It’s Not You, It’s Us: re-imagining sex interdependently
My first polyamorous relationship was when I was 16. I remember feeling so uncomfortable, my heart racing, as my sweetheart snuggled with his other girlfriend on my bed. But I wanted to be okay with it. After all, I didn’t want to be possessive. That would be patriarchal, that would be totally against the liberation I was seeking in the world. I figured I could do the whole “fake it till you make it” thing, and eventually, I’d be fine with it.
So I didn’t say anything about my feelings. I put on music and chatted with our other friends who were around. Even through my discomfort, I felt some excitement about the edginess of it, like we were really on to something ground-breaking here. I believed in the promise of it, that by breaking out of the shackles of monogamy we could experience deeper connection and more presence with the natural emergence of our erotic selves. But my nervous system didn’t buy it. I smiled anyway.
The year 2002 was big for me in general. I had experienced discrimination, being Muslim, living in New York and having 9/11 happen right before I turned 16. The Islamophobia and vengeful government response was devastating to me, and I became much more politically aware, exploring many ideas and settling on anarchism. I devoured so much literature: Crimethinc., Noam Chomsky, Malcolm X, Daniel Quinn, all sorts of radical zines I would get through friends or at events. A whole new world opened for me. By the end of the year, I had been arrested for the first time, eaten perfectly good food out of the trash, and hitchhiked with new anarchist friends to and from anti-war protests.
It was within this chrysalis of formative experiences that I encountered the idea that monogamy is inherently patriarchal and oppressive. In fact, among all of my new anarchist friends, it was practically taboo. I realize now that I had a profoundly different experience than many people my age and in my country. At 16, I was coming of age in a subculture where polyamory was normal, not monogamy.
And I stayed immersed in communities and movements where it was normal for another 15 or so years. But it never really got better. My nervous system never settled down. The best it ever got was being a tolerable enough level of “not okay,” which I put up with because if it was going to suck for me, I might as well get to sleep around. In all that time I might have faked it, but I didn’t quite make it.
It seemed like most of the people around me were also at a baseline level of tolerable enough “not okay” most of the time, frequently experiencing all sorts of negative feelings about their partner’s new partners, or otherwise not happy with how it was going. The negative experiences were so common that we had a name for it: Polydrama.
The last several years of trying to be polyamorous, I experienced immense, almost intolerable, stress about it, even when I was actively engaging in multiple relationships and my partners were not. I didn’t believe in the promise of it anymore and I was constantly worried about the consequences on myself or others, but I didn’t think I could handle monogamy either. It was agonizing. I felt trapped in something that didn’t work for me, terrified of being alone, scared of my inevitable nervous system responses, and so reliant on sexual relationships for so many of my needs that I didn’t think I would survive if I didn’t have the freedom to seek sexual connection without constraints.
I can easily see why anyone who had anything even close to the shitty experiences I had would end up (literally) religiously monogamous, or otherwise distance themselves from any similar movement or community context. I’m almost a casualty of that myself, but somehow I’ve managed to stay connected to visionary communities and movements despite feeling like I don’t fully belong in most of them. But I think a lot of people are more likely to disappear from our movements and communities altogether.
The distress that impacted me so much wasn’t only about my personal response to polyamory, even though at the time I told myself it was. It was the way the whole subculture was also immersed in “sex-positive” thinking and the short-comings and impacts of those ideas, and some unfortunate political beliefs that we were basing our actions on, which I think many of us unquestioningly bought into without a whole lot of intention or choice.
And now, the sex-positive poly subculture that left me with stubborn and painful trauma, has become much more mainstream in much wider leftist arenas thanks to some confluence of factors that hugely includes social media. I won’t dissect that all here, but my concern is that there is now the potential for much wider impacts on many more people, and indeed many people have been impacted and traumatized.
In internet culture writer Katherine Dee’s articles The Coming Wave of Sex Negativity and another about TikTok trends toward sexual conservatism, she makes the case that the tide is turning on this wave of widespread sex-positivity culture. People are having shitty experiences, and warning others about it. People are seeing the generation older than them alone and struggling to start families later in life. They are seeing friends traumatized by sex work that was supposed to be just like regular work. They are trying casual sex to meet their needs for intimacy and pleasure, and finding it isn’t pleasurable or connecting at all.
