Non-monogamy Filter: Do you have experience with fluid bonding in a committed non-monogamous relationship?
March 27, 2007 8:10 PM   Subscribe

Non-monogamy Filter. Do you have experience with fluid bonding in a committed non-monogamous relationship? (Or have you considered it and decided against it, or do you otherwise have thoughts about it?)

I have several long-term relationships (ranging from 4 to 9 years old), and both I and these long-term partners have other partners & contacts. Like most people in our circles, we're all highly safety-conscious and consistent with latex (as a rough summary, my standards are "barriers for oral & penetration with partners I know to have standards as consistent as mine; barriers for everything in groups and/or with partners whose standards I don't yet know & trust").

In logical terms, I definitely understand & accept that all this latex-consciousness is a small price to pay for the luxury of living the life that's right for me & having these excellent relationships. But I'm pushing 30 and I've never had unprotected sex, and I'd really (really) like to have some. I'm sure part of this is just the forbidden-fruit issue (in that unprotected sex is basically my only significant unrealizable fantasy). Still, I'm wondering about the hybrid solution some people use, which is usually called fluid bonding.

That's where two people (or occasionally more, but it would be two in my case) agree to be perfectly consistent using barriers for every contact with outside partners so they can stop using barriers with each other as soon as both of them have gone through the test-wait-test cycle for HIV/etc. Obviously, this requires absolute trust between the two people: you have to trust your partner not only to be totally consistent with the standards you've agreed on for outside partners, but also to *tell* you without delay if there's ever any break in that consistency (so you can start using barriers with each other again until you've gone through another test-wait-test cycle).

The person I'd be doing it with is someone I trust absolutely in human/ethical terms (and, like me, he doesn't have drug- or alcohol-impaired sex, so there's not that risk of decreased awareness/responsisbility). But as we all know, even correctly used barriers have a slight failure potential, so my current setup is safer statistically than even a perfectly executed fluid-bonded setup could be. And since I'm female, there would also be the significant issue of the effects & expense of hormonal birth control, which I've never had to think about before.

So although I've seen fluid bonding work beautifully for a few pairs of people I know (including a real "role model" couple who've been together almost as long as I've been alive), I may not want to try it yet. Still, I wanted to post and see if people here have experiences or thoughts to share. Thanks for any input!
posted by allterrainbrain to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

Unless you have sex with people who are so unhumanly consistent as to post-coitus test their barriers for leaks 100%, you just can't be non-monogamous and not be barrier bound. I really question whether anybody is doing the 100% post-coitus barrier testing I've heard about, anyway, or being 100% honest in reporting thereof. Or whether people who are "ethical" but still polyamorous, or at least non-monogamous, would really report 1 barrier failure to everybody in their chain. Considering the multiplication factor that non-monagomous people would be faced with in their own, perhaps communicating networks, for being ethical in the face of a single failure, I personally doubt such altruistic behavior really happens 100%. But I'm old, and I've been cuckholded.

There is just no 100% "safe" partner sex. Even if you're married. Trust me, you can't trust anybody 100%. Human beings aren't made that way. You play the percentages, every time you have sex with a partner, even if you play them to very, very small risks. You're deluding yourself for convenience, if you think otherwise.

You've got to decide how much real risk you'll accept to be a mother. You've got to decide how much real risk you'll accept to fuck like the thousands of generations of humans who didn't have incurable disease as an element of sex did, once upon a time. And if you choose to try, even paying attention to the best advice medical science can offer, you have to be able to let go certianty, and embrace mortality, for any of it to mean much.
posted by paulsc at 8:48 PM on March 27, 2007

There have certainly been discussions about this on the poly email lists, which I'm not immediately seeing archived on the web -- but I do see that Polyamory Weekly podcast did a podcast including a fluid bonding discussion two years ago...

paulsc, it sounds like she knows everything you're saying about nothing being 100% safe. This entire discussion is about informed choices. Not to get off thread but I believe there are people who have absolutely never lied about behavior, barriers or partners (for example, so far in my life I am one of them and I fully intend to stay one of them). Just to be clear we are talking about fully open, consensual and clearly agreed/negotiated non-monogamy in this thread, not about the experience I'm assuming you mean by cuckholded (a partner of yours having had another partner without your knowledge/consent).
posted by sparrows at 9:02 PM on March 27, 2007

You must balance your desire for unprotected sex with your desire to remain STI free, as everyone must do in fluid bonded relationships. Yes, having sex with other people, even with barriers, increases your risk of contracting an STI, but your risk is evidently low. Perhaps you could lower it more before engaging in a fluid bonded relationship by only having relations with the partners you trust.

