Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘relationships

The Perils of Polyamory: Living Alone

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I’m moving house. I’m tired of the dripping tap and the leak under the sink, and I’m tired of plumbers who do things like ransack my kitchen bowls to mix grout in. I don’t want needles and broken WKD bottles on my doorstep, and I don’t want to live next to a main road. So I’ve been looking, and it’s been hell.

The first flat we viewed was a cheap studio. It was on a private road, in a grand building with stained glass windows. A stained glass face looked back at me in the bathroom, next to the toilet tank, which was over the bath. In the bedroom, there was a single bed.

“Is it possible,” I asked, “to bring my double bed?”

“Where would we put this one?” The landlord spread his hands in helplessness. The tip, I was tempted to suggest.

“I’m afraid it’s a dealbreaker.” I told him.

“You’re not allowed a double bed in a studio,” he said , “it’s illegal. If the environmental health inspector came round…” I managed to get control of my eyebrows before they rose too far, and I nodded, as if to an excited lunatic or toddler. I edged towards the door.

I knew they were Christians, someone had placed Church pamphlets in the hallway, and these men had the shoes of pamphleteers. Single people, I surmised, must be prevented from fornication by any means possible, including the restriction of space. I didn’t bring up the oodles of hot, sweaty, lesbian sex I’ve had in single beds. The conversation got around to my current landlord, and my flat above a church. “Oh! You know Rev. Awfully-Important!” was quickly followed by, “about the bed, I’m sure we can work something out.” Do Christian contacts legitimate sprawling sex, or do they just provide a guarantee that you’re not going to get up to anything naughty?

In the next place I looked at, a dingy hallway led to a dingy living room, where the current tenant sat in a beanie and hoodie next to the gas fire. The kitchen was a galley overhung by mysterious boxes of wires and the bedroom, looking out onto the road, prominently displayed a conversation-piece fuse box. The shower room was mottled with mould. “We expect it to go very quickly.” Smiled the letting agent.

“I’ll let you know.” I said. I sat outside in the car, and wondered what I’d done to deserve this.

If I was single and wealthy, this would be easy. Single and poor is different. Single makes everything more expensive. If I had a partner, we’d be going halves on a one, two or three bed property, any of which would be cheaper than all of a studio. And they’d be nicer.* The rooms would be bigger, the kitchen would be suitable for culinary activities more complex than heating a tin of soup. If I were in a live-in relationship, not only would I have another contributor to housing costs, but there’s a chance that contributor would have a full time job. A full time job gets you a mortgage, a mortgage gets you somewhere cheaper than a rental property where you’re allowed to put up shelves and paint the skirting boards with polka dots. Suddenly, you’re not looking round dark, mouldering rooms with mysterious stains on pieced-together carpets. You’re looking at somewhere you might actually want to live.

I know it doesn’t always work like that. I know I could be shackled to a man who drinks the mortgage payments, or insists (horror!) on eschewing a proper career to pursue dreams like publication. Nevertheless, pairing up does more than just double your chances of finding at least one stable income. The world is set up for couples, and living alone is an aberration, something that should only be attempted from a position of great wealth and privilege.

Most single people can comfort themselves with the thought that they will, someday, find the person they want to live with. For us polyamorous types, it’s more complicated. Many people simplify it by dividing their love lives into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ relationships, so that the romance-mortgage-Labrador-children path can be pursued with a designated partner, while the others know where they stand. Those picked as a primary by another partner presumably stand in the gardens of their nice homes, while the passed-over secondaries lurk in their dingy studios. The primary/secondary hierarchy feels, to me, nasty and degrading. I don’t rank my friends by importance, why would I do that to my partners? Whatever it is that we’re doing, whether it’s fucking or sailing or drinking tea, it has an integrity which shouldn’t be belittled by a statement of someone else’s primacy. And so I muddle along, hoping not to stand on too many toes, and being grateful for the accommodations made for me.

But back to housing. The lover already has a house. It’s a very nice house, and I envy him, but he lives in it with his wife. Perhaps some poly families live together in mansions in a big, hippish love-in. All I can say is that even if you like me very much, living with me is a trial. To do it for your partner, you’d have to be a saint. One of the dead ones.

Realistically, I’m on my own. I’m going to pay a high price for my obstinacy in refusing to find myself an unentangled partner. I could look on the bright side and reflect that solo living means freedom, but I’ve seen too many horrible flats recently to feel that’s true. Nevertheless, I’ve picked one, a tiny flat with oddly-shaped rooms and a door opening directly from the living room onto the driveway. And I’m determined to turn this relationship to account, because if there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s moving.

My usual approach is to begin packing the week before. Then, the day before the move, I look around with surprise at my home, wondering where I got so much stuff. I discover that the first boxes I packed block access to other possessions, and that they’re too heavy to lift. I despair of one room and move to another. I think about stopping for lunch, but remember that there’s nothing left in the house but frozen puff pastry and the mung beans that have survived five house moves unopened, so I begin to pack the spices and spill turmeric over my hands. Eventually a friend or lover calls by and pretends to help, but really spends their time berating me about the apparently inefficient or dangerous way I’m filling the car. At some point we give up, unpack the duvet, and fall into bed. The next day, at the other end, tired and hungry, I look at the piles of boxes and begin to assess the damage to my possessions. I imagine a life with an adequate number of bookcases and begin to make alphabetised piles of books which topple in the night.

