The same question comes up every time.
“If it was so bad, why did you stay?”
And, every time, the same answers.
“Because I didn’t have the strength.”
“Because I didn’t know I could.”
“Because I loved them.”
That’s why I stayed.
A few weeks ago I was at a party. While there, I settled into a deep conversation with a young woman I had just met about her dating history. She told me that she was in therapy and that her previous partners had been varying levels of abusive, with the latest one (who we’ll call Brad) being a drug addict that had, among other things, stolen thousands of dollars from her in order to purchase pills. She told me she was struggling with issues of worthiness. And that the whole thing was really hard. I listened. I commiserated. I affirmed that she was, in fact, worthy. And that I thought it was really great that she was going to therapy and also being open about it.
Later in the evening, I heard Brad’s name cross the name of another member of the group. The man in question was saying how Brad was super cool and they had a lot of fun together.
I interjected, “Brad? Her Brad?”
“Yea,” partygoer guy said. “He’s a really cool guy.”
“I’m sorry, are you aware of his history? That he’s a drug addict who steals from the people who love him?”
“Well yea,” he said, looking sheepish. “But he’s super fun to be around, this one time-”
“No. I don’t want to hear about how fun he is. Why the fuck would you endorse him as the sort of person that one should hang out and have fun with if you know what he’s done in the past?”
He blubbered, then, and said that he understood what I was saying and that he probably shouldn’t do that. I told him that no, he shouldn’t. And then continued with my evening.
Then another guy at the party started going on and on about Brad. I confronted him, too, this time with Brad’s ex in tow. His response to my queries?
“Well, he’s not that bad. He always looks me in the eye when I shake his hand.”
My actual response in the moment was something along the lines of: “That’s not exactly the litmus test of whether or not someone is a decent person, though.” He eventually acceded to my and her joint points and moved on.
But what I wanted to say was this:
OH! He looks you in the EYES, does he? Well then that turns everything on it’s head. Forget his history of drug abuse and stealing from his girlfriend. Forget all of that. He must be a good guy if he can look you in the face. A warm handshake means that all the well-meaning, intelligent women in your life should feel right as rain going on a date with him. Forget that he’s also emotionally abusive and manipulative. He knows how to interact with another human being, so all’s well!
I bit my tongue on that rant, for obvious reasons.
A few days after the party, I sat down with my brother for birthday drinks after seeing a play and brought up all of the above.
“Why, in male culture, is it OK for men to vouch for bastards? Why do they act like they’re nice guys when they’re not?” I asked him.
“Well,” he responded, “would you have called our uncle a nice guy?”
Our uncle was a heroin addict who also stole from family and friends to support his habit.
“No.” I said. “I wouldn’t. Because calling him a nice guy tells the people around me that they should trust him, and I don’t want anyone to trust him. Vouching for someone by asserting their niceness is basically putting the seal of approval onto the idea of friendship with that person.”
We talked about it for a while after that. My uncle and Brad and the way that society seems to call people nice as if that means anything at all. Nice has become this word that we all just toss around to mean that we like people or that they’re OK to hang out with or that they make a good key lime pie or whatever.
But nice means something. When you say that someone is a nice person what you’re saying is that you vouch for them. You think that the person you’re talking to should spend time with them or buy them a beer. But if you know that person is problematic, why would you give another person the idea that trusting them is a sound notion?
I’m not saying that you should spend all of your time running around extolling the horrible minutiae of the personalities of everyone you don’t like to everyone you meet. That would make you look like a dick. But maybe don’t act like someone’s cool to be around when they’re not. And maybe don’t be afraid to tell people that someone might be problematic. If someone asks your opinion about another person who find problematic, you could just say:
I won’t speak more on this without being asked, but I would be careful with Brad if I were you, based on what I know of his history.
That way you can warn the person off without going into terrible detail, but still leaves them room to take or leave your advice. Honestly, I tend to err on the side of being super direct when people ask me what I think of someone. I’ll usually just say that I don’t like them very much. There’s nothing wrong with saying you don’t like a person. If the person talking to you trusts your judgment, they can go ahead and ask for more details. If they don’t, no harm done!
I think the important thing when it comes to dealing with people whose behavior is problematic is that you don’t have to be seen as the type of person who likes and gets along with everyone. In fact, it may be better to be seen as the type of person who tells it like it is, when push comes to shove.
I’ve resisted doing a couple of things in public for a while. The first of which is talking about my own struggles with emotionally abusive partners. And the second of which is being open in writing about my relationship with the leather community. I’m doing a little bit of both of those things here.
Of course, it takes seeing my friends dealing with a problem in order to spur me into action.
