When I attended NACS in Reykjavik last month, I met a wonderful person named Magnus, who was in the process of speaking to the Icelandic Minister of Health about having BD/SM removed as a pathology from the Icelandic version of the DSM. A critical (and fascinating) point of his argument is that BD/SM is not a sexual compulsion, or even preference, but a sexual orientation, and that many kinky people are more sexually oriented to a specific BD/SM role than partners of a specific gender. This is not true for everyone, but it is an interesting and valid idea. However, it potentially falls into the same traps as the “born this way” argument that has been used to further LGBTQI rights- that sexual orientation is essential, fixed, and immutable, and that we don’t have a choice in the matter. I don’t believe that sexual orientation is a “choice” in most cases, but I do believe that for many people it is a fluid thing that evolves over the life course, and that our romantic desires, domestic desires, sexual desires, and so forth aren’t always consistent across the board.
My Girlfriend and I are currently reading Neil Strauss’s book “The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships” together and it’s fantastic. Strauss is perhaps best known for his pickup artist tome “The Game” and “The Truth” emerges as a later in life sequel about what happens when PUA’s (hopefully) grow up and try to figure out relationships. He goes to sex addiction rehab, explores his mommy issues, burns out in a monogamous relationship, attends polyamory conferences, swingers clubs, and play parties, unsuccessfully tries to build a polyamorous harem based on his adulation of a creepy dude named “Father Yod.” It’s amusing to see the names of folks I know from my worlds of tantra, kink and sexual health promotion pop up throughout the book. I haven’t finished the book yet (I think he ends up back in the monogamous relationship he started out with), but it’s a very interesting read and mirror to my own relationship life.
In my teens and twenties I hungered for non-monogamy, but not polyamory perse- getting too emotionally close to multiple people always seemed to be disastrous. Then in my late twenties a switch flipped and all my friends started getting married, and I really wanted Monogamy. After a few terrible monogamous relationships, and a last ditch attempt at committed polyamory that I didn’t really want, I found a person I really liked, and was monogamous with him for three years. I was certain at that time that he was “the one” and that we would get married and spend our lives together.
When our relationship ended abruptly and traumatically, I was lost at sea. On one hand, I felt liberated. I had private space again, I didn’t have to censor myself, I didn’t have to justify my health challenges, spiritual practice, sexual proclivities or choice of career, feel pressured between choosing between career and children, policed for how much cleavage I showed or how to wear my hair. A huge weight was lifted as I was able to devote myself to self care and feel comfortable in my body, my gender, and sexual identity again. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve lost yourself until you find yourself again.
One thing that led me to stay for too long- and a terror that haunted me as I became single again- was that I felt unloveable. It had taken me years to find the person I thought was “the one”- the idea of going back on OKCupid gave me hives. I was 35 years old, so out of shape that I got winded during sex, stubbornly gender non-conforming, yet primarily attracted to men- I felt undateable, despite the reassurances of my friends. I was starting to get the first wrinkles around my eyes and forehead, despite the reassurance of the clerk at Sephora who praised my “youthful” skin. I had failed at heteronormativity, and this was my punishment- I was past my prime, and unloveable. The idea of love and sex made me nauseous at that point, so perhaps it was an inconsequential problem in the short term.
My whole life I’d been taught that if you didn’t pin down one person by the time you were forty you’d be doomed to spend your life alone. That men my age were either immature commitmentphobes or divorced damaged goods. That men stopped looking at women once they turned forty. I’d internalized these societally enforced scare tactics instead of taking a minute to consider that maybe they were bullshit that existed to reinforce gender normativity and heteronormativity.
One of my biggest anxieties was that I was so weird, and wanted monogamy. Until I realized that I didn’t.
That was one of the biggest surprises of becoming single again. That my relationship with myself was the most important thing, and I didn’t want to give away too much of myself to anyone else. The second surprise was that I didn’t have to go back on OKCupid again. People who had been my friends for years wanted to date me, and I wanted to date them. The foundation of years of friendship eliminated a lot of the trust-related anxieties that had plagued polyamory for me in past. My best friend and I decided that we wanted to former a platonic domestic partnership and emotional support system with one another, a primary relationship free of sexual jealousy and erotic stagnation. I went to a BD/SM club for the first time in years, and sat down next to a man who I’m still dating four months later.
For the first time in my life, dating is effortless. The partners appear. For the first time in my life, polyamory works. Every person I date adds something important to my life without being overly high maintenance, and my domestic arrangement with my girlfriend is the rock that grounds me through it all. My boundaries are the best they’ve ever been, I don’t feel compelled to abandon myself to please others. If you had told me a year ago that I would be polyamorous, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here I am.
I don’t, however, think I am fundamentally polyamorous (and I don’t really feel at home in that subculture, to be honest, but the concept of multiple loving relationships describes what I’m doing pretty well). Nor am I fundamentally monogamous. Polyamory is my sexual orientation right now. It works right now. I cannot tell you what I’ll want in a year, five years, a decade. I am giving myself permission to evolve and grow. Like Neil Strauss, the process of exploring different relationship styles has enabled me to better figure out what I want. I don’t think that being poly OR mono is a more emotionally evolved way of being- your success in either venture will largely depend on the strengths and weaknesses of you and your partner(s) than the relationship model itself. Both are valid relationship styles.
For Strauss monogamy is the logical conclusion at the end of exploration, for me, it’s polyamory. But at 35, I don’t think it’s the last stop on the line. I don’t think my monogamy was somehow false or delusional. It was what I needed at the time (and I’m seeing an increasing number of people burnt out by poly returning to monogamy out of exhaustion- just as I did once upon a time). Like any other element of sexual orientation, this too is allowed some modicum of fluidity. With one’s sexuality there is always some pressure to pick sides and sustain a fixed identity (as a genderqueer bisexual I’ve spent my whole life grappling with other people’s discomfort with ambiguity). But I refuse to identify as strictly poly or mono.
My only fixed romantic identity is self love, and my capacity to love others.