In the 21stcentury, all varieties of consensual nonmonogamy have become trendy.  From Cosmopolitanto The New York Timesto The Guardianarticles and exposés about polyamory abound.    Over and over, I read about the best ways and even the right way to do nonmonogamy and polyamorous relationships.

As a sex & intimacy coach and a psychologist therapist who works with individuals, couples and polyamorous groups, I have spent the past 30+ years helping people to find, construct, create and maintain all sorts of relationship combinations and structures including polyamorous relationships.   As I person who practices polyamory and has practiced ethical nonmonogamy in one form or another since I was 17 and on occasion, unethical nonmonogamy (otherwise known as cheating), I have an insiders view of nonmonogamy as well and I can tell you unequivocally: There is no one true way to practice polyamory or nonmonogamy of any kind.    Each relationship is as individual as a lip print because each individual is unique.

When I was 17, I had no language to talk about polyamorous relationships.  My first polycule (all the people in relationship with one or more members of the group), was made up of 3 permanent members and a fourth rotating membership depending upon who I was dating at the time.    We didn’t know we were creating a polycule.  We didn’t even know we were practicing consensual nonmonogamy. Initially, we reluctantly formed a triad because the both women did not wish to give up their relationships with the solo man.   The relationship between the women grew strong though not often sexual.  We formed a polyfidelitous triad at first and then, I was encouraged to bring in a second male to the polycule.  The other woman in the relationship was more comfortable when I had another man to relate to besides her live-in partner.  I was the person allowed to be involved sexually with others and encouraged to bring appropriate dates/partners home.  

polyamorous relationships

If D had been asked to describe the structure of our relationship, she would have said that she was J’s primary partner and I was his secondary partner.    Chances are, J and I would have agreed.  To her, it was important that it was clear that she was the person to whom J gave priority.  Her needs and wants came before mine.   We all accepted that this was necessary in order for the triad to function well.    At that time, I would have described my relationship with the two of them as my primary relationship and any other polyamorous relationships as secondary as I prioritise time with them over dating others.

Later in life, I took the role of the secondary a number of times and found this difficult at times and wholly fulfilling at others.  For me, having a hierarchy highlighted how time and responsibilities were prioritised. It had nothing to do with how much love and commitment existed in my relationships.  

polyamorous relationships

The other factor in how my polyamorous relationships were structured, was and remains my involvement in power exchange/ authority transfer relationships.  These are by nature hierarchical.  In all power exchange dynamics, someone is leading and someone is following.  Someone commands and the other obeys.  Someone holds the authority and/or power and the other surrenders authority and/or power. 

You cannot take the hierarchy out of power exchange dynamics.  When people are in power exchange dynamics and also in polyamorous relationships, there will always be hierarchy.    The amount and strength of the hierarchy may vary but it will always be there.  For some people, this is not a problem at all.  For others, hierarchy is seen as inherently either problematic or even bad.

It is currently popular in polyamorous circles to criticise anyone who sees their relationships as hierarchical or who organises their relationships in a hierarchical manner. People frequently say things like ‘Love has no hierarchy’ and ‘All polyamorous relationships should be equal.’    Many polyamorous people become vexed at the mention of prioritising one relationship over another.  Using the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ can get a person excluded from some polyamorous groups.

Yet almost all relationships are organised in hierarchies.  We may not openly admit it but we all prioritise our relationships and our time.  We cannot help but do this.  I may love equally but I cannot honestly say that I would give equal weight to the needs of the partner I see four times a year and the husband who shares my bills, my home and looks after me when I am ill even if both relationships involve a lifetime commitment.  The responsibilities in each relationship are different.  If my husband and my lover both expressed a need for me to be with them on a particular day, it is likely that I would prioritise my husband as long as the needs were equivalent.     

Let’s consider an example:

My husband is having surgery on 4thDecember.

My lover is moving house on 4thDecember and would like my help.

My priority would be my husband.

If it were my husband who was moving house (assuming I was not) and my lover who was having surgery, I would negotiate to be with my lover if possible as having surgery is a weightier need.  

But what if we are looking at simply choosing who to spend holidays with:

Both my husband and my lover want to spend my birthday with me.  If they don’t agree to do it all of us together, I would see my husband as having priority – even if we were not in a power exchange dynamic – because my responsibility to him is higher.  This gets even more complicated when we have more than one or two polyamorous relationships.

