I first encountered the concept of a “Relationship Bill of Rights” in BDSM. In a Dominant/submissive pairing, submissive partners are understood by the community to be in a process of negotiation with dominant partners, wherein all parties collaborate to have some (or in rare cases, nearly all) of the submissive’s “rights” to be subsumed by the dominant partner, until such time as either partner requests the arrangement to be withdrawn. But what, exactly, are said submissives surrendering? When I asked this question, I was introduced to the Submissive’s Bill of Rights, which was a guideline that suggested how s-types ought to advocate for themselves in a manner that fostered their psychological and emotional growth while submitting–in other words, what was unhealthy to surrender, and what no psychologically sound Dominant partner would ask of you. A brief sample below:
1.You have the right to be treated with respect. Not only do you have this right, you have the right to demand it. Being submissive does not make you a doormat or less of a person than anyone else. The word “submissive” describes your nature and in no way diminishes you as a human being. You have the right to respect yourself as well.
2.You have the right to be proud of what you are. Being a submissive is nothing that should ever bring you shame or feelings of reproach. Your submissive nature is a gift and should always be a source of pride and happiness.
3.You have the right to feel safe. Being a submissive should not make you feel afraid, insecure or threatened. Submission is not about living on the edge or flirting with fear. In any situation you should feel safe or there can never be true surrender.
4.You have the right to your emotions and feelings. Your emotions and feelings come from you and they are just as valid as anyone else’s. You have a right to them. Those feelings, whether positive or negative, make you who you are and suppressing them will only bring unhappiness later.
5.You have the right to express your negative feelings. Being submissive does not make you an object that no longer has negative thoughts or concerns. Your concerns are real and you have every right to express them. If something doesn’t feel right, bothers you, makes you feel bad or you just plain don’t like something, say so. Failing to express your negative feelings could give the mistaken impression that you are pleased or satisfied with something that is not pleasurable or agreeable.
6.You have the right to say NO. Being submissive does not take away your right to have dislikes or negative feelings about things. If something is happening or about to happen that you feel strongly opposed to, it’s your duty to speak up. Remember, failing to communicate the word NO is the same as saying YES.
It’s far from perfect (“Remember, failing to communicate the word NO is the same as saying YES” makes me vomit in my mouth; affirmative consent is not rocket science and the “absence of no means yes” myth needs to die). However, it illustrates that the BDSM community was and is aware of the tendency for abusive people to gravitate towards kink in a misguided bid to disguise their ideation as legitimate. If you have a Fetlife account, you can find, with minimal effort, writing with thousands of shares (“loves”) decrying the Submissive’s Bill of Rights, citing it and other such concepts as affirmative/enthusiastic consent as being “detrimental to play” that “grinds all kink to a halt.” I refer to these types more succinctly as assholes.
What does that have to do with polyamory? Well, both communities share a very similar breed of wisdom, and thus, a similar breed of assholes.
Both the pansexual BDSM community and the poly community likely co-evolved with a fair deal of membership overlap. Much of the conventional wisdom in one community transferred to the other by word-of-mouth, as both communities were simultaneously undergoing a second wave during the Sexual Revolution as “alternative lifestyles,” sometimes sharing literal spaces in covert sex clubs. Because much of this wisdom was produced prior to the internet, it’s a bit difficult to say whether one community sourced the knowledge from the other; it is probably fair to say the similarities between the two practices indicate a common ancestor. Nowadays, you can squint at the Submissive’s Bill of Rights and almost mistake it for Eve Rickert & Franklin Veaux’s proposed general Relationship Bill of Rights, from their work on polyamory in More Than Two:
The Relationship Bill of Rights
You have the right, without shame, blame or guilt:
In all intimate relationships:
- to be free from coercion, violence and intimidation
- to choose the level of involvement and intimacy you want
- to revoke consent to any form of intimacy at any time
- to be told the truth
- to say no to requests
- to hold and express differing points of view
- to feel all your emotions
- to feel and communicate your emotions and needs
- to set boundaries concerning your privacy needs
- to set clear limits on the obligations you will make
- to seek balance between what you give to the relationship and what is given back to you
- to know that your partner will work with you to resolve problems that arise
- to choose whether you want a monogamous or polyamorous relationship
- to grow and change
- to make mistakes
- to end a relationship
This document comes in response to the observation that many practitioners of polyamory were being subjected to unfair treatment by established couples. We call them Unicorn Hunters, and they are also discussed by Eve & Franklin:
When an existing couple first starts exploring the notion of polyamory, it can be very tempting to try to keep hold of as many elements of monogamy as possible.
