Desire can make you do strange things, like bike 4 miles in the rain to a cute boy’s doorstep and lie that you were already in the neighborhood; or blow off your responsibilities to follow the same boy home at 3 a.m. because he says you might “get better Lyft app reception” from his bedroom, and you fall for it; or decide to have unprotected sex, in spite of all the sexual health podcasts you’ve ever listened to, you big nerd.
Last summer, this was me. A couple months into dating Sam, an indie musician–slash–dog walker with soulful brown eyes, I got that itch — the one that fills your brain with hormones and urges you to forget to wear a condom. I know for some couples who consider themselves perfectly responsible people, this decision can be as simple as having a talk about sexual exclusivity, getting tested, and then getting down to it. Not so for us — because we’re polyamorous, our decision had to go through an unusual chain of command first. Specifically, I had to talk to my partner Charlie, whom I lived with and had been dating for four years, and Daniel, my boyfriend of two years. Sam’s other girlfriend wanted to know how it would affect her, too. Our intimate, personal choice had quickly become something squeamishly bureaucratic.
If you think you need a chart just to keep track of this, à la Alice from The L Word, then you're probably not used to hanging around polyamorous people. Polyamory is one popular term for when you date multiple people at the same time, you’re honest about it with everyone, and you think you could fall in love with any or all of them, too. This network of connections dictates almost everything we do together in some way, whether it's a matter of who's having sex with whom, who gets the bigger bedroom on date night, or how the heck you share your time and process your feelings when all of your friends are sleeping with each other.
Often, it's not even about sex. You should hear a group of poly people try to divvy up the rights to something as mundane as watching a popular TV show. It’s like, Yes, of course you can have sex with my wife in our bed while I'm out with my girlfriend this evening, but could you please not stream the next episode of Game of Thrones without me there? If you want to do it with one person, it has the potential to affect what you do with everyone else. The same goes for unprotected sex.
Polyamorists call the decision to stop using condoms “fluid-bonding.” The act gets a special term because the health consequences of barrier-free sex, particularly intercourse, are certainly higher than, say, simply making out with someone you just met at a party. And many polyamorists think it's common sense to keep a strict limit on whom you're doing it raw with.
Some use their fluid-bond status to protect their relationships as much as their health, regarding it as a symbol of status or a marker that they are special. I was a slut, not a romantic, and I didn't want it to be so significant. My loves knew this, but still, they knew I had never done this with someone before, and they had questions.
For Charlie, a quiet introvert who relishes his alone time and practiced impeccable, unwavering safer sex (if you can get him talking, he’ll brag about how much fun he can have with a latex glove), the decision to put my sexual health in the hands of a man I’d only known for a few months called into question my sense of self-preservation. And Daniel, my best friend and confidante in all matters since we’d fallen in love a year ago, wanted to know why I had never asked to go barrier-free with him. I thought the answer was obvious: He and his other girlfriend had been fluid-bonding since before I even met them, so the option had never seemed real. Her needs and preferences usually came first, and I didn’t want to step on her toes or let myself be disappointed.
And besides, I was frankly never that excited about letting someone come in me, anyway. I was deterred by the logistical headaches of having unprotected sex within a network of other polyamorists, turned off by some of the nitty-gritty physics of it, and reluctant to alter my body with birth control. Until now. Something had changed, and Daniel and Charlie wanted to know what was up with me — the same way they wanted to know where I kept disappearing to at odd hours.
It’s easy to forget is that we're always changing — even in relationships; people's desires and preferences are always evolving. When we're lucky we grow together, but it's just as likely that we'll grow apart. When you're polyamorous, you can watch your partner change right in front of you, and you may see them try things they swore they’d never do, with someone new. It can be hard to keep up, and harder still not to get jealous of that new person for connecting with this hidden, undiscovered part of your lover whom you already thought you knew inside and out.
This is why perfectly content mono people cheat on their partners. As renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel noted in the Atlantic last year: To make a long-term relationship work, each partner must be given the space to explore their changing self. As much as we crave closeness and comfort from our committed loves, we also need mystery, novelty, and unpredictability to keep the spark alive. These elements of surprise help us grow and rediscover who we are. In choosing to fluid-bond with Sam, I was choosing to be a different person than the woman Daniel and Charlie expected me to be. In my mind, I didn't choose him over them. I loved them more than ever. I was choosing myself, an individual separate from the couples I normally defined myself by.
For monogamous couples, it can be especially hard to keep choosing yourself, to see yourself as a separate and whole being apart from the couple. Polyamory encourages you to practice retaining this individuality over years, because you're not just one half of one couple. You'll have nights when you're cuddling on the couch with six or seven people, and you feel surrounded by love. And you’ll have nights when you're coming home late from a first date, to a dark, empty apartment because everyone else is out for a date night too, and it’s like you’re single again. If I were monogamous, I wouldn't have to explain my sex life with Sam to anyone if I didn’t want to. But again, I had this network of lovers to answer to. And they weren’t convinced I had thought this one through.
Sam was newly polyamorous, a term some sensitive artists use to mean “doing whatever I want.” And he had already made some questionable safer sex choices, such as sometimes forgoing condoms with a casual hookup. He also had a little bit of a bad-boy vibe going — tattoos, cigarettes, a thing for staying out til 5 a.m. — and was nothing like anyone I’d been with before. But in spite of some yellow flags, I wanted him, the same way I suddenly wanted to put my day-to-day obligations and responsibilities on hold; to let it get late; to walk around my neighborhood in the middle of the night and look at how the sunflowers catch the amber street light. Maybe you can see where this is going — I had a crush, and after spending years playing by my boyfriends’ rules, I wanted to be a little bit bad, too.