Part of the reason that it has become de rigueur to insist that all relationships should be equal is that jealousy can be such an intense issue around perceived inequality.    Quite a few of my clients have brought in problems with managing the division of holidays, time, activities and often social media posting because one or more partners are unhappy unless everything is ‘completely equal’.    In reality, it is often not only impossible to divide things completely equally but not desirable either.  Partners who do not live with each other don’t often want an equal share of the dull stuff.  They don’t want to split household chores, or other monotonous tasks like budgeting, car maintenance, errands for work.  They want an equal share of the fun stuff – holidays, nights out, attending work ‘do’s, date nights and weekends, birthdays, Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s/Easters, summertime, winter breaks etc.   

How does the person who is doing the errands, caretaking and the other mundane stuff feel about equally splitting the fun time but not the responsibilities and the other things that often form the day to day pattern of a committed long term relationship? Usually not so happy, in my experience. I frequently hear ‘Why should I give up half of my holiday time with my wife/husband/significant other to their other lover when that lover isn’t paying part of the bills or sharing taking my person to medical appointments or looking after the dog?’

When a dominant/submissive or power exchange dynamic is added into the mix, this becomes even more complex.  By its nature, a power exchange dynamic is hierarchal.  Therefore the person who is in the dominant position is the one who ultimately has the control over all the relationships the person in the submissive position forms if the power exchange/ authority transfer relationship is a full time (24/7) relationship.  In this case, the only person with agency is the one in the dominant position.  

I have written about this model of non-monogamy and polyamorous relationships before and called it the loaner model or in my case, the time share model of non-monogamy.  I am in a 24/7 power exchange /authority transfer relationship with my husband who is my owner.  As my owner, he is the one who has the agency and authority to control any other sexual, BDSM, or romantic relationship that I have because I have surrendered authority for all aspects of my life to him.  I am in two other relationships at the present time.   My husband says I am a time share because each of my other partners have a number of weeks per year with me.  They are literally granted a share of my time based on their desires and my husband’s agreement to grant these desires.  Should it no longer suit my husband for me to have a relationship with someone or for me to spend that amount of time per year with someone, he has the right to change or end any agreement.

Some people who practice polyamory have been horrified by my description of the non-monogamy that we practice because the hierarchy is extremely clear.  There is very definitely inequality between my relationships. There is no inequality in how I feel about my other partners.  I love all of them.  There is inequality in how much time I spend, whose needs get priority, and where my responsibilities lie.      All parties consent to this arrangement and on that basis, why should anyone be judgemental? 

In addition, when I break down how they divide their time, decide who gets what priority in any given situation, hierarchies are illuminated even in the relationships of the people I have met who are most adamant that there should be no hierarchies in polyamory.    Though this surprises them, it doesn’t surprise me in the least.  It is nigh on impossible to divide time equally between a number of people even with the best will in the world.  Life doesn’t present us with equal challenges.    We have a wide variety of blessings and challenges and though our love is infinite our time and energy are finite.  Ultimately, we have to make choices.  If we are hell bent on creating total equality, we will end up spending an inordinate amount of time working to do this.   And we spend an inordinate amount of energy judging people for having hierarchies in their non-monogamous relationships.  

In my experience, a better way to expend the energy and spend the time is on creating rich loving relationships that meet as many needs as possible, looking at where needs intersect and how we can balance our relationships in ways that responsibilities, needs and wants are as in balance in each individual relationship.  The less time we spend comparing within our relationships, the better.   Increasing our communication skills, including our negotiation skills is a better use of our time.    Learning how to identify our own needs and differentiate them from wants is paramount as well to creating balanced relationships.  

polyamorous relationships
handsome young muscular man with two women in bedroom

Why is it fashionable to trash hierarchies where ever they are found?  Perhaps looking to larger mainstream culture and politics may give us answers.    Hierarchies are often seen as binary: Rich/poor, good/bad though they actually run primary, secondary, tertiary.  There are many levels not just two.  If we are able to keep this in mind and also recognise that there are multiple hierarchies in any given set of relationships – different priorities at different times for different events, activities, contexts, then maybe the reality of the hierarchies in our lives will no longer be seen as negative.      Instead we can look at them as simple structures that enable us to order our lives and relationships so that it is easier to find and maintain balance.

Polyamorous relationships come in an infinite number of configurations. For more about how different open relationships might look including an owner loaner relationship, you can find one of my articles hereand a seriesof podcastshere.

D/s relationships are ones in which dominance and submission are the primary feature.  D/s relationships are authority transfer based relationships because the submissive gives authority over part or all of their lives to the dominant.  Full time authority transfer based relationships are Master (Mistress)/slave or Owner/property or Daddy/boi/girl or Mommy/boi/girl.  

