BDSM and Polyamory: An Inside Look

Firsthand looks at these lifestyle practices

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By Michelle Talsma Everson, February 2019 Issue.

Writing a story about polyamory and BDSM is like putting together a puzzle without the box top to tell you what it’s supposed to look like. People in both local communities are welcoming and open—excited to share their stories and viewpoints—but mainly under the promise of anonymity. In most cases, it’s not that they’re ashamed, it’s that there are often consequences that can come with being out.

“We don’t have a general population survey about kink and BDSM because people are afraid of discrimination and persecution,” explains Susan Wright, a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF). “Just like the LGBTQ+ community, many people who are into kink may be closeted from their family, co-workers, and sometimes even their primary partner.”

The NCSF is a national organization whose mission is to fight for the sexual freedom and privacy rights for all adults who engage in safe, sane and consensual behavior. This often means educating professionals such as doctors, lawyers and the like about consensual kink practices. Recently, the organization has seen an uptick in people needing their help. Wright says much of that can be credited to discriminatory language that is now part of popular vernacular due to the current political climate.

BDSM is an umbrella term for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. It encompasses a variety of lifestyles, personal experiences and interpersonal dynamics—from those who keep it to the bedroom to those who are active in local BDSM groups. Polyamory is a relationship/lifestyle choice where you are romantically involved with more than one person at the same time. Both lifestyles are based on the concept of consent of all parties involved.

“It might surprise people, but consent is our main focus,” Wright says. “I think if people listen to us, we have a bigger message for society about the importance of consent.”

While it’s hard to have tangible numbers for two lifestyle groups who choose to remain anonymous, FetLife.com, the leading social media website for kinksters, has more than 7 million members worldwide. More than 31,000 people on the website claim to live in the metro Phoenix area. With polyamory, it’s also difficult to count numbers, but experts believe millions across the U.S. are in some form of a non-monogamous relationship.

Rather than a BDSM or Polyamory 101, we wanted to hear from those who live their lives in both of these worlds. What follows are honest answers from those who practice either BDSM, polyamory—or in many cases—both. All of those we interviewed for this article opted to not share their full names for privacy concerns. Like all forms of personal expression, there are a variety of terms in both the BDSM and polyamory realms that have different meanings. In this article, we use “kink” and “BDSM” interchangeably, but in many cases, they are not. The leather community is also mentioned but is an entirely different subculture on its own. In addition, polyamory is not the only way to have a non-monogamous relationship. This article is but a brief overview of a very intricate topic.  

Beginning Their Journeys

How BDSM practitioners and those who consider themselves polyamorous find themselves involved in both lifestyles varies.

 Don is a gay man (well 80-90 percent gay, he says) who says he has “been kinky since the late 1970s, when I started tying myself up at age 12.” “I moved to Phoenix in 1993 after meeting my first long-term gay partner [we were together from 1993 to 2009] and discovered APEX [Arizona Power Exchange] in 1995 through a local publication called ‘The Beat’ which used to be available in newspaper kiosks around town. Ahh, the pre-internet days of kink.”

Minkari, who describes herself as bisexual and “owned and collared in a poly household” learned through books and personal experiences. “I read the Beauty books by Anne Rice and discovered BDSM through those. Poly is something I’ve always identified as, even before I knew there was a name for it. I identify equally poly, slave and primal.”

“Geek,” who considers themselves asexual, agendered, and prefers they/them pronouns, found out through a past relationship. “I was introduced to kink first through a man I was dating. He was the one that got me onto FetLife and through there I found the local dungeon,” they said. “I have always been non-monogamous. It was only after entering the kink community that I learned and started practicing a more ethical non-monogamy lifestyle. For me, the two are equally important.”

Katrina discovered kink and poly through the local community. “I was interested in kink at a young age and through trying to explore and understand my interests, I ended up going to a local event. I’ve been involved in the BDSM community ever since,” she says. “I learned about poly after I got involved in BDSM community. A lot of couples were interested in adding me to their relationship as a triad. It was only when I was able to date multiple people on my own that I identified as poly.”

