Transformational Pleasure

By Melissa Fritchle LMFT Holistic Sex Therapist and Educator

Riding Intensity

I remember being on a massage table with my teacher digging into the incredibly sensitive muscles underneath my scapula. Sharp sensation, tempting to hold my breath, sweat actually breaking out on  my face. I learned that for this deep tissue work I liked to place one hand on his arm, tracking him, connecting, not feeling as though I was floating alone in the intense sensation. Knowing that I could squeeze or say stop at any moment and he would stop; I was able to ride the pain using my breath and relaxing other parts of my body without fear. My clinical massage practice, giving and receiving, was not sexual but it did give me insight into sex and intense sensation.

Intensity can be incredibly frightening and overwhelming. It can also be invigorating and rush inducing. Some of us naturally may enjoy it more than others. But I think all of us can learn from moments when intensity is separated from fear. On the massage table for me, I found how important it was to know I had control – not over the quality of the sensation itself but over my own boundaries and edges. I trusted the person touching me to listen to me, to be kind, and to deeply care about my feelings and body. I felt cared for in the midst of saying yes to painful stimulation. And so it wasn’t scary to me; it was intense. And that felt welcome.

I also remember being tossed in river currents after our raft had overturned riding the rapids on the Nile. Coming up sputtering, eyes obscured by water, trying to get my feet up and take a breath while my mouth was above the current. One of our guides expertly paddling his solo kayak about 5 feet away from me, ready to respond if I was scared or rattled. “Are you OK?” Laughing, blowing out water, “Hell, yes!” Exhilarated and trusting, myself, my guide, the river, my capacity to ride it all.

Having someone there to ask, “are you ok?” matters. Being able to be pulled out if necessary matters. Being allowed to be scared or exhausted or simply done matters. Within that container, we can find out own flexibility, how to stretch into those previously unexplored edges, how to breath and open with curiosity to sensation. Riding intensity requires attention, focus, and honesty with our self.

The subtle and tender thing about intensity is that what we find intense is unique for each of us, and changes at different times in our lives. Strong emotions, strong physical sensations, new risks.  Only you can assess what is intense for you, and where the line crosses into too much. Even the most sensitive of us cannot fully know from the outside the intensity level for someone else.

For you, at this point in your life, intensity may come from the peaking crest of an orgasm or from looking into the eyes of a partner who sees you. It may come from the bite of nipple clamps or the bone throb of a flogger. It may come from watching a partner leaning in to someone else’s mouth or from being seen naked in the daylight. New intensities may present themselves in humbling moments, as you move hesitantly in case your back seizes up again or you let your partner know an erection is not happening for you tonight.

And sometimes we have more capacity and appetite for intensity, sometimes none at all. There is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to shift. Having a wide range of sensations to play with is a great gift of the body. I invite you to recognize when you are dancing with intensity, whatever the stimulus, so that you can decide what you need to enjoy the ride. The more intensity the more you will need to stay present to yourself, each second unfolding with you aware and responding. Ask your partner to give you the time and space to stay with your own sensation, being responsive as you tenderly and bravely face something powerful and the power it draws up in you.

Riding Intensity

I remember being on a massage table with my teacher digging into the incredibly sensitive muscles underneath my scapula. Sharp sensation, tempting to hold my breath, sweat actually breaking out on  my face. I learned that for this deep tissue work I liked to place one hand on his arm, tracking him, connecting, not feeling as though I was floating alone in the intense sensation. Knowing that I could squeeze or say stop at any moment and he would stop; I was able to ride the pain using my breath and relaxing other parts of my body without fear. My clinical massage practice, giving and receiving, was not sexual but it did give me insight into sex and intense sensation.

Intensity can be incredibly frightening and overwhelming. It can also be invigorating and rush inducing. Some of us naturally may enjoy it more than others. But I think all of us can learn from moments when intensity is separated from fear. On the massage table for me, I found how important it was to know I had control – not over the quality of the sensation itself but over my own boundaries and edges. I trusted the person touching me to listen to me, to be kind, and to deeply care about my feelings and body. I felt cared for in the midst of saying yes to painful stimulation. And so it wasn’t scary to me; it was intense. And that felt welcome.

