Monthly Archives: October 2012

Make a difference in the lives of abused and neglected children with CASA 5K

I volunteer for the Fulton County CASA program in Atlanta, Georgia, and wanted to inform you about a fundraiser 5K run to benefit the children in the program. The Super Hero 5K Fun Run happens on November 10 at 4pm in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. For more information check out their website at, and

CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, is a national organization in the United States that advocates for children who are in State custody or have to go to court for custody, foster, and adoption placement hearings. While the foster care system tries hard to meet the needs of children in its care, everyone from child welfare case managers to foster parents agrees that the juvenile care system is overwhelmed, underfunded, and in some cases sadly ineffective. CASAs can help by keeping kids from slipping through the cracks and speaking out for them in court.

If you are not in the Atlanta area, consider finding out about your local CASA program at


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Polyamory and Divorce

My most recent publication, this selection will appear in the forthcoming A Cultural Sociology of Divorce (2013).



According to a study of polyamorous families with children by Elisabeth Sheff, some people seek poly relationships as an alternative to divorce, while others become poly subsequent to divorce from (ostensibly) monogamous marriages. Still others divorce and retain sexual and/or cohabitational relationships with their “exes” after dissolving their legal unions. Finally, some poly families who disband do not have access to legal divorce.


Alternative to Divorce

             Occasionally people transition to poly families rather than divorce.Typically this happens when one of the partners is discovered engaging in an adulterous affair or confesses a transgression to their spouse, and those involved choose extra-marital relationships for both partners rather than divorce. Claire and Tim (no real names in this article), a Mexican-American woman and a white man both in their mid-thirties and married for nine years, became polyamorous instead of divorcing when Claire learned of Tim’s extra-marital affair. Claire felt betrayed by Tim’s initial deception but, while she did not want to be the “dupe who stays at home with the kids while he is out screwing around,” she was not willing to end their relationship. Claire and Tim reconsidered the meaning and stability of their union, and ultimately chose to open their relationship to outside lovers for both of them and as Claire reports, “Saving our marriage.”

Some who become poly rather than divorce point to their desire to “keep the family together for the children” as a primary motivation, choosing to work out their differences and restabilize in an open relationship instead of separating. Others emphasize the loving bond they retain with their partners, and their ability to forgive partner’s mistakes and move on to a new phase of the relationship. This ability to truly forgive and move on is, however, quite rare, and more people aspire to let go of the past than actually achieve a trusting polyamorous relationship. Polyamorous relationships that begin with dishonesty are prone to dissolve under the rigors of the challenging relational style. Those that openly negotiate polyamory first, prior to engaging in outside affairs, tend to have greater success maintaining the honesty most polys cast as crucial for a successful relationship.


Polyamorous Subsequent to Divorce

Some polys that previously engaged in adultery and subsequently divorced enter new relationships with the explicit intention of creating polyamorous families. Far more common than the relationship that transitions as an alternative to divorce, people in this category tend to emphasize their desire to avoid repeating past mistakes and resolve to handle things differently in their subsequent relationships. Shelly and Sven, a white couple in their forties, each have a daughter from a previous marriage, and also have a daughter together. Sven’s first marriage ended in a bitter divorce when his now ex-wife discovered he was having clandestine sex with men. In an effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of his first marriage, Sven was honest with Shelly about his bisexuality from the beginning of their relationship. Initially shocked by Sven’s suggestion to add a boyfriend to their family, Shelly eventually became more accepting of polyamory, though she remained somewhat dubious at times. “I never would have considered it before I met Sven, but I would rather be involved with these guys than have him taking so much energy and time away from the family to be with them.”

Polys in this category routinely refrain from making further monogamous commitments, deciding instead to establish multiple partner relationships rather than commit to a monogamous style of relationship that has proven unworkable for them. Others practice polyamory for a while before returning to a monogamously committed relationship style. Issues in these relationships tend to revolve around the challenges associated with finding additional partners that fit comfortably into the family.


