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.”