We, as a society, need to talk a lot more about variants on sexuality and relationship styles. For a long time I have maintained that the oppressive modeling of the heteronormative monogamous marriage as the ultimate goal for adult relationships is harmful. Now that I am out an open as a kinky person, I am realizing how much damage this image causes people.
In the last three months I have had almost a dozen conversations with people who have said, “Wow! I did not know this existed! I have felt so limited/odd/ashamed/alone in my desires.” This is not okay. Every one of these individuals desired something reasonable, ethical, and appropriate. The lack of information about alternative to the mainstream relationship and sexual identities ended up making them feel locked in a box and alone on their journey.
The American Model of Relationships and Sexuality
If you have not spent a lot of time thinking about what images and models are out there for relationships, here is a basic primer. There is ONE. It is a man who pursues a beautiful woman until she relents, falls into his arms, they never talk about sex or relationship expectations, and they marry and live in monogamous heterosexual bliss for the rest of their lives. This is a fairy tale. You cannot have a successful emotional or sexual relationship without discussing expectations, desires, needs, and boundaries.
There is an enormous amount of judgement which comes with this model. Think about it. If you are not in a serious, monogamous relationship by your late 20s, people tend to believe there is something wrong with you. As a woman, I got messages from the media and larger society that my goal of a relationship was marriage. Women are taught the “two year rule.” This rule says that if a man has not proposed marriage by the two year mark of the relationship, you need to dump him and move on to someone who is “serious” about you.
We are all taught that having multiple sex partners, especially if we have them at the same time, is something to be secretive and ashamed about. There is no major film, television show, or book that portrays having multiple sexual partners at the same time and being honest about it with everyone as healthy and acceptable.
Socially, we still model the nuclear family. Family units consist of two parents, the kids, and probably a pet living in a household by themselves and functioning as a unit. This model has expanded to include two-parent gay and lesbian households, but it is still the insular unit. The idea of the multi-generation family under one roof is still sequestered in portrayals of immigrant households. The idea that there would be adults connected to the parents (sexually or as friends) who have a significant roll in child rearing does not crop up in media representations of family. I cannot find one example in major mainstream media where a set of parents call in a close friend, grandparents, or other person to help make major child rearing decisions.
Portrayals of alternative sexualities are limited. Yes, we have a growing number of gay characters on television and in movies. However, it is still unusual to portray these characters as equally sexual as their hetero counterparts. I was thrilled that The Kids Are Alright, which did very well in theaters, actually portrayed the lesbian couple as sexual. Most gay characters on mainstream television are relegated to jokes about sex, but close, intimate relationships (even having them kiss someone on a regular basis) is still relegated to cable series. When it comes to things like BDSM and fetish behavior, it is hands off. Transparent is the one big exception to all of this, but it is a web-based series and still has a small viewership.
Why This is a Problem
Most people do not fit the heteronomative, monogamous model for relationships. As good friends of mine put it, “We are monogamous, mostly. In a couple of decades of marriage, stuff happens.” Now that I am in my 40s, I have quite a few friends who are married, some hetero and some gay. Many of these couples started out with the goal of monogamy. Many of them value parts of monogamy. But, in most of these relationships, something happens. There is an affair. Or one partner suggests opening the marriage. Or someone decided to give the other partner a threesome for an anniversary gift. Or something. The reality is, most long-term couples occasionally have partners outside the monogamous coupling.
The problem the mainstream model creates is that couples (and really, this is a very large percentage of couples) feel guilt or shame or a need to hide their behavior. There is actually no need for this. If we modeled relationships where couples could be open within the boundaries they, as a couple, determine are right for them we could reduce the guilt and shame people feel at engaging in perfectly normal behaviors.
When it comes to fetish and kink behaviors, people again tend to feel guilt and shame at their own desires. I cannot count the number of people who have said to me, “I felt so dirty,” or “I was so embarrassed by my desire,” or “I could never ask my partner for what I really want.” This is sad to me. Most of us desire something more than tender sex in the missionary position. It is a long way from that to hardcore BDSM, but I don’t think people should feel shame at desiring reasonable, healthy sex acts.
Shame creates all sorts of mental health issues and encourages people to engage in risky behavior. If you feel shame because of your desires, you are unlikely to do the research to figure out how to engage in something safely. If you are trying to suppress a desire, your needs may manifest in unhealthy behaviors. If you believe you cannot talk to your partner about your needs, these needs may not be met in the relationship and lead to things like cheating.
