A Brief Guide to Marriage Around the World

It seems every six months or so someone’s questions lead me to write a long involved post on social media about the history of marriage, the variety of forms marriage takes around the world, and how monogamy as practiced in the US and Europe today has not actually been the “one true” marriage for the past thousand years. In fact, as practiced in the US and Europe today hasn’t even been around for a hundred years.

The topic came up again recently. I decided this time instead of posting on social media, I’ll write a blog post so I don’t need to keep rewriting the same info. So this week we’re taking a break from the current running blog series. Today’s post is a brief review of marriage practices around the world. Thursday will be a review of the history of Christian European marriage–which is what most people I know are talking about when they go on about “traditional marriage.”

A Glossary of Marriage

Anthropologists have spent over fifty years arguing about how to define of marriage. As far as I can tell, they still haven’t come to a consensus. Think about that a moment. Marriage varies so widely across cultures that we can’t even define it properly. Most attempted definitions include one or more of:

1) restricted sexual access (ie, sex only with marital partners)

2) economic responsibility for marital partners

3) recognition of paternity and/or responsibility for raising children together

There seems to be a general consensus among anthropoligists that marriage is universal. I find this a questionable conclusion, especially in light of the sonhun (“walking marriage”) of the Mosuo. (My usual reference for the Mosuo practices is http://www.mosuoproject.org/mosuo.htm — a site which I recall as being maintained by members of the Mosuo. Unfortunately that site is down as of this writing. For an academic source check here: https://imaginarsocial.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/stacey_marriage1.pdf) It seems (especially in light of the argument about defining marriage) that anthropologists have sometimes looked for a practice which might resemble marriage as they understood it and then adjusted the definition to fit.

While you are thinking about that, here are some terms related to marriage I’ll be using in this post:

  1. Monogamy: marriage involving two people
  2. Polygamy: marriage involving more than two people
  3. Polygyny: marriage involving one man and several women
  4. Polyandry: marriage involving one woman and several men
  5. Group marriage: marriage between multiple men and multiple women, sometimes called polygynandry
  6. Term marriage: marriage which lasts only for a set time
  7. Arranged marriage: marriage which is arranged by a third party with the consent of the spouses-to-be
  8. Forced marriage: marriage with is arranged by a third party without the consent of one or more spouses-to-be
  9. Social polygamy: arrangement where marriage is legally only recognized between two people, but sexual/romantic/intimate relationships outside of marriage are socially recognized
  10. Social monogamy: only marriage between two people is legally and socially recognized, but other relationships are expected as long as they are hidden

Marriage Around the World

Marriage both now and throughout history has taken a variety of forms.
The Ethnogrphic Atlas found that of ~1300 cultures, most practiced a mix of polygyny and monogamy, some practiced monogamy, and a very few (four) practiced polyandry. Anthropologists have since found an additional 53 cultures which practice polyandry and (according to wiki) 4 which have group marriages. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the citation for group marriages.

Many of the cultures which practice exclusive monogamy allow for social monogamy or serial monogamy. I don’t know of any cultures which practice social polygamy today. Several countries in Europe used to practice it, including France where the king’s mistress had a recognized position in the court. (For a layperson’s introduction: Kathleen Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013.) Concubinage was a common practice in some socially polygamous cultures. Concubines had a socially (and sometimes legally) recognized position, but did not have the status of wives. (As practiced in Greece and Rome: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah22061/abstract)

Some cultures allow for term marriages. In the US, the best known of these may be the Celtic tradition of handfasting* (marriage for a year and a day). Some neo-pagan groups have revived this tradition. Term marriages were also practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia. The custom, most often called mut’ah, survives to this day in the Shi’ite sect of Islam. There are accusations that in some cases mut’ah is practiced today as a religiously legitimate cover for sex work and sexual trafficking.

