This weekend, I’ve been participating in the Atlanta Poly Weekend 2012 (APW2012) conference.
Just like last year, I was bowled over by the conference organizers’ hospitality. Just like last year, the conference brought together some of the brightest and most passionate people to discuss polyamory and its relationships with other social communities, political and interpersonal ideas, and, of course itself. Just like last year, I’m having a great time on far too little sleep.
I’m extremely grateful to have had the privilege of helping set the tone for this years’ event as the Opening Keynote Speaker. I wanted to do the conference attendees, as well as the people who were not able or willing to participate in the conference, justice. To that end, my keynote was intentionally confrontational; I even (metaphorically) burned the conference’s logo (in my slides).
My keynote was an act—part seminar, part performance—I hoped would shine a white-hot light onto a topic too often left unexplored and under-valued at polyamory conferences, meetups, and other events I’ve been to. It’s a topic I’ve come face-to-face with in a painful way, thanks to my sudden awareness of how it’s been impairing my ability to have “polyamorous relationships.” And it’s a topic I knew would ruffle some feathers.
I commend Billy and his crew not merely for putting together a conference, but for putting together a conference that welcomed and encouraged disagreement, confrontation, and curiosity. There are things I think they did badly, but I think most of these were caused by the structural issues I addressed in my talk, not from a place of intentional malice. Most of all, I think they did the most important thing extraordinarily well: they prevented their idea of perfection from becoming the enemy of good. And if that were the only thing they did well, and it sure isn’t, I think Atlanta Poly Weekend 2012 is offering an invaluable thing to all communities.
If this trend holds, I have no doubt next year’s Atlanta Poly Weekend conference will be invaluable, too.
And now, without further ado, following is a transcript of my Atlanta Poly Weekend 2012 Opening Keynote address. After I find some time to prepare them, I’ll also publish my slides, along with a video for you to download. Like all my similar work, this presentation is “open source” and Creative Commons licensed. Should you feel so moved, downloading it, using it yourself (including, since I can only be at one place at one time, literally re-presenting it wherever you wish and are able), redistributing it, or sharing it with anyone you think might find it valuable is encouraged. If you do any of these things, I would greatly appreciate it if you would link back to this page. :)
- From Triads to Triadic Relationships: Polyamory’s superpower is not what you think keynote presentation as a ZIP archive.
- From Triads to Triadic Relationships: Polyamory’s superpower is not what you think keynote presentation as a PDF document.
- From Triads to Triadic Relationships: Polyamory’s superpower is not what you think keynote presentation as a text transcript.
My name is maymay. When I was a teenager, I ingested a poison that gave me an incredible power. The poison was a gift that, today, lets me perceive things many others cannot—and it was a gift that turned me into a monster. This is my story. This is how I learned about relationships.
Did you see the frightened ones?
Did you hear the falling bombs?
Did you ever wonder
why we had to run for shelter
when the promise of a brave new world
unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?
Oooooooo ooo ooooo oooh….
Did you see the frightened ones?
Did you hear the falling bombs?
The flames are all long gone,
but the pain lingers on.
Goodbye blue sky.
Goodbye blue sky.
My power is a gift; we all have one. I am grateful to have been invited to stand in front of you today to share this gift, this superpower. It’s what lets me create awesome, beautiful things. It’s what empowers me to empower others. And, at the same time, it’s what enables me to hurt people. People like you.
My power does not feel good. It is not light, or happy, or pleasurable, or comfortable. It is not nice, or loving, or fluffy, or soothing. But it is intimate, and when I use it, it will suddenly create a relationship between us that is strong, resilient, and unignorable.
If at any time during this session you feel you no longer want to be in this space with me, then remember that you are already empowered to leave. I won’t be insulted. I want you to prioritize yourself above all other people, because I want you to understand why putting yourself first is the key to putting me—and every other person participating in this conference, if not this amazing experience we call life—first, too.
I know that can sound, to many, as though it’s paradoxical. How can putting yourself first actually be putting me first, too? I’m about to show you. But, to see it, you have to be willing to feel uncomfortable with me.
Are you ready?
“Polyamory” doesn’t empower “Relationship Choice”
- See Abe.
- See Belle.
- See Abe and Belle fuck.
- See Claire.
- See Claire and Abe fuck.
- See Belle and Claire fight.
- See Belle and Abe fight.
- See Claire and Abe fight.
- See Abe’s and Belle’s flight.
What happened here?
On page 61 of her book, What Does Polyamory Look Like?: Polydiverse Patterns of Loving and Living in Modern Polyamorous Relationships, polyamory educator Mim Chapman, Ph.D. describes this situation with a dramatization that will no doubt sound familiar to many of you:
Unwary couples can make a wrong turn on their way to forming an inclusive Poly-L Triad, and end up in a non-inclusive, Non-Triadic “V” by mistake. Two primary partners may have decided to open up their relationship, with the goal of forming an inclusive Triad[…].They commit to collaboration and egalitarian decision-making in choosing their new partner(s). Then one primary partner “jumps the gun” and does the old, “I see her, I want her, I take her, I commit to her.” After a few months, he brings her home to his primary, assuming the existing partner will immediately adore hot new love object and Poof, they’ll be a big, happy, inclusive Poly-L Triad.
Once in a while this actually works, but more often the response from the existing primary partner is something akin to “So what am I, chopped liver? Which head were you thinking with, and how did you manage to forget our commitment to egalitarian decisions about who we bring into our lives? What made you forget that we committed to working together openly in building family, and to collaborating in choosing people we both genuinely enjoy, who enhance both of our lives while we enhance theirs? We agreed that we’d work together in the initial process of getting to know a potential new partner and finding out whether or not there is an interest in joining both of us to form the Loving Poly-L Triad we long to create together. But you leapt over the fence on your own, buddy! You picked her, she’s yours, and you and she can pack up and move on down the pike, or at least carry your relationship elsewhere.”