Sex is risky business. You sound like an educated fornicatrix. Best of luck in your decision.

You might consider using another birth control method other than just barriers. Considered a copper IUD? It's non-hormonal. (If anyone posts a response to this that says, "omg, I have a child 'cause I used those stupid IUDs" shut up. I'm the product of a vasectomy. Hence my suggestion of using MULTIPLE backup methods).
posted by nursegracer at 9:05 PM on March 27, 2007

Now that I'm listening to that podcast episode it's not the best resource, sorry (the person speaking is not using the degree of safety standards you are, and it says nothing you don't already state here).
posted by sparrows at 9:10 PM on March 27, 2007

sparrows (and by extension, allterrainbrain) all I'm saying is, surely you must realize, that at some point, humans presented with a positive reward for lying (non-barrier sex with some trusting folks), and a very, very small chance of being caught, are going to lie, in the face of a single event, or small incidence, of barrier failures. They might not even know they're "lying", sex being sex in poorly lit rooms, and post-coital barrier testing being the inexact effort it is. In your circles, is ignorance "lying?" Because if ignorance isn't lying, ignorance is rewarded. In such a circle, I might use barriers consistently, but be less than rigorous in testing them, post-coitally. After all, squeezing down a filled rubber in bright light, in full view of your partner, to see if it leaks, is kind of gross. Y'all do that, 100% of the time? I'm impressed if you say "Yes!" but you'll understand, I hope, my continued skepticism.

Or, maybe you have secret decoder rings of some inner circle of SuperHumans, which I've not had the privelege to know. Lotsa luck with that. Really. Y'all are betting your lives on your beliefs in other people. That's charming. I didn't think that kind of idealism existed any more.
posted by paulsc at 9:26 PM on March 27, 2007

Response by poster: No worries, I'm really grateful to the people who keep that podcast going (I have lots of respect for anybody who dedicates their time to educating beginners & the curious).

paulsc, we're clearly coming from different enough universes that I don't think it's on-topic to debate you, but I will say that yes, part of tying off the condom (every time) is making sure it's still leakproof -- and condoms are only a small part of the spectrum. And, more importantly, your response shows you have an almost directly opposite concept of "reward" than the people in my circles. That you use that concept as a justification for sarcasm and condescension is, I think, telling in itself -- but more importantly it's non-useful for this thread.
posted by allterrainbrain at 9:48 PM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Some good discussion and personal experiences in this thread, and in the other questions tagged with polyamory.
posted by mediareport at 9:53 PM on March 27, 2007


You have way more experience with ongoing poly relationships than I do, so I'm not sure how helpful this is but...

My experience is having primary partnerships that overlap with occasional, short-term hook-ups. The ongoing relationships are fluid-friendly and the short term hook ups are latex only. I have gotten HIV and STI tests periodically for various reasons, which has helped keep me and my partners feeling secure.

Also, I'm a dyke, so from a statistical point of view, it would be pretty unusual for me to get most STIs from the kind of sex I have anyway, so again, maybe I'm not the most helpful example.

Anyhow, I think if you and one or two of your partners want to go for the fluids, you should. Get tested for everything. Same for your partner(s), and then go for it. The majority of the sexually active population has sex without barriers, and unlike the majority, you are part of a community that values communication, honesty, and principled behavior, and that has the ability to follow those values in a sexual context.

Have fun!

PS- IAN in need of contraception, but a lot of my friends use IUDs and love them. They have a bad rap, and a lot of docs wont' give you one unless you've already had a baby (this comes from an outdated and inaccurate perception that IUDs can lead to infertility via a supposedly high rate of pelvic infection. Newer studies - and new IUDs - invalidate this idea), but they have a lot of benefits: no effort in the moment, no side-effects like the ones we associate with hormonal birth control. Some women have more painful periods with IUDs but often that goes away after a few cycles.

Anyhow, good luck!
posted by serazin at 10:15 PM on March 27, 2007

Ultimately, if you love someone and want to 'fluid bond' (a cold, sterile term for something very un-sterile and warm) it is rational to decide to give up the non-monogamy. This becomes easier with age. Part of the lesson learned is simply that sex is better with someone who knows all your buttons, and delights in pusing them :-)

And I'm not saying this to be preachy. My first relationship was non-mongogamous, and happy. But my current relationship is with someone who I adore and has never been with anyone else, and we share all our germs. Can't possibly enjoy a good wander about and risk bringing home something harmful.

