What polyamory can learn from kink: Lily Lloyd speaks up14
December 11, 2012 by aggiesez
Ultimately the kink scene is more about forthrightness, negotiation, responsibility, and consent than it is about leather, floggers, or even sex. Which is why everyone — even vanilla folk like me — have much to learn from kinky people about how to handle all kinds of relationships with fairness and respect.
For many years one of my closest friends and mentors has been Lily Lloyd, who writes The Black Leather Belt — an incisive and delightful blog about kinky sex, relationships and culture.
Lily is not only kinky and bisexual, but polyamorous — married, with two kids and a longtime girlfriend. A few days ago I was talking to Lily about her new e-book, Discipline: adding rules & discipline to your BDSM relationship (now available in Amazon’s Kindle store). She mentioned something that caught my attention: “Being kinky prepared me for being poly.”
If you like my interview with Lily, you’ll love listening to her January 2013 interview on the Polyamory Weekly podcast, which expands upon the themes Lily and I discuss here.
In the following interview I asked her to expand on this theme. Another key point emerged: When poly people are trying to figure out how to treat non-primary partners well, they might take many useful lessons from the kink community’s emphasis on knowing yourself, respecting others, negotiating and renegotiating desires and limits, and gaining explicit informed consent from everyone involved.
Here’s what Lily had to say:
Talking frankly about sex puts you outside the mainstream
“Ten years into my marriage, my husband and I were like a lot of heterosexual couples: we didn’t talk about sex until it was a problem. Most couples don’t talk about sex, period. Think about the married couples you know. If you ask them, they often don’t know what their partner’s sex fantasies are, or whether their partner watches porn.
“We quickly realized that we were exiting the mainstream — not just because we had eyebolts on our ceiling and a lot of bondage equipment, but because we were having frank, intense, awkward conversations about sex that most of our peers weren’t having. We got used to being okay with being different from other people we knew.
“Also, the kind of sex we’d started having requires a huge level of trust between partners. That wasn’t typical of the relationships either of us had in past. You have to be incredibly emotionally vulnerable to let someone tie you up or discuss non-mainstream fantasies. Kinky sex is kind of like that team-building exercise where you fall backwards off a box and someone catches you — only it’s more fun and there’s often a Hitachi Magic Wand involved.
From kink to polyamory
“When we started introducing kink into our relationship, we had no intention of also opening our relationship. That didn’t come until years later. At first, we talked about polyamory for at least a year before we agreed that it was okay — and then it was another year before we actually did anything. I hear about a lot of couples rushing into polyamory, and I always wonder: Is there really a shortcut? How much have you discussed this?
“But like most formerly monogamous couples, we didn’t explicitly consider the perspective of our other potential partners at first. Not at all! It was all about us: making ourselves feel safe with rules. Only these rules were in response to fears, not realities, because we hadn’t done anything yet. And the rules we discussed rarely addressed any of the situations we encountered in real life.
“Had we considered the non-primary partner perspective right from the beginning, that would have been more practical and useful. Unfortunately what’s typical is that if you’re in an existing primary relationship, your discussion about openness centers around how it might affect your existing relationship. That’s a natural place to start, but I think a lot of people stop there because they don’t any know better. That’s a problem.
“But fortunately for us, we knew a lot of kinky and poly people. That helped us see things from more perspectives. We were attending some kink events and groups, and we knew some poly people — including long-term friends in a triad. I think even more than being involved in the poly and kink communities, having these people as personal friends taught us a great deal.
“If we didn’t personally know any kinky or poly people, we’d only have stereotypes to fall back on. Like: to be kinky, do you really need leather chaps? To be poly, do you really need to be a hippie? Nope, these things aren’t necessary. Knowing poly and kinky people in real life is important in terms of demonstrating different visions of what alternative relationships look like. The people in these relationships are not that different from you. They have jobs, household, hobbies, pets, etc. too.
Negotiation as foreplay
“What we especially learned from getting to know kinky people — stuff you can’t learn from stereotypes — is that they place a huge emphasis on negotiating explicitly about absolutely everything.
“The weirdest thing kinky people do is they talk about sex before they have it. In mainstream culture, people assume this ruins the surprise of sex, that it’s not romantic. Or that negotiating clearly about sex is some politically correct conspiracy to prevent them from having have any fun. People hate relationship discussions when they’re always arguments.
“But let me tell you: Texting about sex 11am at at work is really fun! My husband and I spend time discussing how to prepare for elaborate scenes. But we aren’t just talking about sex — we’re discussing our relationship in a way monogamous people often don’t do.
“People often treat monogamy as a set-it-and-forget-it relationship option. That’s why they often don’t talk about sex until they have problems. In contrast, we talk about what we want to have happen, not just what we don’t like or don’t want to happen.
Embrace and honor your differences
“Another thing we learned: Kinky people are expected to have unique desires and boundaries. In monogamy, partners are usually expected to have the same desires and boundaries. Monogamy tends to obscure partners’ differences. But kinky people get off on differences.
