Category Archives: Relationships

Essays on subjects that have to do with how we relate to each other, with non-monogamy and motherhood being of primary interest.

Who I Am With You Isn’t Who I Am With Him

M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher

I wrote a story a few months ago called “Looking Glass”, in which a woman looks forwards to having sex with the guy she’s seeing, not just because she wants to fuck him (though she does), but because

“sex is her looking glass. It lets her see who a person is, (or rather who they are with her). It lets her see who she is with them. She wants that view more than she wants to get off. She wants to see if they fit.”

At the time I wrote the story, I made a mental note to circle back to the idea that sex can be a mirror, not just for you or your partner, but for who you are together. Identity and personality are pet topics on this blog, so I’m not going to waste time saying that personalities are fluid. Anyone with a secret Twitter account can tell you that Secret Twitter You is just as authentically “you” as Dinner with Gran You. It’s just not the “you” your gran is used to seeing…probably.

Instead, I want to look at how that fluidity plays out in sexual dynamics. Most of us slide up and down a sexual scale. Even people who identify very strongly as one thing (submissive, dominant, vanilla, etc.) tend to play that thing out differently with different lovers. Part of what makes for sexual chemistry between any two people is how well you intuit each other, and that’s different case by case.

That’s why I’ve always been curious about what sex would be like with different people. Like the protagonist in “Looking Glass”, my anticipation in the build up to my first time with someone new is rooted in curiosity—who will I be with them, who will they be with me, and what will be together? In other words, what will we bring out in each other?

Ages ago, I was seeing two very different men. Let’s call them A and B. My dynamic with A was emotionally and sexually intense. We went dancing and did a great deal of staring intensely into each other’s eyes. The sex was fucking hot.

My dynamic with B was different. Mostly, he and I laughed. We went to diners and dive bars and told rambling stories. The sex was also amazing, but in a super playful, peaches and cream kind of way.

One day, B and I went to an event and met up with A and his date. Everything was great, so much so that I didn’t give the meeting a second thought until the next time I saw A when he commented that he’d had no idea I was such a goofball.

Here’s how that conversation played out in semi-fictional dialogue.

A: Hey, M?

Me: What’s up?

A: So….

Me: ….yes?

A: Do I keep you from being you?

Me: (blank stare)  No. Why?

A: Because you seemed so relaxed with B the other day. I mean, I’ve never seen you so relaxed and goofy and I was kind of wondering if I was keeping you from that because, you know, I’m not relaxed. Or goofy.

Me: Aw, babe…. (sits on his lap and gently bites his neck) Who I am with you isn’t who I am with him. I’m goofy and relaxed with B because B and I are goofy and relaxed together. I’m pouncier with you because that’s how we are. One isn’t more me than the other. It’s all me. You’re just seeing what naturally comes out with you.

A: (melts because he loves having his neck bit) Okay, so…what you’re saying is…it’s all good.

Me: (straddles him) It’s all good.

The conversation ended there and all was (extremely) good – because that’s how it worked naturally for A and I. Had that conversation happened with B instead of A, I probably wouldn’t have nibbled on him and gone straight to sex because that’s not how it was with us. We’d have had a good conversation, probably gotten philosophical, and then had slow, lazy sex before watching The Matrix and eating take-out.

In either case, the set of impulses I had with A were just as authentic as the ones I’d have had with B, they were just very different. That’s why the first time with a new partner is exciting, even if it isn’t magical right off the bat. It’s not just about chemistry. It’s about curiosity and mutual potential; how we connect, and how defined that connection is.  Do we share one wavelength, or do we slide over the scale together?

All of those questions hum along, fueling attraction, chemistry, and sex. And the answers, as variable and context dependent as they are, form a hell of a good mirror for anyone, so long as they are authentically engaged. It’s why relationships fascinate me in all of their brilliant, curious, mind-blowing, toxic, soul-deep, casual variations.  It’s one of the biggest reasons I love sex…aside from the obvious.

 

Unrelated PSA:

For months now, I’ve been working on a collection that I’m very excited about. I’m lucky enough to be working with an amazing editor, but life is getting busier and I need to clear more time for it, so, for the next little bit, the blog will be moving to a slightly less regular posting schedule. It’s definitely not going anywhere. There will just be a slightly longer gap between posts.

In the meantime, feel free to dig into the archives and cringe at what a catastrophe of a baby blogger I was. It’s the blogging equivalent of refrigerator art –  precious, precious stuff. 😀

A Case for Good Men

Propaganda style poster of Captain America for The First Avenger Film, for A Case for Good Men by Malin James

Design by Eric Tan

A few weeks ago, after a little Avengers marathon, a friend asked me why I have such a thing for Steve Rogers. Aside from the fact that Chris Evans is hot, the real reason I crush on Captain America is because Steve Rogers is a Good Man ™ ie: the kind of guy who’ll jump on a grenade (pre-superhero makeover) when everyone else runs away.

My friend didn’t get it. Aside from agreeing that Chris Evans is hot, (because holy hell, c’mon), she thinks Cap is pretty boring and would take Loki over him in a heartbeat. And coming from where she’s coming from, that’s understandable. She’s in the somewhat rare position of never having been hurt, either in love in or life. Her career, marriage, and status are as stable Mt. Rushmore, so when she see’s an iconically good man like Captain America, she sees what she’s always known, which is not what fantasies are about. That’s why she’s all over fictional bad boys like Loki. For her, danger is a novelty. For me, trust is.

And why wouldn’t danger be a novelty? If you’re lucky, real danger is rare. That’s why you get kryptonite when you dress a sexy guy up in reluctance and black leather. Not that I don’t get that sexy, edgy, bad boy thing. I’ve dated a lot of bad boys and a few bad men (there’s a difference, but I’ll get to that) so I get the attraction in spades. I doubt I could’ve written this post if I didn’t.

In the end, my appreciation for good men is due entirely to contrast – good men have qualities that dating bad men have made me value, like integrity and trustworthiness. My natural attraction has always been to the black leather end of the spectrum, but I’ve developed an aversion after glutting myself through my twenties and early thirties. In fact, if my history were full of men I could trust, I probably wouldn’t fetishize it now. My attraction to good men is purely adaptive but no less real for it.

