JREF forum: “Is polyamory morally corrupt?”

A conversation thread recently popped up on the James Randi Educational Foundation forum titled “Is Polyamory Morally Corrupt?”

Now, one might think that self-described skeptics and rationalists might be more open to the notion of unconventional relationship arrangements than the population as a whole; at the very least, they’re unlikely to fall back on “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” as an argument.

Surprisingly, though, things like polyamory and BDSM sometimes get a great deal of very angry pushback from self-described rationalists and skeptics, who will argue as passionately as any socially conservative or religious person that heterosexual monogamy is the only “right” way to be.

Of course, to be fair, it sometimes works the other way as well; I’ve encountered at least one person who believes himself to be a rationalist who nevertheless carries on at great and tedious length about how polyamory is the only right way to have a relationship, that all monogamous relationships are coercive and manipulative, and even that monogamy is an invention of Christianity unknown to societies not influenced by Christian teaching…it is often true that self-described “rationalists” seem more skilled at the art of rationalizing than at analytical, critical reasoning. But I digress.

Anyway, I was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by the JREF thread, which was overall supportive of polyamory. I did make a comment, which in typical Franklin fashion got rather lengthy, addressing some of the specific objections to polyamory that popped up. Most of them pop up in any discussion of polyamory, and seem rooted in social tropes more than they are in religious or social objections to polyamory. My reply:

As a person who’s been polyamorous for well over twenty years and also a rationalist, I’m still consistently surprised by the reactions polyamory tends to get from self-identified rationalists.

It seems self-evident to me that the only way one could make a moral case against polyamory is by either looking at systems which offer inequality of opportunity to the folks involved based on sex (eg, systems where men are allowed to have multiple female partners but women are forbidden to have multiple partners) or to invoke some kind of god or gods. Barring that, as long as we’re talking about voluntary relationships between consenting adults, no, of course it isn’t morally corrupt.

The bits that tend to surprise me, though, are in the assumptions that otherwise rational folks seem to make about polyamory.

Some of these assumptions are deeply woven into our culture, and we’re inculcated with them almost from the moment we’re born, so I suppose it really shouldn’t be surprising that folks do tend to subscribe to them. Tropes like “The only problem is that inevitably people have a desire to be “more” than the other person, have a desire to be the “favorite” and “special”.” We’re told, from a very young age, that specialness is a unique consequence of exclusion, but it still doesn’t make sense to me, and it certainly doesn’t match my experience.

I have several partners, many of whom I’ve been with for a long time (over a decade). All of my partners also have other partners. The fact that they have other partners doesn’t make me feel less special; I feel valued by every one of my partners, and I don’t need to be in some kind of top-dog position in order to feel valued.

I think that specialness is a slippery concept. It’s been my observation that people have two very different approaches to feeling special. One is intrinsic (“I am special because in a world of seven billion people, nobody has or has ever had my exact mix of characteristics, skills, and outlook; when I find partners with whom I am compatible, I value the things about them that make them unique and irreplaceable, and they value the things about me that make me unique and irreplaceable”) and one of which is extrinsic (“I am special because someone else tells me I am; exclusivity is what validates my specialness; if that external validation is taken away, I am no longer special”). Folks who need external validation in order to feel special probably aren’t as well suited to poly relationships, perhaps.

The idea that plural relationships “tend to be hard to keep together” does not jive with my experience at all. Rather, relationships in general are hard to keep together, if the folks involved lack good relationship skills or aren’t compatible with each other; and relationships are easy to keep together if the folks involved have good relationships and are compatible. I would expect it to be far, far more difficult to keep a relationship going with one person who didn’t have good communication skills or had a worldview radically different from mine, than to keep five relationships going with folks who were compatible with me!

We do, I think, live in a society that seems to teach us that relationships are something that just kinda happen by random chance rather than something we choose. A lot of relationship problems really do seem to come down to partner selection, but we don’t tend to learn good partner selection skills, so we end up with relationships that are hard to keep together because the folks involved aren’t really terribly compatible.

What happens when a gay man divorces his bisexual husband who is also married to a bisexual woman with a lesbian wife? Um…that relationship ends? As questions go, this one doesn’t seem that difficult to me.

The notion that recognizing a marriage between three people would lead inevitably to recognizing a marriage between 35,000 seems…specious to me. Realistically, I just don’t see it happening. For one thing, that number of people is outside our monkeysphere. For another, when we look at buisness networks or open polyamorous networks or other sorts of networked interpersonal relationships, we just don’t see them extending that far. I don’t see 35,000 people signing a marriage contract “for the lulz.”

That aside, I’m not sure what the objection to it would be. So what if there are 15 or 27 people involved? As long as mechanisms exist–which they do, just look at corporate law–to manage ownership and responsibilities and assets and so on, what’s the problem? Certainly there are examples through history of children reared in group arrangements, and they seem to work pretty well.

