Relationship Anarchy and a Culture of Consent

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.

Over the past few months, I’ve become much more comfortable identifying as a relationship anarchist. For those who missed my last post on the topic, relationship anarchy is a relationship style that abandons the concepts of having rules or obligations. Basically, my relationship philosophy is that everyone should do whatever they want as much of the time as possible.

When I tell this to people, the most common response is something along the lines of “that sounds awful!” Not necessarily that it *is* awful, but just the phrasing tends to jar people. The idea that people should do whatever they want seems completely foreign and borderline abhorrent to a very large number of people.

I got into an argument on Facebook the other day about whether it’s rude to be using your smartphone while you’re out with someone socially. My policy is that social interactions should be entirely consensual, so if Person A longer wants to engage with Person B, they should stop engaging and do what they want (my friend Miri has a similar view). This is apparently a hugely controversial position. People seemed to view a social invitation as a form of contract, whereby if Person A agrees to spend time with Person B socially, they’ve promised to pay attention to Person B for the duration of the event. If Person A stops being interested in paying attention to Person B, then (the argument goes) Person A should suggest a conversation topic or activity that will allow them to continue paying attention to Person B. The other seemingly acceptable solution was for Person A to tell Person B that they are no longer interested in the conversation, giving Person B an opportunity to suggest a more interesting conversation topic or activity.

The problem with both of those solutions is that it creates an obligation on the part of Person A to continue paying attention to Person B, even though Person A doesn’t want to do so. These solutions only make sense if the goal is to continue the social interaction. People were completely opposed to the idea that simply ending the social interaction (without additional steps), either temporarily or completely, was an acceptable option.

One of the reasons why people are so threatened by the idea of other people doing what they want is that we don’t live in a culture of consent:

A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex–in fact, of human interaction–is centered around mutual consent. It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.

Consent culture is meant as a rejection of rape culture, but it covers so much more than rape prevention. Cliff Pervocracy advocates:

I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.

This is the part that tends to give people the most trouble. Boundary-pushing is shockingly acceptable in our culture, as are “etiquette rules,” (cell phone use being just one example) that encourage people to do things that they don’t want to do for the sake of meeting other people’s expectations.

Relationship anarchy, at least in theory, does away with all of that. When there are no rules or preexisting structures, and everyone is encouraged to do what they want, then nobody is pressured into doing anything. RA is, of course, not a panacea. Communicating desires and/or expectations (hugely important things to do!) can still often be interpreted as the application of social pressure to meet such desires or expectations,* so even people who claim to have no rules should take special care that they aren’t created de facto relationship rules, and that all parties understand that there’s a difference between communicating a desire and insisting (or even asking) a partner to meet that desire.

The poly community likes to endlessly debate about the appropriateness of partners having rules and making agreements. My view is that having any sort of control over one another’s choices is contrary to the goal of building a culture of consent (important: that doesn’t mean that there’s no good reason to do it). In a culture of consent, people would be encourage to do whatever they want in relationships. That doesn’t mean that there would be no consequences for their behavior, but it does mean that situations would not be intentionally constructed to discourage people from doing what they want.

As I seemingly repeat ad nauseum, rules and agreements only matter if one or both parties wants to break them. If nobody ever wants to break the agreement, the agreement is not necessary. By making the agreement, you’re planning for what happens in the event that at least one partner wants to break the agreement,** and you’re deciding that, in that case, that partner should stick to what you’ve agreed. In the culture I wish we had, such things would be viewed with great suspicion, if not outright hostility.

The scary part about consent culture is the same thing as the scary part about atheism. Namely – if there are no rules and nobody is pressuring people to behave a certain way, people will do awful things! Atheists generally have no trouble shrugging off this criticism, most often pointing out that they have no desire to do awful things, and if fear of god is the only thing preventing people from committing atrocities, then we are truly in trouble. I would make the same argument with respect to relationships. If people are permitted to do whatever they want, free from pressure or coercion, what would truly be different? If you’re in a relationship, consider this question: what is it that your partner wants to do that would be so awful if they did it? For those who are not, do you really want to be in a relationship with a person who would mistreat you if not for the social pressure put on them? I certainly don’t.

In a culture truly based on consent, wouldn’t all relationships be anarchic?***

*Franklin Veaux has some very good examples regarding the difference between communicating expectations/desires and making rules.

** Seemingly, some people make the puzzling decision to use agreements and rules as a way of communicating mutual expectations/desires. I advocate against doing so, as I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between the two ideas. However, if your rules are simply meant as a way to communicate, and not to actually encourage/pressure anyone to do (or refrain from doing) anything, this paragraph does not apply to your rules.

*** Other than those explicitly and consensually based on BDSM or other forms of control which, if done ethically, are completely at-will and can be changed at any time with no penalty.

