Thursday, August 14, 2014

Revisiting Jealousy: Is "Getting Over It" the Best Idea?

Photo courtesy of Greg Westfall
Lots of advice in the poly blogosphere has to do with jealousy. It's typically one of the first questions we poly folk get asked when discussing our relationship styles with people unfamiliar with the concept, and it's a common stumbling block for many people in committed relationships, both poly and monogamous.

We've all felt it: that stinging, unhappy bite of a thought that says, "But why isn't it me?"

It's not just romantic partners who get jealous of each other. We feel jealousy toward our siblings, our friends, our coworkers, strangers we've never met but whose success we hear about. It's a common human emotion, and there's even research to suggest it doesn't belong uniquely to us.

Yet most of the advice you'll hear about jealousy tends to imply that you should try not to feel it so much. Or that it isn't real, but only a manifestation of some other emotion, like anger or sadness. Hell, even I am guilty of giving this very advice.

Yet I'm starting to wonder if it's wrong.

The study I linked to above, regarding jealousy in dogs, suggests that jealousy is a normal emotion, and a natural consequence of feeling emotionally attached to someone or something. It's not an expression of anger or insecurity or anything else. It's just itself. It seems, also, to be rooted not in insecurity, as many have suggested, but rather in emotional closeness and bonding.

We typically don't feel jealous toward strangers who have nothing to do with us, even if we're quite obviously anxious, insecure, and angry. Jealousy arises when something we feel emotionally close to, such as a partner, a parent, or a dream job is being shared or entirely taken by someone else. "This is supposed to be mine," our brains tell us. "Why does that other person get to have it?"

If you're a dog lover, you've watched this happen when you brought home a new puppy and introduced her to your older dog. For several days, the older dog growled defensively whenever the puppy came near, and snapped at her viciously when she got within reach. You had to keep them separated to keep her safe.

But you slowly kept putting her in front of him, and he began to warm up to her, until finally they cuddled up to sleep next to you on the couch. You breathed a sigh of relief, knowing they'd be okay together now. Right?

Human jealousy, I think, works much the same way. When first confronted with a partner's new partner, we instinctively balk. We become possessive. We poly people usually try to talk ourselves through it, alone or with our partners and friends. Of course, we sometimes behave badly, trying to control our partners' behavior and reduce our exposure to situations that inspire our jealousy. But our partners continue having good experiences with other people, and eventually the jealous instinct fades until it's gone entirely.

I posit that it's this repeated exposure that reduces jealousy, not any late-night discussions of our personal fears and insecurities. Like the old dog learning to accept the new puppy, we find that, with time, we just feel less bad about the other people in our lovers' lives.

Thus, I also posit that it's okay just to feel jealous and not try to stop it. Do not, of course, act on it. Jealousy constantly tells you to do very stupid things, like have sex with someone you're not interested in just to spite your partner, or forbid your partner to see the object of your jealousy, or spread nasty rumors about that person. It is supremely important that you don't do the things your jealousy tells you to do. But not to feel it at all? That's lunacy.

Maybe, instead, just feel it. Recognize it. Understand it. Know you will feel it again. And again. And again. And eventually, you'll feel it less, until you don't feel it anymore.

I'm not sure any of this is even true. I could be entirely wrong. What have your experiences been?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Living in a Culture of Consent

Image courtesy of Spread the Health
This past weekend, a man killed several people, both men and women, because he was angry no one had ever "given him" sex. (I am not using his name because I have no desire to elevate him to a celebrity for his actions.) This event sparked a tremendous Twitter trend, #YesAllWomen, by which women shared their stories of rape, abuse, and harassment. Feminists shouted. People who had not been feminists became feminists. People cried, and railed, and gnashed their teeth. "We hate this culture," they declared, "but what can we do?"

While this was all going on, I was blissfully unaware, spending my time out of phone and wifi range at a regional burn, similar to Burning Man. I experienced firsthand what it's like to live in consent culture, and I want you to know about it.

The night of the effigy burn, emotions ran high. It was difficult not to feel a deep and abiding love, not only for your closest friends and relatives, but for everyone you met who was part of your experience. Hugging was, well, inevitable.

And yet, for my group at least, consent was consistently requested and given. Friends for years, some spanning decades, asked, "Hug?" before embracing their loved ones. Some felt the desire to be closer, and asked, "May I kiss you?" Even those who had done these things before, even those who had dated, lived together, had sex, etc. Everyone got consent. I was blown away by the beauty of it.

Later that night, I was having sex with my boyfriend in a public place (at a private event, mind you, this was still a legal action). A crowd formed around us, and many people wished to join. My boyfriend and I, however, didn't want anyone else to be inside our experience. These people as well, strangers to us, asked before touching, and respected our denial of consent. One person even asked, "May I watch you from here?" while sitting too close for comfort. He, too, respected our wish to have some space when we told him we'd prefer if he moved a bit farther away.