Divorced but Still Lovers

Some polys divorce but continue their relationships much as they had prior to the divorce. People in this category often cite logistical or legal reasons for their divorces, rather than relational dysfunction. Peck, a 42 year-old white magazine editor and mother of three, had been in a triad that was characteristic of this tendency to divorce for non-combative reasons. She had already had two children with Clark, her legally wed husband, and intentionally became pregnant with a third child when Steven, her additional (extra-legal) husband, expressed desire for a child. Both Steven and Clark accompanied Peck in the delivery room when she gave birth to her third child. Though the triad expressed their intent to co-parent, officials insisted on listing Clark as the father on the birth certificate because state law stipulated that a married woman’s husband is the legal father of any child she bears, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Peck said:

We told everybody Steven is the father. I’m married to Clark, and Clark’s name had to be put on the birth certificate, legally … Even though we said no, this is who is and this is who it isn’t. And they [said] we don’t care. You’re married, his name goes on. Steven was outraged.

In order to clarify Steven’s relationship with his infant son and Peck’s relationship with both men, the triad decided that a legal divorce was in order. Peck was optimistic about the impact the divorce had on the family, and felt it set a good example for her children who saw their parents remaining connected during a congenial divorce:

They get to see that a divorce or break-up doesn’t have to be this destructive, I hate this other person, I have to choose between mom and dad… Children take on so much stress and trauma from divorce where parents pit one against the other. That didn’t happen.

Others in this category divorce to allow one spouse to marry another person for practical reasons such as access to health care, child custody, or immigration.


Lack of Access to Legal Divorce

While divorce exerts a mixed impact on polyamorous people and their children, the lack of access to official divorce can sometimes be as difficult. The Mayfield quad, composed of Alicia, Ben, Monique, and Edward, all white and in their late thirties or early forties, was together for 11 years before breaking up. Ben, Monique, and Edward had all been employed during their term in the quad, but Alicia’s back injury prevented her from performing paid labor. Instead, she cared for their home and Monique and Edward’s biological children who were five and seven years old when the quad coalesced as a family. When the quad disbanded, Alicia had no access to the usual recourses available to women whose monogamous legal marriages end. Lacking legally recognized relationships to any other quad members except her soon to be ex-husband, formalized access to the children she had cared for during the last 11 years, or recourse to seek the alimony traditionally awarded to homemakers who divorce a wage earner, Alicia and others like her are in a difficult position indeed.

Like other sexual minorities who are unable to marry and thus unable to divorce, many polys have complex relationships with legal marriage and divorce. Although access to legal divorce would not have shielded Alicia from the emotional impact of the family’s dissolution, it would have at least allowed her visitation of the children she reared and financial compensation for the years she spent raising them and maintaining the household to facilitate the waged work of the others. While some use polyamory as an alternative to divorce, create poly families subsequent to a previous divorce, or divorce and retain erotic and kinship ties, the polys who are barred from divorce because they were never legally married have fewer recourses than those who were able to legally marry at some point.

Further Readings

Sheff, Elisabeth. “Strategies in Polyamorous Parenting” in (Eds.) Barker, Meg and Darren Langdridge, Understanding Non-monogamies. Pgs. 169 – 181. London: Routledge, 2010.

Sheff, Elisabeth. 2011. “Polyamorous Families, Same-sex Marriage, and the Slippery Slope” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, v. 40/5 (2011).

Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria. Border Sexualities, Border Families in Schools. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2010.

See Also: Adultery/Infidelity; Children/Staying Married for the Sake of; LGBT Divorce; Second Marriage; Spousal Support/Alimony


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BDSM Gone Awry in Missouri: Questions of Evolving Consent

BDSM — or Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism – more commonly referred to as “kinky,” is a sexual style in which kinksters (people who practice kinky sex) consciously negotiate the exchange of personal power in an erotic or sexual context. Consent is central to kink community practitioners, and forms one of the three primary norms in the kink mantra of “safe, sane, and consensual.” Once given, consent is not absolute but a living, evolving thing that requires repeated revisitation and consideration. In this Huffington Post article, it is clear that the young woman’s consent, if given freely initially, was not reconfirmed at regular intervals and thus constitutes a breach of kink community norms. Similarly, the fact that the young woman was injured and hospitalized indicates a significant lack of skill and awareness on the part of her partners.

