In Part 2 of my interview with Franklin Veaux, blogger extraordinaire and author of xeromag.com, and of poly resource site morethantwo.com, we discuss Poly drama and politics, Sex At Dawn, the darker recesses of the BDSM/Kink community, how passive participation can enable sexually predatory behavior, and coming out to your family. Note: this article discusses some things that may be triggers.
M: People tend to think of the poly community as being implicitly ridden with drama. What is your experience of that like?
FV: The poly community is absolutely ridden with drama! It’s true! But it’s not because its about polyamory or because of the relationships. Its because every community is ridden with drama. The poly community’s got nothing on the Model RC Airplane Enthusiast community I used to part of. Dear god, these are people obsessed with their planes!
Some people say that anything that is emotionally unsettling or uncomfortable is drama, and I don’t necessarily think that’s true at all. But yes, there’s drama in the poly community. There is drama in every community. I don’t think the poly community is any more or less than any others. A lot of the people I have met in the poly community are really good communicators and that helps cut down on the drama.
SEX vs LOVE vs RELATIONSHIP
M: Some people seem interested in polyamory, but actually just want to fuck a lot of people, without building connections or relationships.
FV: I think it’s inevitable. We live in a society that has conflated sex and relationship by saying that the only time it is appropriate to have sex is when you are in a relationship and the only person it is appropriate to have sex with is the person that you are in a relationship with. So as soon as you start talking about relationships with more that one person, people start thinking oh yeah that means sex with more than one person because these ideas of relationship and sex have gotten so conflated. So they see a justification for having lots of sexual partners. Because society says lots of sexual partners is bad, but if you have lots of relationship partners, then this group of people over here say it’s cool, and if you want to have a lot of sex, you can go over and be with those guys and you don’t have to be a dirty promiscuous slut, you can be polyamorous, and get all the sex you want.
Until we start to look at them separately, I think it’s inevitable that a lot of people are going to hear polyamory and think sex.
M: The book Sex At Dawn seems to have done a lot to promote that. The whole premise is that intrinsically we’re not monogamous, that we’re wired for sex and promiscuity. What do you think about that?
FV: I really like Chris Ryan a lot. I don’t want to critique the book, because I really do like him. He’s a really interesting guy. I am skeptical of the entire field of evolutionary psychology though. The evolutionary psychologists are the people that sociologists can point to and say ‘Those guys over there aren’t really doing science’. It’s difficult sometimes to see evolutionary psychology as anything other than a way to construct stories that validate social norms.
I like sex at dawn because it is an evolutionary psychology book that is not trying to validate monogamy and traditional 20th century western notions about what relationships are supposed to look like. It’s important to have that conversation, to say, well maybe its not natural for people to be monogamous for life.
At the same time, I have a hard time taking evolutionary psychology with any kind of real serious rigor. You can’t go back and do the experiment. You can’t go back and set up a society control and a society experiment to see how changing cultural norms changes behavior. It doesn’t work that way. So, you are storytelling.
KINK AND POLY
M: Lets talk about the whole kink and fetish thing… you write a lot about BDSM and Kink. How does that fit into polyamory for you?
FV: Wow. That’s a loaded question. I have a lot to say about the BDSM community and a lot of it is not really very pleasant right not. I am a little disenchanted with the BDSM community these days. I have seen a lot of dysfunction and really reprehensible behavior in it. A friend of mine last year was sexually assaulted by somebody who is a well known and respected BDSM community leader, and when she came forward about being assaulted the community closed ranks behind him, and against her. It was really horrifying and appalling to see it happen. There were the men of course, who were like, “What did you do to bring it on, you must have wanted it somehow, you must have done something to provoke it,” and then there were women who were like, “Well, you know, if you were a real submissive you would have been okay with what happened”. And, that’s fucked up!
The BDSM community prides itself on consent and makes consent the whole corner stone of what separates kink from abuse, and then responds to breaches of consent very poorly. A lot of people in the community talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk and that really bugs me.
