“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
Have a question for Kai? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am a professional in my 30s with a public-facing job. Three years ago, after some extended discussion, my romantic partner of nine years gave me the go-ahead to explore polyamory. However, I have not pursued it at all.
I am very interested in exploring polyamory, but I live in a smaller community and am worried that I will be judged, especially professionally, if word gets around. In the three years since our discussion, I have not really put any effort into finding other partners since it seems to hinge on using dating apps and outing myself publicly as being polyamorous.
A related issue is that I feel I am also judging myself because I’m looking for casual sex, not another serious relationship. I obviously want to treat anyone I connect to with kindness and compassion — is that antithetical to casual sex or friends with benefits-style things? Do I have to be into having other serious relationships to be ethically polyamorous?
The fact you are writing me with these carefully thought out, ethically engaged questions tells me you’re miles ahead of many people starting their polyamorous journey — and, if my own dating history is any indication, you’re ahead of some folks who have been doing it for a very long time! It speaks highly of your character and sense of compassion that these issues are front and centre in your heart as you set out to explore your own desires. These qualities will take you far as you navigate the winding road that is love, dating, sex and intimate partnerships in a world of polyamorous potential. When the reflex to judge yourself negatively emerges, I would encourage you to remind yourself that you are a good person who wants to do and be good in the world, and there is nothing — nothing — wrong with desire.
As a former psychotherapist who worked with children and youth and who is something of a public figure, I really hear your worries about being judged professionally when it comes to being openly polyamorous (“poly” for short). This is compounded by the fact that you live in a smaller community, where gossip no doubt spreads quickly. You are caught in that most classic of queer dilemmas: seek fulfilment and risk backlash or remain closeted (as poly, in this case) and lose the opportunity to experience greater joy in your life.
Practically speaking, there are some strategies that might allow you to maintain relative privacy while also exploring polyamory: you could create online dating profiles that you activate only while traveling; if you happen to live near a large urban centre there are spaces and events specifically for anonymized sexual encounters between consenting adults. Bathhouses and “play” parties are still a part of Toronto’s alternative sex scene, though one’s access to them can vary depending on who you are and what you’re looking for — bathhouses, for example, are usually designated to service men seeking sex with men, though there are some that hold special nights for women and trans people.
These are all highly imperfect solutions, though, especially if you don’t travel often or have access to a community that regularly holds alternative sexuality events. And the unfortunate truth is, AG, we live in the age of social media — once you start exploring, there’s no guarantee that word won’t get out. In some ways, then, this question becomes one of personal integrity: are you able to hold yourself in esteem and dignity, even when you aren’t sure that everyone else will? It’s about your steadfast belief in yourself, and in the fact that your sex life has nothing to do with how well you do your job.
Here, once again, we find features of the classic queer dilemma: a choice between fulfilment and safety. While not all poly people identify as queer, there are many features of polyamory that parallel the experience of queer sexuality — namely, the need for support and an unwavering belief in one’s right to sexual freedom and dignity in the face of social taboos.
That’s easy to say, of course, but where does one obtain this miraculous integrity? I suspect it might be easier to fathom being out as poly when you have the support of others — when there are people in your life whom you know won’t abandon you or speak badly of you. It sounds like you and your current partner are already in a fairly solid place. What about your close friends or family? Are there people in your inner circle who you feel safe enough to come out to, or who are already practising polyamory themselves? It may be helpful to seek out these people and, with care and intention, develop an informal support team for yourself as you expand this new horizon of your life.
Beyond your immediate circle, I’m happy to be able to tell you that, these days, there is a rich, thriving poly community online that has many resources to share about nearly every facet of polyamorous living. As a starting point, the website Conscious Polyamory has a long list of poly-related media, resources and social media groups and platforms. The online community is a great place to build your support network, learn self-care strategies and meet potential partners — there’s so much more out there than just dating apps.
All this, AG, may help you to feel less anxious and more excited about diving into the world of polyamory. Remember: it’s easier, and safer, to embark on a new adventure when you aren’t doing it alone. You may wish to consider as well that if you are “out” as poly, there is less chance that people might perceive your polyamory as cheating on your current partner if they run into you on a dating app or in a bathhouse-type environment and misread the situation.
Now to your question about ethics. For an extended exploration on this topic, I strongly recommend the work of Andrea Zanin, whose blog Sex Geek has been a foundational resource for over a decade, and from whom I drew much inspiration in writing this week’s column. For starters, AG, I think it’s important to state that polyamory — including the casual sex, no-strings-attached hookup kind of polyamory — is no more or less ethical than any other kind of relationship style. All relationships carry the capacity for great joy, and for great harm; it’s how we manage those relationships that makes the difference.
So, no, you don’t have to be open to new long-term or emotionally profound relationships in order to practice ethical polyamory. You do need to be very in touch with yourself, your wants and needs, and your limits as you move forward. You will also need to be open to clear and honest communication with the people you have casual sex or friends-with-benefits (FWB) encounters with. The key here is allowing your casual partners the opportunity for informed consent: give them the information they need so they know what they’re signing up for.
Here, I might gently push you to challenge your definition of a “serious” relationship — all romantic and sexual partnerships require serious consideration, thoughtfulness and compassion, regardless of how long you intend for them to last. We live in a app-dominated culture of fast and careless sex, a social context that encourages us to conflate brevity with a lack of dignity. We see this in the proliferation of narratives in popular media about people who cruelly “ghost” their partners, push sexual boundaries in unpleasant or violent ways and those who are just plain exploitative. We are given very few examples of brief or casual encounters that are actually supportive of human dignity.
I want to assure you, AG, that you can make a casual partner or FWB feel attended to, respected and valued even if the encounter lasts no more than a few hours. An enormous part of that is being up front with your own needs and boundaries. I believe that when we conceptualize polyamorous relationships with this principle as the starting point, we are more likely to cultivate experiences that have emotional authenticity and ethical integrity — two values that I am guessing are very important to you.
You stand at the edge of some big decisions, AG, and when the edges of our comfort zone are pushed, there is always the potential for danger and disruption. The fears and self-doubts you’ve expressed in your letter are justified. Yet at the edge of safety there is also great joy, pleasure and self-discovery, which is why so many of us take risks, push boundaries and dive deep into desire. A web of supportive relationships and a strong sense of right and wrong are all the tools you need to start this journey — and, of course, courage, which I am guessing you already have in spades.
Go forth and celebrate your desire courageously.