Now, before I go on, I need to undermine my own argument.

The good man / bad boy dichotomy I’ve set up is bullshit. No one is entirely good, or entirely bad. At least, most people aren’t. The exceptions tend to live in supermax prisons or Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. Most people live on a scale that slides from good to bad depending on context. A generally awful person can still help an old lady cross the street, and a generally good person can still be a troll.

This makes defining the Good Man ™ tricky, which is why I’m using the dichotomy. While it’s a ridiculous reduction of complex human behavior, simplicity can be useful. So, for the sake of this post, a good man is a man whose behavior is mostly guided by principles rooted in the well-being of others, while a bad boy’s behavior is mostly guided by impulse and desire, regardless of consequence.

A Few Brief Words About Bad Men:

A few paragraphs ago, I said that bad men and bad boys weren’t the same thing. A bad boy might be careless or act primarily in his own self-interest but, generally speaking, he will dig deep and act on others’ behalves when the context or person is right. Think Spike from Buffy, Loki, Han Solo, James Bond – the bad guy with the heart of gold.

A real life bad man doesn’t have the heart of gold simmering under the smirk. A real life bad man has a passport full of places you’d never, ever want to go. He has a name he wasn’t born with. He gives you a knife for Christmas and then holds it to your throat (not in a sexy way). He has no problem with gaslighting, undermining or turning you into something he owns. It’s not that a bad man can’t do a good thing. It’s that he’s only likely to do it if it serves his bottom line, and the bottom line is always him.

We fetishize antiheroes and bad boys because they combine a good man’s virtues with a bad man’s danger and sex appeal, so much so that a standard bad boy story arc is his journey to finally doing the right thing. (Think Han Solo’s saving the day during Luke’s Death Star run).

Looked at from that angle, the appeal of the bad boy trope is, in fact, that bad boys are really good men buried under a pile of scoundrelly sexiness. The only difference is that a good man’s integrity (and trustworthiness, etc, etc.) isn’t playing hard to get. It’s not waiting for that one special woman or situation to activate it, nor is it conditional. It’s just there, guiding his behavior, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

That’s why I love Cap but kind of loathe Superman. Steve Rogers never stops doing the hard thing, even after he becomes, for all intents and purposes, invincible. His integrity puts him at odds with the world, whereas Superman, to my knowledge, just does his thing. He got the super for free. Good men aren’t good because being good is easy. They’re good because it’s hard and they do it anyway. That is bad ass and fucking hot.

While I absolutely get the bad boy appeal, the bad man experience has made me wary of it. If a man is good, I want to see it. If I can trust him, I want to know it. If I can relax my guard with him, that’s better than gold and (for me) just as rare. It’s not an issue of safety – at this point, I’m good at keeping myself safe. It’s not having to think about it that makes a good man sexy as hell.

NB: 

The wonderful and incredibly perceptive Honey over at Happy Come Lucky made an excellent point in the comments and on Twitter that warrants a note here. Built into all that is good in good men is the question of how good they are for you. You could date Captain America and he could treat you like a queen, but if duty is his first priority, he will leave you to do the right thing. Just ask Agent Carter.

A man’s goodness won’t save you from getting your heart broken. It won’t guarantee that he never leaves you, nor will it guarantee that he’ll put you first. All it does is tell you that his integrity, principles, and priorities are generally aimed at what he considers to be right. This is where the dichotomy fails and the gray area comes in. What’s good for everyone else may not be good for you as his partner. The best man in the world can still hurt you. The only difference is that he probably won’t mean to when he does.

How Do I Love Thee: On Comparing Relationships

Sepia historical photograph of a woman dressed as cupid next to a lion for Post How Do You Love Me by Malin James

Woman with Lion, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Every so often, my daughter asks me if I love her best.**

This is a tricky moment as a parent, because my impulse is to say, Yes! Of course, I love you best. It’s the answer she’s looking for and by far the simplest to give. But as much as my love for her is one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever felt, to say that I love her best does something that I’m not quite comfortable with – it accidentally reinforces a way of thinking about love that can lead to insecurity later on.

I realize that I might be overthinking this. Is there really any harm in telling her that I love her best?  There are so many things I don’t bother worrying about, like Santa’s existence or whether or not she believes in god. But reinforcing emotional comparisons feels oddly dangerous to me. It implies that love is a zero-sum game and, as Exhibt A wrote, it isn’t. Survival is, but not love.

Love, like so many things, is contextually unique. For example, a person’s love for their child can be catastrophically powerful, but what if you have two or more children? Who do you love best then? That question is almost impossible to answer (without screwing up one of more of your kids), which is why “I love you all differently” is such a great response. It reinforces the love while avoiding the comparison.

Why is avoiding comparison important for all relationships (not just those involving multiple kids)? Because when you start to comparing the different loves you feel, you risk diminishing all of them. Love isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but comparing relationships with the intention of weighing who is loved best imposes finite limits on an emotion that is naturally infinite.

The real question is what underlies the comparison. Not to get all cold and pragmatic about it, but what it really comes down to is resource distribution. We’re a fundamentally competitive species because our survival depends on it. We commodify resources because resources, whether emotional or physical, have a value rooted in survival. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

So where does love fit into that? Love is a resource too, or rather, the safety love signifies is. As a species, we evolved through dark nights full of predators that wanted to eat us. Abandonment = death. We are literally hardwired to fear being cast aside, and one of the best guarantors of that not happening is love.

When my daughter asks me if I love her best, she’s expressing a really basic concern: If a lion grabbed Daddy and me, would you save me, even if it meant not saving Daddy? (For what it’s worth, the answer is yes. Her dad’s okay with that). The anxiety that underlies the question is instinctively human – so much so that it shows up in all kinds of relationships, not just those between a parent and child, but friendships, business partnerships and romantic relationships.