I’m making this a bit more dramatic than it often ends up being, just to remind you that waiting a few more hours or days can be a good idea, in order to discuss the potential love with your primary partner.
While her intentions are clearly golden, Mim missed a critical concept, a concept so central it’s even encoded in polyamory advocates’ language: “relationship choice.” Can you sense what’s missing?
Let’s replay the situation, in “slow motion,” one frame at a time.
- Here’s Abe again. Now, Abe is a man. He’s a single individual. He’s represented as a single dot.
- Here, we have Belle. Now, Belle is a woman. She’s also a single individual, so she’s also represented as a single dot.
- When Abe and Belle meet, and possibly also when they “fuck,” a relationship is created between Abe and Belle. That relationship is represented as a line between the dots. This creates a structure called a “couple” or, more precisely, a dyad.
- Since Abe and Belle’s relationship exists before anyone else enters into the picture, we often also call them “primary partners.” Let’s call Abe “Primary 1” and Belle “Primary 2.”
- Next, here’s Claire. Claire is a woman, like Belle, and as such is also a single individual, like both Belle and Abe. Therefore, she’s represented as a dot.
- When Claire and Abe meet and, again, possibly also “fuck,” a new relationship is created between them. This, too, is represented as a line.
- Since Abe already has a “primary” relationship with Belle, Claire is a “secondary,” and specifically Abe’s “secondary.” We’ll call her “A-Secondary 1.”
This is the critical junction. This structural shape, as you may know, is called a “Vee.” Although the prototypical terms are words like “primary” and “secondary,” they are authoritarian, not structural. Therefore, in this vee, Abe is what I’ll call the apex—the highest level of hierarchy—while Belle and Claire are both terminals. When this happens, Belle and Claire are in a relationship, but neither they, nor Abe, know it yet.
This is the point when, in Mim’s dramatization, “one primary partner ‘jumps the gun’ and does the old, ‘I see her, I want her, I take her, I commit to her.’” In fact, the instant Claire met Abe, a relationship between Claire and Belle is created, regardless of whether Abe and Claire have been sexual with one another. In polyamory’s jargon, the word for this relationship is “metamour.”
For those unfamiliar with the jargon, allow me a brief digression to expound on polyamory’s language.
Polyamory’s Fetish for Neologisms
The term “metamour” is a neologism, which itself, “is a newly coined term, word, or phrase, that may be in the process of entering common use, but has not yet been accepted into mainstream language.” It’s a combination of two words. “Metamour”’s prefix, “meta,” is derived from the Greek “μετά” meaning “self” and, in English, means “about (itself)”. Its root is “amour,” meaning “love.” In a polyamorous context, “metamour” therefore means “love about love.” The term is an abstraction from the mainstream’s “paramour.”
According to most English dictionaries, “paramour” is defined as…
(noun) A lover, especially the illicit partner of a married person.
…while these terms’ shared root, “amour,” is defined as:
(noun) A secret or illicit love affair or lover.
I love how polyamory appropriates terms about intimacy that, in mainstream use, carry a negative connotation and reframes them in a positive light. Here’s how the Polyamorous Lexicon redefines “paramour”:
PARAMOUR: (literally, par way + amor love; by way of love) 1. A married person’s outside lover. 2. A mistress—the unmarried female lover of a married man. 3. A nonmarried member of a polyamorous relationship.
Unlike mainstream language, which focuses almost exclusively on idealized sex acts, polyamorous language is filled with terms that describe the structure of nodes in relation to each other. For example:
- This is a “couple,” but can also be called a dyad.
- This is a “threesome,” but can also be called a triad.
- This is a “foursome,” but can also be called a quad.
As we add more dots to the graph, polyamory’s terminology becomes more ambiguous:
- This is an “intimate network.”
If we examine polyamorous terms closely, however, we’ll sense an obvious deficiency: it focuses almost exclusively on the nodes, the dots in the graph and their structural position in relation to one another, but does not describe the intimate interaction itself. Polyamory does not describe the lines between the dots with any significant granularity.
Ironically, this deficiency is obscured by the way polyamorous people discuss polyamory, themselves.
How Polyamory’s Institutions Undermine Relationship Choice
If we succumb to contemporary polyamory rhetoric, in which “metamour” carries all kinds of behavioral connotations and poly-cultural scripts, Belle and Claire are now coerced to relate to each other “as metamours,” without ever consenting to have this kind of relationship. Neither of them were given a choice, asked for input, or even considered by the others. They couldn’t have been, because they don’t yet even know the other exists.
This coercion is subtle, and often justified by polyamory’s proponents as “a good idea.” It’s an oppressive behavior borne from the desire to be more loving, not less. I know this because I am guilty of hurting some of the people in my life in this way—and, very likely, so are you.
This systemic oppression has a name, dyadism, and it’s perpetrated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways by people with couple privilege. Sadly it’s a privilege most strongly denied by polyamorous people who have it. For the purposes of this talk, I’ll borrow heavily from John Bell’s work on adultism and define dyadism (and couple privilege) as:
behaviors & attitudes that presume people in a dyad are more important than others and entitled to act upon them without their consent.
In many of our experiences, the people with whom we have pre-existing relationships still claim certain “dibs” on us, and we claim certain “dibs” back, on them. In one way or another, especially in romantic entanglements, most of us are subtly told what to feel, told what to do, and told what to want. Even if a new person is welcomed into an existing relationship structure as an “equal,” it’s common to assume the pre-existing dyad’s relationship agreements are automatically enforceable on the new person, unless and until they are re-negotiated. However, for the most part, the polyamorous world considers this treatment of people acceptable because we were treated in much the same way and internalized the idea that “that’s the way you have relationships.”
The essence of couple privilege is disrespect of individuals and individuals’ agency. Consider how the following statements are essentially disrespectful. What are the assumptions behind each of them? Do you remember having heard any of these when you were developing your polyamorous relationships?
