Bi, Poly, Slut, and Muslim: Reconciling and Understanding It All

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Maya is an Arab-American polyamorist. Here she shares her story of sexuality, mental illness, and the power of family.

I’m a 26 year old woman, and I was born and raised in southern California to first generation Arab-American immigrants. My parents were very religious when I was young, and my siblings and I were taught to pray and fast. We all attended a religious private school at our local mosque for quite some time. At six years old, I asked my mother why I should believe in god if I couldn’t see him. She replied with the standard, “well, that’s what faith is.” I was completely dissatisfied with that. I wanted more, and I realized then and there that religion would never give me more.

Things shifted dramatically for my family following the September 11 attacks. It was a jolt that we needed, something that underscored a very distinct problem within our religion. My parents did a ton of research, which led to my mother deciding to remove the headscarf. Within our community this was such a dramatic and daring move, I can’t even explain it. With my family shaken but thrust into a period of real digging and exploration, life went on. In middle school, I began having little crushes on other girls in my class. I remember watching a certain Beyonce music video over and over, not really knowing why I liked it so much. I never acted on my feelings and didn’t bother telling anyone, mostly because I knew I was attracted to boys too. So my homosexual tendencies weren’t really at the forefront of my mind.

Once I had finished up high school and began to attend college, I began to struggle. Having been labeled as this bright and happy girl for so long, I crashed when I was left to my own devices because I realized that that wasn’t really me. I had so many unanswered questions, and I was very confused about who I was or where I fit in. I’d always been an emotional eater, so I gained a lot of weight during my first year of college. I also began noticing other women more often, possibly because my self-confidence was near-zero around men. I still wasn’t ready to address my bisexuality.

After finishing up college and successfully coming out to my parents and family with an overwhelmingly positive reaction, I moved away from California for graduate school. This was my first time ever living completely alone. Up until that point, I’d always lived with my siblings or immediate family. I gained a lot of weight once again (60 pounds in one year!) and drank a lot. I did well in school, but that was the only thing in life I was keeping somewhat organized. I was struggling in a very real way. Toward the end of my first year of grad school, I met a woman in my program whom I liked, and I finally had my first kiss at 24 years old. It was sensual, soft, and fulfilling.

That summer, I left to travel overseas and have weight loss surgery. I’m 5’6″ and my highest weight was 236. Since then, I’ve lost over 80 pounds. I returned to complete my second year of graduate school and this is when my period of “heavy dating” began. I went on four or five dates per week. I drank a lot during my dates, even though I wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all right after having surgery. It was reckless and unhealthy. I would fade after seeing someone a few times, because I was afraid of having sex for the first time. I’d never been confident about my naked body. Mental images of perfect, cellulite-free models haunted me and made me feel like shit about myself.

I graduated from my Master’s program and got a job in academia. I began drinking even more. I was seeing someone who I didn’t really care for, and after a long day of drinking and smoking weed, I decided, fuck it! We had sex on July 4th, 2016. My body was on fire; it hurt so much. I was bleeding profusely. We got out of bed afterward and sat outside to watch the fireworks. He began discussing the war in Iraq and made some comments regarding the murder of civilians that still make me shudder. He topped it all off with some xenophobic and racist comments about Arabs and Muslims, knowing full well what my religious background and ethnicity were. I left his house like I was dreaming, in so much physical and emotional pain that I didn’t know what to do. I went to work the next morning and texted him that I didn’t want to see him anymore. I don’t think about him at all.

That same week, I met someone at a bar and had a one night stand. From there, I had roughly fifteen casual sex encounters (thankfully I always used protection) over the next two months. I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted in bed because I didn’t know what I wanted, so I often ended up being used by people just to get off. I was very aware of that.

I began to feel distinctly bored, empty, and unhappy. I’d been going to therapy and taking antidepressants for years because I’d always been anxious and sort of depressed, but combining the alcohol with prescription drugs was not working well for me. I fell into a pit of depression, HARD. I couldn’t focus on work, so I was falling behind. I was calling my parents long distance every day at lunch to cry over the phone. They didn’t know what was going on and I wouldn’t tell them because I was so ashamed that I was drinking and having sex. I switched medications, and that’s when the shit hit the fan. Suicidal thoughts overwhelmed me. What pushed me over the edge was receiving a formal warning at work. I planned to kill myself that afternoon. I picked up a bottle of liquor from the store on my way home and had a Xanax prescription waiting for me at the pharmacy. I was driving to the pharmacy when I unconsciously reached for my phone. Seriously, I don’t even know how or why I did it. I don’t remember.