Brighter Than Today

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Yesterday was the winter solstice. While the solstice has significance in many religions, it has always been a powerful secular symbol to me. The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year. While a powerful metaphor in itself, darkness and cold have real consequences. There is seasonal affective disorder, the cold prevents me from doing a lot of my favorite outdoor activities, and there are even links between emotional warmth and physical warmth.

Winter is also a dark time in other ways. December is prime breakup season. The winter holidays are a stressful time for many people. The new year is often a source of disappointment as we inventory our goals from the previous year and realize how short we’ve fallen. There is often family drama. For atheists, this time of year can be especially isolating as overt displays of religion reach an all-time high, especially among those who have religious families.

The solstice has meaning before me because it means that, though the world is wreathed in maximum darkness, every day for the next six months will be slightly, imperceptibly, but undeniably brighter. It means that every day is the brightest it’s been since December 21st. It means that we have 365 full days before the world is ever this dark again. To me, the solstice marks the turning point from things getting worse to things getting better.

Last weekend, I attended Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice in New York City. It was a celebration of secular values through music and storytelling. While I had some criticisms of the event, I truly enjoyed being able to spend the solstice with a group of like-minded people (including my partners and some of my favorite people from the community) celebrating secular values like togetherness, hope, and beauty. I recommend that anyone who can make it next year, do so.

I want to wish everyone a happy solstice, and to remind you that no matter what, tomorrow will be brighter than today.

Relationship Anarchy and The Spectrum of Relationship Control

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



For most people, having a sexual/romantic relationship with a person means exercising some kind of control over that person. Traditional couples vary in the amount and types of control they exercise over one another, but part of traditional monogamy is a substantial amount of control over a partner’s sexuality and “outside” relationships.

Part of polyamory’s primary appeal to me was the breaking down of this power structure. For me, the biggest appeal of opening my relationship was that my partner was allowed to do what she wanted, without worrying that she was infringing on my rights as her partner. Several forms of the types of monogamy that I endorse involve partners exercising less power over one another (or explicitly recognizing and formalizing their power structure).


Relationship AnarchyRecently, I’ve been reading about a relationship style that radically breaks down the relationship power structure: relationship anarchy. As the name suggests, it involves the rejection of the traditional power structure that is the norm in our society. Like polyamory, RA doesn’t have one clear definition or philosophy, but I’ve found several sources which give consistent descriptions.

As will all research projects, we start with Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (abbreviated RA) is the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by set rules. It goes beyond polyamory by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between different types of relationships. Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘in an open relationship’, etc.

The Thinking Asexual has a primer on RA basics. A short excerpt:

A relationship anarchist does not assign special value to a relationship because it includes sex. A relationship anarchist does not assign special value to a relationship because it includes romance, if they even acknowledge romance as a distinct emotion or set of behaviors in the first place. A relationship anarchist begins from a place of assuming total freedom and flexibility as the one in charge of their personal relationships and decides on a case by case basis what they want each relationship to look like. They may have sex with more than one person, they may be celibate their whole lives, they may live with someone they aren’t having sex with, they may live alone no matter what, they may raise a child with one sexual partner or multiple sexual partners, they may raise a child with a nonsexual partner, they may have highly physical/sensual relationships with multiple people simultaneously (some or all of whom are not sexually and/or romantically involved with them), etc.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, and specifically about how RA applies to asexuality and other nontraditional orientations. There is also a good introduction tot the concept at The Anarchist Library. My favorite part:

Life would not have much structure or meaning without joining together with other people to achieve things — constructing a life together, raising children, owning a house or growing together through thick and thin. Such endeavors usually need lots of trust and commitment between people to work. Relationship anarchy is not about never committing to anything — it’s about designing your own commitments with the people around you, and freeing them from norms dictating that certain types of commitments are a requirement for love to be real, or that some commitments like raising children or moving in together have to be driven by certain kinds of feelings. Start from scratch and be explicit about what kind of commitments you want to make with other people!

As you can probably tell, I find RA very appealing, not as something i want to do, but more as a name for something I am already doing. These concepts echo concepts that I have been advocating since I began practicing nonmonogamy, and they resonate with a lot of other ideas that I’ve encountered in the poly community.


The term “polyamory” is broad. It covers a lot of different relationship styles, some more controlling than others. If you’re a member of any polyamory groups on FacebookReddit, or other online communities, you’ll often see disagreements regarding the amount of control that’s ideal to exercise in a relationship. Some community leaders such as Franklin Veaux explicitly argue in favor of a less controlling dynamic. Often, this idea offends people (particularly unicorn hunters) who feel that they need to maintain a substantial degree of control in their relationships. Media coverage of polyamory tends to exacerbate this issue.