- “You’ll really like your metamour.”
- “Before you get involved with someone else, you need to check in with me.”
- “You need to get along with my other lovers.”
- “You need to meet all the people I’m involved with.”
- “What do you know? You haven’t met her!”
- “We have an agreement that we only date as a couple.”
What most polyamorous people misunderstand is that the “metamour” structure in no way describes how Abe feels towards either Belle or Claire, or vice versa. That’s so important it deserves being repeated: a metamoric relationship is a structure. It is not a form of intimacy, or closeness, or even a kind of “togetherness.”
The lines on these graphs are not about sex, or even love. What’s depicted in graphs like these is not (necessarily) an attempt by one person or another to behave lovingly or hatefully towards anyone else; interacting with other people is simply what happens in the course of life for a social species, like us. Once a relationship—of any kind—is established between any two given nodes in a social network, adding a third node automatically positions one an apex and the other two, terminals.
This same diagram, often used to describe sexual, romantic, or life-partner relationships, could just as accurately describe strong friendship, co-worker, familial and other kinds of social ties. In that case, instead of the lines representing so-called “intimate” relationships, they could represent a slew of other types. Perhaps Abe employs both Belle and Claire and, since Claire was hired after Belle, Abe trusts Belle’s work more than Claire’s. In such a situation, it is still accurate to describe Claire and Belle as structurally, if not romantically, equivalent to what polyamorous jargon calls “metamours.”
Such “metamoric relationships” abound. They’re not limited to (sexual, romantic) polyamorous relationships. As a social movement, polyamory shines at articulating this deep understanding of conceptual structure—that is, the structure of ideas. The core of that is the metamoric relationship.
Metamoric relationships are so common, in fact, that the polyamory community is ethically obligated to relinquish its monopoly over them. Currently, the term is exclusively used to describe the identical positionality of two terminals to an apex of a person’s sexual or romantic relationship. But if we, as polyamory activist Angi eloquently said, want to “live in a world where we are free to choose whatever relationship structure suits us the best, without being made to feel that we are some kind of freaks or degenerates,” then we must make it okay to describe our co-workers, our siblings, and everyone else with whom we share a mutual relationship, as “metamours.”
For instance, in the relationship involving Mish, my Work, and I, Mish and I are metamours. My Work is the apex, while Mish and I are terminals. The same is true if you replace me with Rebecca, or Alisa; in that case, Mish and Rebecca or Alisa are metamours in relation to my Work. The reason is obvious: they all have an influence on my Work. In much the same way, you—yes, you—and I are also metamours in relation to my Work because I created this presentation and you’re consuming it.
If we actually understood “metamour” like this, we could avoid the pitfall of privileging sexual or romantic relationships over any others, we could stop excluding asexual-identified people, and we could treat our relationships or commitments to our jobs, friends, and natural environment with the same level of importance we place on our sexual partners. Of course, you wouldn’t have to treat all these relationships as being of equal importance to you, but at least then you would be one step closer to making a self-empowered choice to place whatever degree of importance you want on whatever relationships you have, rather than be bound by pre-imposed cultural scripts that decree “sexual relationships are the most important.”
If our goal is truly “equality in relationship choice,” we must stop privileging sexual(-romantic) relationships over others, or we will continue to undermine ourselves.
Whenever we use a label to describe one of our relationships, be it “wife,” “boyfriend,” “partner,” or, yes, even “metamour” we put ourselves into a box from which we must struggle to escape. That’s why, throughout this talk, I’ve been using the word “relationship” liberally. In asexuality activist David Jay’s words:
Describe a relationship as a “friendship” and people will make a set of assumptions about how important that relationship is in your life, how you feel about the person and what sort of commitments you’ve made to one another, describe it as “romantic” and you’ll get another set of assumptions [but] most of the time neither set of assumptions is very accurate.
I use relationship in the broadest possible way, the dictionary definition of “a connection, association, or involvement.” I have a relationship with my computer, the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in my glass of water have a relationship, so does a nine year old and her multiplication tables. “Relationship” describes the full spectrum from friendship to romance and then some, it gives people almost no room to project false assumptions about what kind of relationship you’re talking about, which is what you want.
Rather than relate to the idea of metamours as the generically useful concept that it is, the polyamory movement has institutionalized it to the point of self-sabotage. This is a dire mistake.
Making the mistake of institutionalizing “metamour” is part of what makes “polyamory” a failure in others’ eyes—and they’re correct to believe so. This mistake is part of what neutralizes polyamory’s ability to ground itself in its superpower. This mistake is a poison inside polyamorous communities.
Making the mistake of institutionalizing “metamour” is one way we, as polyamorous people, are still being controlled by The System (of kyriarchical oppression). Making this mistake is one way we, as polyamorous people, create communities that abuse other people. Making this mistake is one way we, as polyamorous people, are abused by the very communities we created.
Often, I hear polyamorous people decry opponents like social conservatives, polygamists, sexist unicorn hunters, and entitled, homophobic men. None of these things can stop polyamory’s superpower, because what polyamory has to offer the world is a superpower. But before we can understand our greatest power, we have to understand our greatest vulnerability.
Polyamory’s kryptonite—the one thing from our own world that can kill us—is not conservative activists. It’s not the one-penis policy, although that’s some seriously sexist, homophobic bullshit right there. It’s not even the institution of coupled marriage. Polyamory’s kryptonite is the institution of metamours.
When we think we need to behave “as metamours”—however we were told metamours should behave towards one another—instead of simply as we choose to relate to other people in our lives, we’re no different than monogamous people trapped in heteronormative gender roles, traditional marriages, or worse. Relationship labels, such as “husband” or “wife,” along with the institutions they reference, such as “marriage,” destroy one’s freedom of relationship choice by coercing us to relate to the institution rather than the person.
