This song kills me.
I’m not generally a country fan, but I recently moved to a part of the Midwest that plays a lot of country music on the radio and this came on in the car the other day. It grabbed me. The recording is so spare, I assumed it was some kind of classic country ballad. Until I pulled up the video on YouTube, that is. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying in public.
See, I collect “metamour media” — songs, stories, movies etc. that center the relationship between two people who have a lover in common. There’s not a lot of it out there. Mostly, when we tell stories about any kind of “love triangle” we focus on the hinge, the person who’s being “shared” and that person’s relationships with the people who are “sharing” them. We rarely see depictions — either positive or negative — of how the two “sharers” relate to each other.
There are a few examples that come to mind, though. In pop music, we’ve got Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” — a song about two women who discover that their common partner is cheating on them both, and plot together to kill him:
“They decided then he’d never get away with doing this to them…”
I remember the first time I heard this song, my jaw dropped and I was all, “Holy shit! Was that just a metamour murder ballad??”
Then, of course, there is Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” — in which Dolly plaintively begs her partner’s other lover (or crush) to consider her needs:
“And I can easily understand how you could easily take my man, but you don’t know what he means to me, Jolene.”
In other words, “You’re a total badass and I get why he’s into you, but please don’t let him leave me for you; I need him.” This one’s my favorite because she’s singing directly to the other woman. It’s a conversation between the two of them, and it’s extremely human.
And if you think that understanding Dolly and Jolene as metamours is trippy, imagine how much more complex that story gets when the person begging Jolene not to take his man is Jack White:
“Well, you can have your choice of men, but I could never love again…”
Meanwhile, in the interest of a little more gender diversity, here’s Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
battling crooning it out over a shared love interest in “The Girl is Mine“:
“Michael, we’re not gonna fight about this, ‘kay?”
One thing I’m sure you’ve noticed is that a major theme in all these songs is conflict. It’s not that we live in a monogamous culture, not really. Our news and art and media are full of stories of people in complex multi-person romantic relationships — it’s just that, at the core of those more-than-two dynamics, what we’re shown is almost always conflict. That conflict shows up as competition. It shows up as controlling behavior. It shows up as heartbreak. We do have some stories in which the metamours eventually team up to oust (or, apparently, kill) a cheating partner — like Brandi and Monica at the end of the video for “The Boy is Mine“:
But I’ve yet to hear a mainstream love song in which someone even so much as, for example, expresses appreciation for their partner’s supportive ex.
And, honestly, I’m kinda okay with that. At least right now. Part of what makes metamour relationships so important to me is that they’re interesting and complex. “Interesting” and “complex” are words that often also mean hard. And I like seeing the emotional difficulties often associated with sharing a partner represented in the mainstream media. I think that, even for those of us who share partners with others intentionally and consensually, many of us have gone through some less-extreme variations on the kinds of struggle, suffering, self-doubt, competition, and conflict as the ones depicted in these songs. People seeing their experiences represented in art they can identify with is a key component of not feeling hopelessly alone.
It’s worth noting that, in many of these songs, it’s never explicitly stated that the person with multiple partners is cheating. It’s generally implied — cuz multiple partners. But, in the interest of identifying with the emotions of the characters, we can read some of these lyrics not as stories about unfaithful lovers or clingy exes who won’t go away, but rather about e.g. “secondaries” in some extremely dysfunctional poly relationships.
Which takes me back to the Sugarland song that started this thread. In the Metamour Intensive seminar I gave at the Transcending Boundaries Conference a couple of years ago, one of the key themes I focused on was acknowledging the complexity of our metamour relationships. I pointed out that even in polyamorous culture, we tend to treat our metamourships as a means to an end; we invest in our relationships with our metamours not for their own unique sakes, but as another way to support our relationships with our partners. Often, our metamours are more-or-less incidental sidenotes to our partnered relationships. And — regardless of whether we like a metamour or not — treating them as if they are simply a part of our relationship story, rather than acknowledging that they are the center of a relationship story of their own, isn’t very compassionate.
When “Stay” first came on the radio, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. I was struck by its musical quality, but figured it was just another average jilted-lover breakup tale. But after listening for a couple of verses, I put it together: This was “the other woman” singing to her lover, asking him to stay with her instead of going home to (presumably) his wife. This immediately intrigued me, since “The Other Woman” is traditionally the villain in romance stories. I was touched to hear her made out as such a sympathetic character. (The song is written from Jennifer Nettles’ own personal life history, and you can see how deep and complicated her emotions about that experience are by the way she expresses herself in the video.)
