In Search of That Golden Feeling

by | July 25, 2015 | General | 8 comments

by Jean Roberta

I learned a new word recently, and that’s always a good thing for a writer.

While reading a list of available books for review that was sent to me by Dr. RS, long-term editor of The Gay & Lesbian Review (Massachusetts, formerly produced at Harvard University), I noticed this title:
Love’s Refraction: Jealousy and Compersion in Queer Women’s Polyamorous Relationships by Jillian Deri (University of Toronto Press, 2015).

I asked RS if I could have it for review. He said I could, but he suggested that a shorter review might be better than a longer one, even though another member of his posse of reviewers had advised him to devote a theme issue to polyamory. He suggested to me that any book with the word “compersion” in the title is probably too abstract and obscure for readers of a scholarly queer magazine.

He sent me the book anyway, and I soon learned that “compersion” means the opposite of jealousy: a feeling of shared joy that results when one’s lover acquires a new playmate or friend-with-benefits. The fact that “compersion” is less-well known than “jealousy” is a clear sign that in Western society, only monogamous couples are considered normal, and that jealousy (even when it inspires murder) is assumed to be the normal reaction to any violation of the monogamous bond.

Even for those who have been “out” as gay men, lesbians, bisexuals or transpeople for many years, the dominant model of sexual/romantic commitment has enormous gravitational pull. RS’s comments about the large, fascinating concept of polyamory showed what looks to me like a queer (inconsistent) streak of conservatism. Although we have been exchanging emails for years about books which may or may not have relevance for an educated LGBT audience, we haven’t had any direct philosophical debates about our personal moral codes for engaging in sexual/romantic relationships.

RS did tell me that he considers polyamory to be a largely imaginary condition, i.e. many more people think about it than put it into practise. This seemed to be his main quibble about running a theme issue: is there an actual polyamorous community? If so, where are these people? (When I mentioned the above book to a friend and colleague who grew up on the West Coast of Canada, he suggested that all the women who were interviewed for the book probably live on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.)

When I mentioned RS’s quibble to the local director of the campus LGBT center, s/he (born female, now identifying as male) laughed and said he could put me in touch with quite a few folks who identify as polyamorous, if I want to interview them for a theme issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review. Egad – I already have enough writing to do, even during my summer break from teaching, but what an intriguing research project. The journalist/researcher side of me wants to meet as many polyamorists as possible, and hear more about how compersion actually feels, since I’m fairly sure I haven’t felt it myself.

If there is a thriving community of practising polyamorists in the small city/large town where I live (population about 200,000, government seat of a Canadian prairie province and home of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), there is probably a bigger tribe of them under RS’s nose in Massachusetts. Their reasons for keeping a low profile seem painfully obvious to me. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that divorce, the sex trade, and homosexuality couldn’t be mentioned on television.

One of the reasons suggested itself when my spouse (the woman with whom I’ve lived for 26 years) asked why I was reading that book, and why the topic interests me. Her anxiety was clear: was I suddenly planning to hook up with women, or men, or both? If so, was I simply going through a kind of post-menopausal frenzy, or was I planning to embrace a new lifestyle? If I was standing on the edge of a cliff, contemplating a leap onto a dozen mattresses already occupied by welcoming bodies, was I planning to discard her as an outworn First Wife?

I assured her that my interest is scholarly, more or less: as an erotic writer, I have already described polyamorous relationships that are intended to last for a lifetime, but I need more information about how such complex connections actually work, and why/when they don’t.

Lest my spouse sound more suspicious or insecure than I am, reading this book has reminded me of painful experiences in my dating past, when “I’d like to see other people” generally meant “We’re done, so get lost.” Women, in particular, are raised in most cultures to be polite and avoid scenes, which might be good training for humans in general, except when it prevents honest communication. The women I dated before the beginning of my current relationship in 1989 often tried to leave me behind by dropping hints and pulling away rather than by rejecting me directly. Their ambiguous behavior included “friends” who suddenly seemed to occupy so much of their time that they hardly had any left for me – but when I asked, they would assure me that we were still an item, and they certainly weren’t breaking up with me. I would rather march through a field of stinging nettles than go back into that swamp of doubt, dread, humiliation, and resentment.

Re the possibility of my spouse jumping off a cliff onto the mattresses below, I’m sure she could find welcoming bodies down there. In her sixties, she is still attractive, engaging, and a long-term community organizer who seems known to half the town. Years ago, when she made an unusual visit to the local queer bar by herself, she was apparently enticed by a male/female couple who regularly trolled the bar for individuals (usually female) to join them for threesomes. Apparently they assured Spouse that they would treat her well and that she had nothing to fear, but (according to her account the next day), she was turned off by their unvarnished lust, and said no. When I heard this story, my feelings were more mixed. Of course they found her appealing, which validated my taste. I knew who they were, and they had never approached me that way – was I less of a babe? What if she had said yes, and what if the couple had wanted to see her regularly, without me? Hookups that turn out to be peak experiences are not guaranteed to stay casual. I was relieved by her ironclad refusal to even consider it.

