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.

The Kink Escalator

An image of an escalator, from the perspective of someone standing at the bottom of it.

I have a real bee in my metaphorical bonnet about linear spectrums.

The most obvious example of this is my distaste towards the idea of the autistic I am as a linear one, starting at “not autistic” and progressing until you reach “really very autistic indeed”. Much like functioning labels, this perception of autism leaves no room for nuance, which in turn leaves little room for self-advocacy. (Personally, I like Rebecca Burgess’ visualisation of the autistic spectrum more than any other.)

Another linear idea I strongly dislike is the idea that gender is a spectrum (correct!) between male and female, or masculinity or femininity, with no genders existing independent of these two categories (incorrect!). It’s true that there are plenty of identities which do fit onto this spectrum, like binary female, neutrois, bigender and so on – but there are also gender identities that exist outside of it, like agender, demiboy etc. For this reason, I really enjoy models like the Genderbread Person.

You can imagine, based upon these examples, that it really gets my fuckin’ goat when sex is treated as existing on a linear spectrum between vanilla and super extra double kinky with cream.

Other people have written better things than I about the Relationship Escalator – the idea that the process of building a relationship is essentially a race from one milestone to the next, moving from acquaintanceship to friendship to a romantic and/or sexual relationship, then to marriage and other major lifestyle changes and commitments. This perception of interpersonal relationships is damaging in a number of ways, not least because it devalues all stages of the relationship other than the “end goal” of marriage etc., and it naturally bleeds into our understanding of sexual relationships too.

Plenty of people find themselves defensively insisting to an uneducated vanilla person that they’re kinky, but “not like, weird kinky” (or some variation thereof). In rushing to justify their own kinks, they inadvertently shame, belittle or otherwise speak poorly of those kinks that are considered a little less socially acceptable.

Erotic-ish media like Fifty Shades Of Abuse Apologism Grey, and less erotic media like sitcoms and cop shows, has helped to bring some kink into the mainstream – but only some, and only under some circumstances. We see a lot of “bedroom bondage” where wrists are tied above heads, ankles are tied down and occasionally legs are restricted; we also see a lot of impact play, and a reasonable amount of negotiated power exchange. Often, this happens with a female submissive/bottom and a male dominant/top, and, whilst I haven’t run the numbers, I think that the nature of mainstream media more broadly means I can safely assume that the kinksters in question are also often white, cisgender and not disabled.

Whilst it’s sort of nice that someone finding your handcuffs is not the instant kick out of the kink closet that it used to be, and it’s definitely nice that we’re starting to talk a little more about kink, female pleasure and masturbation, it seems that people who practice what appears to be “mild” or “moderate” kink are not inclined to discuss or defend the people who are engaging in more “extreme” acts. And I wouldn’t mind so much but, like the first two linear spectrums I mentioned, this one is absolute bollocks.

We can’t say that the Kink Escalator is based upon risk. So-called “bedroom bondage” features risks that most players aren’t even aware of: tying anybody anywhere risks circulation loss and nerve impingement, for example, and impact play is wildly unpredictable to the over-confident newbie – especially where cheaply-made, inconsistent impact toys are concerned. These are concerns that could theoretically send you to your local emergency room. By comparison, a purportedly “weirder” kink like watersports carries only a couple of risks: if you’re not fluid-bonded to the other party, you risk catching any fluid-borne infections they have; if you drink the stuff, you risk kidney problems, because urine gets excreted for a reason (but you’d have to drink it often, without clean drinking water in between).

The Kink Escalator doesn’t seem to based upon the psychological implications of a kink, either. ‘Daddy dom’ kinks, for example, are clearly psychologically weird: they’re based upon a power imbalance related to age and/or experience, and sometimes draw upon childlike mannerisms or directly invoke incest. However, the Daddy kink is so mainstream that you can buy cheeky T-shirts on Redbubble that refer to it, and there was even a kinda-sorta joke about it in the Spongebob Squarepants movie. By contrast, pet play is regarded with fascination and faint disgust by the mainstream media, even though “I sometimes morph into a puppy but I can still talk and do chores” is much further from a possible reality than “A dad-like person fucks me and condescends me on the regz”. Neither of them are inherently harmful, and neither of them should generate shame, but it’s inconsistent and illogical that society is okay with people sliding into a more naive or powerless headspace in a Daddy kink setting, but not in a setting where you also wear a tail butt plug.

Even within the kink universe, people buy into this idea that you progress towards the “weirder” stuff, starting at a bit of impact play and working your way up to scat or scalpels or what-have-you. This puts pressure on people to “progress” and try new kinks at a rate they may not enjoy for the sake of being “kinky enough”, and it also takes the joy out of some of the more “mild” kink acts; how are you supposed to enjoy a spanking if you just see it as a necessary stepping stone before you can receive a flogging? In reality, most people discover and enjoy their kinks outside of the prescribed order of things anyway – I was experimenting with 24/7 power exchange before I’d even had someone else’s genitals in my mouth.

The Kink Escalator, like the Relationship Escalator, is a hugely unhelpful and ultimately sometimes harmful way to perceive the nuanced experiences that people have individually and alongside one another. Being tied up is not “less kinky” than watersports, and pony play is not “kinkier” than being smacked with a kitchen spoon; the amount of kink within an act depends entirely upon how much the participants are enjoying it and how they perceive their own experiences. If something feels super kinky, it is! Step off the escalator and enjoy travelling up, down and all around the Kink Hill at whatever pace you like.