The Wide World of ENM – Where Do You Fit in?

“There’s a rose in the fisted glove

And the eagle flies with the dove

And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.

–Stephen Stills, “Love the One You’re With”

Hey my kinky, polyam peeps! It has been an amazing couple of days here at The Bratty Cat. Because I work in the financial services industry, pretty much anything I post on the Internet is subject to review by my employer. It has to do with the fact that the Feds can hold them liable if I provide financial advice without their supervision. Because of this, projects like this blog have to be approved by their compliance office. Well, after two very nervous weeks of waiting, I finally got the thumbs up so I can continue to share all my insights with my loyal readers. HOORAY FOR SEX BLOGS!!! Add to it that I got a surprise visit from Foxy on Saturday, and I am riding on a bit of a high right now.

I’m really excited about this blog post. When I worked on the podcast, occasionally we would do what I would refer to as “landmark shows”. They were shows that were full of content and ones that I considered to be crucial to anyone who wanted to get a better understanding of the kink community. Sort of a “greatest hits” collection. If you could only watch ten episodes, these were the ten that would give you the most information and bang for your buck. I consider this topic to be one of those for this blog.

So, my ENM journey (ENM stands for “ethical non-monogamy” for the uninitiated) started fourteen years ago in the spring of 2007. Panda and I were a few months away from tying the knot and a close friend of mine mentioned that he and his girlfriend had signed up for SLS, which is the 800 lb. gorilla of swinger websites. I remember as we left my my friend’s place and we were walking back to the car, I asked Panda if she might be interested in trying that. She gave me a very enthusiastic “Sure!” and I immediately dropped my keys in the street out of shock. Needless to say, not the answer I was expecting…

Over the next six years, we met up with probably a dozen or so different couples. Some we didn’t really have chemistry with and that was that, others we would meet up with on a pretty consistent basis, say, every few months as schedules would allow. As we got involved in the BDSM scene in 2013, our swing activities gradually started to slow down until 2016 when we decided that swinging just wasn’t for us anymore and, because of the connections we made in the kink community, we were gonna give poly a shot, and the rest is history.

The reason I bring up this story is that the concept of ENM is incredibly wide-ranging and (in my personal opinion), there are only a few, but not many “wrong ways to do it”. I also want to point out that each ENM journey is different and it’s okay to move from station to to station as the needs of you and your partner or partners dictate. Check out the graphic below created by Franklin Veaux, co-author of the ENM standard “More Than Two”

Personally, the words “Hot Mess” came to mind when I read that chart, because it is CLEARLY a clusterfuck of information. The point I’m trying to make is that ENM is a broad landscape and don’t feel like you have to categorize yourself. I like to say that “The only labels that matter are the ones we give ourselves”. What I mean by that is that labeling can help us identify with a certain group (For instance, I identify as cishet, male, submissive, and poly), but one should never be forced to identify with anything. It’s okay to put yourself in that box, just don’t let anyone else force you into it.

Now that I JUST FINISHED telling you why we shouldn’t label other people, we’re gonna start labeling people. I do this because there’s a method to my madness, I’m gonna bring all this back to poly in a few minutes, but also, labels can act as guide posts. They don’t have to be all encompassing or super-descriptive, and they do give people a direction of where they are and where they’re heading.

Breaking apart the psychedelic roadmap pictured above, I would argue ENM can be grouped into three very broad categories:

  1. Commerce
  2. Casual Connections
  3. Polyamory

Commerce is pretty straightforward: it’s basically any time someone engages in sex work. If you don’t know what Polyamory is by now, go back and read my whole blog, because there’s lots of good information here. Casual Connections (a term I’m making up for the purpose of this post) is arguably the most ambiguous because it’s the most diverse and acts as a “catch-all”. If something doesn’t fall under Commerce or Polyamory, it’s most likely in the Causal Connections bucket.

I want to talk about what’s in that Casual Connections bucket, because, as I’ll delve into towards the end of this post, there’s a little bit of a “turf war” going on between the Poly and broader ENM communities. I believe the majority of the world’s problems stem not from malice, but miscommunication and misunderstanding, and if we unpack what goes into that Casual Connections bucket (and just as important, what doesn’t) we can alleviate a lot of confusion and save ourselves some arguments.

