Bonding, commitment, and exclusivity

Sometimes the blogging stars are aligned… you have a text message conversation with your best friend about something, then you read a blog touching on the same subject, then you read another blog where someone’s asking for advice on the exact same thing. And you think to yourself, “I guess that’s what I’m writing about today.”

When I first started dating Shaun, and was explaining polyamory to my friend, many of them had a similar reaction: “How can you be happy with someone who will never commit to you?” One friend asked if he would ever consider getting married, to which my response was, “Why not?” To their minds, the idea of a nonexclusive sexual relationship was incompatible with the idea of long-term love and commitment. Marriage, in our culture, is usually understood as a commitment to a) love and care for one another for the rest of our lives and b) not be romantically or sexually involved with anybody else.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The first blog I read this morning, a nice overview of the biology of love, mentions that prairie voles, who bond for life, are not sexually exclusive with their mates. As I understand it, this is not rare in the animal kingdom. Many species are sexually promiscuous and non-committal. Many species are sexually exclusive and inclined to pair-bonds. Many species are sexually promiscuous and inclined to pair-bonds. Homo sapiens seems to be capable of all three, depending on cultural pressures, but we are certainly strongly inclined to pair-bond, and we do seem to have a hard time with sexual exclusivity. But so much writing on the subject of love, relationships, and mating behavior in humans seems to imply that it’s an either/or question. “Pair-bonding,” “attachment,” and “monogamy” are taken as practically synonymous.

In the second blog I read, someone writes for advice to the always-delightful Svutlana because she wants to have romance and lifelong love, but can’t stop sleeping around. These two things are viewed by her (and possibly by the always-delightful Svutlana, although it may just be that she interpreted the writer’s question differently than I did) as mutually exclusive. They’re so not.

The text conversation with my best friend was about my relationship with my beloved Shaun, and how my new crush affects that. The short answer is “not much.” The longer, more nuanced answer is: New Crush is exciting and fun to play with, and I get jazzed-up crushy feelings when I think about seeing him again. (In the poly world we call this New Relationship Energy.) Shaun is a cornerstone of my life: from the honest, clear-headed way he thinks about the world to the goofy voices he does to the way his skin feels, he’s a much-loved part of my world, and I can’t imagine parting with him or even wanting to. The depth of my love for Shaun doesn’t take away from the excitement of the NRE, though, any more than the NRE takes away from my feelings for him. I would be terribly sad if I had to choose between getting to plan my life with the man I love, and getting to experience a heady crush every now and again.

Like all rewarding things, nonmonogamy takes a proportionate amount of work. It is not for people who just want to get their love life settled and then concentrate on other things. It requires diligent self-examination, trust, and communication, and it requires a willingness to continually experience the pains of new love as well as the joys. A gentleman of my acquaintance, for whom my heart has throbbed for many a year, recently made it clear once again that nothing is ever going to happen between us. Having another lover at home did not ease the pain of that one bit (except preventing that pain from being mingled with a fear that I’ll never be loved, as it usually is when I’m single and rejected.) I guess I can understand why some people would rather just settle down with one person and turn off that part of their brain. For me, though? It’s more than worth it.

Permission to date?

In the poly world, a question like this sometimes emerges: “I’ve started talking to this new guy… he has a girlfriend but says they’re in an open relationship. I’ve never met her or talked to her: should I make sure it’s really okay with her before I go out with him?”

My answer is pretty unequivocally “yes.” People who disagree, or who have doubts, will usually lead off with something like, “He doesn’t need her permission to see someone else!” I get where that’s coming from: a huge part of the philosophy behind poly is that we don’t “own” our partners’ hearts or bodies. Also that love, affection, and orgasms they might give to someone else in no way diminishes those things they give to us. I’m fully behind both of these ideas, but. I still think it’s essential to verify that our partner’s partners are comfortable, or at least accepting, of our relationship with them, whatever it is.

It’s not about permission or ownership, it’s about caring. If a new partner is in a committed relationship, I assume that relationship is important to them. If I’m just starting to see someone, I’m going to do my due diligence to avoid damaging their prior relationships. Likewise, I care about the feelings and needs of their partner, even if that person’s a stranger to me. Because we share a lover, they are de facto part of my immediate community, and I’m not going to hurt them if I can help it.

There are also more self-interested considerations. Trust: if someone is going to lie to their committed partner, what makes me think I’m going to get the honesty and respect I need from them? Drama-avoidance: I don’t want to find myself in the middle of shouts and tears and betrayal. I don’t want to be hated by a whole bunch of people I don’t know. I would much rather conduct my life honestly and openly, and with respect for everybody involved, even if it means missing out on a few exciting relationships.

