The Evolutionary Root of the Internet Hate Machine

Your Rage is a Commodity

Faces in the Crowd: Tampa, Florida, late 1990s (photo by author)

You do not love all humankind.

This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.

That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!

That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.

And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.

Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.

It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.

Being Human in an Age of Social Media

If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.

There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.

Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.

Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.

So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.

Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.

The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.

And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.

Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage

The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.

Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?

What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?

You become easy to manipulate.

You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.

So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.

Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?

And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator

The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.

Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.

The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)

When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.

I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.

You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.

None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.

Don’t be a sucker

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.

So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.

So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

Image: Adam Nemeroff

Some still further evolving thoughts on veto and metamour relationships

I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about metamour relationships and veto in polyamory. And everything I’ve written about this in the past was not only wrong, but wrongheaded. Just about everything you’ll see about this in poly forums and communities is wrong, wrongheaded, or both. I don’t think there’s a graceful solution to this problem, and if there is, the entire poly scene has yet to find it.

Buckle up, this might get long.

So first, what I’ve said about this in the past:

A long time ago (late 80s/early 90s), I would have said the answer to a situation where you’re dating two or more people who absolutely positively cannot get along is veto. You create a situation where if your “primary” partner has an issue, you have a mechanism where your primary partner can put the brakes on, say “I cannot be happy if you’re dating so-and-so,” and that’s it. This mechanism is simple, it protects your existing relationships, it’s clear, and it’s easy to understand.

It’s also, as I learned through bitter experience, tremendously destructive.

For one thing, it doesn’t acknowledge basic human nature. People fall in love. If you are in love with someone and you lose that relationship, you end up with a broken heart. Giving someone the authority to say “I require you to break up with this person you love because I say so” is pretty much guaranteed to end in a broken heart, and breaking your lover’s heart—even if your lover agreed to give you the power to do so, is not a good long-term strategy for the health of your relationship.

Some non-monogamous folks try to deal with this by adding the hilariously wrongheaded idea “you aren’t allowed to fall in love.” As if emotions could obey rules… If that worked, you could simply say “let’s pass a rule forbidding feeling jealous” or “let’s pass a rule forbidding feeling angry” and be done with it.

It’s obvious why that won’t work, yet people think a rule forbidding falling in love will? Really? Ooooookay, then.

What’s worse is veto intrinsically rewards bad behavior. If I don’t want you dating so-and-so, for whatever reason, then I can pick fights with so-and-so, antagonize so-and-so, and then say “We can’t get along, I veto so-and-so.” See, the thing is, sometimes the problem is the “primary” partner. When that happens, a veto in a literal sense rewards poor behavior.

So if not veto, what then?

After my now-ex-wife vetoed someone I was deeply in love with many years ago—a veto that directly caused the chain of events that ultimately led to divorce—I went the other way. My new policy became “All models over 18.”

That means, basically, all the people I’m involved with are fully grown adults. Fully grown adults are capable of working out between themselves how they interact. For me to try to tell two other human beings that they have to get along or that they should be friends is controlling, intrusive, creepy, and gross.

And, like veto, it ultimately doesn’t work. You cannot tell Bob and Jane they have to like each other. Bob and Jane are human beings—real, actual people—not lifestyle accessories. They have their own desires, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, internal awareness, history…it’s not my place to tell them what kind of relationship they must have with each other. That’s for them to work out. I can’t control them.

That works right up until it doesn’t.

So veto isn’t the answer, and telling your lovers they have to get along isn’t the answer, and focusing on your own relationships with the assumption that your lovers are all grown adults who should be able to sort things out themselves isn’t the answer.

Talking assumes everyone is coming from a place of objective rationality, not emotion. Have you seen people? It also assumes everyone is acting 100% in good faith 100% of the time, so the solution to problems is simply more information, and again, have you seen people? If the problem is not “they simply lack information,” then “if we talk about it and provide the missing information, everything will be okay” won’t work.