I also remember being tossed in river currents after our raft had overturned riding the rapids on the Nile. Coming up sputtering, eyes obscured by water, trying to get my feet up and take a breath while my mouth was above the current. One of our guides expertly paddling his solo kayak about 5 feet away from me, ready to respond if I was scared or rattled. “Are you OK?” Laughing, blowing out water, “Hell, yes!” Exhilarated and trusting, myself, my guide, the river, my capacity to ride it all.

Having someone there to ask, “are you ok?” matters. Being able to be pulled out if necessary matters. Being allowed to be scared or exhausted or simply done matters. Within that container, we can find out own flexibility, how to stretch into those previously unexplored edges, how to breath and open with curiosity to sensation. Riding intensity requires attention, focus, and honesty with our self.

The subtle and tender thing about intensity is that what we find intense is unique for each of us, and changes at different times in our lives. Strong emotions, strong physical sensations, new risks.  Only you can assess what is intense for you, and where the line crosses into too much. Even the most sensitive of us cannot fully know from the outside the intensity level for someone else.

For you, at this point in your life, intensity may come from the peaking crest of an orgasm or from looking into the eyes of a partner who sees you. It may come from the bite of nipple clamps or the bone throb of a flogger. It may come from watching a partner leaning in to someone else’s mouth or from being seen naked in the daylight. New intensities may present themselves in humbling moments, as you move hesitantly in case your back seizes up again or you let your partner know an erection is not happening for you tonight.

And sometimes we have more capacity and appetite for intensity, sometimes none at all. There is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to shift. Having a wide range of sensations to play with is a great gift of the body. I invite you to recognize when you are dancing with intensity, whatever the stimulus, so that you can decide what you need to enjoy the ride. The more intensity the more you will need to stay present to yourself, each second unfolding with you aware and responding. Ask your partner to give you the time and space to stay with your own sensation, being responsive as you tenderly and bravely face something powerful and the power it draws up in you.

Masturbation is Great...For Your Partnered Sex!

(previously published in Sexual Health Magazine Spring 19)

It is sad that so many people think of masturbation as something you do when you can’t have partnered sex, as though it is a slightly disappointing consolation prize. In actuality masturbation can be a deeply satisfying, consistent enhancement for your sex life, that not only feeds your sexual relationship with yourself but with your partners as well.

 How does masturbation benefit your partnered sex? Let me count the ways…

 Pleasure generates pleasure. The more yumminess and physical bliss you have in your life, the more you want that. Yes, masturbation can temporarily relieve a powerful hunger for sex, but it also builds a longer term craving. So rather than depleting your libido for partnered sex, it keeps it healthy and on your mind. Plus it reinforces a message that you are deserving of pleasure and self love -and that is a powerful thing.

  1. It takes the pressure off your partner. When you know how to please yourself, you own your orgasms and your pleasure in a positive way. You are empowered to explore the other benefits of partnered sex, besides just simply getting off. With a partner you can take your time without focusing on whether or not they will “make you cum”; you can get yourself there if necessary. Open up to the unknown territories of sex with someone else, no need for performance anxiety on either side.
  2. It clarifies & sweetens your motivations to have sex with someone else. When your sexual relationship with yourself is vital and fun, it creates more space to be clear about your intentions for partnered sex. Does the thought of being sexual with this particular person or persons get you hot? Great! But if you are just desiring a toe-curling orgasm and this person otherwise leaves you cold, you can go home and give yourself what you want. This makes sex with a partner more valuable rather than less, because you are curious and want interaction, co-creation, the dance of sharing your bodies.
  3. Your body builds pathways to orgasm. Like any learned behavior, your body gets more efficient at building to orgasm with practice. Especially for those of us with vulvas, it can take time to learn the processes of your own body and how to ride the tension and relaxation needed for a satiating release. Also the tender tissues of the vulva and vagina will be better prepared for touch and friction when they are consistently being touched. Seriously, it is as though your body thinks, “Oh I know where this is headed! Yahoo, lets do this!”
  4. It helps you pace yourself. Especially for those of you with penises, masturbation can help you build awareness so that you can make some choices about when you orgasm. You will notice changes in how your body’s natural pacing works for you over the course of your life, as the time you need between erections and orgasms shifts. It’s good to know what your body needs for recovery time and what feels pleasurable in between. Also if you are wanting to extend the play time your body can handle before orgasmic release, masturbating before partnered sex (from an hour to 2 days or more depending on your body at this time in your life) can help. The way you masturbate trains your body, so if you go fast and focus on getting it over quickly, you bring that into your partnered sex. If you focus on going slow and varying your touch and sensation, then that carries over into your sex with a partner.
  5. You have options for when your body has limitations. Some days intercourse or any sexual touch may not feel like an option for you or your partner. But if you each are comfortable with self-pleasuring, you can stay together and still have a shared experience while one of you masturbates. Of course, if your bodies simply cannot be in the same room, this also opens up many fun possibilities for mutual gratification. It can be deeply vulnerable and arousing to show someone how you touch yourself and to hear their voice as they encourage you.
  6. You may discover some fun toys and fantasies to share. Your sex-with-yourself drawer doesn’t have to stay private. The more you explore, the more you have to bring to the shared table so to speak (just be sure that table is stable enough to hold your weight, Avoid Sex Injuries 101). Vibrators, dildos, a favorite lube, can all be great additions to partnered sex. Fantasies you draw on to peak your arousal, whether you want to act them out or no, can intensify your sex talk.