“In BDSM there’s a convention of the checklist. There are lots of these, and they list a lot of crazy pervy activities you can do. The idea is each person interested in doing a scene (which can be more than two people) fills out the checklist, marking each item as Yes, No, Maybe, and Not Even When Hell Freezes Over. Then you compare them, to see where your interests and boundaries overlap — and then you plan what to do from there. That’s really fun.
“I’d love to see poly people do a checklist: let’s look globally at all ways we could handle a relationship, all the things we could do, check off what we want to happen, and figure out our likely overlap in advance. Your needs, desires, and boundaries don’t have to be surprises. How much unhappiness would be avoided, for example, if such a checklist included simple questions about desired living situations, holidays, how out you want to be, and family?
“If you do this kind of relationship inventory, be sure to include all partners in this process, just like with BDSM. Everyone’s checklist matters equally, even if you don’t all want or need the same things. Yes, this is true in BDSM circles. You don’t just ignore someone’s checklist of things they want and don’t want.
“Of course, you can never figure out everything in advance. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put forth some effort. But still, people often only discover some limits when they trip over them. Inventorying up front, and revising that periodically, helps minimize that risk.
“In kink culture there’s the expectation that if someone unexpectedly hits a limit, you’re going to talk about it. And if someone really freaks out, ends up crying or shaken over an unexpectedly emotionally intense scene, you stop the scene and stay with them and offer support as long as they need it — if they want that support. (Don’t assume; ask.) You don’t just bail on them, that’s really bad form. In fact, that’s being an asshole. You’ll get a bad reputation for that.
Information is central to kink and polyamory
“In fact, information is what separates polyamory from infidelity. You should always discuss; not just assume.
“Breaking assumptions from monogamous culture can be really hard, especially when it comes to dealing with non-primary partners. For instance, when I was first dating after we opened our relationship, I explicitly looked for partners who already had a primary relationship of their own. Why? In my head, I couldn’t help wondering: Won’t they be lonely at the holidays? That shows what a newbie I was.
“After a while I realized that the people I was dating could make that decision for themselves. I told them what I have to offer, and they made their own choices. For instance, since I have small kids, I need to be with my family for holidays. I think I made a lot of assumptions about what others might want based on what I wanted — without knowing whether that was true.
“And when my husband started dating, he’d introduce me to his partners and metamours in good poly ‘meet the wife’ fashion. But sometimes I think this scared people off, they pushed to meet me before they were really ready to, and they were stressed and it didn’t go well. Personally I don’t think meeting everyone’s other partners has to happen on a schedule. I like to meet them sometime, but I’m not picky about when.
“I remember being scared to meet my girlfriend’s husband. I didn’t know what I would say in that conversation. Some internal voice of old cultural programming kept telling me: This guy should not like me. But we got along fine.
For poly people who want to learn from kinky people
“Most cities have a BDSM group, and they usually have regular discussions and workshops in classrooms — not just play parties at dungeons. This is where you can learn about negotiation skills, and about consent. If you’re not kinky, don’t focus on the subject matter, focus on the skills. Consent is crucial to kinky people, since we’re often doing radical things. Consent is also what separates polyamory from infidelity.
“Of course there are also lots of books, forums, and blogs that deal with negotiation and consent in kink. You can learn a lot by reading, too.
“Keep in mind that the emphasis in kink negotiation is really around consent, not sex. The point is: let’s figure out where our boundaries are without argument or hurt feelings. Kinky people need to learn to be okay with expressing their boundaries. Don’t be embarrassed by them, don’t worry how others might judge you for having them.
“In the land of kink it’s okay to not enjoy a specific act. In fact, it’s bad form not to admit that. When you express your boundaries, you get to re-evaluate them. And if you feel embarrassed every time you express a boundary, maybe you need to do some work around that.
“This is something poly people can learn from. If you tell people, “None of my partners are secondary,” but then your actions and decisions show a clear hierarchy, why is that? Why aren’t you telling people that? That’s something you need to be honest about, and maybe explore if you don’t feel okay about it.
“In kink, you’re expected to be extremely frank about everything. If you’re not, you may get a reputation for not being a good player — that is, someone who doesn’t tell you their limits and then blames you for going over them afterwards.”
Category: Interviews | Tags: communication, community, consent, culture, kink, negotiation, polyamory, relationships, sex, skills
I had written this long and thoughtful response then my computer froze. Gah!
To sum it up I just wanted to say so much thanks for this post. I have learned SO MUCH from our local BDSM club about communication and boundaries. It has carried over to emotional boundaries and been extremely helpful. I attend potlucks there, and things like spanking classes, and I find that I adore everyone in the community very much.
While I’m not kinky, I’ve learned a ton about communication, negotiation, awareness, responsibility, accountability, and even political and social power dynamics by getting to know kinky people well, and by making an effort to learn a fair amount about kink and even attend some kink events. That community is really on to a lot of important stuff that can make the world a lot better, and I like to see them getting credit for that — rather than being reflexively ostracized, trivialized, or vilified.
