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!

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?

Ask Aunty: Seeking Bisexual Mate

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Ask Aunty is a regular feature of Black & Poly where real people ask about their polyamorous relationships. Aunty is here for you, so ask away!

Dear Aunty,

How do I find a polyamorous woman to date? I have a wonderful wife and we just agreed to open up our relationship. She's bisexual so I'd be happy to meet a woman to date both of us. But where do I find women?

Seeking Bisexual Mate

Dear SBM,

I'm ​going to ignore half of your question because the last thing you want to do is post in an online forum that you're LOOKING FOR A BISEXUAL FEMALE FOR YOU AND YOUR WIFE. Poly people are tired of hearing from unicorn hunters and you'll get your head snatched off every time you mention it. There are many ways to do poly, and a closed triad is not for newbies!

*Calm down Aunty. Deep breaths.* Finding a new boo is as easy as it was when you found your wife. You mean you didn't find her three months after you joined Match.com? I'm shocked! You probably dated multiple women before you even knew what you wanted. Then you learned to approach your wife like the lady she is--none of that “can I holla atcha?” Polyamorous women are smart as well as sexy, so you have to be more than a smooth talker. Know your needs and wants. Know what makes you a great catch, and know what type of agreements you would have between you two. (She's probably not going to agree to only date you and your wife. Too many horror stories, Aunty can tell you.)

Always be honest about your situation. Monogamous women don't understand that you’re not looking for a side chick. Even if you have to explain "polyamorous" a million times, you want her to know exactly what she’s getting in to. If you just want the occasional threesome, let her know. If you want someone to move in and help take care of your kids, make that clear too. That's why polys love the c-word--communication.

Remember, a polyamorous woman doesn't want to be the topper on your wedding cake. She wants fulfilling relationships with individuals, not the perfect couple from Monogamy Land. Accept that the women you will find may already be dating other partners with their own commitments and agreements. She may not be interested in your wife at all. That doesn't mean you two can't have a healthy relationship. You just have to change your image of the ideal poly woman, especially if you're imagining a bisexual sex goddess. (That's why they're called unicorns, honey. They don't exist.)

So how do you find a woman? Go to online dating sites. Visit your local poly community. Talk to other polyamorous people. Find a woman you like spending time with and see where things go. If she hits it off with wifey, that's great. If she doesn't want to move in to your future poly household, that's fine too. Let go of expectations and enjoy the journey.

Or else.

Aunty

Do you have a question for Aunty? Comment below or use our contact form!

Doin’ It and Doin’ It and Doin’ It Well

Ruby Bouie Johnson responds to recent coverage of polyamory in the national news.

I’ve had several weeks to reflect on the recent coverage of polyamory in a few national media outlets, ranging from the very conservative to the center-left. Though the presentation and tone varied between them, they all managed to be grossly misinformed about the philosophy and practice of polyamory and consensual non-monogamy. Over the last 14 years in direct clinical practice, and the last 3 years in private practice, I can say with confidence that folks who come into my office for relationship therapy, love and care for each other. These individuals seek therapy to educate themselves, mediate their conflicts, and establish agreements to move forward within their relationships, whether they are in a monogamous relationship or a polyamorous relationship or anything else on the relationship continuum.

Let’s concisely dispel the myths.

1. Polyamory is not polygamy.

2. Polyamory is not polyfuckery.

3. Polyamory is not about subjugating monogamy.

4. Comparing polyamory to monogamy and monogamy to polyamory leads to frustration and insult.

5. Qualifying “natural” or “normal” to a persons’ way of loving, living, and being is bullshit.

6. Polyamory is not unnatural, barbaric, or savage.

7. Polyamory does not subjugate or oppress women.

Furthermore, what I read is highly unrealistic about how open relationships work in the real world. What I read was stories of irresponsible remedies to a marriage or partnership that was disconnected. These were stories of infidelity that segue into an open relationship. This is an infrequent way for healthy polyamarous relationships to begin. One of the core tenants of open relationships is consent; real consent, not “apology after the fact”. Clinically, I work with couples that have begun a non-monogamous relationship dynamic in an attempt to recover from an infidelity. The lack of confidence resulting from the deceit and secrecy often disrupts the relationship. In my experience a significant majority of these relationships have irreparable damage. This is not because polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships are unstable, but because deceit and secrecy are highly destabilizing to any relationship, whether it is a monogamous relationship or not.

Let me share with you some ways that healthy more-than-two relationships actually function.

