Poly Means Many: Consent, negotiation, and group dynamics

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month’s PMM topic is “negotiation”, which is so broad I’ll admit to having had trouble with where to start, what with having the material for approximately nineteen sextillion blogposts and a million bajillion conversations swimming round my head. And even though a lot of the PMM bloggers are taking this month off due to IRL things, I really don’t feel like I ought to subject you to every little thought rattling around my brainspace, because you will probably die of boredom before finishing, and my fingers will have worn down to little stubs from all the typing. So, I’m focusing on a small area, one which people have asked me about before, and of which I’ve had both positive and negative experiences.

There has been a hell of a lot of discussion and modelling of consent and negotiation within relationships–however fleeting–between two people, but we don’t talk so much about what happens when there are more than two present. Decades of social psychological research have shown us that weird shit tends to happen in groups of people, and the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

So how does negotiation of sex and relationships with several people together work? It’s easiest to look at potential pitfalls here to elucidate what makes things work.

In my experience, one of the biggest problems is that group dynamics can create an environment wherein it is very difficult to say no. When several people are up for sex, and your options are participate or go and wait in the kitchen until they’re finished, one often finds oneself taking the path of least resistance. This has actually happened to me once; I went and sat in the kitchen, that time, and smoked a lot of fags and felt like shit, but there have been other times when I have ended up involved in sex I didn’t want–and, indeed, I cannot say for certain that everyone was as up for a shag as I was, in certain situations before I figured out how to make shit work.

This sort of thing, the nagging concern that someone is just going along with stuff goes way beyond the bedroom.

So how do we solve this sort of problem? First and foremost is, of course, communication which goes beyond saying “I’m not OK”, and into actually checking in with people. This is all useless, though, without striving to make your relationships–of any sort–a safe space. It is not enough to say the words, it is necessary to foster a feeling of trust and security, an idea that it is OK to not be OK with something.

Without this ability to make yourself a safe space, negotiation is never going to work particularly well in any situation. It makes it hard to be honest, and it makes it hard to express non-consent. It stings to hear that no, and sometimes it does feel easier to send someone down to the kitchen, but it is absolutely vital that we make this happen.

From here, it is possible to build an inventory of how the dynamics work, an identification of what makes everyone involved happy, and what doesn’t.

The interesting thing here is that while I was focusing on group dynamics, I realised how much all of this applies when there are just two people present, too. So, I suppose, let’s all buck the hell up and make sure we’re safe.


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