 So please enjoy and boost your masturbation by considering it a healthy, fortifying part of your sex life, partnered or not. Fantasize about all the delectable things you can do to pleasure yourself and the things you can do with a partner. Everybody benefits.

Now is the Time to Love Hard

It is more important now than ever to seek out what you love and love it hard. Every moment it has been more important than ever. Because we do not have forever and what we love – it is going away.

Like many of you, I am in a state of deep and painful awareness of the changes we will see in my lifetime, changes to things that I once thought were impervious to change. But I have to also accept that nothing has ever been permanent; that in fact I was always going to have to say goodbye to people, and places, and things, and hopes. Mortality kicks you where it hurts.

And there is little comfort there…except for this – This is the time to take in the world. THIS is the time to revel in the pleasure available to you. Use your body as it can be used, now. See what there is to see, smell it, taste it, experience it. This fortifies you for the big picture and motivates you to protect and strengthen what you can.

Don’t do this from a place of desperate hoarding, but from a place of deep honoring. This love and pleasure is time well spent in a world worthy of our attention. Get up, go love! 

This morning

even the ocean seemed hushed in reverence

at the incredible softness of the lightening sky,

pink flush touching ocean’s face,

gently, gently waking.

This is the morning

I wake to a calling

to leave my warm bed in the darkness

and join the day

as though it is my last chance.

Because what if I hadn’t seen

the small black dolphins weaving themselves

into the surface of the sea?

What if I hadn’t seen the hummingbird resting;

how bright its red throat?

What if I hadn’t heard the birds clapping

their wings on the dancefloor of water?

What if I hadn’t burst with tears of gratitude?

This is the morning

that I know I am saying goodbye

to everything I have ever loved.

This is the morning

my life is a gift, and I am here now

my participation an offering.

This is the morning.

This is the mourning.

This is the morning.

 

  • Melissa Jebian Fritchle (Esalen, 2019)

 

Ever-Present Gift

Dear Body,

It has not always been pleasure, has it?

There are times when pain has been the ruler. Many days of discomfort and a fair amount of feeling basically numb. I know how important it is to honor that too. I have tried to learn the lessons there, trying so hard to stay curious even while I am afraid of getting lost in the oppression of pain or illness.

But I have discovered something amazing though this life! You actually always offer pleasure to me - if I can sense the subtlety of the invitation.

I am thinking about in the hours after surgery, those cool blueberries my love fed me in my hospital bed, the incredible bursts of tart crunch – an invitation to be here in the moment, alive with my senses. I am thinking about staggering in the shock of grief, coming to my now dead father’s home and seeing the deer on the hillside, how my body mirrored their stillness, my breath steadied, and I felt a gentleness enter me.

I am thinking about the rocking vibration of an orgasm, building and shaking something loose in me on those days when I have felt trapped or stuck. I am thinking of rising from my knees, tears still on my face, to meet the lightness of the next dance. I am thinking of the deep stretch of sore muscles and the warmth of tea and the pressure of my partner’s lips and letting a gathering of hair curl around my fingers. Yes, I am even thinking of the slippery touch of dish soap and dish that is available to me as I do chores.