I suspect that I’m hyper aware of all this because I’ve been poly for so long. While love is definitely not a zero-sum game, survival is, and at a very basic level, we have tied security to love and pain to exclusion. That’s why, in poly relationships, it’s important to be patient with a partner’s fears and insecurities. That sort of status anxiety is hardwired into us and, for most people, it takes a bit of effort to work through.

The impulse to compare is an instinctive attempt to see if our position in the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to torture yourself into fearing that it’s not. In the end, it’s about security. The surest way to avoid the trap of comparison is to address the underlying concern. If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.

In the end, it’s not about who is loved best, but how you are loved. Are you  loved well? Is your person’s love a revelation? A homecoming? A whetstone? Is it a soft blanket on a rainy night or a delicate porcelain vase? The how says so much more than any comparison could. The how is about the two of you. The how is solid ground.

**NB: Chunks of Browning’s Sonnet 43 are the answer I give my daughter when she asks me how I love her…that and “I love you bigger than the galaxy and 9 million stars”, which is really pretty big. 

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Unbearably Sexy

Black and white photograph of Michael Fassbender for Vogue issue April 2012 for Unbearably Sexy post by Malin James

Michael Fassbender & Natalia Vodianova for Vogue, April 2012

I should preface this by saying that this isn’t what I’d call a proper post. It’s more of a message from my id…. Carry on.

Yesterday, I stumbled over this photograph of Michael Fassbender and Natalia Vodianova from the April 2012 issue of Vogue. It’s gorgeous, dramatic and ambiguous – just the sort of thing I love. But “gorgeous, dramatic and ambiguous” makes it sound like my response to it was  dreamy and appreciative in a purely aesthetic way.

It wasn’t.

My response was an immediate shot of violent arousal. It’s the sort of feral jolt I don’t usually get unless the source of my arousal is either very personal or touchably in front of me.

In the wake of this fantastically primal response, I tweeted the photo with the caption “This is unbearably sexy” because that’s exactly how it felt – unbearably sexy. This image is so sexy that it was literally difficult for me to bear. For some reason, it taps into every dark, delicious, predatory instinct I have. Even as I type this, I feel sharp and edgy.

I ended up DM’ing a bit later with a couple of women who had similar reactions – similar, but not quite the same. While we all got that holy hell, FUCK ME shot of arousal, the women I chatted with were pretty open about the fact that it was because they identified with, or wanted to be, Natalia Vodianova.

This is very much in keeping with what I assume to be the intention of the image given that it’s part of that issue’s cover feature on Michael Fassbender. Of course, the female reader is meant to identify with Vodianova. Who wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of Fassbender’s sleek concentration?

That’s what underpins the image’s visible cues – his control and her softness, the way he’s holding her still, her pretty glove on his sleeve, the precision of his hand vs. the carelessness of his writing…. I see all of those things and feel the pull of the same response – the one I should be having:

Let it be my hand on his sleeve and my temple he’s writing on. 

But it’s not. I’m reacting to something else – something I’ve manufactured in response to the image. Yes, it’s fed by his apparent control but it’s not because I want to be the lovely, pliant recipient of that attention. I don’t want to be the woman he’s doing it to, I want to be the woman he’s doing it for. I want to watch him while he does it and know that I’m under his skin.

Despite how that probably sounds, that desire doesn’t come from a place of dominance. It comes from the fact that I love power and confidence and force of will. I love prowess, and I love watching my partners exercise their prowess. It’s intensely exciting to me because equality is exciting to me – there is nothing as intimately hot as knowing that I am with someone whose will is as strong as mine, someone who can meet me step for step wherever we happen to go, especially when he trusts me to take the lead.

This photograph is not an image of that equality – it’s of a magnetic man exercising his prowess. Fassbender’s control, his focus, intensity and aloofness, the way he makes an object of her…it’s beautiful in the way a painting is beautiful. And so is the softness of her compliance. They are the picture of a dynamic that I would love to watch unfold…and, more importantly, that I would love to control.

So, where would I be in this picture?

Under his skin and in the back of his mind. In the pressure of the quill and his furrowed brow. In the drop of his shoulder and his barely parted lips.

He would bring me the taste of her perfume, like a token or a gift. He would bring me smudges of India ink, and I would lick the ink from his fingers and the perfume from his skin. I don’t own him. I wouldn’t want to. I love that he can’t be owned. But I’m in him; and in the ink; and in his impulse to write – by choice as much as will. And were I in his place, he would be in me too.

Love is Not a Pie

“Love is not a pie, honey. I love you and Ellen differently because you are different people […]. I don’t choose between you. And it’s the same way with Daddy and Bolivar. People think that it can’t be that way, but it can. You just have to find the right people.”

-Amy Bloom, Come to Me.

Art deco ad for a German cabaret for Love is Not a Pie post by Malin James

What if the woman in red were his wife?

Reading Amy Bloom’s story, “Love is Not a Pie”, was my first encounter with something like polyamory. Bloom didn’t call it “polyamory” or even “non-monogamy”. It was just a woman’s relationship with her long-term lover—a relationship supported by her husband because, for those characters, “love it not a pie”—there’s enough to go around.

In the scene that most stayed with me, the narrator’s father and her mother’s lover take a nap together, exhausted by grief over the death of the woman they both love. They lean on each other because they are the only two people in the world who can understand the immediacy and depth of the other’s loss. That, to me, makes sense. Those are good, healthy loves.

Sometimes I forget that what I experience as normal is not, in fact, the norm. When I look at the image above, I don’t see a man checking out a hottie behind his wife’s back. I wonder if the hottie in red is his wife…or the woman in black’s mistress. It does me no credit, but I tend to walk around in a sort of bubble, protected against the unconventional nature of my relationships by a community that is fundamentally accepting.

As a result, I get lulled into a false sense of normalcy. Of course, my husband has had girlfriends (one of them even became my bridesmaid). Of course, I go to London to see my boyfriend-partner-person. Of course, my boyfriend-partner-person has other emotionally committed relationships. It’s a lifestyle that feels healthy, honest, and stable because, to me, love is neither a pie nor a competition. In fact, The Other Livvy wrote an excellent piece about precisely that.