But what really got me about this song — and I just watched the video again and I’m choking back tears again — was watching the character’s emotional development in relation to her metamour. At the beginning, the wife is nothing but an impediment to her relationship with the man she loves. “It’s just another call from home. You’ll get it and be gone, and I’ll be crying.” She struggles with confusion and frustration over what the wife has to offer him that she doesn’t, why he keeps choosing the wife over her. Throughout the song, she uses the line “Why don’t you stay?” to try and persuade her lover to choose her over his other partner. But, by the end of the song, she has decided to leave him — and she turns the phrase on its head:
“I can’t take it any longer. My will is getting stronger. And I think I know just what I have to do. I can’t waste another minute after all that I’ve put in it. I’ve given you my best; why does she get the best of you? So next time you find you want to leave her bed for mine…why don’t you stay?”
This shift is so important because, by giving that phrase over to the other relationship, she’s explicitly putting herself in the wife’s shoes. She can imagine what it must be like for the wife to have her husband constantly leaving her for another woman. And she encourages him not to do that. She makes her shift toward a compassion even more clear when she describes the wife “beg[ging] you not to go.” Certainly, she’s not leaving him for his wife’s sake. But, in choosing to leave him, she acknowledges his wife as more of a human being than she has throughout the whole beginning of the song. If you watch the video, I think you can see this shift happening around 3:40. It coincides with her shift towards seeing herself as more of a human being, as deserving of a loving relationship with someone who’s really there for her. And watching both those shifts in perspective happen simultaneously is profound.
EDITED TO ADD:
Oh hey, I just remembered, there is a well-known pop song that suggests a pretty positive metamour dynamic. 😉
The Spice Girls – Wannabe
The Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid was recently written up in a lovely, succinct, accessible article by Lifehacker‘s Alan Henry: Predator Alert Warns You If Your OkCupid Prospect Might Be Dangerous.
Of course, as per usual, the Bitter BDSMer Brigade showed up to spam the comment section with random conspiracy theories. But this actually gave me a great opportunity to talk about how data privacy and administrative access function in each of the core Predator Alert Tools. So, win!
My comment is copied here for your reading pleasure:
This is a review I wrote of the movie Savages soon after it came out. My original draft is dated 8.15.2012 but I work slowly, so you’re getting it almost a year later. If you were ever going to see the film, you’ve probably seen it by now. Still, be warned that this is chock full of spoilers and potentially triggering references to gendered and racialized violence.
. . .
Savages. I have to say something about it, don’t I? I’ll say this: It took me by surprise.
Savages is, first and foremost, a pornographically gratuitous depiction of gory violence committed almost exclusively against people of color by white people. Or by other people of color for reasons directly related to white people. It’s a move about the drug war that pits Good White American hippie pot dealers against malicious and terrifyingly evil yet somehow also hopelessly bumbling Brown Bad Guys. It’s wall-to-wall with insulting caricatures of Mexican folks. And it paints the DEA as a corrupt but well-intentioned group of dudes that ultimately saves the day. Um…what?
Meanwhile, the movie’s gender stereotyping is out of this world. Out of a huge cast, we have only four named female characters: Two spoiled and shallow city girls who love to shop, the hardened drug queenpin who inherited a cartel from her dead husband but who really just wants to be a mom, and a sainted wife dying of cancer who provides emotional motivation for one of the male characters but who we never actually see. The three female characters who do get screentime show some grit but also flail around and cry a lot. They appear toughest mostly while providing men with encouragement to do ruthless things in their defense.
Rolling racism and misogyny tightly together, the camera treats lily white Blake Lively with the most blatant male gaze I’ve seen in a while. It lingers unabashedly on her glowing, gauzy, golden blonde innocence, caressing her pouty lips and designer dresses. The film is inexplicably interspersed with random shots of her looking lost and beautiful on a sunny beach, lest the viewer forget for a moment that all of this gore and brutality is in the interest of saving the princess. O is the Prettiest White Girl and brown people are going to die horribly to protect her feminine purity.
Speaking of which, the movie uses rape as a plot device. Let me tell you how much I hate movies that use a graphic on-screen depiction of rape as a plot device. Someone once gave me a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl as a gift. I like historical fiction, even sort of trashy historical fiction, but half an hour in, the gratuitous rape scene started. I stopped the movie, ejected the brand new DVD, threw it in the trash, and walked out of the room. I realize that rape-as-plot-device is hard to avoid, at least if you ever want to see a movie or watch TV or read a book, because it’s so ingrained in our rape-culture-infused genre conventions. I will say that Savages handled the rape scene in certain ways better than others. But they still included a depiction likely to trigger a huge proportion of their audience just to make it clear, in case we weren’t already sure from all the other murder and torture, that Evil Brown Bad Guy really is Evil and Bad.
In illustrating that people who do horrible things can also be human and fallible (and that even attractive young white people can be cold-blooded and horrible!) the movie seems to be aiming at some kind of clumsy moral ambiguity. It gets close a couple of times, such as the conversation between John Travolta’s corrupt DEA agent and Benicio Del Toro who has come to his house to kill him. Ultimately, though, what we end up with looks more like, “White people can do no wrong and brown people can do no right — because white people have Reasons for being violent, whereas brown people are just violent by nature.”