I called my mom, who lives in a timezone twelve hours ahead and was asleep. She woke up and picked up the phone. I was sobbing so hard I thought I would never stop. My heart was broken and I had to finally ask for help. I did. My mom, a very mild-mannered and soft-spoken woman, is the strongest person I know. She asked me to promise her that I wouldn’t hurt myself. She asked if I would throw out the bottle of liquor and just go home and rest for the day. She told me that she was going to support me no matter what. That my whole family was standing behind me if I would let them. We agreed that it would be best for me to quit my job and move back to California to figure things out. I hung up the phone, and the time was 5:02pm. The pharmacy had closed at 5.

At 6am the next morning, I received a phone call. It was my brother, and he was in front of my apartment building. He had taken a flight across the country with two layovers so that he could get to me as soon as possible. Still dazed and feeling worn out from the day before, I fell apart when I saw him. We were headed back to California within a week.

I was not myself for a while after that. My parents came to visit me a couple of weeks later, and I could tell they were shocked when they saw me. I was on a heavy dose of benzodiazepines; I wasn’t eating at all; I was smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee around the clock. I’m sure I must have looked dead behind the eyes. I was having lots of sex, still sort of meaningless and unsatisfying, but I had a lot of time on my hands and I was restless. I jumped into bed on the first date pretty consistently, and I could never really figure out why I still had so much energy when I was being so active with so many partners. Now I know that it’s because the sex didn’t hit me on any emotional level, so while it was physically draining, it didn’t affect me mentally. I was always overthinking, not at peace, and generally unhappy.

Strangely, and I think this is important to mention because of this post’s topic, I have never felt guilty about having pre-marital sex. On the contrary, I’ve always been pretty opposed to the idea of getting married and settling down, so this just seems to be the only viable way to live my life.

I had my first meaningful sexual relationship around October of last year. I was still fragile and recovering. I hadn’t had a drink since mid-August, before my breakdown. I was being weaned off my medications and doing okay. That’s when my partner brought up the question of exclusivity: did I want it? My knee-jerk reaction, much to my surprise, was no. I enjoyed our relationship but I saw no need to restrict myself from seeing other people. He was definitely monogamous, and the breakup was drawn-out and unhappy.

Since then, I’ve learned to be selective about taking on partners. I’ve learned to ask for what I want in bed. I’ve learned to be a good lover and a mature partner. I identify as solopoly because I need a lot of time to myself, and the pressure of a primary relationship feels like too much at this point in my life. That being said, my experiences have been fantastic. I’m assertive, mostly dominant, and I have found some remarkable people who like to play with boundaries and explore some crazy fun things with me. It feels insanely good to be giving in bed, to be kind to someone in some small way, like gently stroking their neck or giving them a kiss when they least expect it. The intimacy that comes along with sexual contact is something I struggle with, because I went without it for so long. I am learning to open up and let my guard down with partners.

It mostly happened during the unhappiest time of my life, but there you go. My story. And maybe my point in spilling all this is to say that we can all rise up and that each one of us can break free and find a place of comfort, of satisfaction. I found mine in polyamory. I can never completely reconcile my cultural identity with my sexual identity, but I can definitely find some peace in specific places that I’ve created for myself.

Have you struggled with faith, mental illness, and sexuality? Share your story!

Meeting Her

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Take a sneak peak into the BDSM lifestyle in this sample of the posts available to our Patreon subscribers. This post contains adult content and language.

I’m preoccupied today. I have a ton of shit to do but the only thing that I can think about is my Sir.  The TV is off and the portable heater is making a whirring noise in the living room. The two smoke detectors beep back and forth off and on every few minutes like they are sending imaginary signals to each other.  I turn the pages of the magazine that I’m reading out of boredom, anxious to receive a text from him. I’m waiting for a reply back that he acknowledges what I’ve said. Why is this man such a mystery? I wonder. I pick up my cell phone from off of its charger to see if he’s even sent me a message back. I do this several times over a few minutes. I throw down the cell phone, feeling frustrated.