Everything I know about relationships I unlearned from TV…

Sometimes, when I read mainstream sex-relationship articles or watch movies and sitcoms, I feel like I live in an alternate universe. In my universe:

– Men are free to like or dislike football, to like or dislike So You Think You Can Dance, and to care or not care what fabric their shirts are made of. Nobody takes these inclinations and interests as indications of their sexual orientation or prowess, or of anything else for that matter. It’s just what they like or don’t like.

– Women sometimes earn more than their male live-in partners. Nobody cares.

– When you want something from someone you’re in a relationship with, you communicate this with words. Something like, “I wish we could spend more time at my place,” or “I know we started out casual, but I’m starting to feel an emotional connection with you, and I’d like to talk about getting more serious.” If you find yourself in a fight, you and your partner are both more likely to say, “I’m sorry honey, I should have said something earlier” than “If you really cared about me, you’d have done this without my asking.”

– What “normal people do” is anthropologically interesting, but irrelevant to your relationship.

– When having sex with someone for the first time, there’s always a conversation, however brief, about wishes and boundaries. Even if it’s as simple as, “What do you like?”

– Men who want marriage and families and women who want casual NSA sex are not particularly unusual or noteworthy.

– There are many different ways to be attractive. Fleshy or skinny, gender-bound or androgynous, tall or short, decorated or natural… different people like different things, which is awesome, because it means there’s someone for everyone. You would certainly never think of making fun of someone because of who they’re attracted to.

– A person’s orientation and gender identity may be complex, fluid, and multifaceted. Or it might be straightforward and simple. Either way, it’s understood as a basic rule of civility in your community that you respect the identities and pronouns that people adopt for themselves.

In short, people get to define who they are and what they want out of their relationships, variations in human experience are considered natural and valuable, and communication and respect are the only hard rules. I grant you that this makes sitcom plotting more difficult, since you can’t rely on wacky misunderstandings or generally-accepted rules about human behavior, but it makes actual life so, so much better.

“Just as bad”… truth, arrogance, and atheism

“The new atheists are just as bad as religious fundamentalists.” We’ve all heard it… it’s becoming a tiresome commonplace. To those of us within the atheist community, it’s a baffling statement. Just as bad, really? When have atheists ever lobbied against other people’s rights to marry who they chose? When have atheists ever used violence and terrorism against people who believed differently? (Okay, some arms of secular communism did… but people who say we’re “just as bad” are usually talking about Dawkins, not Stalin.) When have atheists ever suggested that other people don’t have the right to mock and criticize their beliefs, and even threatened retribution against those who “blaspheme”? We just don’t do shit like that. So it’s very odd to hear that we’re “just as bad” as religious fundamentalists.

A commenter on Ophelia Benson’s blog made it clear to me. These accusations come from people who think religion’s chief offense is believing that it is right and all others are wrong. They have bought into the liberal, postmodern idea that it is rude and offensive and foolish to say, “My beliefs are true and yours are false.” That is their main objection to religion, and they assume that that’s everybody’s main objection to religion, and so they’re baffled and offended when an atheist says to a believer, “My beliefs are true and yours are false.”

For any who are so confused, let me set the record straight. “New atheists,” like religious fundamentalists (and evangelicals, and many other religious people) believe that there is a truth about the ultimate nature of the universe. We believe that sentences like “There is a god” are meaningful and may be either true or false: that is, may correspond more or less closely with reality. We also believe that the truth or falsehood of this sentence matters. We believe that people who conduct their lives according to an accurate belief about the ultimate nature of the universe (which includes the existence or non-existence of a god) are better off than people who live by a false belief. On all these principles, we are indeed like religious fundamentalists, evangelicals, et al.

Both atheists and theists may be humble enough to recognize that they could be wrong in their beliefs. They may be humble enough to recognize that their conception of God or the universe is probably incomplete, lacking, errant in some respects. But they will still claim that their beliefs are closer to the truth, and how could they not? The idea of a belief that one does not actually believe is nonsensical. And beliefs about the ultimate nature of the universe do carry some implications about the best kind of life. If one accepts that some beliefs are truer than others, the only sensible course is to try to find your way to the truest beliefs, and to help others find them as well.

So yeah, if your big problem with religious people is that they have the gall to think they’re right and others are wrong, then the new atheists are “just as bad.” That is not, and has never been, my criticism of religion, and I think the other Gnus are with me on that. Hope that clears it up.