This time it’s going to be different. This time I’m going to buy a bed before I move in, not make a nest of duvets on the floor and wait until Christmas. I’m already preparing. I increased my stock of teaspoons fourfold this week—the lover’s wife gave me some.

The lover says he know how to do this. He knows where to buy furniture and how to get an awkwardly shaped object down the stairs, he knows how to Tetris a car and measure a sofa. He knows, he says, how to get me to my new home with little crying and most of my things.** Polyamory, leaves me in a very small flat, but if it gets me to my new flat without a tantrum, I’ll sing it’s praises to the skies.

*’Ah!’ you’re thinking, ‘but she could share a house!’ I could, but past experience shows that I’m not a very nice person in the mornings, and I’m untidy and intolerant at all times of day. Also, my income currently relies on having a space to entertain clients in private for up to three hours at a time, and housemates blundering in with take away wouldn’t really add to what I’m trying to achieve.

**In case you’re doubting the lover’s ability, he has already shown himself to have house-inspecting talents far beyond mine. He pointed out in one place, for example, that it wasn’t possible to get in the shower while standing up, and that in any case it would flood the flat downstairs.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

January 17, 2012 at 1:39 am

Taming the Beast

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Only two novels have ever made me sob in a café. I don’t mean that I blinked a couple of tears from my eyes and looked around soulfully. My face was smeared with the tears I’d unsuccessfully tried to wipe away, my nose was running and, as I came up on the worst bits, I made little mewling sounds. I put the book down and breathed slowly to regain control, but couldn’t stop reading for more than a few seconds. One of the books those books was Anna Karenina. The other was ‘Taming the Beast’.

The first time I read it I was in a spin for a week. Near the end I was in a café in Derry, ignoring my lunch, unable to stop reading, but pausing sometimes to search for a dry patch of handkerchief. My boyfriend came back from his errand to find me with a red, puffy face and a bowl of cold broth. I tried to explain: he was dangerous, she was going to let him have her, and I wanted her to, and I wanted him to, and it was so, so, awful. A week later he bought me a copy of ‘The Courage To Heal’, he clearly thought that the only explanation for such twisted thinking was the trauma of abuse. Lacking any such history, though, I’m still looking for other reasons.

I’ve reread the book twice this year. It’s about a girl who loves poems and her English teacher, the affair they have when she’s fourteen and the affair they have when she’s twenty-two. It’s got white panties, asphyxiation, a precocious girl and a stern older man, but my reaction goes beyond my list of kinks. It isn’t porn, there’s an emotional truth it in that I can’t quite decipher.

The first time I read it, I’d just finished ‘Daddy’s Girl’, a story about a woman who plays the little girl to her sadistic ‘Daddy’. It’s a story that starts as porn, for those of us who like that sort of thing: naughty girls being spanked, special clothing to be torn off during rapes in the garden, a rich, sophisticated man who knows his girl is special.* It becomes a story about how reality reasserts itself: Daddy’s doesn’t always know best and sometimes he isn’t there when you need him, you might just have to stand on your own. That upset me, because I want the fantasy of an older man who’ll always love me and always make things right. I want it the same way I think some people want God, as a self-validation and a safety net rolled into one. All the same, ‘Taming the Beast’ leaves me with a greater sense of loss.

In ‘Daddy’s Girl’ the narrator loses her Daddy when she realises that the man can’t live up to the fantasy. Sarah, the narrator of ‘Taming the Beast’, sees her lover’s self-justifications, his blaming her for his loss of control, the fact that his need to beat her is at odds with his position as the sensible, caring adult who should be in charge. Sarah is under no illusions, she knows he’s a sadistic criminal, and she wants it, she’ll give up everything for it. She doesn’t care if she dies.

Then he lifted his head, looked into her eyes and slapped her hard across the face. ‘Dear God, Sarah! Why won’t you let me do this right? Why won’t you let me treat you with respect?’

Sarah knew that he could not see how ridiculous his question was. He didn’t see that biting her legs and slapping her face was less satisfying than a mutually satisfying screw. She didn’t know why this intrigued her when any sane person would be disturbed. She could see the twisted logic, the distorted morality, the dangerous self-justification; it’s just that she didn’t mind.

I think that’s what upsets me. Not only seeing the limitations of the fantasy, as in ‘Daddy’s Girl’, but knowing that the impulse doesn’t dissipate, even when it is demonstrated that it’s flawed. There’s something akin to Sarah’s decision at the centre of most of my kinks, the choosing something without reference to the self. Submission involves a suppression of the self, pain reduces the self by narrowing focus to sensation and shutting everything else out, and pain that seems unbearable is not only engrossing, but pushes you to a limit at which you’ll happily give up anything, if only that will make it stop. Pain trumps integrity. In a sense, my kinks involve chasing dissolution of myself, and I’m sad that I can’t take it as far as the impulse goes, because I have other priorities: staying alive, achieving something, independence from fallible lovers and crutches.

On the other hand, interesting and Bataillian as this analysis is, I do wonder if my feelings are baser. I envy Sarah her story. I want to be the girl whose teacher loves her enough to risk seducing her, beat her, teach her poetry and come back for her eight years later when she’s all grown up. I’m disappointed that I can’t have that in real life, which seems mundane and filled with ordinariness and washing up in comparison. Then it struck me that I did have what Sarah had when I was fourteen, and it felt very different.