Of course, there are many people who are having great fun with all of it, who are having joyful and connecting experiences, and I don’t want to pretend that this stuff is all bad or only causing people distress. Even my painful experiences of non-monogamy included some really beautiful, loving, liberating, and pleasurable moments. But that wasn’t the primary experience that I, or many others, have had.
Given that, I get why there may in fact be a wave of sexual conservatism on the way. But I think that’s inevitable only if we don’t openly confront what isn’t working. I don’t think everyone should immediately become monogamous or that polyamory is all inherently bad, only that I want to envision something beyond the binaries of polyamory and monogamy, beyond sex-positive or stigmatizing sex.
And that’s why I’m talking about this, even though my trauma actually makes having these conversations extremely fraught for me. My nervous system response makes it super challenging for anyone to talk to me about this, as those close to me can probably tell you. But despite the challenges for me personally, I want to have the conversation.
In the past, it hasn’t really gone anywhere when I tried to have this conversation. And I think that has a lot to do with the ideological underpinnings of sex-positive polyamory culture as a whole. Most of what I experienced weren’t just practices, there were ideas to back them up. There were narratives, which I no longer align with and which I think are primarily what led to so much harm. And those narratives are also what often stops us from talking about it.
I think these narratives might play out slightly differently in different smaller pockets of people and scenes, and yet I think there are many similarities across the many groups and communities I’ve encountered. This leads me to think that there may be different flavors of what are essentially the same undercurrents.
I want to also be clear that I am critical here of the systemic context, not specific people’s practices or choices. Looking back on the many actions that led to devastating impacts on me, which I still struggle with the effects of today, all of it made sense within the logic of the systems we were in. And that is true for things I did that hurt others as well.
I’ve tried so many different ways of engaging: dating couples, having a primary partner, having two primary partners, having no tiers of partners, having agreements, having no agreements, dating casually, dating seriously, poly support groups, de-coupling sex from romance, and more. I am not even giving you all of the details of creative solutions that were tried, vulnerable shit that I did which I still struggle with shame or grief around, and so much else. I hope this is clear enough that I am speaking from significant experience trying to make it work for me for 15 years.
But it didn’t work, because nothing I did addressed systemic conditions beyond my own choices. I was continuously operating within a subculture with narratives and beliefs that prevented us from engaging about sex and sexual relationships from a place of togetherness and collective liberation, and I encountered these dynamics over and over again no matter what individual choices I made.
Individualism in Polyamory Subculture
If you had any upset feelings, jealousies, insecurities, or anything besides neutral or positive feelings, then that was your shit. Something flawed about you, something you had to work on, maybe some internalized oppression, maybe some internalized Christian belief or something. Whatever it was it was yours, and certainly not anything relational or community-wide, and especially not something that should ever result in anyone missing out on a sexual encounter.
I remember the horror I felt when friends of mine read aloud to me from the book More Than Two, a part where the authors explain that it’s never helpful to not have sex with someone if your partner has anxiety about it, because the difficult feelings they are having are about them, and whatever it is about them that results in those feelings will exist regardless of whether or not you do what you want. And my friends were excited about this and found it really insightful, while I felt absolutely livid listening to these authors explain one of the key ideological tools that was used to justify so many things that resulted in deep trauma for me. The idea that our pain was due to our own hopeless brokenness was like a trump card used to ignore me and others when we raised concerns or brought up difficult impacts we were experiencing. (Interestingly, I later found out that one of the authors disavowed the book, and actually has some similar critiques.)
And while I’m in no way doubting that part of our experiences are whatever we are bringing to the table as unique individuals, having the narrative that inner work is the sole place for addressing difficult feelings makes it nearly impossible to address things that are relational, cultural, or systemic in some way. Our feelings are a source of information about what is happening to our beings, not an obstacle to overcome. A subcultural norm of presupposing where those feelings come from is more likely to result in repression of feedback, not liberation.
In some more political polyamory circles I was in and around, the assumption was that any negative feelings came from how we were socialized, and that if we could overcome patriarchal, colonial socialization, we would be fine with each other doing what we pleased. A big part of our individual inner work was supposed to overcome this. But all of the non-monogamous, matrifocal, pre-colonial societies I’ve learned about have had some kinds of norms or agreements about sexuality. Of course there may be some where everyone was fine with whatever that I haven’t yet heard of, or whose traditional knowledge was tragically lost due to patriarchal colonial violence. But I am now clear that this belief is not a given. Even if this historical-political assumption was demonstrably true, this is a cultural and systemic issue, not one for an individual to address through inner work alone.