Finally, though the part that baffles me the most are the objections like “people are naturally jealous” or “people are naturally possessive.” Yes, people are born with the ability to feel a wide range of emotions–happiness, anger, grief, jealousy, elation, possessiveness, and so on, and so on. Often, these emotions say more about the person than about the environment; for example, it has been my experience that a person who feels jealous doesn’t necessarily feel jealous because his partner is with someone else (plenty of monogamous people whose partners are not cheating feel jealous), but because that person is feeling a fear of loss, or an insecurity, or a fear of being replaced, something like that. A partner being with someone else might trigger these things, but that doesn’t mean it is the “cause” of jealousy, nor that jealousy is inevitable.

More to the point, people seem to give an almost superstitious level of magical powers to emotions. It is possible to feel angry and to choose not to hit someone or to lash out at someone. It is possible to feel jealous and choose not to act out against that person. Emotions do not dictate actions; we still make choices. And we can make choices that tend to reinforce the things we value (trust, love, altruism) rather than the things we don’t (hate, anger, fear).

Emotions aren’t in the drivers seat unless we put them there; there’s nothing magical or supernatural about them, and we can still make choices even if we are feeling things we don’t like.

Some thoughts on ethics, safety, and conduct in BDSM: Part I

Part 2 of this essay is here.

The largest producer of BDSM porn, by far, that I am aware of is Kink.com.They’re headquartered in the old Armory building in San Francisco, where they produce controversy, BDSM porn, and demonstrations, though as near as I can tell it’s only the second one that actually makes them money.

Bear with me for a minute; this is just backstory. I’m going to get all Ranty McRanterson in a minute here.

Kink.com has something of a mixed reception in the BDSM community, as far as I’ve seen anyway, though my experiences with them have always been positive, and I quite like all the Kink.com folks I’ve met personally. (Their reception in the Christian anti-porn community is less mixed; when I was at Baycon talking to some of the folks who work for Kink, I heard stories about a Christian group who’d been picketing the Armory building with signs reading “End Torture Porn.” The irony in that is left as an exercise to the reader, though there was a part of me that wondered how many of the protesters were wearing crucifixes around their necks. But I digress.)

Kink.com was founded by a guy with a genuine interest in BDSM, and one of the things the company has done is try in various ways to support and give back to the BDSM community. There are some folks who take exception to that, and an argument can always be made that it’s hard for a for-profit company of any kind to really have the best interests of the community that supports it at heart; having said that, I do believe their heart is in the right place.

Recently, one of the folks from Kink.com called me to talk about a new project they’re launching, the BDSM Pledge Web site. The idea, as I understand it, is to create a kind of BDSM ‘Code of Conduct’ that folks could sign on to, post on their Web sites, and so forth.

It hasn’t formally launched yet, and they’re still soliciting comments about it. My opinion is that it’s an interesting idea, but I’d like to see more from it. A lot more.

Before I get to the rant, I need to digress for a moment about two of the notions anyone who’s at all familiar with the BDSM world has almost certainly encountered: “SSC” (Safe, Sane, and Consensual) and “RACK” (Risk Aware Consensual Kink).

These are two different-but-not-really notions about what it is that sets BDSM apart from abuse. The SSC folks emphasize that BDSM activities should, naturally, be safe, sane, and consensual. The RACK folks rightly protest that the notions of ‘safe’ and ‘sane’ are highly subjective. No kind of sexual activity (and indeed no activity in general) can ever truly be ‘safe,’ and ‘sane’ is a pretty damn slippery concept that’s often used as a blunt instrument against folks who do things in bed that other folks don’t much like. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that homosexuality was considered inherently ‘insane’ by the psychiatric community. They prefer instead to acknowledge the risk and say that BDSM is OK if the participants are aware of the risk and still consent to the activity.

Quite a lot of column inches have been wasted on the feud between these two camps. The BDSM Pledge comes down on the side of Safe, Sane, and Consensual, and the person I spoke to at Kink.com ruefully conceded that it’s got some of the RACK contingent’s backs up.

I personally am in neither camp. I think that both ideas are a load of bollocks.

Not because of what they say, mind you. I’ve written quite a lot about BDSM, and the issue of abuse is a central one, a defining element of kink as opposed to abuse. It’s what they don’t say that I find most annoying. Or, to be more precise, it’s the way that members of both camps often fail to apply their own principles that I most object to.

So here’s the part where I start to rant.

It has been my experience that the BDSM community as a whole gives a lot of lip service to the idea of ‘consent,’ but the practice doesn’t track with the preaching very well. I’ve already written about a friend of mine who was sexually assaulted by a prominent ‘leader’ in the BDSM community, but the problems that I see go beyond out-and-out assault.

The problems as I see them exist in three areas: constant, low-level non-consensual behavior, an inability to distinguish between consensual non-consent and real non-consent, and predatory behavior. And I think the three are all related.

Now, I’m absolutely not suggesting that everyone in the BDSM community is a bad person, of course. I’ve met many wonderful, interesting, compassionate, intelligent, friendly people in the community who are absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, however, the bad actors can mess things up for the people who are fantastic.

And I’m not even saying the BDSM community is any worse than society as a whole. But we can, and must, do better.