Women’s reproductive rights: arguable and absurd

I’ve cared about women’s reproductive issues since I was a little girl in a conservative Christian home. Then, of course, I was anti-abortion, because my parents were and my church leaders were and it seemed to me that they had a good point (killing babies is wrong, and unmarried people shouldn’t be having sex anyway.) Since then my views have become both more liberal and more nuanced, but I still have sympathy for what I consider the basic pro-life position: abortion is wrong except when medically necessary. I don’t agree with that position any more, but I understand the reasoning behind it, and it can be an intellectually and morally respectable position. In other words, it’s arguable.

I think there’s also an argument to be made for a pharmacist’s or medical provider’s right to refuse care that goes against their moral beliefs. Again, I don’t actually support this: I don’t think pharmacists should be able to refuse contraceptives, at least not unless they work at a special pharmacy with big signs that say “DOES NOT PROVIDE CONTRACEPTIVE CARE” or something like that (and are legally required to refer to another convenient location where service can be provided). But if someone disagrees, I think they have an arguable position. I can engage in a debate with them, and while it may get heated, I won’t feel intellectual or moral contempt for their position.

But there are a number of cases which have come to my attention recently which are not arguable at all. One is the Catholic hospital in Phoenix which was reprimanded and stripped of its status by the Catholic church for performing an abortion to save the mother’s life. Another is the pharmacist who refused to dispense anti-bleeding drugs unless the nurse disclosed (illegally) whether or not the patient had had an abortion. Both these cases are unarguable, unconscionable, and absurd. I cannot respect the intellectual or moral position that would argue them.

The Phoenix hospital case is simple. A mother is 11 weeks pregnant. She has a medical condition which has become critical. Her caregivers have two choices: abort and save the mother, or do nothing and let both mother and child die. This isn’t even a case of “baby or mother?” The baby, at 11 weeks, is entirely dependent on the mother’s life. If she dies, it dies. The baby is not going to live. How can anyone claim that there’s any moral choice but to mournfully, regretfully, end the baby’s life and save the mother’s? It makes me sick and angry that anyone can argue differently. I have no respect for them and their position.

Similarly for the pharmacist. Methergine, the drug in question, is commonly prescribed to stop or prevent uterine bleeding following childbirth, miscarriage, or abortion. The pharmacist was not asked to facilitate abortion or contraception: they were asked to provide care for a woman who had uterine bleeding. How her uterus came to be bleeding is absolutely none of the pharmacist’s business. In fact, under HIPAA, it is illegal for the woman’s care providers to tell the pharmacist, or anyone else, the details of her condition. So there’s a privacy problem first of all.

But beyond that is a much more troubling problem. The presumption is that if the woman had had an abortion, the pharmacist would have refused to dispense the drug. So… a woman who’s had an abortion can be refused medical care? “She had an abortion, so she can just hemorrhage to death for all I care”… that is what this pharmacist’s action is saying. Which is sick and gross and awful on every imaginable level.

In what other circumstances can you imagine a pharmacist trying to find out whether a patient has done something they consider immoral prior to filling the prescription? Even if they know the patient has done something they consider immoral which caused them to need medical treatment, they have no right to refuse treatment, and I can’t imagine a circumstance where they would. But this is a woman, and her uterus, and many people feel that a woman’s uterus is somehow public property, subject to different rules.

I can tolerate disagreement with people who have a different understanding of legally-protected human life than I do. I can tolerate disagreement with people who prioritize rights of care givers over rights of care receivers. I think they’re wrong, but they occupy an arguable position. The bishops who reprimanded the Phoenix hospital? The pharmacist who refused Methergine? Unarguable, intolerable, unconscionable. When I was a young pro-lifer, I had no idea that there were wackos like these on my side.

Tron: Legacy … the review

Just saw Tron: Legacy, and since I assume that anybody who cares saw it before I did, I’m not worrying about spoilers. I did not watch it in IMAX or 3D, because if a movie can’t stand on the merits of its story overblown special effects without fancy immersive viewing technology, then it’s not worth my time.

Actually I really enjoyed it. I tried to get my hands on a copy of the classic Tron, which scared me in the 80s and blew my mind with awesomeness in the 90s, (I was a late movie-bloomer, and couldn’t watch all of Raiders of the Lost Ark without covering my eyes until I was like 14) but I couldn’t because Disney is a bitch. So I had to rely on my memories, which were mostly of the light-ribbon motorcycles and Bruce Boxleitner (which was mostly a retroactive memory, since I last watched Tron a number of years before I became a B5 fan). The new movie had light-ribbon motorcycles and Bruce Boxleitner, so as far as I’m aware it is a faithful continuation.