I was one of those teenagers who suddenly discovered the power of her sexuality and couldn’t restrain myself to trying to form a relationship with one of the boys of the best local independent. I wanted to be thought irresistible by everyone: the bus driver, the teachers, friend’s brothers, friend’s fathers, and probably any workmen visiting friends’ houses. I remember getting cold in the doorway turning the charm on the pizza delivery guy (and I got cold pizza, too). My school made us wear blue check summer dresses, primary-school style, until we were sixteen (my mother memorably told the head they were ‘a paedophile’s delight’). I used to loll in the grounds under the cherry trees, wearing daisy chain circlets and reddening my lips with sticky cherry lollipops, parodying what I was. Now, I associate the memory of my doing that with one man.

He was a friend’s father. He worked in publishing, in a low-level job that sounded much more impressive at the time. Like Sarah’s Mr. Carr, he told me I was brilliant, intelligent, and understood him like no one else. He showed me his poetry, which he’d shown no one before, not even his wife. He taught me the word ‘pertinent’. He played me the Sisters of Mercy and he told me about Ruskin’s love life. I felt special, beautiful, chosen. Then one weekend, at my friend’s sleepover, in the kitchen, next to the living room where his wife and daughter were having breakfast, he put his hand up my nightdress and onto my breast. I left the kitchen. He sat next to me on the sofa and drew my duvet across his lap. He held my hand. I thought that perhaps he was sorry. He pulled my hand across to his hot, hard penis. I looked down at his daughter sitting by our feet. I didn’t know what to say, so I just pulled my hand away, and put it, which the other, on top of the duvet.

Writing this I feel disgusted, angry, ashamed, let down by all the people who should have educated me about what to do in such circumstances (I had nails!), guilty and sad. I don’t feel turned on. For months I avoided accepting lifts and visits with varying amounts of success, for years I blamed myself, I still feel terrible that I didn’t say something to someone who could have curbed his activities. I realise that none of this was particularly hard-core, but there’s one notable thing about it: it isn’t seductive like ‘Taming the Beast’. I could argue that Sarah’s lover was more handsome, erudite, etc. He undoubtedly was from her perspective, but like me she saw through his conflicting and simultaneously held visions of who he was (and who she was, for that matter). I saw through my molester, too, but it mattered less when our shared activity was preferring poems to chemistry homework. A hand on the penis is a great clarifier: I enjoyed admiration, but wasn’t foolish enough to desire him. I knew, even then, that I was better than that.

I think my tears throughout ‘Taming the Beast’ are for a fantasy shattered. I fall into it again every time, I want to be the girl who knows her Keats so well that her teacher can’t help himself. And then, as the plot progresses, and Sarah gives up more and more (including, eventually, her studies of poetry) I want to follow her, so very badly, but I can see clearly, and I’m sad that what ought to be raging passion turns out to be nothing but gropes beside the toaster and furtive grabbing under a duvet while watching daytime television.* I’m crying for the limited nature of every role play scene, and the fact that I have to be a grown up and look after myself.

I’ve read it twice this year, and I know it backwards. I want more books like this in my life. So, dearest readers, since you’ve made it through 1,500 words of post, will you do one more thing for me? Tell me which books leave you off-balance and make you ask questions about who you are. I do so very much want to know.

*It’s unfortunately got all the hallmarks of paperback pornography, too: long passages during which the author describes her bottom, and a world in which inappropriate behaviour is always an accepted sexual advance. I can’t think what would be said if I decided to take a bath with the door open half way through one of my friend’s parties. I imagine it wouldn’t be, “that Not, she just can’t help doing sexy things!” Feel free to invite me to better parties.

**This point could be made just as well with ‘Lolita’, but everyone’s already read that, and they should be spending more time talking about Nabokov’s amazing language, narratorial perspective and tension, anyway.

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm

The Perils of Polyamory II: When Things are Tough

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My life’s a disaster right now. Admittedly, it’s improved since the week I spent in bed hardly able to speak through the pain and the fug of codeine; I can type, peel potatoes and feed the cat all by myself, but it’s still not working. When I broke my bones I’d just finished my MA and was looking for work. Now, after weeks of enforced idleness, I’m fuzzy-headed and tired, wondering if my brain has wasted away as my muscles have. This doesn’t feel like post-university looking, this feeling like unemployment.

So, somehow, I have too many priorities. I need a job that pays the rent: to find jobs, apply for them, and field calls from recruitment agents telling me that’s an old job that should’ve been taken down. I need to do well at the couple of hours work I have got, tutoring which involves a few weeks’ worth of reading that isn’t counted in my hourly wage.* I need to do my physio and get my fitness back so I can manage a working day. I’m desperate to get out of the inner city area that’s making life look so bleak, so flat hunting’s imperative. I need to do something about the fact that weeks of sitting around have made me horribly, grotesquely fat. And at some point I’m going to have to think about my commitments to other people.

Concentrating on the things I have to do to make my life bearable again, I’m losing the things I did before. There’s no time to write the novel I spent the last year on. I’m not healed enough for dancing or cycling, my arm aches when I try to sew. I’m too tired and stressed for socialising. Last week the lover decided to take me to his house, away from the leaking sink and the unhoovered floor. We made it as far as the city centre before I recalled leaving a window open, and overcome by misery and indecision, stood leaning into the wind feeling the tears turn from warm to cold on my cheeks. I cried all the way home, where we found the window closed.

