In my life, I’ve had issues arise between myself and close friends because of questionable sexual behavior. Clearly established moral and ethical boundaries were dishonored and violated. Relationships were strained and stained, some were cut off or put on indefinite pause. My feelings were hurt, I was angry, sad, disappointed. Feelings are feelings and they deserve respect, but they are not the sum total of life’s meaning; ultimately I realize that these people did me a favor by showing me who they are and what they’re capable of–I take the win and keep it moving.
I woke up this morning thinking about lovers, and what I’m currently looking for in a lover. This led me to reflecting on the types of experiences I’ve had in this realm, as well as the experiences I’ve heard about from friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I have some rough formulations that I came up with as a way of understanding these experiences, understanding different types of erotic and sexual relationships. One of the reasons I want to think and feel my way through this comes out of a need to define my values and experiences outside of “consensus reality,” which I find to be mostly wack.
There exists the standard “monogamous” model of relationships–two people in a romantic partnership who, in theory, do not have any outside lovers or romantic relationships. The standard narrative leads them to long-term coupling, perhaps marriage, perhaps children. Even long-term cohabitation is essentially the same thing as a marriage, only without the paperwork or the negative juju that many people associate with marriage due to their experiences and understanding of it.
The problems with these relationships have been well-noted by various storytellers and philosophers for thousands of years. To summarize the modern situation, these relationships are a mirror of the function of capital, which in turn is a mutation of agricultural economics dating back to the neolithic. Ownership and oppression, envy, jealousy, the basic insanities of the nuclear family, etc. In reality, “infidelity” is common; people cheat on each other all the time. It’s considered standard behavior in many circles for a man to have a wife and a mistress, a girlfriend and a side chick.
Then there’s “dating,” which as far as I can tell is basically “try-outs” for long-term companionship. Many people simply date out of boredom or lack of alternative options, but I think most people who date are ultimately looking for someone to share their lives with. In ye olden days (pre-internet) they might meet potential partners through friends or family, or while participating in activities in which they share an interest. Perhaps they meet at a bar or a club or a show. There are organizations that set people up on dates, or perhaps host “singles mixers” for folks to meet potential partners. People meet each other in school, or maybe have a chance encounter on the bus or shopping for groceries. And since everything material in this society can be had for the right price, people even buy, sell, and trade “sexual services.”
Nowadays, technological alienation has led to a proliferation of “website dating services,” where people fill out standardized forms and are given a list of potential matches based on how well their form answers line up with each other. This technological alienation has reached its current apex with apps like Tinder, which have transformed the quest for romantic and/or sexual partners into the equivalent of online shopping–people as two-dimensional commodities, reduced to a picture and a soundbite, swipe left to reject.
In the last several years, among certain circles of consumer-class bohemians, there’s been a proliferation of the ideology of “polyamory.” People unsatisfied with the basic mundanity of monogamy have opted for relationships with various degrees of “openness” to having other lovers. Many of these folks hierarchically organize the status of their lovers around a main partner–primary, secondary, tertiary (does anyone other than me use that word?), etc. A friend who is a professional counselor told me once that there’s now a whole field of relationship counselors who specialize in “polyamorous” relationships. The most common problem they encounter is that these relationships tend to hinder people’s emotional growth; instead of making the difficult emotional journey of working out relationship problems, one or the other partner simply finds someone else to use as an emotional escape and outlet.
Personally, what I’ve seen most often is that people who are emotionally immature promote “polyamory” out of self-interest; they don’t want to be single and lonely, but they still want to be able to fuck whoever they want. Despite the protests and propaganda of folks who advocate this lifestyle, it is essentially just another commodity/consumer relationship; if I’m unhappy with the current product, I’ll use something different for awhile–I mostly eat at Jack-in-the-Box, but right now I’m in the mood for Burger King. I do not think it’s a coincidence that “polyamory” has gained popularity in the era of Late Capital(ism). Advocates of this lifestyle claim that it represents some kind of freedom; if so, that freedom has not, in any way, extended to society in general. The mental gymnastics of people looking for moral justification of their own self-interest are always fun to observe.
I’ve been in many intimate relationships that I like to refer to as “non-traditional,” mainly because I haven’t known what else to call them. I’ve only been in two long-term (a year or longer) monogamous relationships in my life. It’s been common in my adult life for me to have multiple concurrent lovers; I remember first reading about “polyamory” back in the early 2000’s, long before it became trendy. It sounded good on paper, but there was always something about it that struck me as suspect. I never claimed the label.
