My Poly Nightmare

“A lot of unethical behavior comes from people trying to protect themselves by controlling partners”

— Franklin Veaux, Poly Living 2015

This is a story about how the polyamorous community failed me my family. It details our abuse and mistreatment, first at the hands of several of our partners and friends, and then at the hands of community leaders.

I was happy to have this conversation in private, and much of it has been. However, my antagonists have since moved the conversation into the public sphere, and therefore I think a public response is necessary. I am writing this for several reasons. First, I wish to address the public accusations against me, as they are, by and large, false and misleading. Second is purely self-expression. There are a lot of people attempting to shame me into silence, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to give in to those kinds of tactics. But more than anything, I am writing this in the hope that it will help the poly community improve.

I’m hoping that my story can help the rest of the community see how even well-meaning policies can end up furthering and reinforcing abuse if they aren’t well thought-out in advance, and how lazy, irresponsible, or corrupt leadership can mean disaster. Above all, this story is meant to show that we are not building communities that reflect our values, and to hopefully inspire some changes in the way that we do things.

One of my favorite quotes from More Than Two is the following (pp. 51-52):

We keep hearing that polyamory is hard work. We don’t agree-at least not for the reasons that people say. But developing the skills to be successful in poly relationships? That’s a different story. Learning to understand and express your needs, learning to take responsibility for your emotions… that’s hard work. Once you’ve developed those skills, poly relationships aren’t hard.

In the above quote, authors Veaux and Rickert identify two key skills that make poly relationships easy: (1) understanding and expressing your needs; and (2) taking responsibility for your emotions. This is a story about people who do these two things and people who don’t, and the conflicts that arise between them. At different points in this story, I fall into both categories. But if you don’t agree that it’s best to be in the former category, then you can save yourself a lot of reading and just conclude that I’m a jerk and our communities are fine, because that’s all this story is going to show you.

This story is completely true, as best I can remember it. However, memory is seriously unreliable, easily distorted, and even falsely manipulated.  Many of these events took place years before this account was written, making all memories of events especially unreliable. Wherever possible, I’ve relied on written records. Unless otherwise indicated, anything that appears in quotation marks is a direct quote from a written source. Any description of emails, texts, or IM’s has been made after a thorough review of all such communications, and I’ve attempted to give a reasonable amount of context for any such communications where appropriate. I’ve also attempted to verify accounts with witnesses whenever written accounts aren’t available.

Still, several of the events contained in this account are not recorded anywhere, and so rely purely on memory for their descriptions. The necessity of this is unfortunate, but unavoidable. I’ve tried to make it easy to tell which portions are from memory and which are from records, and the portions relying on memory should be viewed with greater skepticism.

This story is told in ten parts. It carries a trigger warning for abuse, sexual assault, gaslighting, victim blaming, and just generally people being awful to each other:

  • Part 1: About Me. Background about my views on relationships, Ask vs. Guess Culture, certain boundaries I have, and how I respond to criticism.
  • Part 2: Opening Up. A short summary of Gina and my early experiences with open relationships, my game-changing relationship with Jessie, and some poor partner- selection decisions that Gina and I made.
  • Part 3: Failure to Communicate. This part discusses my relationship with Ginny Brown and her massive dishonesty, which I consider the worst romantic relationship of my life.
  • Part 4: Gina’s Abusive Relationship with Shaun. The story of Shaun McGonigal’s abuse of my wife Gina for over a year, Ginny’s enabling and excuse-making, and its effects on my household.
  • Part 5: The Community Abandons Gina. A short interlude about the lack of support that Gina received from the poly community after reporting that she was an abuse victim.
  • Part 6: Terry. My greatest regret: my first date with a friend of Ginny’s, my own negligence, and our mutual inability to see each other’s lack of enthusiasm about sexual activity.
  • Part 7: Idealization, Devaluation, Discard. Our ex-friend Hilary Nunes, her unwavering support for us, and her complete 180 after we stopped giving her what she wanted.
  • Part 8: Ginny and Shaun Attack. Ginny and Shaun’s first attempt to blame us for Shaun’s abuse of Gina and Ginny’s dishonesty and enabling.
  • Part 9: The Second Attack and the Community’s Disappointing Response. Shaun, Ginny, and Hilary’s February 2015 offensive and the shameful and counterproductive way it was handled by the Polyamory Leadership Network and Billy Holder of Atlanta Poly Weekend.
  • Part 10: Waking Up From the Nightmare. A discussion of how to establish real accountability in the poly community.

Amber has also told her story, which people may find relevant.

On Culpability

Culpability is a general theme of this story. Culpability is a term from the criminal law, and generally depends on one’s mental state. I feel that’s a reasonable way to judge what degree of blame someone bears when someone else gets hurt in our personal lives as well as the legal system. Our system generally recognizes four categories of culpability for harm done (in descending order):

  • Purpose: a person is considered to have acted purposefully when the harm done was the conscious goal of the actor. When a person takes an action with the explicit goal of causing harm, their mental state is considered purposeful.
  • Knowledge: a person is considered to have acted knowingly when they were aware that their actions would almost certainly cause harm, but such harm was not their conscious goal. When a person takes an action that they know will cause harm, their mental state is considered knowledgeable.
  • Recklessness: a person is considered to have acted recklessly when they acted in conscious and unreasonable disregard of a known risk. A person is reckless where they are aware that their actions have a substantial risk of causing harm, and such risk is unreasonable under the circumstances.
  • Negligence: a person is considered to have acted negligently when they took an unreasonable risk that they should have known about, but were not consciously aware of. Where a person is unaware that their actions pose an unreasonable risk of causing harm, but they should have known the risk, their mental state is negligent.

Except for the unusual situation where a person announces their intentions, a person’s mental state is inferred from circumstances, which usually requires a rather comprehensive understanding of the facts of the situation. People are presumed to intend the natural and probable results of their actions. Factfinders will properly consider the “totality of the circumstances” in order to determine a person’s mental state. If there is evidence to suggest that someone acted with a certain level of intent, then any such evidence is worth considering.

Outside of certain exceptional circumstances, our legal system does not punish people for actions unless their mental state falls under one of the categories above. The theory is that, unless we are at least willing to say that someone should have known that their actions would cause harm, they are not responsible for the harm done. In terms of degree, a negligent mental state generally carries far less punishment than a reckless mental state, which carries less punishment than a knowing mental state. I consider this a reasonable way to judge how blameworthy a person is, so it is the standard I apply in my personal life as well, and the standard I feel we should use in our shared spaces.

Louisa Leontiades expresses the importance of intentions for reasons other than culpability:

For me there is a striking difference between continuing to be an abuser when it is intentional and conscious and being an abuser when it is unintentional and unconscious. The difference has less to do with levels of culpability, and more with understanding which source to tackle in order to prevent further abuse even whilst acknowledging that all abuse has severe ramifications whether it is unintentional and unconscious or intentional and conscious. The goal must be to become conscious of it, in others and especially in ourselves.

It’s often said that “intentions are not magic,” which is true. Nothing about a person’s intentions erases the harm done by their actions, so a person’s intentions are not relevant to the question of whether harm was done. Such harm should be acknowledged and appreciated regardless of fault or intent. A person’s mental state is only relevant to the question of how much responsibility that person bears for the harm done. If we are unable to conclude that a person knew or should have known that their actions were unreasonably harmful, then it makes no sense to place any blame or fault on that person for harm done. If, on the other hand, we can conclude that a person was aware of the harm they were causing and did not have a good reason for doing so, then it makes sense to hold that person accountable for that harm.

“Abuse” is itself a loaded and vague term. Some people describe any relationship where a person is significantly harmed as abusive. Others reserve use of the term to describe a situation where a person’s behavior was intentional. Some people use it to describe mild irritation. No single use of the term is correct or incorrect, but inconsistent use leads to confusion. For purposes of this document, “abuse” will be used only to describe situations where the abuser has been at least negligent, and a person will not be described as an abuser unless I’m willing to say that, at the very least, they should have known that their actions would be unreasonably harmful.

Culpability, Guilt, and Emotional Blackmail

My girlfriend Amber and I are reading Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. A general theme of the book is that guilt is a favorite weapon of blackmailers. A blackmailer’s favorite statement is “you hurt me,” because it’s an easy way to create guilt which can then be leveraged to control people. From the book (p. 69):

Love and respect are equated with total obedience, and when that’s not forthcoming, it’s as though a betrayal has taken place. The party line of the blackmailer, repeated with infinite variations, is You are only doing this to hurt me. You care nothing for my feelings.

Keeping the focus on culpability short-circuits the blackmailer’s attempt to create guilt by requiring a discussion of facts and competing needs, not just one person’s feelings. Blackmailers are used to a situation where the mere acknowledgment that someone was hurt means that the other person feels guilty and usually gives in to whatever they’re asking.

One of the first points made by the book is that “blackmail takes two.” Because it’s difficult to make me feel guilty unless I also feel culpable, emotional blackmail is mostly ineffective against me. A person can’t just say “you hurt me” to create guilt unless my culpability is apparent. To create guilt, they must say “you hurt me by doing this specific thing, which you should not have done because….” which is difficult to do without a legitimate case. Would-be emotional blackmailers usually give up when it becomes clear that just saying “you hurt me” isn’t enough to create a fog of guilt. I consider this one of my most important defenses against emotional blackmail, and probably the biggest reason that would-be emotional blackmailers have such a problem with me.

Rejecting the idea that one should automatically feel guilty over another person’s pain also helps with good communication. It’s much easier to inform someone that their actions hurt you when you’re not worried about them collapsing into a pile of guilt or getting overly defensive. When both people in the conversation require culpability to assign guilt or blame, it’s easy for “you hurt me” to be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

The Right Way to Have Relationships

I feel very strongly that people should be allowed, free of negative judgments, to conduct their relationships however they please so long as everyone involved gives coercion-free, informed consent. What is a healthy relationship for one person may be severely damaging to a different person (and vice versa). I know that the relationships that are healthy and enjoyable for me can be miserable for the wrong kind of person, and can even result in feeling abused. The converse also applies: relationships that are healthy for others can be seriously damaging to me, leaving me feeling abused and mistreated. I believe that everyone should be given the choice for themselves about what kind of relationship(s) to have, and how to express them. So long as people give informed consent that is free of coercion, I don’t think anyone ought to tell them how to behave with each other. I also have no tolerance for the attitude that that one’s preferred way to practice relationships is obvious, and that everyone should conform to that preference without even being told what it is.

Because legitimate consent must be informed, I consider it unethical to be dishonest about anything that you know (or should know) will impact someone’s decision to be in a relationship or how to practice that relationship. A person cannot consent to something they don’t know about, so misleading people into forming relationships is a serious consent violation.

On a practical level, it is impossible to give someone all of the information that may impact their decisions about your relationship. Different people care about different things, and nobody can guess everything that’s going to be important to someone else. So just like in any other situation, people should not be blamed for failing to make disclosures unless they knew or should have known that such disclosures were necessary to establish informed consent.

Part 1: About Me

2 responses to “My Poly Nightmare

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to Atlanta Poly Weekend | Living Within Reason

  2. Pingback: Consent, Community, and the Importance of Leadership |

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