Instead of having an actual, unique relationship with the person they married, most married men relate to their wife by “being a husband.” Similarly, instead of having an actual, unique relationship with certain people in their “intimate networks,” most polyamorous people relate to one of these people by “being a metamour.”
These are fundamentally dehumanizing, frighteningly pervasive, and totally invisible patterns of behavior. That is, we do not even know we’re carrying them out. To understand why, it’s important to clarify the way we communicate about communication itself.
Communicating about Communication
Language is a superpower. It turns the impossible into the possible. Without the ability to describe an idea, that idea does not exist. At least, not for those who lack the power, or the language, to perceive it.
But the impetus, the force of that idea, does exist. Invisibly, it affects any entity sensitive enough to perceive what it knows it does not yet know. The impetus calls on that entity—be it you, me, or something else entirely—in an as-yet-indescribable way to realize the idea. It pulls that entity toward feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. There is no English word to adequately describe the inexplicable total consumption such an influence has. Therefore, I simply call it “the Work.”
To under-sensitive others, the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of their comrades are themselves inexplicable, as such behaviors are artifacts the Work manifested. However, to these under-sensitive others, such inexplicable behavior is frightening precisely because they don’t know its source; when something is invisible, one simply doesn’t register its presence, so there’s no reason either to fear nor explore it.
However, when we are confronted with behavior we do not understand, what was once invisible becomes visible—and unexplainable. Reactions to this experience are so common we have a word to describe those who confront us in ways we do not understand: we say they are “crazy.” We create a divisive binary: we are sane, they are insane.
Creating divisive binaries is a pattern of behavior that exists at every scale of human interaction, from the individual, to the societal. In his review of James C. Scott’s 1998 book, Seeing like a State: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed, Venkatesh Rao succinctly describes this behavior as “the rationalization of the fear of (apparent) chaos.” He outlines a recipe that explains why “a very predictable failure pattern keeps recurring” in almost all areas of human experience:
- Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
- Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
- Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
- Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
- Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
- Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
- Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly
The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.
This is the central driving force of injustice and oppression: through our desire to make legible that which we cannot read, coupled with a fear of our own limitations made visible to us by a confrontation with that which we do not understand, we unwittingly perpetrate extraordinarily brutal levels of non-consensual violence, even and especially when we think we are doing good.
All oppressions use the following, invariable pattern: obscure, divide, conquer, and homogenize. That pattern is oppression; that is the DNA of evil itself. Evil cannot be conquered, for any attempt to resist evil using conquest empowers it anew.
The cunning of that ploy is why we must learn to recognize the super-powers encoded in our many languages. We must internalize an ability to be strengthened by our weaknesses, and be curious about our fears. To do that, we must first learn how to see what’s invisible, and how to read what’s illegible.
Fractal boundaries: Disruption and resistance are sensors
How can we see invisible things?
Imagine a river. At the bottom of the river are rocks and other sediments, arranged on the riverbed in a certain pattern. This pattern creates a specific texture, a roughness that gives the riverbed its shape. At the top of the river is the water, also flowing in a certain pattern, with a dynamic texture.
The texture at the top of the water is directly influenced by the texture of the riverbed. If you throw a rock into the river, it’s obvious you’ll forever change the texture of the riverbed, but you will also forever change the texture of the water atop the rock you threw. The implications are thus obvious but one of them is often overlooked: if you want to know the texture of the riverbed, you could examine the riverbed itself, but you could also examine the texture of the water.
This relationship is called a fractal: the rock on the riverbed and the water atop the river’s flow have a relationship that is invariable at every level of scale. Identifying invariability is the key to perceiving patterns. The way to identify a fractal boundary is to violently disrupt it such as, in this example, throwing a stone into a river.
That’s why people throw stones into rivers: to create ripples—to effect change. But, sometimes, you don’t need to cause the disruption yourself. Sometimes you simply need to look for artifacts of resistance.
Imagine a mountainside. On the mountainside are trees, again, arranged on the Earth in a certain pattern. Between the trees is air, constantly moving, constantly invisible. You can’t see it, you usually can’t feel it, and even rarer can you hear it. But when the wind picks up, the trees start to move, rustling loudly. They are resisting the air, making what was once literally invisible visible, what was once perhaps inaudible, audible.
This friction, this resistance, this physical confrontation between the trees and the wind is violent. When the violence exceeds a certain level of scale, the wind becomes a storm. Take it one level of scale further, and the storm becomes a “natural disaster.” A soft breeze hitting a single tree is not conceptualized as “damaging,” but a tornado can uproot trees, destroy entire forested areas, and kill people.
Recently, I hiked a hillside in the Colorado mountains. It was cold, and very windy. The wind’s howling swept the voices of my hiking partner and I away from one another’s ears—it literally impeded the vibrations in the air that our speech projected towards each other. My hiking partner said, “I want to talk to you but it’s so noisy! I want to find a quiet place where we can sit and chat!”
“Don’t worry,” I called back. She looked puzzled for a moment, so I explained, “We have everything we need to make ourselves a quiet place right here on the mountain!” Again, she looked puzzled. “Listen to the wind! All we have to do is move around the mountainside, or wait until the wind changes direction, and it will be far quieter; the Earth is a technology we can use to make our environment quiet.” She smiled, and we hiked on.
I believe this holds true in every conceptual domain, from science, art, to all coherent organization of human experience. In each case, the fractal boundary exposes the invariability of the pattern. Humans perceived atoms for the first time by rupturing molecules at their bonds; we detected black holes and neutron stars by observing their gravitational forces on other objects nearby.
Boundaries are the keys to unlocking knowledge: they are the point at which invisible things must change in some way. That moment of change—that moment when the thing that was is disrupted and thus transformed into the thing it is about to be—creates artifacts we can use to sense the existence of things we didn’t even know that we were not aware of. That is, if and only if we acquire the appropriate skills, the appropriate conceptual and somatic sensors.