Yes, I know poly people say “communicate, communicate, communicate.” Yeah. Here’s the thing: solutions to complex problems that are short enough to fit on a bumper sticker almost never work.

So what is the solution?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Fuck if I know. Here’s what I do know:

Fact: You can’t tell grown adults what to do, and you can’t tell grown adults they have to like each other, or even get along.

Fact: Saying “I demand you get rid of this partner I don’t like” is harmful not just to that person, not just to your lover, but to you and your relationship.

Fact: Problems between people are often rooted in a complex snarl of emotions, jealousy, envy, personality conflicts, differing values, differing motivations, differing upbringing, different assumptions, and maybe even good old-fashioned pheromones, so pithy bumper-sticker solutions like “communicate, communicate, communicate” aren’t likely to succeed. They’re just deepitudes—platitudes that sound all nice and shit, but aren’t nearly as profound as they seem.

Fact: You can say “I won’t be with people who don’t get along with my other lovers,” but that opens the door to sufficiently skilled manipulators to exercise indirect control over your other partners.

Fact: Prioritizing existing relationships over new can reward bad behavior and can prevent new partners or potential partners from saying “hey, there is legit something unhealthy going on in your current relationship.”

Fact: You can set boundaries like “if you argue with each other in my presence I will leave the room,” which might help protect your own mental health, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem.

Fact: Saying “not my circus, not my monkeys, you folks sort this out” and taking a step back and lead to you becoming a non-player character in your own relationships.

Fact: Saying you won’t involve yourself in relationships that have too much arguing or fighting leaves you open to what I call Veto By Drama: Even if you don’t have a veto, don’t like veto, don’t ever want to be involved with veto, one partner can do a Veto By Drama simply by making another relationship so volatile and drama-filled you throw up your hands and say “that’s it, I’m done.” And if you have one or more manipulative partners, it can be pretty tough to identify the source of the drama!

Fact: You can say “One of my selection criteria is that I’ll only date people who fit well with my existing partners,” but again if your existing relationships are unhealthy that simply rewards bad behavior, cuts you off from people who might legit be able to point out the unhealthy dynamic, and it becomes mathematically untenable for n>3 or 4 or so.

Where does that leave us?

Beats me. I don’t have a solution, but I sure do admire the problem.

Breaking my silence

“If you are being abused, there is a very high chance that you will be accused of being abusive or of otherwise causing the abuse. That’s because this accusation is devastatingly effective at shutting you down and obtaining control in a dispute. It’s important to be able to distinguish abuse from other things that may happen in relationships that are hurtful, or may even be toxic or unhealthy, but are not fundamentally about entitlement and control.” —Shea Emma Fett

I fled Vancouver, and my relationship with Eve, on March 19, 2018. I crammed everything I could fit into a suitcase, and put everything else I had left in Canada that Eve hadn’t destroyed in her fits of rage into a rented storage locker, then climbed on a bus for the eight-hour journey to Portland.

When I sat down, I saw this written on the window:

It was the longest bus ride of my life. I was numb. I was blindsided. I was still trying to process what had happened, and understand what had gone so wrong. In many ways I still am.

How did I get here? Who am I without someone telling me how to be? Other people certainly seem to know who I am. The internet has some very strong opinions on who I am. My social media profiles say ‘Part mad scientist, part gonzo journalist.’ My website says that I am a writer, computer consultant, polyamory and BDSM activist, sex educator, and sometimes amateur photographer. But that’s what I do. I don’t know who I am. I’m not entirely sure I ever knew.

I still can’t talk about my experience with Eve without centering or referencing her. Our relationship revolved around her: her experiences, her feelings, her desires. I have been trying for over a year now to work out how to talk about my experiences, and it just keeps coming out as a story about Eve and what she did and what she wanted from me. Everything about me was lost. She controlled my clothing, my diet, my hair style, my activities, my friends, my other potential dating partners. Even my general physician could not be my own choice; when I chose a doctor, Eve said no, and demanded I go to the one she chose for me. I was a mirror, reflecting back Eve’s wants.

