I learned about this concept from my partner M last night. We were talking about processing emotions and how to talk to about them with our partners. M said he’d learned a concept early on in his poly journey and it was emotional currency. He said emotional currency is having enough emotional energy stored up to deal with emotional or difficult situations. That hit me square in the face because I generally have emotional currency when I talk and deal with emotions with my partners, but several times I’ve discussed really difficult situations and I literally had zero dollars in my emotional bank.
On a personal level dealing with hard situations and arguing with a partner depletes all of my emotional currency. Talking with M last night made me realize how many times I’ve done this and just how harmful it can be to me and my psyche. On the flip side, I can say that there are a few things that fill up my emotional bank. For instance, when a partner shares with me and shows vulnerability it increases my emotional currency bank or when my partners remember my love languages and does something in response to them such as spending quality time with me All these things fill me up on an emotional level.
I can also say that I fill up my emotional bank by processing old situations that I may not have gotten over. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t have past issues that I have yet to address. Of course I do! Processing those emotions surrounding those situations can take away from my emotional currency as well “credit” my emotional account. I didn’t like my accounting classes while I was in college, but the idea of debits and credits when talking about an emotional bank rings true for me. I’ve been “debiting” from my emotional bank account and very little “credits” have been deposited. My emotional account has been in the negative for awhile and now I have to do a bit of bookkeeping to figure out where I went wrong and how I can get back into good standing. So far,writing in my journal and being good to myself has been what has been helping me.
Writing in my journal gives me the opportunity to write without the fear of judgement or the fear of having to explain myself or my actions to anyone. Being good to myself is a concept that’s a bit more hard to describe. Being good to myself means being a bit more understanding and not so hard on myself constantly. Not blaming myself for everything, and realizing that I’m human and that I make mistakes is a way that I’m being good to myself. I also have to accept that relationships, just like life, has it’s ups and downs and it’s not the end of the world if I have a disagreement with my partner(s). How do you feel about emotional currency as a poly concept? Are you adding to your bank or are you depleting it?
Dating is hard! Dating while poly can be even harder. I’m autistic, so dating for me is hard to navigate without knowing the rules. So how do you talk about your identity, negotiate consent, and build quality relationships in the brave new swiping world? I’ve got you covered.
Step 1: Know Yourself
Why are you dating? Do you want emotional and physical connection, someone to have sex with, and/or a hiking buddy? Start the process by thinking about the wants and needs that motivate you to date. Do you have a list of ideal qualities? Deal breakers? Know what type of things you want in a person and the things that you would find unacceptable in a partner.
If you’re already partnered, think about what you like and dislike about that person. How are they meeting your needs? What’s missing? Are there any potential issues between you two that might interfere with you dating others? Do you have your partner’s consent to be non-monogamous, and have you discussed what that means for both of you?
Step 2: Check Your Presentation
If it’s been a while since you went out, think about your appearance and habits. Your current partner may be ok with bedhead, but what about a new person? Do you take pride in your concert tees, or should they go to the thrift store? Are you dressing and presenting yourself in a way that is flattering to your shape? Do you feel good about yourself, inside and out? (If no, consider reaching out to some professionals.)
Presentation applies to your social media presence as well. No one swipes right on photos of your torso, nether regions, or your dog. (Well, maybe your dog if he’s cute.) Take some time to compose quality pictures of yourself and make a good first impression. (Pro tip from a mom: never use pictures of children in a dating app.)
Step 3: Make Your Approach
Whether online or off, how you approach people is key to your success in dating. Just because we live in a world full of abbreviations and memes, doesn’t mean you can skimp on communicating your interest. That’s right: forget about copy and paste and take time to write a quality opening message. When you send private messages, talk about what interested you. Be upfront about why you’re connecting. Don’t start with “hi” and expect the other person to carry the conversation. You’re initiating, so you move the conversation toward a date in the real world.
Offline, approaching people must be done with care. Not everyone going about their business wants to flirt in public. Before you shoot your shot, observe their situation and determine if it’s an appropriate time and place. Are they at work? Do they have earphones in? Don’t engage. Are they smiling at you and making a lot of eye contact? Did they move seats to get a better view? Go!
