“While it’s great that people are exploring their sexuality,” says Asmi Uniqus, an active BDSM practitioner and lifestyle coach, “it’s frustrating that there are so many misconceptions.” For example, BDSM does not have to be driven by sex or risky forms of play that involve drawing blood, asphyxiation or other such extreme practices.
According to Uniqus, “BDSM is a different form of expression of intimacy, love and care. It is sacrosanct consent. It’s about shared responsibility for safety and sanity, and detailed communication. Anything that violates consent, manipulates it or abuses the trust is not BDSM,” she says. “When trust supersedes the possibility of harm, the result is something incredibly erotic and intimate.” She would know. Uniqus has been a lifestyle submissive for over 10 years and has written several e-books on the subject. Here are some myth busters:
1. You can’t trust anyone blindly. Basic safety checks, personal responsibility and support systems are a must.
2. Uniqus calls it one of the most nurturing and intimate forms of human contact and play. “In vanilla or non-BDSM space, people can jump into bed without conversation, negotiation, or emotional connection. In BDSM, the players always arrange things in advance with clear, intimate communication.
3. Finding the right partner to ‘play’ involves communicating what works and what doesn’t. For instance, the Dominant partner may be a sadist, but the Sub may not want pain. “However, while not many people communicate clearly in vanilla sex, in BDSM that choice of not communicating isn’t there,” says Asmi.
4. “There are pre-decided safe words,” she clarifies. “These may or may not indicate that I want to close the book on the entire session. ‘Red’ may indicate closing the book, while ‘amber’ is for when I’m done with a particular aspect of it. ‘Green’ means I’m in my comfort zone.” When using gags, people decide on non-verbal cues to indicate distress.
5. Submissives in erotica are portrayed as doormats manipulated into ‘slavery’ by smarter dominants. “I am not coerced into being a submissive,” says Uniqus, “It is a lifestyle choice. The sexual aspect of my relationship is completely separate from other aspects of it.”
6. Alpha men, who always call the shots and men, in general, are expected to be in control all the time. For them, it helps to ‘let go’ in a safe environment, with a trusted partner.
7. “For some, BDSM may not be about sex,” says Uniqus. “There is an emotional connect between a submissive and dominant, but there may not necessarily be sexual contact. Some submissives are into domestic servitude and derive pleasure out of maybe just washing their partner’s dishes. I could kneel at my dominant’s feet without shedding a thread of cloth and still be satisfied. It is as gratifying as a sexual act.
8. Then, isn’t BDSM the same as submitting to one’s elders or authority figures? “In a socio-cultural context,” answers Uniqus, “we do submit to our elders’ authority, but we do not develop sexual bonds with them. BDSM may not always be about sex, but it has an undercurrent of physical and sexual intimacy, even when fully clothed,” she says.
9. “Choosing BDSM as a lifestyle just because you’re going through a bad phase in life is the wrong way to approach it,” says Uniqus. “Fifty Shades of Grey did help bring BDSM out in the open in India, and when its popularity increased, people’s sensitivity towards it decreased. Now 20-year-olds want to try it because it is a fad.” She warns that considering the legal ramifications involved, with some kinky acts coming under the purview of Section 377 (anal penetration, or oral pleasure, for instance), it is important to figure out which activities are medically and legally safe.
10. There are international books to guide you through the technique, however they have a different cultural context. There’s also Uniqus’s BDSM Concepts: A Practical Guide.
11. Keep a First Aid kit handy, and also arrange a ‘safe call’ i.e. a trusted friend who can come and rescue or support you, should anything go wrong.
12. Monogamy is still the leading form of relationship in the dominant and submissive equation. Couples who enjoy BDSM together, do not feel the need to add other people to the mix.
13. So what happens when only one partner is inclined towards BDSM? “Most spouses stay restricted to an academic interest in the lifestyle. People value families, relationships and marriages,” says Uniqus. “Some people may experiment outside wedlock, but there are also marriages where a spouse has been patient enough to slowly and lovingly initiate the other into the lifestyle, sometimes taking 10 or 15 years to do so.”