1. Communication, Communication, Communication. Let me be clear, it’s not talking at the other person. It’s about being present, open, and willing to understand the wants, needs, and desires of the other.

2. The ability to negotiate. Negotiation is a skill and art. One must have a range of skills that they are bringing to the table. Some include: trust that the other person has their best interests at heart; genuine expression of needs; lastly, and for me this is the most important, a shared meaning of the end goal.

3. Commitment. Commitment is not a simple commitment to the other person; it’s a commitment to all that are involved within the relationship network. The commitment to be safe, responsible, and honor agreements.

4. Each person must recognize when they need to nurture their relationship with their own selves. For example, when someone starts to identify irritability and short-temperedness in themselves, they must check themselves before they wreck themselves.

5. It’s important to understand that this is about not about accommodating a perceived need for “equal sharing”, it’s about fulfilling the needs of everyone involved, which are never all going to be the same.

As I read this list, these suggestions for best practices with healthy relationships are applicable to lovers, friends, family, coworkers, etc. It’s not a mystery how to make relationships work best. These principles apply to and yield healthy polyamorous relationships just as much as they apply to and yield healthy monogamous relationships. As long as we treat each other with dignity and worth, let’s get it on, baby.

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post.

What is Polyamory?

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Confused about the difference between polyamory, polygamy, swinging, and more? Check out the definitions below for clarity!

Polyamory

Literally, poly (many) + amor (love). The state or practice of maintaining multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all the people involved.

Polyamory is not necessarily related directly to marriage or polygamy; a person may have no spouse or only one spouse and still be polyamorous. Many people use the term "polyamory" to describe only those relationships in which a person has multiple loving partners; some people have extended the term to include relationships in which a person has multiple sexual partners regardless of the emotional component or degree of commitment between them, though this meaning was not a part of Morning Glory Zell's original intent for the word.

In 1992, when the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary contacted Morning Glory Zell to ask for a formal definition and background of the word; part of her response was:

"The two essential ingredients of the concept of "polyamory" are "more than one" and "loving." That is, it is expected that the people in such relationships have a loving emotional bond, are involved in each other's lives multi-dimensionally, and care for each other. This term is not intended to apply to merely casual recreational sex, anonymous orgies, one-night stands, pick-ups, prostitution, "cheating," serial monogamy, or the popular definition of swinging as "mate-swapping" parties."

Swinging

The practice of having multiple sexual partners outside of an existing romantic relationship, most often with the understanding that the focus of those relationships is primarily sexual rather than romantic or emotionally intimate.

The common perception of swinging is that those who engage in this behavior have sex outside of their existing relationship purely for recreation, and that emotional bonds or emotional intimacy are specifically excluded. This is true in some cases, and, in fact, some swing clubs specifically prohibit people from carrying on friendships or relationships outside the club. However, in practice swinging is much more nuanced, and people who self-identify as swingers can and sometimes do form close emotional relationships with their partners. Many people in both the swinging and polyamorous communities, though not all, see swinging and polyamory as two ends of a continuum, different in degree of intent, focus, and emphasis on romantic and emotional relationships rather than different in kind.

Open Marriage

A marriage whose structures or arrangements permit one or both of the members involved to have outside sexual relationships, outside romantic relationships, or both. The term "open marriage" is a catchall for marriages which are not emotionally or sexually monogamous and may include such activities as polyamory or swinging.

Monogamish

A relationship which is not necessarily sexually fidelitous, but that differs from polyamory in that the outside sexual relationships are seen as primarily sexual rather than romantic, without necessarily having any expectation of continuity, and are viewed as enhancing the primary couple's relationship.

The term was coined by columnist Dan Savage to describe committed relationships that still allow some "outside" sexual dalliances.

Polygamy

The state or practice of having multiple wedded spouses at the same time. Polygyny (multiple women married to one man) is the most common form of polygamy (the obverse being polyandry). Polygyny is associated with many religious and ethnic subcultures, with Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas recording 850 of 1170 societies as being polygynous. Modern religious traditions, including Islam and Fundamentalist Mormonism (FLDS) allow polygyny. For this reason, many people confuse polygamy with polyamory.

Consensual Nonmonogamy

Any relationship which is not sexually and/or emotionally exclusive by the explicit agreement and with the full knowledge of all the parties involved. Consensual nonmonogamy can take several forms, the two most common of which are polyamory and swinging, and it is distinct from cheating in that everyone involved knows about and agrees to the activity.

Consensual nonmonogamy often explicitly spells out the conditions under which it is permissible for one person to take on additional partners, and often includes some form of safer-sex agreement as well.