Casual Sex and Self-esteem (password-protected)

Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about casual sex and ways in which people engage in it – specifically healthy vs unhealthy ways to engage in it within non-monogamous communities. In the past I’ve had a tendency to engage in it in an unhealthy way, so this is in part my reflection on that experience and in part a series of observations I’ve made about others. Let me state straightaway that I know casual sex can be an awesome and I certainly do see people engaging in it in an empowering way that has little to do with their self-image or their opinion of or feeling about themselves. However, I’ve noticed more and more that there is a tendency within (non-monogamous) communities to link self-esteem to the ability to have (casual) sex* (and to what extent one has it). People have generally told me one of the following:

1) “I don’t have high enough self-esteem to pursue having the casual sex that I want to have,” and

2) “I’m feeling bad about myself and my level of attractiveness right now for “X” reason, so I’m going to prop up my sense of self-worth with the people who find me attractive by having casual sex with them. This will help me feel more attractive and therefore better about myself,” or

3) “I’m not having casual sex with anyone these days/recently, so I must be unattractive.” I suck, woe is me, etc.

*For the purposes of this blogpost I consider casual sex to be sex taking place with people one is not in a formalised, committed agreed partnership-type relationship with (whatever you choose to call that: boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, partner, etc.)

All of the above concern me and make me sad, particularly in the case of friends who I adore and think the world of. Interestingly enough, I rarely see the phenomenon (amongst my non-monogamous circles) of someone’s self-esteem taking a nosedive after having lots of casual sex, which goes well against what you’d read about the matter in mainstream media. In fact there have been a number of studies done recently in which the assertion that casual sex causes low self-esteem has been thoroughly debunked. More recently there have been articles coming out in some mainstream media advocating about the benefits of casual sex (I like Stanley Seigel’s “Why I advocate for casual sex”) However I certainly know people who’ve gone through self destructive periods of having casual sex – engaging in it as a form of self-harm. Essentially, there is nothing wrong with casual sex in and of itself, but it seems easy for many to engage in it destructively, particularly in the context of non-monogamous communities.

Recently I had a eureka moment about why I haven’t had much casual sex recently. I used to have a lot of it, up until a couple of months before I entered into two serious partnership-level relationships. For a while, I thought this shift had come about due to a sudden lack of time to pursue casual dalliances. However I realised that I also stopped having casual sex because I used it (in part) as a way to prop up my self-esteem, and wanted to get out of the pattern of doing so. This seemed unfair both to myself and those I was sleeping with, so I made a semi-conscious choice to change my strategy. I knew I was in danger of developing some very harmful habits so I removed myself from those… opportunities. Also, I knew that my many casual pursuits were not giving me time or energy to pursue more substantial relationships, so I consciously decided (to some extent) to table having casual sex for an indefinite period. I also wanted to get my head screwed on properly again, to the point that I would know that any sex I was having was not linked to my self-esteem. I can now pretty safely say my self-esteem has nothing to do with my sex partners/romantic relationships, or vice versa.

Why, exactly, was it problematic for my sense of self worth to be propped up by my casual sexual relationships? Being propped up meant being dependent on other people for my sense of self and my sense of worth. It meant that my self esteem came from external sources and presences, all of which were ultimately temporary (as all things in life are). Again, it is not casual sex in and of itself (as a phenomenon or an activity) that is “bad” but rather it being used as a vehicle of unhealthy dependency on others as well as a potential distraction from dealing with bigger issues. This seems to be an easy dependency to develop in non-monogamous communities, where most of us are allowed to have sex with others, and many of us are allowed to have as much sex with as many people as we want or can. It’s an easy and acceptable way to act out our insecurities and fears about ourselves. (NB: I could certainly also write a post about the link between self-esteem and partners/relationships more generally within poly/-non-monogamous communities. It’s just that the casual sex link is one I observe more often and more obviously.)

