Whose Ethics Are They Anyway?

I have a confession to make. I’ve been quiet about this for some time. I’ve a problem with “Ethical Non Monogamy”.

Specifically, my problem is the terminology.

Ethical. What’s ethical? I ask myself.

Ethics are defined as morals, as the right/wrong, good/bad code of conduct adopted by a group of people, often determined by their cultural or religious teachings. That means that ethics are variable across the world. Ethics are subjective guidelines, whose application can vary situationally and contextually. And, they can often come into conflict.

5920131438198Consider the differing moral codes of Islam and Modern Western Society, for example, and all the many conflicts that arise from that. Someone raised Muslim, of Muslim faith, may have no qualms with a man having multiple wives, something that many in Western Christian culture would find abhorrent. The modern western embrace of gay marriage as a human right is, similarly, seen as abhorrent to many of the Islamic Faith.

So, I’ve got a moral dilemma over defining my non-monogamy as “ethical”.

There’s a plethora of articles on the internet examining the ethics of non-monogamy. In fact, it seems like the vast majority of discussion and rhetoric available online- and in print- on the subject of polyamory is devoted to debate of the ethics and morals.

That’s understandable, I think. When life long monogamous matrimony has for so long been held up as The Moral Standard in the globally dominant white-settler-centric culture, the number one fear that many hold around challenging that structure is that it might mean losing one’s sense of morals and ethics. The implication, especially from more conservative elements, is that being non monogamous is synonymous with being an immoral and unethical person. And so, when there can be fear of judgement and internalised shame around being non-monogamous, it is no wonder that so much bandwidth is given over to the discussion of the polyamorous ethical code.

However, the dominant voices in that discussion have begun to take on a ‘poly-er than thou’ tone, attempting to police the definitions of non monogamous relationships with projections of their own personal ethics onto others. When we as a community find ourselves in the position where individuals are taking on the job of drafting the moral code which we are all expected to follow- or be shunned for not following- we begin to tread dangerously into the territory of dogma and religion.

High_sparrow_blood_of_my_bloodI’m a firm believer that it’s the people involved in the relationship that get to mutually decide between them how that relationship is explored, defined, and evolves. Maybe this is diving into a rabbit hole of philsophical and political thought here: I see dictating ethics and imposing one’s own morality is what the White Christian settlers did when they arrived in the Americas. That led to genocide and cultural erasure, leading in turn to generations of oppression and trauma. I am a non-Christian settler to North America, of ancestry (Irish, Greek, Roma) that knows too well of the trauma involved in having another’s cultural values and ethics superimposed with an iron fist. And so, I’m averse to someone else dictating their own ethics and projecting them as ethics for all of us to follow. Each of us has our own values, our own personal moral code, formed from the cultures we grew up in, the life experiences we have had, and the life choices we make now. Assuming that our individual ethics need to apply to everyone is oppressive. And that doesn’t sit well with me.

Rather than get into a debate over whether hierarchies and such can be ethical, I’d like to propose that many of these discussions are missing the point:

In ANY kind of relationship structure- be it monogamous or not, hierarchical, egalitarian, anarchic or otherwise- you can behave like a jerk, or you can behave like a decent human being.

I’m an anarchist, a celebrator of individuality and personal autonomy. I don’t want to do the thing that I’m critiquing others of, and tell you now what you should be doing, or not doing. I think everyone has the right to choose, define, and articulate what works for them, without imposing it (by force or by implication) on others. What I’d like to do is invite you to consider what might be cool, or uncool, actions in healthy relationships, whatever your relationship styles are.

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Canadian geese are jerks.

Some Things that are Uncool To Do In Relationships:

  • Abuse others- verbally, physically, emotionally.
  • Manipulate (Coerce others to doing what you want them to do).
  • Gaslight (Make others feel responsible for something you did, ignoring your own responsibility.)
  • Ignore your partners’ wants, desires, and nos.
  • Ignore the needs, desires and nos of others involved in your relational landscape.
  • Stone wall/ghost (ie give the silent treatment).
  • Ignoring one’s own privileges and/or levels of positional power within the relationship.
  • Blame others for how you are feeling without giving space for dialogue and resolution.
  • Expecting other people to “just know” you (telepathy).

