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Dear How to Do It,
Lately, I’ve been considering non-monogamy. I feel like I’ve found a different kind of love with every one of my exes, and I don’t see why I couldn’t love multiple partners at the same time. In fact, it might even be better not to expect one partner to fulfill all of my relationship hopes and dreams! Kitchen table polyamory particularly appeals to me. The problem is, I have a type.
I like the sweet, thoughtful nerds. My exes from college were all engineering majors. I’d love to go on a museum date. My idea of a good weekend is bouldering and a board game night, not clubbing and cocaine. But I’m afraid that none of the people who are “my type” will be poly. I’m afraid the poly community will be full of shallow, entitled, untrustworthy fuckboys. (Like, to an even greater extent than the monogamous world is.)
Also, emotional intimacy is important to me; I’m not interested in hookups. But as a young, bisexual, and fairly gullible woman, I’m afraid I’ll be led on, tricked, and used as a sex toy. Basically, I want to treat others and be treated like more than just a hot body. So I’m writing to ask: What are polyamorous people actually like? Do you think I could find partners who have personalities I’m attracted to? Do you think I could find partners who are respectful of me? And where is a good place to look for them?
Stoya: So you want to treat others like more than just a hot body, which implies you want to connect human-to-human, but you’ve got this pile of assumptions that feels somewhat bigoted about the community that you want to be a part of?
I’ve got a personal story for this.
Rich: Well, I would love to hear it.
Stoya: It’s the essence of several similar stories. So, I used to work in pornography, which is considered by people who don’t have anything to do with sexual labor to be sex work. And people have all these ideas about sex work, right? I know that as of a few years ago, in order to work on a professional porn set, you have to have a test no less than 14 days old for HIV, hepatitis D, A, and B, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis—COVID screenings were required until recently–and they’ve just started screening for Mgen as well.
So I know how robust this STI risk mitigation system is, and people still have these ideas that bring them to ask, “How do I know you’re not going to give me AIDS, or HIV?” And it’s like, oh boy.
Rich: You’ve been asked that directly?
Stoya: Most recently a few weeks ago.
Rich: Oh, my God.
Stoya: I tell that story to make the point that when someone comes to me and is like, “I want to have sex with you, but prove to me that you’re not dangerous,” it becomes this teachable moment where it’s like, OK, talk about the fricking testing system, as though we haven’t all done that on public record 12 times.
Rich: Repeatedly. Yeah.
Stoya: And it could be Googled, right? If you wanted to know what the STI prevention system is like in pornography, you can look this up. That kind of presumption of the worst case feels bad. And it does not incline me to want to have sex with you.
Rich: Right. It’s a turn off.
Stoya: Yeah. So our writer needs to get to the point where they’re curious about the community that they want to enter and are coming from a neutral position, like, let’s see what these people are like, let’s meet people, see who I click with—instead of like, I’m afraid that none of these people are what I imagine.
Rich: Yeah. It can feel scary before you enter a new world, but often when you’re there you’re just…existing and talking to people. If you’re open minded, your presumptions may melt away as you understand that the people in this world are actual people, and varied at that.
Stoya: And anywhere you go after 9:00 p.m., somebody probably has cocaine in their pocket or their nose. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a swinger’s club or a poly party or…
Rich: Exactly. And also, I mean, as far as those kinds of drugs go—just given my very recent nightlife experience—I feel like cocaine is maybe one of the least of your worries in terms of connecting with people. Funnily enough, there’s this book, The Polyamorists Next Door by Elizabeth Sheff, who is a noted expert and researcher of polyamory. She’s had her own experiences and she talked to a bunch of different people involved in poly, especially those with kids, for this particular book. There’s not a ton of research on the actual population that exists, but insofar as it does, she has contributed a lot to the reporting.
And there’s literally a paragraph in this book where she writes “that polyamory appears to be especially appealing to geeks, gamers, science-fiction fans, and people with unconventional religious or philosophical views. Once someone has stepped outside the mainstream, it is easier to continue considering alternatives. Usually, people who become polyamorous have already done other unconventional things or held unconventional ideas. Polyamory is not usually the first step ‘outside the box.’” I mean, right then and there, that kind of refutes our writer’s assumption with a very broad stroke.
She has another breakdown of this a little bit earlier in the book:
“Most people in mainstream polyamorous communities in the United States and those who volunteer to participate in research on poly relationships—my own research and others—are white, middle upper class, highly educated, and employed in professional fields, such as information technology, counseling, or education. The people in my study shared some personality traits that were also common in poly communities, such as being liberal, intellectual, open-minded, geeky, and devoted to social justice. They’re aging hippies, young professionals, science-fiction enthusiasts, obsessed with steampunk, and families with children.”