For all that though, sometimes I’m reminded that what I take for granted is, for some people, unconventional, unhealthy, and pretty confounding. I bring this up because I’ve gotten a surprising number of questions about the status of one of my relationships recently. After talking it over with Exhibit A (my partner in that relationship), I’ve decided to write a post addressing some of the questions / curiosities people have put to me.

Without getting into specifics, the issues are generally this:

  1. How can you love two people at the same time?
  1. How can you maintain different, emotionally connected relationships without one of those relationships suffering?

Before I launch into my thoughts, Exhibit A has been good enough to let me share his take on the subject….

Most of us are brought up with pretty traditional – and narrow – ideas about the nature of love and relationships. We’re taught that romantic love at least is finite, and acceptable only when focused on one person at a time. I struggled with that perceived constraint for a long time – it didn’t fit how I felt, but I also couldn’t see a way around it, and the relationships I formed suffered as a result.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned to take a more fluid, open view of love. Forming a primary bond with one person doesn’t preclude maintaining equally deep, valid, loving connections with other partners – indeed, as long as there is good communication, openness and honesty, each relationship actually supports and enhances the other. Not only am I much happier as a result of finding that out, I’m a better partner too, and finally feel like I’m able to express my feelings in a way that works for me.

-Exhibit A

The notion of fluidity that Exhibit A mentions is important. There are no guarantees in poly relationships, just as there are no guarantees in life. There is only the desire to take care of the people you love, and part of that care is allowing your relationships (and those of your partners) to change and grow.

For example, while my husband, James, and I have always been non-monogamous, we temporarily closed our relationship once. Of course, it helped that neither of us were in serious relationships at the time, but even if we had been, those other relationships would have been considered in that decision and quite possibly maintained, even if new relationships weren’t started. The key is open communication with everyone involved so that each relationship is allowed to grow and shift naturally.

Now, to bring it back around to the first of the two questions –  how can you genuinely love two people at the same time?

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure—it’s a bit like asking the caterpillar how it walks. All I can say is that it is possible though I think it has a great deal to do with how a person is wired and the nature of the relationships they find themselves in. Some relationships are safer and more emotionally supportive than others. I’ve been very lucky in that all of my serious poly relationships have been, with one exception, remarkably healthy, so my natural tendency to love / lust simultaneously has been positively reinforced.

The second question is easier to pin down. In fact, I suspect it might be simpler to address the first question through the second. The way you maintain two (or more) relationships without letting one negatively affect the other(s) is to engage your relationships honestly. Not every relationship will be a long-term love – some will be casual and some will run deep, but they all deserve respect and a certain level of investment. In other words, you need to feed the connection you have to each of your partners regardless of what’s happening in your other relationships. Here’s an example….

My roles as a wife and mother, while being an integral part of who I am, don’t negate my role as a partner in my other relationship. My relationship with Exhibit A doesn’t threaten my marriage (or vice versa) because James and I laid a foundation of trust and communication very early on. My marriage doesn’t threaten the health of my commitment to Exhibit A for the same reason, and it’s for that same reason that his other relationship(s) don’t detract from mine with him.

A lot of how polyamory works (or fails to work) has to do with a person’s motives for being in an open relationship to begin with. I’m not with Exhibit A because of some lack in my marriage. I’m with him because we share a genuine (and pretty fucking awesome) connection. That’s important because if I were using our relationship as an escape hatch for problems at home, both my marriage and my relationship to Exhibit A would be on pretty shaky ground. Instead, both are rock solid, existing side by side without one detracting from the other because one isn’t supplementing a lack and vice versa.

To that end, feeling secure in both of my relationships is the critical factor. That sense of security makes accepting and embracing Exhibit A’s (and James’s) other partner(s) a natural and happy thing, because I trust that our foundation is solid regardless of who or how he loves.

Admittedly, the only reason any of this works is because there is genuine love, attraction and connection on all sides, and because the principle relationships involved are emotionally committed and have been for some time. In addition to honest attempts at communication, everyone involved has genuinely good intentions. No one is angling, lying or undermining. While we don’t exist in a utopia where birds talk and mice do your laundry, everyone is honestly trying their best, and that counts for a lot (don’t ever discount how important awesome metamours are).

So, all of this is a long way of saying that you love whoever you love and the loves you feel are specific to each person. Sometimes that means falling in love with two (or more) people at the same time. If you’re, lucky, you’re able to love without losing anyone. And if you’re extremely lucky, you’re able to establish healthy, honest relationships that change and grow (if a relationship is what you want).

I know that isn’t normal. In fact, it’s rare enough that I’m extremely grateful for it, but it’s also not impossible. Because, sometimes, in some relationships, love is not a pie.

Being Haunted

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

This past weekend, James (my husband) and I went into town for our 10th anniversary. We live less than an hour outside of San Francisco, but for much of our twelve year relationship we lived in the city proper. It’s still our favorite place, so rather than take a bigger, going-away type vacation for our 10th, we decided it would be more fun to go into the city, stay in a hotel and enjoy our old haunts.

I don’t write much about my marriage, not because I’m trying to hide it but because I feel very protective of it (as I do with all of my close relationships). The truth is that things have not always been easy for us. In fact, things were pretty hard (though not in the way people might assume for a non-monogamous marriage). Our beginning was complicated and that set the tone for many years.

One of those complications is a former lover. Let’s call him Patrick. I’ve mentioned him in passing before, most recently here. Patrick and James were good friends when James and I started dating. I started seeing Patrick and his partner several months later. James had his own relationship with them, so the four of us made a very happy quad for about six months. Then James asked me to marry him and it all began to deteriorate.

I’m going to skip details here because this relationship has pounds of material in it and not all of it is relevant. Suffice it to stay, my relationship with Patrick became toxic just as my relationship with James was flourishing. The abuse was subtle – Patrick never hit me or left marks. He never did anything that would raise red flags. He was too smart for that.  Everything was intensely reasonable and impossible to argue. He was a lovely steel-trap.