Stupid phone, I want to say out loud, but it’s not the phone that I’m mad at I guess, it’s him. I wonder to myself should I call or just wait for him to text me back. I stare at the phone again. The light is flashing green and that could mean a Facebook message or a text. I pick up the phone and realize it’s not a text, just a status update on Facebook. “Ugh,” I say and throw the cell phone back on the couch. I’m annoyed that he hasn’t texted me back. I know that he’s out and most likely hasn’t even seen the message or is too busy to reply back.

Then my thoughts turn to “maybe he’s busy with her. The “her” that I’m referring to is my new sub sister or his new “slave bitch” as he jokingly refers to her. I feel no jealousy because I know I’m an alpha sub and his bottom bitch. I was there from the beginning and I will remain there. Like he tells me all the time, this is bigger than marriage and we’re in this shit for the long haul. I also promised him that I would never leave him ever again. I’ve left him and our relationship before in its beginning stages. More often than not, I felt unfulfilled in our dynamic because I was so new to the BDSM lifestyle itself. I also wanted and needed more attention than he was giving me at the time.

Am I an attention seeking little brat? I would ask myself. Yes, I am, I finally admitted.  My cell is set on vibrate, so once I feel it vibrate and the message light is on, I’m all smiles. “Finally,” I say out loud to myself. The house is empty except for my sleeping teenage son in his bedroom. The message button lights up. There are three letters that I’ve used to refer to him from the beginning and they are SIR.  Anytime a text comes through or I get a phone call from him, my heart starts to pound and I get excited. I’m excited because I’m in his thoughts enough to know that he has reached out to me. During the day he’s busy hustling, as he calls it, so he’s away from the house for up to ten hours at a time.

The message is clear and to the point. It says, Are you ready to meet my other sub? I responded back to the text defiantly, Is she ready to meet me, that’s the question. Yes it was a smartass remark, and he would probably smack me later for it, but I didn’t care.  Previously he told me that I needed to get my jealousy together before I met his other sub. He uses the term sub and slave interchangeably at times, but it doesn’t confuse me because I know most of the terminology even though I’ve been in the lifestyle just a little while. I’m slowly turning from being a submissive to being his slave. These are two totally different things and I want to maintain some control over myself and my life, and by being his slave I can’t do that. It’s called a total power exchange, and basically it means giving up total control to your dominant.

 

What happens next? Our adult content is available to Patreon subscribers. You can read the rest of the story for just $1!

Relationship Anarchy and Common Misconceptions

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What exactly is relationship anarchy, and why is it so hard to define?

Wikipedia states “Relationship Anarchy (abbreviated RA) is the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree on.”

The term is credited to Sweden native Andie Nordgren in 2006, and was used to describe a completely radical approach to traditional and untraditional lovestyles. Relationships formed by RA identifying people are usually not distinguished between platonic or romantic, sexual or asexual. All relationships are given equal equity. At least in theory.

That last concept, for me has been the most challenging to explain to people who may not subscribe to these ideals. Very few people could grasp the concept of my “platonic wife”, an almost 15 year relationship that has transcended best friendship but has never crossed sexual boundaries. That isn’t to say we aren’t extremely close; we may cuddle, kiss, and show affection but for many reasons the relationship hasn’t and likely won’t escalate into what some may consider a “real relationship”.  Even fewer can grasp the concept that she is no less important to me than my fiancée was, or that depending on the situation, her needs may take priority over any relationship I may be engaged in. And that that priority can and does shift to others.

Before I had even become conscious of the label, I was always very anarchistic about love and relationships. I believe I was born non-mono, and at an early age could not subscribe to the boundaries, real or imagined, placed upon traditional romantic concepts. I connect with people on various levels, and though my time may be divided in a way that become heirarchal, my mental playing ground remains one level. They are all royalty in my eyes.

If you were to ask 8 different RA folks what it meant to them, you’re likely to receive 8 completely different answers, with some intersecting ideals sprinkled throughout. This is as to be expected from a group of anarchist, as the term itself implies no central leadership or school of thought. This may be the reason so many misconceptions are applied to the topic. The similarities are mostly centered around maintaining autonomy against all odds. Here are some I’ve encountered and disputed. Keep in mind, another RA may completely disagree, and they would be right as well!