Some D/s relationships involve bondage and discipline or sadism and masochism but others do not.  The feature of the relationship which turns both parties on is the power exchange (authority transfer). One person is in charge and the other agrees to submit to their rule.  Submission can be part time, sexually only for example, or it can be full time (e.g. in all aspects of the relationship).  D/s relationships often have clear structures, with rituals, rules and expectations all spelled out.  Many people who engage in them gain pleasure from all of these aspects.  The submissives enjoy giving up control and being led by someone else.  The dominants enjoy the control over their partners, having someone do as they desire. This is a simplistic description of what both parties might get out of the relationship.  For more on these relationships, listen to this seriesof podcastsfrom Sex SpokenHereand D is for Dominant from the A to Z of Sex ®podcast.

owner loaner

D/s relationships can be very straightforward or very complex.  Some include significant role play as well as the exchange of power.  There are marriages that work on these principles as well as long term living together relationships.  However, it can be difficult to maintain these roles when living with someone full time especially if the person who is in the submissive role is dominant in the outside world (at work, within the household, the main bread winner).   As a result, in some relationships, the D/s aspects become watered down which often leads to dissatisfaction on the part of both parties.   

A solution to managing this dissatisfaction is to make sure that there is specific time set aside for D/s.  As long as this is a substantial enough amount of time and it is ringfenced so that the rest of life does not intrude, this will work for many relationships.

Owner Loaner

One solution to this situation is to consider opening up the relationship. A couple can agree to engage in D/s play with other partners and not each other or with other partners and still engage with each other.  Deciding who will do what with whom can require some intricate negotiation.  When done properly, this is a great solution that increases everybody’s enjoyment and fulfilment.  

One issue that arises is the need for a person to have agency and autonomy to create and manage multiple relationships.  When one is in a hierarchical relationship, the person who is in the dominant role is the one who is in charge.  If that person is giving authority over what relationships their partner can form, then the submissive does not have the agency to form additional relationships or continue them.   Non-monogamous relationships for people in hierarchical relationships can look different depending up on if their hierarchical relationship is full time or part time. Non-monogamy in part-time D/s relationships can run the gamut from simple dating through to relationship anarchy to polyamorous arrangements.  

Myra and Robin were involved in a D/s relationship for 10 years before they moved in together.  Both are high powered business women, running their own companies for over a decade each. They met at a Women in Business event and the connection was instant.   They quickly discovered that they lived in the same state.  Their first date highlighted their desires.  Myra quickly took control and Robin revelled in her submission.  They talk each day and meet each weekend to spend time together.  Their relationship grows and deepens and finally they decide to move in together.  

At first things work well.  Weekends are the time that they set aside for the D/s side of their relationship. During the week they look like any other couple living together.    Robin sometimes finds it difficult giving up control on the weekend, especially on weeks where she is travelling for work.   But things are still working and they are both still happy together. After 6 months living together, Myra decides to take a sabbatical.  She is working on a book and needs the time to write.  They agree that Robin will be the main bread winner for those 6 months.   This is when the D/s relationship truly begins to break down.

The women came to see me when Robin found it too difficult to submit to Myra. They were both upset by this change and were motivated to look at how they could make sure their relationship would survive and thrive.  After 4 coaching sessions, Robin raised the issue of opening the relationship.  She proposed that they both seek to create a D/s relationship with someone else.  At first Myra was resistant to this idea, concerned that they would lose one of the best facets of their relationship.  After some negotiation, they decided to choose partners for each other and were clear about the limitations.  They decided to restrict the relationship to D/s in the bedroom. After a few false starts, they found situations which suited both of them.   After a month of exploring new D/s relationships, they told me the spark had come back between them and they left coaching.  In this situation, they were each involved in negotiation and setting the limits of other relationships.

In relationship anarchy, relationships are not bound by rules set by society or culture but are only bound by rules set by the people involved. In relationship anarchy, hierarchy between relationships is avoided.  This can cause issues when a relationship is hierarchical depending upon whether that relationship includes control over other relationships.     However, if this is not the case, then relationship anarchy starts with putting yourself first and then being very deliberate about your relationships – making conscious choices about them at all time.

In full time D/s relationships, the person in charge is also often in charge of whether there are other relationships as well.    Because of this, the person who is in the submissive role does not have the agency to begin, continue, or end relationships with others.  All relationships are had with the permission of the dominant.  One dominant woman I know talks of being an owner and therefore loaning out property rather than her slaves having separate autonomous relationships with others.    

In the ‘Owner Loaner’ Model, the owner sets the rules for the other relationships that their property might have.  The owner may do all of the negotiation, be an integral part of the negotiation or give the property the details about what is acceptable and allow them to do the negotiation.    No matter how the negotiation is organised, the owner is the one who is giving permission, not the property.    Morloki describes this as a ‘Time Share Model’ where the other interested parties can ‘request regular rental weeks during the year.  Chosen family rentals can be had with special terms’.  