Arranged marriage has been the norm for much of recorded history and remains common in some parts of the world. Forced marriage has often, though not always, existed side by side with arranged marriage. In some places forced marriages have been technically illegal but still practiced. For instance, in Christian Europe a marriage could only happen with the consent of both the bride and groom. However, women and men were both often pressured or coerced into a marriage against their will. Women seem to be the victims of forced marriage more often, as many cultures that have arranged marriage allow the man to arrange his own marriage. However in cases of child engagements or where a large inheritance or political alliance was in the balance, both sons and daughters might be bartered off. (And yes, I am deliberately referring to people as property in this case, because often that is exactly what they were treated as.)

Arranged marriages continue in many parts of the world today. I have known or known of people in the US, Israel, India, and several Islamic countries who have been in arranged marriages or had an arranged engagement that was later broken off. Some have sought out arranged marriages through the services of a matchmaker. Others have had their marriages arranged by families. All the people I have personally known have been pleased with their arrangements and had the right to break off the engagement if they changed their minds.

Forced marriage, either legal or illegal, continues to be reported in many parts of the world today.

I apologize for not citing my information on arranged and forced marriages. I do not currently have any saved citations, and searching for citation is likely to be triggering for me. However information on these marriage forms is relatively easy to find. Adding “pdf” to your search terms is quick way to filter for academic papers.

Wrap Up

Obviously this is a very general overview. The full details on the variety of marriage practices around the world could fill a library. I am a some-what read layperson and not any kind of expert. Please use my citations as a jumping off point for your own research, don’t take them as the end-all be-all on marriage. And if you have additional information or citations, please share in the comments.

*Many sources will cite the work of A.E. Anton in the 1950s who said that handfasting only meant betrothal and the idea of it being a “year and a day” marriage could not be found prior to mythic histories from the 1800s. However other sources cite the Gaelic scholar Martin Martin’s book “A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland” published in 1639: “It was an ancient custom in the Isles that a man take a maid as his wife and keep her for the space of a year without marrying her; and if she pleased him all the while, he married her at the end of the year and legitimatised her children; but if he did not love her, he returned her to her parents.” The Statues of Iona (1609) are also cited as banning marriage contracts for a set term of years, suggesting that such marriages were allowed prior to 1609. I haven’t been able to find a non-pay walled text of the Statutes and don’t have access to a copy of Martin Martin.

 

(All citations accessed on 4/16/2016 unless otherwise noted)

Book Review: When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous by Dr. Elizabeth Sheff

book review when someone you love is polyamorousA few years ago, I said that with Dr. Sheff’s The Polyamorist’s Next Door we finaly had a book to share with friends and family trying to understand polyamory. Dr. Sheff has done herself one better.

When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous is a clearly laid out book that introduces the basic concepts of polyamory in simple, easy to understand language. Topics include advantages and challenges of polyamory, why are people polyamorous, and children in polyamory.

Dr. Sheff doesn’t sugarcoat the problems in polyamory, including the lack of diversity among people willing and able to be openly polyamorous. She does lay out clearly what polyamory is, why it works for some people, and why it isn’t cheating or religious-style polygyny. I especially appreciate Dr. Sheff’s taking the time to explain why many poly folk want to “come out” to friends and family, and how friends and family can be supportive.

There are two things I would have liked to see in this book. The first is an explicit acknowledgement of the variety in polyamory. Dr. Sheff does describe several different ways people structure polyamorous relationships. Still I would have liked to see something like “Every polyamorous relationship is different. What you see in TV or the media may not be anything like the relationships your loved ones form.”

The other I would have liked to see addressed is abuse. You’d think “non-abusive” would be covered under “ethical” “honest” and “consensual.” But I’ve known a number of people who believed a poly relationship had to be abusive or coercive. Best to grasp that bull by the horns. “People who don’t understand polyamory may fear their loved one is being abused. The vast majority of polyamorous relationships are non-abusive and abuse seems to occur in polyamory (about as often/slightly more often/slightly less often) than in monogamy. If you have specific concerns about the way your loved one is being treated in their relationships, don’t focus on polyamory. Instead talk with your lloved ones about the specific issues that concern you.”

