“I trust my girlfriend. I just don’t trust other guys.”

It’s a comment I see scattered far and wide across the Internetverse. In almost any conversation where some guy is complaining about his wife or girlfriend having male friends, inevitably someone else will ask, “don’t you trust her?” And inevitably, as sure as night follows day, he will say “Oh, I trust her, I just don’t trust other guys.”

Which, as near as I can tell, translates into English as “I don’t trust my girlfriend.” Because the only alternative reading I can see is far more horrifying.

First things first. Let’s call this what it is: an endorsement of the belief that what women want doesn’t matter.

“I trust my girlfriend.” I think my girlfriend wants to be faithful to me, wants to support me, wants to be with me. “I just don’t trust other guys.” Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what she wants. She’s not a man. It only matters what those other guys want.

There are a couple of ways to read this, one of them pretty messed up, the other one even more so.

The first, messed-up reading: My girlfriend wants to be with me and be faithful to me, but other guys don’t want her to be. Other guys will trick, persuade, cajole, or convince her to cheat on me. You know, because they’re guys and she’s a woman. Women are weak of will, incapable of holding out when faced with a determined guy who wants to seduce her.

The second, even more messed-up reading: My girlfriend wants to be with me and be faithful to me, but other guys don’t want her to be. They’ll just rape her. Because, you know, they’re guys, and that’s what guys do.

Regardless of the reading, the conclusion remains the same: Ergo, the thing I must do is prevent my woman from hanging out with other guys. Charmers or rapists, it doesn’t make any difference if she wants to be faithful to me; they want her, so they’re going to fuck her.

And that’s a whole world of messed up right there, it is.

Disempowering and infantilizing on the one hand, or implicitly supportive of rape culture on the other—there’s no interpretation that makes this idea smell any less bad.

So, I would like to have a word with all you men out there who have ever used this reasoning, thought about using this reasoning, or nodded in sympathetic agreement when someone else has this reasoning. I will try to put this as delicately as possible:

Cut it out. It’s bullshit.

“I trust you, but…” is just a way of saying “I don’t trust you.”

Look, I get it. It’s scary to trust someone else. When you do, you’re putting your heart in their hands and giving them a chance to let it shatter on the floor. You’re hoping they won’t drop it, knowing it will hurt if they do. I totally understand how scary that is.

But you can’t have it both ways.

If you trust your partner not to betray you, you have to have confidence that she won’t even if she has the opportunity to. And if you try to control her to prevent her from having the opportunity to hurt you, you don’t trust her.

This is not about other guys or what they want. It’s about her.

If you don’t think she can say “no” to a silver-tongued bloke with a huge, massive, throbbing bank account, you don’t trust her. If you trust her, it doesn’t matter what other men’s intentions are.

And if you assume as a given that other men who take an interest in your girlfriend will ignore her ‘no’ and just rape her, there’s a bigger problem than her fidelity. Perhaps it’s time to stand up, you know? And I don’t mean stand up to control your girlfriend. I mean stand up against the notion that it is in any way, shape, or form acceptable to assume that other men will not listen to her ‘no’ and there’s anything normal about that…because there isn’t.

“I trust my girlfriend. I just don’t trust other guys.” Basically, you’re saying your girlfriend’s desires don’t matter.

Is that really what you believe?

My hunch is that it’s not. My hunch is what you’re really saying is you think your girlfriend will choose to cheat, but you don’t want to say it because you understand what it might mean. You don’t trust her, and a healthy relationship can’t function without trust.

If you trust her, it doesn’t matter what other guys want. If you don’t trust her, have the courage to own it. But listen, all you other men out there, enough with the “I trust her, I don’t trust other guys” already.

You aren’t fooling anyone.

“Does my butt look big in this?” Some more thoughts on honesty in communication

“Does my butt look big in this?”

I am a fan of the idea of honesty. This is no secret. I’ve written before about why I think lies, even supposedly harmless “little white lies,” are destructive. (tl;dr: They teach people not to listen to the good things we say, and to dismiss compliments and positive things as white lies, while making negative things stick more.)

Inevitably, every time I write something like this or I say this at a workshop or lecture I’m giving, someone always, always says “but what if my girlfriend asks if her butt looks big in this dress? I shouldn’t tell the truth then, right?”

And I say “honesty in communication works both ways. It is wrong to give dishonest answers. It is also wrong to ask dishonest questions.”

Far more often than not, “does my butt look big in this?” is a dishonest question.

Questions like this are not requests for information. They are passive, indirect requests for validation. They are an indirect way of saying “I am feeling insecure. I want you to tell me that you think I’m attractive.” And, of course, they’re harmful and destructive ways of seeking that validation, because if you say “no, your butt looks awesome in that,” the other person is just going to dismiss it as a white lie. The answer doesn’t meet the need for validation, because on some level, the person you’re talking to won’t believe you. We’re all conditioned to know that other people are likely to prefer white lies to honesty, usually under the guise of sparing our feelings.

And if you say “yes, that’s unflattering,” well, not only have you not offered the hoped-for validation, you’ve confirmed the other person’s deepest fear. These questions are lose-lose: affirmations aren’t believed, unpleasant answers cut deep.

“Does my butt look big in this?” It’s the most obvious example of an indirect request for validation masquerading as a question, but we ask dishonest questions that are less obvious all the time. Whenever we ask a question expecting to hear a certain answer that validates us, that’s a dishonest question.