I’ve had two long-term “open” relationships. I’ve had sexual/romantic relationships that were on-and-off for years, but I never identified those partners as my “girlfriend,” did not claim monogamy, and had no illusions of long-term commitment. I’ve had relationships that were erotic and sexual but did not involve “intercourse.” When I was younger I did plenty of lying, but I haven’t “cheated” on anyone since I was 19; in all other cases, everybody knew the deal, and signed up with varying degrees of acceptance or reluctance. With some lovers our encounter was a one-time occasion, but in most cases I’ve been involved with someone for at least a few months.
Through all of these experiences, I’ve developed an ethics and morality of sexual/romantic relationships that is deeply personal. If I agree to be monogamous, I will be. If I don’t, I won’t, and I will be upfront about it. If a lover says they’re okay with being non-monogamous but their actions and attitudes say otherwise, I will break it off. I refuse to be the partner-in-cheating for someone who is supposed to be monogamous to another, (though I reserve the clown-pass right to make an exception if the woman is POC and the partner is a white man, hee hee, ho ho). I never sexually engage anyone with whom my close friends have a romantic history. As a general rule, I will not knowingly have sex with anyone who’s ever had sex with one of my friends, co-workers, or professional associates. I won’t keep a lover who lies–actively or by omission–about their sexual history or their relationship status. And, generally speaking, I don’t seek out lovers. I live my life, and if they show up, that’s great.
Thinking through all of this, I’ve come up with some rough categories or archetypes of lovers. In all of these, I assume a basic level of human respect between partners; I have no interest in the objectification and dehumanization of people for sexual purposes. Therefore, none of these categories involve predatory sex–seeking out people to fuck with zero regard for their feelings or humanity–or transactional sex–paying for access to someone’s body. So-called “sex workers” may take issue with my feelings on this, which is their right, but I will say it anyway: exchanging sex for money and/or resources is an affront to the spirit, and proof of the degradation inherent in (machine)(domination)(patriarchal)(capital[ism]) culture. Also, none of these categories are intended to be absolute; they can ebb and flow into one another, the moon and the tide.
The Companion Lover
The type of lover that most people are familiar with from being in “romantic relationships.” This is a person with whom you share aspects of your life–you spend time together, go on adventures, share meals, tell stories, merge your lives in some capacity, or even join forces unto death. The standard “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” fits into this category, as well as long-term lovers with “undefined” status. A spouse or life-partner is a long-term companion lover.
The Recreational Lover
This is a lover with minimal emotional attachments. Their only purpose is in sharing sexual fun. They may be a one-time lover or an ongoing affair with no degree of commitment. This is a hedonistic relationship by definition; once the fun stops, the relationship stops. (Please note that I am not condemning hedonism; it is what it is.)
The Therapeutic Lover
Sex and sexuality are fundamental to the human experience, and in a society of alienation, oppression, and objectification, folks can and do develop all kinds of pathologies. A therapeutic lover is someone who helps to heal those sicknesses through sex. This is someone who ultimately makes you a better, healthier, more whole human being… whether they intend to or not. Sometimes we need a release, but a recreational lover is not substantial enough–one needs more than just “fun.” If you’ve ever felt this, you may have been feeling the need for a therapeutic lover.
The Heart-Connection Lover
This is the spiritual ideal; the lover with whom one shares a deep, soul-level connection. This is all of the other lovers blended together in a sacred dance of intimacy. From what I’ve seen, few people ever experience this level of connection with someone. Even when they do, it’s not necessarily a guarantee of a blissful partnership. If anything, it can be more difficult than any other kind of relationship; it demands change, adaptation, emotional and spiritual growth, respect, and compassion on a level that our society ill prepares us for. This is what people are pointing towards when they use the phrase “soulmate,”–the two who become one, separated only to unite. The idea of, experience of, and hope for this lover have long inspired creative works of intense and enduring beauty.
I have experienced each of these archetypes, and blends of them. I know them by feel, know their benefits and drawbacks. Right now, I have no lovers; after dealing with plenty of heartbreak and trifling behavior, I have decided to be very cautious and intentional about who I share my time and energy with. That said, who knows what the future may hold?
I am an explorer.