There is a huge amount of overlap between BDSM and poly. A lot of people I know who are poly, though certainly not all, are kinky as well. There are a lot of people I know who are kinky who are also poly. I’ve noticed a huge difference between people who say, “I’m a poly person who is kinky”, and “I am a kinky person who is poly”. And I have discovered that I am not likely to be compatible in relationship with people who say, “I am kinky first and poly second”. One of the big differences I have seen is that people who are kinky first and poly second will see polyamory as ‘The Dom gets to do that, the sub doesn’t have any say about it.’
There was a conversation thread I saw on fetlife- before I quit using fetlife a while ago- where somebody said “I am a submissive woman in a poly BDSM relationship and my partner, my Dom, has taken this other submissive and I’m really jealous and really insecure. I don’t want to be poly, but he’s the Dom so he gets whatever he wants, and he says we’re poly so we’re poly. And I’m not really sure how to deal with these jealous and insecurity feelings that I get.” Several of the replies were of the form of “Well, if you were a good submissive and properly knew your role you wouldn’t be jealous.” “This means the Dom is failing because he is not keeping his submissives in line because if he was doing his job properly then all of his submissives would know that their role is to serve him and please him and they wouldn’t have time to feel jealous.”
And I’m like woah! Are you people serious? Have you met any human beings- like, ever?
And yet, that is not an aberration. That is a mindset I see often in people who identify as BDSM people who are also poly. And I think that approach is wildly incompatible with mine.
M: I’ve noticed there’s this line where, for me, kink stuff is bedroom specific. I can’t imagine allowing myself to be submissive with someone in bed and then allowing myself to be submissive to them in everything else in life.
FV: That’s not something that works for me either. I’ve met people who work that way and it seems to work for them. If they find the right partners. There is a danger there of what some people call “sub frenzy’, if you are a person who really craves being submissive and having someone take control. You do that to a point where it can cloud your ability to make judgments about partners and big decisions. Someone comes along and says “Oh yeah, I’ll Dom you” and that person is totally incompatible with you, or worse, actually a predator or an abuser. You can sort of get roped into that. But I have also seen people who are in full time BDSM relationships and are really well put together and in healthy relationships, so its a dynamic that can work, it just doesn’t work for me.
M: Connected to this then- how do you set out your boundaries? Not necessarily just in kink. In relationships too. This goes back to: how do you say no in a respectful way?
FV: Ooh. There are entire essays about that. On the Yes Means Yes (http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/) blog there’s a really interesting essay about how people are conditioned not to say no. We live in a society that makes it very difficult for us to just look someone in the eye and say no to something they want directly. We tend to be culturally conditioned to say no in very indirect ways. It’s easier to say yes than it is to say no. And that gets a little messed up because if you see people who say things like no means no when it comes to things like sexually assault, well people rarely say no directly. So what I think is a much better approach, and they talk about this in the yes-means-yes blog, is that only an affirmative yes means Yes. Anything else means no.
I think it’s important to not lead people on. I think its important that if the answer is not ‘Maybe’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ that you don’t say ‘Maybe’ or ‘I’ll get back to you.’ The best way to say no is probably the hardest, which is just to say no. At the end of the day I think that’s a lot more respectful than dodging the question.
M: I’ve been following on the news lately this sexual abuse scandal in the UK. Over several decades, hundreds of children were abused by one man, sometimes right on the premises of the BBC, a trusted institution. Many lives were deeply hurt and traumatized by what happened. He was a well known and respected celebrity. He received a knighthood. And all I can think is, “My god, what was going on there? How did the wool get pulled over so many people’s eyes? ”
FV: The wool gets pulled over so many people’s eyes because people are willfully blind. People make choices to not want to see things they might have to step up about. It is so much easier to look away from abuse than be the person who says, “You can’t do this”. It’s very hard to do that.