Another way individualism showed up in my experience was with the overall framing of personal freedom and autonomy being central to the ethics of polyamory. Our desires, and the autonomy to pursue those desires, was of utmost importance, and was central to how we approached sexuality and sexual relationships.
One of the ways this looked was having implicit norms about who got to decide about what sexual relationships, and the narrative was that consensual sex or romantic connection was the business of the people directly having sex, and no one else. Rarely did primary partners have “veto” power, and if they did it was often looked down upon. More often partners would have some agreements which might influence how new sexual and romantic relationships unfolded (which were not always followed and often seen as oppressive), but ultimately decisions about new relationships were not made collaboratively by communities or pre-existing sexual partners.
I really question the weight placed on personal desires, which often results in de-prioritizing other human needs such as safety or community. This is because I believe our desires are really affected by the culture around us, and I don’t believe it always serves the health of the community (or, if we’re looking beyond only sexuality, the planet) to indulge them. I don’t have the expertise to fully unpack how desire works in human psychology and human bodies, but I do want to make the point that the idea that we must follow our desires in order to feel liberated is narrow and flawed, and I have seen it lead to immense harm.
The undercurrent of individualism I’m talking about is something I’ve seen across many polyamorous subcultures, which can have a lot of variety. They can range from “relationship anarchy” with little to no agreements and no tiers of partnership (or for some, no differentiation at all between relationships that include sex and ones that don’t) and “monogamish” relationships where two primary partners are open to other lovers, but rarely and usually within a pretty tight container of agreements. There are many possibilities on the spectrum between those two. Also, there are people who will differentiate between non-monogamy and polyamory with specific definitions of each. There’s also some intentional communities with varying degrees of community-wide agreements about sex and romantic connections. In general there are all sorts of sub-categories of different approaches. But I rarely see any of these variations as engaging in non-monogamous practices from a place of interdependence rather than individuality.
Once when I was 17, my older sister, Fatima, referred to me as a hippie. I was offended and claimed my friends were really anarchist punks. After all, hippies were those people who lived in painted buses and juggled at the farmers market. My sister retorted, “I’m sure if I was in the hippie scene, I could tell the difference between all the different kinds of hippies.”
I think a similar principle applies here. I’m not arguing that there aren’t differences that are significant. They just aren’t significant to the undercurrent of individualism from what I have seen so far. In every scene that I have encountered, with very few examples of almost-exceptions, much of the focus is on individuals and couples making unilateral decisions based on their moment-to-moment desires. That’s why no matter all the different shit I tried, I was again and again shocked by my partners acting from within a paradigm of separation rather than interdependence. No amount of support groups or boundaries or styles could have been enough to shift us toward a more interdependent way of approaching sexuality.
And I want to be real, I wasn’t just a victim of this individualist culture. I bought into it. I said the same shit to my partners about needing to do their own inner work when they were distressed. I really believed in it. I thought we had to tolerate one another’s pain and our own pain in order to get over our own personal insecurities. And when I realized it was okay to have agreements and limits, I was terrified to agree to too much. What if making agreements was really my partner trying to control me through placing limits on me? What if I held back on being with someone because of some agreement or consideration, only to have a partner break an agreement with me later on? The possible resentment was terrifying. Tragically, my logic was that I had better make sure I could have as much sex and connection as I wanted, to make it worth it that I was so fucking miserable. I still struggle with shame about how the same actions that hurt me, I inflicted upon other people that I cared deeply about. I still struggle with regret about not speaking up more about what I was thinking and seeing.
Sex Minimization in Sex-Positive Subculture
I really loved sex-positive thinking for a long time, because it de-stigmatized sex for me. Meeting people who thought sex was for joy too, not only reproduction, and a normal part of being a human, was really revolutionary for me. I was raised in a strict Shia Muslim household and community, with very narrow ideas of what acceptable ways of expressing any sexuality are. I grew up really ashamed of my sexuality. Sex-positive ideas were really freeing for me. I embraced it.
It’s not that I now have some puritanical view of sex. It’s that I don’t agree with one of the main ways sex-positivity is so often understood and practiced. Sex-positive, in most places I’ve encountered it, really means sex is no big deal.