When James and I told him we were engaged, what had been a good secondary relationship took on a different tone. Patrick decided that if James was getting what he later called “an official claim”, he deserved an even bigger one. Apparently, he’d been biding his time, waiting for me to leave my nice, stable primary. When I didn’t, he quietly and systematically went about cutting me off from the portions of my life that didn’t revolve around him – everything from my work and studies to my family and James. Why did I let that happen? Because I didn’t realize what he was doing until much later.

This is incredibly difficult for me to admit. Even now, when I read over that last paragraph I think, what a fucking idiot. Where are your boundaries, girl? All I can say is that I went into this situation distracted by serious, pre-existing problems. By the time it was bad enough for me to notice, I was in quite deep.

So, why didn’t I leave Patrick when I realized how bad it was? For all the regular reasons. I loved him and I didn’t know how. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, knowing I had to jump but not being able to. Something had to push me. The thing that finally did was realizing how reflexively I’d begun to lie and hide my stress from James, because he and Patrick remained friends after the quad failed. I was weaving excuses because I knew things with Patrick were fucked up. That’s when I finally left.

I broke up with Patrick abruptly, via text, because I knew if I spoke to him he would try to reason me back. I felt immense relief when it was done and a general sense that everything  was okay. A few months later, Patrick and I had tea. The dust had settled by then and it seemed that closure would be good. So I sat across from him at one of my favorite cafes and we had a very civilized conversation in which he told me that he had seriously considered killing me after I left him.

I realize that sounds like a melodramatic threat, but it was not. Not from him. He told me because he meant it. What’s more, he wanted credit for not doing it. The truth is, he could have done anything to me at any time and there was nothing I could have done to protect myself. He was not a “bad boy”. I’ve never liked bad boys. He was, however, a legitimately bad man. Civilized, yes. But only insofar as it suited his ego. He was the sort of man who would put a knife to your throat to prove that you could trust him. I know, because he did that too. And no, that is not the point at which I decided to leave. It took me close to another year. Thankfully, he decided not to follow through on the impulse he had after I left, mostly (he informed me) out of respect for James. He spoke as though my life were a token of his enduring respect for his friend, a fact that still nauseates me. I haven’t seen him since.

That was roughly 10 years ago, very shortly after James and I got married. In a way, our wedding anniversary is the anniversary of my leaving Patrick too and, as with all anniversaries, it ended up being a good time for reflection. This may sound unlikely, but there are things about that relationship that I’m intensely grateful for. Because of Patrick, I know I’m freakishly cool under pressure and that I tend towards anger instead of fear. He was the first person who showed me how to play with my dominant sexual impulses. And because of Patrick, I know that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can still get played. As a result, I have a fantastically low tolerance for bullshit and manipulation, balanced by a weirdly tenacious compassion for most of the people who try. They can fuck off forever, but I still can’t hate them. I’ve been gamed by the best. I have no patience for also-ran’s.

I’ve often wondered, in the intervening years, what I would do if I ran into Patrick again. I’d like to think I’d be distant and cordial. I’d like to think I could pull that off. For better or worse, I am not the same woman who was so thoroughly taken in by a charming sociopath that she almost lost herself. But I haven’t been tested. I haven’t seen him, so I can’t really know, which brings me back to this week-end in San Francisco with James.

There are parts of the city where we just don’t go, because they are crowded with the past. A bar here, a restaurant there…. While I don’t fear Patrick anymore, there are still places that feel cold and aversive because of him. He’s a ghost – after ten years, he’s still a ghost. I resent that this relationship still has the power to haunt me.

The fact is that whenever we go into the city, I could see him. But over this week-end, for the first time, that possibility filled me with impatience rather than dread. While I’m not idiot enough to seek him out,  it’s time to undo those last, tiny, persistent hooks – the ones that make my skin crawl whenever I walk down certain streets. I’ll be honest, I would be perfectly happy to never see Patrick again. I fact, I would prefer it. But if I should run into him some day, it would be worth it to snip the final thread and exorcise that ghost.

Going Down

Cast Painting 1 - Lips by Julie Beck.

Cast Painting 1 – Lips by Julie Beck.

I had an interesting conversation awhile ago. The person I was talking to mentioned that if there were such a thing as a blow job spectrum, he’d have data points all over it, because while he enjoys blow jobs with some partners, with others it’s just not something he actively craves.

I liked the idea of a spectrum because, if popular opinion were to be believed, every man everywhere wants blow jobs from everyone all the time, which is a bit like saying that every woman on the planet wants chocolate every minute of every day, regardless of what it’s in. (Personally, I’ll take custard over chocolate any day, but that’s a different issue).

The conversation also made me realize that I cover a similar sort of spectrum as the giver, rather than receiver, of blowjobs (though I should say that, as a bi lady, I have a totally different spectrum for going down on women, a subject I’m sure I’ll come back to at some point).

For the most part, I’m happy to go down on a guy but, generally speaking, it isn’t one of the primary things I fantasize about. There are, however, notable outliers. I have had partners whom I have actively preferred not to go down on and, way over on the other side of the spectrum, there is a very small handful of men that I absolutely LOVE(D) to suck off. I suspect the variety in my data points has quite a lot to do with my first experience.

I gave my first blow job just a few weeks before I had sex for the first time. I was, for all intents a purposes, a virgin at 19 and grimly determined to rid myself of the label. I didn’t feel like a virgin. I felt hypersexual, and yet there I was, 19 years old with many, many trips to third base under my belt, but no partnered orgasms, no blow jobs and no penetrative sex….

I decided to rid myself of the innocence I didn’t want, so I hooked up with the guy who would pop my cherry a few weeks later. We went dancing and had a genuinely good time. Later that night, we started making out in his car and he asked me to suck his cock. And why wouldn’t he? We were going at it hot and heavy after a pretty successful date. There was no way he could have known that I’d never done it before, because I’d very purposely avoided discussing myself. I wanted so desperately to have already had that experience that I let him assume that I had.