If you want to cause the most pain when you bite someone’s neck, find the boundary between their carotid artery and the neighboring tendon. Once you find that point, press your fingers there. You can use the boundary to gauge your position, isolate your target—either the artery or the tendon—then, bite.
[BEGIN Audience participation:
With this knowledge at hand, let’s practice disrupting the fractal boundaries all around us in social space here, now.
END Audience participation.]
“Resistance is Futile”—Polyamory is being assimilated by The System
[BEGIN Audience participation:
- “Everyone raise their hands. Now, keep your hand up if you’re currently a secondary or filling a role like a secondary to some other partner. Okay, now keep your hand up if, throughout your entire relationship history, you have mostly been a secondary or filling a role like a secondary. Okay, finally, keep your hand up if, throughout your entire relationship history, you have only been a secondary or filled a role like a secondary—if you have never had anything resembling a primary relationship, regardless of how ‘casual’ or ‘serious’ that relationship was, and regardless of how long that relationship lasted?”
- IF VERY FEW HANDS ARE UP, say:
- “Look around you. Look how few hands are still up. These are people I’ll call ‘OMS’s,’ or ‘Only-or-Mostly-Secondaries.’ Why do you think so few ‘OMS’ are here?”
- ELSE, say:
- “Now, how many of you are speakers, presenters, or staff members with decision-making power at this event?”
END Audience participation]
Within the polyamorous world, arguably the most marginalized group of people are those called, or treated like, “only-or-mostly-secondaries,” or “OMS.”
People in marginalized groups do not show up at conferences organized by people with the privilege they, themselves, lack. People in marginalized groups do not identify with the language created by people with the privilege they, themselves, lack. Only-or-mostly-secondaries are behaving polyamorously but, due to the oppression they face in the social structures developed by this community, such as this conference, they do not identify as polyamorous; what use have they for “Atlanta Poly Weekend”?
What does it mean to be “secondary”? It means to be non-primary. It means to be considered less important than others. Some ways to think about this are:
- Secondary is to person of color as primary is to white, since to be a person of color means to be not-white.
- Secondary is to female as primary is to male, since to be female means to be not-male.
- Secondary is to gay as primary is to straight, since to be straight means to be not-gay.
- Secondary is to insane as primary is to sane, since to be sane means to be not-crazy.
Only-or-mostly-secondaries have been excluded by the supposedly inclusive structures of “the polyamorous community.” There are so few, if any, people who are only-or-mostly-secondaries in their relationships at this conference because their experience of polyamorous structures is one in which the structure itself has abused them. Only-secondaries do not want to surround themselves by people who are often not even aware such a thing as painful to them as “couple privilege” exists.
Recall again the DNA of evil itself, the pattern of oppression at work:
This pattern maps perfectly onto the oppressive systemic behavior at the scale of our society at large in relation to the poly community:
- Obscure the validity and possibility of polyamorous relationship structures by enforcing monogamy.
- Divide people into groups, such as married and unmarried,
- Conquer the oppressed (unmarried) group by making marriage a symbol of success and status,
- Homogenize the dominant group by institutionalizing the structure of marriage into law and other societal standards.
Sadly, this pattern also maps perfectly onto the oppressive systemic behavior at the scale of the poly community in relation to secondaries.
- Obscure the subtleties of couple privilege,
- divide people into groups, such as “polyamorous” and “monogamous,” or “primaries” and “secondaries,”
- conquer the marginalized group by excluding them from decision-making processes,
- homogenize the dominant group into institutional structures, such as an “inclusive Poly-L Triad.”
In her 2006 book, Transformations: Women, Gender, and Psychology, Mary Crawford wrote:
Many of us are multiply privileged and multiply oppressed. They don’t counterbalance each other.
As polyamorous people, we have endured the epistemic abuse of living in a world constantly telling us that we are, in Angi’s words, “freaks or degenerates.” Many of us have been forced to repress parts of ourselves, to lie about the relationships we have, to keep them hidden from parents, employers, and sometimes even spouses.
We want to believe we know right from wrong, good from evil. But, do we?
The elephant in the room at poly conferences, meetups, and communities is the centering of a couple’s experience. That is absurd! That ought to infuriate us! For fuck’s sake, it’s a “POLY” event!
The System is ingenious, pernicious, and it is inside of us because we are a part of it. And it is because we are a part of it that we’ve been unable to perceive the possibilities of what lies beyond. Like a Dark Wizard’s Horcrux, The System has placed pieces of its soul into each and every one of us, using us, collectively, to recreate itself time and again in new and different manifestations, ad infinitum.
If we, as polyamorous people, truly want to empower others, we must recognize this internalized dominance for what it is, and end it.
To do that, we must get even closer to our kryptonite than we are now. Just as antidotes to snake bites are made from snake venom, we must now ingest some poison, because we are all already suffering. We have all already been poisoned by The System.
I pray I’ll be able to use my gift to empower you to survive what we’re about to do. I need you to take some poison with me now.
Repulsive Intimacy: Violence is not the opposite of intimacy
When I was a teenager, I ingested a poison that gave me an incredible power.
The poison I ingested was membership in the BDSM Scene, a social microcosm of deliberate erotic megalomania. The BDSM Scene is a sexuality subculture that bears some resemblance in structure, but not purpose, to the polyamory community: both are social systems; both are comprised of many people who are multiply privileged and multiply oppressed; both are ignorant of their own respective privileges, their superpowers, and their kryptonites.
Unlike the polyamory community, the BDSM Scene is an institution entirely devoted to the fetishization of oppression culture. Unlike the polyamory community, the BDSM Scene is a poison that is unrepentantly evil; its sole purpose is the eroticization of epistemic violence. Unlike the polyamory community, there is nothing redeemable about the BDSM Scene; its sole value is as a structure to be wholly and unapologetically resisted.