M: I found myself in that situation for the first time a few months ago. I was at a party, and a friend of mine got drunk. For some reason the drinking was out of control, and his knowledge of where the boundaries were was not there, and he physically abused another man there who I knew; he groped him. And I was there, I witnessed it. This guy’s partner was there and witnessed it. The guy said, ‘That’s not ok’. My friend backed off for a moment, “Yeah yup, you’re right its not okay,” and then moments later he did it again, saying, “Oh no you like it really.”
FV: Oh yeah, at that point that’s deliberate.
M: Yes, and that’s really NOT cool. So I told him, “That’s not cool.” The guy and his partner were also saying, “That’s not cool.”
Now, afterwards, the next day I think, I talked to this guy that this happened to and said “Look, I feel really bad I brought my friend there. I feel some level of responsibility because I introduced him to this group and to you, and then this thing happened. I also don’t understand what’s going on for him and I think you should tell him, reiterate to him that what he did was not okay, because otherwise he’s going to think he can do that and there’s no repercussions.” And this guy said, “No, I don’t want to have anything to do with him, I don’t see any need to talk to him.”
And, whilst I respect this guy’s choice, that sucks, because now my friend thinks it’s okay for him to do that because there are no repercussions. So I had to go to my friend and say “Look dude, you behaved inappropriately at the party: you offended, you upset, you crossed people’s boundaries, and I’m not cool with being friends with someone who is going to do that.” My friend could have turned around and said, “You know what I was really drunk and I don’t remember what happened, I’m really sorry.” He could have reached out and made apologies and got into a dialogue and realized he has drinking and boundary issues that need to be addressed. But instead he denied it ever happened. And I lost the friendship with him completely.
INDIRECT PARTICIPATION IN INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR
FV: There’s a friend of mine here in Portland who has been writing about the idea that if you are a part of a group and there are people- and this is especially important for people who are seen as leaders of the group, but really anyone- if there are people who behave inappropriately and you don’t speak up, essentially what you are doing is sanctioning that behavior. You are saying that behavior is appropriate and that you are willing to at least indirectly participate in it. And he has written a lot about that and I’ve linked to some of that in my blog, but this is something that I’ve been feeling really passionately about lately as well, and he and I are working on setting up a website with the idea of promoting the sort of notion that as part of a group it is YOUR responsibility to step up if you see someone who is behaving inappropriately. It is your responsibility to police behavior that is inappropriate. If you are looking the other way, you are participating.
M: I really agree with that. That’s important. I’ve been really surprised by the reluctance of people in a position of leadership to do more.
FV: Its been my experience that people in leadership positions in a sub community are often more prone and not less prone to acting out and to being inappropriate or predatory, and to looking the other way when other leaders are inappropriate or predatory. If you are a person who is predatory, a subculture is an ideal hunting ground: people feel a closeness, they’re not likely to reach out beyond that sub community and if you can get yourself into a leadership position, you can pretty much behave with impunity and people wont speak up, because they wont want to loose access to the things you bring to the community.
M: And the leaders as well, I can see them being in a situation where they don’t want to loose the ‘faith’ of the people who they are leading. That makes it sound like a cult, but even in just facilitating events, they want to please the majority and not ruffle any feathers. It can be easier to maintain status quo.
FV: People don’t want to let go of things. People don’t want to say, “Oh yeah this guy is a predator because he’s hosting play parties and I want to go to these play parties, and if I speak up I’m going to loose access to that.” It is already very hard to come forward if you are an abuse victim. We already treat people who are abused poorly. On top of that, if the person who is the predator is viewed as a respected leader in the community, it’s even harder still because people’s natural instinct is to rally behind that person, and that’s fucked up on so many levels.
M: I’ve also heard the argument of “Well you went to that play party, you knew what you were getting into.”
FV: And that’s the other issue. Consent to one activity does not imply consent to all activities. Consent to being tied up does not imply consent to sexual intercourse.
M: There are some really awesome fetish parties around here, and they have a small dungeon area at the events, with a dungeon team doing rigging. The last event I went to I thought it would be great to get tied up and do some suspension. I got there and checked out the guy doing the rope work and watched him working on the girl, and I got this creepy vibe. He was enjoying it just too much.