Honesty is just as important in the questions we ask as in the answers we offer. Dishonest questions are just as harmful as dishonest answers. Indeed, they might be even more harmful, because they set the other person up for failure.

I don’t believe they’re always a deliberate setup. It can be difficult to tease out all the threads woven into the way we communicate. Sometimes, we ask questions that we believe are honest, but then become upset when the answer doesn’t validate us. Sometimes, we tell ourselves we want an honest opinion while secretly longing for the answer that feels best.

But dishonest questions are not fair. They put other people into a difficult bind that offers no easy way out. At best, they are a sign of chinks in our own sense of self; at worst, they’re manipulative, immature, or both.

I am a fan of honesty in communication. I would like, therefore, to propose an idea: If you ask a question, be prepared for an answer that surprises you. If you’re not prepared for that, it’s probably a dishonest question. If you ask a question and then blame the other person for giving an answer that doesn’t follow the script in your head, it’s definitely a dishonest question.

Relationships do not thrive when everyone is reading from the same playbook of dishonesty, they thrive when people are straight with each other and ask for their needs to be met directly rather than indirectly.

How, then, do we deal with our ordinary human need for reassurance and validation? I propose a solution: direct communication. I’d like to propose that we strive for relationships where we feel safe to say,”I’m feeling insecure about thus-and-such, and I would like your validation.” I think that looking within ourselves to understand what we really want, and doing whatever may be in our power to ask only honest questions and to advocate for our needs directly, is a gift we can offer our partner. By offering this gift, we avoid putting our partner in a position where they must either compromise their integrity or hurt us.

I would also like to propose the suggestion that by answering questions honestly, instead of telling white lies, we are offering a gift to our partner: the gift of integrity. This gift allows the people in our lives to believe us more fully, and not dismiss the positive things we say.

Honesty works both ways. We can, and I believe we should, seek to ask honest questions as well as answer questions honestly.

So you Want to Have a Threesome…

Group sex. It’s arguably one of the most common sexual fantasies that exists, right up there with the one about your French teacher, a paddle, and a giant pot of honey. It’s also one of the most fraught: How do I find people who want to have a threesome? What happens if I’m with a partner who’s more into the third person than into me? What if I get jealous? What if my partner gets jealous? What if there’s Drama? What if I feel left out?

I’m a huge fan of group sex. I lost my virginity in an MFM threesome (something I talk about in my memoir The Game Changer), and in the time since I’ve had far too many threesomes (and quite a lot of foursomes, and a few fivesomes, and some elevensomes, and at least one fifteensome) to count.

Group sex is hella fun, though like any kind of sexual activity it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. If group sex is something that interests you, it can be hard to know where to get started and how to stack the deck in favor of a good experience for everyone. That’s what this guide is for.

What is group sex like? Fun. I’ve consistently found it to be amazing. First, though, I’ll talk about what it’s not like.

What group sex isn’t

It’s not (usually) like what you see in porn flicks or Hollywood movies. The other folks involved are people; unless you’ve hired a pair of sex workers, they’re not there just to be part of a male wank fantasy.

I’m afraid I have some bad news for the straight dudes in the audience: When you’re having sex with two (or more) women, they’re not there just for you. It’s not all about you and your pleasure. A typical threesome wank fantasy is about two women who make out or have sex with each other just to get the dude hot, but secretly they both need the D.

That’s not likely to be how it happens. Maybe they’re both straight. Maybe they’re both bi and more into each other than him. Like I said, I’ve had a threesome with a bi woman and her lesbian girlfriend; we both paid attention to the bi woman, but her girlfriend and I had no contact at all. It was all about the bi woman, not all about me.

In fact, threesomes with two men are about as common as threesomes with two women–and no, you don’t need to be bisexual to have a threesome. Three men can have a threesome, as can three women. If you’re a straight guy, you also need not feel threatened by the presence of another penis in the room. As many women as men fantasize about threesomes, and often, women quite fancy the notion of two men paying attention to her as much as men like the idea of two women paying attention to him.

Which brings up another point: unless you’ve explicitly negotiated otherwise, you can’t assume it’s a free-for-all. You don’t get to do whatever you want with both of the other folks involved. Everyone is going to come to group sex with their own limits and boundaries. If you ever want to have a second threesome, pay attention to those boundaries! Yes, people are getting naked and sweaty. No, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean you get to have sex, or perform any particular act, with either or both of them. They have the right to say what you may or may not do with their bodies. (And so do you, by the way. You are never obligated to have sex with someone just because they’re involved in sex with someone else. I am straight, so when I have threesomes involving another guy, he and I don’t touch. That’s fine. Your body, your rules.)

Finally, a lot of folks naively assume “if I’m with someone and we both have sex with the same third person, we won’t feel jealous because we’re both there!” Wrong. Jealousy is about insecurity, and it’s possible to feel insecure even when you and your partner are having sex with the same lover. The best time to get a handle on that is before you invite someone else into your bed, not after.

What group sex is

Fun. Lots and lots of fun. Threesomes can happen in a wide range of configurations with a wide range of activities that go way beyond the stereotypical porn shoot or wank fantasy. They offer virtually unlimited ways for three people to come together and explore.

There’s something delicious about having two sets of hands and lips and tongues on your body that’s just amazing. It’s fun to be the one receiving that attention, but it’s also fun to be participating in giving someone else that kind of pleasure.