In the end, the princess is verily rescued by her two handsome lovers (and the DEA) and they all retire happily to Indonesia — land of “savages”. Savages. The word smacks of racism and so does this movie from start to finish.
And I loved it. I loved it because its the first and only film I’ve ever seen in which the romantic subplot is about three people who are in love with each other and the story about that relationship isn’t simply that it exists. Sure, I’ve seen other movies with triads or vees before. Ones in which the idea of a threesome isn’t simply porn or comic relief. Gregg Araki’s screwball comedy Splendor is a cute one. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is emotionally complex. I like Bandits a lot because it treats its three-way relationship with playfulness and humanity and also because I just like clever heist movies. But even in these films, the structure of the relationship remains a point of contention among the people in the relationship. It’s highlighted throughout that this is a weird thing to do and that the people doing it are struggling with it. Savages never bats an eye.
The story is that O, Ben, and Chon got together and have been together since. Period. At no point is it ever implied that O will have to choose between the two men or that her relationship with one of them is more real than the other. The three have fights and drama about the kind of stuff that couples also have fights and drama about, but there’s never a suggestion that the men have fought over O, or that anybody secretly dreams of monogamy. They all love each other and that’s how it is. It’s a genuinely complex and complicated relationship in which the thing that’s complicated isn’t the fact that there are three people in it. And like any triad in the real world, they deal with outside censure from others, but the most explicitly critical thing anyone says is Elena’s comment to O: “They may Iove you, but they will never Iove you as much as they Iove each other. Otherwise, they wouldn’t share you, would they?” Yes, it’s implicitly homophobic, but it centers the metamour relationship — and so does the movie.
That is the closest I’ve ever seen on-screen to a representation of me. To the kind of intimacy that feels right to me. A kind of intimacy I feel unable to access for all kinds of reasons, including that my way of loving is never even shown as possible in the media that writes our cultural consciousness. Case in point: Other reviews of Savages complain that the relationship between Ben, Chon and O is never explained to their satisfaction, and that this makes the movie seem unbelievable and fantastical since “literally the entire premise of the film hangs on their relationship”. But lots of other action movies hinge on the idea that some guy loves his wife or kid so much he’s willing to go on a killing spree, and reviewers never say, “Prove it.”
Even Savages is a tiny, pathetic crumb of representation. Apart from the one salient detail, these peoples’ lives are nothing like mine. I don’t identify with any of them as an individual. I’m not Taylor Kitsch. I’m not Aaron Johnson. And I sure as hell am not Blake Lively. It’s a love story about three people who don’t resemble me in any way, tucked inside in a badly-written, trigger-riddled flick suggesting that “the drug war” is between white Americans and brown foreigners and that white people deserve to win. Still, I left the theater walking on clouds.
As we walked home in the late night desert heat, my partner asked, “What did you think?”
“I…am completely incapable of critically analyzing that movie right now,” I said.
I knew, distantly and abstractly, that lots of things about the film were problematic. As we’d watched, the part of my brain that clocks oppressive media messages had been tracking them in the back of my head. But that part was completely drowned out by another part of my brain. I haven’t been paying attention to the poly news cycle, or any news cycle. I’d heard nothing about the film, critical or otherwise. We picked it randomly because it was $2 at the cheap seats and we didn’t want to see Men In Black 3. So, I had gone totally unprepared. Unguarded. And found myself hanging on every scrap and scene of the developing love story, going, “…Really? Oh my god. Really? Really??” My stomach fluttering, my nervous heart opening hopefully, tentatively, all the while waiting for the inevitable moment when the angst would start, when she would be forced to choose, when she’d end up happily ever aftering with one or the other of them and I would be crushed. It never came.
I asked my partner what they had thought and they made some comments about the depictions of violence. We discussed the handling of the rape scene. And then I stopped in my tracks. “You know what was actually the most intense part for me?” I said slowly, “The love scene. The one with the three of them. It wasn’t a porno cut scene meant to titillate and scandalize the audience. It wasn’t joke. Hell, they didn’t even show the sex. That was a love scene. A standard-issue Hollywood love scene between three people. Somebody put that in a MOVIE.” And then I started crying and they held me for a while, standing in the middle of the street, with our border town’s imposing ever-present cop cars rolling by.
When we got back to the house, our roommate was there and asked what we’d gone to see. “Savages,” I said, blushing slightly. “Oh god,” she grimaced, “How was it?” I’m a white girl who grew up steeped in middle-class liberal aversive racism. I carry a lot of sticky privilege guilt around the women of color in my life. I was embarrassed to admit to my radical Xicana roommate, who talks explicitly and often about the harm that racism has done her and her family growing up on the border, that I’d spent the cost of a meal to be entertained by this blatantly white supremacist propaganda. “It was…” I paused for a moment, trying to think “You know what it’s like growing up queer and never seeing yourself on TV and then, the first time you walk into a movie, and you see someone who looks like you, or your partner, or your relationship up on the screen…” She nodded, wide eyed. “So, um, it was a terrible movie. Like, it was problematic, and it was also just bad. Bad acting. Bad script. Stupid plot. But…”
We sat and talked, then. She told me about the first time she saw real friendship between women of color on screen. We talked about intersections of oppression and radical compassion, about how sometimes a thing that is triggering for you is healing for someone you care about and vice versa. We hugged. We cried. I gushed. I felt validated, seen, and loved. And in the morning, my critical faculties came back online, and I was able to think clearly and write in detail about how the movie was fucking racist.