Pay attention to how your potential partner responds. If someone is interested, they’ll keep talking even if they need to be somewhere else. People who are not interested will give a lot of one word answers or look at their phone. Don’t force it. If things look like they’re going downhill, exit gracefully. Offer your phone number and walk away when they say no. Why offer your number? If they are interested, they will call. It’s much more pleasant knowing that someone wants to get in touch than to keep calling and texting with no response.
But why would you spend all that time approaching someone to get rejected? It happens. The sparks you feel aren’t always reciprocated. People don’t owe you a response or the time of day. Just remember that their response is a reflection on you, not them. Have confidence that you will find people who are a good fit for you and get back out there.
Step 4: Tailor the Ask
Don’t be coy about interacting with someone. Be upfront (and polite) about what you’re looking for in a partner. It “no strings attached” sex is on your mind, say so. Everyone can see through you when you say, “looking for friends or more,” and it’s not appealing. It takes courage to ask for what you want, and you may get rejected. Guess what? You’re going to get rejected the majority of the time anyway. You might as well practice open and honest communication from the beginning, and that includes talking about your polyamorous orientation.
When should you let someone know you’re polyamorous? Right away. Non-monogamy is practiced by a small part of the US population, and not everyone is open to it. Your potential partners deserve a chance to opt out, and that should happen before either of you get too entangled with feelings. Whether you put it in your profile or save it for the first date, be prepared to explain what polyamory is and what your relationships look like. Correct misconceptions, but don’t try to convert anyone. Polyamory takes work, and it’s OK if people aren’t ready to try it.
What if the date goes really well, and you want to get physical? Get ready to exercise one vital organ–your mouth. Consent is more important than ever before, and I wrote a comprehensive guide about how to go about it. Here’s the short version: Use your words. Ask before you initiate touching or sexual activity. Pay attention to verbal AND nonverbal cues. Recognize if you are in a position of power over your partner (are they at your house? are you bigger? will they lose money/face/privileges if they don’t go along?). Know if you or your partner have the agency to consent (as an autistic person, I didn’t realize asking to have a sleepover as an adult meant you were OK with having sex. Spell these things out!)
Step 5: Know When to Fold ‘Em
No single interaction is worth losing your life, property, or freedom over. It may feel like the end of the world when a potential relationship doesn’t work out, but it’s not. Even if the first few dates go well, dating is a process of constantly reevaluating your compatibility. Everyone has the right to change their mind at any time. When it’s time to end it, do it gracefully (and not over text). If you’re interested in some kind of interaction in the future, say so–if it’s really true. One of the best things about being polyamorous is understanding that relationships have ups and downs, some people are only compatible on a few things, and communication makes everything easier.
So what would you add? How do you manage dating in the modern world?
Consent is an agreement between two people about how to move forward in a sexual relationship. While it’s easy to assume that obtaining consent is easy, American society has never created a space for people to learn how to obtain consent. What appears to be a simple issue of “yes” and “no” to sex often turns into “he said, she said” when someone makes an accusation of sexual assault.
So how do we improve our knowledge of how to handle consent? The sex positive community has not been a good example. In January 2018, Reid Mihalko, a well-known sex educator and cofounder of Cuddle Parties, was accused of of sexual harassment by a colleague. Though he later apologized and entered into a restorative justice process with other colleagues, his initial decision to not take responsibility shows a huge gap between his preaching about obtaining consent versus his actions.
Milhalko created an model for consent called the “safer sex elevator speech,” a way to establish boundaries and agreements before sexual activity. If a person who taught others how to obtain consent made a potential partner feel pressured, how can a regular person know what to do when consent gets messy?
I used to promote the safer sex elevator speech to people that want to know how to communicate about sex before the act. Once I learned about Mihalko’s behavior and his response, I started working on my own model. Who am I? I’m the website editor of Black & Poly, a community for black people transitioning to polyamory. I have been an assistant organizer for my local polyamory group and I am part of the sex-positive New Culture movement. I’ve taught others about consent and I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I identify as a womanist and I believe everyone wants to get this right.
This consent model expands the elevator speech beyond the basics of who, what, and how. It starts with the recognition of agency and power balances and ends with specific communication about sexual acts. This model has the form of a triangle in equal relationship to each other. If one part is missing or abbreviated, it will affect the entire experience of giving and obtaining consent. Here are the three legs: agency, power, and communication. I’ll break down each leg in detail.