So, I sucked his cock. After years of curiosity and waiting, I was prepared to love it. But I didn’t. I hated it. Once my mouth was on him, he held my head and fucked my face. Now, before alarm bells go off, I will tell you that he would have stopped if I’d told him to. I could have jerked my head back at any time, but I held myself there far more firmly than he did. I didn’t know that a face fucking wasn’t the ideal way for me to experience giving head for the first time. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have cared. I wanted to check that box, so I did, knowing the entire time that I was shortchanging myself, and defiantly not caring.

It wasn’t long before I found other partners, but it took me awhile to learn to like sucking cock, and even then it was a sort of skill-based enjoyment, rather than a primal one. I liked experimenting. What would happen if I focused on his head? If I fondled his balls? If I did this or that with my throat? It was all very academic in a way. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I experienced what I will call The Joy of Sucking Cock.

The first time I lost myself in giving a blowjob, it was completely unexpected. I’d been dating A for close to six months and I’d already gone down on him more times than I could count. I’m still not sure why it was different that day, but it was. Maybe it was just that we had the luxury of time, but I sucked his cock without thinking about it. For once, I was totally unmotivated by getting him off and for the first time what I was doing turned me on. I enjoyed myself in a way not unlike this, and while I did, that hard edged, dangerous, son-of-a-bitch of a man bucked and begged to come. Finally, he dragged me onto his lap and fucked me harder than he ever had, and with far less finesse, because I’d worn down his control. That’s when I realized that I actually loved sucking cock – it just had to be attached to the right man.

Even now, while I generally enjoy going down on a partner, I’ve only experienced The Joy of Sucking Cock with a handful of men. Physically they’ve all been different – cut, uncut, longer, shorter, curved, classically proportioned and not quite as much so…. There are two things these men have in common, however. This first is that they all felt right in my mouth – a sort cock sucking version of fit vs. fill. The second is they’ve all had an incredible energy both in and out of bed. Like many people, I feed off my partner’s enjoyment, and the men whom I’ve loved sucking off have all had voracious sexualities that synced up naturally with my own. More than anything, it’s that syncing up that makes the difference for me. It’s what transforms the blow job into a feedback loop, with one giving and the other receiving, and both of us spiraling out of conscious control.

There’s another component, as well, one that goes back to my first experience in that car. It also (unsurprisingly) links to control. That night, I was not in control. I rendered myself an object and I hated it. To compensate, I spent many years treating blow jobs as a way to exercise power over my partner – my way of owning a sexual act that I’d first experienced in a very passive and, as a result, negative way. (Even now, I can’t stand having my head maneuvered and I hate having my face fucked). The small handful of partners that I described above have all been men who a. instinctively knew not to test my boundaries in this regard b. were men I could honestly talk to and c. were partners whom I trusted, implicitly.

The joy I described feeling with them – that syncing up – is the direct result of my letting go of control and relaxing enough to simply enjoy having his cock in my mouth. It’s the result of knowing that when his knees buckle or his hips buck, he’s sharing his pleasure with me. There’s a ton of power in that feedback loop and power is fucking hot – all the more so when you’re enjoying it together.

This is my contribution to The Fellatio Project, hosted by Marie Rebelle. To read other entries, click the pretty picture below.

The Fellatio Project

Little Monsters: On Jealousy

From an illuminated manuscript, (c. 1400)

Illuminated manuscript, (c. 1400)

Last week, I posted this on Tumblr:

“Jealousy isn’t a failure to transcend. It’s a persistent human reality. It requires acknowledgment and compassion and the gentle refusal to let it rule you developed through practice and patience – patience with the situation and, most especially, patience with yourself.”

This was not a random, theoretical musing on my part. It was a reminder, one I wrote to myself years ago – the last time I had a really good, serious bout with jealousy; because while I’m not fantastically prone to it, I still get jealous like anyone else. It’s just rare enough that, when I do, it really gets my attention.

So, why did it flare up? Something innocuous caught me off guard and I found myself slammed by an irrational, makes-no-sense case of the green-eyed monster. But here’s what really fucked me up (far more than the jealousy itself did): the fact that it happened.

I’ve written about non-monogamy before and, after being non-monogamous for a good fifteen years, I’m fairly practiced at dissecting my feelings. Very often, in the case of jealousy, there’s a territorial impulse at the heart of it (I get so impatient with myself over this). Other times it’s envy regarding time and proximity. Sometimes, it’s just old-fashioned insecurity (often stemming from the two things I just mentioned). This time though…this time it was much less clear-cut and, as a result, far more unsettling.

I’ve been sitting with it for a while now and I’ve finally begun to realize that even more than jealousy, frustration and proximal envy (all of which were mixed up in in there too), what really threw me off was the fact that I felt vulnerable quite suddenly, and that’s a frightening thing.

It’s one thing to love someone. It’s another to realize at a deep, cellular level that loving them means they could hurt you, and no one, including my ego-driven self, wants to get hurt. It was realizing how vulnerable I am that rattled me more than anything else.

In a strange confluence of circumstance, this subject has been making the rounds a bit. Rachel Kramer Bussel used a couple of my quotes in her excellent article on polyamory last week, and since then, I’ve had some good conversations with people about non-monogamy, jealousy and how to deal with it in poly relationships. Here’s how I manage, for what it’s worth:

  1. I try not to lash out because I’m having feelings. If possible, I try to understand what’s going on before I express how I feel to anyone else. Unfortunately, this time I dropped the ball and vented, which rattled me even more because it indicated how totally consumed by my feelings I was.
  1. I try to look at the source of my jealousy and figure out why it triggered me. In this case, it wasn’t the trigger so much as the fact that having tangled, jealous feelings made me realize how vulnerable I am.
  1. I try to reframe the issue in a way that puts me in control of those feelings rather than allowing them to rule me. In this case, I could A. shut down, shove my partner away and not feel vulnerable B. double-down on my initial response and make everyone miserable or C. acknowledge that I feel vulnerable and gradually bring myself to a place where that’s okay. For the record, I chose C. because I’ll be goddamned if I let my emotions own me – they are mine, not the other way around.
  1. Finally, I try to talk to my partner. This can be really fucking hard, because to admit to being jealous is, in fact, to admit to being vulnerable. That takes trust and a leap of faith. I was very lucky in that he was great when I told him, and though I’m still getting comfortable with the vulnerability, I don’t feel nearly so rattled anymore. In the context of our relationship, it’s just a fact and I own that because, at a very basic level, loving someone means you might get hurt. It’s just part of the deal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to connect those dots, but I’m glad I did.