One of the biggest problems with modeling only monogamy is it leads to really risky sex for many people. I know too many people who did not believe they could ask their partner about opening a relationship. So, when their needs were not being met, the had an affair. Because they could not admit they were planning an affair (even to themselves), things like buying condoms and taking reasonable birth control precautions went out the window. If you doubt this, watch daytime television. This industry supports the existence of paternity testing facilities. People cheat, get pregnant, and don’t know who the father is because they did not feel “right” about admitting they were screwing around, so they did not use birth control.
What Happens When People Discover Options
Because we do not have widespread representation of sexual and relationship alternatives, there are a couple of things that happen when people finally find out they are not alone in the world. First, they get really excited, which is good. Then they start seeking out other people like themselves, which is good. Then they want to go from 0 to 100 in a month, which is not good.
In the kink community we call it “newbie frenzy.” Someone will discover kink then want to try everything immediately. They immediately claim an identity in the community (e.g., sub or Dom), begin making declarative statements and pontificating on their theories of kink to anyone who will listen, and in six months think they have mastered the world.
As someone who has done this for a while, I get the excitement, but it annoys the crap out of me. I also see people engage in really unsafe behaviors because of this. In a desire to experience “everything” and without the ability to honestly vet a play partner, people end up playing with others who are unsafe, unskilled, or just unethical. Just about every submissive I know has her “Bad Dom(me)” story. She was new and inexperienced. She met a D-type who offered to teach her everything. He then tried to isolate her from the rest of the kink community, insisted his was was the only way to do kink, and became emotionally and physically abusive. Eventually the sub wises up and leaves and feels devastated at the loss of the relationship and betrayed by kink.
This happens because there are unethical kinksters. There are plenty of men who use titles on the left of the slash when really they are just abusive fucks. They want to control their partners. They want everything done exactly the way they want it. They do not really care about the sub’s needs, desires, or skill level. As long as they are in control and getting to sleep with some hot, young new things they are happy. They tend to choose partners significantly younger than themselves and only play with inexperienced partners. In my opinion, these people are not Dom(me)s or kinksters at all. They are predators and need to be identified and drummed out of the community.
For people discovering non-monogamy, the same type of thing happens. They find that there is a community which practices consensual non-monogamy. They get into a relationship very quickly. Then they implode because they are not prepared to deal with all the communication, honesty, jealousy, and calendaring that needs to happen to make these types of relationships work. It is a learning curve. It takes time. However, the excitement propels people to take risks they would never engage in if they were thinking clearly.
The other thing that happens when people discover an alternative is they become a missionary for it. They began to try and tell everyone in their lives that kink or non-monogamy is a superior lifestyle. They become judgmental and anyone not in kink or non-monogamy is just not “evoloved” or “advanced.” This is not okay. Yes, non-monogamy and kink can be transformative for some people. It does not work for everyone. And that is okay. You are not better or more evolved because of your relationship style or the way you like to have sex. Period.
What Is the Alternative
We, as a society, need to start talking openly about various relationship styles and sexualities. We need models. We need stop assigning high value to monogamy and vanilla sex and realize that sexuality and relationships take a whole variety of forms. We need to talk to one another, including our teenagers, about options for relationships. I found that kink and consensual non-monogamy work well for me. It does not work for everyone. Some people really are monogamous. Some people really are vanilla. And that is great. They need to be comfortable pursing those relationships just as kinky and non-monogamous people should be in pursuing theirs.
We need to show alternatives in media. The reality is, most of us get our relationship and sex information at least in part from television, movies, the internet and books. We need to stop hiding alternatives in the “LGBT” and “Ethnic” sections of Netflix and bookstores. We need to see reasonable representations of a variety of relationships on network television.
I actually loved 30 Rock for this reason. They had a character, Jenna Marone, who was in a very alternative relationship. Her partner was a heterosexual female impersonator and the show regularly portrayed them as having a radical sex life. However, it was written in such a way that it was generally not used as a punchline. The sex was extreme and actually pretty funny, but the approach to the characters was to write the relationship as a loving partnership. I think Tina Fey did an excellent job showing an alternative relationship and sexual identity in a very kind way. There needs to be much, much more of this.