These disagreements arise often, and my theory is these disagreement are inevitable until we come up with a more robust vocabulary. The problem is that people hear different things when you use a term like “polyamory,” specifically in regards to how much control partners exercise over one another. Relationships exist on a spectrum of control, ranging from total master/slave relationships on one end (where one partner makes all major decisions for the other) to completely independent relationship anarchy on the other. In the middle are all other relationships. The archetypical spectrum looks something like this:

Relationship control continuum
^Click to embiggen. There are many other archetypes that carry assumptions about the level of control in the relationship. The problem is that many relationships don’t fit into the archetypes on the spectrum. Some polyamorous relationships can be just as controlling, if not moreso, than traditionally monogamous relationships. Some polyamorous relationships have all of the same rules as traditional monogamy, just with additional people. Some skeptically monogamous relationships can be just as free and egalitarian as relationship anarchists.

I think that, when most of us get involved in the poly community, we’re looking for like-minded people who share our philosophy on relationships. The problem is that those of us on the right of the spectrum have very little in common with polyamorous people on the left of the spectrum (and actually much more in common with skeptically monogamous people on the right of the spectrum). So long as we have no way of communicating our level of control in our relationships, these disagreements are going to continue.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important for people to be exposed to other perspectives. Particularly, I think newer poly people (who tend to be further on the left of the spectrum) benefit enormously from the perspectives of more experienced poly people (who tend to be further to the right on the spectrum). It’s important for people to see examples of sustainable relationships and how they operate. I’m also not a fan of exclusion, so I’m not advocating forming communities that keep anyone out.

I do think, however, that as polyamory grows in popularity, it will be necessary to come up with a more robust vocabulary to describe our relationships. Any ideas?

Free Speech and the Value of Social Punishment

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



So, this happened the other day:


The first part was a question by me. The second part was the other guy’s answer. It was part of a discussion about the value of boycotting Barilla pasta. Other Guy was arguing, basically, that people should never be punished for voicing problematic opinions because “free speech.” Needless to say, this is a problem.

Freedom of speech is one of America’s founding principles (no – that does not make it magically a good idea). It is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It has been a stated value of most democratic societies dating back to ancient Greece. It’s an incredibly important bulwark against tyranny. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a free society, without which democracy cannot function.

But here’s the thing: freedom of speech only applies to the government! The reason it’s important is that if the government can censor the public, the government can get away with anything by suppressing all dissent. It also has tons of exceptions, and is a sophisticated legal doctrine, which incorporates a healthy dose of nuance and weighing of factors. “Freedom of speech” does not, and never did, mean that there are no consequences for saying problematic things.

The suppression of ideas is not always a problem. In any movement to change public opinion on a topic, a big milestone is the point at which advocacy of the offending idea is no longer safe to do in public. The fact that voicing an anti-gay opinion in public is now a liability is kind of a big deal. As few as five years ago, it probably wouldn’t have even been news. Now, not only has it cause a public uproar, competitors are now rushing to express their support for homosexual relationships. Not only is this a sign of progress, but it’s actually helpful to the movement.

Descriptive norms are one of the most powerful ways to change public opinion. Saying “support gay rights” is much less effective than saying “everyone else supports gay rights.” When people see negative reactions to anti-gay sentiment and positive reactions to support for equality, people are much more likely to support equality themselves.

And at the risk of stating the obvious – suppressing ideas through social disapproval, far from being a violation of free speech, is a validation of it. Criticism of speech is also speech. Expressing our collective disapproval of an idea is a form of political speech, which is the most protected form of speech.

Tl;dr: if you’re not talking about government censorship, “freedom of speech” doesn’t apply. If your CEO publicly expresses bigotry, I’m not going to buy your pasta.

The Fat Kid, 1994-2013

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



When I was in 5th grade, I found out that I was fat. I was cast to play Santa Clause in the school Christmas play, Some kid, I don’t remember who, said something to the effect of “heh, you won’t even need any stuffing.” It wasn’t until that moment that I learned to be ashamed of my body. Before then, I didn’t really think about it. But at that moment, it was revealed to me that my body was ugly and unpleasant. That was the moment where I changed from being able to watch “Stand By Me” unaffected to flinching every time Jerry O’Connell got referred to as “the fat kid.” That was the moment where I stopped wanting to take my shirt off at the beach.

Being “the fat kid” makes life difficult in a lot of ways, but none so much as dating. I’ve been interested in girls since first grade, and probably before that. Dating in elementary school is just weird, so I don’t really count that. I even had a girlfriend in 5th grade. It seems like a ridiculous thing, to have a girlfriend in 5th grade. I don’t think we even kissed, but it because very important to me later. She and I didn’t particularly interact after we dated, and I can’t even begin to remember how or why we broke up, but I it meant a lot to me all through middle school that someone was willing to give me that kind of attention.