FV: One thing a friend of mine wrote about lately was that we can recognize predators. You can recognize predatory behavior. You can tell, you can sense the vibe- unless you are talking about people who are really socially stunted in some way- we recognize it when we see it. But predators are so skilled at riding the line right at the edge where you can’t point to any single thing they have done and say ‘that was inappropriate’. It is difficult to speak up because you can’t say, “This thing that he did was wrong” or. “This thing she did really pushed this boundary”. They are really good at riding that. So you end up in a situation where you know by feel that this person is behaving inappropriately, you can tell there’s something icky going on, and you’re like, “Well what if I’m misreading it?” And it becomes easy to rationalize, well what if it’s just the feeling that I have and everything is really ok. I can’t point to something this person is doing, so you know maybe im making a mistake. What do you do with situations like that?
M: Yes. There have been situations where people have asked me to come to the mixers for play parties, and I’m not sure if I want to do that. Maybe I’ll go meet people, but I don’t know if I will go to the play parties. That seems to require just so much trust, and if this is a room full of people I don’t know? My walls go up, and I wont enjoy it.
FV: When I go to play parties, it’s invariably with a person who is a partner. And then you can create that sort of environment where you can enjoy what’s happening and not be looking for, or open to participation by, people who are not your intimates and that really makes a big difference. But yeah if you are going into a situation like that and you don’t have someone there who is your intimate, then yeah, that doesn’t really sound like a lot of fun.
M: I’ve heard people say they hope the 21st century will see the acceptance of non-monogamy as mainstream.
FV: Well, cultural ideas change all the time. If you go back, in the roaring 20s, homosexuality was more accepted than it was in 1945. There are always cultural ups and downs in the way that sexual minorities and subcultures are treated. It’s hard to look at the subculture and extrapolate from that. It’s a tough question. We don’t exist in the vacuum. Everyone one of us has grown up with idea that when you know you are in love and have your own true soul mate, then everything will be perfect forever. It affects us, and it’s really hard to filter out.
I would argue that because we are social animals there is no such thing as our intrinsic nature, because our intrinsic nature is to be affected by the societies we create. It’s a pickle! How do you say what a human being’s intrinsic nature is?
M: There’s a fanatical element within the poly community, those who have taken it on as a political movement, and absolutely, its important to fight for rights. We are lucky to live where things are more liberal now, in terms of how we can have our relationships. I can love a man; I can love a woman, that’s acceptable. In Canada, it’s not technically illegal to have more than one common law partner, though it isn’t technically legal either. We are very fortunate. But there are some people who seem to take it too far in that fanaticism, they take it too far, “Everyone has to be polyamorous. No one is allowed to be monogamous, and anyone who says anything about monogamy, we’re going to shut them out.”
FV: I think that’s inevitable. You’re going to see that in any sub community or subculture of people who feel under attack or under threat. There are going to be some people who respond to that by saying, “If you’re not with us you’re against us. If you’re not like us you’re a bad person.” You see that in the BDSM community, the LGBT community. It’s an inevitable consequence of being human.
M: Switching topics slightly. Your family- do they know about your polyamorous love style?
FV: My family of origin? My family has always known that I’m poly because it would have been impossible to hide it. I mean I took two dates to the prom when I was in high school! Little bit of a giveaway there. My mother is really laid back and really cool and has always been an awesome person. My father doesn’t know quite what to make of it. He keeps veering back and forth between “Oh my god you go! My son is such a stud,” and, “Well why cant you just be normal like everybody else?” My family has met most of my partners throughout my life and they have always been very, very open and accepting.
M: That’s awesome.
FV: It is. I got lucky in that way.
M: Yes. You are very lucky. I have noticed there can be this attitude that, if you are sexually deviant, there is something wrong with you. “You’re dealing with mommy or daddy issues. You have a weird fetish? You must have been traumatized as a child.”
FV: Yeah… I look back over my childhood, which was actually pretty good, and I’m a kinky mutherfucker. Maybe- it’s just a normal part of human variability!