In this mental state, I’m not interested in sex or kink. I’ve stopped reading kinky blogs, I’ve retreated from sexual, violent books by the likes of Angela Carter into the safety of Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. I don’t want to hear even the mildest of threats or the nicest of sexual compliments. I don’t want to be told I’m pretty, I don’t feel it’s true but I do feel it’s demanding something. And right now I don’t want to have to give it. I don’t even want to think about it.

Where’s the poor lover in all of this? He’s listening to my plans, lifting heavy objects, hugging me when I can’t stop crying in the night and trying very, very hard not to touch me in ways I could interpret as sexual. That’s crap for him. In poly, though, every decision you make involves everyone else. None of us know, truly, what’s going on with the others; we didn’t sign up to tell our darkest secrets to the group, we each became involved with different people, and we share things with them when we want to. The lover knows, therefore, that even if I don’t have any pockets I like to carry my purse if we’re arguing away from home, due to an unpleasant experience in Beijing, but he doesn’t know how deep my sorrow was when I was cast as a sheep in a nativity play. The extended poly group know neither, why would they?

The lover’s with his wife tonight. They don’t know that the corner of the sheet’s come off my bed and I can’t get it back on. They don’t know that, after the lover told me that he couldn’t give me the weekend away from my flat we’d planned, because of commitments to the poly family, I cried about how bleak the next week feels without it. The awful thing is, the ignorance goes both ways. How many nights has the lover spent here looking after me when he was needed at home? How many times have I thought sending him home for quality time with his wife was a good idea when that only took her from her girlfriend?

This blog post is self-indulgent, I imagine I’ll feel embarrassed about it soon. Those emotions serve a purpose. Our own pain, and that of those closest to us, is intense and real, but we don’t, we can’t, feel everyone else’s, we simply don’t have the emotional capacity to let that much suffering in. Talking about mine in such detail is asking you to do just that, and it’s not a reasonable request. In poly, how does one communicate the circumstances emotions create, without demanding that everyone in the group has infinite reserves of kindness not at all restricted by emotions of their own?

Discerning your partner’s needs and asking for your own to be met is a challenge in monogamous relationships, even in the good times. The delicacy required to get it right in poly is probably always going to be beyond me. At the moment it feels like asking for the moon. I wouldn’t give up the freedom of poly for anything, but, God, I wish it was easy.

*I’m tutoring a student who wants to get the same A Level results I did, in the same subjects. He thinks this will improve his career opportunities. I don’t think it’s occurred to him that, ten years on, I’m teaching for a pittance. I’m not going to bring it up.

Written by Not an Odalisque

November 17, 2011 at 12:35 am

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Breaking Bones

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Two weeks ago, I fell. Face down on the bathroom floor, I tried to push myself up, raised my torso an inch from the linoleum, and then crashed back down in a wave of pain. I rocked to my other side and the world blurred around me. An alarm kept shrieking, I couldn’t think for the noise, I had to get up to make it stop, but I lay on the grimy floor with the shower spitting water over the edge of the bath, turning the dust on my legs to gritty paste, and wondering, “Why am I alone?”

In December last year, in another, cleaner, bathroom, I tried to wash myself with bandaged hands, sheathed with rubber gloves sellotaped at the wrists.* I cried into the rain of the shower, asking the same question, “Why am I alone?” I’d been alone when I cut my hands. I’d driven alone to A&E, never changing out of second gear because the sight of the flesh opening and closing on my left hand made my stomach surge. And I’d sat there with men who shouted and hit the walls of the waiting room, until a nurse glued me back together. At home, alone, I avoided the bloody crockery in the kitchen sink but wondered how I was going to wash myself. Not very well, was the answer.

Those haven’t been my only accidents, there’ve been other, lesser ones, and I was alone for most of them, too. I like being alone. I chose to live in a strange, dilapidated flat in a bad part of the city because there are no neighbours. I’d spent so much time with people recently that before I fell I was looking forward to three days away on my own. It felt like freedom. Then I was on the floor. I remember the side of my head meeting the ground, and then I was lying there, asking myself why I was alone.

I asked myself that at 1am in Southport hospital, walking between my assigned room and the ambulance bay, where my phone came to life and I hoped for reassurance from strangers on Twitter. When I left, with two fractures, minor concussion, no money for the taxi and a leaflet saying someone should check on me every hour throughout the night, I found myself laughing at the set up that assumes everyone carries a loved one with them at all times. I didn’t have one for miles.

I did have one on the other end of the phone. After a few minutes on the floor, I managed to drag myself up using the side of the bath, held a towel across my front and escaped the bathroom. I cowered away from the alarm and the open curtains, in case I was seen. When the alarm stopped I dashed for the lightswitch, then I sat on the edge of the bed, curled over my painful arm, and called the lover. I closed my eyes and said, “please pick up, please pick up, please pick up,” pressed call again and again, and then, my head clearing a little, recalled his wife’s name. He answered her phone. He told me to find a first aider. He stayed on the phone when the first aiders left the room to fix the sound system. He insisted I ask for an ambulance when the first aiders suggested they take me back to my room and make me a nice cup of tea.** He stayed awake until 3am, when I got back to my room with my broken bones and aching head. And he met me at A&E in Manchester the next day, where I was reading my book and trying to avoid looking at the drunk who’d been starting at me for half an hour.