Middle school (6th-8th grade, in my district) was a near-constant stream of rejection. I watched my classmates form romantic connections and hold hands in the hallways. I would hear stories of experiments with adolescent sexuality. Girls would express interest in my friends. I would look around, and clearly see what all of these people had in common – no fatties. The point was driven home by social rejection in other ways, most notably a regular outpouring of teasing for my weight, my fat ass, my “tits.”

Remember how I said that my 5th grade girlfriend ended up being important to me? That’s this part of the story. That “relationship” was probably the only thing that kept me from feeling like a complete loser throughout middle school. As with most adolescent boys, I was obsessed with girls, not only because I had strange new desires, but also because I wanted to be a person with a girlfriend. Somewhere along the line, I internalized the idea that having a girlfriend was the most important thing a person could do to be worthwhile. The longer I spent single, the more pathetic I felt. The only thing staving off complete despair was the fact that I had a girlfriend and one point in my life, so clearly I wasn’t completely worthless to girls.

Except, really, I always knew I wasn’t completely worthless to girls. Girls liked me. I had a number of female friends, and I tended to get along well with girls in general. There was only one part of me that was worthless to girls – my body. No matter how much of a connection I formed with a girl, she would be repulsed at the idea of touching me on any level beyond a friendly hug. My body was disgusting to girls. Sometimes, they would tell me so. Most of the time, they would give me one of those so-called “polite” rejections, e.g. “I just don’t feel that way about you,” or “I don’t have time to date right now,” or “I’m busy on [every evening you ask me out].” Until Mandy.

met Mandy in 9th grade. Well, back up. I met Mandy in 7th grade and thought she was really cute, but she disappeared over the summer. I next saw her again once I got to high school (turns out she skipped a grade). Mandy changed everything. Mandy liked me. Mandy like-liked me. She was beautiful, and smart, and fun, and soft, and amazing to touch, and she. liked. me. Naturally, I had no idea what to do. We dated for over a month before I would even kiss her. But I did kiss her, and she kissed me, and we didn’t stop kissing each other for two months. I, being 15 years old, made some poor decisions, and Mandy left me in July of that year, but I never believed that it was because of my body.

After Mandy, I didn’t date again for almost six years. Oh, I went out with girls. But they would make it clear that we were not on a “date.” As before, girls still liked me, just not my body. In the latter half of high school, I started developing real, deep feelings for girls. I started getting emotionally close with people, even intimate. But none of that changed the fact that my gross, fat body was undesirable at best and repulsive at worst. And every year, I got fatter.

By 2002, my freshmen year of college, I was 275 pounds, and my body-shame was at an all-time high. I was a 19-year-old virgin and hadn’t kissed a girl since 1997. I would fall in love with any woman who even looked in my direction. My shame was so great that I felt unable to turn away any attention, even if it wasn’t the kind I wanted. I let myself be used as not much more than an emotional sounding board. I had a drunken makeout with someone whose name I didn’t even know at a party and I looked at it like I’d just been awarded a Nobel Prize. Hey! A girl who was near-falling-down drunk could stand to touch me! It was pathetic. By the time I went home for the summer, I was convinced that college was going to be a lot like high school.

The Fat Kid, 2000
The Fat Kid, 2000

Mandy saved me again. She randomly came into the record store where I worked that summer. It had been four years since we dated, but she was as attractive to me as ever, probably moreso, since I was now convinced that nobody else would ever be interested in my stupid, fat body. The situation was a complete mess. She was going to school in Pittsburgh, and she had a boyfriend that she would break up with, and then get back together with in the course of a week. But I didn’t care. I wanted her so badly, and we finally had awkward sex in the front seat of my Oldsmobile 98, ducking to make sure nobody on the not-10-feet-away sidewalk could see us. It didn’t matter to me how awkward it was. It wasn’t the sensation that was important. It was the status. I wasn’t a virgin any longer. I wasn’t a total loser. I wasn’t undesirable. This person desired me. She desired me so much that she was willing to massively complicate her relationship situation to be with me.

The Fat Kid, 2001
The Fat Kid, 2001

Unsurprisingly, the situation went to hell within a few months. I visited her in Pittsburgh a few times, and those are some of my fondest memories of that entire time period. She made me feel amazing, and sexy, and she reminded me that not everyone saw my big belly or my fat face as revolting.

Sadly, and to my shame, I didn’t do the same thing for her. While all I wanted was someone to take an interest in my body and my sexuality, she was all-too-familiar with such things. Her life had been a mirror image of mine, and she was convinced that her body and her sexuality were her only assets. While the relationship did wonders for my self-esteem, I suspect it did the opposite for hers. In retrospect, I used her as a self-esteem booster and a status object. I think she just wanted to be valued, and didn’t know how to say “no.” She tried to tell me, and I didn’t listen. Mandy, if you’re reading this, thank you, and I’m sorry.