Kinky sex is common, so common that it takes place in cities and towns across the US and the world. Injuries in kinky sex, however, are extremely rare and tend only to happen when people have not had sufficient contact with kinky community members in order to learn proper negotiation techniques that plan a “scene” (episode of kinky sex in which people plan before hand what is to happen, with what intensity, and specify what is not to happen, as well as a safe word that will stop the play and allow the players to reconsider in a less charged atmosphere), and the proper way to bind, flog, or otherwise impact a play partner that does not leave lasting effects unless those effects are desired (mostly bruises or welts that the players can admire later).

As kink has become more popular and people are able to find partners on the Internet, community norms become diluted and even unknown. Prior to the advent of Internet communications, people wishing to engage in kinky sex with others had to look hard for kink practitioners and communities, and often knowing someone who knew the location of the kink club or dungeon was the only way to gain entrée into kinky life. This tremendous personal investment fostered serious involvement and greater community cohesion. Now, anyone can find kink on the Internet, deem themselves Mistress Xavier or Master Steele, and present themselves as expert kink practitioners even if they have no idea what they are actually doing. Such inexperience can lead to injury in a way that more carefully planned and negotiated scenes do not. Interaction with kink community members can provide both a source of advice about proper technique, and a check on behavior with accountability borne of peer  interaction.

Like any other form of sexual interaction, some people are “good at” kink and others are not. There is nothing definitionally pathological about kinky or other kinds of sex, it is all in the implementation. Experienced kink practitioners can leave marks on the skin or even draw blood, but they do so intentionally, having negotiated it beforehand, and being prepared to safely deal with any resulting fluids (especially blood-play which usually requires extensive negotiation and scene preparation). It is extremely rare for someone to require medical attention after a kink scene, and a need for treatment indicates that the practitioners are failing to “read” the scene and attend to the body language, breathing, and tone of their playmate. Extrapolating such mistakes to vilify an entire community or lifestyle is inappropriate at best and tremendously harmful at worst.

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Sweden’s Contribution to Gender-Neutral Language

A new article in The Nation highlights the Swedish language contribution to gender-neutral pronouns. In addition to hon (she) and han (he), some Swedes are using hen to indicate a third, neutral gender. While the term has been around since the 1960s, it gained more attention recently when Jesper Lundqvist,  author of the children’s book “Kivi och Monsterhund” (Kivi and the Monster Dog), used hen throughout rather than specifying gender. While the term is not widely used (yet?) in Sweden, it appeals to me with its simplicity. The alternative I have seen most commonly used is zie, which has possessive (zir) and plural (zim) forms as well. It has never been well integrated in to English and, like hen in Sweden, appears relegated to transgender and academic circles.

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Evolution of the term Polyamory

The word polyamory has a rich background. People involved in multiple-partner relationships in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s sought words to express their ideas, found Standard English lacking, and began to create their own words.While the term polyamory was certainly coined by a member of the polyamorous community, exactly which person created the term is a matter of contention. One version claims polyamory as an outgrowth of the term polyfidelity which Judson “Bro” Jud of the Kerista group had coined to mean “faithful to many.” Kerista, a polyamorous commune based in San Francisco that existed with a variety of members from 1971 to 1991, was an important element in founding the polyamorous community in the Bay Area and then nation wide. Jud, co-founder of Kerista with Even Eve, intended the term polyfidelity to mean “closed and committed family units of up to a dozen bonded lovers, sexually faithful (exclusive) with each other” (Nearing personal communication, 1998). Enacting this ideal for Keristans included creating an “equitable” sleeping schedule in which partners rotated nightly. Officially, Keristans were not to engage in same-sex lovemaking, though this rule was not always observed in practice.