  1. RA ARE SCARED OF COMMITMENT

I have a (half) joke response to this : “We want to commit to everyone. Equally.” In my experience, it’s not the commitment I shy away from but what that commitment might mean for my boundaries. Why is this label important to you? Will you want me to check in with you daily? Am I expected to conform? Which of my coveted freedoms are you not comfortable with, and are likely to impede upon once I do? I have some concerns! Because a label to an RA is likely just descriptive, they aren’t as consequential or even needed to have a fulfilling relationship with an RA. Once you’re in, you’re in.

2. YOU CANT BE RA AND BE MARRIED OR OTHERWISE ANCHORED

While I might cringe at words like “Primary” “Secondary” and “Heirarchy” I do acknowledge the existence of these things and understand they form based on time/resources spent etc. There was a time that I wouldn’t label or title any relationship except for descriptive purposes, but as I get older I seek more stability within my connections. I seek family structure, more children, and economical community building. This is quite hard to achieve without some form of anchoring or another. As my needs grow so do my ideas of how my RA looks. It’s not over for you once you say “I do”.  Again, it’s more about what that partnership does to your autonomy that might change your RA status. You are what you feel you are. How you connect doesn’t change once you actually connect.

3. RA ARE SHORT TERM LOVERS

Because in my mind there is no distinction between friend, lover, and ex, this is probably the most offensive of the misconceptions I’ve encountered. Things simply transition! Many of my relationships, platonic or otherwise, are pushing 10 years or better. We don’t have to be a titled item to be loves. We may move across the complete relationship spectrum within a month, or never make it past first base after years, it’s all about what works for us. Some people aren’t fully aware or knowledgeable of what RA is, and may be turned off once they experience just how free we can be! Some of us as RA aren’t aware enough to understand our own needs and figure this out once we are in titled relationships. Whatever the case, I don’t believe someone being RA makes them any more choosy then say, your average serial dater!

I know I’ll have to update and revisit this list, as the conversation always brings up different opinions and viewpoints!

Do you identify with or have experience with Relationship Anarchy? What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered?

How Representation Works…or Doesn’t

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How Representation Works…or Doesn’t
A Follow Up

In the early afternoon of Thursday May 11th, I got an email from a colleague. First, she congratulated me on my upcoming book about the intersection of race and polyamory, then she congratulated me on my appearance in the New York Times. The piece, Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?, had just been published that morning. The congrats were both a friendly greeting and a way to lead into the real content of the email while also saying, “I see you there, Kev. Doing big things.”

The true purpose of the email was to ask if I’d be interested in taking part in a round table about family and parenting. Eventually, I would respond that I was indeed interested. But before I had a chance to even read that email, I received a second one from the same colleague. Delivered only eleven minutes after the first, it simply read “Oh my gosh, Kevin! I just read the article. You must be upset. I’m so sorry!” While this wasn’t the way my day started, it pretty much encapsulated how the whole day went. Boundless excitement followed quickly by frustrating disappointment.

My wife and I contributed to Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage? because our names were thrown into consideration by Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson, the authors of Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships. Mark and Patricia are familiar with the impact nonmonogamy has on our family and our work regarding race and polyamory. Logically, they thought we’d offer some insightful perspective to such a piece. And what a mainstream piece! I’d be lying if I said that hadn’t factored into my decision to participate. My Poly Role Models blog, while a fairly popular free resource, couldn’t hope to hit the broadcast range of even the lowliest New York Times article. An increased readership could help countless people find their way to and through ethical non-monogamy. Unfortunately, any perspective I could add or range I could reach is buried beneath a sad story of floundering marriages. To be clear, the sad story of floundering marriages are both valid and valuable. My work definitely covers that as well. But it covers more than that…and therein lies the problem.

Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage? is predominantly the story of a married couple, Elizabeth and Daniel, who have grown dissatisfied in their lives together. Their mismatched libidos create an unbearable strain on what was otherwise a happy union. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you understand. Sexual incompatibility is such a weighty factor that it can severely hamper strong relationships; even if it’s the sole stressor. In response to the growing displeasure, Daniel researched ethical non-monogamy and discussed it with his wife. What followed was not ethical non-monogamy.

Elizabeth shot the idea down. Only to find romance with a new fellow anyway. First, behind her husband’s back, then to his face without his willful participation…despite his pain. The guy Elizabeth took up with? He was also unhappily married and cheating on his spouse. He didn’t even have the benefit of an unresolved conversation about the vague possibility of opening his marriage to use as a justification. Look, I’m not judging. Unreasonable expectations of exclusivity, in the face of incompatible sex drives, need to be discussed.  Partners that come to ethical non-monogamy by way of infidelity needs to be discussed. These are already being discussed. In fact, the idea that ethical and consensual non-monogamy are just the product of unhappy marriages is already the predominant narrative. We’ve heard these stories before. They get pushed out to mainstream media every few months and frankly it’s gotten boring.

