A (Conditional) Defense of One Penis Policies

Stock image of a single banana on a square white plate, with a knife and fork to the plate's left and an empty drinking glass to its right. The table on which the plate lies is a warm brown colour and the banana itself is ripe, but not speckled. It is supposed to represent a penis.

The One Penis Policy is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a rule within a non-monogamous relationship that (usually) dictates that the vagina-owning party can only be sexually and/or romantically involved with one penis-owner. Usually, this happens in relationships with cis people, where the vagina-owning lady partner is bi, and usually it’s brutally criticised by other non-monogamous people for being phallocentric (that is, for putting the penis on a pedestal) and for diminishing the validity of vagina-on-vagina or otherwise sapphic relationships by virtue of deeming them less threatening, less jealousy-inducing and/or less “real” than penis-on-vagina or otherwise heterosexual relationships.

And I totally understand those criticisms. I do. “It doesn’t count if it’s with a girl” is an icky sentiment which manages to be misogynistic (in that it positions women and their relationships as less important than men) and manages to dismiss female sexuality (in that it suggests non-phallocentric sex acts are less important than phallocentric ones) in one fell swoop. Your penis-owning partner deeming your relationship(s) with women less important than your relationships with him (because he’s usually cis, let’s be real) can really hurt, so a lot of people avoid One Penis Policies in their relationships. And that’s their boundary and their right, and I respect that.

But.

We can’t wash societal bullshit out of our brains. (This is why I still have an eating disorder, Impostor Syndrome about my depression, and freshly-shaven armpits.) Even if we know it’s societal bullshit, even if we’ve read all the books and blog posts and hot takes and we’re logically aware that our feelings are being influenced by external structures, we still have the emotional responses that society has wired our brains to have. So even if a dude desperately wants to discard society’s phallocentric bullshit, he’ll still feel hurt and threatened and the rest of it when his partner interacts with another penis. It would take a lifetime to undo that societal programming.

Phallocentrism also means that an alarming amount of a dude’s identity is connected to his dick. In much the same way as my identity is tied to being a blue-haired autistic sex nerd with big boobs and lots of facial piercings, a lot of dudes’ identity is tied to their dicks – so in the same way I’d be hurt and insecure if my partner started seeing another person with blue hair and big boobs and so on, dudes are hurt and insecure about other penises entering your life. It’s much easier to draw comparison when there are similar traits to compare, and living in a phallocentric patriarchy means that the first place a guy is going to look to draw comparison is genitally. Again, he might be fully aware of how bullshit that is, but that won’t stop him from feeling anxious about you replacing his penis (the part of him that society deems most important) with another, “better” penis.

As for the diminishing of female or sapphic sexuality, that depends on the person. It can be hard to untangle phallocentric bullshit and the bullshit that suggests vagina-related sexuality is less valid, but frankly, if you’re dating someone homophobic enough to state or suggest that “it doesn’t count if it’s with a girl”, the absence or presence of a One Penis Policy is not going to save your relationship and you should run for the hills. If your partner, phallocentric bullshit aside, respects and values your relationships with women, it should show, regardless of whether or not he feels threatened by them. His behaviour as a metamour, the things he says to you in private and how readily he objectifies you, your girl partner(s) and your sapphic experiences are all things to take into account, but that’s a conversation for another day. Simply put, if your partner is homophobic, you’ll know, regardless of penis policies.

So do you have to instate and abide by a One Penis Policy because your partner can’t shake off society’s phallocentrism and misogyny? Of course not. I personally weighed up the hurt and insecurity my partner might feel about other penises against the desire I had to interact with other penises and decided, in the kindest way possible, that my encountering new dicks wouldn’t be worth the emotional labour for either of us. My partner didn’t explicitly veto other penises; he told me that he’d have a lot of difficult feelings about them, and I decided I’d rather spare him those feelings and leave other penises alone. That might change in the future, but it might not, and I’m truly happy with that: I feel like I can ask my partner for contact with his dick, or for penetration, or for any other unique experience that penises offer, and he’ll provide it at my earliest convenience, so there’s very little I’m missing out on in abiding by an unofficial One Penis Policy. And that’s the ideal setup.

All 800-odd words of this was to say: if multiple penises are important to you, you have every right to only enter/maintain relationships that are absent of a One Penis Policy. But if you have a partner whose feelings might be shielded by a One Penis Policy and multiple penises aren’t that important to you, there’s no shame in sticking to an OPP. There’s no right way to do non-monogamy, you and your dude needn’t feel bad for being susceptible to millennia of patriarchal brainwashing, and your boundaries are always, always allowed. Regardless of what they are, I hope you enjoy the genitals you interact with, or that you enjoy non-genital-related activities, to the fullest extent possible, and I hope to see y’all next week for another blog post.