I don’t know how the doctors thought I was going to cope when they sent me home. I spent the next week hardly able to move, and either incoherent with pain or incoherent with painkillers. I couldn’t think. I tried to reason and, realising I couldn’t, I cried with terror. I couldn’t wash, I couldn’t cook or clean dishes, I couldn’t reach the cat’s food bowl to feed him, I couldn’t reach the fridge to feed me. Which wouldn’t have mattered, but for the big letters on the painkillers warning dire consequences if taken without food. But the lover was there. He was there to cook, to shop, to arrange pillows, to help me dress, he was there through the screaming arguments as I insisted I could shower myself (all but my hair, my left arm and my right foot, at time of writing), and the weeping fits that came after the dreams of torture and medicated captivity with which my mind processed my injury. He was even there at the hospital appointment yesterday to point at two bones on my x-ray and say, “Are those bits meant to be connected?” so that I cried with fear that the doctor would decide to nail my bones together. The whole thing was humiliating, awful, and necessary. I literally don’t know what I’d have some without him. And I hate it.

The lover has been here twelve nights of the last sixteen. This is the man who I used to throw out in the early hours of the morning when I tired of him. This has been, I think, the first relationship in which I genuinely want to see him when we’re together, feel able to say I’d rather have time apart without guilt, and am sure that if he’s with me he wants to be there. One fall seems to have undone all of that. He didn’t come round to enjoy my scintillating conversation as I dozed in bed, hardly able to form sentences, he did it because I needed help. So while I’m grateful, so grateful, he was there, I’m worried that my fall has ruined everything. How will I feel free while being so much in his debt? Did seeing me at my weakest change his view of me, from an equal to a damsel in distress, or even worse, a dirty, unattractive mess?*** In the past, I’ve been weakest when people offer support, leading to them eventually and dramatically revealing its conditionality. I suspect will be the point from which it all goes wrong.

As I begin to heal, I don’t know where I am on being alone. Today I was intending to go into town to buy of glittery scarves to make glamorous slings, but the lover is at home with a headache, so I’m staying in—I need him to walk on my right hand side in crowds to stop people bumping into my shoulder. I don’t feel much like the younger me who set off for Asia alone, I’m too scared to go to the shops!

It would be nice, the next time I’m injured, to feel looked after. It would be nice to have company the next time I’m waiting in a hospital late at night. But what price would I have to pay for that? A significant loss of freedom, hours in company I don’t want, and the worry that, having seen me at my worst, partners will never consider me smart, independent and sexy again. In an attempt to regain at least a little cleanliness and independence, I’m going to attempt my first proper shower alone. If I don’t post again within the fortnight, please call an undertaker.

*Yes, I looked utterly ridiculous. This didn’t help me feel better about the situation.

**Tip: never be brave with a first aider, they won’t take you seriously. Also, don’t queue at the enquiries desk to ask for one, I suspect that in my case this gave the wrong impression.

***When I brought this up with him, he pointed out that he has a vulnerability fetish, and told me that he was tired of me, “smelling like a soap factory.” Which was either a very kind lie, or a niggle he’s been hiding for a long time bursting out.

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 27, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Jealousy

with 6 comments

Non-poly people, on learning I’m polyamorous, always want to know if I’m jealous. I say that I’m not, and receive a puzzled look, then usually a statement that they would get jealous, that they just couldn’t do it, which is strange because I’ve never invited them to. It’s a lie, of course. I do get jealous, I just don’t get jealous about sex. Not often enough to justify telling a partner that my feelings should influence their actions, anyway. I could count my experiences of sexual jealousy on one hand, which is rather convenient, in poly.

But I do get jealous. I get horribly, irrationally jealous. I get jealous of people I hardly know. I’m jealous of friends of friends for being diverting and funny. I’m jealous of kinksters on Twitter who have more play and have better pain tolerances than I do. I’m jealous of friends’ partners because they get to see a side of my friends I’ll never know. I’m jealous of writers who have had their work published, even though I’ve never sent anything to a literary agent. I burned with jealousy when my father praised his girlfriend’s daughter’s cooking. She hadn’t even left home, my reaction was ridiculous.

I’m an only child, perhaps I never learned to share. That’s given me a useful perspective, though: I can’t help but recognise how petty I am. I can’t tell my friends not to have other friends, or boyfriends, no matter how insecure and envious I feel, it wouldn’t even occur to me, because I have no right to regulate their lives. If I did, though, there would be a helpful conversation about my insecurity or a row about the best way to make pastry, depending on our moods. There certainly wouldn’t be any level of acquiescence. Having learned to allow friends their freedom, I can’t see why friends I sleep with should be treated any worse.

Sometimes I can see the workings of jealousy in my petty mind, even as I’m feeling it. My father’s praising about his girlfriend’s daughter’s* cooking hurt. It still hurts, and it’s been a couple of years now. He never praises me, in fact he doesn’t show enough interest to hear of things he might praise me for. And he particularly never praises my cooking, because he never eats it. Offered it, he’s been known to opt for peanuts or crackers and cheese instead. He says that’s because he doesn’t like vegetarian food, but where’s the meat in a packet of peanuts? Where? WHERE?!

The comment that Millie was an excellent cook was like a fissure in the dam, a jet of my anger and hurt spewed out; all the feelings about my father’s lack of interest in me hit me in a flood. Those feelings may be big and important personally, but they really don’t have anything to do with Millie’s culinary skills. Jealousy is all about me, and it’s not going to be fixed by someone else, even if Millie serves something ugly and poisonous at a fancy dinner party. Unless it’s to my father, I suppose.