Those two points aside, When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous is a well written and useful book. I recommend it for anyone considering coming out to their friends and family, or anyone who has come out but is having trouble getting their loved ones to understand and accept their relationships.

Mental Illness and Polyamory Recap

This blog series is already one of the longest I’ve written, and I’m about to add a bunch more information. So before we dive back in I decided it would be good to do a quick recap of the key points of the series so far.

Educate Yourself

If one of your poly partners suffers from mental illness, take the time to learn about their illness and how it affects them. This includes both reading up on the general information about the illness and learning about how your partner experiences their illness.

There is No Quick Cure

Mental illness is not something people can just “get over” and there is no fast treatment or cure. Medication can help manage mental illness but is NOT a cure or fix. And just finding the right treatment approach can take months, if not years.

Mental Illness Can Mimic Relationship Problems

Mental illness can mimic jealousy, abuse, loss of interest, and a number of other relationship problems and red flags. Treating mental illness like relationship problems just compounds the problem. Treat mental illness like mental illness and relationship problems like relationship problems.

The Big Book of Poly Doesn’t Always Apply

There’s a lot of great advice for folks in poly relationships. However, some of that advice doesn’t work when combined with mental illness. Following the standard polyamory advice may not work or may even make things worse. If this happens it doesn’t mean you/your partner are bad at poly. It just means advice formulated by and for mentally healthy people doesn’t always apply when dealing with mental illness.

Sometimes Mental Illness Isn’t

Michon Neal shared a horrific experience of being misdiagnosed and having physical illness dismissed as “all in zir head” and mental illness. In Michon’s case the problem was compounded by the way doctors tend to overlook or dismiss all black women’s problems as mental illness.

For Michon this meant, ze was not only NOT getting the treatment ze needed, but was put on unnecessary medications with severe adverse effects. Nearly as harmful is when the wrong mental illness is diagnosed. Depression and bipolar may seem similar from the outside, but the respond very differently to treatment. Bipolar and schizophrenia are often mistaken for each other.

Irrational Feelings Are Still Feelings

Mental illness makes people feel things that have no basis in reality. Telling someone feeling abandoned because of depression “You are wrong to feel that way!” or “how dare you say I don’t do enough!” or anything like this doesn’t help anyone. That doesn’t mean you should try to fix problems that don’t exist. But understanding and empathy go a long way. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I hope you know that I love you and would never abandon you. Would cuddling for a bit help?”

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Etiquette for Polyamory Partners and Children

I talked about interactions between poly partners and children a couple of times in the Raising Children in a Poly Family blog series. But this apparently an issue a lot of people stress about, so I’m going to pull it all together in one place.

This article assumes that you want your children to meet your poly partners. If you don’t, that’s okay. Do what works for your family and relationships. (Should I be out to my children?)

The First Rule is KISS

Keep It Simple, Stupid. This rule will get you through large parts of life and especially large chunks of parenting. Kid’s are smart. But they are also…let’s go with focused. They don’t care about the details of your job (unless they are planning on going into the same field). They don’t care about what you and your friend do when you go Tuesday nights. And they don’t really care about the details of your relationship with your poly partners. Answer the questions they ask–the exact questions they ask–as simply as possible. Then stop. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.

Introducing Your Poly Partners to Your Children

Short version: Follow the same general guidelines as introducing anyone. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Your poly partner is another adult friend of their parents, of no immediate interest to your kids unless you make it a big deal.

The long version is here.

What Should my Children Call my Poly Partner?

Short version: Let the kid decide. If you are in the closet and worried about the kid outting you by calling a poly partner “Aunt” or “Mom 2,” then this is a good time to teach them about formal and informal interactions. This is a useful tool in other areas of life, such as dealing with their boss at work or teachers at school. Some situations are informal and we can call each other nicknames, some situations are formal and we use formal names or Mr. and Ms.

The long version is here.

How Should I Interact with my Poly Partner’s Children?