The plot is your pretty basic Hero’s Journey deal, and they run through it without feeling the need to fancy it up, which suited me just fine. It was an admirable blend of tried-and-true plot motives and shiny shiny shiny (actually, Venus in Furs started playing in my head a number of times). The shiny was all very well done, from the special effects to the action sequences to the fetish-tastic denizens of the Grid. I already knew the music was going to be awesome, because I heard a piece from the soundtrack on Album 88 a couple of weeks ago. I love when a soundtrack makes scenes in a movie feel even awesomer than they are, which this one totally did. I might actually buy it, putting it in a privileged place next to the soundtracks for Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and Castle in the Sky.

There’s a liberal dose of creator/deity language sprinkled in, with Old Zen Jeff Bridges as the creator/deity. (Old Zen Jeff Bridges plays go! I’m one of the few American viewers who squees at a go board onscreen.) You might think they’re going for some Christian metaphor, what with the creator/deity’s son coming into the world to save it and all, but they really don’t go there. Creator/deity is not omniscient or omnipotent, and he’s the one who dies to save the world (that’s not one of the spoilers, because in the Hero’s Journey the father-figure always dies. Always.) The new life that emerged in the Grid is specifically stated not to have been created, but to have arisen spontaneously when the conditions were right. The basic philosophical message is that “perfection” is not a goal to pursue, it’s instead something to open your eyes to: true perfection is all around you or something. I feel like that redefines the word “perfection” out of all usefulness, but the basic concept is more humanistic than not, so I’m cool with it. And there’s a kind of sweet moment at the end where Old Zen Jeff Bridges confronts Young CGI Jeff Bridges and compassionately reaches out to his younger, less wise self. Which I think is the attitude we should all take to our younger, less wise selves.

CGI Jeff Bridges had me completely fooled for about three minutes, by the way, and even after I was like, “Isn’t there something a little plastic-y about him?” I wasn’t sure it was CGI until he was revealed to be the evil virtual clone. And there are scenes throughout the movie where the animation is completely convincing (as well as a number where it’s not.) The mouth is the weak spot, I guess because it does so much more moving than the rest of the face. Once animators can make a convincing mouth, it’ll be over.

There were a number of things to dislike about the movie too. Son of Flynn’s action one-liners were uniformly horrible (are there any good action one-liners anymore? I think they have all been used, and I’m darn sure that scriptwriters (or, more likely, Hollywood execs who oppress the scriptwriters) should leave them in the 90s where they belong.) I was excited to see that the flamboyantly faggy character was going to turn into an Important Plot Driver instead of Colorful Sideshow Freak, and then terribly disappointed to when he turned into a bad guy. How about a good-aligned flamboyantly faggy Important Plot Driver, hmm? And there wasn’t nearly enough Bruce Boxleitner, who at 60 is foxy in a way he never was at 23 and 34. (I was still in love with him, of course, but he wasn’t foxy as such.) And I’m really not sure why a life form that evolved within a specific virtual reality would enjoy things alien to that reality, like sunshine. (Aside: I liked Olivia Wilde in Tron better than I’ve liked her in anything else, probably because I’ve never entirely bought her as an actual human.)

All in all, good times, good movie, good shiny (OMG the coat! I forgot to mention the coat! Old Zen Jeff Bridges de-Zens slightly and puts on this seriously kickass black longcoat with a glowy white inside. The awesome is off the chart: it easily tops John Crichton’s Farscape coat as Best Sci-fi Longcoat Of All Time. I’m already trying to figure out how to make Shaun one for next Halloween.)

Polyamory language discussion: other significant others

Holly Pervocracy brought up a good question: what to call your lover’s other partners? (Only a good question for the non-monogamous, natch: monogamous people can stick with “That bitch/asshole.”) If you don’t have much of a relationship with them — maybe you’ve met once or twice, but you don’t count them among your friends — then the forum-inspired OSO, shorthand for “other significant other” is sufficient (although that one has snags too: is my boyfriend’s other girlfriend his OSO or my OSO?) But what about when you’re friends? When the three or four of you spend a lot of time together, or when you and the OSO get together without your mutual partner, just to hang out? When, even though you’re related neither by blood nor by direct romantic connection, that OSO becomes family?