The Fat Kid, 2002
The Fat Kid, 2002

Around that time, I tried the Atkins diet. It was in vogue at the time, and it was the first time that I tried any kind of rigid diet. It worked amazingly well. I lost 10 pounds in a week. 5 pounds the following week. Another 5 pounds in the next two weeks, for a total of 20 pounds in a month. Eating bacon. I was still 250 pounds, but I felt great. My clothes fit looser, and when I looked in the mirror, I looked thinner! I decided to keep it going, and signed up for Weight Watchers (I figured Atkins would give me a heart attack if I actually kept it up). Over the next year, I lost about 40 more pounds. The need for smaller pants gave me indescribable joy.

Spring 2003 was when I got to know Gina, and fell for her almost immediately. This, also, was a mess. She had a boyfriend at the time, and we were all in a 6-person show together. This was not new to me. By this point, I was used to having unrequited feelings for “taken” women. Even with my new smaller size, I was still “obese” according to my handy BMI calculator, and didn’t harbor any illusions that my body looked good to anyone but me.

It’s a long story, mostly involving me being too desperate to give up and Gina not wanting to admit her feelings. BUT it all worked out, and we’ll be celebrating 10 years together this January.

The Fat Kid, 2005
The Fat Kid, 2005

My body image issues got better after that, but they still weren’t great. I still saw my body as unattractive, but actually having a girlfriend, especially one as great as Gina, was helpful.

Wanting to feel wanted while in a monogamous relationship is a strange thing. Up to that point, I always wanted to be wanted for practical reasons – I hated being single, and I wanted somebody to be with. Now, I was with somebody, and didn’t need to impress anyone but her – but I still wanted to. I still wanted to be wanted, not for any practical reason, just for how it made me feel. Or, more accurately, how not being wanted made me feel. Being wanted by one person was great, but I still didn’t feel attractive, and I still didn’t like what I saw when I looked in the mirror.

The Fat Kid, 2009
The Fat Kid, 2009

It wasn’t until Gina & I opened our relationship, and I lost another 30 pounds, that I started actually feeling good about my body. My first relationship after opening up was kind of a disaster. I was still feeling vulnerable due to my body issues, and she represented all the girls I couldn’t “get” when I was younger. She was skinny, outgoing, popular, and every guy I knew wanted to be with her. When she kissed me, I felt like the coolest kid in school, like I’d never felt before. She was also self-absorbed, inconsiderate, and within a handful of weeks, her attraction to me waned, and she started seeing a much skinnier guy. Like I said, kind of a disaster, but she meant a lot to me at the time.

The Fat Kid, 2011
The Fat Kid, 2011

In February of 2010, I started dieting again. March 27, 2010, was a big day for me. That morning, I weighed myself, and the scale came out to 201.5 pounds. That number might not mean a lot to you, but it meant everything to me. For my height, weighing less than 202 pounds moved me from “obese” to “overweight” on the BMI scale. I honestly never thought I would get there. It felt great. Over the next year, I lost another 25 pounds, and bottomed out at about 175.

More than the weight loss, my body image was improved by joining okcupid. On okcupid, I could meet women who actually found me attractive, and who were ok (or even enthusiastic) about dating a married man. I stopped being able to count on one hand all of the women I ever knew who found me attractive. I started seeing real evidence that my body and my sexuality were not generally looked at as disgusting and repulsive. Women appreciated my body. I even met women who didn’t seem to like me that much, but were still interested in my body. It was surreal at first.

Since then, things have gotten much better. I’ve gained back about 30 of the pounds I lost. I’m not happy about it, but I no longer believe that I need to be thin in order to be attractive. I’ve also stopped viewing women as status objects that I can use to prove to myself how not-hideous I am. Because my insecurities are under control, I’m able to connect with people on a much deeper level. It still hurts when people tell me that my body holds no value to them, but it’s bearable. I love Gina more than I ever did, and I have an amazing fiancee who can’t get enough of me. I’m performing in a burlesque show (and yes, I take my clothes off).

This week is weight stigma awareness week. This morning, I weighed 208 pounds. I’ve eaten 1,397 calories today. My pants fit a little tight. The buttons on my shirt are pulling a bit. I have a lot of love in my life. So it goes.

The Fat Kid, 2013
The Fat Kid, 2013

Can We Please Stop Using “Mens Rights Activist” as an Insult?

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



So, stop me if you’ve heard this one. Someone (usually a woman) makes a Facebook update, blog post, or forum comment discussing an idea which has something to do with feminism. Next, some Privileged Man make one of the many typical derailing comments in response. The Privileged Man is then derided and dismissed as a mens’ rights activist, or “MRA.”

The mens’ rights movement is a social movement seemingly committed to little more than denying male privilege and opposing feminism. The movement is basically a wasteland of straw men and privilege blinders.