The power I derived from this poison is the ability to understand the distinction between something’s individual instance and the structural manifestation of that same thing. In the case of BDSM, understanding both the fact that there is a distinction between people’s BDSM activity and the culture of the BDSM Scene, as well as the fact that there is a relationship between people’s BDSM activity and the culture of the BDSM Scene, is key to understanding why the BDSM Scene-State is an unrepentant evil. Specifically, BDSM’s individualistic manifestation (like, “kinky, consensual sex”) gives people control over their engagement with violence, while its systemic manifestation reproduces The System’s epistemic violence without giving people an ability to consent to it. In other words:
While you can “safeword” during a scene, you can’t safeword The Scene. Just as rape culture is the institutionalization of (systemic) sexism, the BDSM Scene is the institutionalization of the practice of fetishizing oppression culture; it is, to use [hacker theorist] McKenzie Wark’s phrasing, an abstraction—a double of a double.
My gift is the power to see failure, violence, and domination. What I see most often is epistemic pain and abuse. This power lets me perceive relationships between things that exist at different levels of scale; I have a kind of social-systemic x-ray vision.
Recently, I had the privilege of participating in KinkForAll Denver, an open-to-the-public “unconference” whose theme is sex and relationships education. In 2009, I co-founded KinkForAll with a long-term goal of developing “self-empowerment training areas” where people could choose to endure the intense challenge of putting themselves in an uncomfortable but not dangerous situation. KinkForAll is designed to encourage us to learn how to “move up” and claim our personal autonomy, our agency, and our power when we need to, and learn how to “move back” to respect others who share this home we call Earth.
KinkForAll is not designed to succeed, but rather to fail inexpensively. It is not designed as a safe space, but rather public space. It is not only designed to encourage us to “move up and move back,” but also to learn to say to and hear from one another, “How about you? Okay then, fuck off!”
I Work on KinkForAll because much of the world we live in is uncomfortable with and hostile toward education about intimacy. This enforced ignorance betrays itself through sexual stigmas that sustain an aristocratic stranglehold on information, privileging credentialed gatekeepers over the only true expert on your own desires: you! The fact is, we don’t know a lot about intimacy, its diverse formulations, or the interplay and distinctions between the many kinds that exist.
Just as sexual relationships are privileged over asexual ones, “lovey-dovey” relationships are privileged over (antagonistic) confrontational ones. Valid forms of “intimacy” are therefore only understood as the former, not the latter. Thankfully, BDSM complicates this inaccurate conflation of “intimacy” with “love.”
The challenges in understanding intimacy parallel the problems in conceptualizing violence, pain, and eroticism. Trapped in moral frameworks and tethered to political agendas, these ideas are rarely deconstructed. SM forces us to confront the apparent inconsistencies and paradoxes contained within them. In doing so, we can trace conceptual links between intimacy, eroticism, and violence that move beyond psychological models of innate drives and pathologies.
In other words BDSM is unequivocally about violence, though trapped in contemporary moral frameworks, few BDSM’ers will admit to this. Newmahr continues:
Nonconsensual violence (what most people mean when they say “real violence”) transgresses physical, social, emotional, and ethical boundaries between actors. […] To violate, and to be violated, are intimate experiences. If we cease to reserve the word “intimate” for situations that are desirable or healthy, we can see, for example, the intimacy of violent crime. Rape, which many of us would shudder to consider “intimacy,” is so heinous precisely because it is so intimate.
Since rape is an abhorrent (violent) crime, and since the anti-SM feminist viewpoint has so thoroughly monopolized discourse regarding social values in all their myriad applications, accepting “violence” as being a potential part of “sex,” much less a potentially desirable and valuable facet of some consensual sexual activity, is believed even in pro-BDSM circles simply to be unconscionable. It is rejected out of hand, uncritically, without nary a shred of self-reflection; we who tout ourselves non-judgmental cowardly judge that which we value.
This is the point at which we can rupture BDSM itself. Such knee-jerk denialism, this self-defensive behavior, is evidence of a fractal boundary. This is the point at which we can violently disrupt things in order to see distinctions and observe relationships through multiple levels of scale.
In her works, Newmahr conceptualizes intimacy as “the experience of achieving access to protected aspects of others’ selves.” The value in Newmahr’s work is, in part, her emphasis on the violent disruption of morally-driven epistemic bondage. Those moral Systems are conceptual restraints shaming us for desiring experiences—rape fantasies, painful sensations like cutting or whipping, being physically bound—that are uncomfortable, but not dangerous. The System knows that if we felt free to choose discomfort as comfort, to choose pain as pleasure, to choose bondage as freedom, we could learn to use an instrument of liberation it must render obscure to survive: submission, and its powers.
In fact, a typical relationship with violence mirrors Abe and Belle’s “wrong turn on their way to forming an inclusive Poly-L Triad,” to borrow Mim’s words again. It’s the same reason why BDSM Scene’sters make the dire mistake of creating a divisive “kinky” and “vanilla” binary. Look at the process of thinking, one frame at a time:
- Here’s Abe again.
- Now, instead of Belle, we’ll use B to mean “BDSM,” a contextualized expression of violence.
- As Abe develops an understanding of BDSM and a desire to explore it, a relationship is created between him and the conception of violence. Again, this relationship is represented as a line between the dots, and the structure is identical to what we’ve seen before: it’s a dyad.
- Here’s Candy.
- When Candy and Abe meet and start playing with BDSM together, a new relationship is created between them.
What happens next depends on their relationship to violence. If we succumb to The System’s morally-driven, epistemic bondage, there are only two possibilities:
- The less common situation is that Abe and Candy feel content in their relationship together and in their BDSM play, in which case they consider themselves “kinky” and each develop relationships to violence “as metamours” using an institution known as The BDSM Scene.