You have never forsaken me pleasure, even in my most difficult moments. This ever-present gift, the amazing capacity you have to delight in the senses, may I always remember to open to it and let it heal me.

With deep gratitude, your human

Want More Sex? - Plan for it.

Previously published in SHE Magazine (Winter 2019)

 

What is the number one thing you can do to have a more vital, fulfilling sex life? Make a point of planning the time to have sex.

Yes, I mean scheduling sex.

Oh, I know, big groan. There is a lot of resistance to this out there. I know this because I talk to people about it weekly. And those people I am talking to are not having even close to the amount of sex they would like to have. Because they think that planning for sex somehow makes it less appealing.

 It’s time to change this perspective. That fabulous rush of fumbling, inspired sex that you remember from early stages of dating? You planned for it. That is, at a certain point, largely what dating is all about - prescheduled time you have cleared to be free to spend alone time with someone with whom you hope to have sex. You also prepped yourself, your mind and body, for the possible sex you would have, pulling out the nice underwear, fantasizing about your partner touching you while you showered and made yourself smell delicious, you bought condoms and put them somewhere convenient.

 I can also tell you that many people who have affairs, full of hot sex, go to quite extreme lengths to plan for how they will work meeting with their partner into their calendar. People who go on sex vacations or swinging weekends have planned that. Honeymoons, vacation sex, long distance relationships…

 So planning for sex doesn’t make it boring. And spontaneous sex, whatever that means, is not necessarily better. When we plan for sex we are saying it is a priority, something we are excited to make time for in our busy lives. We also expand the sexual experience beyond just the time we are engaging with our partner and make it also about anticipation and seduction.

 Here’ some tips to make planned sex hotter:

 Seduce Yourself – Figure out how to work yourself up; think about what you enjoy, masturbate, do the things that make you feel sexy and desirable. We often have a belief that our arousal is our partner’s job and so we wait passively to be “turned on”. But really, you are carrying your sexual energy around with you daily and can decide to turn it up or down. Take this opportunity to build up to sex by enticing yourself.

 Be Proud of Your Desire – Many of us have learned to play it cool, being unwilling to show how much we want sex from our partner. Especially if you have had patterns of being turned down or disappointed, you may need to do some healing to let yourself embrace and express your desire. Practice telling someone you are looking forward to being touched tonight. Show up with a new toy or idea for a scene.

Don’t Show Up For it Like it is a Doctor’s Appointment – Arriving bedside and undressing at 8pm may be efficient but it is awkward. Just because you have a timeframe doesn’t mean you don’t have to initiate in some way less clinical than “time for sex!”. Explore ways to ease into the sexual energy. Flirt, start with a kiss or a silly striptease, but put some consideration into how you begin to seduce each other. And make sure to include some time to transition from work day stress to focusing on your partner into your plan.

Shake up the Sure-Thing Energy – Feeling obligated to have sex in the same way on the same day of the week is not exciting. That is not the goal. Make a date to be alone in a private space where you can be erotic together. From there, let the rules drop. You may have intercourse, if that is what you and your partner are into, but that is not the defining feature of being sexual. Give each other the freedom to decide in the moment what you want to do. Maybe your sex that night is whispering an erotic story into their ear while they masturbate. Maybe it is washing each other in a bubble bath. Maybe it is making out with your clothes on or slow dancing naked. Develop the skills to know what you would like and to communicate that.

Don’t Rely on the Plan Exclusively – Scheduled sex is meant to provide a foundation for sex to remain an important part of your life. But you can still be spontaneous! In fact, many people find the more they are having good sex, the more they are motivated and comfortable initiating. There is less pressure from wondering when sex is going to happen and more availability to just try.

Don’t limit yourself to sex that is only a last minute consideration. Make it a priority that you can be excited about.

Pleasure : Your Mission Should You Choose to Accept It

I believe in transformational pleasure. I believe that when we experience moments of joy, awe, full body laugher, quaking orgasms, subtle sensations that infuse deeply into our tissues, beauty, we are healing ourselves.

I believe that our wounds are to be healed by a radically different experience, one that is grounded in the present moment, in an openness to our body’s buzz, and a knowing that we are deserving of full-on bliss. From a place of security in our right to exist and utilize every aspect of this physical, mental, emotional, spiritual life. Exploring our edges in a way that feels respectful and intriguing and tinged with wonder is medicine.  