It’s cozy. Three people all wrapped up together is really nice. It’s incredibly intimate, both physically and emotionally. I remember a situation where I, one of my girlfriends, and my FWB all spent the night together. We had lots of sex and fell asleep all tangled up together, but you know what the most fun part was? The next morning when we woke up and showered together. The three of us barely fit in the shower stall, and all of us were still sleepy and a bit giddy from the night before, and it was incredibly warm and cozy and intimate.

The sex is amazing. There are a lot of sensations and activities that are not possible with two people that are possible with three.

If you’re a straight dude in an FMF threesome, for instance, it’s not necessarily a question of having ordinary PIV intercourse with two women, though of course that can be part of it (and it’s hella fun when it is). I’m a big fan of pegging (having a woman use a strapon on me), and in threesomes, there are all kinds of fun combinations available. I’ve been on top of one lover having PIV sex with her while another lover is behind me pegging me…that was fun! (We broke the bed.) I’ve been lying on my side spooning a lover and penetrating her while another lover is spooning me and pegging me. There are all kinds of varieties in any kind of threesome, and a little imagination goes a long way.

It’s a lot of fun when bondage is involved, too. The night before my girlfriend and my FWB and I ended up in the shower together, my girlfriend and I tied my FWB to the bed and we both took turns playing with her. On another occasion, I was tied to the bed on my back while one lover straddled me and rode me, and another lover sat on my face. The two of them made out with each other while they both took pleasure from me. As you can imagine, both experiences were really hot.

So how do you make it work? What are the rules for group sex?

In my experience, the most important rules for threesomes (or foursomes or orgies or any other group sex) are not that different from the most important rules for two-person sex. Sex is sex, after all, and it doesn’t turn into something qualitatively different for n>2. As with any sex:

  • The folks involved are people, not sex toys or objects for your pleasure. Their needs and desires matter just as much as yours.
  • Consent matters. This means do not do things without someone else’s consent. Do not, for example, assume you have sexual access to everyone else involved. (I have had threesomes with two women where one of the women involved self-identified as lesbian. I have had threesomes with two women where one of the women was the girlfriend of my partner. In neither case did I assume that just because there were two women there, that meant I got to have sex with both of them.)
  • Set and respect boundaries. Talk about what access you will and will not allow to you. You don’t have to have sex with all the other folks just because your orientations and/or wibbly bits line up!
  • Talk about and plan for sexual health. Use barriers, exchange sexual histories, or do whatever else you need to do to protect your health.
  • I have found that sex of all sorts usually goes better with friends than with strangers. It is common for people new to group sex to want to try it with strangers, because they fear that having sex with people they know will make things “awkward” or induce jealousy. In my experience, though, inviting a random person into your bed goes along with inviting random communication skill, random sets of expectations, random STI risk profile, and random risk of Drama into your bed. With friends, you’ve already established a baseline, I hope, of communication and trust. Those things make sex better.
  • Communication matters. If you’re feeling something you didn’t expect, communicate! If you want (or don’t want) something to happen, communicate!
  • Treat the other people with respect and compassion. They are people too, remember? Treating people well is the key to having everyone have a good experience. When you treat other people well, you might get to play again!
  • If you do have an unexpected response, try to deal with it with grace. It’s okay to feel unexpected things when you try something new. If you need to stop, stop, but do so calmly and without shame, blame, or drama.
  • Don’t spend all your time trying to script exactly what happens or how it goes, unless scripting sex is your particular kink. Sometimes people are tempted to try to avoid jealousy by using a script. That’s unlikely to work. Jealousy is caused by insecurity and it’s hard to navigate around insecurity with rules or scripts.

Special considerations for safer sex

Group sex poses special challenges for safer sex that you might not have to think about when you’re accustomed to the more one-on-one variety. In addition to being aware of transmitting potential pathogens to your partner or receiving them from your partner, you also have to be aware of transmitting them between participants.

Some of these guidelines are common sense. If you use barriers like condoms, for instance, don’t use the same barrier with two different partners. Change condoms when moving between partners.

The same goes for use of sex toys or fingers. Be aware of who you’ve touched and with what. Cover toys and change the coverings between partners, or use toys with only one partner. Don’t put your fingers in one person’s wibbly bits and then put them in another person’s bits, if those people aren’t fluid-bonded.

Oral sex requires particular care. We don’t necessarily think of it as a vector between two folks who aren’t directly intimate with each other, but it can be. Use dental dams or condoms if you’re offering oral sex to two partners, or use mouthwash between partners. Be aware of where your bits have been, where your fingers have been, and yes, where your tongue has been.

Finding partners

Having group sex doesn’t take magic superpowers or arcane pickup secrets you learn from the seedier corners of the Internet. It does, however, help to let go of conventional attitudes about sex. We are all, throughout our lives, inculcated with a lot of baggage around sex, and some of that baggage makes it really hard to have threesomes.

In my experience, there are three approaches to trying to find group sex.

A lot of folks start out with a conventional relationship, then search for someone who will basically be an expendable fantasy fulfillment object. That can feel nice and safe. The third person is barely even a person. In fact, a lot of folks set strict rules on what that third person can and can’t do, or even set rules that it has to be an anonymous stranger from Craigslist rather than a friend or acquaintance, in the belief that this will avoid jealousy or awkwardness.