Occasionally I have really missed casual sex (mainly the intimacy I had within a circle of friends) but I haven’t missed it as much as I suspected I would. It was difficult, at first, when I realised some of my casual partners wanted nothing more committed than that with me (as in, even a friendship). Furthermore, not having as much casual sex has often left me feeling a bit like an outsider in my own community, because I see so many people pursuing it. I don’t see anything morally wrong with it and I’ve always been a bit of a hedonist, so seriously, what’s wrong with me now for not wanting it all the time like I used to? Am I not sex positive enough? I’ve also talked to a couple of other friends of mine who’ve constantly questioned whether they’re “open” enough in their relationship to fit into a non-monogamous community. This is also another strange way in which self-esteem and casual sex (and the desire to have it, or lack thereof) are linked.

One thing I can say though: I don’t actually regret any of the casual sex I’ve had. Engaging in it was a decision I made fully and consciously as a necessary way to explore my sexuality after a long drought. It helped me figure out what I wanted and what I didn’t want, and it helped me have a sharper and clearer understanding about consent and negotiation (again, how to do it and how not to do it!). I met and had sex and casual relationships with wonderful people who I still consider friends and people I very much trust and admire (and honestly would probably have sex with again in the right situation). More recently my interest in casual sex has been piqued again, but I’m dipping my toe into it, as it were, in a more thoughtful way than I have before. My contemplation of it is still very much a work in progress, so I would appreciate any thoughts about this from my readers.

Guest post: on Love, Friendship & Intimacy

Due to my holiday I asked the lovely and very thoughtful @KinkiNoNeko to write a guest blogpost for Delightfully Queer on Intimacy & Friendship. Below is her blogpost entitled: “L is for the way you look at me…Love and its Many Meanings”

Love. Four little letters with a slew of meanings behind them. We’re all extremely familiar with society’s vision of love; it’s enshrined in every romantic movie, every jewelry commercial and every picture of the perfect family. Love is commitment, love is a house and 2.4 kids, love is blissfully ignorant. It’s also typically monogamous, restrictive in nature, and can only belong to certain people and with certain levels of commitment.

If you’re ethically non-monogamous or polyamorous, or even just outside the normal bubble of society, you already know that love is so much more complex than that, and certainly exists outside the afore mentioned vacuum. Poly typically means opening your heart to having more than one relationship and more than one love, but what about all the other people in our lives? Is romantic love the only love that exists, even if you’re poly?

Love is one of those words that over time and throughout different cultures has had any number of definitions and meanings. Depending on the language, there may be any number of words for it, depending on the person we’re saying it to. We know we love our mother, and we even know that it’s different than how we love our spouse. Yet we still get stuck on the word often, and try to shove our love in boxes to try and help ourselves understand how we feel.

In my own journey into polyamory and opening my mind to the many concepts of love, I have found that in many cases, love can be broken down into four different sections; sexual, romantic, friendly, and familial. Some people fit into these categories easily, but most do not. In fact, most people can’t. These categories exist to be mixed and matched, to be represented in different amounts and to interact with each other differently. This is why your feelings about Person A might be completely different than your feelings for Person B, but no less awesome or intense.

Sexual affection is a pretty obvious one; it encompasses pretty much all lust, desire, and physical want for a person. It often complements the other feelings quite nicely, but can both exist on it’s own, or not at all. Romantic affection I think can be defined by the desire to pursue romance with an individual, however you envision romance personally. Friendly affection is the wide berth given to how we feel about people we connect with and get along with well; the people we can share our thoughts and ideas and explore the world with. Lastly, familial affection is that often unexplainable unconditional bond we feel towards individuals that we often consider to be our family, a connection shared on a different level.

You may have someone in your life that you feel extremely romantic about, and even a little bit familial, but don’t feel the pull of sexual affection. Or you might feel an extremely strong sexual draw, with friendliness off the charts, but nothing in the romantic category. I tend to think of them in my head as little bars that fill up the more that particular feeling exists. There’s no limits on it; no restrictions on how you can feel for a person. Embracing this way of thinking also helps let go of a lot of the competitiveness that can exist around concepts of love. Someone doesn’t have to be a certain way for you to love them, date them, sleep with them, marry them, live with them.