So there’s this guy, Wes Fenza. He runs a blog called Living Within Reason. I met him once, at a bar, back when I was in a terrible poly relationship that I’ll talk more about later. He struck me, at the time, as the type of guy who keeps a harem around him at all times in order to make himself look cool. Our only interaction occurred when he put his arm around me and I threatened to remove it.
Years later, it turns out that he dated a few someones that I now know. And that he’s way worse than just some guy who keeps a bunch of women around him. He fancies himself a leader within the poly community and gives classes and instruction on consent while acting in his personal relationships like your typically abusive narcissistic sociopath. Needless to say, I’ve had a problem with him as a person for a while, from afar.
On Friday he published a blog that I just couldn’t let slide, both from the perspective of a person involved in the leather community and from the perspective of a person who believes in consent in relationships. That said, I’m going to break down his arguments here to expose them for the serious problem that they are.
My friend Rose, writing at her brand new blog Our Better Natures, makes an excellent point about the use of rules in relationships:
For these types of situations, I think that an idea from the kink and power exchange community is useful. For any healthy power exchange, even while playing with consensual nonconsent, there is an overarching level at which someone can always opt out. I suggest that we look at all rules and agreements as a form of role playing in this vein. With healthy power exchange, ideally, the power dynamics are explicitly negotiated with necessary safe words in place. Rules and agreements need to be negotiated in much the same way. Rules and agreements are their own type of role playing because we can never fully and truly give up our ability to make decisions, set boundaries, or leave the relationship and also still maintain healthy consent. If we take the view on consent outlined above, then there truly can be no inherent level at which anyone owes anyone else intimacy or control over their choices and emotional states.
When Rose talks about “these types of situations,” she is talking about a situation in a poly relationship wherein a woman in a long term relationship with one person decides to have a child with another person. It’s a complex situation that you can read about at her blog, but it’s not the main thrust of this so I’m not going to try to explain it. Suffice it to say that Rose comes to this conclusion re: consent.
And I think her conclusions are valid. If I make an agreement with someone inside of a relationship, that agreement is only valid for as long as it exists between us. If we have a discussion and I decide to dissolve that agreement, we enter into a new phase of our relationship. It’s not that hard to figure out. The fact is that no human is static, and the things that we agree to this week or this month might be untenable at a later date for any number of reasons.
This is a great point, and I think consensual power exchange is a great lens through which to view rulemaking in relationships. I’ve written before about how rules are a way that we psychologically manipulate our future selves into making the correct choices when we don’t trust our future selves to do so.
And here’s the first moment when Wes loses me, in the first point that he makes by himself.
If you are making an agreement with another person that you do not think you can reasonably fulfill in the future, then why are you making it? The only way to honestly make a commitment to a rule or agreement with another person is to make it with the expectation that you can fulfill it. To use a BDSM example, I would never make an agreement with my partner to allow her to sleep with someone else. Because that is not a circumstance I could see myself continually agreeing to. But I will gladly abide by other rules in our relationship that I can see myself adhering to on a continuing basis, so I agree to them.
Agreeing to adhere to a rule that you have no intention of continuing to respect is not a precept of the BDSM lifestyle, and shouldn’t be a part of any type of adult consensual relationship.
When we involve another person in the rulemaking (that is, we make a promise or agreement to another person), we implicitly give them the authority to demand compliance with that promise. In essence, it’s a form of consensual power exchange whereby we voluntarily give up a bit of our freedom to another person or persons.
And here Wes misses the point again.
First of all, when you make an agreement with someone, you are giving them “the authority to demand compliance with that promise.” That’s not implicit. That’s explicit. That’s what a promise IS, at it’s very root. And again, if you can’t make that promise in a continuous and ongoing fashion and still be happy with your relationship with that person, you shouldn’t be making that promise. And if that promise is a cornerstone of your relationship with someone and you can’t see yourself sticking with it? You shouldn’t be in that relationship.
Moreover, making agreements with another person regarding the rules of a relationship shouldn’t be seen as giving up power and freedom to that person. That makes promises and agreements seem as though they are a burden. And most promises shouldn’t be. Most promises should be things that you freely give to another person in order to ensure their and your continued happiness.
People should not feel the need to yoke themselves into things that make them uncomfortable or unhappy. That said, if you feel as though you are losing some essential part of yourself or your freedom by making promises and agreements with your partner, then, again, maybe that person isn’t the person for you.
One of the most important concepts in any consensual power exchange relationship, be it a five-minute scene or a thirty-year relationship, is that consent must be ongoing and can be revoked at any time. This is an uncontroversial idea in BDSM communities, where the norm is to always have a safeword which will immediately end the scene as soon as any party want to opt out. In longer-term consensual power exchange relationships, all parties stress that the details of any power exchange agreement are entirely voluntary and open to revocation free from coercive pressure.