Some, like Chris C., who runs a local polyamory Meetup.com group with his wife Maria C., found polyamory by pure luck. “In our case, we fell into polyamory very much by chance,” he says. “Unlike most people, we did not seek out the lifestyle but we have lived it for almost 20 of the 34 years of our married life. I believe we would be a happy monogamous couple today if we hadn’t stumbled into this lifestyle but I am tremendously grateful that we did.”

The Local Scene 

“The scene” can refer to a variety of things, but often refers to where BDSM activities and gatherings take place in the community. We asked those we interviewed what they would want the average person who is not involved in BDSM to know about the local scene.

“MD” identifies as an alternative lifestyler who is in a polyamorous authority transfer relationship with two slaves. “’The scene’ is just average people playing with sexual practices as a vanilla person might play at golf or working with the PTA,” he says. “A few live an alternative lifestyle with a very different idea of relationships, loving, and how to function in society. They are not trying to overthrow the norm, only exist in their own norm.”

“We’re regular people,” Katrina shares. “Not everyone is a high power businessman, leggy dominatrix, or meek submissive. Not everyone is in it for sex; some people are not looking for sex at all. It would be very easy to paint anyone who is kinky as a sex lunatic who pays someone to do depraved things, but that simply isn’t going to be the case for 99% of the people involved in BDSM.”

“No community is perfect,” shares Geek. “There are problematic people in vanilla life and in the scene. So trust but verify. Other community members are your best resources for vetting another person or event in the area. Find a few people whose opinion you trust and check in with them regularly.”

In metro Phoenix, there are often differences between scenes, such as the gay leather scene and the pansexual kinkster scene. Don notes that bars like Anvil, Nutowne, and Bunkhouse are BDSM/leather friendly. The leather community within itself is a whole different animal, with groups like the Phoenix Boys of Leather and other local organizations leading the charge. Places like Arizona Power Exchange (APEX) and groups like the GAP can be found on FetLife.com and host regular events for BDSM practitioners.

What about those who practice polyamory without BDSM? In the Valley, groups like “Arizona Polyamory Events” on Meetup.com host regular events. “We have been operating it [the Meetup.com group] for almost seven years and we have about 1,800 members,” says Chris C. “We have two, three or four events each week, all hosted by members who volunteer. Our events are very diverse. We provide events for education, emotional support, social connection and the opportunity to find relationships. We believe the success of our group is due to the emphasis on creating a real-life community as opposed to an online virtual community.”

Combatting Stereotypes

Many BDSM and polyamory folk refuse to come out due to negative stereotypes and misconceptions. One of the leading misconceptions we heard time and time again was that the BDSM lifestyle is all about sex.

“I am asexual and part of the kink community,” says Geek. “I don’t have sex or ‘sexual energy’ when I play with people. And at the dungeon I attend regularly, I can count on one hand the number of people who have sex in the dungeon. It’s pretty rare. I am not sure how kinksters can combat this notion because a lot of kinksters prefer to not be so open to non-community members about their kink life and we are competing against popular media like the ‘50 Shades’ stuff where its all about sex.”

Another stereotype that many come across when it relates to BDSM is that it’s an abusive lifestyle.

“The most common misconception is that BDSM is abuse,” Katrina shares. “A lot of people don’t understand why someone would willingly engage in some of the things that are relatively common. At the end of the day, members need to express how important consent is in the community. Everyone involved has consented; if they haven’t then it’s not BDSM, plain and simple.”

“Kinksters are not capable of being stereotyped, as they come in all sorts of different sizes, ages, and genders,” says Don. “Yet, many do stereotype them, such as the ‘gay leather daddy,’ which possibly never existed, and if they ever did traditionally exist, they did not darken the skies of the kink world like passenger pigeons in the 19th century.”

When it comes to polyamory, many of those we spoke to said two misconceptions they felt were most prevalent is that it’s cheating and that it’s all about sex. While there are many flavors of non-monogamy, polyamory, in particular, focuses on consent and forging meaningful relationships.

The Why

While being outed is a scary prospect to many, those we spoke with reflected fondly of their experiences as members of both the BDSM and polyamory communities. Themes of friendship and family-like bonds were common.