As far as sex goes, I stave off insecurity by only sleeping with people who I’m pretty confident think I’m attractive. They’re going to think other people are attractive, too, but they’d think that even if they weren’t allowed to act on their desires. I’m comfortable if I’m sure I’m near the top of the list, which limits my range of sexual partners but does wonders for my self-esteem. I do catch myself in little waves of jealousy about play partners’ play partners, which mostly boil down to “she/he has a less wobbly bottom and a better pain tolerance than me.” Those feelings have little to do with the person I’m jealous of and a lot to do with my relationship with my own bottom. I suppose if it reached a critical level I’d have to have a conversation with play partners about whether playing with someone who cries so easily and wobbles so much is fun, and reserve myself for the extremely enthusiastic, as I do with lovers. I’m hoping, however, that kinky confidence will grow with experience, as sexual confidence did.

I’m willing to work at it because jealousy is such a horrible feeling. On a selfish level, I just don’t want the experience of it, but I don’t want to be a partner who limits the people I’m with (rather the reverse). Dealing with jealousy brings freedom. I get the freedom to do what I want sexually, which is important to me because, goodness, I want to do a lot of things! I also get the freedom to refuse what I don’t want. Whenever I’ve been with monogamous people, whether I’ve signed up to those rules or not, there’s been a horrible, horrible pressure. We’re in love. He wants to be with me forever, he doesn’t want anyone else. And may he please suck my toes? And I think, how awful to have a burning desire to suck toes, to want that fulfilment, and never to get it. To go your whole life without this simple thing, to die with it undone, for me. It’s a huge sacrifice. And would it be so awful to have my toes sucked, to provide great happiness to the person who would lay down his life for me? And I try to say yes, but…no, I can’t do it. So I feel guilty, and he wonders why I look so downcast and bake so much. Eventually the relationship ends in guilt and recrimination.

I’m exaggerating (slightly), but the core point about the pressure of monogamy is sincere. To supply everything that someone wants sexually is going to require doing things you’d rather not do. After many years of trying to seem interested as sweet nothings were whispered, look enthusiastic during gentle thrusting, and pretend I like the taste of cock, I’ve come to terms with my kinks. I don’t want to go back to doing things I don’t enjoy. That’s why it’s nice to say to my partner, “You want toe sucking/gentle sensuousness/consensual sex? Go find someone else to do that with.” He can, and he will, in the same way that he presumably does with his desires for blondes, or men, for which I really don’t fit the ticket. And I’m happy, because I like him, and I want him to have things he likes.

In the middle of all this freedom: freedom for me to see other people, for him to see other people, for me to say no, the obvious question is whether there’s a point when I’ll want less freedom and more security. The idea of my lover chatting up men at the Folsom Street Fair this week didn’t trouble me, the idea of him having a fling doesn’t, but how would I feel if someone became so important in his life that he didn’t have time for me? Probably quite hurt. But—and I’ve managed not to say this to a non-poly questioner yet—throwing your lover over for another isn’t a phenomenon restricted to the poly world. It’s a story as old as creation, in fact, wasn’t it Lillith’s first crime? So I’ll take the risk of being replaced as we all do, but comforted by the knowledge that I’ll see my usurper coming. There’s a chance I’ll be jealous then.

*Let’s call her Millie. It’s easy to say ‘Millie’ disparagingly.

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 4, 2011 at 1:20 am

The Perils of Polyamory

with 10 comments

A few weeks ago a married vanilla friend, whose understanding of alternative sexualities is not dissimilar to mine of model train making (in that we can both know there must be an attraction, but wonder if childhood trauma is the root cause), asked me about polyamory. Is it not, she wondered, difficult knowing that my lover is going home to someone else? Am I not jealous? And what will I do if I fall in love and decide I want to keep him all to myself?

The same issues—jealousy and what we’ll do if we decide we like each other in a forever and always way—come up in almost every conversation I have with laypeople about poly. I tell them that the built in brakes are the things that I love about it.* If you’re in a socially acceptable relationship, with someone of the requisite age, race and gender, it is easy to get inadvertently caught up in a romantic narrative leading to cohabitation, marriage and Labradors. Even when I’ve been explicit about not wanting that, previous partners have convinced themselves that we’re heading that way. I like being free of all those expectations, and one way to achieve that is dating someone who’s your father’s age, whose parents call you rude names in a language you don’t understand, you or who is already married. It’s rather liberating. No one’s granny has ever said, “So, I hear you’ve seduced Deirdre’s husband, do I hear wedding bells?”

That isn’t to say there aren’t issues. They’re just different to the ones non-poly-people tend to imagine. They are the Perils of Poly:

Homogenisation

Those flocks of girls in minidresses and seven inch heels one sights up and down the land can’t each independently have reached the conclusion that was a fabulous outfit; they must be feeding off each other. One evening in my last year at university everyone who lived in my house appeared for a night out in black trousers and a cherry red top. You choose your friends because you have something in common, then you reinforce each other’s choices until you slowly start to match. It reaches its peak in couples who like to take long, isolated walks together and eventually buy matching boots and raincoats. It’s not pretty.