There are several problems with this approach. First, in my experience, the couples who do it are often trying to outsmart jealousy by planning and scripting a scenario they think will keep it at bay. But jealousy doesn’t come from sex. Jealousy comes from insecurity. If you see your partner enjoying someone else, and you’re sexually insecure, you will likely feel threatened and jealous even if the other person is a stranger, even if you’re having sex with that person at the same time, and even if you’re following a script. Second, sex with a stranger can feel less threatening than sex with a friend, but the problem is a random stranger brings random STI profile, random integrity or lack thereof, random baggage, and random drama to the table. Third, it encourages thinking of that person as a thing, not as a person with needs and desires.

It’s easier to take this approach than to build good tools for self-confidence, security, communication, and respect. A lot of folks take this approach because they don’t want to (or don’t know how to) build those tools, and the results are mixed. It is possible to have a good threesome with this approach, but it’s surprisingly hard. I think every threesome horror story I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard quite a lot of them) started with this approach.

The second approach is to join a swing club or lifestyle community. This approach is really intimidating to a lot of people. There are all kinds of stereotypes about swingers, it can be hard to admit to other people what you want, and a lot of folks will say things like “sure, I want to have group sex, but that doesn’t mean I’m like all those perverts!” (Seriously, I’ve heard people say just that.)

The advantages to this approach are that it’s safe–the lifestyle community tends to have zero tolerance for abusive or disrespectful behavior, there is a strong culture of not disrupting other people’s relationships, there are meet and greets where you can get to know folks in the community in a low-pressure social setting without sex, and you’ll meet people who are on the same page about what you want. The disadvantage is that it’s intimidating at first, and if you’re still carrying around a bunch of baggage like sexual insecurity, sex negativity, or poor communication skills, you’re going to have to address those. It also can tend, depending on where you are, to favor people who are conventionally attractive. But the lifestyle community offers a structural way to get what you want on your terms.

My approach is different. I’ve never “found” a partner for a threesome by going out and looking. All the threesomes I’ve ever had have involved people I already knew. I’ve always had a social circle who are open and sex-positive, so I’ve never had to go out searching; it’s always been more like “hey, I like you, I’d like to explore bring more physically intimate with you, whaddya say?”

I’ve tried to work on myself to build strong self-esteem and security, to confront my fears and insecurities, to develop the qualities of integrity and transparency, to be able to talk about sex without fear or shame, and to let go of the idea that if my lover digs sex involving another person that means I’m not good enough or whatever.

I’ve also worked hard to understand three principles that sound obvious but aren’t:

  • I can’t expect to have what I want if I don’t ask for what I want
  • If I feel something bad or unpleasant that doesn’t necessarily mean someone else is doing something wrong
  • Other people are real, which means their needs and desires are just as valid as mine.

Having done that, I deliberately built a social circle of open, sex-positive people. I got over feeling intimidated about going to kink or lifestyle social groups. I sought out people who have positive, healthy attitudes about sex. I worked on my own integrity.

And it really paid off. And because my social circle is made up of folks with good communication skills and positive attitudes about sex, it’s remarkably drama-free.

This approach takes the most work of the three, but it’s work you do on yourself. Being confident and secure, being open, having good communication skills, being willing to face down your fears and insecurities help you find partners, sure, but they also help you live a better, happier life.

Some thoughts on little white lies

It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my writings for any length of time that I’m not a fan of dishonesty in relationships–of any sort, big or small. I have always championed the cause of open, honest communication, especially in romantic relationships. A great deal of human misery and suffering in relationships can, it seems to me, be addressed by the simple but nevertheless radical idea that communication is good.

That doesn’t mean I embrace the idea of Radical Honesty™, at least not as it often shakes out in the real world. I’ve written about that before.

But I am no fan of intentional dishonesty, even in small ways. The little white lie? It has effects that are farther reaching and more insidious than I think most folks realize.

People who advocate for the little white lie often argue–indeed, seem to believe–that they are being compassionate. The function of the little white lie is to save someone from hurt or embarrassment, the reasoning goes. What is the harm in that? Isn’t it cruel to tell a hurtful truth, if there is no purpose to it?

I have oft observed a very strange thing in romantic relationships, and that is good things our partners say to us tend to bounce off as though our self-conception were made of Teflon, whereas bad things have amazing power to stick. If our partner tells us “I think you’re beautiful; I am totally attracted to you,” it is easy to say “well, he doesn’t really mean it,” and not to internalize it. But a partner saying “I don’t think you look good in that dress” sticks tenaciously, and can haunt us for weeks.

Why is that?

There might be a lot of reasons, but I think one of them is the little white lie.

We live in a society where there are certain things we are “supposed” to say. There are certain lies that we are encouraged to tell–little soothing words that we set up like fences around anything that might potentially be hurtful to hear.

Each of them might, in and of itself, not be that big a deal. Who cares, really, if your partner’s butt looks big in that skirt? You’re not with your partner because of the size of their butt, after all; it doesn’t matter to your relationship.

But here’s the thing.

When you tell little white lies, however harmless they may seem, you are telling your partner, Don’t believe me. Don’t believe me. I will lie to you. I will tell you what you want to hear. Don’t believe me.

Is it any wonder, then, that positive stuff bounces off but negative stuff sticks? You are establishing a precedent that communicates to your partner, straight up, do not trust positive things I say. They are empty words. They do not reflect the reality of what I believe. So how, given that, can we really expect our partners to trust it when we give them affirmation?

Little white lies are corrosive. They communicate a very important truth: I will be dishonest to you to save your feelings.

When we make a habit of telling the truth all the time, something wonderful happens. We tell our partners, You can believe me. I will not say what you want to hear; I will say what I actually believe. That means when I tell you positive things, I mean them.