At the same time, latex barriers make sex with outsiders more like playing with dildos. For me, this removes most of the thrill. I am very stimulated by the taste and aroma of real contact. This probably has to do with years of pre-AIDS experience.
posted by Goofyy at 10:37 PM on March 27, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks serazin (and nursegracer) -- you're right, I had read a lot of negative info about IUDs, but I'm glad to hear there are better versions now. nursegracer, you're totally right that the ideal is two birth control methods at once, so I will definitely do some research into IUDs even though it's pretty clear to me that I'll be sticking with my current barrier setup.

Goofyy, I definitely respect your experience but I think you're right that it may be a generational thing, especially since "giving up the non-monogamy" isn't a meaningful concept for me. We're talking about long-term relationships with individuals -- I love my partners and I fully intend to keep building these relationships which are already so long-term (9 years, for example, is quite a chunk of a 29-year-old's life).

Finally (gettin' it all in, since this is my last post before I go to sleep :)), let me be clearer on the topic of honesty and rewards. There really are people who live by (and by that I mean fully commit to acting by) the ideas that "truth is the ultimate reward" and "truth is freedom." There's a reason most people call this philosophy radical honesty, because sadly it's still radical -- we live in a profoundly lying-heavy and lie-rewarding culture. And there's a reason "radical honesty" circles significantly overlap "non-monogamous and queer" circles. Cultures of people who are stigmatized and told they have shameful Secrets to keep are maybe the most likely to understand and commit to absolute honesty as its own reward, as its own ideal, and as the only real state of freedom.
posted by allterrainbrain at 11:08 PM on March 27, 2007

I've no experience with this lifestyle but the question is pretty interesting and it's always neat to learn about how the other half 1% lives.

It sounds as if you've done your homework and are pretty aware of the benefits and potential drawbacks. Though fluid bonding does seem too clinical a term. In any case, I think it's something you'll just have to try and you basically seem prepared at this point. One thing did occur to me as I was reading: you do mention other fluid bonded couples but it's not really clear if they are in your intimate circle. If you and your partner become the only fluid bonded ones in your group it seems like something that could possibly cause issues for the others. Not that I'm saying it will or even that it's likely but it's something to maybe consider.

A final note. If you're unaware of Mistress Matisse she has a column in the Stranger and a blog. She mostly writes about various things surrounding BDSM but she sometimes discusses polyamory as well, though I don't think I've seen her address your specific concerns. I usually find her interesting to read and you might consider contacting her. If she finds the topic interesting enough maybe she'll do a column on it.
posted by 6550 at 1:12 AM on March 28, 2007

Only in America...

You mean we invented polyamory? Like democracy, and paper, and gunpowder? Oh, wait...

I've considered this issue, albeit from the opposite direction, and decided that the practical issues are just too large. I'm in a monogamous relationship, "fluid bonded" (what an awful term; it reminds me of the earnest early days of the alt. newsgroups). Some variation of "poly"-whatever might be on the table, except for the issue of "safe" sex. Having enjoyed years of really, really good condom-free sex, I just can't see going back to using them. The excitement of a new partner, and the emotional attachment that would come with building a long-term relationship with that new partner, just don't outweigh the "meh" for me of having to have latex sex again. (These are my issues; lots of people really like their barrier methods, and I think that's great.) And even with the careful condom use there is the risk of a case of warts or herpes or whatever. And if a condom broke during sex with a newer partner, then there are implications for the primary partner, etc.

So our conclusion was that "fluid bonding" and multiple partners was a bad combination, and if the choice was one or the other, we would prefer barrier-free monogamy. (I'm also very aware that, as has been pointed out several times, there are no guarantees ever, and plenty of supposedly monogamous people are getting something on the side.) Clearly, our conclusion isn't everyone's, but since you asked...
posted by Forktine at 4:42 AM on March 28, 2007

Mod note: comment removed - this is really not the place to snark - if you've perfected the snark+answer response, take further justification to MetaTalk or email
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:45 AM on March 28, 2007

(Whoops, shouldn't have quoted the snark, sorry....)
posted by Forktine at 5:08 AM on March 28, 2007