Keep it relaxed and casual. If you want to keep a bit of distance in your relationship, treat them like a co-workers children. Polite, but don’t interact beyond basic courtesy:

Poly partner: Jason, I’d like you to meet my friend [you.]
Jason: Hi, [you].
You: Hi Jason, nice to meet you. [Poly partner], are you ready to go?

If you want to interact with the kid directly, and maybe develop a relationship with them, act like a family friend:

Poly partner: Jason, I’d like you to meet my friend [you.]
Jason: Hi, [you].
You: Hi Jason, nice to meet you. Cool shirt.

(next time you bump into each other)

You: Hi Jason, how you doing?
Jason: I’m okay. School sucks, though.
You: Yeah, I always hated math class. (pause, let Jason respond more if he wants, if not) I’m supposed to be picking up your mom. Do you know if she’s ready?

When you see the kid, engage a bit, ask how they are doing, what’s going on. If they mention one day they are practicing guitar, the next time you see them ask if they learned to play any new songs. This shows that you paid attention and are interested in what they are doing.

Do NOT force a conversation when the kid isn’t interested. Don’t let things get awkward. If the kid doesn’t respond to something you say or seems like they want to be doing something else, give them a graceful escape and return your focus to your partner.

When Your Relationship With Your Poly Partner Changes

A lot of emotional upset gets spent on how traumatic it can be for kids when their parent’s poly partner leaves their lives. The mistake in this is that adults kids like and relate to leave their lives all the time. That teacher who changed your life in fourth grade? Were you really traumatized when you moved onto fifth grade and she wasn’t your teacher anymore? When I played softball as a kid, we had a different coach almost every year. Some of those coaches I really connected with, but when the season ended, the team split and I didn’t see the coach until next year–if I saw them again at all.

I can’t say I was particularly traumatized by most of the adults who moved in and out of my life. The only one I remember with any real hurt is a priest who had a big impact on me. He left my life (moved to a different congregation) and when I ran into him years later he didn’t remember me. His leaving didn’t hurt-his forgetting did.

If you are going to leave the lives of your partner’s kids, here are some guidelines for how to make it work:

1) Give them some warning and a timeline. Yes, it is hard to do this when a relationship with a poly partner is changing or ending. But you and your partner can still say “This isn’t working anymore. Let’s stop seeing each other gradually over the next two months.” Which gives you and the kids time to adjust.

2) Give them some way to stay in contact if they choose to.

3) Allow them to be hurt or upset.

You: Hey Vanessa. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you and talking about your artwork. I need to let you know that my relationship with my parent is changing. After the next few months, I probably won’t be coming by anymore. Here’s my phone number. If you ever need to talk, you can give me a call okay? And I’ll still be around for a little while longer.
Vanessa: But…I’m gonna miss you.
You: I know, I’m going to miss you too. We can cry about it a bit. Change is sad. I won’t stop caring about you just because I’m not coming over a lot. And like I said, you can always call me.

If you and the child in question wants, changing your relationship with their parent doesn’t need to change your relationship with the kid. If you have taken on a large role in the kid’s life, this can be an important option.

1) Tell them about the change in your relationship with the partner

2) Reassure them that it doesn’t change your relationship with them

3) Give them a way to control how your relationship develops from there.

You: Hey Vanessa. I’ve got some tough news. Your parent and I aren’t going to be seeing each other anymore.
Vanessa: Does that mean you won’t come hang with me?
You: Of course I’ll come over if you want me to. Parent and I are changing our relationship, but you and I can still be (friends/family/what have you).
Vanessa: Good. I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t come to my art show next week.
You: I’ll be there. And you have my phone number. Anytime you want to get together, just give me a call.

(For younger kids: Parent has my phone number. Anytime you want to hang out, ask them to call me.)

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Polyamory and Mental Illness, Part II

Okay, folks. After a much needed hiatus, I’m going back to tackling polyamory and mental illness. For those who are interested, the old polyamory and mental illness posts are below.