Lies, however innocuous, breed insecurity. They cause your partner to second-guess everything you say: does he really think this is true, or is he just trying to placate me? Is he genuine, or is he just trying to avoid saying something I might not want to hear?

A question I hear often is “When I tell my partner things I like about them, why don’t they believe me?” And the answer, of course, is that we live in a society that cherishes comfort above truth. We are taught from the time we are children that we should tell white lies, and expect others to lie to us, rather than say anything uncomfortable. That leaves us in a tricky position, because we don’t have any way of telling whether the positive words we hear are lies.

Oh, we know we can believe the negative words, because those aren’t little white lies–the purpose of a white lie is to avoid discomfort, and negative things are uncomfortable. We trust the bad stuff implicitly. But the good stuff? We have no reason to trust that! We don’t know if it’s real or if it’s a white lie.

So here’s a thought. If you want your lover to believe you about the good stuff, give them a reason to. Let them know it’s honest. How? By embracing honesty as a core value. What’s the harm in little white lies? They create an environment where we suspect dishonesty from everyone. We can never quite be comfortable that anything positive we hear is the truth; there is always–there must always be–that niggling little doubt.

It is very difficult to develop positive self-esteem when we can not trust the good things people say about us. And yet, taking away our trust to believe the good is exactly what little white lies do.

Don’t do that. Be compassionate in your truth–but be truthful.

#WLAMF no. 13: Zaiah

Today is the ninth anniversary of my relationship with my partner zaiah.

A lot of folks will say polyamory doesn’t work. “I knew some people who tried that,” they’ll say. “They broke up.” If you ask these people how many monogamous folks they know who’ve broken up, you’ll get some humphing and hawing, but you probably won’t make your point.

zaiah and I have had an interesting adventure, these past nine years. She and I have traveled across the country together, lived together, explored together, tried new things together. I’m looking forward to many more years of adventure. Happy anniversary, darling! I love you.


I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/thorntree-press-three-new-polyamory-books-in-2015/x/1603977

Some thoughts on consent

With the state of California passing a new law defining an Affirmative Consent standard for public colleges and universities (and the wonderful commentary about it on the Yes Means Yes blog), the recent firing of radio personality Jian Ghomeshi over his sex life (which he claims is targeting him for participation in BDSM, though several women are alleging that he abused them non-consensually under the guise of BDSM), everyone all over the Internet is talking about consent these days.

And as seems to happen when everyone all over the Internet talks about something, a lot of folks are getting it wrong.

I’d like to think consent is something we all understand. And, in most situations, we do. A lot of folks are flapping their mouth-parts about how we can never really truly get consent for sexual activities because men and women are just so different and don’t understand each other, but seriously, that’s a load of bullshit. Bullshit with extra spicy smell-o-riffic chunks.

If you take sex out of the equation, we all understand consent pretty well. If you invite someone out to dinner and he says “well, you know, I’d love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day,” we know he’s said “no,” even though he hasn’t used the word “no.” If we ask someone whether we can use her bike or not and she says “listen, I really don’t know that I feel comfortable with that arrangement,” we know she hasn’t consented. And if she says “The combination on the bike lock is 5678, I need it back before class on Tuesday,” we know that she has, even though she didn’t say the word “yes.”

We get this. It’s part of the most basic, rudimentary socialization.

But for some reason, when it comes to sex, otherwise grown, mature adults start thrashing around, as if they lack the social graces of a reasonably well-socialized 6-year-old.

Some of this might be down to living in a culture that just plain doesn’t teach us about what consent is. I wish I would have understood this stuff better myself, back when I was still sorting out all this interpersonal-relationship stuff.

But a big part of the reason, I suspect, lies in the way we think about sexual consent. We get what consent is outside the world of sex, but when it comes to sex, we act like the purpose of consent is to follow a checklist of procedures designed to let us do what we want without getting in trouble. Otherwise intelligent, reasonable adults, for example, have asked if California’s new law means students on California campuses will need to get written permission to shag. (The short answer is ‘no,’ but folks who so profoundly don’t understand what consent is that the question seems reasonable to them, might want to think about doing just that.) Someone on my Twitter timeline asked ‘what if two people have sex but neither one of them gave affirmative consent–who’s at fault there?’ (The answer is if neither of them gave affirmative consent, then no sex act took place. For a sex act to take place, someone had to initiate the contact of the slippery bits, and that initiation is an act of consent.1) People–again, otherwise intelligent people who appear at least savvy enough to work a computer–have said things like ‘if nobody said no, that’s consent, right?’ (No. We’re conditioned strongly not to say ‘no,’ as in the “well, you know, I’d love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day” example above.)

Consent is not a checklist you go through in order to be cleared to do what you want, the way a fighter pilot goes through his checklist before being catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier (“Afterburners, check! Flaps, check! Condom, check! Let’s fuck!”). The purpose of consent isn’t to tell you what you can get away with; the purpose of consent is to make sure you and your partners are both on the same page and both enjoying what’s going on.

Consent isn’t something you get once, at the start of the proceedings. It’s ongoing. This is important, because it means the idea of getting written consent up-front to hanky-panky is entirely missing the point. Consent exists in the moment, and it can always be revoked as soon as someone no longer likes what’s happening. Even if I sign a form in triplicate, duly notarized, saying I want to shag you, if we get down to business and I change my mind, I have the right to say ‘stop.’

