I’m fairly new to poly[am], and as such I am making plenty of mistakes. Usually I can see where I (or, in some cases, the other person) has gone wrong, but this one is doing my head in.

I have a wonderful husband and two lovers in my life. Interestingly, this problem is not at all to do with my husband, but between my lovers. Let me explain.

I’ve been seeing Jim for not quite four months now. He is married, and his wife, while she’s been very friendly and welcoming to me, has a very strong personality and some firm ideas about safer sex. These principles — mainly as regards fluid exchange — apply to all her encounters in the kink community, and, I’m assuming, to her boyfriend as well — and Jim raised them with me before we became intimate. They sounded pretty sensible to me, to be honest — essentially, clean (sic) testing for anyone ‘in the circle’ before any less-than-safe activity occurs, including oral sex (she’s very concerned about gonorrhea via oral). So I agreed, got tested, and we launched into a vibrant and wonderful barrier-free relationship that’s become very important to me.

Henry is my other lover. I met him not long after Jim, but he’s more of a long-distance relationship, so we’ve become very close emotionally, but haven’t yet been physical with one another. However, that moment is looming, so we’ve been talking about sex-related stuff a lot lately. He was clearly assuming we’d use a condom for sex, but when I mentioned that I’d need him to also wear one for oral, he was totally taken aback, and got a bit upset.

To him, it seems morally wrong that our activities with each other should be curtailed by the rules of someone at three levels of remove from the situation. He says it makes him, and us, into just extensions of their relationship, and that it’s not right. He also feels somehow lessened by it, as if he’s not as important to me as he’d assumed. This wasn’t what I meant — at all. He is important to me, but I made that agreement, and that’s important too. And I know I could choose to alter things — to give up my barrier-free status with Jim in order to allow this with Henry. But I don’t want to — it’s important to me somehow. And I feel as if that’s my right.

I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it all now. Is Henry right? Is it unfair of Jim’s wife to, as Henry says, call the shots for all of us, including him? And does that maybe mean I am actually prioritising my relationship with Jim in an unethical way?

Very confused here — any advice would be most welcome!

Good honest grief, what a situation to manage. The gist of my advice comes down to the rules that matter to me in polyamory: what you can do and what you can’t do.

Safer sex isn’t 100% safe

I can absolutely understand Jim’s wife’s perspective in many aspects. I have a compromised immune system. I have agreed to be fluid bonded with partners (as pregnancy is no issue for me — thank Odin) but only on the condition that they use barriers with everyone else, in pretty much all but one form of sex with someone else. We also have rules about safer sex testing and all people that we sleep with must be told and be made fully aware that we are fluid bonded.

Now, I’m a peer sexual health educator. I spend a good deal of time warning 16–25-year-olds about the incredible importance of protected sex and I get all the new updates when there’s a horrible strong of (usually chlamydia, not gonorrhoea) antibiotic resistant STI going around. Because I already have lifelong disabilities, the last thing I want is yet another thing I have to worry about.

But I have to balance this with my anxiety and accept the fact that there isn’t 100% safe sex. It’s really important for me if something does happen, that I don’t blame myself and assume I automatically am a bad person if I do get an STI and it’s also important for decreasing stigma. We can have safer sex and be sensible — but there is always a risk. Sometimes I really have to remind myself of that. But, my boundaries are put in place about sexual health not only to manage risk but to manage the anxiety I have around that risk.

When people agree to have sex with my fluid bonded partner, they accept and know that being fluid bonded with me and agreeing to that means a restriction on the type of activities they can do with them unprotected. I have made it absolutely clear to them that, if they don’t want to be restricted, they don’t have to be fluid bonded with me. It’s not something I’m willing to compromise on, but I’m not forcing them to choose to restrict their activities. They are making that choice.

Whose rules are your rules

Similarly, when you accepted being fluid bonded with Jim, you accepted the terms of being fluid bonded with him and those terms became your terms. In the future, when you have new partners, I think you should accept that these rules are not someone else’s rules, the ones you have accepted. Even if you didn’t introduce them, they have become your rules.

Likewise, if say for example Jim’s wife was deathly allergic to dogs and he spent a lot of time at your place, you might have to either find a new place to meet or change how you do things if you wanted a dog. It wouldn’t be Henry’s wife telling you not to get a dog. Obviously an allergy is a bit different to how someone decides to go about their sexual business, but still, I really do feel like you should take more ownership of these rules.

Had Henry objected under different circumstances… I might have suggested you bring up the situation with Jim, see about getting Henry tested, speak to his wife and sort things out between everyone but the way Henry has decided to respond to this situation raises a red flag. It’s somewhat emotionally manipulative of him to basically accuse you of caring less about him because you are fluid bonded with somebody else. It’s almost like he’s baiting you to back down on your own rules to prove you care about him which… is not on.

At the end of the day, it’s only a blowjob. Is it really worth blowing it (no pun intended) out of proportion so much? I get that condoms aren’t always that enjoyable when it comes to oral sex and as someone who’s wrangled a dental dam or two, I totally get the frustration of having to use them in the heat of the moment.

However, this is a really small thing to get worked up about and to put so much emotional weight over. And it makes me wonder what else he’s going to suddenly judge as a sign you don’t like him as much as Jim…

Stick to your rules

You have made your wants clear. You do not want to change what’s going on with you and Jim right now and that’s that. If he had raised the possibility of negotiating things and not used this as some sort of sign of your lack of love, I would have maybe suggested talking to Jim’s wife a bit but… I think you should stand your ground.

These are your rules. And if he wants a relationship with you, he’s going to have to accept it. There will be differences in how relationships are conducted and not everything has to be completely and utterly identical for things to be ethical. It is not unethical for you to want to stick to the agreement you made with Jim.

What’s unethical is someone basically saying that wrapping their dick in a bit of latex changes your own emotional worth and commitment to them, which is absolute rubbish. It’s your body. You do with it what you want and if Henry doesn’t like it, he can find someone else who’s not fluid bonded with someone else.

Lastly, I wanted to just add that you can be fairly experienced within polyamory and still make mistakes. Don’t kick yourself for that or see it as a bad thing. Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how wise or experienced we are. There’s no shame in it.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Note: I wrote this column in 2017 and it’s possible my perspective has shifted or changed. Please feel free to re-ask a similar question.

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