- More likely, however, Abe and Candy are disturbed by their desire to “do SM” play, or are repulsed by the only visible patterns of behavior for it, in which case they distance themselves from their relationship to violence, maintaining an ideological distance from anything “kinky,” and falling back into (the illusion of) a dyadic structure.
To continue replicating itself into the behavioral patterns of our people’s future generations, The System needs us to believe that there are exactly two options. Not one, not three, but two. Either:
- “resistance is futile”; this breeds apathy. To BDSM’ers, this laziness manifests in self-deceptions like “BDSM cannot be violence.”
- “resistance is conquest”; this breeds dominance. To BDSM’ers, this seems legible, and so they create social institutions—the BDSM Scene-State—for the explicit purpose of reproducing this very trait.
Some of us decide to adopt the former mindset, while others decide to adopt the latter. Either way, in so doing, The System has gotten us, at the scale of cliques, Scenes, and whole societies, to divide ourselves into binary groupings: the oppressed, and the privileged. As a result, one group believes “the other” is “irrational” precisely because the division itself is artificial!
Again, when we are confronted by a confusing reality that we do not understand, we too often succumb to the temptation of legibility. We “use authoritarian power to impose” our vision onto others. We repeat this same cycle of non-consensual domination. As I said during my seminar at Atlanta Poly Weekend 2011:
This is what in-group/out-group, us/them, you-versus-me, thinking looks like. This is how privilege hierarchies are created and recreated time and again.
Recall again the pattern of oppression, the DNA of evil itself: obscure, divide, conquer, homogenize. We are trapped in an omnipresent cycle of non-consensual violence, one so pervasive that there is no English word to describe the inexplicable total consumption such an influence has. Therefore, I simply call it “The Satisfaction.”
I beg each and every one of you listening to me speak—whether you’re listening to me in person today, or whether you’re watching a recording of me a day from now, a year from now, or a decade from now—I beg you, please, never let yourself succumb to The Satisfaction’s comfort, or pleasure, for these are lies, illusions conjured by The System, and they aim to forever impair your power.
We are almost there. We can now see The System and the parasitic hold it has on us from within our safest spaces. We must now learn how to sterilize, and overcome it.
What The System obscures is choice. The decision it offers us, futility or conquest, is not just a false dichotomy, although it is that, too. Regardless of the decision we make, if we succumb to its framing, its way of being, it will have gotten us to destroy the very essence of self-empowered choice.
This is the part you’ve been waiting for. This is where I’ll bite you on the neck where it hurts the most. This is when you claim your superpowers.
How to Choose Love: Inventing Our Powers
My knowledge of my power is derived, in large part, from my experiences in the BDSM Scene. To survive there,
I ruptured and reconstituted myself an intellisexual cyborg who thrived on the orgiastic exchange of conceptions rather than bodily fluids, a kind of idea-sex in which hyperlinks are sex toys. (Probably strap-ons.)
[…I]t is also no accident that I am a brutal critic of the BDSM Scene at this moment in history, nor that I would critique it using the lore of radical transparency, diversity, and accessibility—all gleaned from techno-privileged open sources. For all intents and purposes, I am the illegitimate offspring of The Scene and The State at a time when the literary telepathic non-magic of the Internet threatens them both.
“Sexual reproduction,” as socialist-feminist academic Donna Haraway wrote, “is one kind of reproductive strategy among many, with costs and benefits as a function of the system environment.” You see, you and I are being intimate in a way we may never have been before. I can see our ideas having sex with each other right now, right here, in the spaces between our bodies.
I am not just a man, nor just a submissive, nor just a human, nor just a Jew, nor just a person with bipolar disorder. Yes, I am all of those things. But I am also a blasphemous, illegitimate fusion of all these things mutated to the power of their number.
I have been unapologetically disloyal to my ancestors. Still borrowing from Haraway, “illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”
So, too, must you be unfaithful to me to claim your power; you must choose disloyalty. It is a choice The System will never offer, because it wants you to make a decision between futility against it or conquest of it. Both those options coerce your loyalty to it; the decision itself is a dyadic structure.
But remember, language is a superpower. It turns the impossible into the possible. The word “choice” is defined as:
the right or ability to make […] a selection when faced with two or more possibilities.
Meanwhile, the word “decision” is defined as:
the action or process of deciding something or of resolving a question.
The root of the word “decide” is “cide,” meaning “to kill,” as in pesticide, homicide, and genocide. When we are coerced into making a decision, rather than empowered to make choices, what we are doing is killing possibilities. We are, in fact, being non-consensually violent to ideas; we are undermining the possibility of diversity.
How do you claim your power in the face of a System that coerces you to decide between two options? Remember, The System needs us to believe that there are exactly two options. Either:
- “resistance is futile,” breeding apathy, or
- “resistance is conquest,” breeding dominance.
What can you do if you want to reject both futility and conquest? Choose a third possibility:
- “resistance is submission.”
Although BDSM’ers are quick to claim knowledge of power, they are extraordinarily ignorant of its diversity, just as polyamorous people are quick to claim knowledge of intimacy yet remain largely ignorant of its diverse formulations—such as the intimacy of violation. The BDSM Scene-State is a social structure designed to seduce people into believing that dominance is a strength. This is a clever lie, kept hidden from BDSM’ers by the way they discuss BDSM, themselves.
It sounds too simple, too obvious, to have any meaning, but this is the single most important lesson I’ve learned about relationships.
Dominance—like whiteness, maleness, straightness, and sanity—is a structure of domination; there is nothing redeemable or reformed about dominance. The inverse of that statement is equally important to articulate: submission is a choice to endure violence. Contrary to the BDSM Scene’s rhetoric, submission is not a gift given, but a power taken.
Choosing to submit to oppression, to endure violence, is a power with which we can sterilize The System. In choosing to submit, we neutralize dominance because we are neither resigning ourselves to its domination nor seeking to dominate it in response. Dominance, a manifestation of pure evil, cannot be dominated, for any attempt to overpower it strengthens it anew.