So that’s not to say that those types can’t be fuckboys, but in terms of the actual geekiness that this person is drawn to, I think you’re more likely to find that than not, as you’re entering this space. There’s one thing checked off, right then and there.
Stoya: Yeah. I’m thinking I’ve actually literally been taken on museum dates by poly people. I do not boulder, but boy, do we play board games.
Rich: The one thing that you can say with a good amount of confidence about this population is that anyone who’s doing it, anyone who’s functioning within it for any period of time, has to have the communication skills to hang. And it requires a lot of communication skills. So again, poly people are people who can exploit and mistreat and harass and do all sorts of things that you don’t want in a person, but also that particular orientation or lifestyle—or love style, if you will—it creates a certain tendency, I think, to maybe exhibit and engage in what we would consider pro-social behavior for a partner, by and large, if you actually do value things like communication, which it seems like this person does. That’s not to say, don’t worry, you’ll be fine, because who knows if you will be. But if we’re placing bets here, I’d put more money on a poly partner being an upstanding person more so than a non-poly partner.
Stoya: And to speak to the gullibility, that doesn’t mean every poly person is safe. You should still look for red flags: Do the things that they’re saying contradict each other? How are they with your boundaries? Are they like, “oh, I see a boundary, I’m going to respect that”—or do they bumble over it, and then say, “oh, I didn’t notice”? Or “I don’t care about your boundary; I’m going to stay right where I am, or even go further”? And obviously, these things are a spectrum. So you decide, and it’s actually good to decide at the beginning how much of that you’re willing to tolerate. At what point on the respecting-to-undermining-boundaries spectrum are you like, “OK, that’s too much for me”?
Rich: Definitely. And also keep in mind that basically any major metropolitan area in the United States is going to have its poly community, which means meeting up, but you’re not immediately jumping into bed with these people. This is a social group, essentially. So you can go in and you can check it out. And I don’t have much experience in those spaces, but I have to assume if a bunch of people are congregating for the sake of socializing, then they’re also gossiping. So you can go in there, you can talk to other women. You could ask, “What’s he like? Is he cool?” You can fairly assume that people with bad reputations wouldn’t be invited to stay for very long. So you can kind of talk to people and vet that way.
Again, it’s not a foolproof process, but it gives you more information than if you’re just walking around on the street and you bump into somebody that you’re sexually interested in. I think that this particular way of going about things actually has advantages, more advantages than your average dating scenario.
Stoya: And you could absolutely fire up an app, OkCupid, or especially Feeld; it’s just the scale of OkCupid means you’ll still find plenty of poly people. You make your profile and you state that you are non-monogamous, and you choose when to reveal that this is a new thing for you. You should say something at some point, but it can be in your profile or three dates in, or right after you have sex the first time. That last one might be controversial, but if the sex is not good, I do not bother to talk about future possibilities.
Rich: Totally. Also, I think there’s a younger generation who has the idea that there is no amount of disclosure that’s enough, but being an older person, I feel like your biography is your business. Barring any kind of need-to-know information—an active infection, for example—you can kind of do what you want with your life and information. We get a lot of people writing in about their inexperience and feeling self-conscious about that, and about when should they reveal that they haven’t had sex at all, and it’s like, you don’t really have to. And then when you do have sex, now you’ve had sex, so you still don’t need to talk about. I don’t think it’s necessary that you give people your entire CV upon meeting them and saying, “Hey, what do you think of me?”
Stoya: I agree. And the argument for listing it in a bio or saying it right out of the gate is it lets other people know, which 1) may encourage the kind of unofficial information-sharing that you were speaking about earlier, and 2) gives people an opportunity to respond like a creep, if they’re going to.
Stoya: It’s useful information.
Rich: Yes. I mean, to me, if I already know I’m naive, the last thing I’m going to do is go into a room and be like, “I’m new at this. Anyone who’s interested in taking advantage of someone like me, step right up.” So I think that you can play your cards closer to your vest and really just kind of experience it. You don’t have to look at it as this kind of project, or this is what I’m doing now, or this is the kind of person I am. Just go experience life. Get into it.
I think also that it’s quite possible to be poly even removed from a community, right? You can have multiple dating partners who have nothing to do with that, who haven’t read The Ethical Slut, even. So it’s really kind of how you want to do it. It’s up to you.
More From How to Do It
When I had sex with my first boyfriend when I was 17, he came very quickly, within a minute. He was embarrassed. I told him it was normal—I think I confidently asserted this based on teen movies—and that he would last longer the next time. The thing is, he never really did. Every time we had sex, after maybe a minute or two, he’d have to pull out or he’d be done (yes, he tried the baseball trick). But I discovered something else about myself.