The first leg is agency, which is the recognition that we all have the ability to make choices for ourselves. We make those choices based on available information and our own judgment. When we’re in a relationship, disclosing relevant information is the way we recognize our partner’s agency.
For instance, a person in the dating scene may tell a potential partner that they are seeing others. For those currently in a relationship, it may mean telling a partner that they have acquired an STI. This information usually affects the partner’s future actions, which is why it’s difficult and sometimes embarrassing to talk about. When we withhold information, we are taking away some of our partner’s agency. When a partner has the right information, they can respond in a way that will protect their own safety and peace of mind.
Another part of agency is cognition, or each person’s ability to understand the situation. Children, teenagers, and even young adults do not have the brain development of mature adults; it’s why we restrict drugs, alcohol, and driving by age. In the same way, neurodiverse people often lack the social awareness that will give them the information needed to give or obtain consent. For all people, impairment due to drugs and alcohol means people may make different decisions than if they were sober.
When determining if your partner has agency, compare their individual development against what is expected of people the same age and disability status. If they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are they cognizant of the decision they are making and its possible effects? Recognizing our partner’s agency is a critical part of obtaining consent. We must also acknowledge that even when consent is asked for and given, their actions could cross legal and/or moral boundaries.
The second leg of the consent triangle is the awareness of power. It’s no accident that the majority of celebrities called out for sexual assault and harassment in the #MeToo have been powerful white men. Men born in the US have been brought up in a culture of toxic masculinity that values aggressiveness, manipulation, and dishonesty in order to “get the girl.” When a potential partner refuses to consent, a man’s response of disappointment and even anger is seen as socially appropriate.
Men are not always the bad guys, though. Any relationship between two people is subject to a power imbalance when someone has more seniority, wealth, status, or social support than their partner. Women who pressure men into sex by using their “feminine wiles” are just as guilty of manipulation. The power dynamics of each relationship is not fixed, and it’s always subjective. If someone believes they have less power, that will impact their ability to give consent.
In order to move forward with consent, people should acknowledge the power they hold in the situation. Have they considered the reasons their partner might say yes besides an actual desire to engage? Are they using their position or cultural privilege to get the sex they want? Can they give their partner the space to say no without fearing the consequences?
The fear of rejection is a powerful motivator during consent conversations. Saying or hearing “no” can be painful no matter how justified they are. In fact, many people go through with sex they are not sure about because the idea of hurting their partner seems to be worse than grinning and bearing it. To counter this, sex educators have asked people to ask for enthusiastic consent: it’s either a “Hell, yes!” or it’s a “no.”
Consent is almost meaningless when one partner has created a power imbalance through coercion and violence. People evaluating consent from the outside cannot use someone’s failure to stand up to or leave their abuser as a sign of consent. In the same way, it can be difficult to tell if a situation is sexual harassment or not. We can only start by believing the accuser and looking for patterns in each person’s behavior as it relates to the power balance.
The final leg of consent is the actual communication. Even in romantic comedies where the couple is falling over each other to get in a bed, consent has to be asked for and given. In an ideal world, progressively more intimate activities are verbally consented to by each partner. In the real world, it looks more like shy touches, smiles, and other nonverbal communication. The problem is that some people will look back on those activities and know that at some point they were unwilling to continue.
The moment bad sex becomes something worse is when this unwillingness is glossed over, when one partner notices that something is wrong but continues anyway. We have all experienced the feeling of powerlessness when we give up our agency to another. Our consent is half-hearted, and the guilt can be overwhelming. If you’ve ever had that experience in a non-sexual situation, then try to act with compassion when you see your partner hesitating to give consent.
So what does a conversation about sex look like? It starts with the truth. “I want to be intimate with you.” Even if the phrase sounds awkward and perhaps unauthentic, I encourage you to go into even more detail. The initial yes should be followed up with a checklist of sorts to cover the entire spectrum of sexual activity. Consider the following areas:
Touching genitalia and erogenous zones
Penetration (genitals, fingers, toys)
BDSM activities such as spanking and fetishes
In the spirit of recognizing agency, both partners should discuss any potential barriers to consensual sex. This includes:
STIs and date of last testing
Use of barriers (such as condoms or dental dams), what kind and where
Current relationships and agreements
Past sexual history
Use of birth control or medical sterilization
Medical conditions and other physical limitations
Psychological limitations, history of abuse, and triggers
Attitude towards sex and how it will affect the relationship moving forward
Practice communicating consent before you and your partner get to the bedroom. Over time, these conversations will become commonplace and easier. It’s understandable that not everyone can talk about these things without feeling embarrassed or nervous, but sex is not something to be done in the proverbial dark. The more openness you bring to the conversation, the less shame you will feel about doing one of the most human acts.