Imagine how much worse it is in a poly family. He chooses you for the things he likes. He chooses someone else for things he likes, too, some of which are the same. And she chooses someone, who shares some shiny qualities with him and is chosen for her shiny qualities some of which may correspond with yours, and on it goes. Which isn’t to say that you’re the same, but your similarities are drawn out by your proximity. The Lover He encouraged me to buy a daringly poufy Vivien of Holloway I’d had my eye on, but lacked courage to buy. And then I decided that, much as my plastic-clasped suspender belt is an excellent icebreaker (people at fetish events respond to, “my suspender clasp’s popped open, could you possibly help me?” with alacrity, I find), I could do with a better one. So I asked your acquaintance (well, the ones whose lingerie I’ve seen and with whom I feel able to bring up the subject of unmentionables) for recommendations, and before I know it, I’m at an event with the Lover’s wife in matching lingerie and dresses.

It’s not just fashion, of course, although that’s where it’s most obvious. Relationships are an adventure of introductions to new things. I introduced the lover to ballet and Malaysian food, he reminded me how much I like 80s goth music. He’s also been an enthusiastic escort to burlesque evenings, which is nice, but I think I might have pursued my burlesque lessons with more determination if I hadn’t had his wife’s girlfriend’s performer credentials in my mind. And maybe I’d try less ambitious knitting projects if he wasn’t telling me to give it a go, but his wife’s impressive lacework makes my one wonky lace scarf look like a cat’s cradle. Similarity can, in one’s less secure moments, give rise to a feeling that you’re always second best, or catching up.

Scheduling

Relationships eat time! And the more people who are in your extended poly network, the more birthdays, hospital appointments, great-aunt’s anniversaries and dirty weekends need to be recognised in your schedule. That’s a lot of diaries to coordinate, even if you’re not attending your lover’s wife’s girlfriend’s (imaginary) book launch, because your lover’s wife is, and your lover isn’t, which makes it a perfect day to make that yarn swift and have lots of sawdusty play.

It’s rarely as simple as that, though, there are hundreds of nuanced scheduling problems: When does two people going somewhere together become a date, and therefore a bad time for another partner to drop by? When does, “I’m staying in and watching telly tonight,” mean, “I’m relaxing with my wife”? Many evenings I’ve held off calling because I think they’re together, later to discover they were miles apart, and many times we’ve chatted for half an hour before he’s admitted he’s abandoned her to watch TV alone.

I take up time I shouldn’t even when I’m trying to give my lover space for his other relationships, so you can imagine the trouble I have when there are actual conflicting priorities. If I need extra care after an intense scene, and my partner’s partner is waiting for him in a coffee shop, he’s in an impossible position. And, with the best will in the world, it’s impossible not to want things that aren’t entirely reasonable, sometimes. When there’s only two of you, only one person has to deal with your unreasonable demands. In poly, your lover’s assurances that he really doesn’t mind happen in the context of his vested interest and his presumably more objective partner. It isn’t comfortable.

Explaining Yourself
One person has asked if I have a boyfriend since I started seeing the lover, and I fell to bits trying to answer. With people in kinky settings, with people who know me personally, I’m very open about it. With acquaintances, the only way of being honest is by telling them details of your personal life that go beyond the scope of what they want to know, but to be evasive implies that you’re somehow ashamed. And to breeze around introducing someone as my married lover may, conceivably, create the odd awkward situation for his wife when a well-meaning person informs her of his infidelity.**

The more difficult moments aren’t the ones when I’m angsting over how to explain, though, their the ones when something slips out without me thinking, and there’s no way to fix it. At dancing a few months ago I had a conversation like this:

“You’re seeing someone?”

“Yes.”

“He must have to stand on tip toe,” my partner said as if five foot ten is an absurd height for a woman, and must be a severe handicap on the dating market.

“His wife must be about my height.” I told him. We didn’t speak for the rest of the track.

Get in Line

I don’t want a relationship like my lover’s other, more committed one; I don’t want the responsibilities that come with it, I don’t even want him hanging around my flat for too long. But I don’t want to feel like I’m second best, even if I am second best. I want to feel like I’m special and shiny within the scope of what we have and do together, although that can be difficult to maintain.

I was touched by Abel’s post about relationships outside marriage.

Haron and I are married; we made that permanent commitment to one another many years ago, and it’s a template for relationships that that wider society can understand. And I can’t offer that permanence to either of the other girls; I can’t be that sole, devoted life partner that has eyes for them and them alone; I can’t fulfil all of their long-term aspirations.

I know that; they know that; we know that: we talk and share and trust. And I know too that I never, ever want to stand in the way of what’s right for them. That’s not self-sacrificing; their happiness, long-term, honestly outweighs any selfish personal needs.

No matter how open you are, how loving, how willing to cooperate, marriage is part of the landscape that’s immutable. Each step down the road of a relationship with me is negotiated with his marriage. My relationship takes place in the context of his. I’m sure it’s a challenge for it to adapt, say, to him staying at mine, rather than going home tonight, but that’s the conversation. The expectations of his relationship were established years ago, under influences that had nothing to do with me. Part of poly, for a significant number of its practitioners, is continually accepting the priority of another relationship.

Who will feed the cat?

I have a cat. The lover and his wife have a cat. The lover’s wife and her girlfriend are lesbians, so they’re sure to sprout cats at some point. And we all sleep at each other’s homes often. So when the lover’s here, and his wife’s at her girlfriend’s, who feeds their cat? If I want to spend time at the lover’s, who feeds mine? Life would obviously be easier if we all carried our cats around with us all the time, but this has proved slightly inconvenient. Cat sitter wanted. May save three relationships.

