#102: Writing Sex Negotiations in Polyamory Stories

Hi, Story Nurse!

In a fanfiction I’m writing, I’m working on slowly integrating a polyamorous romance and while your previous polyamory posts have been super helpful, I’m having trouble. I’ll refer to the characters as Z, C and V. C is polyamorous but has no romantic or sexual experience beyond their feelings for Z and V. V and Z don’t strictly identify as either mono or poly but as of now, they’re only in love with C. All three of them are new to the V format of polyamorous relationships. I’m struggling with how to… approach sex within their relationship. I know every relationship is different and communication is key but even with that, the research I’ve done hasn’t typically answered this question of mine. How does a sexually inexperienced person approach or initiate sex with multiple partners? Is there a certain unspoken etiquette I don’t know about? Is it a gradual process with all partners or something that just happens? If it helps, Z is rather possessive but he loves C enough and is fond of V (they’re old friends) and just wants them to be happy. V is very open minded but I think he’d still feel an occasional bout of jealousy. (Which is understandable.) It’s tricky and I’m having trouble balancing it all even with the research I’ve done.

—Apprenty (they/them)

Dear Apprenty,

Thanks for giving me such an easy question to answer! No, there’s no universal polyamory proposition etiquette, any more than there’s universal monogamy proposition etiquette. How it goes depends entirely on the people involved. As with any romance story, your best bet is to put yourself in each character’s shoes as much as possible and write them doing what they’re inclined to do, with commonalities and clashes arising from that.

Some questions that might help you shape these interactions:

  • Do all three of them sit down to talk? Is there any direct communication between V and Z? Or is C running messages back and forth (which almost always goes badly at some point even if everyone has the best intentions)?
  • Is either V or Z more experienced than C? Is one of them inclined to take the lead? Why is C, who’s so inexperienced, also the one doing the initiating?
  • How much sex does everyone involved actually want?
  • How comfortable is everyone with talking about sex in explicit terms, including discussions of safer sex, pregnancy prevention, and jealousy and insecurity?
  • Are threesomes being negotiated? They’re certainly not required—lots of polyam folks get along very happily only ever having sex one-on-one, if they have it at all—but the question will probably come up at some point if anyone is even vaguely interested in or concerned about the possibility, so who raises it and what happens when they do?
  • Do V and Z want to know what C is doing with the other or would they prefer not to know?
  • Does any of them know anything about polyamory? Do they have experienced friends, books, or other resources for research? Do they even know there’s a word for this, or that anyone other than the three of them has done it?
  • Is it possible for everyone’s needs and desires to be met? What compromises need to be made? Is everyone willing to make those compromises?
  • What are the mistakes each character makes? What misapprehensions do they have? How do they misunderstand one another? What foolish actions do they take based on bad information, or because they’re acting on impulse or powered by strong emotion?
  • What hangups do they have and how are they influenced by past experiences and ideas absorbed from their local culture? What are they anxious about, hopeful for, stressed by, delighted by? What surprises them as they go through these negotiations?
  • What metaphors do they use? Do they relate to a triad of figures from history, legend, or religion/mythology (such as the Three Musketeers, or Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot)? What tools do they have for naming and understanding what they’re doing?

One advantage you do have with fictional characters is that they don’t have to live through every moment of those negotiations—meaning that you don’t have to show every moment of it on the page. Let some of their relationship development happen between scenes. They can have cute catchphrases without you explaining the origin of those catchphrases; they can develop relative ease with awkward conversations much faster than real people are able to do. Unless the whole purpose of this fic is to show a lot of relationship negotiation—which can be awesome, as in joy_shines’s beautiful and unexpected (and explicit) story “Just Because We Can”—focus on keeping your story flowing and handwave the nitty-gritty where you need to. That may mean writing a lot that you cut later, just so you understand what’s going on, and that’s perfectly fine.

As you say, it’s tricky, but you presumably have good reason to write this particular entanglement, so let that reason power you through the tricky parts.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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