There’s a larger point to be made here about how giving each other space to hurt and heal, even though healing can be a twisted road through strange and difficult pastures, allows all of us to become better allies. But this what I have to say about Savages: Don’t go see it; it’s fucking racist. Unless you are one of the few people in the world fortunate enough that you can sit through graphic depictions of racialized violence, misogyny, and rape, and view them critically without being re-traumatized by them. In that case, please go see it. For me.
ETA: I woke up this morning wondering about the etymology of the phrase “off the chain,” which I originally used to describe the gender stereotyping in this film, and whether it had racist connotations. I did some research, by which I of course mean “I asked Google.” I discovered a wide range of conjectures about where the idiom comes from, including slavery, dog fighting, and telephones. But regardless of the phrase’s roots, one thing I learned for sure is that I was using it wrong. *blush* I’ve replaced it above with “out of this world.”
I just realized the most obvious way to explain compersion. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before: “Compersion” is when you ship people who are in your life.
I experience compersion as relationship-directed, not individual-directed. Compersion isn’t simply joy at someone else’s joy. (That’s just regular empathy.) Nor is it “the opposite of jealousy.” (Feelings don’t have opposites, silly.) Compersion is an active, personal, emotional investment in the well-being of someone else’s relationship. Joy and excitement when that relationship is going well, frustration or disappointment or sadness when it’s not. And also a kind of…protectiveness of a world in which that relationship has the opportunity to flourish.
Of course, this will only make sense to people who are in fandom. But that’s, like, everybody, right? 😛 I guess most non-fan people don’t really understand what the deal with shipping is, either. I suppose, if nothing else, fans with unpopular ships might be able to empathize with my frustration over people not grokking compersion…
This is my friend Asa.
Here’s one amazing thing about him: Through our teens and early twenties, I was madly, desperately, awkwardly in love with him. I was a romantic baby goth and he was a clever, brooding intellectual who read Nietzsche, built angsty Whitewolf characters, and played the guitar. He was also young and unsure of himself, especially when it came to women, intimacy, and sex — and he took a lot of that confusion out on me over the rocky course of our relationship. He would sneak out of his parents’ house for midnight adventures, talk philosophy and make out for hours in the front seat of my car, and then refuse to make eye-contact with me at school because I wasn’t the right kind of girl. We’d decide to try and make it work, go out on “real” dates, but he could only get turned on when I pretended to be someone else. And he didn’t want to talk about it. After several on-again-off-again years, I finally gave up. He had not only broken my heart, he had also decimated my self-esteem.
That’s not the amazing part. This is: Years later, long after I had closed myself off to the possibility of any meaningful connection between us, he found me and apologized. Walked up to me at a friend’s party, where I had been hyper-consciously avoiding him all night, and said, “Hey. I’m sorry for all my shit.” Apparently, while my heart had been in recovery, Asa had been doing his own work. Not long afterwards, he sat with me on the front porch of my house and asked if I wanted to talk about our relationship. I poured out all my unresolved pain and anger and longing and he listened. He just listened. And he asked what he could do to make amends.
One of the things we talked about that night was the structural reasons that our relationship had gone so awry. About the fact that we had not just been clueless kids accidentally hurting each other at random in our attempts to Figure Things Out — that we had been drawing on and reinforcing painful patterns that had been playing out between men and women for centuries. And I talked about how important it was to me for the men in my life to help each other dismantle those scripts. At this point in my life, Asa has become one of my closest personal friends and most trusted political allies. He has a wonderful wife and son, has rebuilt a loving relationship with his family, sought out sources of emotional and spiritual as well as intellectual nourishment, and gotten involved with working for justice in his communities. When I think about men who get feminism, I think about Asa — and about the beautiful 3 year old boy he’s raising. (His name is Athil and he plays the drums and has the very best smile.)
A couple of weeks ago, I made this post on Tumblr about “emotional labor” and why it’s important to gender justice that men learn how to process their own feelings:
In other words: Women are socialized to provide men with free therapy and men are socialized to take advantage of that without realizing it’s happening. In fact, we’re all trained to think of “talking about feelings” as something men occasionally do as a favor to women, rather than something women regularly do for men.
