There's this pernicious trope in the poly community. It says "it's OK to restrict someone else's behaviour as long as they all agree to it" and "if one person doesn't want his partner to have sex with other men, and she agrees to it, then it's OK", etc. For some reason, people seem to think that it's totally acceptable to tromp all over someone's agency, as long as the other person doesn't stop you from doing it. But I have a BIG problem with this.
If everyone wants to "restrict" themselves, then there's no need for someone else to "restrict" them. If one person has to "restrict" another, that's where coercion comes from. The language is important. It leads to *excusing
There's nothing wrong with 3 people who decide together that they all want a closed triad. There *is
* something wrong with one person dictating on behalf of all 3 of them that they will be in a closed triad (or 2 people dictating to the third that they will be in a closed triad). It would be just as wrong for one person to decide that the others *must*
date or have sex with people outside the group whether they wanted to or not (or for one or two people to decide that another *must* have sex with that person if the other wants to have sex with this person whether the other is interested in both or not, i.e. the "package deal").
Our language affects how we think and feel and behave. The relationship configuration isn't the problem, the language is.
In studies of other languages and other cultures, they discovered that people's perceptions are actually different and that they are not able to do the same things that other people do simply because of the words that they use and the way they use them.
For example, in English, when we speak about time, we use language that measures physical distances, i.e. "short break", "long wedding". Time is perceived as a distance traveled. But Greek & Spanish speakers use words referring to quantity - "small break", "big wedding". In Spanish, time is perceived as a unit of volume.
In studies, they found that learning a new language that uses different concepts for things like "time", people actually become aware of perceptual dimensions that people who only speak one of the languages can't perceive. Language and our use of it effects our emotions, our visual perception, and our perception of time, among other things.
In a study years ago, they looked at the language of primitive tribal cultures untouched by industrial societies who didn't have words for things that they had no context for, such as global distances. Because of this, they actually couldn't *see
* things that they had no language for. It's not as simple as holding up a smart phone in front of a tribes person and that phone being "invisible", but their brains literally couldn't see things the way that other people could.
One of the things they had trouble with was perceiving distance, because their concept of "distance" is very different from someone who has seen pictures of the earth from space, for example, and who regularly talks about distance in terms of thousands of miles or kilometers, compared to someone to talks about distance in terms of steps taken or the time to get there on foot.
So, back to the point. Language shapes how we think and what we believe. People who are prone to using language that disrespects the agency of others are *more likely
* to have beliefs that disrespect the agency of others, and are therefore more likely to *do
* things that disrespect the agency of others. And they are also therefore more likely to be unable to *see
* how they are disrespecting the agency of others.We see this when people use words like "permission" vs. "checking in". Some people casually throw out that they need to "ask the spouse permission" to do something, rather than phrasing it like "let me check in with the spouse to see how they feel about that." That's SUCH a huge implicit difference in how the person being granted "permission" is viewed by the person granting it!
The big difference, I discovered a while back, is that there are basically 2 types of people in these discussions - one who focuses on the outcome and one who focuses on the method of achieving the outcome:
To people who focus on the outcome, it's an "end justifies the means" kind of mentality, where the outcome is the same so it doesn't matter how they got there because the result looks superficially identical.
To people who focus on the method, these aren't even in the same universe. When the method differs, the outcome is irrelevant because that superficial resemblance isn't the POINT. The tools and methods we use to get there is the whole purpose.
And I'm coming to learn that the people in the first group can. not. see. the. difference.
This is why the language is so important. Their use of language wires their brain so that they are *unable* to see the difference. They literally can't see it, like the apocryphal tale of the South American tribespeople who couldn't see the ships that the Spaniards sailed in when they landed on American soil (of course that's not how it happened, but the tale has lasted as a fable with a moral anyway).
Their use of language is actually limiting their brains' ability to perceive things that other people can see.
The idea that anyone could actually "restrict" anyone else is an illusion. People only follow the "rules" that they want to follow. If 3 people made an agreement to be a closed triad, that agreement is only followed for as long as all 3 people *choose
* to follow it. As soon as any one of them doesn't want to follow it anymore, it's over. The "restriction" is an illusion.
I once knew of a guy in a D/s relationship who insisted that his slave was his literal slave in every sense of the word - that it was "real" and that he "owned" her in exactly the same way that he owned his TV. And he kept insisting this right up until the day she served him with divorce papers. His "restrictions" over her only lasted for as long as she allowed them to last. It's all an illusion and he did not actually "restrict" her, she chose to self-limit her own behaviour. It was all her choice and it always was.
If people in a triad use language like "it's OK to restrict someone else", then they are more likely to believe that it's OK to restrict someone else, and that, by definition, is coercion. If the other person willingly "agrees" and *chooses
* to self-restrict, then no one in that group is, or even can, restrict her. She is making her own choice. As soon as she decides not to self-restrict anymore, it's over.