I do believe in make love not war. And by that, I mean when we can connect to the amazing diverse world around us, in a fully embodied way, we will be kinder, more flexible, less afraid. When we turn towards others as our teachers and healers and exploratory playmates, we grow in juicy, vital ways. I believe the true north of pleasure doesn’t thrive on others hurt or fear, but in collaborative curiosity. When we allow ourselves to find happiness – from the deep plethora of options your happiness can reside in daily – we build a better world.

That doesn’t mean we ignore the battles. If we want a world in which we can all be fully embodied, our sexuality and pleasure honored, we have to fight for it. That is clear to those who are paying attention. But the people who are crafting restrictive, discriminatory, yes hateful, laws are not guided by pleasure. Pleasure is decidedly absent from their world view. Pleasure is frightening. And not just queer pleasure, or Latina pleasure, or differently-abled pleasure – but their own pleasure too. They are diminished by their own intolerance.

So I have decided that to fight back – to say I will not stand for a world of diminishment and fear of our full claim to our bodies – I have to put my pleasure out there. I must live a life that celebrates my pleasure and invites others into theirs. I must use all of my senses. I hone my skills in listening to my sensations so that they can guide me. I need to prioritize the care and feeding of my joy, even if the day only allows for a moment of letting a piece of chocolate melt on my tongue. I will take that moment.

I will dance barefoot, and place my belly on the warm dirt, and smell every flower in the display, not just the roses. I will touch my friends and listen to their breath as they tell me about their difficult day. I will let myself cry a full bodied cry, and then rise out of that into laughter. I will taste my own sweat and the heat I can create. I will masturbate often and infuse myself with the energy of my private enjoyment. I will find new creative ways to ravish myself. I will relish my life. I will not let anyone take the one chance for this experience of life away from me.

I believe that pleasure makes us strong rather than weak. That is shows us what is worth our struggle and why we might appreciate being born at this time, into the life we have been given. Delight is not superficial and ecstasy is not an indulgence. They are our life blood pumping though us.

How about you? Will you let your pleasure transform you?

What We Are Facing & How We Face It

From Conscious Sexual Self to Transformational Pleasure 

In the last 2 years I have had a crisis of faith that has taken me to some pretty dark places. My understanding of our human selfishness has shaken me, my clarity on the state of our changing environment has oscillated me between panic and numbness. And, on a personal level, my father died which as a rite of passage forced me to think about legacy and death and what I should do with the time I have. The answers were not quick to come, shifting from this to that in an existentially dizzying way.

In trying to grapple with this, I have had to honestly ask myself – in the face of the big changes that I think human life is going to face in the not so distant future – do I think helping people heal their sexuality is important enough?

And fundamentally I say yes.

And so this blog has been reborn, now as Transformational Pleasure. While I cannot do much to answer the question of how or whether humans can survive what is coming, I can say with faith that healthy, positive, joyful, free sexuality is a way to keep our humanity alive.

Pleasure of all kinds gives us reasons to live and keeps us engaged in the world. So it is not superficial. In facing oppression, owning your own pleasure and finding ways to claim it builds resilience. Taking in beauty, belly laughs, gentle touch, family recipes, time to paint for no reason other than it feels good, are ways of loving the world and each other. Far from superficial, we need these moments to fill us up and to motivate us to keep going.

Sexual pleasure in particular incites us to experience our own body, to find the gift of ecstasy waiting there for us. For many, myself included, sexual pleasure is the first experience of transcendence of our story, our ego, a brief glimpse into respite from the daily concerns. Touching our self for pleasure, is empowering. It uses no resources. It is abundantly there for us. And it is healing, reduces stress response and lowers pain sensitivity and all kinds of other good side-effects that I will write more about in another post.

And shared sexuality opens us up to giving and receiving pleasure from others. As we deepen our ability to communicate and be present for one another in sexual play, we strengthen those skills for other times. Entwined bodies build an ability for the heart to feel closer to others. Sexual interactions that are compassionate and not objectifying, expands our willingness to see others as both exciting and vulnerable. Sex bonds us, not through monogamy or commitment, but through intimate engagement with a fellow human. And oxytocin, released when we are physically close to another, which seemingly exists to enable this critical calling of connection and bonding. We need to feel connected. Empathy is important. As feelings of isolation and loneliness seem to be increasing, we need to do more to build this into our lives.