At the end of the day, consent is just one part of navigating relationships. Due to the legal and social change in the world, it’s more important than ever to find a way to give and obtain consent without shame and guilt. Recognizing each other’s agency, addressing power imbalances, and communicating consent is a great way to create space for the pleasurable experience that sex should be.
Now that we have a model of consent, let’s apply it to different situations.
Situation 1: A heterosexual couple has gone out on their first date and are now at the man’s house for a nightcap. The man, recognizing his power in this situation (it’s his house and his alcohol) tries to make the woman as comfortable as possible. He may offer her a drink and sit beside her, almost touching her in a way that is intimate but not forceful. Either may initiate sex by engaging in touching and other nonverbal signs.
In order to bring the triangle of consent into balance, they can do things differently. Either partner could demonstrate agency by speaking the truth about the situation: “I’m at your house and excited about connecting more with you.” “I know I invited you over, but I understand if you want to leave without us having sex.” They can also turn touching into communication by saying, “Can I give you a hug or kiss?” Creating an opening for communication gives both partners the space and time to get in touch with their desires and act from a place of enthusiastic consent.
Situation 2: Gay acquaintances have been drinking at a bar, and one partner is interested in making out. Both partners have been using their agency by flirting and talking during the night. They have the social skills to be able to interpret when their attention is no longer reciprocated. Either one can gain consent by verbally asking for a kiss.
No matter how encouraging a partner has been, direct communication establishes a starting point for consent that they can both point to later. It’s true that alcohol can interfere with judgment, and that people can still regret activities they consent to. The more time they spend talking about what they both want, they more likely they will look back on the situation with confidence.
Situation 3: A woman at a higher level in a company is flirting with a colleague. The woman can acknowledge her position of power by saying, “I know I’m in upper management at work, but I want us to be equals outside.” She can clarify what she wants by saying, “I’m flirting with you because I’m interested in a sexual relationship.” It is vital that she gives her partner space to say yes or no and to follow up with details. Instead of depending on innuendo and creating a potentially dangerous “he said, she said” situation, both people can consent to the interaction in a way that feels good. (It’s still possible that their relationship could violate company guidelines.)
The world of dating is often murky, and misunderstandings can be played up as humorous or treacherous. By incorporating the triangle of consent into your interactions, you can create a container of safety and awareness around sexual activity.
Believe it or not, a children’s show has created a perfect scenario for talking about consent. In the show Steven Universe, Steven is a half-alien who has a human friend named Connie. In this episode, they realize that they can fuse together like the aliens can. Fusion is an analog of sex for the aliens, and the episode is a great representation about how consent works.
In this episode, Steven and Connie are enjoying themselves at the beach. They start dancing, which is how the aliens initiate a fusion. Steven recognizes his power and covers his eyes before asking Connie to dance. They both allows themselves to be vulnerable with awkward dance moves and giggles. When they fuse, they are able to enjoy the pleasure of being in sync with each other while recognizing that sometimes they are uncomfortable. After interacting with other characters in the show, they stop to check in. “Are you ok?” This simple question opens up space for both people to communicate their willingness to continue.
Later, at a dance party, Steven and Connie’s togetherness becomes downright uncomfortable. They stop dancing and wonder why it’s not fun. They are both willing to say that something is wrong, even if they can’t explain why. Whether we express it or not, we know what a no feels like. Many of us have also experienced the negative consequences of saying no. In the episode, the response to no included aggressive shaming and attempts to convince them that their no is not a real no. We can create a better consent culture when we recognize a no, stop, and enjoy our time with a partner at a level where we are both comfortable.
H/T to Gregory Avery-Weir for their breakdown of Alone Together.
When you talk to white middle class polyamorists, you get the viewpoint of white middle class polyamorists.
Olivia Goldhill recently wrote about polyamory and whether it is a political movement. While she acknowledged the existence of Black & Poly's Facebook page, she concluded that the poly community was largely white and cisgendered. Unfortunately she did not reach out to Ron Young or any of the non-white leaders in the polyamory movement. As a result, her article demonstrates a narrow view of polyamory.