Mental Illness: Monster or Myself

My approach to mental illness frames it as something outside “who I am”. It is very similar to how I frame cancer. My father is not a cancerous person, he is a person who is battling cancer. I am not an ill person, I am a person who is battling mental illness. As part of framing mental illness as separate from myself, I speak of it as a monster, invader, or in other extremely negative terms. Being able to frame my mental illnesses as something apart from myself has been a major factor in my healing.

However, not everyone frames mental illness this way. Some learn to embrace and accept mental illness as part of themselves. My mother, who has multiple sclerosis, rejects the idea that she is a person with disability. She is a disabled person who has learned to accept and love herself, disability and all. Similar, some people with depression, or anxiety or PTSD have embraced their mental illness. It is a part of themselves, and learning to love themselves, including their illness, has been a major part of their healing.

Through this blog series, I have framed mental illness as something separate from the person suffering from it. I frame it that way because that is the framing that works for me and because it is the framing I am familiar with. Unfortunately, for people who frame mental illness as part of themselves, my framing can be hurtful. I’m sorry for that, and equally sorry that it took me so long to realize this.

If you have a mental illness, you need to frame it in a way that works for you. If your partner has a mental illness, you need to learn how they frame it and support their approach. If your partner frames mental illness as a part of themselves they are struggling to love and accept, please DO NOT use my framing. Speaking of mental illness as a monster that is taking over their lives, an illness that is distorting who they are, or similar terms can be extremely hurtful to people who use that framing.

For the rest of this series, I am going to try to be more aware of my framing. I am going to try to present information in a way that will work for both frames. When I can’t, I’ll differentiate which frame a certain approach or idea is best suited to.

If you frame mental illness as a part of yourself, I would love to have you share a guest post on your experience with mental illness and how you approach healing. Or, as always, leave a comment below.

Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series:

  1. Polyamory and Mental Illness (Guest post by Clementine Morgan)
  2. Facts About Mental Illness for Poly Partners
  3. Opening Up About Mental Illness
  4. How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 1)
  5. How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 2)
  6. A Rant: “I Know I am Being Irrational Right Now”
  7. When Polyamory and Mental Illness Collide (Part 1)
  8. Living With Depression
  9. Polyamory Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Be with Your Emotions”
  10. Depressive Disorders and Polyamory
  11. Polyamory Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”
  12. Polyamory Boundaries and Mental Illness
  13. Living with Anxiety
  14. Anxiety Disorders and Polyamory
  15. Mental Illness: The Course of Treatment
    1. Recognizing Your Need Help
    2. Getting a Diagnosis
    3. Treatment Options
      1. Medication
      2. Talk Therapy
      3. Alternative Therapies
      4. Alternative Medicine
      5. Home Care
      6. Treatment Intensity
        1. Treatment Intensity and the Impact on Polyamory
    4. The Treatment Roller Coaster
  16. Fucked Up Parts of Mental Illness: Punishing Myself for Having Fun
  17. The Wrong Diagnosis (Guest Post by Michon Neal)
  18. Polyamory and PTSD (and other trauma and stress-related disorders) (Part 1)
  19. Polyamory and PTSD (and other trauma and stress-related disorders) (Part 2)

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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The Etiquette of Unexpected Encounters

There was a story shared…somewhere on the internet, I don’t remember where. Someone’s sister called them up freaking out. Insisting they had to cancel the wedding because the sister had seen the poster’s fiance kissing someone else.

This particular story had a happy ending–the poster laughed it off and told their sister “we’re poly.” But the story also illustrates the way unexpectedly running into members of our polycules (or members of our polycules families) in public can be a social minefield.

Types of Unexpected Encounters

There are three types of unexpected encounters:

  • Running into one of your poly partners unexpectedly (with or without other poly partners.)
  • Running into one of your poly partners when you or they are with someone who is not part of your polycule.
  • Running into a family member or friend of one of your poly partners while you are with a different member of your polycule.