If other relationships are not included in the hierarchal relationship, then the other relationships are negotiated directly and terms are agreed between the participants only.  Each relationship has rules about other relationships, whether it is hierarchical or not.  

For some this raises issues about consent.  In this type of relationship organisation, the owner gains the consent of the property to loan them to others and the parameters of any loan (and therefore any other relationship), are negotiated between owner and property.  The owner then restricts the terms of any loan to those the property has consented to as part of their relationship agreement (owner loaner model). Property can still withdraw consent at any time and this is made clear to any other playmate or partner during negotiations.  Property cannot agree to extend the terms of a loan relationship.  This is negotiated with the owner.

Jeff and Cindy are in a full time Owner/property relationship.  At the beginning of their relationship, they negotiated the possibility of other partners – intimate partners, emotionally intimate partners, play only partners – as part of their long term relationship.  A few years into their relationship, Cindy met Larissa.  Jeff negotiated with Larissa to loan Cindy to her for a full BDSM relationship including sexual contact.  Jeff prefers an owner loaner model and that relationship worked well for two years until Cindy felt that Larissa was no longer meeting her needs as agreed to at the beginning of the relationship. She spoke with Jeff about this in detail and Jeff ended the relationship as he felt that this was simply causing stress for Cindy (his property).  In this case, Cindy spoke with Larissa first and said that she wanted to end the relationship.  When Larissa didn’t take this well, Jeff stepped in to make sure it was ended properly and with as little rancour as possible.  Three years later, Cindy’s first love got in touch with her.  She asked Jeff if she could see Bob and also if she could see where a relationship with Bob might go.  Jeff agreed to the date and when it went well, he agreed to loan Cindy to Bob for an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship for an indefinite period of time.  Two years later, the relationship continues.  

In some M/s or O/p relationships, the dominant partner will introduce other people into the relationship on specific occasions.  When this is the case, it will have been agreed between the parties when they set out the terms of their relationship.  Josh likes to bring people home to have sex with Jeremy, his long term slave.  The people he brings home are really clear as to who is in charge and what the rule are.

Some people become polyamorous because they discover an interest in dominance and submission and want to enter authority transfer or D/s relationships but their partners have little interest in exploring with them.  They choose to open their relationships.  In my experience many of these relationships are poly monogamous relationships.  For more on poly monogamy see my article here.  These relationships can work well however couples need to communicate well and negotiate extremely well in order for them to do so.  Coaching helps couples learn the communication and negotiation skills needed to create exciting and well-functioning poly monogamous relationships.

It is currently trendy to avoid hierarchy when it comes to relationships, particularly in the non-monogamous community.  Hierarchical relationships can be extremely exciting and satisfying whether they are part time (D/s) or full time (M/s, O/p).  For people who have multiple relationships that include one or more hierarchical relationships, the relationships can look like ordinary polyamorous relationships where all relationships are separately agreed and negotiated and maybe even equal when it comes to time and attention or they can be owner loaner relationships where the Master/Owner/Dominant is loaning out the slave/property/submissive to the people with whom they have other relationships. Consent and negotiating boundaries is more complex when D/s and non-monogamy are mixed and more time may be needed to get relationships off the ground, but these relationships can be very exciting and fulfilling in the short and long term.

Want to learn more about the DS in BDSM, non-monogamy and combining the two? Sign up for a discovery session with me hereor email loribeth@drloribethbisbey.com

Welcome to my virtual therapy room!  I am Dr Lori Beth Bisbey and this is Sex Spoken Here. Remember that this podcast deals with adult themes so if you don’t have privacy you might wish to put on your headphones.   This week I am interviewing Mason deRou.  This is part one of a two part interview.

Master Mason deRou is a primal Master who began his walk into the public kink scene in 2009.

He has dominion over Miss Kimi deRou and together they form La Maison deRou.  Mason deRou is also the commander of La Meute de Rougaroux (the Rougarou Pack).  He is a uniform fetishist, pony trainer, erotic photographer and also loves the littles.  Mason leverages his relative y9outh to build bridges among several kinky tribes and subcultures, allowing the voices of both past and current generations of kinksters to be heard.  Mason has presented at BESS, Black Rose, CLUE, Weekend Reunion and several MaST chapters.  Mason is the president of the Master-Dominant Consortium and is one of the founding members of the Leather Houses of Color Coalition.  He is a member of MAsT DC Pan and MAsT Washington and is also an alumnus of the MTTA Academy (Master Training XX).  Mason resides in southern Maryland.