If you’ve ever found that you’ve struggled with reconciling yourself with the concept of love, try this method on for size. Think about the people in your life that you care about, and see if you can identify what categories your love contains. Reflect on their differences, and what makes them all unique and amazing. See if they stretch outside those categories even. Don’t stress if they don’t. No matter where it sits inside you, embrace it. For all the awful things in the world and all the time we give to thinking about them, it’s good to occasionally remember that love is simply brilliant, in all its many facets. 🙂

Poly Means Many: a sceptic’s point of view on hierarchies and labels

What can I say about hierarchies and labels when it comes to polyamory?

Throughout my life I’ve often rejected the primary/secondary structure and will probably continue to do so. I have done so consistently, whether I’ve been single, married and/or coupled up in non-married capacity, living together or long-distance.

I recognise that rejecting these labels isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. By using primary/secondary/etc, some may be able to more clearly communicate the roles that may be available in their lives to prospective partners. It can give a certain sense of security and necessary structure. Some people may prefer a structure in which they live with one of their partners and spend most of their time with them, and never live with another and see them just once or twice a week (or perhaps this is not so much their preference but the shape their life takes due to logistical necessity). For some these labels may not only be a useful descriptor for their relationships but a useful boundary-marker. Personally, this sets up a boundary that I’m not comfortable with, but I can certainly see why others may need it or prefer it that way.

However, I don’t find the hierarchical labels of primary/secondary that useful or accurate. Take any one poly person and they will likely have a different understanding of primary vs. secondary or partner vs. boyfriend from the next poly person (incidentally I tend to use partner for anyone I’m in a relationship with and rarely use other words). Those different understandings carry a whole different set of assumptions, boundaries and limitations. Not using labels means that I have to have a full conversation with my partner(s) about what we mean to each other, where our priorities lie, and what our lives can look like on a daily basis instead of using the shorthand of labels, which we may or may not imbue with the same meaning.

As well, I don’t want to be a secondary or tell a partner that they’re a secondary, because I don’t like the inherent limitations those labels bring with them, nor do I want to buy into the couple privilege that is labelling any particular relationship as my “primary partner.” Many people (if not most) seem to understand a “primary partner” as a label for only one person in your life. I find this understanding extremely limiting and using those labels could mean that my relationships with lovers I don’t live with will tend to be bounded by their assumptions and understandings of such labels.

The only label I have not historically rejected is that of domestic partner. That’s because this label is useful and clearly communicates a particular arrangement using a word that most people recognise to have the same meaning. Nor is it particularly exclusive – just because I may already have a domestic partner doesn’t mean I can’t have more than one. Having been poly both with and without a domestic partner, I acknowledge that there is simply no replacement for the companionship that a domestic partner or partners can bring to your life. Shared domesticity is something I simply never stopped missing for as long as I didn’t have it.

Labels and hierarchies also tend to focus on the couple as an essential unit, which is not a way in which I’d like to live my life. I want to be open to triads, quads or whatever other relationship form life throws in my direction. I want children and life-long commitment, but probably not with only one other person. Why would I use a label that denotes a life fundamentally different from what I seek?

I know, from experience, that most poly people use these labels and by rejecting them as I have that I might exclude myself from even more of the dating pool. (Indeed, this has already happened a few times.) However, it does mean that the relationships I do successfully have are with people with very compatible views.

Just as loving someone feels different every time, so will every relationship be uniquely different because of the people involved in it. This is why I actively reject hierarchical relationship models and the labels that come with them. My focus is on building the relationships themselves, not slapping on yet another label that may or may not accurately convey its importance to the people around us or limit the direction our relationship could grow.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each
month seven bloggers – ALBJ, Delightfully Queer, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, Post Modern Sleaze, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.