The Sound of Settling

The room was crowded, dimly lit. Throbbing with music so loud it was more felt than heard. As the bass thrummed through my body and shook the liquid in my glass I wound my way through the mass of twisting, undulating bodies, glass raised high to avoid sloshing. A bit sloshed anyway, onto a blue-clad university student, about nineteen and already well into his cups. He didn’t seem to notice.

Finally I reached the back door and slipped out into the back garden, where the night was cool and fresh and there were people sitting on top of the tables, smoking E-cigarettes and talking. We could hear the music out here, but it wasn’t so loud as to drown out all conscious thought. I sat down and a man I’d spoken to briefly when he’d arrived rose and came to sit next to me.

We talked for a good ten minutes about our lives, our careers, our hobbies. My love of science fiction and his fascination with corporate finance. He mentioned several times, first casually and then pointedly, his single status. He was polite about it, but he was definitely trying to find out if I was available – for dating, I assumed; he didn’t behave like someone on the prowl for casual sex. He was respectful of my space, looking at my eyes and not my tits, not trying to chat me up or be too smooth.

I evaded the obvious question until he asked me point-blank. I don’t normally bring up my polyamory stuff with strangers at parties; it often makes for a long and complicated discussion and I’m generally there to have a relaxing, enjoyable time. But he asked, so I told him. “I’m polyamorous.” He nodded as though he understood what that meant. No recognition in his eyes.

“I don’t just date one person at once. I believe it’s possible to love lots of people at one time. That it doesn’t take anything away from my partners if I sleep with others, because love isn’t finite.” I wasn’t explaining it well. I couldn’t remember the explanation I’d memorised for occasions like this. I could feel the people sitting on the next table shifting their attention to what I was saying. “I mean, everyone’s aware of it. I don’t believe in cheating. All my partners are okay with me dating and having sex with others.”

During this stumbling awkwardness, my new acquaintance’s body language changed. His eyes took on a familiar glint, and he began to inspect my body. Apparently approving, his posture shifted until he was a little too close to me. I watched in distaste as his hand edged toward my bare leg. He was going to — yes, there it was, now he was stroking my leg. Not a hint of sexual interest from me and suddenly we were mid-seduction. As I edged away, he leaned forward, smiling conspiratorially, until his lips were brushing my ear.  “Why don’t we go–”

I rose abruptly, made a polite goodbye, and left. I didn’t want to explain yet again, to one more uncomprehending stare, that being polyamorous isn’t the same as being open to every single person who expresses interest. That being open to sex doesn’t mean that I’m constantly aroused, ready to fuck literally anyone. I probably should have explained the difference between interest in multiple relationships and interest in him, but it wasn’t what I wanted to deal with that night.

It’s happened more often than one might expect – the unfortunate circumstance of mentioning my polyamorous status to someone at a social gathering and noticing their attitude towards me change completely. Suddenly I am no longer someone they might be interested in getting to know, but someone whose consent for sexual acts can now be taken for granted.

When I say I’m a happy slut, I don’t mean that I will sleep with literally anyone who expresses interest. At the core of my desire for lots of love and lots of sex is my determination never to “settle” again. Not “settle down,” necessarily – I’m not making a definitive statement on that at this early date, except that if I do it won’t be to monogamy – but to settle for something I don’t actually want. Settling for someone you don’t actually want is demeaning for everyone involved.

Years ago, just before last call in a nearly-empty pub, I once told an hour-long acquaintance that I was very nearly certain that I was capable of loving anyone. I am so good at finding the best bits of people despite their personal messes that I was confident that I could love anyone I could get to know.

That confidence hasn’t entirely dissolved. I do love people, and I do love getting to know people, and I do love loving people regardless of their flaws and baggage and what have you. But loving someone doesn’t always mean maintaining a relationship with them. It certainly doesn’t always mean having sex with them.

I can appreciate and empathise with just about anyone as a person, but I have standards about the kinds of relationships I’ll enter into. As an ethical slut, it’s my responsibility to maintain healthy boundaries and be in charge of my own emotional well-being.

So no, I won’t sleep with a stranger. I’ve played that game before and had wonderful, terrible, fascinating, anticlimactic times, and I decided in the end that it’s not how I want to do things. I can’t get really into sex unless I really respect and care about and have good chemistry with someone, and while that can happen in the course of a conversation, it’s a rare, long conversation by the end of which we’re not truly strangers anymore.

When they have been framed in a respectful manner, I’ve been flattered and even briefly tempted by offers of compensation for a sexual encounter with me, usually a BDSM encounter that I would enjoy anyway. I’ve always declined, however. I’ve decided I can’t fuck someone when the water is muddied by me wanting something from them – something, that is, other than mutual affection and pleasure. Sharing sex with me means experiencing my genuine affection and my real enjoyment. If my motives are even slightly suspect, I will decline until they are not.

Another boundary I have established is that I’ll never be the person being fucked because of someone else’s desire for something other than mutual affection and pleasure. I’ll never pay for sex, or manipulate people into it, or offer anything other than pleasure. As a teenager I never thought this would even come up; since then surges of desire for former partners, or people I know I’m not good for, have unfortunately tested my resolve not to trade on anything for sex, not even their hope for an unrecapturable intimacy or their self-destructive, oft-rebutted beliefs that loving me enough will make me the monogamous partner they crave.

I have standards, is what I’m saying. What marks me as an ethical slut is the way I approach my many relationships. I don’t date people or fuck them out of desperation or fear of being alone. I’m okay being alone. I have a vibrator and a fantastic imagination and wealth of memories when there’s no one to fuck, and I have books and work and friends and family if there’s no one to date.

While it’s nice, I don’t need external validation to tell me my self-worth. I don’t need to attract others to feel sexy. Shorn of those needs, that desperate urgency, I’m able to choose the relationships I want and not feel driven to settle for whatever is available at the moment. It’s an incredible luxury to finally have the confidence that I’m complete and happy regardless of the state of my romantic or sexual life. It gives me so much more leisure to pick and choose the situations that are actually good for me. Loving from a place of abundance is so much happier and healthier than loving from a place of fear and neediness and desperation.

It’s better for my partners, too. Someone I’m with can be utterly secure that my affection is entirely for who they are, not for their place as a stand-in for a fantasy lover, soon to be usurped by a more suitable understudy; not for the hole they plug in my leaking, structurally unsound self-esteem; and not for the loneliness from which a relationship with them will save me.

The best bit is, I’m limited only by time and geography when it comes to good relationships. As a slut, I can happily keep adding wonderful relationships to my life without having to sacrifice others.

Being able to go home with anyone is fantastic, when you don’t feel you have to go home with anyone.

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