Mason deRou starts  talking about education by talking about structure and we spend some time talking about the military and what structure looks like in the military.

He goes on to  say that he follows the power.

He looks for the people who are in authority.  He spoke about the fact that someone was telling him that when people had to start from the bottom to be a Master if you have that policy you never run out of bottoms. He spoke of always wanting to know the why.  We talk about the end result but not what started it. We need discernment skills to not take stuff at face value and the critical thinking.  Mason  deRou says that in the military they think between the boxes not outside the box.  He wishes that people would think that way so we would not have the petty arguments that don’t matter.   He says military people know how to act – they have a code that will get them through the day.  Step 1 learn to critical think and step 2 is to learn discernment – to choose to use this.

Mason deRou asks do we really want accountability?

He says that the problem with a call out culture around consent violations and perceived bad behaviour is that people can’t discern – was it a mistake, was it a bad decision, was it someone just not caring, was it someone being an ass?   Responses generally come from your own experience and lots is not put out in public.  People often don’t discern they respond to personality instead – or cliques.  People respond the best way they know how but they don’t have enough information.  There is always some crucial piece that doesn’t make it online.  Given that – we don’t want to call people out because discernment is a problem – we cannot decide as a group – there is not enough discernment to say as a group – this person made a mistake and have apologised and made amends versus this person is an asshole and just does it all the time.

We moved from here to talk about risk management and risk assessment.

We talk about SSC (safe sane consensual) but a lot of stuff I do ain’t safe or sane and if we take this view we will risk manage better.  A lot of us are adrenalin junkies – all this stuff is risky.  It is not that someone is purposely doing something.  We have to be able to take responsibility and risk assess and risk manage.   Mason deRou and I talked further about consent and the fact that we can’t even talk about proper informed medical consent.

We moved to talk about litigiousness and liability.  Mason deRou said if we took that track about a lot of what we do – we probably wouldn’t do half of the stupid things we do.

Can the person even give consent?  Are they in an impaired state of mind?  Mason points out that lots of endorphins can produce an impaired state of mind and therefore the person can’t give consent.  And people get upset when you bring this up because you are messing with their fun.   Just because you risk assess doesn’t mean you don’t do something – you acknowledge the risk, list the reasons it is crazy and then make a decision if you are going to go ahead as well.   Mason points out that when you make an error you have to be accountable and give a genuine apology and make amends.   You have to have some credibility with yourself when that happens so when you do that to someone, they are more apt to be willing to hear you out.  Can still make the choice but everyone has to know what they are getting into.    There is a difference between playing with someone you know and pick up play  – where you just met someone.    We talked about making bad choices versus blaming others.    Who had the ultimate responsibility for the scene?  The top has the responsibility for the scene.  If you don’t want it, don’t take the responsibility.

Mason deRou gave a shout out to Black Rose who do a BDSM 101 where people can talk to people and learn without being able to play.

Gateway.

BESS in Baltimore.

Mason deRou says you are at the whim of what you can find in your local area.  I say that I am putting together of an archive of basic topics because of interviewing people over time.  Lots more of an online presence for information where you can Q & A. Mason says the second part of what we need is an enforcement to see if people have been to a basic course so they have the basic skills and required people to have a card to show this order to play at a local dungeon.  If we invested in not moving if you can’t prove that someone has knowledge.  We are only willing to accept a certain level of risk.   People need to invest in the basic skills – communication and negotiation skills.  Of course that does involve work and Mason says some people don’t want to work.

 

The best place to find Mason deRou

At an event.  If you are out and about in Washington DC I’ve been at the Crucible, I’ve been to BESS.  Online Mason deRou on Facebook and on Fetlife LeRougaroux.  There is a group LeRougaroux’s Den with lots of readings. You can follow without sending a friend request.

Thanks for joining me for Sex Spoken Here with Dr Lori Beth Bisbey.  This week we talked about consent, risk assessment, the importance of education in BDSM and how the community polices itself and the problems with this.  If any of this triggered you, please write me at drbisbey@the-intimacy-coach.com and I will help you to find resources.

Write to me with suggestions for the show, questions you want answered at drbisbey@the-intimacy-coach.com, follow me on twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Check out my YouTube channel: Dr Lori Beth Bisbey. For a free 30-minute strategy session with me, go to https://the-intimacy-coach.com/and click the button that says click here! on the contact page.

Please leave a review on iTunes and stitcher if you enjoy the show.

I look forward to seeing you next week.