We’ll be looking at each of these in turn. First, here are a few things that applies in all three situations.

Know if People are Out of Not

Whether or not a poly partner is out has a huge impact on the etiquette of unexpected encounters. B3eing in the closet makes unexpected encounters both a lot more complicated and potentially damaging. Being out means they may be awkward, but probably won’t be any worse than that.

Know How Members of your Polycule Feel about Public Displays of Affection (PDA)s

Whether or not your partner is out, giving them a big hug and kiss if you bump into them in the supermarket may not make their day. There are a lot of reasons folks may want to avoid PDAs, from general discomfort to fear of outing themselves. What their reason for liking or not liking PDAs is doesn’t matter–what matters is that you respect their preference.

Know Their “Public” Name and Gender

People can be in the closet about more than their relationships. You need to know how they present themselves in public and how they want to be addressed when away from safe spaces.

If You Need to Assume…

If you run into someone and don’t know any of these things, play it safe. Assume they aren’t out. Assume they don’t like PDAs. If possible, quietly check what name and gender they are using at the moment. If it isn’t possible, speak generically, “Hey it’s good to see you!” until they are able to clue you in.

Next week we’ll look at the etiquette for bumping into your poly partners (and other members of your polycule) when you least expect it.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Introducing Your Polyamory Partners and Metamours

Introductions are fairly universal. You bring person A over to Person B and you say “Person B, I’d like to introduce Person A” or some variation on that theme. In a social situation, it can be good to add something about the person. “Person A is a big Star Trek fan.” Try to make this something that will give the two something to talk about.

Names

When introducing someone it is “proper” to give both their full name and their title or relationship with you. So a “proper” introduction between your mother and your poly partner might be:

Mom, this is my poly partner, Francene Brook. Fran, this is my mother, Wanda Stiles.

Keep in mind, however, that poly etiquette is based not on propriety, but on honesty and respect. Not everyone likes their given name, not everyone wants their family name to be known, and many people have chosen names they prefer to use. Part of respect is introducing people by the names they want to be known by. So a poly introduction between your mother and your poly partner might be:

Mom, this is my poly partner, Fran. Fran, this is my mother, Mrs. S.

In formal situations, for instance at a work event, you are better off giving everyone’s full name. Having your boss think you are being disrespectful generally goes under the category of a Bad Thing. However, you can still respect people’s name preference by saying something like:

Mr. Jones, this is my partner Francene Brook. She goes by Fran.

Describing Relationships

It’s usually a good idea to include relationships in you introductions so people know what kind of social situation you are in. Your mother’s interactions with your boss are going to be very different from your mother’s interactions with your poly partners. For one thing, your mother probably won’t be tempted to show your baby pictures to someone from work. (Or you can hope anyway.)

Not giving people an idea of the relationships involved can lead to awkward social situations. It is slightly more respectful to include those relationships to help people avoid that awkwardness. However, you should not feel like you need to give a relationship with everyone you introduce. There is nothing wrong with saying:

Mom, this is Fran. Fran, this is Mrs. S.

If you do describe your relationships, try to use terms that the people you are introducing identify as. Your mother is probably comfortable being introduced as your mother. But Fran may prefer to identify as your girlfriend, you SO, you fiance, or your friend.

Similarly, Steve, who is dating Fran, may prefer to be introduced as your metamour, Fran’s OSO, Fran’s boyfriend, a friend, or something else.

Order of Introductions

If you are introducing several people from your polycule the formal approach would be to introduce them in order of entwinement:

Mom, this is my girlfriend Fran. She’s another stitch witch. And this is Fran’s boyfriend Steve. He’s the one to talk to if you want to know about film production. Fran, Steve, this is my mother Mrs. S.

If everyone is equally entwined or in informal situations, just go from left to right (or right to left, depending on which direction your language reads in.)

