Is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Non-Monogamy Ever Sustainable?

Updated April 06, 2016 9:26am PDT
Shutterstock 94008607

How do we navigate this frontier of non-exclusive fornication with compassion and grace? How do we resolve relationship conflicts in a way de-centered from heteronormativity? For these questions and more, polyamory pundit Andre Shakti is here for you.

As of writing this, I'm currently traveling throughout Ireland with two of the three other members of my poly contingent. Not only do you get this week’s advice tainted by Guiness and shamrocks (not really), but you get three opinions for the price of one

Delicious diversity for the bargain price of ten minutes of your time!

Photo On 2 20 16 At 2 39 Pm 2

From left to right:

Jack - biracial trans man
Andre - white queer cis femme
Geoff - white queer cis man

I’ve been dating my partner for two years now, and we have a wonderful relationship. I was honest with them in the beginning about my desire for something nonmonogamous, and though they didn’t have much experience with it (or interest in venturing outside our relationship themselves), they encouraged me to do so under one condition: that I not tell them anything about my hookups. For a long time it worked really well, but lately I’ve found myself wanting to share my experiences and connections with them. We share almost everything else about ourselves with each other, and I’m afraid that the omissions, however consensual, are creating distance between us. Are “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships ever sustainable?

Geoff: As someone who served in the military under DADT, I know from personal experience that you can’t ignore something and just hope it goes away. It failed in the military, and it fails in non-monogamous relationships. DADT didn’t stop me from having gay sex in the military; it just made those sexual encounters inherently less safe. I engaged in riskier activities, I used less protection, I didn’t take the time to communicate my needs and wants. I believe that exercising it in poly relationships creates a similar atmosphere of elevated (and avoidable) risk. You’re hiding something from your partner. You’re cutting corners on safety and intimacy because there’s less communication. You’re not being your full self. With the relationship’s current structure, you risk your connection with your partner derailing as a result of honesty, and that’s not logical.

Jack: I’ve been on the opposite end of similar relationships multiple times. I’m a fairly monogamous person who tends to be attracted to partners who are more open than I am, and I always found myself making huge sacrifices to my comfort so we could be together. I would commonly enter into the relationships knowing that they wanted to be actively poly, and also knowing that the trysts were something I couldn’t get past, so I’d ask for total discretion on their part. Each time it just slowly ate at the trust in the relationship, because in the end you can’t pretend that you and your partner aren’t lying to one another.

Andre: I don’t necessarily believe that we should all immediately adopt policies of radical honesty, but I do fully believe that lying (and yes, I’m of the opinion that omissions are lies, no matter how well-intentioned or justifiable they are) about something makes it easier to lie about anything. I’ve been in relationships where either myself or my partner were going through periods of insecurity and asked the other for a DADT period to “help”. We were never doing this from successful experience, but out of avoidance of the alternative: asking each other to abstain from intimacy with others altogether (which we knew we could never honestly uphold). Once I started omitting the “big” things, I found myself automatically omitting the “small” things as well - that I saw an old friend at the grocery store, or that someone had nominated me for an award.

In each case, no matter how much I fought it, I felt a growing sense of disconnect from my partner. I would come home from a date wanting desperately to relay my experience to the person I considered to be my closest confidant, and be crestfallen when they didn’t want to hear it. It’s worth noting that much of my life revolves around sex and sexuality, so I was (and am) used to those themes being prevalent in conversations with partners. With their absence, I felt an unmistakable void. My insecurities never went away—in my worst moments I’d find it hard to trust anything my partner said. They’d say that they had stopped for a drink with a friend after work, and I’d start imagining all of these sordid alternative scenarios. 

No. None of those experiences were sustainable. So after all this banter, what do you do?

First, I’d check in with them about it. Reserve a generous block of relaxed time for the conversation. Ask them how they’re doing with the current arrangement, and then express your concerns. Although Geoff, Jack and I have expressed pretty consistent DADT-negative sentiments answering your question, I like to look at it the same way I look at monogamy: it’s not for everyone, and it’s not our natural inclination, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t work well for some people with a lot of love, time, and patience. That being said, trust your gut. If you’re committed to staying non-monogamous, your partner won’t budge on your agreement, and it’s not feeling good to you anymore, then you both may just have to accept this unfortunate incompatibility and go your separate ways. 