Some Things that are Cool To Do In Relationships:

  • Listen to what your partner’s needs, wants, desires, and nos are.
  • Express your own needs, wants, desires and nos.
  • Be compassionate and considerate of the needs, desires, and nos of all people involved in your relational landscape.
  • Respect each individual’s personal autonomy and individual right to make informed choices.
  • Communicate expectations clearly.
  • Have courageous conversations, even if the outcome might not be what you want.
  • Acknowledge your privileges and/or levels of positional power within each relationship.
  • Take responsibility for the effects of your actions.
  • Work on knowing your own self.

What I’m getting at here isn’t so much about subjective ethics, as it is about honesty, and full transparency in relationships. It’s about having personal integrity first and foremost as the foundation of your relationships: knowing one’s self, and engaging in such a way as to know others. Curiosity to understand the motivations of others, and how their own values and ethics might differ from yours, can be a valuable quality to nurture.

My invitation to you is this: as you continue to sift through the many volumes of literature (in print or on screen) devoted to non-monogamy, whenever you notice the debate begin to dive into Ethics, consider: whose Ethics are these? Very often, they are the ones of the writers, ones that are invariably coming from the cultural context and personal experience of the writers. This doesn’t make them wrong or invalid. It’s just good to keep in mind that, as one friend of mine might say, your own mileage might vary. You may have values, ethics, and personal morals that differ from others- and that is okay. I encourage you to read the writings of non-white people on polyamory- writers like Michon Neal and The Critical Polyamorist– read the writings of asexual, non-coupled, and queer polyamorists. Take the time to imbibe contrasting ideas and thoughts! Let’s get outside the box of projecting one cultural subset of ethics onto the whole spectrum of non-monogamy, and let’s start defining things in a way that one doesn’t need a course in ethics to understand them.

I prefer the term Honest Non Monogamy, and I invite you to use that term too.

Self Intimacy, Sex-Positivity, Shame, and the Resilient Edge of Resistence

“Boundaries are an essential part of life. They delineate and maintain needed borders and separations, making differentiation possible at every level. Boundaries both contain and preserve the integrity of what they are safeguarding, be that physical, psychological, emotional, social, or spiritual. Without them there is no relationship and therefore no development, no evolution. But despite this clear truth, we often fall into the trap of believing that boundaries hold us back, preventing us from being free…”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, Boundaries Make Freedom Possible

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I heard a great metaphor for boundaries recently, from my friend and mentor Marcia. Boundaries are like skin. Skin protects us from bacteria, contaminants- it keeps the bad things out. It also holds our bodies together and keeps the good things in. It has elasticity and can stretch and squish for short periods of time (this is called the Resilient Edge of Resistance, think of it as a plus/minus margin around your boundaries). Push that edge too far, and we reach our limits- the skin breaks. It is semi permeable, so we can let good things in (like sunlight and moisture) and sweat the bad things out. And without skin around us, things get messy.

Similarly, without boundaries, life gets messy.

In polyamory we are constantly being challenged to redefine our boundaries, to explore some of the difficult stuff in that resilient edge of resistance- sometimes we reach our limits. We also traverse an emotional field where we invite more vulnerability into our lives, because we are allowing more people to connect with that core part of ourselves that the boundaries are there to protect. The more partners we have, the more we are asked to live in that space of vulnerability. Doing so feels radical, revolutionary, and many people experience a sexual and emotional liberation when they begin exploring this.

In a traditional coupled relationship, boundaries are created to protect and preserve the primary relationship. They are there, like a warm blanket, keeping the relationship safe and in a place of comfort, where the individuals in it can relax and grow and flourish. This is true of monogamous and honestly non-monogamous couples.

However, when it comes to flying Solo, it is not quite so straightforward.

