Last month I went to a 2-day event, where it was sex education workshops during the day (I taught a class about Hooking up Healthy) and a sex party at night. My friend and fellow sex and relationship educator Atrina taught a class on nonmonogamy and designing your open relationships. So we sat down and did a Q & A around opening up. You can also watch the YouTube and video at the end 🙂
Me: Hi Atrina, tell us a bit about you: Who you are and what you do?
Atrina: Sure. I’m a sex and relationship educator, coach, and researcher. Right now my primary focus is around non-traditional sexualities and relationship styles with a particular focus on non-monogamy. I help people design their own relationships to meet their own needs. Everybody has their own needs in non-monogamy and practice it in different ways, so I like meeting people where they are and working from there.
Me: There’s a lot of different ways you can create open relationship indeed. What’s your educational background?
Atrina: I have a Master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. While they didn’t have a specific non-monogamy minor all of my research projects, thesis, and papers where around atypical sexualities, nontraditional relationships, and things of that nature; sex and relationships on the fringe.
Me: What are some different types of non-monogamous rules that you often see?
Atrina: “Non-monogamy” is a really big umbrella. For example, swinging is one type of non-monogamy and swingers will often have sexual non-exclusivity, but emotional and romantic exclusivity with their partner. They often have a primary partner with whom they’re in a romantic relationship and then they have sex outside of that partnership with multiple people or one person at a time. But they don’t have an emotional or romantic relationship with the other people outside of that core couple.
Another form of non-monogamy is polyamory and there are different forms. Some people practicing polyamory will have multiple simultaneous romantic and sexual relationships with other people. Some people practice a hierarchy within their polyamory where a couple is married, or consider their boyfriend / girlfriend as their primary partner, and everybody else they date is considered a secondary partner. Others don’t identify as having a primary relationship.
There’s the idea of polyfidelity which is a core unit of people that are romantically and sexually exclusive with each other, however, instead of 2 people there are maybe 3 or 4 or more people within this relationship arrangement. Generally the ones that are 3 or 4 are the ones that last for longer periods of time. It’s easier to manage fewer people than larger networks. In terms of different rules, some people have a “no romantic attachment rule.” Swingers, for example, will have that.
Me: Is that “no romantic attachment” rule hard to implement and maintain?
Atrina: It can be. Some people place specific rules to mitigate that. For example, you can only have sex with a particular person once, or you can only have sex with them every 6 months, or you can only have sex with them a total of this however many times, or you can only have sex with them only in the primary partner’s presence.
Me: Maybe no kissing?
Atrina: Exactly, maybe no kissing and no dates. Like, a couple goes to a sex party, has sex with someone other than their primary partner and then goes home with their partner. So yes, sometimes that can be a little bit tricky especially because when sex happens, emotions can happen too. People will sometimes develop romantic attractions to the people that they’re hooking up and spending time with. And some people like the emotional attachment in addition to the sex, so they opt for the route of having multiple ongoing simultaneous romantic relationships.
Me: Open relationships are absolutely not for everyone. Just because it’s out there or just because we’re talking about it, or it’s good for someone, doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone. So only do what works for you. How do you get started on open relationships?
Atrina: There are a few steps to going into an open relationship. First, to really look introspectively and think about what it is that you want. What are your core values? What is it that you’re trying to get out of relationships? What are the reasons to want to open a relationship? And that’s different for every single person, so personal introspection is definitely the 1st step.
The 2nd step would be to come to your partner, current or future, and discuss your goals with them: what you ultimately want to get out of non-monogamy. Sometimes people come to the conversation with a very specific idea, say “I want a triad with one man and one woman where we all live together, raise children together, and are all equally invested in the relationship. The end, are you on board or not?” But it might be more useful to approach the conversation by talking about what sexual or emotional goals they are trying to meet with their ideal imagined relationship structure. Maybe there are different strategies for meeting your particular goals. And their partners may have different goals. So looking at the end-goals and trying to find different strategies to meet that end goal is advisable in open relationship.
Me: Yes, showing flexibility in designing your open relationship is critical. Someone says, “Don’t bring it up when you start dating, he’ll be interested in you for all the wrong reasons.” What’s your take on that?
Atrina: I think it would depend. Unfortunately, it is common for people who identify as “polyamorous” or “in open relationships” on dating websites to be misread by others as, “I like casual sex with anyone, I’m indiscriminate,” which is not the case most of the time. So you may not want to put that info out there early on. At the same time, when you start dating somebody new, they will often expecting that if things go well, you will become monogamous because that’s typically what happens: People meet, they date, they become exclusive. If you go against that expectation because you’re polyamorous, and you are not upfront about it either initially or at least very early on, you’re kind of leading a person on to believe there is potential for monogamy. That could be very heartbreaking to them when you’ve been dating for say 6 months and you say, “Oh by the way, I’m polyamorous.” There are differing ideas around when to bring this up. I’m a big proponent of bringing it up even before the first date actually because then there are no false pretenses, there’s no question of whether or not this is going to happen, “This is who I am, this is how I am, if you’d like to find out more, if you’d like to get to know me better, then we can go from there.”