Sex positive attitudes ask us to imagine other people’s desires and needs as different and distinct from ours, and to stay in community with them. It invites questions and curiosity that might just bring brand new solutions and perspectives. Including others in our envisioning of a happy life is vital. And it is much easier to wish pleasure for others, if you have access to your own pleasure.

Let’s wish pleasure for others.

Please. Wish pleasure for us all. Let’s make this part of our mission as we all move forward into a new year and a new future. It just might save the best parts of who we are.

 

What is Passion?

Previously Published in SHE Magazine, Sept 2108

Melissa Fritchle, LMFT, Holistic Sex Therapist & Educator

Sex therapists are often asked to comment on how to increase passion or how to keep passion going. But often these questions are skipping a key component, which is - What is the experience of passion? How can we get more familiar with it so that we can invite more of it in?

Passion can feel like a deep well, where other interests are shallow. Passion feeds itself instead of quickly burning out. It is empowering, giving us courage and focus. In recognizing something we want, we can shed the old clothes of ambivalence or self doubt.

Passion is felt in the body, whether it is for a person or sex or a calling or an artistic endeavor, it is felt. Some people describe a quickening of pulse or breath, or a fluttering in the belly, or a rush of energy or heat in the core.

Something you are passionate about awakens you in some way. I sense that passion comes from things that bring us closer to our true selves, that expose us to ourselves in new ways. We are passionate in the now, we want to be there, we want to experience. We are called to show up. Passion stirs something in us that must feel real, that must invite a part of our self that is authentic and wants to come out to play. Passion invites us into our life.

Passion often feels new and edgy. There has to be something to learn there, something to remain curious about. Passion pulls us to dig deeper, go further, to create and keep creating. If we feel we have it all figured out, no surprises, I doubt passion will remain. Passion provokes us and stimulates risk.

Passion can scare us. In fact, the second dictionary statement on passion reads, “a strong feeling that causes you to act in a dangerous way.” And when talking to a friend about this, his first response was to question the difference between passion and obsession. Interesting. Passion grabs hold of us and feels outside of reason. Passion is not entirely a choice. But to me, passion is kind. It motivates us and channels us but doesn’t own us.

Passion is a flow fed by our elation.

Passion invites us to be uncontrolled – not out of control. There is a subtle but important difference here. Being out of control can hurt us. In that state we have no ability to gauge our own limitations and sensations or to do anything to mediate them. But choosing to be uncontrolled - Well, that is a beautiful thing. Letting go of control, temporarily, means we have already assessed that we are safe. That we can trust the environment, our body, our partners, our own capacity to feel and respond. Being uncontrolled means we can see what happens. We open our self to sensation; we allow our response in the moment.

Foundationally I have come to believe that passion is a choice we make about how we engage in the world. Choosing to look around us and find things to be excited about, rather than going through the motions trying to stay in the ease of the familiar. Choosing to let people see our excitement rather than playing it cool. Being curious enough to get inspired.

To live passionately requires us to pull down walls we build up, walls that have all the answers, that are cynical or bitter, walls that are shy or feel undeserving. We each have our blocks and ways we hold ourselves back. It takes conscious effort to prune away the limiting structures within ourselves. And it takes kindness to be gentle with our self in addressing the things we fear, the hurts that have shut us down before, the riskiness of being human.

Passion says “it is worth it” and reflectively I think we create passion by saying “this is worth it”. We want to give to that which draws our passion. And in giving, we receive more, and this feels good. When we are unwilling to give or invest or risk, we will be without passion.

So making space for this driving force in our life means first believing we have the energy to give. Believing that we are strong enough and brave enough and big enough to contain your passion and to express it. You draw your passion from within. And so before you choose where to channel or express your passion in the external world, you need to replenish your inner reserves. Tend to your self compassionately and honor the passionate relationship you have with yourself. Then you will have the spark you need to keep passion alive throughout your life. 

Getting Beyond "Its Complicated" - What Does it Mean When Someone Says They are Poly?

It is great to see more online dating sites offering an option for poly status, – OKCupid, Meet Mindful, Plenty of Fish as of now – inviting more honest, diverse possibilities for relationships from the moment people meet. In the media we are seeing more celebrities being open about their poly identities and we are finally getting some serious discussion on this significant aspect of human relationships. Ideally this cultural tide will invite more nuanced conversations among partners, potential partners, and our communities in general.