Evening clouds above

There is no primary partner, there is no obvious other to create shared boundaries with- though we absolutely can, many people perceive boundaries as limitations, and equate them with primary like relationships. Ultimately, we all have to develop our own clear boundaries around what we want to nurture in our lives, and what we want to keep out- and this is far more apparent when exploring Solo Polyamory. The nature of Solo Poly relationships is so often fluid and changing, that one can sometimes feel there is no safe-house to come home to unless you create one for yourself. But, it can be easy to forget this, and when you are unattatched to a primary partner, there are plenty more opportunities to explore that Resilient Edge of Resistence.

I pushed and stretched and redefined my personal Resilient Edge of Resistence for two years. After a lifetime of frustration with the limitation of my creative expression and sexual shaming, I dove heart first into a dynamic and powerful exploration of living life without restrictions. I began to embrace my sensual expression, I grew to honor my shadow self, I found alchemy in letting my spirit blossom and fly free. I looked to the free spirits around me and followed their examples. I was going to sex parties, being guest listed for kink nights, throwing my own kinky raves with my friends, being invited to participate in the sex-positive community both locally, and internationally. I felt comfortable having sex around strangers, and engaging in BDSM play to the side of the dance floor. It was so incredibly liberating! I had come so far from the shy, ashamed, repressed young woman who flinched at the idea of talking about sex.

shattered glassAnd then, I became intoxicated with the freedom. I became addicted to my shadow self. I pushed myself too far.My resiliency broke. I lost my boundaries. I lost my skin. My guts went spilling all over the place, and toxic, unhealthy influences entered into my life.

Months later I still wake in the middle of the night from nightmares filled with flashbacks of trauma, and my heart remains heavy with heartache, regret, and deep sorrow.

After reaching a breaking point with exploring my resilient edge, I attempted to build a wall around my heart, and my Self, reinforcing my boundaries into an impenetrable fortress. While this made me feel more safe, it also made it impossible to reach out to the ones I loved- because I couldn’t connect to my heart without connecting to the pain too. They felt pushed away.

While all this was happening, I was diving into studies of the nature of intimacy, boundaries, and self-actualisation. I learned about something called Self-Intimacy, the conscious awareness of one’s own emotions, desires and thoughts. Without healthy self-intimacy, we struggle to engage in healthy conflict, and displays of affection can become shallow and disconnected. When we lack healthy self-intimacy, our negative emotions can build up, and without expression or support for resolution, they can drive us to disregard our limits, and live in a state where our resilient edges are being constantly pushed to breaking point.

I had spent so long pushing myself to explore my edges, I had forgotten how to relax, and just be with my self. My inner perfect poly person had grown adept at suppressing my shadow emotions in relationships, and my mind was at conflict with my heart. Even though I had intellectually consented to almost all of my experiences, my heart’s consent had not been present. I had been ignoring the messages from my body, ignoring the crushing pain of approaching my limits- until they had been reached, with heart-breaking consequences.

jumpingLiberating ourselves of the shame around sex and embracing sex positivity shouldn’t have to mean going to orgies or BDSM play parties. It doesn’t have to be a process of pushing our resilient edges of resistance to breaking point- either physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. It might mean those things for some people- and that has certainly been part of my own journey- but I don’t think that it has to include those things. I think sex positivity is hi-fiving ourselves and our friends and partners for good sex, sex positivity is exploring healthy connections and physically empowering chemistry. It’s about not flinching when someone else talks about sex. It’s embracing your own nature as a sexual being. It’s accepting the diversity of experiences people have had, and the complex relationships each person can have to the act of sex- and respecting that most people do not need to live in the adrenalin addiction of having their edges challenged in relationships constantly.

I’m valuing the existential crisis inherent in all of this. In my personal quest for identity, relationship, and meaning, I have too often become trapped in doing mode, a state entangled in mental pathways, removed from the experience of simply being. Rather than following my head into new situations, I’m slowing down and listening to my heart, and my whole body. In finding solitude and quietude again, I’m reconnecting with the courage to just be, and finding freedom in that. The clearer I become on what I’m living for- my deepest desires- the more my natural boundaries become apparent. The margins of my being may not be what I once thought they were- or perhaps, they have changed- and I am giving myself permission to change, and nurture my resiliency.