It got over 100 reblogs. That’s a lot for me. More importantly, many people added their own comments, describing personal and painful struggles around doing emotional work with or for the men in their lives. The response surprised me but I think I understand why it touched a nerve…
“Don’t tell women how not to get raped. Teach men not to rape.” It’s a powerful statement. We’re starting to see more people making it a priority to teach young people about consent. Men’s Eagle Council is only one of them. And that’s awesome. It’s not enough, though. Because when I think about what I want from the men in my communities, I don’t just want them to not rape me. Although I know it’s one I won’t see in my lifetime, a world where people can walk down the street, or go to a party, or on a date without fear of sexual assault would be incredible. Still, I also want men to be able to communicate with me, to be my friends, to have my back, to listen when I talk about my experiences and to share their own, to work by my side in the struggle for gender justice.
Our culture bombards us with the idea that masculinity is defined by coercion and violence. Boys are taught to believe that they are either entitled gods or uncontrollable monsters. In the face of these messages, it’s difficult for boys and masculine-of-center young people to develop an emotionally healthy, socially responsible, personally meaningful sense of their gender — much less face up to the privileges that come along with it. The handful of masculine-identified folks I know who have that kind of strong, clear, nuanced, and non-defensive understanding have typically gone through hell and back to get it. This is partly because most have had to do that work in isolation. And I believe that isolation is a large part of why there are so few of them. It’s not that boys don’t want to learn. It’s that deconstructing a dominant identity and rebuilding a justice-oriented sense of self is incredibly deep emotional work. Most people simply can’t do it alone.
When I was a teenager, there were a lot of conversations I wanted to have, but had no place for. I wanted to talk about what the heck manhood was. I wanted to talk about how to have a good romantic relationship. I wanted to talk about how to feel and express my emotions without unnecessarily hurting anyone. Basically, I wanted to talk about how to be a decent human being. But there were few places where I felt I had permission, let alone an invitation, to bring up serious conversations about things that were actually important to me. – Asa Henderson
So, this is the part where I ask you for money. I’ve been writing lately about innovative ways we can use the Internet to fight rape culture. This is one of them. Asa and his collaborators are looking to build online community where youth can come together, along with some experienced mentors, and support each other in working through the complicated messages they’re receiving about masculinity from society and the media. They want to start by shooting a series of videos on topics like date rape, cyber bullying, the costs of masculinity in contemporary society, relationships between men, and power dynamics between men and people of other genders. They need some money to do that.
There are only 5 days left in their Indiegogo campaign. They’ve actually exceeded their original goal, which means the videos will definitely get made, but every additional dollar makes the series longer and more comprehensive. I don’t have a lot of money but I gave them $500. Seriously, that’s almost two months rent for me. I think this project is a big deal. Can you spare five bucks?
Before you click that link, be warned: If your politics are anything like mine, watching their fundraising video will likely get your hackles up. It’s a video of adults, mostly older heterosexual white men, talking about youth rather than with them. There’s not a female-presenting person in sight. Nothing in it suggests that if I were, say, a trans* masculine or genderqueer youth, or a young butch woman struggling with my relationship to masculinity, that this project would be geared to my needs. Even the name, “Men’s Eagle Council,” alongside photos of bonfires and trust falls hints at a long history of white folks appropriating native ritual practices for the sake of our own spiritual growth. And some of their funding comes from a Men’s Movement demographic that tends to regard feminists as “the enemy”.
“I have a pretty firm ‘don’t tell women how to do feminism’ precept. […] My effort is much better spent creating a space where men can do some of the work that we need to do. I’m honestly pretty OK with women deciding for themselves how much they want to include men in their feminism, even to the extent of complete separatism. My ultimate goal and ideal is synthesis and collaboration, but separation often needs to happen first.”
In fact, one of his explicit intentions with the project — which he’s told me he’ll write more about himself (*nudge nudge*) — is to bridge the gap between some good work the men’s movement, despite their lack of structural analysis, has done getting boys in touch with their feelings and feminist understandings of gender as constructed within a misogynistic culture. Not many other people are attempting to bring these two frameworks together. Even fewer are doing it online for free. One of the things I like best about MEC’s model is that the videos are accessible to anybody with an Internet connection. That includes kids who might want to explore what masculinity means to them but who would never feel comfortable going out and doing trust falls in the forest with a bunch of teenage boys.
So, there are things about “Journey to Manhood” that are problematic. Yes. I’m not going to try and defend any of that stuff. It’s all present in the project. Supporting it means that I have to sit with supporting something that has a lot of room to grow. Still, I think the work they’re doing is vital and I have faith in the people doing it. Specifically, I have faith in Asa’s ability to help young men heal because, over the past ten years, I’ve watched him go through that difficult healing process himself. Giving the Men’s Eagle Council my money, my time, and my critical engagement feels like resisting rape culture and supporting gender justice in a really concrete way. And hopefully this only the beginning of some much bigger conversations with youth of all genders about how social technologies can help humans negotiate our continuously-developing identities.
Apropos to the importance of community, one of the best ways I think I can support MEC’s mission is not just by giving them dollars but by encouraging them, as they’re developing their videos, to connect with and learn from the work of others. For example:
* The Brown Boi Project, “a community of masculine of center womyn, men, two-spirit people, transmen, and allies committed to transforming our privilege of masculinity, gender, and race into tools for achieving Racial and Gender Justice.”