I totally believe that you have 100% radical honesty and trust with your main partner. But here's the thing - even if you use condoms, dental dams, and elbow-length latex gloves in each and every sexual situation, there is STILL a chance (albeit tiny) that you will be exposed to bodily fluids. It is possible that the person applying the condom or other barrier has bodily fluids on his or her hands that transfer to the outside of the barrier. It is technically possible for bacteria, viruses, and even sperm to sneak through a hole in a condom that is far too small for semen to leak through (and therefore, impossible to locate with the tie-off-and-squeeze test), and some STI's, like HPV and herpes, are known to be pretty sneaky about getting around even the most hole-free condoms. And while you and your partner and the circle of people you describe all seem like completely safe and trustworthy people, there's ALWAYS the chance that someone is going to lie, or forget, or trust the wrong person. Humans are humans are humans.
Having said all that, my opinion is that you should have absolutely no qualms about immediately ditching the latex between you and your partner. As you are fully latexed during every other sexual encounter, I think the chances of either of you contracting a treatable STI like gonorrhea or chlamydia are incredibly small. The chances of either of you contracting a serious or incurable STI (aids, herpes, hepatitis) are so small as to be statistically insignificant. I would think you have a better chance of being hit by a car. And if either of both of you are lucky enough to be among the minority of sexually active adults who have avoided HPV, get the vaccine, and that's one less thing you have to worry about.
posted by cilantro at 5:59 AM on March 28, 2007

Look, I think there is a level of hysteria about 'safety' in this thread. Most sexually active people have unsafe (no barrier) sex. Also, most couples are non monogomous at some point (google infidelity statistics). And most people do not have HIV, hep B, or other STIs.

Your relationships are at an advantage because they are made up of people who have skills and commitment to honesty. Also, you are part of a community that is generally more committed to being tested for STIs. You're fine. If you're comfortable, go for it.
posted by serazin at 10:12 AM on March 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, serazin. I think it's logical to expect some negativity and lack of acceptance in a thread like this, but I definitely value safety discussions like cilantro's first paragraph.

More broadly, I think that when the conventional-wisdom instruction for sexual health is "avoid having multiple partners," that removes the space in some people's minds for the fact that clearly negotiated non-monogamy with consistent barrier usage is actually quite safe relative to many other life choices -- most notably, as you point out, the very common problem of theoretical "monogamy" that includes infidelity -- a massive vector for HIV and other STIs.

To use the example above, a thread called "How can I reduce my chances of getting hit by a car?" would have been a thread about safety, whereas this thread (fact-focused and clear as I tried to make my question) quickly veered off-topic, with one person becoming very sarcastic and another suggesting it would be "rational" for me to end all but one of the long-term relationships I described.

I knew this going in, and I initially wrote my question just requesting responses from people with personal experience -- but I changed that because I knew other people would have valuable contributions too -- and because I knew the naysayers would poke their heads in regardless. :)
posted by allterrainbrain at 2:49 PM on March 28, 2007

allterrainbrain, I'm curious what you mean when you say:

"my standards are "barriers for oral & penetration with partners I know to have standards as consistent as mine; barriers for everything in groups and/or with partners whose standards I don't yet know & trust")"

What are barriers used for in the later situation and not in the first? Are we talking barriers for mouth-to-mouth, mouth-to-skin and skin-to-skin contact?
posted by mullacc at 10:22 PM on March 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the question; that could be clearer. (This is already a wordy thread but still there's so much detail I've left out at various points.)

Hand-to-genitals needs latex gloves; mouth-to-mouth I just avoid in a group setting assuming there's anybody there I don't personally know to have & uphold standards equivalent to mine. (Avoiding kissing is sad but definitely necessary if there's any doubt at all re. "where that mouth has been.") For the same reason I avoid mouth-to-skin where my own mouth is involved. As you can see, group settings take a lot of attention and care. At a typical private party (with a small number of trusted people -- the host's personal friends and their partners), the rules are posted and explicitly agreed to by everybody in a discussion circle at the start of the party. Not so at a public party, which is why those are of way less interest to me.

Like most people who talk openly about these things, it's easy for me to fall into educator mode in situations like this (especially if I see people reacting with disbelief, negativity or the old "maybe you'll grow out of it"). I should make it clear I speak only for myself and there's a world of other perspectives and definitions out there, just a google search (or keyword click) away....
posted by allterrainbrain at 1:48 AM on March 29, 2007

Just to be clear, I wasn't snarking. I was genuinely amazed, and applaud that this sort of thing can still go on. Call it envy not jealousy.
posted by almost_wild at 8:09 AM on March 30, 2007

Response by poster: No worries, almost_wild -- I never got to see your comment (only saw the mod's deletion notice) but thanks anyway for clarifying!

Personally I think of my non-monogamy as a lifelong orientation and nothing special (I completely disagree with, and work to distance myself from, the poly people who talk as if non-monogamy is better than or more "natural" than monogamy).
posted by allterrainbrain at 12:18 PM on March 31, 2007

« Older What to do with an iSight?   |   What can I print poetry onto? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.