**Note on #4: It’s important that you communicate your feelings to your partner in a productive way, not in a knee-jerk reaction kind of way. That’s why I try to figure out what’s going on before I get anywhere near discussing it. The point of telling your partner is not to make them to stop doing the thing that makes you jealous. The point is to help them understand what’s going on so you don’t accidentally create a wedge in your relationship. It also has the nice side effect of giving them the opportunity to give you a bit of slack while you’re dealing with it.

And that’s the key – you dealing with it. Because your feelings are your feelings and you’re the one who has to deal with them. As Cunning Minx over at the Polyamory Weekly podcast says, it’s all about owning your own shit.

Here’s the bottom line (or, at least, my bottom line specific to this instance). The fact that I feel vulnerable isn’t bad. It’s not something to fear. It’s just a statement of fact. What I have to do is adjust my self-perception to include that vulnerability. Now, thanks to the discomfort of jealousy, I’ve realized that I am vulnerable and I’ve accepted that as part of being with my partner.

Jealousy is only a monster if you let it be monstrous. Like anything else, you can use it – not to change your partner or your relationship, but to better understand yourself. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s legitimately hard, but the alternative is even harder in the long run. I’d rather keep the little monster firmly on its lead.

**NB: I had a lovely conversation with Molly Moore about communicating and receiving admissions of jealousy, and she very correctly pointed out that this is much easier said than done. I’ll be writing a follow-up post or two soon exploring this in more depth.

**NB 6/1/15: As part of the lovely conversation I mentioned above, Molly Moore invited me onto her podcast, the KissCast to talk about jealousy in more depth. You can listen to that episode HERE.

On Rom Coms & Porn

Ryan Gosling Hey Girl meme - boyfriend materialA version of this essay first appeared on my other blog before I’d conceived of having a site devoted to erotica and sex writing. Now that this has become my primary home online, I’m dusting off the relevant content and moving it over here. I hope you enjoy. xx.M

Sometimes you overhear things that you’d rather not hear… like a relationship-ending fight. And yet, even as you desperately study the pastry case, part of you is fascinated and can’t tune out. This post, dear readers, is the result of one of those overheard fights.

The combatants in question were a couple in their early twenties, obviously past the relationship’s first blush. According to what I, and the rest of Starbucks, overheard, she was “pissed” and “revolted” that she had caught him watching porn. She felt that it was a “betrayal of the relationship” that he should get off on fantasies of other women.

The fight progressed along these lines for several uncomfortable minutes. Just when the two marketing-types in front of me started placing bets on her soon-to-be ex’s imminent castration, the boyfriend countered with what I considered to be an interesting point:

“What’s wrong with me watching porn when you watch The Notebook on loop so you can off on Ryan Gosling?”

To quote the skater at the corner table, “Dude. Good fucking point.”

Now, I’m going to leave this particular couple so I can focus on the general usefulness of the boyfriend’s question. Because it is a useful question. Is there a substantive difference between his porn and her Ryan Gosling fix? Adjusting for their private history and the terms the girlfriend asserted when she called pornography a betrayal of their relationship, there isn’t much of one. Here’s why: The issue at the heart of the boyfriend’s question isn’t betrayal or even sex. It’s intimacy.

Let me say up front that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with watching porn, (or romantic comedies for that matter). As long as a person doesn’t allow media to subsume real life, both are perfectly acceptable forms of entertainment. That said, no matter how good the entertainment is, ultimately, it’s just a collection of manufactured experiences projected for the viewer’s proxy enjoyment. Real life has to win. The question is, are you fostering intimacy with real people as well, or are you engaging exclusively in solitary fantasies of intimacy?

In this, porn and romantic comedies pose a similar challenge. Porn sells the representation of sexual fantasy while Rom Coms sell emotional fantasy. Both fantasies treat intimacy as entertainment which, in and of itself, is generally fine. Watching porn or Rom Coms, (or anything else for that matter), only becomes a betrayal when it begins to interfere with real life, when the viewer eschews real intimacy with real partners for fantasies in media.

The woman in the unhappy couple felt betrayed by her boyfriend’s use of porn, so much so that she felt justified in engaging him in a public fight. Now, had his porn become a habit, or were he rejecting her sexually, there might be a legitimate problem, but, thanks to lowered inhibitions on the part of both parties, I, and everyone else, found out that they had sex fairly frequently and that porn was, apparently, an occasional indulgence for him. Granted, one has to take the participants at their word, but for all intents and purposes, it didn’t sound like he was glued to a screen. It was her shock at the discovery, after all, that prompted the fight.

She, on the other hand, acknowledged that she did watch The Notebook a lot, but that it was only because he “sucked.” So, at this point, we have a guy who, (apparently), watches porn on occasion while still having sex with his girlfriend, and a girlfriend who watches a romantic fantasy because her boyfriend sucks. If we’re talking about betrayal stemming from intimacy rather than from sex, her emotional / romantic fixation is as much of a betrayal as his porn watching.

At this point, we’re entering into highly subjective territory. If the guy doesn’t care that his girlfriend fantasizes about Ryan Gosling, there’s no betrayal because his feelings weren’t betrayed. That said, I’m going to stick with the general principal from here on out – the comparability of his sexual fantasies and her emotional, (and sexual), ones.

This guy was caught watching other people have sex. By his girlfriend’s analysis, he engaged in a sexual behavior without her, and which is why she felt betrayed. And yet, it would appear that she, in her own way, did the same thing when she watched The Notebook on loop and engaged in emotional and sexual fantasies, (to give full credit to Ryan Gosling), without him. Her romantic fantasy excluded her boyfriend just as much as his sexual fantasy presumably did her. It’s the exclusion that takes each of them out of their relationship.