As we peek inside that Casual Connections box, we immediately see there’s a lot going on there. If we operate under the “catch-all” definition I positioned earlier, if your ENM does not involve some sort of “pay-for-play” or a committed, non-platonic relationship, then it’s a Casual Connection. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t some grey areas, like Sugar Baby relationships where money is expected although not explicitly stated, or the first year of Penguin and I’s relationship where I didn’t know if we were partners or just friends with benefits. Confusion like that is normal and to be expected and that’s all part of the process. I know this sounds like gatekeeping, and it is, but there’s a rationale for it and believe me when I say it’s actually for everyone’s benefit.

Inside that Casual Connections bucket we have things that seem very vanilla to things that appear very kinky (I’m looking at YOU, swingers! You’re kinky and you can’t change my mind!). A Casual Connection could be something as simple as someone who likes to pick people up at bars for causal sex or a one-night stand. It could be two friends who want to keep things platonic, but maybe have sex every now and again. It could be a married couple in which one partner occasionally utilizes the services of a sex worker with the other’s consent (notice the crossover with commerce here). It could be a couple in which one partner is allowed to have sex outside the relationship and the other partner doesn’t want to know (“Don’t ask, don’t tell). Finally, it could be two partners who like to share sexual experiences with other people together (a.k.a “Swinging”). The point is it’s a spectrum and there’s lots of places for people to land based upon their needs and their comfort level.

So why define Casual Connections in the first place? Someone much smarter than me once told me that the key to unhappiness was having expectations of other people. I know that sounds very pessimistic, and the point he was making is that if we’re disappointed, we should ask ourselves “Did I place an expectation on someone else that was unfair to me and them”. I’ll share with you a story to elaborate:

I mentioned that Panda and I started our ENM journey as swingers, and even though we no longer identify as such, we still keep a toe in that world because many of our friends still are, plus there’s a heavy cross-over between both the ENM and BDSM communities. There was a question posted in one of the local swinger groups a few years back asking what proper protocol was in approaching a couple for play time. More specifically, does it matter if you ask the man or the woman first (My apologies for the lack of inclusion in this statement. The swinger world is still extremely heteronormative). While the majority of those who responded stated it didn’t matter, there was a small but vocal minority who took offense if communication was not initiated between the two men first. Both the men and the women in this sect felt the men should negotiate first, and even went as far to say that if a man approached the woman without speaking to her male partner first, this was an instant deal-breaker.

Naturally this statement generated a lot of discussion with one side saying “Why would you expect that of someone?” with the other side responding “Why WOULDN’T you expect that of someone?”. It was borderline comical how the two sides were aghast at each other’s point of view. The reason I bring this up is because this in turn prompted a discussion about expectations, and how not properly communicating them, or more specifically, assuming others share those expectations, can lead to argument and disappointment.

So, what does all this have to do with ENM in general? Well, as much as I believe labels should be self-imposed, I think an argument can be made that we need clear definitions of those labels as not to cause confusion. Because the ENM community is so broad, we all have different expectations of participants, and those expectations often come from the labels that we choose. For instance, while I’m a cishet man myself, I have been told by bisexual men in the swing community that when they bring up their bisexuality, there becomes a perceived expectation from the other party they they want to engage in man-on-man sex. It’s so pervasive that one bisexual man told me he lies about his bisexuality until he has had a couple of play dates with the same couple. Telling them upfront tends to “scare them off” because of the predominantly heteronormative nature of the community. From what I’ve been told, the community has become more accepting since I left it, however, it’s an example of how one group can interpret a label differently than the person who placed it.