ImageSo what’s the problem? It’s the “A” part of MRA. Being a supporter of the mens’ rights movement is shameful, but it doesn’t make you an activist. Activism is a title that is earned through hard work, commitment to a cause, and passion. “Activist” is not an insult. It’s a term of respect. Activism is something I admire. Making privileged comments online is not. It takes a lot more than that to be an activist.

Faith, not Religion, is the Problem

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Have you seen this video?

It’s a poem called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” It points out a lot of the hypocrisy that pervades organized Christianity and concludes that faith in Christ is the way to salvation. No religion necessary. You may have heard it expressed as “I’m not religious, I just have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” or its shorter, less defined version – “spiritual, but not religious.”

This is not a new idea. It’s very common in liberal circles, and I can see the appeal. It’s not the bible that causes the oppression of women and gays, restricts abortion, dominates our politics, and generally makes people miserable. It’s religion that does those things. Free from the organization and power structure of Big Church, people are free to develop their own spirituality and channel it into inclusive and positive avenues. Without the dogma and evangelism of traditional religion, all of the problems associated with religion can be solved.

…or so the thinking goes. But this overlooks the biggest problem (and quite possibly my only problem) with religion: faith. By faith, I’m using the second definition here – that is, “belief that is not based on proof.” Faith, in this sense, is what people use as an alternative to reason.

Faith is the real problem. All of the problems with religion are due to the fact that religions promote faith and suppress reason. Dogma is merely a suppression of reason. Bigotry thrives on a lack of rational thinking. Conservative politics rely on people voting against their self interest. All of these issues could be solved by reasonable thinking.

The religious are often quick to point out that the worst leaders of the 20th century – Hitler, Pol Pot, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Stalin, etc. – were all atheists, and established atheistic societies. While some of these claims are doubtful, the idea is largely irrelevant anyway. Even if these leaders established atheistic societies, the societies in question looked awfully theistic in terms of encouraging faith. Except that instead of worshiping a god, they worshiped a charismatic leader. The belief systems of these societies were just as faith-based (if not moreso) than a religion. Like Sam Harris says, “no society in human history ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” The problem isn’t religion – it’s faith.

This is the reason why I often feel like I have more in common with fundamentalists than I do with moderate believers. In my experience, fundamentalists tend to care deeply that their beliefs are true. While fundamentalists have faith, it often seems that their beliefs take less faith than those of religious moderates. Fundamentalists have faith in a book, faith in a leader, or faith in their parents. Many fundamentalists are very rational, once you recognize their assumptions. Moderates tend to make up their own religion, which means that each belief is its own separate article of faith. I actually find myself in agreement with Mike Tudoreaunu (arguing in favor of organized religion),  when he says:

[n]ow let me be absolutely clear: abandoning organized religion to embrace an ill-defined “spirituality” is a rejection of logic and reason, not an affirmation of it.

The other thing to remember is that not all religions involve faith. Several forms of Judaism are only concerned with ritual and tradition, with no false beliefs. Certain forms of Buddhism are about practices and lifestyle rather than an actual belief system. Unitarianism can basically be anything, including merely a community.

Skeptics are now forming communities that resemble religions in several respects. Some skeptics have an issue with this, as anything resembling religion is generally mistrusted. It’s a good impulse, but I think it’s misguided in this sense. It’s not organization that we need to be avoiding – it’s faith. So long as these organizations aren’t promoting dogma or authority (and to my knowledge, they are not), there is no problem.

This is why I think my identity as a skeptic is more important than my identity as an atheist. Atheism is just one byproduct of skepticism. Polyamory (for the right people) is another. Ditto for feminism, humanism, and left-wing politics. Skepticism informs my entire worldview, not just my views on religion. Skepticism is much bigger than that.

Opposing religion is a worthwhile endeavor, but religion is only one way in which faith-based thinking infects our societies. It’s important to remember that.

The Other Reason Why Your Beliefs Affect Me

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Earlier this week, I wrote a post regarding some of the reasons why even “harmless” religious beliefs affect nonbelievers. The basic idea was because being an atheist is considered weird and being religious is considered normal, all non-private expressions of faith reinforce the status quo, which is bad for atheists (like me).

I think those are good, real, concrete reasons why even moderate, non-hateful, non-proselytizing religion is bad for atheists and bad for society, but it’s not the whole story, as far as I am concerned. The other reason that I am bothered by so-called “harmless” religious beliefs is that I have a strong emotional reaction to bad ideas.

Emotionally, I am usually rather stoic in the face of suffering. While I am affected by injustice and pain inflicted on others, I am generally able to look at it in a relatively detached manner. Peta commercials don’t stir my heartstrings. Photos of starving children don’t send me running to my computer to donate. I can usually discuss any topic, even topics that are of personal importance to me, in a dispassionate manner. I can watch a loved one cry and still think clearly about how to solve whatever problem is inspiring the tears.