I’m a trans guy in a committed poly partnership and I just met a hot new girl who I’ve been on a few dates with. My primary and I are fluid-bonded and trust one another to make smart decisions regarding sexual safety outside the relationship, which means that barriers are up to individual discretion. This girl, however, has much stricter safer sex policies than we do, and though she’s currently single, she mandates the use of dental dams, condoms, and gloves in every interaction. While I admire her empowered outlook on her sexual health, I can’t help but be less turned on by the idea of hooking up with her with all of those rules. Dental dams and gloves - particularly dental dams - have always seemed really awkward and superfluous to me. Should I find someone who is better matched with my own boundaries, or are there ways to make gloves and dams sexier?

Jack: We all make sacrifices. If you really want to be with someone, then you sometimes make small sacrifices for them knowing that the end result—the ensuing relationship—is worth it. If you’re committed to setting your concerns aside and focusing on the experience at hand, there are totally ways that you can make it sexy. I’d recommend taking gloves and dental dams out when you’re NOT engaged in sex with the other person and brainstorming creative ways to implement them—that will remove a lot of the pressure of figuring out how to do so “in the moment”. 

Trust me, your partner will appreciate your effort and ingenuity even if your ideas fall flat in the bedroom. Sex is pretty awkward and silly to begin with; it’s far from sterile, and rife with interruption. Embrace the fumbling bodies, the wet spots, and the bizarre formalities of it, and all of a sudden safer sex supplies don’t seem like such a boner-killer.

Geoff: First, keep in mind that there’s nothing forcing you to hook up with this person. It’s perfectly okay to not take every person we find attractive to bed! There are tons of sexy people in the world—we’re only truly compatible with a fraction of them.

Second, I wish I had more information on what your physical relationship with this girl already looks like. Obviously you have had conversations about safe sex-kudos to you!-but have you crossed the physical threshold? Have you already negotiated and navigated kissing and foreplay that doesn’t involve fluid exchange? Basically, are you sure that there’s chemistry there? I would honestly evaluate the present compatibility and potential for future compatibility before having sex with them. If you’re inherently and staunchly turned off by the mere idea of safer sex-you’ve tried making gloves and dams sexy for yourself in the past and it’s never worked and you know this-then it’s time to accept this about yourself. Don’t drag the other person through a host of “ifs” and “maybes” or make it all about them, shaming them and treating them as though their views and opinions are “the problem”.

Finally, if you’re legitimately down to experiment with making gloves, condoms and dams sexy, then hooray! If I were you, I’d take that equipment home and jerk off with it. Find ways to mix it into your personal sexual identity before trying to make it sexy with someone else. Put on your favorite porn scene and touch yourself wearing gloves, put condoms on your toys before using them on yourself, etc. Teach yourself by example. Once you’re with a partner, assuming you’re both kinkily-inclined (or open to some kinky experimentation!) you can eroticize safer sex practices via roleplay scenarios.  

You can initiate a medical scene (snapping blue gloves over your wrists prior to an “examination”), a scene at a tattoo parlor with some sleek Black Dragon nitrile gloves, or even whip them out as part of a humiliation scene (say, for example, if the person really gets off on being degraded about their sluttiness while you fuck them, they can be “too dirty” for you to touch with your bare hands).

Andre: I feel you, dude. Dental dams have always been a hurdle for me. In the past I’ve opted to either engage in unprotected oral sex or refrain from it altogether just to avoid using them! That being said, I’m also a big safer sex advocate and I’d never let the potential for amazing sex just pass me by because I thought dental dams were “silly”. My advice would be to “fake it till you make it”. Your brain is your biggest and most fantastic sex organ—it’s powerful, capable of conjuring up and convincing you of practically anything. Just like when you have to eat something you don’t like and pretend it’s the most delicious thing you’ve ever had just to get it down, you can tell yourself similar narratives about how you feel about safer sex methods when you’re in the moment. After a while (I promise!), you’ll actually start believing yourself, and you’ll barely notice the barriers at all. There are still moments where I have hookups outside my relationships, spending a lot of time fantasizing about them before they happen, and then discover that the activities I was fantasizing about aren’t all available to me because of safer sex preferences. 

That’s totally okay, and allowing yourself to be disappointed for a very brief (and private) moment is also okay. But it’s not worth missing out on an amazing connection with someone over, and can also teach you the fruitlessness of setting goals and expectations around desire.

Like this? Want more? Support the snark through Patreon

Andre Shakti is a Bay Area educator, producer, activist, and professional slut devoted to normalizing alternative desires, de-stigmatizing sex workers and their clients, and not taking herself too seriously. She can frequently be found marathoning Law & Order: SVU under a chaotic pile of partners and pitbulls.