14. Those who enjoy pain are not necessarily wired that way because of trauma. “Pain acts differently for different people. For some, it is cathartic. For others, it’s as an aphrodisiac. Think of the adrenaline rush a heavy workout gives you. Although your body is sore, that pain gives you a high,” she illustrates.
Bisexual Health Awareness Month is dedicated to raising awareness about the startling disparities that the bisexual community faces in terms of both physical and mental health. When compared against statistics for both heterosexual populations and their lesbian and gay peers, startling trends emerge in both social, economic, and health inequities.
Here are seven things you probably didn’t know about bisexual health:
HRC’s 2014 report,Supporting and Caring for Our Bisexual Youth, found that when compared to their lesbian and gay peers, bisexual, queer and pansexual youth were more likely to experience being excluded and harassed, less likely to have caring adults to turn to if they felt sad and less likely to report feeling happy.
Pew Research Center found in its 2013 Survey of LGBT Americans that while 77 percent of gay men and 71 percent of lesbians say that “most or all of the important people in their lives know of their sexual orientation” only 28 percent of bisexual people report being out.
According to the Bisexual Resource Center (BRC), 45 percent of bisexual women have considered or attempted suicide, followed by bisexual men (35 percent), lesbians (30 percent), gay men (25 percent), and much lower rates for straight women and men.
In partnership with BRC, BiNetUSA and the Bisexual Organizing Project, HRC Foundation’s issue brief,Health Disparities Among Bisexual People, highlighted these disparities, which include higher rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity, and higher rates of HPV and other sexual health issues, likely stemming from a lack of access to preventative care and not being out to medical providers.
The Williams Institute found that 39 percent of bisexual men and 33 percent of bisexual women reported not disclosing their sexual orientation to any medical provider, compared to only 13 percent of gay men and 10 percent of lesbians who chose not to disclose.
The objects and people children play with as early as toddlerhood may provide clues to their eventual sexual orientation, reveals the largest study of its kind. The investigation, which tracked more than 4500 kids over the first 15 years of their lives, seeks to answer one of the most controversial questions in the social sciences, but experts are mixed on the findings.
“Within its paradigm, it’s one of the better studies I’ve seen,” says Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor emerita of biology and gender studies at Brown University. The fact that it looks at development over time and relies on parents’ observations is a big improvement over previous studies that attempted to answer similar questions based on respondents’ own, often unreliable, memories, she says. “That being said … they’re still not answering questions of how these preferences for toys or different kinds of behaviors develop in the first place.”
The new study builds largely on research done in the 1970s by American sex and gender researcher Richard Green, who spent decades investigating sexuality. He was influential in the development of the term “gender identity disorder” to describe stress and confusion over one’s sex and gender, though the term—and Green’s work more broadly—has come under fire from many psychologists and social scientists today who say it’s wrong to label someone’s gender and sexuality “disordered.”
In the decades since, other studies have reported that whether a child plays along traditional gender lines can predict their later sexual orientation. But these have largely been criticized for their small sample sizes, for drawing from children who exhibit what the authors call “extreme” gender nonconformity, and for various other methodological shortcomings.
Seeking to improve on this earlier research, Melissa Hines, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, turned to data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The study includes thousands of British children born in the 1990s. Parents observed and reported various aspects of their children’s behavior, which Hines and her Cambridge colleague, Gu Li, analyzed for what they call male-typical or female-typical play.
An example of stereotypical male-typical play, as defined by the study, would include playing with toy trucks, “rough-and-tumble” wrestling, and playing with other boys. Female-typical play, on the other hand, would include dolls, playing house, and playing with other girls.
Hines and Li looked at parental reporting of children’s play at ages 2.5, 3.5, and 4.75 years old, and arranged them on a scale of one to 100, with lower scores meaning more female-typical play and higher scores more male-typical play. They then compared those results to the participants’ self-reported responses as teenagers to a series of internet-administered questions about their sexuality.
Beginning with the 3.5-year-old age group, the team found that children who engaged mostly in “gender-conforming” play (boys who played with trucks and girls who played with dolls, as an example) were likely to report being heterosexual at age 15, whereas the teenagers who reported being gay, lesbian, or not strictly heterosexual were more likely to engage in “gender-nonconforming” play. The same pattern held true when they expanded the teenagers’ choices to a five-point spectrum ranging from 100% heterosexual to 100% homosexual.