I consider this a weakness. Part of being a good person, to me, is caring about things that do not affect you directly. I struggle with this. I often see people that I respect fly into righteous fury over injustices suffered by people that they have never met. I see people I love feel deep compassion for total strangers. I see people of very little means give all that they can because Some Things Are That Important. I do not do any of these things, and it often causes me, much to my shame, to doubt whether I truly care about anyone but myself.

That being said, there is one area where I become passionate about injustice that has little effect on me directly. I am very strongly emotionally affected by the existence of bad ideas. By “bad ideas,” I am referring specifically to false beliefs held by a person who does not care (or cares very little) whether such beliefs are true. The reasons why this affects me so much are not terribly important, and I’m not even sure I know what they are. Bad ideas, like injustice, like poverty, like bigotry, are all around us and will never go away. My reaction to them is just as irrational as the most bloody of bleeding hearts’ reactions to war, police brutality, or the death of Jerry Garcia. I know this.

But I treasure my reaction. When I experience it, I am reminded that there are things outside of myself that I care about. That my life is not limited merely to a selfish, egocentric existence.* I love this about myself, and I would never change it, regardless of the pain it causes me.

When people ask me “why do my beliefs matter to you?” I will probably direct them to my other post, because what I’ve said there is true, and is a very big part of why I struggle against religion and other forces of unreason. But if you’re reading this, then you know that there is more to it than that, and I hope that you will not hold it against me.



*metaphysically, I belief that all consciousness is entirely selfish, but in a way that is irrelevant to what I am discussing here.

Descriptive Norms, or Why Your Beliefs Affect Me

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.




Scientific American has an article up discussing the difference between descriptive norms and prescriptive norms. The gist is that descriptive norms describe how things are and prescriptive norms describe how things ought to be. When it comes to affecting people’s behavior, descriptive norms tend to work much better:

In a classic study, Cialdini and colleagues manipulated the signs that were displayed in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, a site often plagued by tourists who end up grabbing some of the petrified wood to take home as a souvenir. In situations like this, the first inclination of well-meaning environmentalists might be to set a strong prescriptive norm — perhaps by saying something like, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest. This is bad, don’t do this.” The idea here would be to invoke a sense of shame and severity before asking visitors to refrain from taking the wood. But read that prescriptive message once again. Is there anything descriptive in there? Yes, of course there is. That message is not just telling you that you shouldn’t take the wood — it’s also telling you that most other people do. In fact, people were actually more likely to steal wood from the forest when they saw the sign telling them how many people tend to do it themselves, even though the very next sentence was asking them to refrain. But when the researchers simply tweaked the message to read that “the vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, helping to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” the thievery plummeted.

We don’t really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.

The article suggests that making your support of marriage equality public on Facebook may actually make more of a difference than a lot of people think. I agree. When we make our positions publicly known, often that can be more convincing than anything else we can do.

This relates to the main issue with moderate religion. There are a number of religions out there (and other faith traditions that may or may not be classified as “religions”) that do no real direct harm on society. I was raised by a Quaker mother, and attended meeting up until I was allowed to make choices for myself. I have Unitarian Universalist friends. I know several pagans, and other religious moderates who practice non-mainstream, non-coercive religions.

These religions aren’t causing any direct harm that can be easily identified. However, that does not mean that they are not causing harm. I live in a country positively saturated in religion. Religion pervades public life in America in ways that are unheard of in other developed countries, and it leads to all sorts of horrible outcomes.

All public expressions of faith exacerbate the issue through the power of descriptive norms. The more people who identify as religious, the more it encourages other people to be religious also. Even the most non-proselytizing expression of faith reinforces the cultural message that religion is normal, and a lack of religion is weird. Nobody wants to be weird! So people are encouraged to overlook their doubts about religion in order to fit in, even if nobody is explicitly sending that message.

American Cross

People often ask me why I care that people hold religious beliefs. This is often coupled with a spoken or unspoken assertion that their religious beliefs do not affect me in a negative way. Often, I will attempt to explain that beliefs inform actions, an in any society, and especially in a democracy, everyone’s actions affect everyone else. But there is also the problem of descriptive norms.

I believe that, all other things being equal,  a more secular society is a better society. Religion, even moderate, “harmless” religion, impedes that goal. Of course, moderate religion does less harm than fundamentalist religion, but it’s still making it more difficult for our society to move in a more secular direction. It still encourages the general population to value faith above reason. It still contributes to the social stigma of atheism.

This is, of course, not to justify being a dick about it.* The fact that moderate religion is a problem doesn’t mean that it’s ok to be rude. It doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t serve useful purposes in people’s lives. It doesn’t mean that people are justified in attempting to impose their lack of religion on other people. It just means that as an atheist, I have a stake in the beliefs of my fellow members of society. This is not meant to discuss tactics at all.