Master Black Zeus

Welcome to my virtual therapy room!  I am Dr Lori Beth Bisbey and this is Sex Spoken Here. Remember that this Vlog deals with adult themes so if you don’t have privacy you might wish to put on your headphones.

This is part 2 of my interview with Master Black Zeus.  Part one can be found on the A to Z of Sex podcast, Z is for Black Zeus.

I had the opportunity interview Master Black Zeus during Master Slave Conference 2018.  He is a community elder who entered the leather community in 1986 when he was mentored and introduced into the community by a gay leatherman who he rode motorcycles with.  Like many who engage in BDSM and/or are part of the leather community, he began his journey anonymously so as not to cause problems in his daily life.  He entered the public scene in 1997 by joining Black Rose and attending a number of classes and events.   He developed a website and began to host regular online educational events.  He is a member of MAsT Las Vegas and hosts the ISA Network video conferences.

We continued our conversation by talking about the differences between D/s and M/s relationships.   He talks about teaching power exchange (PE) versus total power exchange (TPE) and also talks about erotic power exchange which is solely for the erotic potential of the exchange.

We spoke about the models coming into BDSM, kink and leather.  We spoke about the fact that lots of things get eroticised because of the authority transfer.    So that some service activities become erotic because they are part of the service.

Master Black Zeus says that it is important to talk about more than kink when talking BDSM and that we are talking about relationship building.  He talked about the fact that there was a big thing made in his local community when they found out that he played with men.   He went on to say that being a dominant and a sadist, he can enjoy playing with people of all genders.   I point out that often times sexual orientation doesn’t enter into this because it is all about the dominance and submission, about the sadism and masochism and that means you can play with someone who is not of your usual preferred orientation or gender.

The conversation turned round to respect, relationships, consent and HIV.  We talked about sexual health and the importance of knowing about your sexual health status.  We spoke about the illusion that PREP means there is no epidemic anymore.  We spoke about all the other diseases that are around and how important regular sexual health screening is.

We finished by talking about what is important if you are going to engage in a BDSM lifestyle.   We talked about the fact that we all make mistakes and apologising and learning from mistakes is essential.  No one is perfect.

Thanks for joining me this week for Sex Spoken Here with Dr Lori Beth Bisbey.

Write to me with suggestions for the show, questions you want answered at drbisbey@the-intimacy-coach.com, follow me on twitter and instagram @drbisbey.

For a free 30 minute strategy session with me, go to https://the-intimacy-coach.com and head to the contact page and click the button that says Schedule Now!

I look forward to seeing you next week

With the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the issue of consent has been shoved into the foreground of daily life again.

The conversations around consent on social media, in the mainstream media and on the street highlight to me that few people truly understand the topic and those who do, don’t necessarily believe that people have a right to refuse or withdraw consent.

Consent has always been a bit of a sticky topic.

I’ve spent the past 30 years working with individuals, couples and polyamorous groups to help them sort out relationship issues, fix sexual problems, and create intimate relationships that last. Despite an emphasis on the need for the ‘safe sex’ conversation before having sex since the late 1980’s, an overwhelming majority of couples still skip the conversation and rely on use of barriers (condoms, femidoms, gloves, dental dams).   Talking about sex with a lover or potential lover still remains an area that many people find too tough to manage.  Because of this, people often don’t get explicit sexual consent.

 

Thinking back, my first memory about consent though I didn’t realise it at the time was when I was 7 years old.  I had an aunt who suffered from schizophrenia.  She was always loud, had her lipstick drawn way outside her lips and smelled kind of funny.  I can clearly remember being told to go give her a kiss because she would feel bad if I didn’t.  Before I could agree to do so, she grabbed me and I remember being held tight and struggling to get free.    I have countless friends who tell similar stories and many friends who are parents who admit telling their children to go hug the smelly aunt for the same reason.

 

The concept of consent has changed a lot in the past 40 years.

When I started dating in the 1970’s, a lot of gaining consent was unspoken.   Often a man would touch a woman and see how she reacted in order to see if they had consent.  This was the cultural norm at the time.  Girls were still taught to ‘play hard to get’ so the only real way guys had of knowing what the girl wanted was to make an advance and see if ‘no’ became ‘yes’.   The sexual revolution was in progress so people were given conflicting messages.  If women were hip then they were supposed to have lots of sex but if they did decide to have lots of sex, they were branded as sluts.  There were girls that you had fun with and girls that you had relationships with.  The ones you had relationships with were the ones who played hard to get.  I remember being extremely confused.  I enjoyed sex but when I was honest about this, I was a slut. I wasn’t ever very good at playing hard to get because I didn’t lie well.

