives.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

But She's Your Wife? What Happens Next in Polyamory

I have explained polyamory for the first time to many people, and most of them have accepted it. They understand the idea of sharing and see the benefit of not expecting one person to do everything and even see how jealousy could be managed. At some point in the conversation, there is often some question like "but they stop doing this when they get married, right?"

A friend of mine is engaged, and he and his fiancee live with his other partner. People sometimes ask what the other partner will do when they get married. His answer is usually something like "get dressed up and come to the wedding." They have no intention on changing any part of their lifestyle when they become legally married.

In our modern culture with 72 day marriages and 50% divorce rates, many people, especially those who have never been married, often hold this lofty ideal of marriage as some kind of magical and eternal bond between two people. It is thought that somehow everything changes, and, if it is the right couple who really love each other, love will conquer all.


If a person is inclined to polyamory before marriage, they would be inclined to polyamory afterwards. Marriage is a legal institution, which is very important for the benefits it conveys to the couple engaged in it, especially where children are involved. However, it does not turn someone into a different person.

The main reason that so many people learning about polyamory for the first time get so confused by polyamorous married people is the context in which they understand polyamory. Most mainstream Americans can pretty easily understand the idea of serial monogamy: being single and meeting a new person fairly often, having some fun with them, and moving on to the next. They can also well understand the concept of a relationship, which conveys the benefits of an ongoing connection and stability but comes with the trade-off of not being able to see other people.

To them, polyamory is a hybridization of these two concepts. The benefits of an ongoing relationship without the trade-off of exclusivity. However, this only makes sense to them for a more casual relationship: the kind of relationship that has emotional attachment but lacks the lifelong commitment of marriage or even engagement. It is in the casual nature of the relationship that it makes sense to be open to seeing other people.

There are certainly people who practice polyamory in this way. They are polyamorous until they get into a serious relationship with the right person. This makes a great deal of sense for them. Why be exclusive to a relationship which does not and is not expected to provide for all emotional and physical needs?

In this kind of relationship, it is very important that it is made very clear that any secondary relationships exist only so long as the primary relationship does not become too serious. Any secondaries involved need to emotionally prepare themselves for the time when the primary relationship will grow to exclude all others. This situation will naturally place a limit on how serous any secondary relationship can be.

The very dangerous situation to watch out for in this structure is that in which the secondary relationship does become more serious. It creates a zero-sum game situation in which the primary relationship getting stronger threatens the secondary and the secondary getting stronger limits the primary.

If you are thinking of structuring your primary relationship in this way, there is nothing wrong that that, but I would highly recommend that you keep your secondary relationships to more casual, friends-with-benefits relationships. The alternative of more serious secondary relationships is setting everyone up for a contentious and dramatic future.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Introduction to Creating Poly Rules

Suzie asks: My boyfriend and I have decided to make our relationship polyamorous. We are negotiating the rules, and I was wondering if there are any rules that are particularly important.

This is a tricky question. It is like asking what size dress you should buy. You should buy the dress that is the right size for you. I know, not the most helpful answer. The rules that work for one couple could be disastrous for another, so instead of suggesting specific rules, here are some guidelines for a process to develop rules.

Open and Honest Communication
The first and most important thing is open and honest communication at all times, especially when negotiating rules. If you are not comfortable with something, you need to say so immediately. If it is uncomfortable in theory, it's not going to get any better when it moves into practice. Generally, adding restrictions in negotiation are not too difficult. Trying to add restrictions after an outside relationship has begun is like trying to squeeze toothpaste back into a tube.

Reciprocity and Fairness
A common fallacy is that rules must be reciprocal. This is not true. They must be fair, but they do not have to be the same. Imagine a couple who we'll call Alice and Bob. Alice is more concerned about sexual health and Bob is more concerned about emotional issues. Having different concerns, they would need different rules to address their needs.

Alice might require that each new partner bob has must be tested for STDs before he sleeps with them and every 4 months after. She is less concerned that they will steal his heart than that they will rot his crotch.

Bob, on the other hand, finds condoms and regular testing to be sufficient for sexual safety, but, because of some bad experiences in the past, he is afraid that Alice's other lovers might try to steal her away for their own. Thus, he would not need regular accounting of sexual health, but he might want to meet and get to know any potential lover of Alice's before she takes up with them.

Common Rules
Having told you that there are no universal rules, I will go back and provide some examples of rules commonly found in poly relationships.

Notification: Most couples require some type of notification of extra-curricular activities. For some this means that permission must be obtained before doing anything. For others, this simply means that it should be mentioned when it is convenient after the fact.

Veto: This is a more controversial concept. Some couples swear by it, others swear at it. The veto concept is  that the primary partner can veto a secondary partner. Usually the veto can only be used when a new secondary relationship is starting, although there are some couples where the primary can veto at any time. An entire article could be written on this concept alone.

Sexual Health: Most couples have some rules relating to sexual health such as requiring the use of latex barriers or new partners being tested before taking up with a primary partner. This is usually based on the comfort and concern levels of the primary partners as well as the style of relationship one has. This becomes more important is more swinger-type relationships than in more poly-fidelitous relationships with far fewer partners.

Keep the Lines of Communication Open
You will see this word a lot: "communication". You can't just set rules and leave them. Things change over time. Comfort levels change; people become more or less comfortable. While the rules are negotiated in full at the start, it is important to periodically revisit them and make sure that they meet the needs of all parties involved.

As always, this is just a brief overview with some general concepts, rather than a comprehensive study of poly rules. Your mileage may vary.