All of these people, strangers and friends alike, understood when and how to obtain consent, and how to accept the denial of consent. This is consent culture. How, you may wonder, did it come about?

First, we demystified sex. Sex is not the most defining human experience. It is not a goal, but an act. It can be deeply meaningful and emotional, but it need not be. We believe and practice this, encouraging sexual expression, discouraging myths about "purity," and refusing to engage in shaming over someone else's sexual choices. Sex is a thing people do, like eating and sleeping. We recognize that we all do it, so it really can't be that special. When we make it another part of the human experience, rather than the greatest part, we remove the taboo about it so that we can actually talk about it.

Second, we repeatedly discuss personal boundaries and consent. We praise each other for setting good boundaries ("I don't really like hugs; would you like a handshake instead?" "Of course! Thanks for making that clear.") and for obtaining consent before crossing someone else's boundaries ("I would love a hug; thank you for asking!). When someone does violate boundaries (yes, it happens, we're not perfect) we go over why their behavior was unacceptable and how they can change it in the future. We discuss consent and boundaries with the children of our community, so that they understand how to respect them long before they become sexually active.

We intervene when we see someone violate a boundary, even if it isn't ours. "Hey, I know you're friends, but you really need to ask before you pick her up like that." When people respond by saying that it's okay and they do this all the time, we remind them that others see the example they're setting and follow it, and modeling consent is a practice we want to encourage. We don't take offense when someone points out our mistakes about consent, even when it's a stranger.

We communicate. Every action I've mentioned above is an act of communication. Discussing boundaries, asking for consent, calling out nonconsensual behavior, educating each other—these are all about communication. Talking with each other about sex and personal agency is the only way to change the culture.

Also, you will notice I've included hugging, kissing, and other forms of touching in this conversation about consent. Consent, remarkably, is not about sex. It is about personal agency and having control over what happens to your body. Consent for a hug is just as important as consent for sex. A culture of consent focuses on each individual having total say in what happens to their body at all times, not just when clothes come off.

Consent culture is learned. I may seem like a guru now, well versed in requesting and giving consent, but only three years ago I failed to realize I had been raped. I didn't understand consent well enough to recognize that my lack of consent meant the sex people forced on me was rape. I had to learn what consent was, how to ask for it, and how to give it, how to deny it, and how to accept denial of consent, just like anyone else. I learned these things in my thirties. It's never too late.

If I can learn this much about consent in this little time, imagine what we can do together! Let's stop wringing our hands and wishing the world were better, and start actually making it so.

Talk to each other. Practice giving and receiving consent. Recognize your mistakes and apologize for them. Explain consent and agency to your children, and praise them when you see them practice it. Take no offense when consent is denied to you. Thank those who obtain your consent before touching you.

I've written a lot on this blog about consent. Please read it. Please practice it. Please ask if you don't understand.

This is how we move forward. This is how we change.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How to Give a Great Blowjob

Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Sz├ęp
Have you ever wondered if your partners like it when you go down on them? Have you ever gotten a sincere compliment after blowing your partner's mind with your oral skills? Would you like to?

For our purposes, "blowjob" here means oral sex in general. The gender of your partner doesn't matter, nor does your own gender. Although specifics about technique will vary, the principles are the same, regardless of who's giving and who's receiving.

So, how to give an amazing blowjob! There are basically three key points to remember.

1. Communicate.
This doesn't just mean asking, "What do you like?" The truth is that most people either don't know exactly what they like or can't describe it even if they do know. And what a person likes with one partner may not work with another. In fact, what a person likes on one day may not be what they like another day. Instead, pay attention. If you speed up, do they start breathing harder? If you decrease pressure, do they begin moving their hips? Are they making happy, yummy noises? Feel free to ask things like, "How is this?" or, "Do you like this speed?" Get specific feedback and remember what they've told you (both with their words and with their body). And hey, feel free to discuss it afterward! They'll likely appreciate that you want to do an even better job next time. Plus, you'll start getting those compliments you're wanting.

2. Make a mess.
Blowjobs are messy. Don't be afraid of drooling. If you want to finish up with your hair all perfect and your face clean, you might as well just stop reading now. Sex is messy, and you're going to get covered in it. So is a lot of what's around you, quite possibly.

Remember that body fluids coming from your partner indicate they feel really good. Your goal is to get them to feel so good their juices get all over you both. Trying to contain the mess means you've shifted your focus from where it should be (your partner) to where it shouldn't (absolutely anything else). Which brings us to....

3. It's all about them.
This should be obvious, but I'm not sure it always is. Giving a blowjob is about getting your partner off. It's about making them feel amazing. It is entirely, totally, and in every way for them, not you. Your hand may cramp. You may be in an awkward position. Your jaw might get sore. You might have difficulty getting a breath sometimes. Deal with it. You're not the one you're doing this for, remember? (A small caveat: if you are in actual pain, stop. Obviously. But this is pretty rare, I think.) Keep in mind that they'll be doing the same for you soon, and you won't want them to stop at the crucial moment because their jaw is getting tired. Right?

