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I originally had a broadly anti-one-penis-policy position, before I read a really interesting argument by Skye Funereal-Disease. She argued that one penis policies are okay if everyone involved is happy with them, because it’s their relationship: why do other people think they get a say in it? This is pretty compelling– if for no other reason than its similarity to “why do you think you get a say in me being poly?”– but ultimately I feel like I reject it.

First, I’d like to make a distinction between permanent limits and temporary limits. There are many limits which are unreasonable as a long-term solution to a problem that are reasonable as a Band-Aid solution as long as the fundamental problem is being worked on. For instance, it would be unreasonable for me to ask my primary to not date new people as a long-term thing; however, if I just had an emotional breakdown and was in inpatient, that might be reasonable– as long as I was working on fixing my emotional issues. Similarly, “honey, I know this is weird, but I’m insecure about you having sex with other men– I’m going to work on handling my insecurity, but in the meantime can you avoid it?” is fine and I do not mean to criticize it.

Now, there’s a facile objection to Skye’s argument: most cases of criticism of one-penis policies are given in the context of dating advice. Dating advice, by its very nature, has to say that you’re doing something wrong sometimes, even if you claim to be happy with it. Otherwise it’s just “if you’re happy, then that’s fine, and if you’re unhappy, then you should change something, but I’m not going to say what because some people might be in happy relationships with that characteristic!”, which is not terribly helpful. If you don’t like the dating advice, you can always just not listen to the person giving it.

For what it is worth, I do think that one penis policies are nearly always unwise. For one thing, many of them seem rooted in the idea that men are competition for other men (because they usually have the same genitals), but women are not competition for men. This seems like a setup for disaster once you realize that the vast majority of relationships and even sex is not that different for men and women, and therefore a woman is fully capable of providing the same things a man is, up to and including a long fucking with a hard cock. And while of course not everyone with a one penis policy thinks that way, a lot of it seems to be based on the idea that girls having sex with girls is hot, and that’s going to create problems if your partner’s girlfriend wants sex that she doesn’t get to tell you about.

In addition, one penis policies do seem to be correlated with a bunch of rude treatment of one’s other partners: for instance, presenting the rules of the relationship as a fait accompli which cannot be negotiated by other partners, even though the other partners are affected by the damn rules too. It is quite possible that one-penis policies have a bad rap not because they’re bad themselves but because they’re an idea that tends to be had by people who aren’t very good at poly.

But that criticism doesn’t justify all criticisms of one-penis policies, many of which are outside of an advice-giving context.

The more interesting objection, I think, gets at a fundamental difference between open relationships and closed relationships.

In closed relationships (whether they’re monogamous or polyfidelitous), my actions affect a finite number of people. Let’s take STI risk, because it’s an obvious example. If I’m in a closed triad, it’s feasible to get everyone who could conceivably be infected with STIs because of my actions in a single room. We can talk to each other and agree on a level of risk we find acceptable; if someone violates the agreements, we can collectively agree on a way to resolve the problem. I think that argument works fine; if a committed triad agrees on “no condoms even though no one has been tested”, I might think they’re being unwise, but I don’t think I have a leg to stand on in terms of socially punishing them.

In open relationships, my actions affect many, many people– some of whom I have not even met! My STI risk depends on both my personal precautions and on the rates of STIs in my community. If I use barriers religiously, I may still be at high risk of STIs if everyone I interact with is constantly sharing needles in between barebacking strangers. Conversely, if I never use barriers but the rest of my community uses them flawlessly, I’m at a low risk of catching anything, because you can’t catch anything from people who are not infected. That means that if I decide to never use barriers or get tested, I am increasing the STI risk of my partners, my partners’ partners, my partners’ partners’ partners, and so on ad infinitum. There’s a serious free-rider problem here.

(Interestingly, this implies that sufficiently serial monogamy is much closer to polyamory than it is to long-term monogamy– which I think is correct.)

The appropriate way to address situations where my actions affect a bunch of strangers is a social norm: if a person regularly does not use barriers, then people will gossip about her, criticize her, advise others not to have sex with her, decide not to invite her to the cool sex parties, write thinly veiled blog posts criticizing her behavior, and so on.

Now, do one penis policies in an open relationship affect a bunch of strangers? Well, most notably, because they’re nearly always one penis policies and not one vagina policies, it means that the network becomes more polygynous and less polyamorous– leaving straight and bi men who don’t have a partner already out in the cold. This is a fairly strong argument, but not very interesting to elaborate on.

I am not sure how valid an argument this is, but I want to throw it out there for discussion. As I said above, one-penis policies are nearly always unwise. I think it makes sense to have a rule against sufficiently unwise relationship structures, because horrible breakups have ramifications on the rest of the poly network. I might have to comfort my partner. I might have to cope with relationship issues that they acquired when dating the unwise people. If I too am dating the unwise person, I might have to choose between them, or else find myself in the uncomfortable and awkward position of dating two people who hate each other. The ability of the exes to be civil to each other at parties may be taxed, which can split the poly network in two. Naturally, this requires a certain amount of wisdom to balance– it’s quite possible that a relationship structure is not actually unwise and people are just unfairly bigoted against it– but I think one-penis policies are not unfairly maligned.