It’s not hard to get consent, really it isn’t. It simply means paying attention to your partner, checking in. It doesn’t have to ‘spoil the mood’ or ‘interrupt the flow’ or any of those other things the masses of people who don’t understand consent are apt to complain about. Consent doesn’t even have to be verbal. If you go in to kiss someone and she leans back, that’s not consent. If she meets you halfway, it is. We know this. Most of us are really good, in non-sexual contexts, of figuring out the difference between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ even without hearing those specific words. We just forget, when it comes to sex.

Seriously, this shouldn’t be that hard. The key elements of consent are:

  • Is the other person into what you want to do? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask. Don’t focus on what you want the answer to be; focus on what the answer is.
  • Is the other person still into it while you’re doing it? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask.
  • Is the other person having fun? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask.

There’s a point in here: consent isn’t something you get so you can have fun, consent is about making sure everyone is having fun. If you don’t care whether your partner is having fun, well, then, perhaps one explanation is you’re a terrible person and you oughtn’t be interacting with anyone in any capacity until you learn that other people are actually real. Oh, and by the way, consent is valid only if it’s informed; if you’re withholding information, lying, misleading, or manipulating other folks to get check marks in those ticky-boxes, you’re not really getting consent at all. I shouldn’t have to say this. It pains me that I feel I do.

Now, bad sex happens. It’s a fact of life. Bad sex doesn’t (necessarily) mean consent was violated.2

But it pays–it really, really does–to remember that consent is ongoing. If the person you’re with suddenly goes all withdrawn and unresponsive, and that’s not part of the particular fetish you’re exploring, perhaps it’s a good idea to check in, you know?

There’s a depressing part of all these discussions about consent, and that is the widespread cultural narrative that allegations of coercion, assault, or abuse are likely to be vindictive women making up stories to entrap and punish blameless men.3 It’s so entrenched that it’s hard to see any woman reporting sexual abuse who’s not immediately attacked all over the Internetverse for it…which would seem to fly in the face of all logic and reason. (Because any woman who talks openly about sexual assault is likely to be attacked vigorously and aggressively, it’s difficult to imagine the motivation of someone to invent such a tale. What’s her goal…to see how many people will call her a liar on YouTube?) And while we’re on the subject, “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean “everyone who reports being sexually assaulted is a liar until proven otherwise.” This shouldn’t need to be said, but there it is. (And just for the record: If you’re one of those folks whose first reaction to learning about allegations of sexual abuse is “she’s making it up,” shame on you.)

This seamy dark side to the consent conversation comes, I think, from the notion of consent as a list of ticky-boxes you check off before you get down ‘n’ dirty. If you went through the pre-flight checklist and ticked off all the things on the list, you should be golden, right? So what’s she doing making all this fuss afterward? She consented, right?

This is also something we get when it comes to issues of consent outside the bedroom. If a roommate offers to let us borrow the bike all week, then on Wednesday says “sorry, mate, but my car’s in the shop, I need the bike after all,” we know that she has the right to do this. I can’t help but think if we were to apply exactly the same standards to sexual consent that we apply to consent to borrow a roommate’s bicycle, a whole lot of people would be a whole lot happier. Yes, your roommate might fabricate a story about how you stole her bike…but really, what are the odds? I mean, seriously? And someone reporting bike theft isn’t even subject to the same explosive blowback as someone reporting sexual assault!

Now, I will admit I’ve made some assumptions in all this. I’m assuming that you’re genuinely good-intentioned and you value the idea of consent. There is a group who benefits from making consent seem muddier and more difficult than it is; the same group also benefits from reflexive thoughts of “She’s making it up!” whenever a report of abuse surfaces. I’ll give you three guesses who’s in that group.4

It’s possible to participate in all kinds of sexual activities with all sorts of partners under a wide range of different circumstances and not ever end up being accused of assault. It’s not even that difficult, really. All it takes, at the end of the day, is remembering that there’s more than one person involved, and checking in with the other folks to see how they’re doing. You don’t need to get it in writing. You don’t need to involve lawyers and witnesses. You just need to pay attention. If you’re shagging someone you’ve never shagged before and you aren’t sure how to read their signals and body language, use your words! I promise it’s not hard.5

Far from spoiling the mood, it can even be hot. “You like that, hmm? You like when I touch you there? You want more? Tell me you like it.”

Seriously. Give it a try some time. Keep in mind, it’s not about getting someone else to let you do what you want. It’s about two (or more!) of you doing things you all like to do.

Oh, and if someone comes to you with a story about being sexually assaulted? Here’s a strategy: In absence of clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, believe them.


1 Absent some other form of coercion, anyway. It isn’t consent if someone gives you head to get you to stop beating her. Lookin’ at you here, Mr. Ghomeshi.

2 Though one of the things that separates people who are good at sex from people who are bad at sex, I think, is the former sorts of people pay attention to their partners as a matter of course.

3 It’s a narrative that hurts men too, by the way. Imagine the blowback if you’re a guy who’s reporting being sexually assaulted…and yes, it does happen.

4 And if you need all three, you might be a terrible person.

5 If you can’t use your words about sex, maybe you might benefit from addressing that problem before the next time you have sex, ‘kay?

Some thoughts on privilege: Look, it isn’t about your guilt.