Teens who described themselves as lesbian scored on average about 10 points higher on the gender-play scale at age 4.75 (meaning more stereotypically male play) than their heterosexual peers, and teens who described themselves as gay men scored about 10 points lower on the scale than their peers, the researchers report in Developmental Psychology. Questions of transgender identity were not addressed in the study.
“I think it’s remarkable that childhood gender-typed behavior measured as early as age 3.5 years is associated with sexual orientation 12 years later,” wrote Li in an email. “The findings help us to understand variability in sexual orientation and could have implications for understanding the origins of this variability.”
The paper “is just a well-done study in terms of getting around some of the problems that have plagued the field,” says Simon LeVay, a retired neuroscientist whose 1991 paper in Science sparked interest in brain differences associated with sexual identity. “It shows that something is going on really early in life and points away from things like role modeling and adolescent experiences as reasons for becoming gay.”
Others dispute the paper’s methods and significance. Parents’ own beliefs and biases about gender almost certainly influence how they described their children’s gendered play, which could skew their reporting, says Patrick Ryan Grzanka, a psychologist who studies sexuality and multicultural issues at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. But more worrisome to him are the cultural assumptions underlying the study itself. The authors appear to regard gender nonconformity as the primary marker of gayness, which doesn’t align with current research suggesting that your individual preferences for either stereotypically male or female behaviors and traits has little to do with your sexual orientation, he says.
Grzanka is also dismayed that the paper fails to critique the history of similar research that investigated whether childhood behaviors lined up with eventual sexual orientation. It wasn’t long ago that such research was used to stigmatize and pathologize gender-nonconforming children, he says. “I think it’s important to ask why we’re so invested in this purported link [between gender conformity and sexuality] in the first place.”
In the prologue to her new book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, philosopher Carrie Jenkins is walking through Vancouver, from her boyfriend’s apartment to the home she has with her husband. She wonders at how the romantic love she experiences firsthand is so different than the model presented by popular culture and academic theory alike. “If indeed romantic love must be monogamous, then I am making some kind of mistake when I say, ‘I’m in love with you’ — meaning romantically — to both my partners,” she writes. “I am not lying, because I am genuinely trying to be as honest as I can. But if romantic love requires monogamy, then despite my best intentions, what I’m saying at those moments is not, strictly speaking, true.”
Her book examines the long, sometimes awkward legacy of philosophers’ thinking on romantic love, and compares that with a new subfield in close-relationships research — consensual nonmonogamy, or CNM. While singers and thinkers alike have been riffing on a “one and only” for decades, she argues that space is being made in the cultural conversation to “question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” These norms are more fluid than they appear: In Jenkins’s lifetime alone same-sex and cross-ethnicity relationships have become common.
When I asked Jenkins to describe how it feels to have both a husband and a boyfriend — she rejects the “primary relationship” moniker altogether — she said that it’s like having more loving relationships in your life, like a close family member or friend. She and her boyfriend, whom she’s been with for about five years, used to work in the same building; he was teaching creative writing on the floor above her philosophy department, though they didn’t meet until they matched on OkCupid. While both men have met each other, they’re not close; Jenkins describes the relationship as having a “V shape,” rather than a triangle. Both helped in the development of the book: husband refining philosophical arguments; boyfriend editing the writing, and helping her to sound like a normal person, rather than an academic.
Still, CNM faces lots of stigma; even the study of it is stigmatized. Yet in the limited yet rich vein of research out there, the evidence suggests that it’s a style that, in some populations, leads to greater relationship satisfaction than monogamy. In any case, the researchers tell me, the insights into what makes more-than-two relationships work can be applied to any given dyad, given the communicative finesse required when three or more hearts are involved.
In a forthcoming Perspectives in Psychological Science paper, Terri Conley, a University of Michigan psychologist who’s driven the field, defines CNM as “a relational arrangement in which partners agree that it is acceptable to have more than one sexual and/or romantic relationship at the same time.” That’s distinguished from the “polygamy” practiced by some religious groups, where it’s not always clear whether wives can opt out of the relationship.