* Gender Spectrum, an organization that supports families, educators, and service providers to create a “gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens [including] children who don’t fit neatly into male or female boxes.”
* Male Submission Art, a long-running project devoted to challenging the notion of masculinity as defined by dominance. Its archives are filled with detailed analysis of sexualized imagery as it reinforces or resists these hegemonic gender norms.
And, finally and perhaps most importantly, I would encourage MEC to involve local youth not just as participants in the project but as part of their production team. The guidance of experienced mentors is important, but there are also things about what masculinity means to today’s youth that will necessarily be different from and, in some ways, incomprehensible to their elders. (C’mon. Bronies?) The joint SPAN/MESA youth anti-violence collective Peers Building Justice might be a good place to start. 🙂
Or can you share a link with the Men’s Eagle Council that will help them with their mission to build an inclusive, welcoming, collaborative, co-creative space for young people to engage critically and meaningfully with masculinity? As a good friend of mine says, “Nobody knows the big secret of how to live, but everyone knows some small secrets.” If we pool all our small pieces together, maybe we can put together the whole puzzle.
Whoa! Aoife over at Consider the Tea Cozy somehow dredged up a copy of one of the earliest things I ever published online! (Outside of novella-length forum comments and angsty LiveJournal entries, that is.) I don’t even know when it was first posted, because the reposted version doesn’t link an original source, just that it was sometime before Dec, 2007. (If memory serves, I wrote this in Ireland, so it would’ve been more like 2002.)
I originally wrote this little essay rejecting the notion of “plug ‘n’ play” intimacy for a friend’s e-zine. It oversimplifies the concept of mutual interdependence somewhat (and it’s omgsocutesy), but I’m still pretty on board with the general idea. My friend’s site eventually went down, we’d fallen out of touch, and I didn’t have a local copy saved, so I thought it was lost forever. I’m so glad that someone else copied it and posted it on their own blog!
The Sweetest Thing
Some girls, they’re all about the candy hearts and flowers. Others like long walks on the beach, or private holidays in Spain. If your partner is the creative type, she might melt your heart by writing you a song. Or perhaps the sweetest thing you can imagine is your boyfriend giving you his original Boba Fett action figure. Maybe good old fashioned candle wax and a little light bondage is your thing.
I’ve certainly got a list of things that make me go all warm and smooshy inside. But in my mind, the most romantic thing of all is just hearing that one little phrase:
“I don’t need you.”
So much of our romantic mythology revolves around finding That Special Someone. Someone who will ‘be your other half’, complete you, fill your empty spaces. Someone who will make all your problems disappear, or at least keep them from being the most important thing in your life. Someone who will love you. Support you. Make you happy. Someone who will be there for you when you’re old and wrinkled, who will stave off the loneliness and warm your feet up in bed. And I’m all for that. Having warm feet is important, and most of that other stuff is pretty good too. It’s the “someone” part that bothers me.
I don’t want to be “someone”. I don’t want to be with a person because he has a position open for That Special Someone and, conveniently, I happen to fit the bill. When I’m in an intimate relationship, I want to be an end in myself, not just a means to some other purpose. Because if I’m just ‘someone’, that makes me interchangeable with someone else. And if my partner is with me because she needs someone – even if that person happens to be me – then there’s no reason for her not to trade me in on ‘someone’ who fulfils her needs better, if she chances to meet one.
Likewise, I don’t want to be with a person because he can get stuck lids off of jars, or reach things on the top shelf, make me laugh and feel good about myself, or comfort me like no other. These are all qualities I value in a partner but they’re not reasons to be in a relationship. Granted, getting benefits out of your relationship is not tantamount to using your partner. If you weren’t getting anything positive from it, that would probably be cause for concern. But those benefits – no matter how great – shouldn’t be the point. They should be a bonus, a perk-style side-effect to the real reason: The person you’re with.
When I’m with someone, I want to be with her not because of what she does for me or how she makes me feel, but because I like her, love her, desire her, and want her to be a part of my life – in whatever capacity we’ve agreed on – because of something that has to do with her, specifically. Who she is. Because who you are is not interchangeable. If your partner is with you because he needs you, then he might always find someone who’s better at fulfilling his needs. If he doesn’t need you and is with you only because he loves you, he’ll never meet someone who’s better at being you than you are.
Most social interactions are founded on a basis of exchange: You get something from me and I get something, hopefully of equal value, back from you. This is easy, it helps society run smoothly, and it describes the majority of interpersonal interactions I’ll have over the course of my life. That’s fine. It’s how society functions on a mass scale. But when it comes to the most significant and intimate, personal relationships in my life, I don’t want them to be based on expediency. I want to form them around true, complete, three-dimensional connection between individuals – derived from an active love for and desire to be with one another specifically. Regardless of what additional benefits we get out of it. Even if that might be a little bit harder and take a little more work.