I participate in a lot of online forums about polyamory. It’s almost impossible to talk about polyamory without eventually talking about OK Cupid, which is arguably one of the best places online for poly folks to meet each other (I met my live-in partner zaiah there). And it’s almost impossible to talk about OK Cupid without talking about how often women tend to get harassed on online dating sites. Any online dating sites.

And, it’s almost impossible to talk about how often women get harassed, on dating sites or anywhere else, without a whole succession of men trotting up to say “well, I personally don’t harass women! Women act like all men are harassers! I’m totally not like that, and I don’t understand why women don’t talk to me online! I totally deserve to have women talk to me online! If I spend my time writing an email to some woman online I am entitled to a response, even if she doesn’t want to date me!”

And, of course, from there it’s just a short hop to talking about male privilege, and as soon as that happens, inevitably those same men trot up again to say “this talk of privilege is just a way to try to make me feel guilty!”

And I gotta say: Guilt? Seriously? You think it’s about guilt?

Guilt is for things you can control. Feeling guilty over things you can’t control, like the race or sex you were born with, is silly.

If you think talking about privilege is about making people feel guilty, you’re completely missing the point.

It’s about being a decent person.

People who are privileged may still struggle, may not always get what they want, but the whole point is they have a lot of advantages over other people. Advantages they can’t see. Advantages they don’t know about.

Talking about privilege is about awareness, not guilt. When people don’t know about the advantages they have, they act in messed-up ways that show insensitivity to others. Like, for example, telling women who experience harassment on a scale that men can’t even understand how they should feel about it, what they should do about it, and why they should, like, totes respond to ME because I’M not like that! I’M not one of those entitled jerks, and therefore I DESERVE a reply!

The purpose of understanding your privilege isn’t to make you feel something. Not guilt, not shame, not anything else. It’s to help you understand that you have a set of things you take for granted that other people don’t have, so that you can change the way you act.

Got nothing to do with feelings at all.

Change the way you act in small ways. Like, not telling women how they should feel about sexual harassment. Like, not telling inner-city blacks that the police are their friends. Like, listening when women talk abut harassment, instead of just saying “oh, you’re saying all men are harassers.” (Hint: No, they’re not.) Or saying something like “well, I just don’t see color.” (Hint: Not seeing color is something you can only do if you happen to be the privileged color. When you belong to an oppressed minority, you don’t get the luxury of not seeing your status.)

Change the way you act in medium ways. Like, if you are a man with a normal social circle, statistically you probably know at least three harassers and at least one rapist. Seriously. So, when you’re with a group of your friends and someone makes a racial joke or a rape joke or talks about how women are bitches or whatever, speak up. Remember, if you don’t say anything, those harassers and that rapist in your social circle–and yes, they are there, even if you don’t know who they are–assume you’re on their side and think the way they do.

When people make cracks about sending a woman into the kitchen to make a sandwich, or talk about how they’d sure like to get that hot chick drunk and bend her over the table, speak up. Say it isn’t cool.

Yeah, it’s uncomfortable to speak up when all your friends are yee-hawing and back-slapping about how absolutely hysterical that rape joke was. Deal with it. The discomfort you face speaking up ain’t nothing on the discomfort women face just walking down the goddamn street.

Change the way you act in large ways. Don’t vote for political candidates who talk about how only lazy blacks are on welfare or blab about “legitimate rape.”

People aren’t telling you you’re privileged to make you feel guilty. People are telling you you’re privileged because privilege is a system and an institution that benefits you and that you participate in without even knowing it. When you know about it, maybe you can stop participating in it. Maybe, if you’re brave and willing to pull on your big-boy pants, you can even put yourself on the map against it when the folks around you are participating in it.

On Feminism and Getting Laid

A little while ago, I wrote a blog post called Some Thoughts on Rape Culture.

Every time I write a blog post like this, as sure as night follows day, the same thing happens. Invariably, I will get at least one, and sometimes several, private emails in my inbox. The content of these emails is always the same, and they’re rarely stated in the blog comments. Every time, they’re some variant on the same theme:

That must be working pretty good for you, huh? Pretending to be a feminist must really get you laid.

This has happened for years, and this last blog post was no exception.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the assumption that a man who espouses feminist values must be using it as a ploy to get sex. The first time I encountered this, it was quite a head-scratcher, I must confess. Really? I thought. That’s your take-away? I am pretending to support values and ideals about women’s agency because I’m trying to score sex from feminists? Seriously?

Now, in all fairness, if you look at all my partners, it’s very unlikely I would be involved with them if I weren’t a “feminist man,” or, as I like to call it, “a man who thinks women are people.” I have simple tastes; I prefer strong, smart, confident women, and those tend–surprise!–to be women who like being treated as people.

But here’s the thing.

The fact that these women would only be likely to get involved with a man who respects the ideals of feminism doesn’t mean that they’d get involved with every guy who respects those ideals. Treating women as people is necessary but not sufficient; if you treat women as people, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be involved with them, but if you don’t, you won’t. Yes, in order to have sex with my partners, you have to be a dude who’s a feminist. You also have to be a dude who they think is worth having sex with, and you can’t fake your way into that.

So as a strategy for getting laid, adopting feminist ideals is, by itself, kinda rubbish.

And pretending to adopt feminist ideals is even more rubbish.

I don’t quite get what’s going on in the head of some guy who thinks pretending to be feminist is a ploy to get laid, but I have to assume that a guy who thinks that, probably doesn’t think women are very smart. If someone pretends to think women are people, but doesn’t actually think women are people, I suspect the ploy would be revealed rather quickly. Probably some time between appetizers and the main course, and certainly well before any clothes come off. I really don’t think it’s possible to pretend to be feminist, at least not for any length of time longer than a dinner conversation.