Me But, ultimately, everyone has to make that decision for themselves, and it may differ depending on circumstances. Now, how do you handle STDs in multiple relationships?
Atrina: There was actually a study done that found people who were in presumably monogamous relationships but had cheated on their partners were more likely to have unsafe sex than people in consensual non-monogamous relationships. One of the main tenets of ethical non-monogamy is communication in which all parties involved are aware of things that affect everyone within those relationships. Even people who have very few relationship agreements will often agree on the usage of condoms, as well as STI management. People in consensually non-monogamous relationships tend to be more vigilant about getting tested. They’re more likely to use condoms for intercourse and use gloves in manual sexual stimulation.
Me: Responsible nonmonogamy can keep you quite safe. Is this more readily accepted outside the US?
Atrina: I think it’s actually less accepted outside of the US.
Me: Some European countries are probably more open to it, some Northern European countries?
Atrina: Yeah. I think some of the major metropolitan areas in the United States, specifically San Francisco, are a very big hub for polyamory. So is New York City and Washington D.C. I heard Colorado was starting to develop more of a polyamorous reputation because things are a little bit more liberal there than in other states.
Me: But there are swingers everywhere. The swinger world is all over the country. And of course the bigger the city the more people you have. Do you have a practice and do you seek clients?
Atrina: Yeah. I’m developing that as we speak actually. And my website. Stay tuned.
Me: What swinger or poly websites would you recommend for people to go and check out for more information or for meeting people?
Atrina: Specifically for polyamory, I am a big proponent of Franklin Veaux’s www.morethantwo.com. He wrote a book with Eve Rickert called More Than Two, which is kind of a how-to manual on ethical polyamory. That book is excellent. His website that accompanies it is also really good and has a lot of really good materials on how to disclose to partners, how to navigate multiple relationships, how to manage jealousy, etc. Another book that I would recommend is Tristan Taormino’s book, Opening Up, because that generally has more variety in terms of the different kinds of open relationships.
Me: What’s the difference between poly and cuckold?
Atrina: So cuckold is when a heterosexual couple typically are in a relationship, and the woman would have sex with another man, either in front of the male partner or sort of ‘behind his back,’ but with acknowledgement that the man knows his female partner is having sex with other men. I think often times this is a fetish typically involving some type of humiliation. For instance the woman might say, “Oh yeah, I was fucking this other guy and he was so much better than you, how do you feel about that?”
Me: Or small cock humiliation.
Atrina: Exactly. Like, “His cock was so much bigger than yours,” and stuff like that. The general term is actually just a woman who has had sex with a man while being in a relationship with a different man. But colloquially it’s used more regarding this fetish. So somebody could be in a polyamorous relationship and cuckold their partner but polyamory is not by definition cuckolding their partner. There doesn’t need to be that level of humiliation. The husband doesn’t necessarily have to watch his wife and her male partner engage sexually. They can overlap or not.
Me: Someone asks, “Why would you want to have a partner if you want to be with someone else?”
Atrina: Okay, here’s a little analogy. You have a child and you love that child with all of your heart. This child is the most important thing to you. If you love that child so much why would you have another child? Because then you would have to split your love between two children, right? Well, no. It’s called magic math: if you have one child, you love that child with all of your heart, and if you have another child you also love that child with all of your heart. As they grow up, they’re not children any more and they develop their different personalities. Maybe one child is really good at computers, the other loves to come over and cook for you. Maybe one child is really good at helping you navigate emotions, the other child is really good at helping you with your finances. So you would love your children with the same intensity, the same love, no matter how many you had. You don’t diminish your love for them. Maybe you like them for different things but that doesn’t mean that the love is any different. There’s no lack of love.
Me: Yeah, I think that’s a great analogy when it comes to polyamory in particular. And then you have the people who are pretty happy loving one child, but they just want to play with other people’s kids. So more of the swinger type relationships. So you have this long-term very loving committed relationship with one person but you just like some novelty, some sex with other people. That’s one of the reasons why you might want a non-monogamous relationship. In either case, you need two very emotionally stable and mature people to make this work, no?
Atrina: Oh yes, absolutely. And it really has to do with negotiating the bounds of your relationship with your partner or partners. If one partner, for example, believes in having a monogamous relationship, wants to be monogamous, and they think they’re monogamous, but the other partner is saying, “No, I want to have multiple partners,” and they do, that’s not called polyamory, that’s not called an open relationship. That’s called cheating. So what defines the difference between cheating and an openly nonmonogamous relationship is the agreement between the people in their relationship. And not even just, “Are we open or not,” but the specific areas of their non-monogamy.
Me: Atrina, thanks a lot. You can’t find Atrina anywhere just yet, but it’s coming soon. And we’ll have Atrina back, she’s a friend. Bye.