Another great example was the last time Penguin and I went to our favorite local swing club for kink night. One night a month they bring out the St. Andrew’s crosses and spanking benches and those who are interested in engaging in kink activity can do so as well as offer an educational experience for those who are new to the community. As Penguin and I stood outside one of the main rooms with the St. Andrew’s cross, waiting our turn, an audience had gathered to witness the scene in progress. A male dom was flogging his female sub, and after they cleaned up, Penguin and I brought our stuff out. As we were setting up, one voyeur asked me “Are you gonna whip her?” I smiled and replied, “Oh, no. She’s gonna whip me”

While these are both examples of labels that were placed properly but interpreted incorrectly, the opposite can happen just as easily. One person can use a label that they think applies to them, only to later discover there was a meaning behind the label they never knew, and this is why we need to fully understand all the facets of ENM.

I will say, for the most part, the poly community is very welcoming. If we do have one blemish on our reputation, it’s that we’re a little too quick to criticize and slow to educate (and I COMPLETELY understand the reasons why, which is also why I write this blog), but other than that, we’re incredibly inclusive. Still, when we try to delineate ourselves in the broader ENM community, that pesky issue of labels and expectations rears it’s ugly head, which is what has given birth to that “turf war” I mentioned earlier.

As an educator, I LOVE when someone approaches me and says “Can you help me learn about polyamory”. I’m not gonna lie, I feel a little bit like a Christian missionary when someone asks them to talk about the Bible. “YES, MY CHILD!!!! COME SIT AND LISTEN TO THE GOOD WORD!!!” Life would be much easier if everyone approached an expert first before trying the ol’ “Do-it-yourself” method. However, too often people “jump right in” without counsel, and then frustration erupts.

Because ENM is so ill-defined (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Again, people should be allowed to change labels as they please), co-opting of community identity is bound to happen. It’s largely unintentional and without malice, however that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. A simple example would be a couple who say they’re swingers, but only one half of the couple actually swings. Panda and I met a couple like this who, after meeting up, disclosed that the man was a voyeur and only liked to watch his girlfriend have sex with other men. Fortunately, Panda and I were both okay with this, and it was an example of the label they were using not matching the packaging. Another example, and I realize this is an unpopular one, would be cishet poly people labeling themselves as queer. While I don’t think being poly is necessarily a choice, and I recognize that we do face discrimination for they way we choose to love, I take real issue with a cishet person who says poly is their ticket into the LGBTQ+ community. I agree that poly definitely lives in a grey area, and that grey area is not necessarily inside the queer community.

In light of these examples, it’s been my experience that amongst labels that get co-opted, poly tends to be one of the biggest. Again, I don’t think it’s done maliciously, and that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t need to be addressed. Intent does not equal impact. Just because you bumped into me by accident doesn’t mean my bruises hurt any less when I tripped and fell.

I believe it stems from a couple of factors. First, the Vanilla world sees the whole ENM community as one homogeneous blob, which by this point, I hope you recognize that it isn’t. Second, polyamory has gained a lot more traction and earned a lot more media coverage in the last few years. With anything that’s new, people want to learn more about it (See also: “50 Shades of Gray”). With that thirst for knowledge comes a lot of misinformation (See also: “50 Shades of Gray”, again). As the vanilla world and the ENM community learn more about poly, they also learn about the misconceptions.

As I mentioned earlier, while it’s encouraging to see new people join our community, like “50 Shades of Gray”, publicity has been a mixed blessing. Just like I’ll see new doms and subs engaging in unsafe activities at the club because “That’s what they thought BDSM was”, I’ll see new people and couples join the community because “That’s what they thought poly was”. I don’t blame them. They’re doing what any of us would do: They’re taking action on something that interested them. However, it is frustrating when research isn’t done beforehand and (again, I totally get why this happens) the poly community isn’t as proactive as we should be in providing that education.

So if you’re in the ENM community or would like to join the ENM community, and I could leave you with one piece of advice, it’s this: Do your research. Talk to people in the community, visit a club, go to a munch, read some articles on the Internet (The right ones, not the wrong ones, and if you need help finding out which is which, that’s what I’m here for) There’s so much this community has to offer, don’t feel like you have to put yourself in a box, and if you choose to, make sure it’s the right box for you AND the label matches the packaging.

Until next time, stay kinky, my friends…

–The Bratty Cat

  • Follow us on Facebook at “The Bratty Cat”
  • @The_Bratty_Cat on Twitter

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: