Friday, August 21, 2009

Reader Letters

I've been reading your blog and columns for quite a while now and have found your thoughts on BDSM, sex work, and polyamory extremely interesting. However, there's one subject that you don't talk much about, and that, in multiple-partner relationships is pretty critical: STD's. I know you're not a doctor, and I understand that we all have to make our own decisions about what risks are acceptable, but I'm very curious about what precautions you and people you know consider to be reasonable when people have a lot of partners, either serially or in parallel. Obviously, condom use and regular STD screenings are important. But how do people deal with the risk of diseases that can't be blocked very effectively by condoms, particularly herpes? I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say on the subject.

I had two immediate responses to this letter. The first one to reflect on how often people ask me questions that really, they already know the answers to. The writer expresses it perfectly: “we all have to make our own decisions about what risks are acceptable.” I am no different than anyone else in that regard, and neither are my partners.

Take me and Monk, for example. Monk rides a motorcycle. I drive a car. I think a car is safer. Monk admits that it probably is, but he likes his bike.

And indeed, he had an accident a little over two years ago and broke his collarbone. But he’d been careful. He’d worn his helmet and his leather gear, and because he mitigated his risks that way, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. His passenger wasn’t badly hurt, and I think that was more important to him than his own injury.

He still rides his bike. I don’t want to ride a motorcycle, but I think if he wants to, he should get to. Even if I occasionally worry about his safety. Which I do even though I myself could just as easily be hurt in a car accident.

It’s not always logical, what we think is an acceptable risk and what isn’t. You gather the information, you think about what’s important to you, and you make your choices. If I was going to drive someone somewhere and they said "Before I get in the car, you have to guarantee me that we won't be in an accident", I'd think they were being foolish. I've never been in a really bad car accident, but there are no guarantees in life. If you can't deal with that, don't get into a car with me. Or anyone.

Sex is no different. I wear a seat belt - I use condoms. I am careful when I drive - I am careful when I have sex. But I don’t twist myself into a fever of anxiety every time I engage in either activity. I won’t live my life that way.

(My second response was this: perhaps I’m misreading the intent, but my initial interpretation of this writer’s question was that she wanted me to detail exactly how I am sexual with my partners. Like, exactly. But surely – surely! – she isn’t really asking me about my own private sexual practices and the practices of my partners? I must be reading this wrong. Because I would never dream of sending a stranger an email asking them to publish such highly personal information on a website. That would be very inappropriate. I’m sure the writer didn’t mean to imply that she wanted that.)

Basically, you manage risks by managing risks. Worrying about risks isn't managing them, and that's a mistake I see often people make. They don't do anything - they just worry. So whatever it is you want to do, this is my advice: get very well-educated about it. Assess the situation as it is, not as you wish it would be. Consider all the possible outcomes of your choices, from perfect to catastrophic. Think about what you'd do in each of them. Talk to the other people involved. And accept that every day you’re alive, you’re taking risks.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The One-Penis Policy column continues to generate a great deal of comment, both on the Stranger page and on various social-networking sites. I’m mildly surprised at the level of emotion my opinion seems to provoke in people. So – not that I think this is going to make the people who are upset about it feel any better – but let me just clarify a few points.

If you haven’t read the column, this will make no sense to you. Everything here is in relation to that article. Go read that, then come back.


First, note that we’re not talking about acknowledged, full-time D/s relationships, that’s a whole other discussion. Assume that 24/7 dominance and submission do not come into play here. I would have thought that since I didn’t mention D/s anywhere in the column, people would understand that it wasn’t a factor, but that seems to have been unclear.

I am not suggesting that the woman in the hypothetical couple is obligated to have sex with other men, okay? She gets to make that decision. And you know what, if she chooses not to sleep with other guys because she knows her male partner wouldn’t like it – well, that’s her choice.

Of course it’s her choice anyway. But there is a huge difference between your partner saying, “No way can you sleep with other men. I cannot handle that" and your partner saying, “It would be hard for me. I’d rather you didn’t. But the choice is yours.” One is pressure, and one is stating a preference.

We can get off on a whole tangent about how much influence it’s healthy to let your partner’s feelings have over your decision, but that’s a somewhat different conversation. I've heard the argument that it's a loving thing to do, that the woman in case is sacrificing her wishes to help ease her partner into polyamory. I'm not saying that can never be true.

(The woman-easing-man-into-poly idea actually amuses me greatly, given how that flies in the face of the myth that women don't really want to be poly, but men get them to be so unwillingly. Hah.)

So if a m/f couple said "Okay, for six months, she's going to date only other women, and then we'll see how that goes and how we feel," I would not think that was terrible. Setting a fixed time for the training period makes it much more palatable to me.

And notice also that he's not dating anyone. Although if he wanted to date other men, I think that would also be perfectly reasonable.

But a permanent system in which the man is explicitly permitted to fuck other women, but the woman is explicitly forbidden to fuck other men? How exactly is that easing anyone into anything?

I am utterly unimpressed with any talk about how it’s really about STDs or pregnancy. For one thing, both those can be controlled with a pretty high degree of success. Trust me on that, I’ve been doing it myself for years. Sexual health education, careful management, and planning ahead eliminate a lot of the risks in multiple-partner situations.