Polyamory: Hierarchy or BYE-erarchy?

Image is of a number of chicken eggs piled up in a brown wooden bowl, with one egg lying beside the bowl on a small patch of jute cloth. The background is a pale blue with no other detail.

You may or may not be aware that I like rules.

I’m in a 24/7 lifestyle D/s dynamic with my Daddy. We have a lot of rules, formatted immaculately in a Google Doc that’s always at the tips of our fingers, should anything need to be edited or updated. In times of stress – near essay deadlines, or when things get complicated at home – I often ask for additional rules, tasks or check-ins, to help me feel grounded and to create a sense of security and consistency that assuages my anxiety and fills me with unique autistic glee.

By contrast, I have literally zero rules within my relationship with my girlfriend – at least, not in any formal sense. We generally try to avoid giving each other advice unless it’s specifically asked for because we’re both easily influenced, and we obviously both strive to be kind and considerate to each other at all times… but other than that, our relationship is as laid-back as it is loving. We update each other on new partners only when we’re particularly excited about them (or when it informs decisions about fluid bonding); we keep in touch however much our spoons allow; we lead intertwined but independent lives. It’s almost the opposite of the 24/7 power exchange I enjoy with my Daddy, but it’s equally as reassuring, as grounding and as loving.

I consider these relationships to be equal. Different, but equal.

I also see the benefits to hierarchical polyamory, especially as somebody who likes rules and structure. At the moment, my Daddy isn’t dating anybody else, and I’m only tentatively starting to explore new relationships after a number of heartbreaks last year, so I’ve sort of moved away from hierarchical polyamory by default. Their roles in my life are hugely different, but my Daddy and my girlfriend are as equal to me, as beloved and as necessary, as a pair of knitting needles. The right-hand one is doing a very different job to the one on the left, but they both play an irreplaceable role in creating each stitch.

On the other hand… what happens when a new party comes along? Will I consider someone I’ve been on two dates with to be on equal footing with my lifestyle Dom, or the girl I’ve been in love with for nearly four years? If not, does that mean I’m ‘bad’ at polyamory? At non-monogamy? At relationships as a whole?

In unpicking this concern of mine (whilst, of course, knitting, and relaxing into the meditative headspace that knitting invokes), I realised that I, at least, was conflating two ideas: hierarchies of partners, and hierarchies of people. Within a hierarchy of people, the people at the top hold power over the people lower down. This happens within capitalism, within workplaces, and within some polyamorous constellations – for example, primary partners holding ‘veto’ power over secondary or tertiary partners. I came to realise that I don’t want to create a hierarchy of people. I strongly dislike the idea of making anybody feel less-than, or threatened by my existing partners, or otherwise powerless within a relationship with me. I want everybody within my constellation to feel like equals as people, and I want everybody to be able to communicate about how they might be helped to feel that way.

Buut… I don’t have more than 24 hours in my day. I only have the spoons I have. I have boundaries I absolutely will not flex on: I won’t compromise on the lifestyle dynamic my Daddy uses to bring me comfort and stability to make a different relationship work – not without renegotiating with my Daddy, and closely examining why someone might want or need my lifestyle dynamic to change. If I had to choose between attending an emergency a new partner was having and attending an identical emergency my girlfriend was having, I’d choose my girlfriend every single time. In that sense, I guess I do create and maintain a hierarchy of partners – but I aim to treat every one of those people as people.

Even if I’m just seeing someone for sex, with no romance and very little friendship attached, I’ll still check in with them about their boundaries, their feelings, and how they feel about their place in my life. If a ‘secondary’ partner needed emotional support whilst my girlfriend was free to grab Starbucks, I would still go and support the ‘secondary’ partner, regardless of how I’d labelled their position within the hierarchy, because Starbucks is (probably) not as essential to my girlfriend as emotional support is to anybody else. The difference between a hierarchy of partners and a hierarchy of people is, in essence: within a hierarchy of partners, you still treat everybody in a loving, considerate way, but you do so within a framework that allows for the prioritisation of older or more intense relationship dynamics; within a hierarchy of people, power is wielded directly and indirectly in ways that can be miserable or outright destructive, and ultimately, people at the bottom can feel less like people than people at the top.

So, I guess I practice laid-back, communicative, flexible, loving hierarchical polyamory. And I think I’m okay with that.