We cannot excise The System from ourselves, as we are already infested. But we can stop it from reproducing within us, and subsequently infesting our many offspring. And polyamory’s superpower is the key.
I am a child of the BDSM Scene-State; I am a villain. You are members of the polyamory community; you could be heroes.
Be A Hero: Make Triadic Relationships
Let’s return to Abe, Belle, and Claire, and see if we can give them the power they need to have triadic relationships.
When we left them, Abe had just met Claire, creating a relationship that changed everyone’s structural position in relation to each other. This disruption opened the door for Belle and Claire to be coerced into relating to one another “as metamours” by invisible poly-cultural scripts that decreed how metamours should think, feel, and behave towards one another. In other words, expecting “positive” feelings, such as love, between metamours is an artifact of couple privilege.
From the perspective of a person who’s an only-or-mostly-secondary, hearing “You’ll really like your metamour…” often contains an unspoken, even unintended, threat: “…or else.” The threat isn’t coming from Abe, but from the institution of metamours, similar to the way divorce is a threat to marriage. But being metamours is actually worse than being married because instead of being threatened with metaphorical divorce by one person, there are two people who can choose to end your relationships—and neither of them are you.
Instead of imposing a direct relationship between metamours, which immediately creates a new dyad and replicates dyadism in all its manifestations, we need to learn how to have triadic relationships.
In structural terms, triadic relationships are simply connections between two terminals and an apex wherein the apex mediates the relationship the terminals have with one another. In simpler words: a triadic relationship is one that involves three components, wherein one component is the relationship itself. Yet another way to put it is that a triadic relationship is one in which the relationship you have to some other entity is triangulated through a third party.
Let’s walk through this one piece at a time, mindful that it’s actually all happening simultaneously:
- As before, we begin with a vee comprised of Abe, Belle, and Claire.
- A vee is composed of two dyads.
- From Belle’s perspective:
- one of the three pieces of her triadic relationship with Claire is the dyadic relationship between herself and Abe;
- another of the three pieces is Claire’s relationship with Abe;
- the last of the three pieces is her own relationship to the relationship between Abe and Claire. This is the critical piece of the puzzle; using this last piece, Belle’s relationship to Claire is triangulated through Abe.
- Reciprocally, from Claire’s perspective:
- One of the three pieces is the dyadic relationship between herself and Abe,
- another of the three pieces is Belle’s relationship with Abe,
- and the last of the three pieces is her own relationship to the relationship between Abe and Belle. Again, this is the critical piece that allows Claire to triangulate her relationship to Belle through Abe.
None of this precludes the possibility that Belle and Claire might want to have a relationship that does create a dyadic structure. However, by avoiding the trap of centering their experience to one another as a coupled pair, Belle and Claire remain free to choose whatever types of intimacies they’d like their relationships to have—even violent confrontation—without threatening their relationship with Abe and without destroying the other’s possibility of a relationship with him.
Triadic relationships do not make “polyamorous” relationships, wherein relations between people are based on self-imposed, imagined contractual obligations policed by cultural norms. Rather, they are anarchic relationships, wherein relations between people are mediated solely by the self-empowered choices of the people involved. This is what relationships free from authoritarian power look like.
Frankly, hierarchical relationships are bullshit. Ironically, the gift the polyamory movement, as a movement, can offer the rest of the world is the power to access anarchic relationships, because the polyamory movement understands conceptual structure. Moreover, this gift is a power even monogamous people can use, too; that invariability is how we know it’s polyamory’s superpower!
The Three Keys to Triadic Relationships
Fittingly, there are three keys to sustaining our ability to have triadic relationships.
First, realize that relationships are a performance of roles, not a structural position. You can think of relationships as a kind of drag. Two married people can perform the relationship roles of “husband” and “wife” if they so choose, but they can also choose to play the role of best friends, “pet” and “owner,” or partners in crime.
Like a gender role, a relationship role has certain expectations carried over from cultural institutions. Such tropes are like society’s window dressing for relationships. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to play a particular role at a particular time; what’s wrong is telling or being told which role to play, when, and with whom.
The beauty in understanding relationships as drag performance is that you can put on and take off some given relationship dressing at will. For instance, with Mish, I sometimes play the role of “teenage girlfriend.” Other times, she does. Our relationship is richer and more expressive thanks to our ability to perform a given relationship drag some of the time, and some other drag at other times.
Second, recognize that relationships, themselves, are fractal boundaries. In other words, the structure of a relationship is, itself, a triadic relationship! Another way to say this is that the structure of a single relationship, or line on a relationship graph, is actually a vee in which the relationship itself is the apex. Further, this structure extends to every level of scale, ad infinitum.
This means that people in a couple actually have a metamoric relationship to each other by virtue of their relationship’s triadic relationship. The System is so good at obscuring the effects of dyadism that, to the best of my knowledge, this basic fact about relationship structure itself remained hidden to the most vocal polyamory educators and activists.
Now that you can see what The System is doing, start looking at the charts of your intimate networks with an understanding that the lines themselves are also first-class nodes.
Thirdly, value the whole of the diversity of intimacy, not just the comfortable intimacies. Love is an intimacy, and so is hate. Fear is an intimacy, and so is curiosity. Empathy is an intimacy, and so is antipathy.
Now that you have the power to see the world in triadic relationships, you can deconstruct intimacy itself. When you do, you’ll find another fractal boundary. You’ll see that intimacy has nothing to do with a specific kind of interaction, but is, instead, a relationship—and a triadic one, at that!
Intimacy is, itself, the relationship between influence and risk. That knowledge is such great power.
You are polyamorous people. You do not need to fear confrontation, or discomfort, or jealousy, or love, or hate. You do not even need to fear fear, itself.
We are polyamorous people. We are superheroes.
Thank you for your time and attention.