Yes. This is the the first thing that Wes has said that I have agreed with.
Relationship rules or agreements ought to be treated the same way. Ideally, all parties would be clear that anyone was free to unilaterally cancel any agreement at any time free from guilt, shame, or obligation.
And now he’s lost me again. So let’s talk about consent and safewords for a second here.
Consent and safewords are part of my relationship. I use them to make sure that boundaries are not crossed that would damage my trust in my partner or physically harm me. Using a safeword in the moment is not a condemnation of my partner, nor is it something for which they should feel guilty. It’s simply a signal that I have reached a point where I feel I have had enough and need to stop what I am doing.
The idea that you should be able to “unilaterally cancel any agreement at any time free from guilt, shame, or obligation” is, if you’ll pardon my coarse language, fucking sociopathic at it’s very core.
Looking back on what Mr. Fenza thinks is the premise for making promises, it is clear that he is looking for a way to back out of his agreements with his partners without being held to account for doing so. He is looking for this because, when he makes a promise to someone, he has no intention of continuing to consent to the promise he made in the future, he’s just trying to trick himself into maybe being a decent guy. Which is hard to do when you are clearly a manipulative cad.
I just said this, but I’m going to say it again for emphasis: Safewording and breaking your promises to another person are not the same fucking thing. Safewording is a way to make sure that both partners abide by what they have promised. And if you break your word to another person, they have a right to be upset with you.
Sadly, people often view terminating an agreement as a hostile act or a betrayal.
Because, very frequently, it is.
Look, people change. We all know that. And sometimes it is necessary for relationships to end. But Mr. Fenza is clearly looking for an out here for the fact that he makes a habit of making promises and agreements that he has very little expectation of keeping in the future.
While the BDSM community is nearly united in support of the idea that power exchange can be revoked without penalty, the poly community lags far behind on this idea. It is remarkably commonplace to see people pressured, shamed, and coerced into abiding by agreements that no longer work for them.
No one should have to be pressured, shamed, and coerced into abiding by agreements that no longer work for them. That is terrible. But, again, Mr. Fenza is clearly making agreements that he has no intention of abiding by in the future, and that in itself is more likely his problem, rather than simply growing into a different person for whom his previous obligations no longer make sense.
As I’ve written before, sometimes terminating an agreement can result in the other party ending the relationship, and that is to be expected. The same principle that says any party can terminate an agreement at any time also mandates that any party is free to end the relationship at any time. The same principle applies in all consensual power exchange relationships.
Of course you are free to end a relationship at any time. Duh. But you cannot expect that the other person(s) in that relationship are somehow magically going to be totally happy with you as a result. People are allowed their emotions. And if you have made promises to the people you are in relationships with, you can reasonably expect that they are going to be upset at the dissipation of those promises. And you have to deal with that fact.
So next time someone wishes to renegotiate or terminate an agreement, let’s take a lesson from the BDSM community and recognize that it is always their right to do so, and allow them a space free of shame, obligation, or guilt.
I want to know what this magical world of Fenza’s looks like wherein there is not shame, obligation, or guilt over terminating an agreement. We’ve already established that his safeword comparison is not valid. Because that’s holding someone to an agreement, not breaking one.
When you break a promise to someone or end a relationship, you may have obligations to them regardless of the dissolution of that promise or relationship. If you own property or have a child together, for instance. You may travel in the same social circles still. Or any other number of things. You can’t just dump your agreements with people and then move on with impunity and expect them not to hold you to the things that you said. Or to not be mad at or upset with you when you don’t.
Fenza’s whole blog entry reads like the desperate plea of a man who wants people to give him everything while he gives them nothing. And it’s couched in so much jargon and rhetoric that I didn’t even realize just how bad and troubling his ideas were until I read closely every line and saw clearly the sickening narcissism and self-involvement that it took to write it.
If you read more of his stuff, you can see more of the same. When you realize that this blog and these types of ideas are coming from someone that has had numerous people in the poly community here in Philadelphia come forward and report him for abuse, Wes becomes more than just a jerk with bad ideas. He becomes a dangerous jerk with bad ideas who is using feminist jargon and BDSM precepts incorrectly in order to cloak a seriously problematic core concept that holds the consent of his partners in contempt and allows him to raise up as some kind of virtue his inability to make a genuine promise and stick to it in his relationships.
His response to being called out on these things in the past has been shockingly tone deaf and manipulative, so I don’t doubt that I will hear from His Royal Highness at some point after this blog is published. Unlike many of his former partners, though, I don’t have any real reason to care about his feelings and I can’t be manipulated. That said, I promise to publish in full any response he gives me with all kinds of delightful commentary for you to enjoy.
I firmly believe that, if we do not expose the monsters in our midst, we are complicit in their monstrous acts.