I don’t say that rape culture is a thing because I’m hoping to get laid by women who say that rape culture is a thing. I don’t think women deserve agency and personal autonomy as a tactic to try to get them to use their agency and personal autonomy to fuck me. I mean, seriously, what the fuck? How is it that someone might seriously think that being nice to feminists is a strategy for getting laid? Is it because he thinks feminists are so well-known for…um, having sex with any guy who’s nice to them?

If I were to advocate some kind of duplicitous scheme to get more sex, I would definitely recommend “learn to swing dance” over “pretend to be a feminist.” It certainly seems far more likely to succeed. Pretending to be a feminist when you really don’t think of women as real people, just to try to get in the pants of women who want to be treated like real people, is just…it…I just…what is this I don’t even.

More Than Two: Moving toward and moving away

I’ve just written a blog post in the More Than Two book blog about building polyamorous relationships where we move toward something rather than moving away from something. Here’s the teaser:

I was recently asked to do a media interview about polyamory. This happens from time to time, and most of the questions I’m asked tend to be fairly predictable: How do you deal with jealousy? What do you tell your parents or your kids? Do you think polyamory is the next cultural revolution?

This interview was quite different, and one of the questions I was asked helped crystallize for me some of the guiding ideals about the relationships I choose.

The question concerned dealing with fears, and while I was answering it, it suddenly occurred to me: throughout my life, the relationships I have found most rewarding have been those that are guided toward something rather than away from something.

You can read the whole thing; feel free to respond there or here.

Some thoughts on rape culture

A couple of days ago, someone on a (closed) Facebook group I belong to posted a link to a blog post about rape culture.

And, predictably, one of the first comments to that link was along the lines of “this is just another attempt to say that male sexuality is bad.”

It doesn’t even really matter where the linked blog post is (though if you’re interested, it’s here); the “you’re just demonizing men” reaction comes up on any conversation I’ve ever seen about rape culture, as sure as night follows day. And it’s annoying.

It seems to me that if that’s your take-away from discussions about rape culture, you aren’t paying attention.

Male sexuality is not inherently evil, and acknowledging that rape culture is a thing isn’t the same as “demonizing male sexuality.” This seems obvious to me, yet it’s a persistent trope: saying that we have a culture that normalizes, trivializes, and to a large extent even excuses sexual violence is conflated with demonizing male sexuality, as if, I don’t know, male sexuality were somehow inextricably tied to rape or something.


I personally have never met any women who believe that male sexuality is tied to rape, though I keep hearing from other men about that’s what “feminists think”.

When I see a trope become that deeply embedded in a conversation about something, I tend to wonder who it benefits. I definitely think there are men who benefit from this trope. There are some men who want to conflate “discussing the cultural component of sexual violence” with “demonizing all male sexuality.” These men want you to read articles like the blog post that led to all this and respond with “you’re saying men are evil! You’re saying all men are rapists!” That’s the interpretation they want you to have.

There are two kinds of men who want you to have that response: rapists, and men who want power over women.


Not all men are rapists.

There is, for some people, a knee-jerk response to any conversation about rape culture that goes “You just think all men are rapists!” That isn’t what this (and articles like it) say. What they say is that women have to act like all men are potentially rapists, because rapists don’t wear a special hat or have a special handshake or anything.

A strange man is probably not a rapist, but he might be. Since there’s no telltale signal that lets you tell a rapist from a not-rapist, women have to assume that a stranger could potentially be a rapist, simply out of self-preservation. A common analogy here is that not every strange dog will bite you, but it’s usually a good idea not to approach every strange dog you see with reckless abandon–because some of them might bite you, and you have no way of telling which.

Rapists and men who want power over women are quite pleased when people deflect conversations about rape culture with “you’re just saying male sexuality is evil,” because it shuts down conversation about the reality of rape culture…and that suits them just fine. It allows things to continue on exactly as they are–which is to say, allows society to continue blaming victims of rape for their own attacks (“did you see what she was wearing??!), allows rape victims who come forward to continue being disbelieved, allows the courts to continue under-prosecuting rape.

All of this serves the needs of men who rape and men who want to control women, and the only side effect (other than the fact that, y’know, women are marginalized) is that some men are treated like they might possibly be a rapist.

You’re a guy, and you don’t like it? You don’t like the idea that women who don’t know you might respond as though you are a potential rapist, even though that’s something you would never, ever, do? Do something about it! Do something to make our society less welcoming to rapists. Don’t trivialize rape. Don’t whine “but what about false accusations?” when women talk about how claims of rape are rarely taken seriously. Don’t treat tape as a punch line.

Look, this is not rocket science. If you’re a guy, you have a disproportionate amount of power, even if you personally don’t feel like it’s true. It’s not enough to say “Well, I’m not a rapist, and I don’t trivialize rape, so I don’t like it when women treat me like I might be a rapist!” You have to do more. You have to stand up to the people around you who do trivialize rape. You have to stand up to people who are rapists–yes, I’m talking to you, and yes, statistically, unless you live as a hermit in a one-room cabin in Montana you probably know at least one rapist in your social circle. Even if you don’t know who he is.

You don’t like the implications of discussing rape culture? Don’t dismiss those discussions; that doesn’t serve anyone except rapists. Do something about it.