I don’t need to live life on the edge all the time- and neither do you, if you do not want to. You have permission to be loving to yourself, to honor your physical, spiritual, mental and emotional body and boundaries, to embrace your shadow self, and your light. Life doesn’t have to be lived on the cutting edge, doing all-the-things. Life can also be lived with warmth and nurturing; life can be lived by simply being. You can love your boundaries. You can grow roots, live a life that doesn’t push your resilient edge of resistance to breaking point, and still be radical and sex-positive.

self-empowerment
“We are not here to shed or abandon our boundaries, but to breathe integrity and strength into them, to fully illuminate them, and to make sure that they take a form that serves not only our highest good but also the highest good of all. We are not here to override or devalue our boundaries but to use them as wisely as possible… discovering the freedom in fully engaging our experience. Our boundaries stand as guardians on this path, with an authority that supports our growth and awakening.”
~ Robert Augustus Masters, Boundaries Make Freedom Possible

(with gratitude to Orion and Chelsie for editorial feedback)

Shame and Sexuality

What do you know of great love? Have you ever loved a woman until milk leaked from her as though she had just given birth to love itself, and now must feed it or burst? Have you ever tasted a woman until she believed that she could be satisfied only by consuming the tongue that had devoured her? Have you ever loved a woman so completely that the sound of your voice in her ear could cause her body to shudder and explode with such intense pleasure that only weeping could bring her full release?
~ from the movie Don Juan DeMarco, 1994

I’m taking part in a workshop called The Good Girl Recovery Program. It’s run by a woman called Marcia, who came highly recommended to me by some dear friends who are poly and kinky and have made great personal breakthroughs with her support. I’m finding this course amazing. It is challenging me, inspiring me, and getting me to unpack some of the old stuff that I had buried and forgotten about.

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We can’t just sweep all the dirt under the carpet and forget about it.

The central theme to my personal journey- in the last few months, in the last couple of years, and arguably the central theme in my narrative as an adult- has been embracing my sexuality. I was given many messages in my childhood that told me sex was something bad, something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden and not talked about. My mother described it to me in ways that made it sound disgusting, painful, and something that would detract from my evolution as a spiritual and conscious being. And the surroundings I grew up in were resoundingly not sex- positive (I was at a private all girls school for four years, at a catholic school for two years, and spent my adolescence living in a country where kissing someone in public who wasn’t your lawful spouse could have you jailed, and being gay could land you far harsher punishment).

When I was about six or seven years old, my school had a visit from a charity that worked to prevent cruelty to children. They were a well known charity, fierce advocates of children’s rights, and had very well thought out ways of reaching out to kids who may have experienced trauma and abuse in the home. Unfortunately for me, one of their excercises had the side effect of kindling shame around my sexual expression.

It was quite a simple excercise. We had activity sheets given to us that had three sillhouettes of ginger-bread-men like figures. One had a green outline. In that one, we were asked to color in areas where we liked to be touched. The next one was red- that was for where we didn’t like to be touched. And then there was a third, I think it was orange, and that was for where people touch us.

Now, I loved riding my bike. Why? Cos it felt so good in my crotch. It felt better than good- it was amazing! And I also loved jumping on my space hopper. So my crotch was colored in quite intensely for the green figure. And, since it was somewhere I liked to touch myself, I colored it in very strongly on the orange figure.

My parents were called in to the school. I was questioned by the principal separately from my parents. After i explained that it was me who did the touching of my vagina, my parents were sent home with the message that their daughter might be sexually aware too young. My mother- who I later learned had experienced sexual abuse from a family member- was already very protective of me, and became even more protective after that. I wasn’t allowed to touch myself, not even to scratch. The first time a boy asked me out, my mother said I wasn’t allowed to go out with him unless I had a chaperone (that boy dumped me as a result). She watched my first high school boyfriend like a hawk and terrified him. And the first time I was out later than midnight with a boy, when I was sixteen, I came home to my mother sitting on the staircase, brooding and fuming, and received a lecture about staying out late that still, to this day, brings up feelings of terror and fear within me. She was very effective at making me feel ashamed of my body, and of my sexuality.