I was surprised to discover how common it is: A 2016 study of two nationally representative samples of single Americans — of 3,905 and 4,813 respondents, respectively — found in each case that about one in five people had practiced it during their lifetime. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 31 percent of women and 38 percent of men thought their ideal relationship would be CNM in some way. Other research indicates that around 4 to 5 percent of Americans in relationships are in some sort of CNM, be it swinging, where partners have sex with people outside their relationship at parties and the like; an open relationship, where it’s cool to have sex with other people but not grow emotionally attached to them; or polyamory, where both partners approve of having close emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships outside of the couple itself. People are curious, too: From 2006 to 2015, Google searches for polyamory and open relationships went up. Other data points to how sticking to the boundaries of monogamy doesn’t come easily to lots of people: A 2007 survey of 70,000 Americans found that one in five had cheated on their current partner.
Jenkins says that as a tenured philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, she’s in a unique, privileged position to openly talk about being in a nonmonogamous marriage. She’d been interested in being in more than one relationship ever since she can remember, but it used to seem like some sort of impossible dream situation — she didn’t realize it could be an option in her real life until she was about 30. (She’s now 37.)
Jenkins met her husband, Jonathan, who’s also a philosopher, back in 2009, at a philosophy workshop that he organized at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; they later got married in the same hall the conference took place. They took one another’s last names as middle names.
Now married for almost eight years, they talked about polyamory early on, though defining the relationship that way came later. As philosophers are wont to do, they soon wrote a bit of a manifesto about their arrangement. They observed that even if their wedding guests were woke in any number of ways — not batting an eyelid if a colleague was gay or bi, eschewing heteronormative assumptions, and the like — there’s still the shared assumption that a nonmonogamous relationship is less sexually safe and less committed than a regular ol’ monogamous one. “Even our very liberal pocket of our relatively liberal society is massively — and, to us, surprisingly— mononormative,” they write. “Acquaintances, friends, and colleagues are constantly assuming that our relationship, and indeed every relationship that they think of as ‘serious’, is a sexually monogamous one.”
To Jenkins, the biggest struggle with polyamory isn’t from managing multiple relationships — though Google Calendar is a crucial tool — but rather the strong, sometimes violently negative reactions that she gets, especially online. When I spoke with her by phone, she was struck by a comment to a YouTube interview of hers, where a pseudonymous user invited “everyone” to read her column in the Chronicle of Higher Education about having multiple loves.
“THIS WOMAN IS A DISGUSTING ANIMAL,” the troll wrote. “Every bit as twisted and queer as the Mormons with their multiple lives [sic]. This femme-pig is the spectral opposite of Trump; a far far left-wing freak that desires to completely overthrow Western Christian Civilization.” Jenkins walked me through a deep reading of the bile: Bundling in politics — the “left-wing freak” bit — with the monogamy norms signals to her that there’s a judgment of what it means to be a good person in here, since politics is about living correctly, collectively. Plus “if you’re an animal, you’re out of the range of humanity,” she says. She’s also gets a lot of “get herpes and die, slut” suggestions, she says, which speaks to the hypersexualization of CNM. Nonmonogamy leads to lots of sex, the presumption goes, and with that STIs, and it proceeds from there. The way news articles covering CNM tend to be illustrated with images of three or four people in a bath or bed doesn’t help, either.
“The way we normally think about romantic love, we don’t imagine that it’s entirely about sex,” she says. “For a lot of people sex is a part of it; if we’re just having a hookup or a friend with benefits, we don’t call that romantic love. When it comes to polyamorous relationships, if you’re in love with more than one person, the same applies — to fall in love with someone is not the same as to sleep with them. We’re clear with that distinction in monogamous relationships, but in CNM that distinction between love and sex gets collapsed.”