After all, we live in a world that tells us that commitment means the same thing as exclusivity. We live in a world that says if your mate wants to have sex with someone else, it means you aren’t good enough–better watch out, or you will lose your mate! We live in a world that says sex and relationship go hand in hand.
So to step outside that world can get pretty intimidating. What happens if our lover wants sex with someone else–does it mean that he or she will just start running around willy-nilly, having sex with everyone? That doesn’t seem like a good way to have a relationship, right?
And what about jealousy? How can we keep from feeling jealous if our lover has sex with someone else?
The solution to all these problems that seems obvious and occurs to a lot of folks right out of the gate is to find a bisexual woman to have sex with both members of the couple in a fidelitous triad. After all, if you’re both having sex with the same person, then nobody will be jealous, right? If you are fidelitous and nobody has sex with anyone else, you won’t have to worry about your partner having sex willy-nilly with the whole world, right? And of course it’s a woman–bisexuality in women is hot, but bisexuality in men is kinda yucky, right?
There’s a reason such a woman is called a “unicorn,” and the 1,872,453,014 couples searching for her are called “unicorn hunters.” The idea of looking for a unicorn feels perfectly reasonable–but it’s rooted in a lot of ideas that aren’t necessarily true and often it’s based on a set of expectations that privilege the existing relationship, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
We can see that both the poly and kink practices required a response to the way their communities were being hijacked. Just as kink provided a way to legitimize abusive ideations, so too does poly provide a vehicle for abusers to indulge in their amoral impulses. Poly gave them the tools to describe how they wanted to exploit as many people as possible, so they scapegoat poly as a way to claim they should be able to sleep around, and how their victims have no right to be upset because hey, you agreed to a poly arrangement. In essence, ethical nonmonogamy was twisted into an excuse for shitty behaviour.
The communities from both practices rightly decry these abuses for what they are, and so both communities began having conversations about constructive ways to engage in these practices. In kink, the submissives are generally more at risk because they are the ones put in positions of vulnerability; thus the specialized Submissive Bill of Rights. In poly, it’s the “secondary” partners that draw the highest potential risk (for different reasons), and thus we have the Secondary’s Bill of Rights (sample below):
I have the right to be treated with honesty, integrity, compassion, and sensitivity to my needs.
I have the right, and responsibility, to clearly understand the rules of a relationship. When I enter a new relationship, I have the right to have rules and the reasons behind them clearly explained and to have my questions answered. “Because that is how things are” is not an answer; if I do not understand the reasons for the rules, then I may unintentionally violate the spirit of those rules even if I remain within the letter. Rules should not be added or changed without explanation. I cannot be expected to discover the rules governing my relationship by breaking them accidentally and having them explode in my face.
I have the right to be a part of discussions about decisions that affect me, wherever possible and practical. It is unfair to be told about changes in the form and rules of my relationships after the fact. While it is not reasonable for me to expect full decision-making partnership in all aspects of the primary relationship—for example, I may not have decision-making power in whether or not the primary partners decide to move away for a better job—I do expect to be part of any negotiations that directly impact the form my relationship takes.
I have a right and responsibility to set clear limits on the obligations I am making. A lack of primary or even other secondary partners does not mean all of my time and resources are available. Just as I as a secondary cannot expect to monopolize all of my partner’s time, my partner can not expect to monopolize all of mine.
I have the right to ask my partners to compromise and seek to reach a middle ground when possible. I should not always be the one and only one to make changes and do all of the bending.
I have the right to have relationships with people, not with relationships. That is, I have the right to conduct my relationship with a living, thinking human being rather than with an established relationship or a set of rules. I have the right to time with each individual separately as well as in groups.
I have the right to expect that plans made with my partner will not be changed at the last minute just because a primary partner has had a bad day. As a secondary, I deal with most of my bad days alone and have the right to expect last-minute changes in plans to happen only in rare and unavoidable situations.