And this just doesn’t at all match my experience personally, many other people’s personal experiences, and it certainly didn’t seem that way in a community context.
The idea that sex isn’t a big deal was used to normalize casual sex, doing sex work, and bringing sex into all sorts of relationships and webs of friends. I don’t have moral issues with any of those things on their own, it’s that I have seen that these things can have big impacts on individuals and communities. And if our ideology doesn’t allow us to believe that sex can be a big deal, then how can we adequately acknowledge it or deal with it when it is? If our collective ideological thinking doesn’t have room to look at things like trauma from doing sex work or major community impact from a new sexual relationship two people have, then the function of the ideology is essentially the same as putting our hands over our ears and saying “la la la I’m not listening!”
Sex and sexual relationships are often a big deal. It can really matter, even if not every act in every moment with every person. Even if two individuals don’t believe their shared sexual experience to be a big deal to them, it can totally change a community. I’ve seen this happen, and it feels like collective gas-lighting to act like that isn’t happening, everything is normal, and there’s nothing to see here.
For a long time I kept trying to have casual sex because I wanted connection and pleasure, and I really believed in the sex-positive code that sex isn’t a big deal. So why not enjoy it? I sometimes enjoyed it, but I was rarely satisfied with it relationally, and I never felt good about it some weeks or months later. According to the ideology of the communities I was in, this would probably be explained as my internalized sex shame or something, and I tried thinking of it that way and “working on my shit.” But I’ve lived in this body and sat with my experiences long enough to know that isn’t it at all.
I wasn’t satisfied relationally and didn’t feel great about it later because it didn’t feel in integrity to me. I was going with my moment to moment desires within a narrow scope, without honoring all parts of myself. I was uncomfortable with it. It was too intimate for me without the kind of connection I wanted from the other person. I realize now that sex is a big deal for me, and I was denying that about myself for so long. What could be more sex-negative than ignoring the cues my being was giving me about what is important to me about my sexuality?
It seemed like most people in my community were trying to be fine with fluid sexual relationships among everyone. I know we were kind of a radical fringe community, but I think we took the “no-big-deal” thinking to its logical conclusion, and I think there is something to be learned from that experience. It was not abnormal then for someone’s sexual partner to have sex with their best friend or housemate, or to be in a meeting where more than half the people were in some sort of web of sexual relationships, and everyone was supposed to kind of make it work no matter what the proximity.
I remember a partner of mine having sex with me, and then 20 minutes later having sex with a housemate of mine in the shower, in earshot. I was floored. But I didn’t say anything. And of course, we never negotiated that. In general, none of it was negotiated and agreed to beforehand by everyone who could be impacted. It was decided between the two people having sex, and announced later, usually privately between pre-existing sexual partners, or if there were no agreements, sometimes not at all. In that specific instance, it was announced by default as I sat in the living room with other friends, trying to be fine with it.
In my experience, the attempt at sexual relationship fluidity was the place where tension was most obvious, and no amount of trying could hide the fact that we couldn’t walk the talk. There was near constant distress about this stuff among almost everyone involved, though it was rarely spoken about outside the context of one-on-one support. But it was like an open secret. Everyone knew people were in distress, we just figured they needed to get support to deal with their inner-demons. That it was their problem to deal with internally.
But there were regular, major impacts on the community. Sometimes people would have such intense distress that they would avoid events or gatherings where they would see a partner’s new lover, or conflicts about projects or political organizing would be majorly exacerbated by unspoken polyamory chaos.
Clearly this shit was a big deal.
Sex work is another area we treated as no big deal, even when it had significant impacts. This is a complex topic and I won’t go into it with depth here. But I know many people who were traumatized from their experiences doing sex work, even when it wasn’t overtly coerced. This was before the existence of OnlyFans and other user-friendly online platforms that make it possible to do sex work primarily virtually rather than in person. Most of the work at the time was either porn, or in-person with men buying sex.
Even knowing people personally who experienced trauma (and sex work in sex-positive subcultures was widespread enough at the time that there are undoubtedly friends of friends who feel similarly that I don’t know about), I cannot remember a single group conversation where the possibility of trauma from sex work, or even anyone’s shitty experiences, was brought up. I can remember a few one-on-one conversations happening privately. I can also remember countless group conversations about how empowering it was to make money off of shitty johns, tips for actually doing the work, how to get started, and more. It’s almost like we saw it as a neat life-hack, as if the fact that we didn’t adhere to normative morals about sex was basically an asset to make money off of.