Part of this was my fault. I have always allowed other people to write over me. This is a wide open door for abuse. In all my years of watching other people go through it, it never occurred to me that I had opened this door myself and invited controlling partner after controlling partner into my domain, because I never even saw it as my space. It’s humbling and painful to write words like this, after spending so many years telling other people to have better boundaries, as if it’s that easy or that simple to do.

Knowing, deep down, that this was my fault for opening the door—that’s just one more tool to keep that door open. I deserve this. This is my fault. I am the bad one here. Clearly I need someone to take charge, because I obviously can’t manage myself. And the spiral continues down.

When I was barely into adulthood, I believed that I would never find anyone who would be like me and that I was lucky to have found even one person to put up with who I was. So I got into relationships with people who didn’t seem to really like me, exactly, but seemed to like what they could shape me into.

I didn’t know this at the time, but when I was still married to Celeste, my current wife was rather put off by some things she saw in my relationship with Celeste. When The Game Changer came out, and she learned about what my relationship with Celeste was like before she had come along, she said that she would never have dated that Franklin. My current wife waited until Celeste and I had separated before she started dating me, thinking that I would be out from under a controlling relationship and be better able to become a whole person.

I never saw my first marriage as “controlling.” I do now. I have a lot of things to unpack still. There were things in my relationship with my ex-wife that made my current wife uncomfortable, even after Amber came along and shook everything up.

When I didn’t magically become a whole person after my divorce, my current wife kept her distance, emotionally, even though we had started dating by then. She and Amber had several arguments over me after my relationship with Celeste ended and I moved in with Amber. This is one of the things I did that invited abuse into my relationships. I was largely absent in my own relationships.

I have often said that grown adults should be free to decide who they associate with. I’ve never believed that one of my partners has to like the others. We’re all adults, right? Every adult should sort out their relationships on their own, right?

I was blind to the effect that condoning bad behavior might have on the people I love, and to the sheer amount of work I was expecting them to do in maintaining those peaceful relations around me. My current wife tried to explain this to me a long time ago, but we were both much younger then. She says that she didn’t have the right words, and I didn’t have the context to understand.

My partners were left to their own devices to work out their conflicts without my presence. My wife and Amber fought for the better part of two or three years before finally learning how to work together. I could have solved some of those conflicts by simply participating in the relationship, since they were all about me and how I was or was not relating to each of them. All I had to do was show up and say “I want this” or “I don’t want that”, and the conflict might have been over. Because my consent was relevant. It should have been vital.

But I didn’t do that. I didn’t really know who I was, let alone what I wanted or didn’t want. I had to go along with whatever my partners wanted, even if that resulted in conflicting wants from different people, because I didn’t have wants of my own. Not really, other than larger, generalized, overarching wants, such as being non-monogamous. So my wife and Amber fought in long phone calls and email chains over a couple of years, and I wasn’t present for any of it. They brought their conclusions to me, and I went along with whatever their resolution ended up being.

These arguments all boiled down to me not being a whole person and Amber taking on too much responsibility for managing my other relationships. I don’t know why Amber did this, but it was probably related to the socialization pressure she felt to “care for her man”. And I let her. Because I could, and because it was less work than developing skills that I had never been pressured to learn (in fact, that Celeste had actively encouraged me not to learn) in the first place. They don’t come naturally to me.

Someone had always taken care of me. I am only just now getting a peek into how big a problem this was, thanks to my current partners, painstakingly, in excruciating detail and with the help of my therapist, explaining my privilege to me. Even this is a symptom of my privilege – that I have people who have been socialized as women around me, taking the time and energy to chip away at my blindness—even as they receive social penalties for continuing to associate with me.

What neither I nor my current wife knew at the time was just how this pattern of accommodating my privilege could leave the door wide open for abusive partners, starting with Celeste and culminating in the nuclear fallout that was my relationship with Eve.