Researchers who have studied stigma around CNM have found lots. In a 2012 paper, Conley and her colleagues found that monogamous relationships were better rated on every metric by different sets of the population, including nonmonogamous people. When 132 participants recruited online read relationship vignettes that were identical except for one being monogamous and the other not, the CNM was seen as riskier sexually, more lonely, less acceptable, and having a lower relationship quality. People in CNM were also seen as worse with non-relational things, like making sure to walk their dog or paying their taxes on time. Amy Moors, a co-author on the paper, says it had some of the biggest effect sizes she’s seen in her research. Elisabeth Sheff, a leading polyamory researcher who left academia for lack of grant funding, now frequently serves as an expert witness in custody battles; she says that often a grandmother or a former spouse will find out that a co-parent has multiple relationships, be scandalized, and demand to take the kids — even though her longitudinal research, reported in The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, indicates that kids who grow up in polyamorous families aren’t any more screwed up than average American children.
That same paper finds that there were no differences in relationship functioning between monogamous and nonmonogamous couples. People in CNM had lower jealousy and higher trust — yet also lower sexual satisfaction with their partner. Polyamorists were more satisfied than people in open relationships, perhaps because it’s hard to block of feelings for people you sleep with frequently. Polyamorous people were a special case, with higher satisfaction, commitment, trust, and passionate love than monogamous individuals, though they had lower sexual satisfaction. CNM people also had higher sexual satisfaction with their secondary partners than their primary partners, though that difference fell away when controlling for relationship time, with primary relationships averaging three times the length of secondary relationships.
“Overall, the standard for human responses for relationships is habituation,” Conley says. “That involves a loss of sexual attraction, and we can tell that from stats from therapy. And to the extent that a couple is frustrated sexually, it spills over to other parts of life.”
There are other explanations for high satisfaction scores for polyamorous people, she adds. It could be that they’re just acting out a social desirability bias, given that they’re participating in a study about CNM and want the lifestyle to look good; it could also be that people who enter into polyamory have self-selected themselves into a hypercommunicative population — all the poly self-helpbooks emphasize the importance the need to explicitly talk things out. “People interested in polyamory are more relationship-y than the average person,” she says. “They like thinking about relationships, talking about relationships. That’s great in monogamy, but needed in polyamory.”
All this suggests the kind of people that are the right fit for CNM. Beyond being relationship-y, a Portuguese study out this year found that people with a high sociosexuality, or disposal to casual sex, had less relationship satisfaction when in a monogamous relationship, but those effects disappeared if they were in CNM. Still, they were just as committed to their relationships — signaling that exclusivity and commitment may not be one and the same. Harvard sexologist Justin Lehmiller has found that people who are more erotophilic — i.e., that love sex — will be a better fit for CNM; same with if they’re sensation-seeking.
Amy Moors, the Purdue psychologist, has found that people with higher avoidant attachment — where you’re just not that into intimacy — have positive feelings about and a willingness to engage in polyamory, but they were less likely to actually partake of it. While a correlational study, Moors explained that from a subjective perspective, it makes sense: “When you have avoidant attachment, you like a lot of emotional distance, physical distance, time by yourself,” Moors says, which is not a fit for the relationship-y remands of a poly lifestyle. Also, there’s reason to believe that folks who have relational anxiety, and are thus sensitive to separation, might be prone to the jealousy that’s known to flare up in CNM, though it’s not like that doesn’t happen in monogamy, too.
What motivated Jenkins to write What Love Is, she says, was a gap — or silence — in the philosophical literature, that polyamory was rarely discussed or even acknowledged as a possibility. “Noticing these philosophical silences and denials, while simultaneously being made aware of how society at large viewed me for being a polyamorous woman, made me realize there was something important here that I needed to do,” she says. “To do it meant bringing my personal life and my philosophical work into a conversation with one another. The familiar slogan says that the personal is political, but the personal is philosophical, too.”
Two key themes emerge from reading the book: that love is dual-layered, with social scripts overlaying evolutionary, physiological impulses. And that the “romantic mystique,” like the feminine one before it, assumes that love is mysterious and elusive and corrupted from examination — a sentiment that protects the status quo. But with investigation, and conversation, the mechanics of love reveal themselves, and norms can change socially, and be tailored locally. Like Jenkins, you can custom-fit your relationships to your life — if you dare to talk about them.