 

An article published in the Journal of Sexual Violence in November 2017, highlights that college men are really confused about gaining consent for sex.    It suggests that men don’t make a distinction between a woman expressing desire and a woman giving consent.  Essentially, to these men, an expression of desire equalled a green light to pursue sex.

 

When I think back to the examples of sexual consent in the media when I was entering the world of relationships, the first that comes to mind is Hans Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars.

He pursues her relentlessly and she refuses constantly.  In the end, he pushes her against the wall and kisses her as she is refusing again!  She melts and they form a great romance.    Harrison Ford goes on to force himself on multiple heroines in Blade Runner and all the Indiana Jones movies.  And all of the women melt (including me).   Except this isn’t consent, it is coercion.

The message for men is that women are turned on by this caveman approach and that eventually they will consent and melt.   This might be true but only when the man is as hot as Harrison Ford and the woman is already attracted to him.  And that’s the problem.    If Mary has told Art from accounting repeatedly and clearly that she doesn’t want to go out with him and is not interested in him at all sexually, she will not find him pushing her up against the wall and kissing her hot at all.   She will see this for what it is, a sexual assault.

It isn’t surprising that men feel the goal posts have moved repeatedly and that women are equally frustrated.

With the recent mounting allegations in so many arenas, the imbalance of power has been highlighted when talking about harassment.  If there is an imbalance of power, men are told that any suggestion of sexual activity can be seen as harassment.  When President Bill Clinton had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky, though both acknowledged that there was a power imbalance, Ms Lewinsky wrote in 2014 ‘Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: It was a consensual relationship.’  How are men supposed to walk through this minefield without getting blown up?  If someone takes advantage of you, how can that be consensual?  Would it not be more honest for her to say – ‘It was a consensual relationship’. and leave it at that?

People are still more likely to meet sexual and romantic partners in the workplace than anywhere else.

With the increasing confusion around consent, how can you express interest in a colleague without being perceived as harassing?  If you are his or her boss, don’t express sexual interest period. The power imbalance makes it very difficult navigate this type of relationship.  The person in the junior position will always have some concerns about whether refusing will change the work relationship with the boss and impact upon the job and promotion prospects.    You are best off hoping the person who works for you will express their interest and then you can accept their advances.  Although even this is not without risk.

If you are an equal or are the subordinate in the relationship, then you can express interest but I would suggest expressing it in as non-sexual a way as possible. Invite the person for a coffee instead of telling the person how sexy you find them.

What constitutes sexual consent?

Consent is when someone says ‘yes’.

This may seem obvious but many people confuse the lack of a ‘no’ for consent.  Silence does not mean yes.

You can only get consent from someone who is able to give consent.

People who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol may not be able to give consent.  It depends upon how altered their reasoning ability is whilst taking the drugs or alcohol. For example, if a person is so drunk that he cannot stand up and is blacking out, he cannot give consent. However, if a person is able to function and under the influence of alcohol, he can give consent even though he may not make the best decisions and he may regret it the next day.

Jeff and John met through a friend.  On their first date, they enjoyed two bottles of wine during dinner.  Jeff invited John up to his flat for a nightcap.   John said yes and they each had a glass of port.  John asked Jeff where the restroom was and when he stood up he said ‘I’m a bit buzzed’ and grinned.  When he came back from the restroom, they began kissing again.  Things heated up very quickly and Jeff asked John if he would like to have sex with him. John hesitated for a moment and then said ‘I don’t usually do this on a first date.  But yes, I would like to have sex with you.’    Many people in Jeff’s position would simply make sure there were condoms and lube handy and then go back to the foreplay.    After all, John has consented to sex and Jeff is really attracted to him.

For some people, John being buzzed and also stating that he doesn’t usually have sex on a first date would be enough to make them question whether the consent was valid.  Would John feel happy the next day about having gone against his own mores by having sex on the first date?  It’s possible that John would feel upset with himself but not with Jeff.  Equally, he could feel taken advantage of by Jeff as he could feel that once Jeff realised he was buzzed and he had stated that he doesn’t usually have sex on the first date, Jeff should have suggested that they wait until the next date.    To me, this situation is an ethical challenge. Is a person responsible for protecting their potential sexual partner from a potentially bad decision?   Perhaps but that also could feel extremely patronising.   How does someone know if it is a good or bad decision for another person? Or is it simply the case that when someone is buzzed or drunk and expressing hesitancy about having sex, no sexual activity should be pursued as they are not giving enthusiastic  or affirmative consent.

People who are suffering from mental illness may not be able to give consent.   This depends upon the person’s ability to comprehend what is being asked of her, her ability to comprehend the consequences of going through with what is being asked of her.  If she is not able to understand the potential consequences of having sexual intercourse with a man (like getting pregnant or contracting a sexually transmitted infection), then she cannot give consent.