Unless the others in the group *actually
* have power over her to make her perform actions against her will. In which case, this is abuse and this is exactly the problem people are warning about with the use of language.
Someone will inevitably bring up D/s relationships in these discussions. I prefer to keep D/s discussions separate - kinda like it's a 201 course and we're still talking about Abuse 101. You can't get to the nuances of D/s in 201 until you master the concepts in Abuse 101. But I'll mention why it's different here anyway, but if you don't grasp the underlying concepts, then the subject of D/s and why it's different will only confuse you.
We use the trappings of this kind of language in the context of D/s relationships because some people really want to feel that these things are true for themselves. If two (or more) people have a D/s agreement, where they will use language like "I forbid you to do X" and the other person obeys, that's an exception to the rule. But not really. It's an exception to the rule that you should never use the phrases that imply ownership or that disrespect agency, but that's only because the very act of a D/s agreement is an act of empowerment and agency.
What I mean is that the submissive in a relationship *always
* retains ultimate control over what happens to them. They are choosing to enter into a role-playing agreement where they engage in a fantasy structure of their choice. The power dynamic is an illusion. It's called power *exchange
* for a reason. As soon as the submissive loses the power to revoke consent, that's when it becomes abuse.
But the fantasy requires the ability to use this sort of language. In order to make the brain feel like it's real, we have to make the exception and allow language that is otherwise unacceptable. The trick, then, is to balance the use of language with the internal respect for agency. This is indeed a very tricky balancing act and not many people can do it. So it's usually better to leave out BDSM exceptions when talking about the dangers of language and coercsion.
So, excepting D/s agreements (assuming that D/s agreement truly does value and respect the agency of the people entering into the agreement because that respect and value for agency is what makes it an illusion and therefore not doing what I'm complaining about here), no, it is never, ever, acceptable to "restrict" someone else's behaviour. That is literally the definition of coercion and abuse. If one person has a preference for a certain type of behaviour and another person *chooses
* to acquiesce to that preference, that is not someone "restricting" someone else - that is one person choosing to self-restrict. The moment it is not acceptable to say no, that's the moment that consent is violated and that's when it becomes abuse.
The language that implies imposing one will over another is the language that leads to the belief that it is OK to impose one will over another. That belief is what *enables
* us to abuse others. Without that belief, one is simply not capable of abusing someone else. Of being a dick in other ways, sure but not of *abuse
*. You NEED that belief in order to abuse someone.
And that belief is formed by accepting language that excuses it.
So when we're talking about people who "agree" to various things, it's so important that I can't even stress how important it is, to use the kind of self-empowering language that discourages abusive beliefs and that discourages the community's ability to overlook abuse. When we promote "but they agreed to it, so it's OK", we open the door to "why did she stay if he was abusing her? She must have agreed to it." This is how abuse gets excused. This is how victims get blamed. This is how an entire society builds itself on a structure that empowers abusers and disempowers victims.
The whole reason why victims "stay" with their abusers is because the society around them will. not. let. them. leave. And part of that is because we give them shit for "staying" even though we have removed any support to help them get out. When coercion is part of the picture, they aren't "agreeing" to it, they are simply not allowed to not-agree. And then we blame them for their own abuse because they didn't not-agree. So we need to change our language so that we center the individual people and their choices over the other people imposing their will.
She is not "agreeing" to be abused, she was abused and couldn't not-agree. He didn't "agree" to be restricted by someone else, he chose his own limitations. These aren't "agreements" between two people, these are things that each person is personally empowered or disempowered to do. Those words are important.
Just like asking people of privilege to change their language use if they don't really intend to imply whatever racist or sexist or -ist thing that goes along with the words, it is important for our entire community to be cognizant of our own language use and to change it to accommodate belief structures that encourage freedom, choice, and empowerment.
If a white person were to defend his use of the n-word because "it just means a stubborn person" (someone actually told me that not too long ago), I would have to question his motives and why it's so important for him to use that word. Why *that
* word, when there are so many other words for stubborn people? Why is it *so
* important to keep a hold of *that
* one word when people are telling him that it's harmful?
When we say that the language of choice vs. restriction is harmful to the community, I have to question the motives of those who insist "it's just a word" as a defense to keep using it. If it's just "a word", then it should be no problem to give it up. Because we *know
* that words have power. Otherwise it wouldn't be any big deal to switch using that word to another. We know that words are important. So we have to look at why there are even debates at all around people using disempowering language.
So please listen to people who might know a little something about abuse and coercion and disempowerment when we say that this language is problematic, and if you really want to refer to someone who is choosing to self-limit themselves, then say so instead of couching it in terms that imply disempowerment and abuse.
If you don't mean to support abusive and coercive structures, then don't implicitly support them with the language you choose.