Besides, it takes two to pass an STD, or get someone pregnant. I find it hypocritical in the extreme that a man would want to have other female sexual partners himself – thus exposing them to those possible risks – but say it’s too much risk for his original partner. Frankly, I think that type of attitude should not be dignified with the name polyamory.

If the original piece pissed you off, what I’m going to say now will really inflame you: Just because two people are engaged in a certain system of behavior does not make it “all right, because it’s their choice.” There actually is such a thing as a bad personal choice.

So yes, I do think there are better ways and worse ways to run a relationship. Outside of consensual D/s, I think it’s inherently better to have as few “rules” as possible for other adult human beings that one is having an equal partnership with. I think that’s being controlling – not in the sexy way – and I think it negatively impacts both people involved.

I think if there’s an obvious inequity in the relationship, it should at the very least be openly discussed, and it should be a goal for both people to bring about a change to that.

And I think the basis for the One Penis Policy is basically insecurity and sexism.

Now, feeling of insecurity and sexism are both pretty common (to both men and women), and neither of those things makes someone a Bad Person. But they are traits that can be changed, and being less insecure and less sexist will make someone a better person.

Who am I to make all these judgments? I’m me. Who else would I need to be? I’m a person, I have an opinion, and I'm talking about it. Why shouldn't I? Obviously I have no power to compel anyone else’s choices, nor do I have any wish to. But that fact that people are getting upset that I dared to state this opinion is very interesting, isn’t it?

Monday, August 17, 2009

What I'm Reading

While I was in Bellingham over the weekend, Elvis and I stopped in Village Books and I picked up a couple of things.

I’ve been meaning to get this for a while: Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, by Steve Dublanica. My father’s in the hospitality business, and I’ve waited tables and tended bar myself – the only kind of jobs I’ve ever had that didn’t require someone taking off their clothes. (Although now that I think about it, some of the uniforms I had to wear were rather… abbreviated.) So I’m sure I’ll enjoy that.

I also got this: Diamond: The History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair, by Matthew Hart. I am a complete sucker for “The History Of…” books. I bet I have twenty or more books with titles that contain that phrase. It hardly even matters what it is. I read a whole book about the history of cod, for heaven’s sake. Yeah, the fish. I’m serious. Even while I read it, I kept thinking to myself, I cannot believe I am reading a book about codfish. It was actually sort of interesting, in a more-than-I-ever-needed-to-know type of way.

But diamonds are much more interesting to me than fish. Much. Although I can't logically explain why. They're sparkly rocks. That's nice, but why do I care? From a strictly biological point of view, something I can eat (like a fish) should be more compelling to me than sparkly rocks.

And yet, if someone gave me a dead fish in a velvet box, it would not really make my sparkly-loving heart go pit-a-pat. When it comes to diamonds, however, I am pure Lorelei Lee. Perhaps this books will give me a better understanding of why. The reviews make mention of another, related book called The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World, which I think I’ll order.

While we’re on the subject of history, I am also pleased to note that Diana Gabaldon’s new book is coming out soon. Okay, sure, it’s fiction, but they are impressively researched. Ms. Gabaldon is right up there with Michael Crichton in that department.

Besides, I just like the series overall. I usually dislike time-travel stories, but this author handles it exactly right, in my mind: she doesn’t dwell too lengthily on the mechanics of it. I don’t want to get bogged down in stuff like that. It’s magic, okay? Just tell me that, Author-person. Tell me in a way that’s understandable and that fits with the story overall, and then get on with the action.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t read for a lot of science fiction – I do not care how, exactly, the rocket ship flies, or how people teleport through space, or how they shoot laser beams out of their eyes, or whatever. Do not stop the action and teach me a damn physics class – and then explain for page after page about how these characters are able to do something that technically, they should not be able to do. I don’t understand most of it, and I don't care. To me, it’s magic. Get on with it.

Also? Don’t make me learn a whole alien language to understand your dialogue. It should be done like writing a character who speaks with an accent – give me a phrase or two, an occasional word here and there, but do not make me consult a alien/otherworldly glossary every third sentence. Publish an armchair-companion if you want to maunder on about space engineering and the linguistics of Zoran-4. But don’t bog down the story with it. (Unless of course you’re Douglas Adams. But unfortunately, you probably aren’t.)

EDIT: a Doubting Thomas just sent me an email. “Twenty? Name them.” Okay, from where I’m sitting, I can see: Salt, tea, oysters, coffee, chocolate, caviar, the telegraph, tobacco, cocaine, absinthe, electricity, sexuality (numerous ones) sex work, (again, numerous different ones) smallpox, hotels, vampires, stage magicians, surgery, oil painting, photography, and marriage.

Those are not, by any means, all the books about history I have. Not by a long shot. But those are the ones I can see from my desk, that have the word “history” somewhere in the title, and that focus on a specific object or concept, rather than a time period or a geographic region. I do not possess a cod, and I don't have that many diamonds either, but I have a truly ridiculous number of books.