To Survive This Pandemic, We’ll Need To Adopt Some Polyamorous Skillsets

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

People involved in polyamorous relationships all share the same problem:

1) They would like to have sex with more than one person;
2) They would like to avoid catching sexually transmitted infections.

As such, poly folks are forever balancing the risk of “I want to do fun things with people” and “But the only way to guarantee 100% safety is to shut myself up alone in a house forever.”

…sound familiar?

Fact is, poly communities have been balancing “health” with “risk” for decades, and I suspect some of the classic polyamorous social habits will leak into the mainstream as the pandemic continues. Because yes, we absolutely should minimize risk so we can all keep living, but staying locked in a hugless apartment for a year isn’t exactly what you’d call “A life.”

At some point, we’re all going to have to figure out which friends it’s safe to have over for a night of watching Netflix, and who to invite to that gathering, knowing that every additional person you add to that list raises your chance of infection. Which isn’t too difficult from people in open relationships deciding who they’re going to invite to into their beds.

So how do poly folks navigate these tricky details of emotional intimacy vs. risk of infection?

First off, most poly folks cloister themselves off into little subcommunities – a lot of poly circles divide themselves into rough circles formed of their lovers, and their lovers’ lovers (a.k.a. “the metamours”). Essentially, you’re looking one circle out – the people you date, and the people they date.

Within that poly circle – or “polycule” – is where you decide what kind of sex you’re having. The simplest – and riskiest – is called “fluid bound,” where you’re not using any kind of protection at all. Then you move up to “full barrier protection”: dental dams, condoms even for penile oral, gloves for any penetration. Then there’s just plain condom usage for PIV/anal, but no barriers for oral or digital penetration.

That may be pretty intense discussion for some of you! But that’s definitely one skill you’re gonna have to master during the pandemic: Getting comfortable with frank discussions of what you do. It’s not always comfortable asking questions like, “Do you always wear your mask when you go to the grocery store?” or “How are you disinfecting delivered packages?” – but if poly people have learned one thing, it’s that assuming everyone’s playing equally safe leads to really bad outcomes.

With that information in mind, what often happens in the polycules is that there’s a fair amount of discussion before someone starts dating/hooking up with someone new. It’s not saying “no,” exactly, but it is looking at the new metamour’s risk profile – like asking, “Who are they sleeping with? How scrupulous are they in their protection? Do they already have an STI?”

(Top tip: the perceived danger of a lot of STIs, herpes in particular, are often drastically overblown – in part because of the stigma of where you caught it. Nobody wants to catch an STI, partially because there are risks, but also because getting an STI is often a reason for people to become absolute jerks to you.)

So after that discussion of what New Person is like, everyone reevaluates their risk profile. Which is also uncomfortable at times, thanks to to discussions like, “I’m not saying you can’t sleep with Alex, but if you do we gotta go back to using condoms.”

Negotiations – explicit ones – take place. And you decide, “Okay, my lover here is a potential vector for these kinds of dangers, but I am accepting that risk in exchange for hot makeout sessions with them,” and that’s that.

And sometimes, condoms break. At which point you put someone on a timeout, saying, “You gotta get tested, and we have to be on max lockdown until we get the results in.”

Which, I think, is what’ll happen to society – not the sex, but the socialization. It’s absurd to ask people to stay holed up alone for half a year, so I suspect over the summer we’ll all start categorizing risks into rough categories like:

  • Safe to walk outside with at a social distance;
  • Safe to hang out alone with inside;
  • Safe to gather with several carefully-chosen people at a gathering;
  • Safe to go to a specific restaurant with.

Which isn’t terribly different from, say, the divisions between “Full barrier protection” and “Condoms for PIV.”

And if those aspects change – someone goes on a trip, someone attends a big sloppy party, someone hangs out with someone who doesn’t believe in masks – then you’re gonna either put them in timeout or maybe stop hanging out with them altogether.

Which will lead to new social faux pas that have been standard problems for poly folks! You’ll have people lying about how consistently they wear their masks because they want the socialization, you’ll have drama with people who think they’re acting safely but aren’t really, you’ll have to deal with people shit-talking you because you’re physically letting the wrong people into your house. And let us not forget that old classic, “I really wanna hang out with this unsafe person, so I’ll risk infecting everyone else I hang out with.”

Which will get really intriguing if we start seeing rough divisions even inside the “safe hangouts” zone the way there’s a rough division between polyamorous folk – who generally are comparatively choosy in who they date because they’re in it for the emotional validation – and swingers, who are mostly in it for the physical satisfaction, and as such hold larger parties with larger risk profiles. Neither side’s wrong; they just evaluate differently, but those small evaluations can often lead to significant cultural rifts.

But the point is this: in this pandemic, you’re going to have to accept some level of risk in seeing your buddies up-close. And there are well-worn paths that other folks have trodden before, handling similar situations.

Might as well use what’s worked, right?



  1. Links Retrospective, May – June 2020 – Jenneral HQ - […] To Survive This Pandemic, We’ll Need to Adopt Some Polyamorous Skillsets – Ferrett Steinmetz (2020) […]

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