“I love meeting new people and learning new things,” says Katrina. “I’ve grown so much since I joined the community and made friends who will always be a part of my life. I can be myself around these people and they don’t need to hide either. It’s also much easier to find like-minded partners and I also see how they interact with other people in the community. I made a lot of dumb mistakes getting here, but ultimately, I feel safer in the BDSM community than I ever would if I explored kink with people I meet at bars or on dating apps.”

“I have made great friends, people who I consider my chosen family. I wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for kink,” adds Geek.

“I enjoy finding the few people who share my world and relationship views,” says MD. “It is always nice to have people to share ideas and camaraderie with.”

For many in both BDSM and polyamory, it’s also about personal growth.

“Polyamory forced us to communicate better and gave us the opportunity to learn different relationship styles and love languages,” Chris C. says. “It brought people into our lives that we never would have had otherwise and made those relationships more significant that could have been possible without polyamory. There have been heartaches and painful breakups, too. Sometimes the price of polyamory, as in any style of relationship, is very high but in the end, for us, the benefits have greatly outweighed the costs.”

How to Navigate and Succeed

 Whether they have decades of experience under their belts or just a few years, everyone we spoke to had similar tips for those who might be interested in BDSM and/or polyamory.

“If you’re new or just interested, the Internet is your friend,” Katrina says. “Look up what you’re interested in, look up ways to do it safely. Join Fetlife, look at events, message people going to those events. Make friends, go to classes, learn as much as you can. Do not jump into anything. Don’t be judgmental of something just because you’re not interested in it. Don’t immediately start doing BDSM with someone just because you’re excited; be safe. Don’t join a triad right off the bat, learn about poly, and ask about the couple. Learn what your boundaries are and do not tolerate anyone breaking these boundaries. It’s exciting, scary, and new, but take your time to learn.”

“If you want a specific style of poly but can’t find anyone else who wants that, such as, group poly or even hierarchical poly, it’s ok not to settle,” Minkari advises. “Don’t enter a poly or BDSM relationship expecting others to change to meet your needs. It truly doesn’t work like that and you’ll just get frustrated and possibly ruin your reputation along the way. Attend classes, learn, and socialize in real life, not just online…You’ll grow and learn and meet your tribe along the way.”

Like anything new, it all comes down to taking the leap.

“Put yourself out there,” Don says. “No one will beat a path to your door, unless you look like Jason Momoa, in which case I’ll be right there.”

SIDEBAR: BDSM and Polyamory Resources

There are several local and national resources for BDSM and polyamory. Below are just a few starting points (this is not a full, comprehensive list as resources are always evolving and being added).

  • com: A social network for BDSM and other alternative lifestyles
  • The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom: www.ncsfreedom.org
  • Polyamory events on Meetup: www.meetup.com/Arizona-Poly-Events
  • Arizona Power Exchange: www.arizonapowerexchange.net, the Phoenix metro area dungeon
  • The Anvil Bar: www.anvilbaraz.com, hosts regular kink/leather/fetish events
  • Pat O’s Bunkhouse Saloon: www.bunkhousesaloonphx.com, hosts regular kink/leather/fetish events
  • Phoenix boys of Leather: www.phoenixboysofleather.com
  • Arizona Men of Leather: www.arizonamenofleather.com
  • The GAP Arizona: www.thegapaz.com
  • The Next Generation Arizona: Search for “TNG Arizona” on FetLife.com

 


BDSM and Polyamory Resources

There are several local and national resources for BDSM and polyamory. Below are just a few starting points. (this is not a full, comprehensive list as resources are always evolving and being added.)

  • FetLife.com: A social network for BDSM and other alternative lifestyles
  • The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom: www.ncsfreedom.org
  • Polyamory events on Meetup: www.meetup.com/Arizona-Poly-Events
  • Arizona Power Exchange:
    www.arizonapowerexchange.net, the Phoenix metro area dungeon
  • The Anvil Bar:
    www.anvilbaraz.com, hosts regular kink/leather/fetish events
  • Pat O’s Bunkhouse Saloon:
    www.bunkhousesaloonphx.com, hosts regular kink/leather/fetish events
  • Phoenix boys of Leather:
    www.phoenixboysofleather.com
  • Arizona Men of Leather:
    www.arizonamenofleather.com
  • The GAP Arizona:
    www.thegapaz.com
  • The Next Generation Arizona: Search for “TNG Arizona” on FetLife.com