But what I am frequently seeing are assumptions about what “poly” means, similar to the quick assumptions we have been conditioned to make about monogamy. Guesses that are not acknowledged as guesses, like – Their poly must be the same as my poly. Their poly must be the same as my next door neighbors’ poly, or the poly I saw on that daytime TV story, or it just means they want to be able to cheat. None of these are helpful assumptions and they actually serve to limit the important conversations we could be having about how to create relationship structures that work for a range of unique individuals.

In my practice as a Sex Therapist, I have worked with a lot of confused people who are trying to navigate what feels like a new world for them. My foundational advice is this : If someone tells you they are poly, consider that just an opening into a series of questions to find out what that means for them. There is no one size fits all definition of poly that you can rely on as a shortcut. And that is a great thing!

Here are just some of the variations. Understanding them might help you be more proactive in your conversations with potential partners or friends who are sharing their poly status with you.

Mono Poly or Solo Poly – Someone who practices responsible non-monogamy openly with partners and does not choose to have commitments or established obligations with any partner. This does not mean that there are no agreements in the moment, for example agreements to practice safer sex practices are still a part of sexual negotiation.

Body Fluid Monogamy – When a person has one primary partner or partners with whom they have established that it is safe to share body fluid, because they share the same STI status, and so they choose to limit sexual activities with others to those that do not involve any body fluid exchange or risk of exchange.

Primary Partner/Co-Primary Partner – This means that someone has a committed relationship with more extensive agreements and emotional engagement with one person (primary partner) or possible with more than one person (co-primaries) while still having other sexual or romantic partners with whom they have more casual relationships. Rules will often be established to protect and privilege the primary relationship bond.

Open Relationship/Open Marriage – This just tells you that the conventional rules of monogamy do not apply. More information will be needed to know that this means for each person.

Monogamish – Current term relating to someone who has a primary committed romantic relationship with some sexual exploration with other partners allowed. Hopefully there will be established  understandings of agree upon boundaries but those will vary depending on the people involved.

Poly/Mono Relationship – A relationship in which one person is openly polyamorous and the other is monogamous with unique agreements made between them about limits.

Cellular Family or Closed Polyfidelitous Relationship – Generally denoting a committed bond, sexual, romantic and with long-term implications, amongst more than 2 people in which they may share a home, children, and creation of family. There is a lot of variation in how these relationships may be structured or experienced, for example who is sexual with whom, each person’s commitments to the unit, etc.

Swinging or In the Lifestyle – Frequently relates to established couples who otherwise practice monogamy with times of shared sexual activity with other partners. This is sexual exploration that they engage in together, often with either person being able to veto activities or partners in the moment. Often may involve parallel play while witnessing others, sex with partners in the same room or may involve private sexual interactions with new partners, for example in separate rooms such as a “key party” scenario when partners openly switch partners for the evening.

Group Sex, Play Parties or Adult Buffet – A group of consenting adults, sometimes established as a closed group, sometimes open to new members each time, who meet to engage in sexual play together. Each person is free to choose who to engage with in the moment. Frequently there are group norms about how to communicate interest or limits shared within the group.

Geographical Non-Monogamy or Friends with Benefits – These terms frequently refer to short-term agreements to allow for sex with partners without commitments while waiting for a potential monogamous relationship to be available, for example if someone is living far away from their romantic partner and they have agreed to have other sexual partners until they can be together or friends who agree to be sexual while each are openly looking for a romantic partner. Again, the established rules or understandings between partners can really vary here, open communication can really help.

Fair Warning : Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – While it is true that some people may directly agree to this type of arrangement in which neither person shares any details or maintains openly established boundaries, many times this is a set up for lying by omission. Secrecy can make it impossible to tell what is actually ok with other involved partners, or to create your own boundaries. Be careful before entering into relationship who says this is the way they “do poly”.

So these are just some of the many variations of what “poly” can mean. I hope you can use this information as inspiration to deepen your conversations around what you want from relationship and to stay dedicated to clear expression of what you are available for and to avoiding those easy assumptions. We all deserve the relationships we will thrive in. It is an ongoing gift to be able to work with people who are creating theirs, however they define it.