Janet, a woman who lived at Kerista for a number of years, credits Geo Barnes of Kerista with coining the term polyfidelity during a group discussion. “They were looking for something positive to say rather than use the frequently used ‘non-monogamous’ term.” Janet remembers that the initial term polyfidelitybranched to the more inclusive polyamorywhenMorning Glory Ravenheart, the “senior wife” of the foundational Ravenheart clan:

…came up with the term in the early nineties…in reaction to the fact that Kerista coined polyfidelity and it included sexual fidelity to your group – many who were interested in being poly did not want fidelity as part of the form, so they used polyfidelity to describe themselves even if they weren’t. This created discord in the community and infighting about what is fidelity, etc. So Morning Glory was part of the group searching for another umbrella term that would include those who wanted to be poly and love their partners, but could include those with or without any agreement to fidelity within a closed circle of lovers.

The Ravenheart website cites the first appearance of the term polyamory in Morning Glory’s foundational “A Bouquet of Lovers” (also referred to as “Rules of the Road”) which appeared in an article in Green Egg, a Ravenheart Church of All Worlds publication. Morning Glory was searching for “a simple term to express the idea of having multiple simultaneous sexual/loving relationships without necessarily marrying everyone” and coined the term polyamory to be both an expression of the lifestyle and a more positive way to express what practitioners had previously labeled responsible non-monogamy, a term that had contentiously evolved into polyfidelity. The Ravenheart clan also contributed the term “monamory” or “love of one” to the polyamorous lexicon to provide an alternative to the cultural conception that monogamy fit all occasions, when in current usage it customarily refers to steady dating rather than simply marriage to one other person.



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The Transgender Legal Defense and Educational Fund (TLDEF) recently won an important case pertaining to gender reassignment surgery being covered by insurance companies. It is not just the initial reassignment surgery that is at issue, but the fact that when an insurance company defines gender reassignment surgery as outside of the parameters of coverage, then much of that person’s health care can be defined as related to or as a consequence of gender reassignment surgery and thus not eligible for coverage. This means that routine health care — mammograms to menopause, heart disease and cancer care — can be related to hormones and disqualified from coverage eligibility. By covering the transition from the beginning, all subsequent healthcare is covered as well. Yeah TLDEF!


Victory! Transgender Woman Wins Insurance Coverage for Sex Reassignment Surgery!!!

We are thrilled to announce that we have resolved a claim on behalf of a transgender woman who had been denied health insurance coverage for sex reassignment surgery. Ida Hammer, a 34-year-old New York City resident, applied for pre-authorization for male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in July 2011. MVP Health Care denied her claim on the grounds that the surgery was “cosmetic” and therefore was not covered under the policy. MVP refused to alter its position and denied two internal appeals, even after TLDEF submitted extensive evidence in support of Ms. Hammer’s claim.

Only after TLDEF threatened to file a lawsuit did MVP reverse its position and agree to cover the doctor-recommended procedure. MVP stated in its letter authorizing the surgery that “the requested surgery is medically necessary.”

“I have been undergoing treatment for gender dysphoria for the past five years. My doctors determined that surgery is the only adequate treatment for my condition,” said Ms. Hammer. “My insurance company should not be second-guessing my doctors. I’m relieved that it is finally treating me fairly and covering the health care I need.”

“The well-established medical and legal consensus is that transgender-related health care is medically necessary care,” said TLDEF executive director Michael Silverman. “This surgery is not designed to improve one’s appearance, but rather to treat a recognized medical condition. Transgender individuals pay the same premiums and simply want the same benefits as anyone else,” he added.

The medical necessity of sex reassignment surgery has been widely recognized in medicine and law. Organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health recognize surgery as medically necessary and support insurance coverage for it. Since the 1970s, numerous state and federal courts have recognized this surgery as non-cosmetic, medically necessary surgery. Even the Internal Revenue Service recognizes transgender-related surgery as medically necessary and tax deductible.

In addition to TLDEF, the legal team representing Ms. Hammer included Robert Goodman, Brandon Burkart, Katherine Kriegman, Ariel Meyerstein and Susan Reagan of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

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October 4, 2012 · 11:42 am10

New interview with Elisabeth Sheff on The Trashtalk Show

This interview with Barb Tobias on The Trashtalk Show was a refreshing antidote to my last media experience. Barb asked great questions and was really interested in hearing the answers. She liked the interview for the podcast so much we recently did another one that will come out later this month on AM radio. When I have the link for that I will post it.

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