It can’t happen to me

I always assumed I was too ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ to be taken in by an abuser. But when your abuser manages to turn your own brain against you….you will twist yourself into all sorts of painful shapes to fit with their image of you. And when I inevitably failed—every time I couldn’t twist or cram or break myself into small enough pieces to satisfy her—then she would blame me. She would lay out my flaws and explain how I had failed her this time. And I would agree with her, because I had already accepted that I needed to be improved, to be retrained, and she was doing this all selflessly, for my own good.

This even happened on the day I was getting handfasted to my current wife. I spent hours just trying to console her, appease her, understand what I had done wrong this time, on a day when I was supposed to be joyously celebrating with my new wife and my polyfamily around me. Even when she abruptly left the night before, taking both my tuxedo and the van I was supposed to be sleeping in, I still believed it was my fault, that my own failures meant I deserved that treatment. That all her demands for attention—the long, intense, angry messages, the absolute refusal to allow me any time or space to focus on my wife or our handfasting later that day—were all reasonable behaviour, and that if only I could find the right combination of words she wouldn’t be angry at me anymore. That I wouldn’t flinch every time my phone dinged. That being curled, silent and shaking, in a fetal position in the back of the van on my handfasting night with my new wife holding me was just what I deserved for having made a simple scheduling mistake.

Early warning signs

Very early in our relationship, in October of 2012, Eve decided she wanted nothing at all to do with my live-in partner Zaiah. She mailed Zaiah a letter telling her that Eve wanted no contact with her whatsoever, then or in the future, under any circumstances. There was no argument, no fight, no clash; Eve simply didn’t like her.

Zaiah was so hurt and devastated by the nastiness in Eve’s letter, she got together with some of her friends and burned it.

Later, Eve would gaslight me about it. She told me that I discourage communication among my partners. I encourage my partners not to talk to each other, she said. I keep them apart. And, as I later discovered, she didn’t just tell me that, she told everyone who would listen that I kept them apart.

And the thing was, she was so convincing. She was so absolutely certain that her estrangement from Zaiah was my fault that she had me believing it. How on earth did I just forget that nasty letter? How on earth did I allow Eve’s funhouse-mirror reality to overwrite my own?

It’s fucked up and deeply violating to have someone you love replace your reality with something else. I doubted my own mind. Do I keep my partners apart? Did I just make up this whole episode where Eve didn’t want to talk to Zaiah? Did I just imagine all the things Eve did to my partner Maxine?

I fell so far down the rabbit hole that even when Zaiah and Maxine and my wife were telling me about their experiences and perceptions of being violently pushed away by Eve, I still accepted Eve’s narrative that it was somehow my fault she wasn’t talking to them.

During my handfasting, when I was curled up in the van, disassociating from everyone, my loved ones sat outside trying to figure out what was going on, it all came out. My partners, the ones who I supposedly “kept apart” from each other, physically sat in a circle and talked. Listening from inside the van, I was reminded that they all had troubling experiences with Eve over the years, and they all had memories of conversations where Eve instilled doubt and distrust about each of them to the other.

Before I started dating Eve, each of my partners had a long-standing relationship with each other, independent of me. They had all met each other through other venues before I started dating each of them. They all also strongly believed in good metamour communications. So, as I so often do, I absented myself from the relationship and I let them all work themselves out. They each considered each other friends, separate from me.

As my relationship with Eve grew, their friendships all got strained. It started with that letter to Zaiah. Eve went to each of my other partners to complain about Zaiah, telling her “truth” in a way that was believable, but not accurate. This left Zaiah without her support system when she got the letter from Eve, effectively isolating her in the way a good abuser does, because my other partners pulled away, thinking that Zaiah was the instigator because of how Eve framed their conflict.

But at the handfasting, their natural caring and compassion for each other overrode all the seeds of mistrust that had been sown. And they talked again, like they used to. Because, for them, their relationships with each other were always more present than their relationships with me, since I wasn’t really there. It’s strange, now, to hear other people describe my network as all the women centering me in their lives and being estranged from each other, whilst the women in my network tell me that one of their biggest criticisms of our relationship is that I’m mostly not really in it and that they have a stronger relationship with each other than with me.