Shame around sexuality is something institutionalized and ingrained at the very core of current day society. I’m not blind to the fact that I now live in a delightful bubble of sex-positive, open minded, accepting, and pretty rad people. Sadly, the majority of the world is not like this. For the majority of people alive today, there are many mixed messages about sex, that it is sinful and dirty, that it is something to use as a tool for power and control, that it makes it okay to objectify the human form, that it should be hidden and hushed, that it is something we are all supposed to do eventually and then be ashamed of immediately afterwards.

I sometimes wonder if my mother has ever had an orgasm, if the trauma of her own abuse has stood in the way of her ever experiencing sexual pleasure. I know my grandmother, on the other hand, was a very sexually astute woman- and she may have been bisexual. She taught me about what all the parts of my vagina were for when I was a kid (“And this is where special honey comes from, for the boy you marry”) She was prescribed the use of a WAHL personal massager by her physician as part of the treatment for her hysteria when she entered menopause. I have a foggy memory of my mother and grandmother arguing about the presence of this WAHL vibrator on my grandmother’s dressing table.

wahl

I came close to loosing my virginity a few times as a teenager, but held off. I was shy and afraid and had no idea what to do. I masturbated by myself plenty, and enjoyed it a lot, but had no idea how to share that experience with another person. My first attempt at penetrative sex was when I was 20, with my ex boyfriend Tony who I’d dated when I was thirteen and trusted immensely. It was awkward and weird (we both agree, looking back with the hindsight of experience) and I remember thinking “Is this it? Maybe my mother was right.”

And then I ended up marrying the next guy I slept with. He knew how to play with my body and would let me masturbate to orgasm before we had sex, and that was a mind-blowing revelation for me. But, during my relationship with Finn, sex was often an obligation. “We should have more sex, we’re married,” was the line I often heard.  And so sex became a thing I’d do begrudgingly. Even when I didn’t want to. And I slowly began to close up my sexual expression.

The truth was, I was having fantasies I couldn’t fulfill with him. I was watching lesbian porn. I was watching kinky porn. I had desires to be tied up and to do the tying up. I wanted to experience giving another woman an orgasm, and to have sex with other men- and maybe several of them at once. Since adolescence I’d held fantasies of crazy group orgies, of being both the instigator of such events, and also the recipient of attention from multiple people simultaneously.

And Finn just wasn’t in to all that kinky stuff. Kinky for him was buying a “sensual cocoa butter massage bar” which did one thing only: stain our sheets.

The first time I experienced a squirting orgasm, it was using my vibrator externally. It was about six months after I’d been living by myself, and I hadn’t had sex in a long time. I think I’d been going for about an hour, and thought I might never orgasm. I’d edged close to that precipice but each time my body shut down- something mental was going on for me, some sort of shame about sex would kick in and take me back a few notches. But then- then something magical happened.
Maybe it was that the music I was playing shifted, perhaps it was my body reaching a point where my mind couldn’t fight with my body any more. My mind let go, and my body convulsed in a crescendo of joy and deep moans of pleasure for a split second- and then I began to cry and scream and yell, like some old pain within me was being released.  I lay in stillness. The sheets and pillows around me were soaked with sweat, cum, and tears. Was the pain from the years of repressed sexual joy? The hurt I felt inside from my two miscarriages? The restriction of my full sexual expression?

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This mental block thing still happens to me when I get near orgasm. It has made it really challenging for me to orgasm with someone else unless I can trust them and open up about the most vulnerable parts of myself- and if I feel shut down, dismissed, or judged for any part of that, I can’t continue. Orion has helped me immensely in moving through the many aspects of the shame I feel around this. We’ve been exploring together ways to use elements of BDSM play to accentuate the experience of being trapped- taking it from a mental limitation into a physical limitation, and seeing how both my body and mind react in different ways. It has been immensely liberating to discover that I can have earth-shaking orgasms with other people on a consistent basis, that there is indeed a method to the madness.