My elder son David was fifteen when he told us he was gay – not that he had actually intended to tell us quite then.
He said he was meeting someone but was evasive as to who this might be? I forced the issue never expecting to hear that this was some guy he had met on line through a gay website.
Alarm bells rung at the possible danger!
David must have guessed we might find the news of him being gay difficult as he kept repeating, “It’s OK Mum, there’s nothing wrong”.
My husband’s first thought was “I love my son. I don’t want to lose my relationship with him”.
As for me, I have an unfortunate knack of sometimes putting my big feet in things.
Whilst reeling from the shock, thankfully I avoided saying anything that my son would feel hurt or rejected by.
We both understood that what mattered most was for David to stay believing in himself and to know that our love and support was unconditional.
David appreciated the way we had accepted his sexuality and to stop us feeling anxious, he agreed to cancel the internet date.
David and Alison
Having “come out” to his friends and immediate family, David visibly looked happier by the day.
Now the ball was in our court. Was it our turn to “come out” as parents of a gay son? Would that be fair to David? Was it for him to decide who and when to tell others or not? At the young age of fifteen, we felt it was. That made it much harder because I wanted to feel accepted too.
Up to the point when David told us he was gay, I had no knowledge or experience of what being LGBT+ meant.
My head was full of fears which were further fuelled when I went on-line and came across far right materials discounting LGBT+ as wrong and blaming being gay on abuse or an unhealthy mother-son relationship.
Was I a bad Mum? I feared being judged. I was worried now how David would be treated. Would his school teachers who had praised him as a role model now think less of him?
Would he find himself rejected as unsuitable to be an RSY Summer Camp Leader?
Having brought my boys up to feel strongly Jewish, I now felt anxious that this might not sit comfortably with fully accepting and supporting David’s sexuality.
My Jewishness is all bound up in family and home, celebrating Friday night and all the family traditions. So for validation and support, I turned to my Jewish roots. As I said, I wasn’t ready to “come out” publicly and so like my son before he “came out”, I turned to the privacy of the internet for help. I tapped into Google “Jewish Mum of gay son” and up came “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” with a number you could phone in confidence.
Going for the first time to the group “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians”, I was scared as to quite who I would find there.
The wonderful thing was how unbelievably just like the two of us the other parents all were. They could have come straight out of any Shul – parents anxious to do right by their children. We were no longer on our own.
Hearing from other parents and sharing our own story in a Jewish group in which we felt understood and accepted, helped us feel better. The first pernicious lie it immediately destroyed for me was the idea that being gay had anything to do with upbringing or by extension anything I had done or not done. It was a fact of life, period.
A Dad said that the last thing he would ever wish on his son would be to be imprisoned in an unhappy marriage hiding his sexuality. That hit home and made me rethink the dream I had been nurturing of one day seeing my son under the Chuppah with grandchildren to follow. My son had his own life to lead. I just wanted him to be happy and true to himself. And so in the group we parents chatted on into the night. We discussed why it was that so many of our LGBT+ children were going to Shul less? Did our LGBT+ children no longer feel they could count themselves as proper members of the club?
Perhaps like me before I became aware of LGBT+, our kids assumed by default that within Shul life their sexuality was taboo and that they would not be understood or accepted unless they hid their sexuality.
To be fair, if I joined any club, I would want to feel that there was someone there a bit like me and that I wasn’t just going to be tolerated, but actually wanted by the club.
My journey has been much easier than for some as being of my own making – struggling with my own prejudices. Thankfully the positive attitude of both our Shul and my son’s school explains why David has never felt ashamed of his sexuality and why both his friends and our Shul friends when told have had no issues.
In the twilight zone before feeling ready to come out to the world as a Jewish parent of a gay child, it helps to share feelings in the trust of absolute confidentiality with likeminded parent souls who understand. I am now Co-Ordinator for the parents’ group, “Parents of Jewish Gays and Lesbians” which helped me so much and which I would like to see there for other parents.
It is a really important group not just for the parents but also for LGBT+ children as “happy parents make happy kids”. Unfortunately the group is hardly known about so if you get a chance to tell others about the group, I would ask you to please do so.