A few weeks ago, I opened my inbox(es) to reader questions for a couple days, and there was a theme to a bunch of the responses: talking about sex in relationships, either because something was changing or because there was a fundamental disagreement between a pair of partners about a sexual subject.
Next time, I’m going to crib quotes from these bunch of messages, that go along a pretty neat subtopic, and answer them like Dear Abby letters. (This is a service you can get personally in response to your queries if you become one of the higher-level subscribers in my Patreon, and even if you’re at lower levels, some of the bonus content will be the “Oh, moms of my polycule members read this, I can’t post it” sections cut from posts, as well as unsolicited questions that are a little too explicit for my usual tone here, which I may or may not answer, for your amusement.) But, today, we’re going to speak very generally about what kind of agreements around sexuality you might want to make within relationships, and what kinds of questions you need to consider for yourself in order to make these agreements.
Big, Giant, Important Note: This Article Probably Doesn’t Help You Have This Conversation With A Partner Tonight. Unless You’re Both Very Self Aware.
Now that that’s out of the way, essentially, just like any relationship agreement, sexually related agreements require that you have a sense of what you want and mean to present to your partner as a starting point for negotiation; as well as what your dealbreakers and boundaries are (and what the reactions at those boundaries are, to let your partner know).
Questions to ask yourself before talking about “The Sex Part” of non-monogamy with a new connection:
Have you both already agreed the possibility of sex with others is agreed upon in past conversations? If no, please cycle back to “How to make relationship agreements” and start over. If yes, ask yourself the following questions:
Do you already have other relationships that are sexual in nature? What safer sex methods, if any, do you use in those?
Is preventing pregnancy an issue you need to keep in mind, in this relationship and/or others?
Do you identify as specifically polyamorous, or more broadly as ethically non-monogamous? What does that distinction mean to you?
Do you have different feelings about casual sex vs. sex in committed relationships? What are they? What are your reasons for that connected to?
Do you have boundaries around sexual practices you require to feel safe being sexual with someone? (For example, using condoms for PIV or PIA sex with partners for at least a certain period of time and pending other circumstances lining up.)
Are some of your boundaries around sex rules either for yourself or carrying over from relationships you’re already in that you cannot break? Make those rules about yourself clear from the outset. For example:
You and your primary partner will only be completely fluid bonded with each other, and require barriers for oral sex as well as PIV and PIA sex until it has been 6 months and both you and the new partner get new STI test results, at which point you no longer require them for oral sex.
You personally use condoms as birth control, so regardless of whatever other agreements you make, you will not have PIV sex with a partner who won’t use condoms for that.
You’re extremely uncomfortable with risks around certain STIs, so if someone’s fluid-bonded network is too big, you won’t have sex with them at all; and if it’s smaller, you will but only with barriers for digital, oral, and PIV or PIA sex.
Are the other boundaries more preferences, or open to change? For example:
No one in your polycule has health reasons for being especially worried about HSV, so regardless of the size of your partner’s network you might be open to negotiating down to their preferred level of barrier use from your preferred “barriers for everything” method.
You’d be open to considering other forms of birth control than condoms, but only if you were in a long-term relationship with someone who really didn’t prefer them.
You and your primary partner have planned check-ins in place to talk about changes to your current rules, so these are current, but if your new partner has an issue with them, you can bring them up at the check-in that usually happens at x time or day.
How often would you ideally be having sex? Do you have a minimum amount you need to feel loved and wanted by your partner? Does that change over time in a relationship? With known health issues(if applicable)?
Do you know your STI status? Do you test based on time elapsed or new partner status or whichever comes first or last? Do you have an expectation for partners to do that?
Are you sexually jealous? Does this add to your boundaries/preferences? Will you need to be out of the house or your partner to go elsewhere for sex with other partners, if you usually share space?
Are you sexually compersive? Will it give you the warm fuzzies to know your partner is having a great sexy time with people? Do you want to know or have access to details about their sex life with others, and are their other partners ok with this?
What are sexual situations you’ve reacted badly to in the past, engaged in by yourself and by other partners? Can you draw any conclusions or assumptions about whether these are categories of thing you might have to draw boundaries around limiting information you receive about them, or not engaging in sexual relationships with people that do them as standard behavior, even if it’s only with other partners?