I’m learning to be more articulate about what I want and don’t want. Over the last few weeks I have been developing a new relationship with a man who, for the purposes of the blog, we’ll call Gerard. He has been with women before who have had sexual trauma, and is incredibly aware about communicating proactively about what’s happening in the moment if he has a concern. And he has absolutely listened to all my “no”s. He’s been keen to learn my body, to figure out the little subtleties of what works, and is always keen to make sure I have satisfying orgasms. For a while, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to have sex with him- but after a great date zero and a fun date one, we chatted online and talked about kissing. And the next time we hung out, we kissed. Just, kissed. We made out for a few hours. And then we talked about sex, but didn’t have sex. But we talked about it, and so when it came down to peeling off our clothes two dates later, we already knew where we were going, and were not fumbling around in the dark, so to speak.

Between my recent experiences with Orion, and the new experiences with Gerard, I’m feeling far more confident in being able to talk about and express my sexuality. I’m realizing that I’ve been limited by labels of things, and that at my core, sexuality is something I enjoy being creative with when I share it with others, and that I don’t like to go at half-arsed. I can’t do quickies. I want to take my time to explore- and to be explored. I’m broadening my horizons. I’m daring to be out as sex-positive. ElkFeather posted something to facebook recently, about the word “pomosexuality“, a word that seems to describe transcending the ideas of clear cut orientation labels that might limit us (gay, straight, male, female etc) and that’s very appealing to me.  I value the ways that people choose to identify, and at the same time, it’s not the labels that matter to me. It’s what someone has beating in their heart, the longing in their chest and their loins, and desires and the potential for mutual exploration where chemistry exists and inspiration strikes. That’s what matters to me.

My mother turned up in town a few weeks ago. Since I have now made it very clear on several occasions that I don’t want to have her in my life as long as she continues to believe that “gays are mentally ill” and that her attempts to send me “love and blessings” in the form of condescending sex-negative conversations are not welcome, I did my best to keep a low profile while she was around. After I found out she had tried to stalk me at work (unsuccessfully) I strategized where to could go on my day off where I could guarantee I wouldn’t run in to her. As it so happened, there’s an amazing store not far from where I live that specializes in celebrating and empowering women’s sexuality. And, as luck would have it, they had a sale on. I spent a good hour and a half in the store, picking up toys, asking questions, chatting with the sales associates about the pros and cons of different lubes for different uses, and even managed to learn about some things you can do with power drills that don’t involve construction or carpentry work.

I left the store with my proud purchase of a stainless steel butt plug. A milestone in the ongoing evolution of my sexual un-shaming.

The njoy surgical-grade stainless steel plug comes complete with tasteful gift box.

As I release the hold that shame around sexuality has had on me, as I stop letting myself shrink away (so beautifully described in this video going viral), and really embrace this process of blossoming in to the full expression of all who I am, I’m also beginning to embrace my dominant side. Asserting my boundaries in the bedroom, articulating with openness and honesty about intimacy ahead of time, and a genuine desire to help others fulfill their fantasies and release their own sexual shame, is leading me quite naturally to learn more about how to take control- with consent- and create positive experiences for others where I’m in charge.

Orion’s been teaching me a lot with this, and has half-teasingly called me a ‘shamanatrix’, because I keep referring to being a dominatrix as a potential extension of my existing work in the wellness industry. Not that I think I would ever do it professionally- though I can’t absolutely discount the possibility.

I like being sex-positive. I like being kink-positive. I like not letting judgmental attitudes about alternative lifestyles get the better of me. I like that I am now navigating sexuality not by what someone else has told me is okay and not okay for my body, but by what my body tells me feels good, and doesn’t feel good. I’m learning how to ask others about their body, their desires, their fantasies- and to never assume. And I am discovering that we are- all of us- delightfully creative, each of us ‘freaky’ in our own right, and that there is so much diversity- a diversity that is liberating.

There is still a lot that I’m working on. But, I feel like the cap has been lifted. The waters have broken, and this new, assertive, sexually empowered and knowledgeable, goddess-version of me is birthing her way in to the world and learning how to grow and flourish. I don’t know how this would have been possible had I stayed married, or if I had embraced monogamy. I’m committed to expanding the definition of who I am, and every single intimate relationship I’ve enjoyed in the past few years has revealed new aspects of myself to me and invited me to stretch beyond the squishy limits of my comfort zone.

comfort zone