Giving someone a mind-blowing orgasm, making someone feel so good they knock things off the nightstand (table, backseat, whatever) is the best feeling in the world. Learn to love being the source of someone's pleasure. Revel in how good you can make someone feel. Let their pleasure be the source of your arousal.

In general, be open to experimentation, communicate a lot, and have a great fucking time. Literally.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Return to Being Awkward

Photo courtesy of Trevor Williams
An interesting effect of having been involved in relationships that consumed absolutely all of my attention for the past two years is that I seem to have completely lost my ability to flirt properly.

I think (although I'm uncertain) that I can initiate a flirtation moderately well. I don't really do this, though. I seem not to have enough time and motivation to make it happen.

However, when someone attractive flirts with me, I get completely flustered and awkward, and at best mumble and leave quickly.

This is so totally unlike me I can't understand how it came about, nor what to do about it.

Case in point: Sunday night I met up with a group of friends to share food and conversation and to watch a movie. This is a weekly occurrence for many of us, but we were joined by some friends who come less regularly. Among these is someone I admit I have a bit of a crush on. This guy is quite gorgeous, smart, kind, and fun to be around. So when, at the end of the evening, he gave me a long hug and mentioned it would be fun if we could get together sometime, I, of course, replied with a sparklingly witty, adorable, inviting remark.

No, wait. I didn't. That's what I wish I did. I actually kind of awkwardly mumbled something and left.

This isn't even the first time I have totally flubbed a golden situation with this man. I know he wouldn't be cruel to me, even if he rejected me, so what in the world is my problem? Why can't I be even a tiny bit charming and adorable when he talks to me?

He's not the only one. There have been a handful of times over the past year or so I have watched the perfect moment sail right by me, and thought to myself (sometimes only moments later), "That was absolutely my chance. If only I'd said something witty and sweet."

But I don't. I mumble and look at my feet and, if I'm lucky, manage to giggle.

I can only hope I will be presented with enough opportunities to brush up my skills.

Is this what people mean when they say they've lost their mojo?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Stress Relief Girlfriend

Photo courtesy of Ciaran McGuiggan
I have discovered I play a specific role in one of my relationships.

I practice solo polyamory. That is, I don't live with my partners, share finances with them, have children or shared business interests with them. Some would call me "single," but I don't feel this fits me particularly well, as I have been in loving, committed relationships for nearly two years now.

The benefit of this (aside from the many benefits I gain from not having my boundaries infringed) is that date time really is Date Time. My partners and I have to schedule time together specifically. We don't end up having time together accidentally, and we never slip into the habit of doing things independently but in the same room with each other. Our dates occupy time we've set aside to spend together, and I really like that.

One of my boyfriends, Rusty, shares a home, finances, and business with another partner. I also gather (although I could be wrong) that he often serves as a sort of caretaker for her: bringing meals and medicine when she doesn't feel well, doing dishes and laundry, seeing to many of her everyday needs.

Most of the time this doesn't affect me much, but sometimes, like now, when he's under great stress, I become The Stress Relief Girlfriend. He arrives for dates mentally and emotionally drained, and requests we do things to take his mind off his stress.

I am often happy to fulfill this role. After all, being The Stress Relief Girlfriend involves a lot of sex and video games, our favorite pastimes.

But, being the only resident in my home (and owner of two adorable but high-maintenance cats), I still have to do my laundry, and take out my trash, and wash my dishes, and clean my cats' litter box. And all last week I was ill, and (through no fault of Rusty's) ended up spending several days home alone, feeling generally miserable and a bit sorry for myself.

It can be difficult, when my own stress piles up, to be The Stress Relief Girlfriend. I like that Rusty thinks of me like this; that he considers time with me the enjoyable escape from responsibility and tedium (not that his other partner is tedious, mind you, just that they share the tedium of work and daily life). I enjoy being able to give him this escape, to be where he turns to feel better.

But I won't deny that sometimes it's not very easy. When he wants a relaxing night away from stress but I have chores to do and cats to feed and errands to run and all my own stress of the day or week, I find myself rushing through my own responsibilities or delaying doing them in order to take care of his needs.

Although I'm sure this sort of dynamic exists within monogamous relationships, I never really saw it as transparently as I see it now. I feel I have this role to play, the free-wheeling, fun-loving girlfriend who is always ready for a good time and happy to provide a place to relax and recharge. Sometimes that role fits better than other times.

I'm not complaining, exactly, and I don't feel this is a situation that needs to be fixed. It's simply not something I encountered before I was in polyamorous relationships. I suppose I am remarking on its existence, and wondering whether anyone else feels this happens in their relationships as well.