‘Cause don’t get me wrong, here. “I don’t need you” is a scary thing to hear. I’d been telling myself for years that I didn’t need my partner and wanted him not to need me – and the first time he told me he didn’t, it still scared the hell out of me. Standard patterns of intimacy often teach us to navigate our relationships by way of a thousand tiny acts of emotional blackmail. So if someone doesn’t need anything you have to give, then you no longer have any leverage over the choices they make with their life. Including the choice to have a relationship with you or not. And what if your partner wakes up one morning and doesn’t love you anymore? Then she’ll have no reason left to be there, and you’ll have no way to make her stay. The most you can do is have faith that your love for each other will last. Which is a very scary place to be, if you’ve yet to build that kind of confidence and trust in your relationship.
But the thing is, although it’s seductively dependable to start with, the power of coercion wears out with repeated use. Meanwhile, given time and practice, mutual trust only grows stronger. If I want to build a relationship that might last a lifetime, which material am I better off building with? Co-dependence is a powerful force, but only so long as everyone involved is equally dependent. As soon as one person because strong and self-sufficient enough not to need the other, the relationship breaks down. If a relationship is based on shared and mutual independence instead, then strength and self-sufficiency aren’t detrimental to it. This leaves the people involved free to encourage each others’ personal growth and development, without fear that it might harm the relationship. And what better goal for any relationship than to support and encourage the people in it to become their best selves?
Also, by being as strong, independent and self-sufficient as possible, I’m better able to be there for my partner in a crisis, and vice-versa – in the hardest moments of life, when we really will need somebody. You see, just because I don’t need my partner doesn’t mean I never have needs – and it doesn’t mean my partner can’t be the one to meet them. I just want to know that I could be getting all my needs – emotional, physical, material, social, sexual, intellectual, and even keeping my feet warm in bed – met by other means, maybe even met better than my partner could ever meet them, and that even then, I’d still want my partner in my life. Not because of what he does for me, but because of who he is.
That’s what “I don’t need you,” means to me. It means, “Despite the fact that I’d be okay without you, I still want to be with you – for no other reason than because I like you, care about you, want you, and love you completely for the person you are.” I like rose petals and ice cubes as much as the next girl, sure – but being truly loved without being needed, what could be more romantic than that?
Subj: Sugar Cubes
I’ve been thinking a little bit about this idea of being “wired” for poly and how I might explain what “compersion” feels like to someone who doesn’t experience it. I don’t know if there’s any way I could really describe the feeling, but it made me think of this story:
For a couple of years when I was a kid, my mother taught at my elementary school. Because we were teacher’s kids, this gave my brother and I special permission to enter the Teacher’s Lounge. Or, at least, we could get away with it. My brother is about two years younger than me and he might be my favorite person on the planet. Together, we discovered that the teachers kept a box full of sugar cubes next to the coffeemaker by the door. We were six and eight and this was really exciting. Not just any old sugar, but sugar cubes. We made it a practice to sneak into the lounge “looking for our Mom,” fill our pockets with sugar cubes and run away to eat them, hiding among the playground equipment.
Compersion feels like the emotional equivalent of being eight years old and eating pure sugar — and, given our culture in which this emotion is so forbidden that we refuse to even admit it exists, it feels like hiding out on the playground with someone you love, eating sugar that you have cleverly and rightfully stolen out from under the teacher’s nose. Everything about it is delicious. (And, yes, sometimes it makes you really hyper…)
Here’s another thing that makes me think I’m “wired” for poly (and I think it relates to the first thing):
I don’t know if you managed to get that video of mine to play, but I said something in there about how the way I’m oriented to relationships isn’t about replacing one specific thing with another specific thing; it’s about fundamentally questioning the idea that relationships, or love, should look like anything in particular. “Queerlyamorous” is a better description for me than “poly”. Still, in terms of sexual orientation, my queerness doesn’t mean I have no qualifying criteria in who I’m attracted to, just that gender isn’t one of the qualifiers. I still have a “type” or “types”. (Case in point: No one who knows me was surprised that I was instantly attracted to you!) Likewise, queering my notion of what “counts” as a Real Relationship™ doesn’t change the fact that, empirically, certain relationship structures do it for me or work better for me than others.
First and foremost — and here’s where the “poly wiring” comes in — three-person relationships feel more “natural,” comfortable, stable and normal to me than two-person relationships. They always have. Not just in terms of romantic relationships (although that’s nice, too), but in general. I was never the little girl with the one BFF; it was always a Three Musketeers-type situation. Conversations with two other people always flow most easily for me. I work best on a team of three, and I drink best when my whiskey-drinkin’ buddies are a pair. I enjoy the intense intimacy of interacting one-on-one, and the stimulation of being in a larger group, but both of those situations require concentrated extroversion from me; whereas, when it’s just me and two people I like who like each other, it’s easiest to let go and be myself. I’m forever introducing people I know to other people I know, hoping they’ll make a connection. (This has made me into a pretty great matchmaker and a hell of a wingman…)
Of course, this plays out in romantic relationships. But even when my romances are dyadic, there’s almost always some third person with whom I have an equally meaningful relationship even if we’re not romantic with each other. For example, there’s my girlfriend’s partner who I have a drinkin’-buddy/bromance/revolutionary comrade/occasional passionate-yet-comical makeout session/friendship with that goes far deeper than your typical “metamour” relationship. Sometimes, I think my ideal social space looks like a honeycomb of interconnected triangles.