There is also arousal non-concordance.

Emily Nagoskiwrites about this extensively. Arousal non-concordance is when the body’s signals about the sexual value of something does not agree with the mind or emotion’s feelings about the sexual value of something.  For example, a man can have an erection randomly and it does not mean he wants to have sex with the person he is talking to at the time of the erection.  A woman can lubricate during a sexual activity and not be enjoying it at all. This happens frequently during sexual assaults and is one of the things that makes victims feel so guilty.  They think because there was physical arousal or even orgasm it equals enjoyment.  It does not.  Equally a woman can be very interested in sex and very turned on but not lubricating for a whole host of reasons.  This is why it is essential to listen to someone’s words about what they want rather than thinking that a body is telling the ‘true’ story.

Do you need consent for every single part of a sexual encounter?

Yes. However this does not need to kill the buzz.  In my experience, the best way to make this fun is to have a conversation before beginning. Talk about all the things you want to do with each other and get clear consent.  Talk about your fantasies and ask your partner what she would like to engage in. Ask your lover about her fantasies and what she would like to do.  Consent goes both ways.

Even when you have clear consent as you begin, your lover can still withdraw consent at any time.  For example, you talk about anal sex as part of your consent conversation over dinner and both of you agree that the idea is hot and you want to try it tonight.  You prepare well and use lots of lubrication but as you begin, your lover says it hurts too badly and asks you to stop.  You no longer have consent at this point and need to stop.

Consent is a dynamic process.

Pay attention to what your lover is saying, the emotion being communicated and body language.  If any of this seems at all hesitant or confused, check with your lover again. Ask if they like what you are doing and want you to continue.  When in doubt, listen to your partner’s words.

I still like the video published by the Thames Valley Police in the UK comparing consent to a cup of tea.   However, Cathy Young wrote a great piece that highlights the fact that consent isn’t this simple.  She highlights the fact that lots of definitions of assault now suggest that if someone is badgered until they give in and say yes this is still sexual assault.    She speaks about the current rape narratives in the media that become ‘I said no but he kept trying until I said yes’.  This is coercion.

Please note, I am not suggesting that you keep needling at someone until they finally give in.  That is coercion. But if you do that and I say yes, legally I have given consent.   The idea that if you have to convince me, I have not given consent is dead wrong.  If you convince me to say yes, then I have given consent.   I can change my mind and say no in the middle of things and then you have to stop what you are doing.  When I say no, I have withdrawn consent.  If I say yes because I don’t want to hurt your feelings, that is consent.  As long as I am free to refuse without risking some actual harm (like being beaten, killed, losing my job, my family being harmed), it is consent.   It’s up to me to gather the strength to refuse.

A good portion of the continued confusion about consent arises because in many places women are still objectified.

Men who objectify women don’t understand appropriate boundaries.  They ignore the woman’s role in the workplace and instead see her only or primary role as being a sexual object for a man.  When a man views a woman as purely a sexual object, it is not a big step for him to believe that she should be a sexual object for him.

The current narrative in the media seems to suggest that men fall into two categories:  abusers or not good enough allies.  Few men are depicted as good allies to women.  This is a thorny topic and often ends up making men feel that they can do no right.   The thing is, we all make mistakes.  In my conversation about consent with Kitty Stryker, one of the things she highlighted as being important is there being away for people who have violated consent to apologise and make amends and be accepted back into the community at large.  We were talking particularly about the BDSM community, but we also agreed that this applies when talking about sexual harassment as well.  Clearly if someone rapes a woman, a simple apology and promise not to do this again will not be enough. If someone harasses a woman in the work place, there ought to be a way back into the workplace community. If we do not start providing ways back in when people make mistakes and we continue to focus on blame, things will remain fractured and the divide between men and women will increase.

How do we begin to repair the divide?

To start, we open the conversation.  We admit that all of us fail to get consent at times.  Have you ever given someone a hug without asking and felt their discomfort?  Did you tell your child to go hug Aunt Jane so she wouldn’t feel hurt?  We take responsibility for our part in this dynamic.  Have you played hard to get or have you ignored a woman’s ‘no’?

Then, we express a willingness to teach and learn about consent, to look at the concept not only as a means to an end (How do I get her to f**k me?) but also as a part of how we connect with each other, the dynamic between us.

Finally, we work on how to create real tangible ways to heal breaches of consent instead of focusing solely on blame so that our relationships heal and we move forward into positive relationships in the workplace, social spaces and the wider community.