It’s clear that Susan Dominus has a specific story that she is trying to tell. But I question who that really serves. The non-monogamous newcomers, who don’t fit this couple-centric view, won’t find any love here. In this article, they are either outsiders or at the whim of a shaky marriage that views them as a crutch. Even those who do fit in the coupled model, on display here, don’t have much to look forward to. The stable and happy couples featured are virtually voiceless in this article. What little speech we’re given is limited to seemingly reluctant acceptance of the situation we’ve found ourselves in.

The name of the article challenges the traditional views on marriage with the idea of a happier alternative. So, where was that? I know you’re not supposed to read the comments section, but I did. What I found was dozens of people remarking about how unhappy people are in open marriages… how easy it is to spot which partner is into it and which is just going along with it… how it’s all just about finding excuses to cheat. That’s the story these readers came into this article believing. With all of it’s sad photos and stories of even sadder partnerships, those readers are left with a pretty solid confirmation of their pre-established attitudes. For those with lived experience inside of ethical non-monogamy, we are left with yet another narrowed view on a life we know to be both varied and vibrant.

As someone who provides a platform for dozens of true accounts of ethical non-monogamy, I’ve learned that each one resonates with those who need to find themselves and their experiences validated. Obviously, you can’t tell every story in a single article but then why gather a wealth of resources that serve to expand the perspective? Authors like Eve Rickert, Franklin Veaux, Patricia Johnson, and Mark Michaels were all consulted and left out. Twelve thousand words are a lot of space to flesh out an idea. Especially with tons of time and energy spent on taking photos of the whole shebang. With the bulk of the content focused on unphotographed people using aliases, why were our names and faces used… only to ignore our observations?

Now, I’m not flat out saying that my wife and I are only included as token people of color. I am challenging anyone to show me what the difference would be if we were. Our voices are mostly unused, but our faces are pretty prominent in a photo that shocked the people in our lives. One friend said it is the saddest they’ve ever seen either of us look. Another said that, without context, they would’ve believed all of the photos to be from a story about divorce. A visual storyline to match the narrative of non-exclusive but unsatisfying marriages.

In the case of sexuality, the article is almost devoid of mentions… except in regard to the single gay couple, Logan and Robert. Though there was valuable insight in the bit of text dedicated to their perspective, their voices were mostly left out as well. In an article that read as extremely heteronormative, there were no occurrences of the words “lesbian”, “bisexual”, “pansexual”, “queer”, or “trans”. There were six mentions of the word “gay”. Five in a single paragraph containing a reference to gay advice columnist Dan Savage and the two sentences from one of that couple’s husbands. The sixth “gay” is some dude’s name. Again, maybe Logan and Robert are not included as token LGBT representation. But how would it have looked differently otherwise?

What we’re missing is proper representation. Better representation. At least better than having our identities used as a prop to tell a story that doesn’t see us or accurately reflect us. At least better than an edgy title that doesn’t even bother to get out of it’s own way. By which I mean, letting a story write itself with the pieces you put together. A great example of which would be Daniel Krieger’s Polyamorous People feature for Narratively’s People of Interest series. In which, Krieger trusted his subjects to be both interesting and honest without trying to force either. The results are a much wider set of experiences, along a broader range of personal identities, done in roughly a quarter of the word count.

The ideal solution to any of our image problems is simply to tell our own stories. Non-monogamy already bucks convention by its very nature. We come from all walks of life and practice our lifestyles in countlessly diverse ways. We don’t need to be made into a compelling story. We already are. The story isn’t how we exist, it’s that we exist. All we need to do is open our mouths to speak our own truths. When someone on the outside of us attempts to speak for us, regardless of the platform, they carry in their preconceived notions…and worse they carry their desire to shoehorn us into those notions. While I thank and appreciate the New York Times for trying, what they gave us was not nearly what was promised or expected or needed.

But, hey… I guess it could be worse. At least there weren’t any stock photos of three pairs of white feet sticking out from under a white duvet.

Kevin Patterson blogs at Poly Role Models.