I’m sure it’s no surprise, then, that what works for me emotionally also works for me sexually. I sort of understood, when I was younger, that threesomes weren’t as much a part of the average person’s erotic life as they were of mine…but I didn’t put it together until I was 25 or so that most people don’t have them AT ALL. Don’t get me wrong; I love sex with just one other person, because I love people and I love sex, and that kind of one-on-one connection can be powerfully intense. And I understand that finding good three-part sexual and emotional chemistry takes more work and more luck than the two-part version. I’ve had a hundred times more twosome sex in my life than I’ve had threesomes, and I’ve very much enjoyed most of it. And I recognize that, in mainstream sex-negative society, threesomes are considered to be sort of a wild and kinky exotic fantasy. That sometimes works in my favor but it can also be totally annoying. I hate the implication that I’m “into threesomes” the way people are “into”, like, whipped cream instead of they way they’re “into”, say, girls.
I mean, of course I find good threesomes incredibly sexy, but that’s because good sex is incredibly sexy. That’s the point. It’s not a fetish; it’s a sexual orientation or, at least, a component part of one. I’m used to getting a bad reaction to that. One the one hand, rejection and slut shaming. On the other, well, I’m really used to my sexuality being fetishized, both as a bisexual woman and a polyamorous woman. Even by people who I expect to “get it.” The problem is that I really am this thing that even the greater poly community claims isn’t real. A “unicorn”. A “hot bi babe” who dates couples and loves threesomes and doesn’t get jealous (much). And I don’t like that my sexuality fits into this mythological stereotype. It makes me feel like a caricature, or like other people see me as a caricature, when this is just the reality of my lived experience.
Some people would say that this is a ridiculous thing to be upset by. That I’m lucky to be “the thing that everybody wants”. But I’m not a thing and I’m NOT what everybody wants; I’m what sketchy unicorn-hunting couples want. And I don’t want sketchy unicorn-hunting couples. They’re sketchy. I want equitable triangulation that evolves organically out of the complex interconnected fabric of my social network and gets taken seriously. Still, ultimately, all other things being equal, making love with two partners is just what feels “right” to me; it feels the most normal and also the most arousing, the most satisfying, the most complete.
I’ve never articulated a lot of this stuff quite so explicitly before. This is something I want to share about myself but… Am I afraid you won’t take me seriously? Not really. No. I think I’m just nervous from getting burned in the past.
In the end, I think it all goes back to the compersion thing. Knowing that someone I love is connecting with someone they love makes me feel so good, but getting to actually see them do it is even better, and being a part of it — and having both those people be a part of each others’ love for me and vice versa — is like a universal rush of indescribable glow. I wonder if this interlocking-triangles idea is just about trying to create some kind of perpetual compersion feedback loop.
Because, really, maybe all I want to do is hang out with people I love on the playground and eat stolen sugar cubes together.
. . .
The piece above is excerpted from an e-mail I sent one of my partners a couple of years ago, when we were first getting to know one another. They had asked me about what being polyamorous meant to me. I was at a time in my life when I felt particularly optimistic about being able to find or build the kinds of relationships I wanted.
Two years later, I’m still strongly opposed a culture of compulsory monogamy but, for a variety of personal and political reasons, I no longer (or very rarely) describe myself as “polyamorous”. I have also, to a great degree, given up on the kind of triangulated intimacy structures that I describe above — mostly due to the difficulty of maintaining sufficiently meaningful metamourship within a hyper-individualist relationship culture. Notably, I still have never had and do not know that I will ever have the experience I’ve long imagined as “the kind of sex I really want”: A threesome with two people both of whom I am romantically in love with.
Still, I wanted this description of an orientation toward triadic intimacy to be out there in the world. With mainstream public awareness of alternative relationship structures on the rise, I’m starting to see even more conversations about whether polyamory is “how we’re wired” vs “a lifestyle choice”. I think that’s the wrong way to frame the conversation and I’ll deconstruct erotic essentialism down to dust any day. But when I have those conversations, I want to be able to link this post. I want people to understand that, regardless of what kinds of relationships are realistically possible in our current society or how we position ourselves politically in that field of options, there are fundamentally different ways to desire intimacy. Other desires can feel just as real and deep and defining as “I want to find The One.”
A friend asked me recently what I want most out of intimate relationships.
I told her, “I want to collaborate on love.”
I still want that.