Mom, this is my girlfriend Fran. Next to Fran is her boyfriend, Steve. And on the other side of Steve is my partner Nick.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Defining Safe Sex

Last week I said safe sex means different things to different people. On a personal level, that means each of us needs to define safe sex for ourselves. Today we’re going to walk through defining safe sex. What is means to you, and how you can take steps to keep yourself safe while enjoying the sex life that suits you.

How Safe Do You Want to Be?

An Indie driver and a commuter both try to be safe when they drive–but what an Indie drive considers “safe” most commuters would consider suicidal. Race car drivers wear fire-proof undies for a reason.

Do you want to be completely protected from any risk of STIs? Are you comfortable with maybe getting herpes but want to be sure you are safe from HIV? Maybe you know your statistics and just want to get tested once in a while so you can get treated for anything early.

In addition to STIs, there is also pregnancy. Unlike STIs, how protected you want to be when it comes to pregnancy may vary from partner to partner.

As far as pregnancy goes you can opt entirely by never putting penis and vulva together. Or (slightly less extreme) never have PIV and except the infinitesimal risk that sometimes comes with getting semen on the outside of the vulva.

You can use various forms of birth control, which has more risk that not having PIV sex at all, but way less risk than going without birth control.

Or you can say fuck it, I don’t care about starting a pregnancy (or fuck it I WANT to start a pregnancy) and go for all the PIV sex with no birth control.

STIs are complicated–maybe there are some STIs you are willing to risk (Personally, I don’t give a fuck about herpes) but others you want to be protected from. What protects against some STIs won’t offer protection against others.

In general terms, you can choose not to have genital contact at all, and that will reduce your chance of getting STIs to almost nothing. (Sexually transmitted infections can be transmitted other ways–they aren’t exclusive to sex. For most STIs however, non-sexual transmission is rare.)

You can only have genital contact with people who get tested regularly and weren’t infected at the time they got tested. This offers significant protection, but not perfect protection. The more frequently you and your sex partners connect with new sex partners, the less protection it gives.

You can use barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams. This provides some protection against some STIs. It provides significant protection against HIV and Hep B, two of the STIs that are the most worrisome in terms of treatment and long-term impact.

You can combine STI tests and barrier method for more protection than either alone.

You and your partners can do visual checks of each other for outward signs of infection, which provides some protection against a few STIs.

You can not worry about protection for most STIs ahead of time. Truvada will protect you against HIV.

You can just get tested yourself regularly so you can catch and treat any infections early.

Which of these options sounds like “safe sex” to you?

Once you have a general idea of how you would define safe sex, it’s time to do some research. Learn about the different STIs and how they are transmitted. Learn about different birth control options. As you learn, you are further defining safe sex for yourself.

Maybe you started with wanting the protection that comes from only having sex with partners who test regularly and test STI negative. But as you learn more you decide that you really aren’t concerned about herpes and genital warts, so you’re comfortable being with a sexual partner who has either one of those STIs. Maybe you aren’t worried about barrier methods as protection from STIs, but as you learn about birth control options you decide that you definitely want to use condoms in addition to any hormonal birth control. That extra protection is reassuring.

Make sure you take the time to talk with your partner(s) about how they define safe sex. You don’t need to agree, you do need to respect each other’s definitions. Always remember that people need to be able to consent to risks. Don’t put your partner at risk in ways they don’t consent to, and if a partner puts you at risk without your consent, it’s time to get out of that relationship.

This post is part of the Safe SEx and Polyamory blog series.

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The First Rule of Polyamory Etiquette: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

Next week we’ll start on tips and guidelines for dealing with specific situations. For now, I want to address an important point that is more important than anything else I will say about etiquette.

When it comes to social situations involving your poly partners, or their poly partners, don’t be afraid to ask.

  • “How would you like me to introduce you to people?”
  • “How do you feel about PDAs?”
  • “I know you’re partly in the closet. If I run into you around town is it okay for me to say hi?”

If you know there are situations you are likely to run into, ask ahead of time. You won’t be able to prepare for everything, but be prepared for what you can. It will make life easier and seriously reduce your social stress quotient.