Now, some of these are things you won’t know the answer to. You can’t guess how you’ll react to things you’ve never encountered. If you’ve always been monogamous in the past, you might not know exactly what you want, you might have no idea whether you’re sexually jealous (although most people can extend that from “Is it fun watching my partner flirt?” with a pretty high correlation), you might just be taking the internet’s advice on when to get STI tests, and you might still be holding on to 10th grade health class views of STIs (please, see here for more up to date information). This brings us to the real key to all of this. You don’t just have the conversation I outline below once. You have it a lot. I, personally, started out by believing in scheduling it early on so no one could be accusatory about “trying to sabotage” happiness out of changes or new relationships; and I still think that it can be really helpful to check in every couple of weeks when you’re brand new to this. Even once a relationship is established, checking in before or after obvious changes (like “at interest in new partner” and “after conversation about what relationship might look like with new partner”) and, if there are no apparent changes, a quarterly State Of The Relationship checkin, about overall issues, not just sex, but not neglecting it, either.
I’ve asked myself all these questions. I might even have made little notes. I asked my partner to look at this and do it too, or I generally asked them to think about their thoughts and boundaries around sex. How do we make this not awkward??
You don’t. You embrace the awkward if it’s there. The more times you have the conversation, the less awkward it gets and the more you realize what makes it awkward for you. Some people have a lot of internalized shame around sex, that pops up in really little, unexpected ways. We live in a world where sitcoms couldn’t even say the names of genitals until everyone got netflix. One of my friends can only talk about sex without blushing wildly if it’s in a bedroom, sitting or laying on a bed together. Even in a totally clinical “this is how often I think we both need STI tests and how I think it would be smart to spread them out” kind of conversation. So to have that first conversation they tell partners, “hey I’m going to blush like hell and avoid eye contact during the sex part of these negotiations. I won’t if we talk about it in a bed once we’re involved, but it’s a thing I do. I can’t help it,” and then they mostly try to have “the sex part” of checkins sitting on a bed. Another friend is working in therapy about not putting off talking about sex or discomfort around sex, because if they didn’t schedule it, they just wouldn’t talk about it until something bothered them enough to start a fight. Even though no one ever told them sex Wasn’t To Be Talked About, it never was, and so they internalized that, and now really only can if they and a partner put it on a schedule. But that’s enough digression. I led with “how to talk about sex” and so far have only given you “things to think about” and “embrace the awkward.”
Talk about it the same way you’d talk about anything else that’s polyamory related.
If you’re just figuring out how to open up an existing relationship:
“Hey we’ve been talking about how to do this and we covered xyz last time we talked but we just said that yeah, sex with other people will be OK… can we talk about what we each mean by that tonight when we’re hanging out?” (if possible, always have difficult conversations face to face.) And if they say yes, or their only objection is that it feels awkward, say “Yeah, I think it might be awkward but we should talk about testing and our feelings about it and what we think about casual vs. intending to be committed sex,” and show up with your answers to those questions and ask them their opinion to guide the conversation a little. See where you agree. Walk away agreeing to think about any disagreements there isn’t an easy, immediate resolution to, and set a time to talk about them in particular. Once you’ve done all of that, you’re ready to either have scheduled check ins or ones based around changes. If you’re “Can’t not show a feeling on your face” person then maybe based around changes is better; and if not, I like schedules for early in relationships, because it is harder for it to feel like you’re hating on their good experiences if you have a reaction.
If you’re starting a new relationship after being in an established one, this should probably be built into your overall relationship agreement conversation, but if you need sexual followup:
“Can we have a more specific conversation about <sexual jealousy or compersion, safer sex practices, my boundaries around certain sex acts, other>?” and then have that conversation at the time you set for it, and determine whether this is something that’s changing and needs reevaluation more often than other parts of the agreement you’ve made, or if a regular checkin on the relationship overall is an ok time to bring up sexual issues including that one.
If you’re just talking about a specific change that’s happening in your existing relationship, or may happen as a result of changes in other relationships, your answers to some of those questions matter from a self-awareness point of view, but not from a set-up-your conversation for you point of view. I’m sorry I can’t help more than “It might be awkward, but you’re adults, and if you use non-accusatory language and talk about your own feelings and point of view and ask for your partner’s… you’re going to be fine,” but I can’t unless I know what it is you need to talk about. In general, it’s a matter of knowing what you want and need and coming to conversations open to your partner’s communication of their wants and needs, and knowing that meeting everyone’s needs may meet nobody’s wants completely.
So, no matter how awkward you may feel along the way, or how ridiculous you thought I sounded above mentioning gloves for fingering... you, too, can manage conversations about the specifics of sex in polyamorous relationships, even the ones where you disagree. I promise.
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