Drilling down through hurt feelings and knee-jerk morality, it’s the exclusion that was the actual betrayal, if one is going to start thinking about fantasy as betrayal, which I patently do not.  After all, what is so wrong with occasionally indulging in separate sexual and emotional fantasies? Nothing that I can see, but then, my moral compass has always pointed to a slightly different North.

In the end, I’m simply going to suggest that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. If she wants her boyfriend to give up porn, it’s only fair that she give up The Notebook. If it’s the betrayal of shared intimacy that she objects to, she might do him the courtesy of leaving Ryan Gosling alone.

All in One Person: On Non-Monogamy

A woman sitting on a railing between two men for All in One Person: On Non-monogamy by Malin James

The Game of Life by Jack Vettriano

Updated: 6/22/16

I’m in an open relationship and have been for eleven years. My husband and I have been married for nine of those years, and in that time, I’ve had a very small handful of lovers, which is not what people expect. After all, I’ve been given carte blanche to cheat…uh, sleep around…er, whatever the hell you people call it, (I can hear my dad saying). But just because I can sleep with other people, doesn’t mean I will…at least not lightly.

There are all kinds of non-monogamies. Ours is relatively selective. Other happy, successful non-monogamous couples are more open about their open relationship. In fact, even within a relationship, it can be different for each partner. My husband tends to date more than I do but that’s because I don’t date casually. It’s like buying flowers. He’s more likely to see what’s in bloom, whereas I’m never actively looking. It’s more that, every rare now-and-then, I meet someone and when I do I’m free to see where it goes.

Those parameters work for us and always have, but they may not for someone else. It all depends on the people involved and the nature of the dynamic. That’s one of the reasons why open relationships are so easily misunderstood.

The other difficulty with talking about non-monogamy is that there’s no single set of terms to use. There are, however, a lot of misconceptions. Non-monogamy isn’t “swinging”, though swinging is one form of non-monogamy. It also isn’t “sanctified cheating,” polygamy or polyandry, though it can be (and often is) polyamory. As you can see, it’s somewhat difficult to define. Part of the problem with (and the strength of) open relationships is that there’s no one way to do it – non-monogamy can take as many different forms as there are people and situations.

In the end, regardless of flavor, open relationships require the same things that any functioning traditional relationship does – trust, communication, honesty and work. Let me stress that last one. Open relationships take a lot of work – as much, or possibly more, than their traditional counterparts. That doesn’t make them more enlightened (as some poly factions would have you think). It just means that, for some people, it isn’t right. For others, it means being in a happy, fulfilling relationship with the person (and people) you love.

Here’s a snap shot of how non-monogamy works for me:

* My girlfriend being a bridesmaid at my wedding, (she looked beautiful, by the way).

* Watching my (then) boyfriend fuck a woman we both loved, and feeling peaceful, content, and so very happy.

* Cooking Thanksgiving dinner with my (then) fiancé, my girlfriend, my lover and our friends.

* Making travel plans around three different work schedules and two different time zones so I could fly across the country to see my current partner this fall.

Non-monogamy requires a lot of attention to detail, logistics, emotions and moods. There are more feelings to get hurt and schedules to fuck up and feet to tread on. But there is more of everything else too – love, connection, satisfaction and joy.

There is an Amy Bloom story that I love called “Love is Not a Pie.” It was the first time I’d ever encountered the notion of non-monogamy as anything other than cheating. I was in my early twenties and I cheated a lot, not because I liked cheating (I hated it), but because, despite being actively in love with the person I was with, I would occasionally fall in love (or serious like) with someone else.

Loving, (or being attracted), to two different people at the same time is an odd notion and acting on those feelings has been, historically speaking, the opposite of ok. As a pretty inexperienced 22 year old, the fact that I often did made me feel like an awful slut. That’s why Bloom’s story resonated so deeply with me. The protagonist’s mother tells her that “love is not a pie” – it’s something you share. Sometimes you share it with one person, sometimes with many, but there is an infinite amount. You will not run out. And that, made sense to me.

This is when most people think, that’s fine when you’re the one with the lover, but what about when the shoe is on the other foot?

Well, as long as I’m not getting lied to, the shoe fits very well. I don’t tend to feel a sense of competition with my partners’ partners. Their relationships with their lovers, girlfriends, subs, flings and fuck-buddies have nothing to do with me so long as they are honest, open and safe about it. The fact that they have casual sex or a long-term relationships with someone else isn’t a referendum on our dynamic. The relationships exist separately (for me), and it’s important that they do because it’s too easy to escape problems in one by starting another. Everything has to stand on it’s own.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get jealous. I do. I think most people do, no matter how much you hear about the virtue of compersion, (and compersion is real. What’s more, it’s a wonderful thing). What keeps me grounded is the knowledge that my partners’ lovers do not indicate a lack in me. To paraphrase John Updike, it’s difficult to find everything all in one person. It’s that understanding that helps me keep my perspective when jealousy flares up. And that is a big part of the work.

There’s acceptance and contention in equal measure, but there isn’t much of a cultural dialogue yet. One is starting—you know things are changing when Salon and Fox News Magazine run features about open marriages—but it’s still a challenging thing. Homosexuality, atheism, kink and non-monogamy have existed despite the pressure of cultural norms for centuries, but it’s only in recent decades that they’ve announced their presence without apology or excuse. It’s an important time in our culture, one that requires tolerance, curiosity and dialogue – as do love, sex and relationships, monogamous or not.

Non-monogamy isn’t perfect – far from it. It depends too much on the honesty and integrity of the people involved to ever be perfect. But the same can be said of any relationship. So, for what it’s worth, this is my experience with non-monogamy so far. I’ve no idea how it will look in 5, 10 or 15 years but I can’t imagine not being non-monogamous in some form. It’s given me healthy, loving, long-term relationships and, for that, I’m incredibly grateful.