Listening to them talk to each other that day while I was, once again, absent and in my own space in the van, the veil was lifted. I had no idea all of the not-exactly-untruths Eve had been spreading or how each of my partners felt about Eve. Even though they had all, separately, told me their feelings, I still did not hear it until that day, when I was forced to hear it all echoed by each of them, one after the other.

But I was in pain. I was in denial. Eve and I had a brilliant, creative relationship. We accomplished extraordinary things together: we wrote a fantastic book, we traveled the world, we founded two companies together. I loved her. I trusted her. So when I left our family space, filled with people who see from different perspectives and who share their perspectives and who respect each other’s agency, and who respect mine, I went back to Eve alone. The veil got pulled down again. Without my own sense of self, and without my loved ones’ handles on their own identities and on my agency to shield me, I lost my reality again to Eve’s and it took another 6 months for things to finally fall apart for good.

My abuser is woke

I’ve spent a lot of time with my therapist unpacking how I could allow another person to so distort my sense of reality. Part of it is that Eve is extremely gifted with manipulating the language of social justice—she was able to take me to a place where I believed things that weren’t true without technically lying. (I’ve since learned there’s a word for lying without uttering a technical falsehood; it’s called “paltering.”) She wove facts into tapestries that made me believe up was down and left was right. I’m still working to untangle it. My feet still aren’t steady beneath me. I don’t yet know when or if they will be.

Every time she publishes another article or does another podcast interview, the world underneath me shifts. I go to my partners and close friends and ask “did that happen? Did I really say that? I don’t remember that. Am I going crazy?” I was never very good at the details. I’m more a big-picture person. I grasp larger concepts, but I tend to forget the details of how we got there. This leads to the opening of more doors for people to abuse me and my partners.

Nothing is as it seems. Everything about who I am – what I want, what I’ve done, what I’ve said – everything is nebulous. I feel misty, amorphous, intangible. How can anyone get a sense of who they are, when who they are can so easily be overwritten? How do you all do it? How do you know who you are without someone telling you who you ought to be? How do you know who you are, underneath what other people want you to be? That’s the question I’m still trying to answer for myself. Maybe someday I’ll find out.

Why am I speaking out now?

I have not spoken publicly because my lawyer has told me not to. There’s a legal dispute going on over ownership of the companies Eve and I cofounded. When I left, I was told to give up my share of our publishing company with no compensation. I was also made starkly aware of just how little control I had over my own life.

For such a long time, my employment, my living situation, the majority of my income, the likelihood of my Canadian citizenship application being rejected (with the associated risk of losing my access to Canadian healthcare) was not under my control. “Unless I see a certificate of divorce,” Eve told me, “I will make sure you never get Canadian residency.”

When I finally managed to extract myself, I risked losing all of these things by refusing to just hand over my part of our publishing company. That risk increased when I refused to divorce my wife. I would lose everything I had poured so much of my time and energy and love into.

The legal fight is still ongoing. But I am exhausted, weary of the constant battle of trying to find reality in a world of funhouse mirrors. My lawyer no longer believes that Eve is, or ever was, acting in good faith in our legal dispute. When there’s nothing left, when even that small hope of being able to rescue something of value from that time is burned out…when there’s no longer anything left but the sure knowledge that my part in all those beautiful, glorious, creative projects I was so proud to have been involved in has been gradually, intentionally, ruthlessly stripped away…

The constant anxiety, that repeated raising and crushing of hope, the ongoing stress of the last year and a half, has burned out all the energy I had left to fear loss. I’m done. There’s nothing left for me to lose. So I’m choosing truth. I’m choosing vulnerability. I’m choosing openness, and courage, and hope. I’m choosing to reach out to my community.

I’m choosing not to be silent any more.

I haven’t dared take that risk before now.

“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.