Reading a book seems safe enough. And I’m committed to the belief that knowledge, even when it’s painful, is usually better than ignorance, even when it’s comforting. For the foreseeable future, I’m willing to continue down a path of asking questions and seeking answers. Comments welcome.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Rachel Green

    I recall the term 'frubbly' for the feeling of enjoying your partner's other love(s). cf "The Ethical Slut."

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    "Compersion"? I'm all for the emotion, but this sounds like a neologism to me.

    Then, what do I know?

    I can't comment on polyamory in LGBTQ contexts, but my husband and I searched for years for compatible couples or singles to join us in a serious way– more than sex partners, people with whom we could have a sincere relationship. It was really difficult, at least partly because of the need (or desire, on our part), to have fully mutual attraction (at least in terms of the heterosexual pairings).

    We came close once, with a beautiful couple who lived in the country, a few towns from us. We all had compatible values and tastes. We were all looking to expand our relationships. I felt incredibly attracted to the guy, and that seemed to be mutual. Both my husband and I wanted the woman. However, she wasn't really attracted to my husband, and that pretty much killed the possibility.

    Though they did attend our wedding…!

  3. Lisabet Sarai

    And I've always loved hearing about my lovers' adventures with others. Tremendously exciting.

    Guess I'm weird.

  4. Jean Roberta

    I've often thought I could enjoy hearing about my lover's adventures with other people, under certain conditions: if I knew they were honest & trustworthy, and if I knew she wasn't planning to leave me. My common sense tells me that a long-term relationship of more than two people can only work if each of them is compatible with (and preferably, sexually attracted to) the other two or three or however many. The chances of that seem to decrease with the number of people involved. Re "compersion," apparently it's not only known on the West Coast of Canada. The director of the local campus LGBT centre used the word before I mentioned it. I definitely think a theme issue of the Gay & Lesbian Review would be interesting & relevant, esp. since polyamory, by its nature, seems to imply some degree of same-sex attraction in most cases. Now to persuade RS.

  5. Fiona McGier

    When I met my now-husband, he lived in an apartment with almost no furniture except for the bed, dresser, and a couple of chairs for the living room. I later found it was due to having had a bad experience with cockroaches in his last place, to the extent they'd even made themselves at home in his picture frames…so he tossed everything and was starting with new stuff. But I thought he was a married man who kept a place for his extra-curricular romances. Since we had such hot times, I was willing to share him.

    Later he confessed to me that he thought he was sharing me with many other men, since there were always lots of men around the house I shared with my brother and one of my friends from college. I've always had more male than female friends.

    Our relationship started out as okay with sharing, since we both wanted any time we could have with each other. But after we discovered that we both wanted to be serious and exclusive, it's remained that way for over 30 years. I think there are too many ways that a committed couple could be blown-apart with bringing another person(s) into the sexual part of the relationship. Thoughts would torture one or both of us, like, "Does he like her tits better? Is her pussy tighter than mine?", and "Does she like his cock better? Is his size (bigger or smaller) better than mine?" Most of us are too sexually insecure to share.

    I don't know if things are different for gay/lesbian couples. My gay cousin has no interest what-so-ever in marriage. He plans to play the field as long as his looks hold out. After that? Who knows.

  6. Jean Roberta

    Re the "bachelor pad" belonging to a married man, about 30 years ago I had the opposite experience. My closest friend Roz (as I'll call her) introduced me to her male friend Ian, who had grown up with her in the small town of Moose Jaw, about an hour away from the city where all 3 of us studied and worked. I was engaged to the Nigerian man I had met in England, and whom I later sponsored into Canada. During my year of living single, Ian tried to persuade me to have one last fling with him, but I said I didn't want to begin my marriage with secrets. Two years later, my marriage fell apart and eventually I moved (with my daughter) into a housing co-op for low-income single parents. Ian caught up with me, and invited me out for a meal. Afterwards, he took me to his apartment in the city, which was so sparsely-furnished that I thought he had generously left everything but his clothes with his wife & 3 daughters in the family home in Moose Jaw so he could start a new life in the city. He indicated that he and his wife were separated. Roz warned me that he was still married, and I told her that he had explained his situation to me. (Not really.) I thought he might make a good stepfather for my daughter, but then I overheard him on the phone with his wife, exchanging endearments. When I confronted him, he admitted that the cheap, sparsely-furnished apartment in the city was his wife's idea, since she was worried about his safety when he commuted on icy roads every day from home to work and back. He was spending every weekend with his family in Moose Jaw, and as far as he was concerned, that was where he lived. I told him that in that case, we could still be friends, but the benefits would have to end. He vehemently disagreed, accused me of "trying to be bourgeois" (he himself claimed to be politically "radical"), then wormed his way into my apartment one night by claiming to be stranded in the city with no money. After that, I refused to let him in, but for months, he phoned me regularly to suggest that he could offer me a job if I would just let him come to my place to discuss it. I suspect that many single women have met married men like this, and this is why I need to know exactly what advocates of "polyamory" are advocating. I won't say I'm completely against it because I believe that honest arrangements are completely different from dishonest arrangements.

  7. Anonymous

    Please don't use compersion as if it's a real word. It makes you look vernikfuld.

  8. Jean Roberta

    I could add quotation marks.

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