Objectification at a sex party

Leon and Mischa,

I know that a polyamorous person is able to have multiple partners, including sexual partners, and it’s not taboo – even without a formal relationship. Do you feel as a result that people sometimes objectify their partners more?

I recently had a poly guy as a sexual partner, and while we mutually didn’t want a romantic relationship, in many ways i felt objectified in that I was only there for a purpose and not for a connection. We attended a play party and I felt our sex became more of a performance, and in that sense I was an object to watch. When the purpose was over, then the ties were severed.

Is this a normal occurrence/feeling? Is this what I should expect from future poly partners?

Lost Panda

Dear Panda,

While I wouldn’t say this is a “normal” occurrence, I can certainly say it’s more common in poly relationships than it would be in monogamous relationships, but only because there is the freedom in poly relationships to create different models that may not be satisfying for both partners.

A key difference between poly and mono relationships is that in a poly relationship, there usually isn’t the pressure of being the ONLY relationship in someone’s life. When someone enters a monogamous relationship, there is usually an understanding that it will fulfill all the expectations they have for a relationship – emotional/financial support, sexual compatibility, companionship – and do so exclusively between the two partners. In a poly relationship, if it’s open and not closed (as in a poly-fidelitous triad, for example) the responsibility for fulfilling all these expectations shifts from the relationship to the individual, who is empowered to seek them out from different people, if necessary.

In your case, it sounds like you were clear in your poly relationship what you didn’t want, but not so clear about what you did want. When you tell someone, “I don’t want a romantic relationship” it can be interpreted many different ways. To one person, it might mean “we can have recreational sex.” For someone else, it might be “we have a relationship, but there is no commitment between us.” A third person might think, “I am not responsible for your emotional needs.”

It is a common fallacy that poly people are incapable of commitment. On the contrary, poly done well usually requires multiple commitments to multiple people. Each relationship may have its own rules and agreements worked out up front and adjusted over time. At each point, partners negotiate their terms for what they want out of the other person, and out of the relationship itself. Each agreement made between partners is a commitment you make to the other person. Breaking a commitment in a poly relationship results in the same violation of trust, discussion, healing or dissolution as infidelity does in monogamous relationships.

Panda, in your case as you’ve explained it, the problem is not so much that your partner was poly, but rather that both of you were not clear about the kind of relationship you wanted from each other. If you’ve been to sex parties before, you might have discussed your desire for connectedness beforehand. If this was your first sex party, he should have discussed with you what to expect, so you could decide how you might feel about it.

For example, when I used to go to parties with a partner where such activities might occur, we agreed to check in with each other to stay connected, even if we were spending time with others. Mind you, it took a couple missteps to figure out that this was what I needed.

Polyamory is a lot like democracy – you have to participate in order for it to work. While that’s true for every relationship, with poly there will be fewer assumptions so it requires more discussion so that false assumptions don’t take root. Think of poly as itemizing the deductions on your tax return, while monogamy is taking the standard deduction. It takes more work, but the rewards may be worth the effort.

Leon, your thoughts? 

   I’m just going to sit here for a sec and enjoy the income tax analogy you just made.  So awesome…

  Here’s my take, Panda.  I don’t know what your partner was thinking leading into, during, or after the play party – but that’s only to be expected, since I’m an advice columnist and all I have to go on is your thumbnail sketch of events.  You on the other hand knew this person beforehand, you made the arrangements, and had whatever experience you did.  I agree with Mischa you probably would have been better prepared and had a better experience had you discussed expectations ahead of time – but since there’s no universal handbook for play party etiquette and expectations (OMG there totally should be), you live and you learn.

  And learning is a good thing!  As a partnered newbie exploring the play scene, every experience you have should potentially teach you lessons about two people: yourself and your partner. Learning what you like and don’t will shape your personality and desires for the rest of your life.  Now that you know you’re personally sensitive to that situation, in the future you might adjust your expectations with this same partner (or at least have a good conversation with him – have you considered part of his turn-on might be the exhibition aspect of play)?  Alternately, consider other partners who are more into the personal connection than purely physical.

  As for learning about your partners, it’s like dating in the default world.  A new person may seem fantastic, but after a few dates you realize they’re self-centered, or they have poor manners, or they have an annoying habit of scratching their nose in a way that just gives you the willies.  You just discover those things as you go.  When you participate in sex play with people you don’t know too well, the things that surprise and disappoint you have a greater likelihood of throwing you for a loop, especially if you’re not supercomfortable with those type of events.  It’s of course best to ask questions ahead of time – but if they’re not situations you know are going to happen, there’s really no way to know what’s worth asking, other than general comfort with whomever you’re sharing your time.

   To specifically answer your question, then, many people at sex parties are likely to value the physical connection over the personal – it’s essentially the raison d’être for being there – but that’s hardly endemic to poly people.  In fact, I’d say truly poly people are more likely to value you on a personal level due to our focus on connection.  Regardless, a person who has no interest in you beyond the sex act is going to make you feel objectified, while a person who’s into cuddling and pillowtalk (not to mention genuine connection) is likely to make you feel less so.  The root of your negative experience seems to me to have more to do with that specific partner’s personality, and less with his representation as polyamorous.  Better luck with your next partner and party!