As far as sex and relationships go, I have to say I feel well-educated, open-minded and confident. I’ve been teaching sexuality and safety for over a decade, so none of the "facts" are new to me. I’ve attended workshops run by amazing people on polyamory, safer sex, consent and the all the rest, so I feel well-versed in these waters. And certainly I'm aware that no one wants an STI surprise.
I am part of a poly quad, and I'm also a trans*, bisexual, kinky person. Recently, I had to navigate some changes in my collective relationship structure, and was confronted with a few things that surprised me.
We Didn't Have to Think About It Much …I currently enjoy wonderful relationships within my quad. We’re functional, communicate well and get tested regularly. Some of us are fluid-bonded, so safe sex is always important. We don’t live together, but we all see our respective partners regularly - these are not long distance relationships. On balance, things are going really well. We’ve had the usual bumps you’d expect in a polyamorous relationship, and there’ve been more than a few times when one of us has inadvertently wound up on the ouchy end of an argument or something unsaid, but overall, we do well. We are good at our relationship.
It was only recently that I really began to consider the implications of our situation. Our quad has two people who are in a relatinship with two others, but also with one another (an "N"), and all of us in this configuration have a fluid bond with at least one of the other partners. We all get tested, and we’re all fine with it. I had never thought about it before but all of a sudden I realized that, like many other poly cohorts, there may be a chance that one of us four will meet a new partner in the future. Because it has just been the four of us so far, our group has accepted that STI testing and safety is a given and, to be honest, I think we've stopped thinking about it all that much.
Until We Did …
So when I realized that one of the four of us might meet someone new, thus changing our dynamic, I felt a little silly that we hadn't addressed it earlier. After eight years as a poly person, I had never really sat down with multiple people in the same relationship framework to talk about all of this "stuff". Lots of questions needed answering: Who could do what with whom? How often should we get tested? How much information did we all want (or need) to share with one another? And how strict did we want to be about safety measures for particular encounters, like oral sex? (Read more about the importance of safety measures in The Shocking Truth About STDs.)
Talking About Agreements
My cohort and I decided to get together and have a preliminary talk about agreements. What did each of us want and what could we all agree upon? What were our differing expectations? When we met to discuss, we decided to keep it casual and start with a nice meal, and then ease into a conversation about all of these things. We all have different levels of poly experience and wanted everyone to feel comfortable with the discussion. Before meeting, I re-read sections of "Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships" by Tristan Taormino to get a better sense of what might be a good starting point for the conversation. I shared the sections I read with the others, sending along page references and some questions I thought would be good for starters, so that we would all have a common framework. It surprised me how challenging this part was. Here we were, a happy, functioning group and it felt a bit odd for us to be having such a formal conversation. But relationships teach you new things everyday, and things can't always be easy.
None of This is Easy, But It’s ImportantOn the appointed evening, I realized that I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself to make the discussion go well. After all, I thought, why wouldn’t one us feel miffed or put off by the questions that arose? Who was I to "know" all this stuff, anyway? And why on earth would the other three have the slightest interest in all this? Things were fine--why mess them up?
As it turned out, things went really well. The real difficulty was just opening up to a conversation like this in the first place. It may be easy to teach others about safer sex, but it’s another matter entirely to sit down with three other people, two of whom you are happily having wonderful sex with, and address safe sex with them. I learned that it is very challenging to have this kind of conversation with intimate partners. It requires a move from the abstract to the concrete in a way that is entirely different from the fun to be had in the bedroom.
Through all of this I realized that what matters is not whether your partner or partners are happy, but whether or not you can articulate your feelings comfortably to one another, even about a difficult topic like this one. Whether you're polyamorous or not, it’s a good (and even necessary) thing to do! (For more on the importance of communication, check out Why We Should All Be Talking About Sex a Lot More Often.)