Spread the word!
I’m pretty vanilla myself. But I do recognize the positive aspects of the community, and have tried to encourage a lot of my friends to go and check it out. I think it’s really helpful. And I agree that the ostracizing of this community is really harmful. I still remember my first time going to meet everyone. I have always been on the fringes and not a mainstream type person at all, but I was still so naive and awestruck by how I was the “weirdo” looking one at the gathering with tons of tattoos and stretched out ears. I was expecting more of the folks to look like me. Really, they looked like plain Janes that I see every day on the street. I need that shock to the system now and again to remind me that I really still hold a ton of stereotypes that I need to let go of.
It’s true. There are tons of totally incognito perverts out there. Just think about that the next time you’re on a bus or at a coffeeshop! I have to say, when I’m in public settings, it makes me smile to look around and think: You know, there are perverts here, even though I don’t know who they are 🙂
Some folks are reassured by it when they see a group of kinky people in street clothes because they learn that leather chaps are optional. It’s also probably the case that you went to a meeting where people are encouraged to wear street clothes. This is true at a lot of “munches,” plainclothes gatherings of kinky folk that happen in public settings like a restaurant or a coffeeshop. If you went to a play party, or a con — well, let’s just say, people would be dressed very differently 🙂
haha Lily, I’m going to a flogging class then play night this Saturday so I’m excited to get to see people and go, “Oh, you’re so and so!” A lot of people at the munches don’t recognize each other in their street clothes and I love that. It’s like getting to meet people all over again.
Thanks again for your thoughts and insights. I really enjoyed reading.
You brought up a lot of important issues regarding polyamorous relationships. I have found another similarity to kink. Just as in “no 2 people’s kinks are completely alike”, is it also, “no polyamorists wants and needs are completely alike”?
This begs the question: What would a polyamory checklist look like?
That’s a great question. Sounds lime a crowd sourcing job! What would you put on it?
[…] I love talking about sex. No matter what the situation is…I’ll probably come up with some way to turn the conversation to sex, and sometime I really have to filter myself to avoid talking about sex! Sometimes, this leads guys to the impression that I’m easy and always DTF. Sometimes I am, but I’m generally less easy than people think. However, I’m generally confident in my ability to avoid sex with someone I’m not interested in, so I talk openly about sex with friends, acquaintances and strangers alike! The best sex conversations though are with your sex partners. Apparently, it is not at all normal to talk about sex within your relationship. I’ve always talked about sex with the guys I’ve been in relationships with, even in high school. I’ve definitely found that it improves the sex, especially in long-distance relationships, that when you finally are able to meet in person, you know exactly what the other likes! However, no matter how it may or may not effect the quality of the sex, it is totally an aphrodisiac! I recently read a post about what vanilla people can learn about communication from kinky people from Lily Lloyd on Solo Poly. […]
Thanks for this great post! I really value good communication, and don’t identify as very kinky. I’ve gone more in-depth on this on my blog: http://polyaphrodite.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/talking-about-sex/
Thanks! Yes, tall ng about sex is really important. One thing I’ve been dismayed to find is that when I talk to mono people in fluid-bonded relationships, they often tell me that they like this in large measure because they think it relieves them of the necessity to talk about sex.
WTF???? If you’re fluid bonded, you need clear communication even more, even if you are in a mono relationship! After all, most mono relationships aren’t really 100% mono…
This is a very good post. Many monogamous people talk about how complex polyamory must be, and from their point of view, it’s probably correct, because when you’re living monogamously, many of the rules that you live by are subconscious contracts that were passed down from generation to generation.
If you’re a parent, you may have a better handle on what this is like. With both of my kids, I kept finding that whatever age they were would trigger memories of both myself and my parents at that age–which meant that I never had to think to much about what parenting involved. Except for the fact, of course, that I disagreed with my parents’ decisions.
I’ve noticed that a similar subconscious role loading happens for many people when they get married. They may have been living together in a companionable way for years, but the minute they actually tie the knot, suddenly territorialism and gender roles change in ways that they did not expect.
This doesn’t happen with all people, but I’ve noticed it often enough to really respect the idea of subconscious role loading.
In polyamory, you really have to take control of those subconscious programs which are often automatically loaded as part of our mental tool kit. Otherwise, we’re responding to rules made hundreds of years ago and passed down without thought or variance.
[…] should be Safe, Sane, and Consensual. In this article on Solopoly, the author talks about what polyamory people could learn from Kink. Learning to discuss any aspect of an intimate relationship with clarity and mutual respect […]
I am learning quite a lot about my desires and communication style in my various poly relationships by reading your posts. Thank you for putting the info out there.
[…] decide to be with someone based on attraction and a smattering of mutual interests. I came across this article today that said many people view monogamy as a “set-it-and-forget-it” type of […]