No surprise, my doctor marked me down as “high risk” when I went in for my STI test and a birth control consultation. She asked me if my boyfriend had recently had any unprotected sex and I said, “Which one?” She knew that Charlie had a vasectomy, so I patiently explained that it wasn’t him I was getting the IUD for, but another man. “Well, is he currently having unprotected sex with other people right now?” She asked. “I honestly have no clue,” I replied. Charlie came back with me for my IUD appointment, only confusing the doctor more.
It’s not unusual for women to bring their boyfriends when they go in for a ParaGard IUD. The procedure is known to be quick but painful, and it can be helpful to have moral support. I fully expected to be going it alone, but to my shock, Charlie and Daniel both offered to take me. It’s no fun to watch your girlfriend writhe with discomfort on an exam table, and furthermore, it's not like they had anything to “gain” from my experience. There’s no less-ugly way to say it — I wanted to protect myself from getting pregnant while raw-dogging someone else. They were uncomfortable, turned off even, and yet, they were still game. If that's not love, I thought as I made the appointment, I don't know what is.
I opted to bring Charlie, who already frequently played the roles of “bad cop” and “no fun dad” in my life. He held my clenched hand while the doctor tried and failed to insert the IUD over and over again. She explained that she needed to stretch my vagina open with the speculum, clamp my cervix in place, and stick a metal rod deep inside me, past my cervix. But each time she got into position and dilated my cervical opening enough to fit the IUD, my body would clench up. So she repeated the process again and again. The pain was sharp and terrifying, and as the procedure wore on I panicked that I had put everyone through so many uncomfortable conversations for nothing. In comparison, Charlie’s scalpel-free, Xanax-fueled vasectomy sounded like a trip to Six Flags.
After 10 minutes of this, the doctor told me we might want to stop. “You don’t understand,” I wanted to say. “He’s a musician. He has these tattoos and puppy dog eyes. I need birth control now, before I do something stupid.” This was when we realized my IUD insertion was not going to be easy or normal, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I asked my doctor to try one more time, and she finally shoved it in, just a centimeter short of where it apparently needed to land inside my battered uterus. After my doctor popped out the speculum, she scheduled me for an ultrasound and told me not to get my hopes up that the IUD would shift into place, while I clutched my cramping gut and sobbed.
“Can you imagine if they made men go through this?” my doctor asked as we left her office. I couldn’t. But, not wanting to make Charlie bear the entire burden of my discomfort or gender inequality, I spent the rest of the day on Daniel’s couch, aching and scared.
The next morning, an ultrasound revealed what I already knew — my extreme cramps were not normal, the IUD was malpositioned, my uterus and I were fucked until further notice. Daniel offered to drive me back to the doctor later that afternoon so it could come out — the longer it stayed in, the more I risked puncturing my uterus. And he held my hand while the doctor fished for the strings inside of me and noted that I was so clenched up, she couldn't even find my cervix at first.
“Would you ever consider getting a vasectomy?” she asked Daniel, casually. We both stared blankly at her like deer in front of a semi, too tired to explain that no, this man wasn't the one I was barebacking with, either. Daniel was annoyed, but I tried to reason with him after we left the office: Sure, there was an undeniable intimacy to my decision to have unprotected sex with the manic pixie dog musician. But what about watching a doctor yank a metal rod out of my body, along with a blood clot so big that Daniel said, "I think it winked at me”? That’s some intimacy right there.
So what was my lucky guy doing during this whole ordeal? Walking dogs. Recording music. Eating chips and salsa with his roommates. I honestly had no clue. It would have been nice if he had been a little more attentive during my IUD insertion from hell, but I never wanted him to come to my rescue or feel responsible for my decision or for taking care of me. I didn’t get an IUD for him. We had feelings for each other, but we were mostly having fun.
With Daniel and Charlie, we had fun and we had pain and we had love. The kind of love that once put me by Charlie’s side when he needed an emergency surgery a few years back, changing his bandages during his monthlong recovery, helping him pee in a cup. The kind of love that had me offering to help pay for Daniel’s car repairs without a second thought. They were the people I wanted by my side when I was struggling. That may not exactly sound like the most romantic thing I could say, but isn’t it? They were my team, my support system, my home — just like I had been for them so many times before. And this time, they were helping me explore the mystery in something strange, painful, and unknown.
Now, almost a year has passed since I fell for Sam and asked my other partners and loves to adjust. The relationship with Sam didn’t make it through spring — those bad-boy vibes, while fun at first, turned out to be the early warning signs of some serious lifestyle incompatibilities. Thankfully, Charlie and Daniel are still around, streaming HBO shows with me and talking about birth control — although the terms of our relationships continue to evolve and change. Daniel and I are currently still involved, and Charlie and I have transitioned to being platonic roommates. Most importantly — yes, more important than the sex, even — we’re all learning not to resent the changes that come, but to go with them. ●
Rachel Cromidas is a writer, reporter, and editor in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. She most recently served as the editor-in-chief of the local news site Chicagoist.