If we examine all three proposed Bills of Rights, we can see that they all address similar pathologies:
- the Relationship Bill of Rights states that “You have the right, without shame, blame or guilt to feel and communicate your emotions and needs; to be free from coercion, violence and intimidation;”
- the Submissive’s Bill of Rights follows suit with “You have the right to your emotions and feelings. Your emotions and feelings come from you and they are just as valid as anyone else’s. You have a right to them. Those feelings, whether positive or negative, make you who you are and suppressing them will only bring unhappiness later;”
- meanwhile we see again in the Secondary’s Bill of Rights “I have the right to have and express all of my emotions. I knowingly and willingly accept that being secondary may place limits on many things (e.g., sharing family holidays or vacations with my partner, having my partner with me in a time of crisis or celebration). My acceptance of that possibility does not mean that I won’t be disappointed or even sad during such times. Further, being secondary comes with some built-in challenges to security (especially in the beginning) and there may be times I need reassurance as to how and where I fit into my partner’s world. I promise to do my best to keep things in perspective and to avoid guilt, drama, temper tantrums, and pouting, but I ask that my partner and his or her partners accept reasonable expressions of doubt, disappointment, etc., on my part.”
Eve & Frank assert in More Than Two that this pathology is mere monogamous privilege, that the unreasonable expectations placed upon secondaries involving their limitations on what should be otherwise healthy emotional expression are restrictions placed in fear of losing said privilege. While I think it’s a fair hypothesis, I don’t particularly care. One does not need intent to cause harm. Regardless of what motivates a person, if they’re asking you to minimize your needs and expressions thereof, they are doing you harm.
Resistance to these conversations is also characterized by similar tropes in both communities. In kink, “One True Way” is misapplied to mean “anyone who thinks there are better ways to do something is a fascist”; in poly, abusers hijack the battlecry of “there’s no one true way to do poly!” It is essentially a way to derail the conversations–remember, poly and kink are only vehicles of expression. All of these Bills of Rights only speak as to how to conduct oneself in a healthy fashion. Further reading on poly suggests that there are dozens of ethical relationship models which do not prescribe which one fits for you, but merely state that no ethical practice will ask you to minimize your needs. Abusers conflate these two conversations in a bid to avoid confronting their shitty behaviour.
The same is true of kink. One of the riskier relationship models involves a very large volume of the submissive’s rights being subsumed by a dominant partner. This is often a goal of abusers as well, and so the Submissive’s Bill of Rights offers a way to delineate between abuse and BDSM. It suggests that D-types should not pretend they are infallible mind readers and must accept high levels of communication from their s-type partners in order to avoid disaster; similarly, that no s-type should consent to an arrangement where they are discouraged from communicating their needs. The Submissive’s Bill of Rights also emphasizes that the s-type must always retain the right to quit the arrangement and (correctly) states there ceases to be any consent at all if they are made to feel they cannot leave, as would be the case with abusive relationships. In other words, consensual power exchange relationships involve two independent individuals who choose the arrangement, but abusive relationships foster codependency and systemically reduce the s-type’s will to choose. Once again, the extent to which an s-type surrenders anything is left up to the individual, but the Bill of Rights insists that no arrangement you want will ask you to minimize your needs.
What they’re all attempting to communicate is that those with abusive ideation will disguise their tendency to destroy others using any tool at their disposal: up to and including appropriating kink and polyamory, two practices with loosely codified “Best Practices” that make them ripe for exploitation. The common themes across all these proposed Bills of Rights communicate some sound expectations we should all have of ourselves and each other, which have to be made explicit in an epidemic of ignorance and/or abusive personalities.
As with any conversation about the way people are treated, the opposition to these Bills of Rights is filled with some appalling garbage: the accusation that proponents of a relationship BoR are “Social Justice Warriors” too delicate for “the real world” (conditioning the accepting of abuse as standard); or the accusation that a BoR reduces the amount of play you can get (setting high standards does in fact remove shitty people from your life, and a lot of people suck, so they’re not wrong).
Abuse will probably always be inevitable, but the way we respond to it is not. A lot of common beliefs facilitate abusers, and I believe it is important work to shine a light on that, to call it out for what it is: shitty, misinformed, and otherwise a Bad Idea. This is especially true of fringe sexual practices like BDSM and poly. I support these Bills of Rights as good starting points for what battles to choose in combating abuse facilitation, and they’re especially useful contexts for the war fronts that are BDSM and poly with their penchants of being convenient scapegoats for abusers.
Stay safe lovelies,