I know people who have really enjoyed casual sex. I know people who seem to be fine with fluid sexual relationships among friends and extended groups. I know several people who have done sex work and seem to have no lasting trauma or anything negative from engaging in it. So again, it isn’t about whether each individual experiences sex as a big deal with the potential for personal and community impacts. It’s about how our practice of sex-positivity was hugely informed by a narrow view of “no-big-deal” sex, and how that didn’t match the capacity of most of us personally or of the community as a whole to actually metabolize the way we were expressing sexuality with each other. We didn’t acknowledge when we hit capacity limits, and we never adjusted our narratives or practices to integrate the reality of what it was like for us collectively to engage in the ways that we were.
The Seeds of a Vision of Interdependent, Capacity-based Sexuality
I no longer think liberation comes from getting to do what we desire when we desire it. I don’t think liberation is about my individual freedom regardless of the impact on anyone else. And I certainly don’t believe that ignoring the reality of the power of sexual relationships is an effective way to destigmatize our varied human sexualities.
The conversation I want to have is a cultural one, rather than one for us to decide behind closed doors with only our lovers. I want to have it in whatever pockets of togetherness it can grow, whether that is within small intentional communities, across large social movements, or something else.
My vision isn’t fully articulated. But I know that I want something that is interdependent and not based on individual desire and unilateral decision-making, and I know that I want sexual practices to be grounded in the capacity of the community to actually metabolize and honor the truth about our collective experiences of sex.
Instead of focusing on individual desire and private decision-making, I long for us to have more togetherness about what community norms and agreements are, and more co-holding of decisions about sex and sexual relationships, so that the very fact of our interdependent well-being is integrated with our actual practices.
Instead of sex-positivity or sex stigma, I long for us to have some framing that doesn’t judge sex one way or the other, but rather acknowledges whatever is actually true about our experiences of it and our capacity to hold it, so there is room to adjust to that reality practically, not ideologically.
At the moment, my partner and I don’t have the kind of community holding that I long for. In the absence of the kind of cultural change and systemic holding that we would ideally want, we are making our relationship agreements as interdependent and capacity-based as we can under the circumstances.
Currently, we have agreed to steward one another’s sexuality without having sexual connection with anyone else. We agree that if some day, either or both of us want to pursue sexual connection with other people, we would only consider going ahead with it if it would be joyful to both of us. Not if it’s a stretch, not if it’s challenging but we are willing, and not even if we are just okay with it. Only if it is joyful, because with my past trauma and what works for my partner for other reasons, this is the agreement that we believe is in capacity for both of us to enact well. We are open to changing that agreement someday if our capacity changes.
Also, we have a council of four people who have agreed to support us when we face challenges, either by giving us advice or actually deciding things with us or for us if we are stuck.
While this is not an exhaustive list of all the agreements and support that we have, both of these agreements are seeking more interdependence and aiming to be within our actual capacity, even though I wish for them to be held by more systemic support and cultural coherence than is currently available to us.
I wonder, what would it be like if our communities didn’t see desire as a dictate about what should definitely happen, but as information about ourselves which we can actively decide what to do with? And what if we didn’t always make those decisions alone or with one other person? What would it be like if we acknowledged the way that sex can change communities, and so we had a culture of consideration and collective care for the possible changes? What if our agreements about sexuality were based on our capacity to care for ourselves and each other in relation to sex?
I have faith that we can figure out ways that could look, though at the moment my trauma prevents me from truly envisioning with detail. As is often the case, those of us with trauma carry wisdom from our experiences, but when applying that wisdom we struggle to exit self-protective thinking, which can hinder our ability to orient toward liberation.
This is why I see this essay as a point of departure for deeper conversations. Of course, I have fear that some people will read this and spend energy criticizing me rather than continuing the conversation: maybe by picking apart the way I speak generally about different non-monogamous variations, or maybe they’ll make assumptions about what I’m saying between the lines about sex work and make accusations about it, etc. I’m sad and scared about that because I have so much trauma around this topic and it is vulnerable for me to say what I’m saying here. But I’m taking the risk, because I have faith that by inviting people to vision with me, by inviting people to continue this conversation in whatever pockets of togetherness we can find, that something beautiful is possible, even if I feel too broken to imagine it by myself.