On a more serious note, do readers have any more poly perils to share, or, more importantly, solutions to any of mine?

*Jealousy deserves its own post, but for now I’ll just tell you that I don’t really get jealous.
**You’re probably thinking that’s farfetched, Manchester’s a big place after all, but remember the section on common interests?

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 24, 2011 at 1:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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The Politics of the Collar

with 4 comments

This article appeared in the Guardian this morning, about a midwife who was dismissed from work for wearing a silver collar. The collar symbolises her status as a (willing) slave in a loving relationship. At an employment tribunal, she argued this was discriminatory because the collar, as a symbol of her beliefs, is equivalent to a religious symbol. I don’t know the details of her dismissal, which may really be about who makes the tea or whether she tends to tell bad jokes, so I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of it. The politics of the situation interests me, though. Should I, as a fellow fetishist (albeit not a collar-wearing type), see her as a kinky crusader, or another person determined to make us all seem a bit, well, odd?

The most ubiquitous relationship symbol is the ring. We all know what it means, and almost all married people wear them. And marriage is the dominant relationship form. Wearing a wedding ring is telling the world, “My sexuality isn’t strange or threatening, it’s kept within bounds. There’s no need to be frightened, I’m just like you.” It is literally legitimising. And although we all know that there are married people who have affairs, sometimes with people of their own sex, visit prostitutes, whip serving girls, etc, it is noticeable that heterosexuality and monogamy are almost universally expected of the married couple. Your friend who likes to take drugs and have unprotected sex with strangers in dark rooms is a riskier dinner party invitation than the married one. The married one might, nowadays, have a male partner, who spends time with him making gourmet food in their granite-surfaced kitchen (yes, you’re learning a bit about my background), and legitimisation explains a lot about why so many want gay marriage. That man, when he settles down, wouldn’t mind the symbol that shows he’s part of your club.

The problem, though, is that the more we contribute to the idea that marriage is the norm, the harder we make it for everyone else. In my day to day life I find it absolutely infuriating that everyone assumes I’m straight and monogamous. People around me make jokes about dykes and transsexuals, ask if I have a boyfriend, never a girlfriend, and take the answer as an indicator of my availability. And if the monogamous masses assuming I’m one of them is annoying, it’s nothing in comparison to the pressure when I do get involved with a man. Suddenly everyone assumes I’m on the road to monogamous wedded blissness. You can fight that among friends, but your commitment to your lesbian lover probably isn’t something to bring up with the boyfriend’s family over Easter lunch.

The prevailing assumption of heterosexual monogamy legitimised by marriage makes life that little bit more difficult for the rest of us. The teenager who thinks he’s broken believes it partially because he don’t know of anyone who likes boys, or non-consent, or polyamory, he only sees a monolithic wall of marriage obscuring the true variety of relationships. It creates an atmosphere in which any public figure’s non-monogamy or visits to a pro-domme are titillating news. People have to hide who they are, so it’s a self-perpetuating system of pain and fear. And not the good kind.*

Sharing our kinky identities would normalise alternative relationships. We’ve come a long way with homosexuality just by going on about it until people stopped being shocked. So should we wear our collars with pride?

Even though it is one of the most prevalent symbols in the BDSM community, the collar is only meaningful to a very small group of people, those participating in a Domination/submission dynamic to a peculiar degree. A brief search brought up a large number of symbols pertinent to my situation which I’ve never come across before. Since I’m a (kind of) bisexual seeing a polyamorous married bear, in a relationship with D/s elements, do I need a charm-collar to show all my proclivities to the world?

Heaping importance on the collar surely invites the proliferation of symbols. It may be terribly important to me to express that I’m a queer promiscuous pansexual bottom as oppose to a bisexual polyamorous submissive, but only people already in my community will know what I’m on about. And people get so terribly het up about symbols. Whenever I begin to think they’re harmless I remember that the Holy Cross school trouble, which involved adults shouting swear words and throwing stones at primary school children (and ended with a pipe bomb), started with a dispute over the location of a flag. Yes, it’s an extreme example there’s no tool to rouse emotion like a symbol.

I can’t help feeling that symbols are ultimately divisive. So we legitimise your relationship by recognising your collar, and the girl who wants her princess dynamic recognised through her tiara is left out in the cold. How many do we have to accept before we’ve given everyone’s identity the recognition it deserves? In my perfect world symbols would proliferate until they lost all meaning, or the dominant ones would lose their ascendency. It would be lovely if wedding rings, like gifts of lingerie, declarations of love or promises of beatings, made a personal, not a public, statement.

I don’t feel any political allegiance to the woman with the slave collar. I do hope, though, in the interests of increasing the amount of freedom and happiness in the world, that she wins her appeal. Surely she’s been through more than enough to be allowed to wear that collar.

*You might be reading this thinking “But I’m extremely happy in my heterosexual monogamous relationship and I don’t see what’s wrong with making a lifelong commitment to my man, throwing a big party and making our friends buy us a lot of expensive kitchenware.” Well, I suppose there isn’t, although I think you could give something back and buy a single friend a nice dinner service or some Le Creuset. Just be aware that you’re contributing to others’ difficulties by using the system that suits you so well. You can do more than wring your hands about it. Ian Goggin and Kristin Skarsholt refuse to participate in inequality from their position of privilege. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12046624

Written by Not an Odalisque

August 17, 2011 at 1:34 am