A few terms have been suggested: “metamour,” a coinage about as clunk-ugly as “compersion.” The one Holly settled on was “sister wife/girlfriend,” which is sweet and expresses the family aspect, and has also had some media exposure, which means it will probably be the one that gets used in the long run. I don’t think it’s ideal for two reasons. First, it squicks out some people who don’t know whether you’re talking about incest or the normal, healthy bond a woman shares with the other woman who is fucking her lover. Second, it gets awkward when you try to change genders — I feel like a man is less likely to happily call another man his “brother boyfriend.” And what if you and the OSO are different genders? It works when you’re speaking relationally, (“I’m his sister wife, he’s my brother husband,”) but not when you’re speaking collectively (“We’re sibling spouses”?)

My favorite term, and it will shock the language prescriptivists, is “paramour.” I know, I know, it’s already a word and it means “lover.” But nobody actually uses it to mean “lover,” and there are plenty of other words for the purpose. Even if you’re dying to resurrect an archaic word for “lover,” there are plenty to choose from (“leman” is nice and gender-neutral, in sound and origin.) The original etymology, as revealed to me by a two-minute internet search, is the solidly Latinate par amour, but it’s more fun if we pretend it combines Greek and Latin roots, as “polyamory” itself does. Para-, beside, amour, love. Perfect, no? And because it is already a real word, it doesn’t have that clunky made-up feeling that has barred the entrance of countless words to the language. People are much quicker to re-appropriate an old word than accept a new one… dunno why, but there it is.

To language purists who are reeling and clutching their heads, I have two things to say: that Greek/Latin combo thing? It’s going to happen anyway. Future etymologists will look on our age as the time when people stopped caring whether a particular root came from Greek or Latin. And really, why should we? And as far as taking a word and co-opting it to another use, that happens all the time. I approve of it when we’re taking a word from a rich pool of synonyms and bestowing it on an unlabeled concept. I disapprove when we’re leaving one particular meaning bare of expression (“literally” and “figuratively” are opposites, people. If we let them become synonyms, we won’t have any way to express the meaning of “literally.”) So I guess when it comes to language, I’m neither a descriptivist nor a prescriptivist, but a utilitarian. Anyway, purists have already revoked my English-major license a while ago, so phoo on them.

Paramour. That’s my vote. Discuss.

Priestly authority and atheist quarrels

I’ve been reading archives from the last year in various atheist blogs (it’s a lazy long weekend for me, hurrah!) and I’ve been mildly entertained by tracking some controversies and in-fighting. What can I say? I’m a sucker for human drama. And I’m fascinated by the way intelligent, rational people can slip, or err, or occasionally fall to bits, if you press the wrong buttons. The atheist community, by and large, tolerates internal disagreement without people losing their heads, but occasionally things do get personal.

And then at some point in my reading I was struck by my own reactions. These are writers I respect, intellectual leaders in a community I identify with. When I was a Christian, quarrels like these disturbed me deeply. To see an argument between two respected Christians devolve into personal rancor was destabilizing to me; I felt I had to side with one or the other of them, or denounce them both, and the anxiety and sense of faint betrayal went right to the pit of my stomach. Whereas, seeing a similar kind of argument between atheists, I feel detached amusement, I’m able to see merit on both sides (usually), and I go on my way with my own ideas undisturbed.

The reason for the difference is plain. Christian leaders purport to have not only special training, but a divine blessing. They derive their intellectual and moral authority from a claim that God has placed them in their position of leadership, and that God is working through them, speaking through them, revealing Godself through them. I trusted their wisdom, in many cases, above my own instincts about right and wrong. I was led and guided by them, because although they would never claim to be more than mere humans, the structure of our beliefs proclaimed that they were exactly that: humans, but humans with a special voice, a special calling. They said they heard God speak. I never did, so of course I followed them. And when they fought among themselves, when they let respectable debate sink into the mire of personal attacks, I felt horribly confused and betrayed. Shouldn’t they be above this? If the spirit of God is with them, why is it not curbing these unreasonable personal impulses? And if the spirit of God is not with them, why have I been honoring their wisdom above my own?

There are times in human life where it is good for one person to submit to the authority and teaching of another. Parents know things about life that children do not; teachers know things about their discipline that their students to not. But both childhood and studenthood are temporary conditions; the whole purpose of the training is to raise the student up to the level of the teacher, to raise the child up to the level of the parent. Then the authority ends. Priesthood is a lifelong, intrinsic moral authority over laypeople (whether because the priest is inherently morally superior, or whether because they’re specially called and appointed by God makes no difference). Christian believers are not supposed to get to a point where they’re independent of priestly authority. To aspire to this would be arrogant. They are required to submit themselves, through the whole of their lives, to the wisdom of the godly men (or, more rarely, women) who have been placed there to guide and instruct them. It’s horrible. And it makes it much more horrible when it becomes patently clear that the priests are every bit as weak and foolish as the flock.