Missing from the article are people of color and queer people who struggle to live their lives in a culture that is not at all accepting. Despite the fact that black polyamorists face discrimination from family, potential partners, and work colleagues, non-monogamy has always been a part of black culture. The Black Panthers lived collectively and had multiple partners during the sixties, but the author is ignorant of this history. Black & Poly specifically takes a womanist view of the world that centers the experiences and desires of women in a distinctly non-patriarchal way.
The author also glosses over the LGBTQ community and their history of non-monogamy. Though she mentions some women and non-binary people who identify as queer, it's clear she has only talked to bisexual women who largely operate in the heterosexual poly community. Ana Valens, responding to the article, writes: “Instead of suggesting polyamory began with hetero communes and ended up in Brooklyn bars, it’s much more accurate to suggest that queer poly people see their sexual and romantic interactions as part of a larger queer experience of challenging the norms that permeate in cis, straight relationships. In other words, poly queers are not looking for belonging. They’re looking to exist independently from straight people.”
Middle class whites did popularize swinging, where couples meet in homes or sex clubs for purely physical relationships. The author confuses these two flavors of ethical non-monogamy while trying to define polyamory. In doing so, she conflates sex and love in a way that many poly people dislike. The event she profiles in the article is not a poly meetup but a BDSM mixer. While the kink and poly communities overlap, they have many differences. The only black voice in the article talks about a common problem in the BDSM community, but it is not necessarily representative of black women's experiences in the poly community.
Her description of polyamory also ignores the asexual community and those who include non-sexual relationships in their polycules. It was inaccurate and harmful for her to say that both men and women are “expected” to enjoy sex because consent is the absolute bedrock of polyamorous relationships. The couples new to non-monogamy that look forward to threesomes with single women quickly realize the reality of polyamorous dating: you can't force sexual attraction.
Her article has an uncomfortable focus on the economic benefits of polyamory. Poly family homes are another stereotype that is not part of most people's lived reality. For all her focus on marble countertops, she ignores the subset of black polyamorists that specifically seek to build black economic power outside of the mainstream economy. Once again, the black poly community is actually more political than the people she interviews.
While I know and respect the people at Chrysalis, none of them can be considered typical polyamorists. New Culture is a radical movement focusing on relationships and vulnerability, but it faces its own issues with race and LGBTQ representation. I was disappointed that Michael Rios, a respected leader, downplayed the effort required to maintain interracial relationships. Kevin Patterson's book Love's Not Colorblind deserves more than a casual reference as a guide to how people can deconstruct race and privilege in the poly community.
The benefits of polyamory, such as autonomy and self knowledge, are not limited to those who live together and have group sex. Polyamory requires not only openness but a desire to build interpersonal skills and work through tough problems. The author's drawing of poly as a cozy, multi-family network doesn't show the real work that people do to maintain their relationships. This is the reason polyamorists do not disparage those who chose monogamy. It's not for everyone, and we certainly don't expect everyone to move into family-friendly communes.
The author went looking for radicalism in the poly community, and she found middle class people who are using their privilege to live comfortably despite having an alternative lifestyle. She missed the people who are actively challenging white privilege and patriarchy through their relationships, and in doing so she did a disservice to the entire poly community.
If it feels like history is repeating itself, it is.
A listing of the best sites to find out more about unicorn hunting and couple's privilege.
Unicorn Hunting: In dominant polyamory culture, almost always used of a hypothetical woman who is willing to date both members of an existing couple, agree not to have any relationships other than the ones with the couple, agree not to be sexually involved with one member of the couple unless the other member of the couple is also there, and/or agree to move in with the couple. So named because people willing to agree to such arrangements are vanishingly rare, whereas couples looking for a woman who will agree to these terms are incredibly common.
Couple's Privilege: The presumption that socially sanctioned pair-bond relationships involving only two people (such as marriage, long-term boyfriend/girlfriend, or other forms of conventional intimate/life partnerships) are inherently more important, “real” and valid than other types of intimate, romantic or sexual relationships. Such primary couples (or partnerships that are clearly riding society’s standard relationship escalator toward that goal) are widely presumed — even within many nonmonogamous communities — to warrant more recognition and support than other types of intimate relationships.
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