First, there’s the low-level non-consensual stuff I sometimes see at a conferences or play parties. It most often manifests as harassment of submissives, particularly female submissives; people swat their asses as they walk by, give them orders without negotiating whether or not it’s appropriate to do so, and otherwise behave as if their boundaries are irrelevant. (This isn’t entirely limited to men harassing women; it’s happened to me at play parties when I’ve been with a partner who was holding the reins.) In its more subtle manifestation, it’s a disregard for, sometimes even extending to a refusal to acknowledge, anyone who’s clearly in a submissive role.

Look, I get it if that’s your kink. Really, I do. But here’s the thing. You see those two ideas up there? You see the word they have in common? It’s “consensual.” That means, the submissive consents to the activity. Nobody should ever make assumptions that it is okay to disregard someone’s boundaries, or to touch someone, merely because that person is a submissive. This should be common sense. If you haven’t asked, don’t touch.

The folks in Master/slave or “TPE” (Total Power Exchange) relationships get wrapped around the axle on the same point. I know I’m likely to catch a lot of flak for this, but listen, guys: It’s a fantasy. You may feel like you have a relationship that is a “true” or “real” Master/slave relationship, and you might even feel like those folks who aren’t in relationships are poseurs or players, but it’s still a fantasy. The millisecond, and I mean the millisecond, the “slave” stops granting consent, it’s over. And if you try to make it keep going on after that point, you’re not a dom. You’re a rapist. You may think you’re entitled to be a rapist, because total power exchange whatever whatever, but then every rapist always feels entitled to rape, so it’s not like you’re special on that point.

I had an acquaintance, many years ago, who carried on to great length about how he was a “true” master and his slave was “truly” his property and how other people could “play” at BDSM but for them it was real because he owned her just as surely as he owned his toaster and yadda yadda yadda. He kept on about it right up until the moment she served him with divorce papers. Poor guy was gobsmacked; he never saw it coming. One’s toaster does not normally walk away with custody of one’s child and alimony when it wants a change of scenery. Again, this should be obvious. No matter how firmly someone has convinced himself (and it’s almost always a “him,” though I’ve seen a couple of women fall into this trap) that he he really owns his slave really for reals, the instant that person stops consenting to the arrangement (even if part of the fantasy is that that person has given up consent), it’s done. Anyone who can’t acknowledge that fact is best left as a matter for the police, not the BDSM community, to deal with.

Which brings me to the third variety of problem person, the out-and-out predator.

These people are difficult to deal with. They’re charming. They often rise to positions within a community that gives them respect and power. They host parties. They teach lessons. And folks don’t want to deal with the fact that they are bad people.

We are, as a species, breathtakingly gifted at ignoring evil. Part of it is selfishness; we don’t want to lose access to the things they give the community–the play spaces, the parties, the instruction. We find them likable, and don’t want to believe bad things (and guys, seriously, if somebody says “so-and-so assaulted me” and your response is “Well, I’ve never had a problem with him,” that’s fucked up on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start). We find it easy to blame the victim if we do become aware of something hinkey going on. (Astonishingly, I’ve seen women do this to other women–“Well, she should have known what would happen if she agreed to play privately with him; why was she leading him on?” or “Well, if she was a REAL submissive, she would be GRATEFUL for what happened!”) We talk the talk about consent, but when an uncomfortable problem manifests in our faces, we find it hard to walk the walk.

This stuff–all of it–needs to stop.

Which brings me back to the BDSM code of conduct and the tussle between SSC and RACK.

Folks, I don’t care. SSC and RACK come at the same general idea from different directions. Fighting about which one is better is squabbling over who should put the dishes away while the house is burning down. It doesn’t matter how you define “safe” and “sane” or what level of risk is acceptable between consenting adults. What matters–what really matters–is acting like consent is important. Not just talking about it.

All the time. In little ways and big ways.

That means, no casually swatting some self-identified submissive on the ass just because you’re a big domly dom and you think she’s cute, and that’s what you do with submissives. That means recognizing that consent is always important. It always matters, even when part of the fantasy is that it doesn’t.

And that especially means not making excuses when other people fail to respect the boundaries of those around them.

Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when you think it might cost you something.

My friend edwardmartiniii has this to say on the subject of inappropriate or abusive behavior in a community: “Don’t allow this behavior in your social group. It’s your group and that means that it’s your job (as well the jobs of everyone else in the group) to not allow the behavior you find undesirable. It’s your job to stop it. The people who are doing it might be clueless, or they might be malevolent, and I guess you are going to have to make that call, but the bottom line is that you are responsible for policing yourself and those around you. If you see something, then speak up. Right then. Act.”

And I agree.

So I would like to see a code of ethics that goes beyond “be safe, sane, and consensual, negotiate, and respect limits.” I’d like to see something that covers a lot more ground: Understand that roles are roles, but people are people, and it is your responsibility as a decent human being to treat everyone with respect. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t step on boundaries because you think the roles permit it. Don’t excuse others who do.

There’s more, and in Part 2 of this article I plan to talk quite a lot more about the things I’d like to see the community do.

Before that, though, I’d like to hear your reactions. What do you think? What problems, if any, have you seen in your communities? What would a code of ethical conduct for the subcultures you belong to look like?