This is another reason why coming out is so important. When we proudly identify as atheist (or polyamorous for that matter), that declaration speaks louder than any argument we can make. When we create a society in which it’s no longer weird to be an atheist, then we create a society where there’s one less reason to turn to religion.


*I sincerely wish that this disclaimer didn’t need to accompany every post discussing this topic, but such is life.

The Physical Touch Spectrum

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Ace, at The Thinking Asexual has a great post up discussing a concept which Ace calls “the physical touch escalator”

The physical touch escalator is based on the premise that each form or level of touch on the spectrum automatically and undoubtedly implies a progression to the next form or level, usually beginning somewhere after “nonromantic/casual hugs.” Therefore, if you enthusiastically engage in one type of nonsexual, affectionate touch with someone, you are expected to eventually engage in whatever physical act comes after it on the spectrum—and keep going until you eventually reach penetrative sex.

If you don’t want to share Touch C with a person, then you better not agree to share Touch B, and if you go through with Touch C, you’re implying that you’re interested in Touch D, etc. The nonsexual forms of physical affection are only means to a sexual end, their main value the potential for sex that they carry by default.

It’s a fantastic post, and an important idea. I don’t really have anything to add to it. It reminded me, however, of a different concept. Ace began the post by saying:

I look at physical touch between two people via a spectrum model: on one end of the spectrum (of positive touch only) is the handshake and on the other end is full-blown penetrative sex. What falls in between progresses from that most casual and non-intimate/nonsensual type of touch to more intimate, more sensual, and ultimately sexual.

The nonsexual/nongenital forms of touch include: unemotional hugs, emotional hugs, holding hands, nonromantic kissing, romantic/erotic kissing (that breaks down further into “on the mouth, close-lipped,” “on the mouth, with tongue,” “on the body, close mouthed”, “on the body, open-mouthed”), cuddling (clothed or partially unclothed), caressing or petting the body affectionately, intimate paired dancing.

The erotic and/or sexual forms of touch include: mutual masturbation, sexual groping of the body with particular attention to the breasts or buttocks, dry humping, oral sex, anal sex, sex with toys, and penile-vaginal sex.

The “sexuality as a spectrum” model is very ingrained in our culture. The “correct” progression of a sexual relationships starts at one end of the spectrum, goes through each intermediate step, and ends at penetrative sex. This is why baseball is such a common metaphor to describe sex acts. You can’t go straight to second base without tagging first! It’s against the rules! Even if you hit a home run, you have to take a ceremonial lap around the bases or it doesn’t count.

I do not look at physical touch as a spectrum in that way, where there are “levels,” and each “step” progresses to a more intimate/sensual/sexual (hereafter abbreviated as “intimate”) level. In fact, I actively resist this model.

I resist it because I do not believe that any physical act is inherently more intimate or “more sexual” than any other. Certainly, there are acts which will mean more to us as individuals (for instance, cuddling tends to be more intimate to me than groping), more stimulating (genital touching is more stimulating to me than touching elsewhere), or more dangerous – and thus, requiring a higher level of trust (intercourse vs. outercourse), but these things are not universal. Some people consider kissing more intimate than sex, and some don’t. Some people consider anal sex to be more intimate than vaginal sex, and some don’t. Some people think oral sex “doesn’t count” as sex, and some emphatically argue that it does. This is, of course, not even getting into the endless variety and ranking of activities within the BDSM community. There is a world of variety is what is considered intimate to someone and meaningless to someone else. The dominant narrative encourages people to feel shameful or broken if certain steps don’t fit in to their proper place on the escalator. It’s uncool, and we should encourage people to experiment and make their own choices about what is intimate and what is not.

The other reason why I resist the spectrum model is that I don’t see anything wrong with consensually skipping steps if you don’t like them. Each physical touch is a completely different thing to me. Some people are very compatible kissers with me, but not compatible in terms of sexual groping. Sometimes, it’s the exact opposite. What if I’d like to engage in sexual groping (or something “higher” in the spectrum) with someone, but not kiss? I feel as though our society doesn’t have a narrative for that, and I wouldn’t know how to bring it up in a way that doesn’t result in offense and hurt feelings.

Another side effect of this view is that it encourages people to judge their compatibility on “higher level” activities by their compatibility on “lower level” activities. A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a few friends whereby they all agreed that an incompatible kisser would almost certainly be incompatible sexually. I reject this view, mostly from experience than anything else. While I think that the emotional component of physical intimacy tends to remain largely unchanged from activity to activity, a person’s physical compatibility can be much different. Even changes as small as what part of my body a person is touching can result in vastly different amounts of pleasure.

The physical touch spectrum, though widely accepted, seems to be yet another socially-created norm that shortchanges everyone who doesn’t conform. Your thoughts?