First off: the last thing the world needs is another Going Gently hot-take from me. But I was reading I’ve never wanted to visit Mexico and I am having a difficult time keeping my mouth shut. It is a good thing nobody reads my blog or I could get the hordes banging on my door.
The Going Gently entry is short, so you should read it. The pulchritudinous John Gray was talking with an old (presumably gay) school friend, who had gone on a Mexican cruise with his boyfriend. The friend confided to John that on a cruise one can shag everybody, and that the friend and his partner had proceeded to do so. John then tut-tutted that while it is okay to shag around when one is single, doing so while partnered demonstrates “fickle immaturity”. “But to each their own I guess”, he concludes.
The comments continued this theme. Many repeated the “to each their own” sentiment, and proceeded to harshly judge shagging outside a committed relationship. Some choice comments:
- “It seems to me that open relationships are a recipe for disaster.”
- “Maybe some people can do it successfully, but then I would question their level of actual commitment to each other. What happens when they get old and unattractive to other people?”
- “What kind of commitment do you have when you can play around with anyone? Doesn’t this behavior lead to medical issues?”
- “I just can’t imagine anyone in a committed and loving relationship with someone that wants to screw around. Well, except maybe my Ex!”
- “If that’s what people want I say ” go knock yourself out” I am just questioning how well it all works in an open relationship? [T]o me it sounds emotionally too messy”
- “In recent years the idea of ‘polyamory’ has been introduced and peddled. You know, that ludicrous excuse for fooling around as we are all capable of ‘loving’ more than one person.”
- “If anyone needs to shag around, then he/she should quit the relationship he/she is in, but perhaps I am too old-fashioned.”
- “If you give everything to your partner and they give it back, why would you want anything else!”
- “When a person is tempted to have a taste with someone else than they might as well just be single.”
- ” It’s absolute bullshit to think that one of a couple can have an open marriage/relationship without it’s inevitable failure. Trust/power/love balance would shift so much.”
I have to be blunt here: people are allowed to hold their opinions, and they are welcome to express those opinions openly. In no way do I advocate censoring these commenters or their views. At the same time, many of these comments made me deeply uncomfortable. They reminded me just how outside the mainstream I am. But there is more to this than my personal discomfort. I have heard all these kinds of criticisms before. They are exactly the same sentiments people used to routinely make about homosexuality fifteen years ago:
- “Gay people can’t be in real relationships. They will never know the commitment between a man and a woman”
- “If gay people want to get married they can — just marry people of the opposite sex”
- “Homosexuality has nothing to do with love. It’s all about sex.”
- “Doesn’t this behavior lead to medical issues?”
- “Living the gay lifestyle might seem like fun now, but what happens when you get old? Gay men die unloved and alone.”
… but to each their own, right?
Look. I don’t know whether I am inclined towards monogamy or not. Currently I am non-ogamous, and that is unlikely to change. Maybe I would be wracked with jealousy and be unable to tolerate my partner shagging around. Maybe I would have no inclination to shag around myself. None of that changes how toxic these blanket condemnations of shagging outside committed relationships are.
Some people are not inclined towards monogamy. Forcing these people to choose between monogamous marriage and being single for the rest of their days makes the world worse, not better. Too many of these people choose marriage and then stray, which causes great distress and heartache.
And implying that shagging outside the confines of marriage necessarily means that relationships are doomed is objectively wrong. Mr Peenee and his late partner R-Man were decidedly non-monogamous, but they stayed committed to each other until R-Man’s untimely death. Doesn’t that mean that they “won” marriage? Chip Delany and his partner Dennis Rickett have been together for over 25 years, and they are not monogamous.
Okay. So maybe only gay men can have success with open relationships? Then how come Ferrett Steinmetz and his wife have been together for decades, despite (or because of) their polyamory?
I am choosing these examples because I am familiar with them, but there are many other cases like this. Shagging outside one’s marriage does not necessarily mean that one’s relationship is doomed.
But let us address the elephants in this room. What about disease? What about complexity? What about the many people in the comments who were hurt because their spouses wanted non-monogamy and they didn’t? Doesn’t having sex with one person mean you don’t love your partner any more? Isn’t sex special and sacred and should be reserved for the marriage bond?
Yes, disease is a factor. Multiple concurrent relationships (particularly with unfamiliar sex partners) increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections. People who engage in shagging outside a committed relationship need to be more careful than those who don’t.
If disease was your primary consideration then you wouldn’t shag at all, because even if you think you are in a committed monogamous relationship your partner might have other opinions. Furthermore, as Dan Savage says a lot of fun activities come with additional risks. He brings up the example of snowboarding, where you have a higher risk of breaking your leg. I’ll mention travel. When people travel they are at a higher risk of bringing bedbugs home from hotels and airports. They are at higher risk of contracting weird foreign diseases that can affect them for life (which has happened to at least one person I know). When the next superflu hits, it will be the travellers who spread it across continents. Travel is downright dangerous. And yet we are not morally judgemental of people who travel the world. We admire them despite their carbon footprints. People who have multiple concurrent sex partners can’t eliminate the risks of sexually-transmitted infections, but they can do a lot to reduce them.
But maybe there will be another plague? Sure. There might be another plague. I am deeply fearful that there will be. But I am also deeply fearful of the superflu.
What about complexity? Sure. Complexity is a real consideration, and lots of open relationships fail because people cannot handle the additional emotional entanglements and communication involved. But again, if you want to avoid complexity you should be pathetic like me and have no sexual or romantic partners at all. I can do what I want, move where I want, live how I want. I have to accomodate the wishes of my housemates, but my relationships are much more simple than they would be if I was partnered. So why don’t we ban people having romantic partners altogether?
The reality is that doing non-monogamy correctly requires lots of communication, and it requires making implicit assumptions explicit. People who don’t want to deal with that complexity shouldn’t be in non-monogamous relationships, but that does not mean that the additional complexity overwhelms the benefit of shagging around. The couple on the Mexican cruise seemed to have a shared understanding of the parameters of their relationship. Does that mean their relationship was doomed? Certainly that is the implication from many of the comments.
And yes, sometimes people fall in and out of love, and develop deeper emotional entanglements with people outside their primary relationship than their partner. Are you going to tell me that never happens outside the confines of monogamous relationships?
The advantage that non-monogamous people in relationships have over those who are monogamous by default is that non-monogamous people quickly learn that in order to be successful they need to negotiate their non-monogamy. Monogamous people think they can cruise by on default assumptions, and I think that is deeply harmful.
This, I think, is the crux of the matter. In the comments some people tried to make distinctions between shagging and intimacy, claiming that intimacy can only be experienced within the confines of a committed (monogamous) relationship. But I think that is the wrong distinction.
I agree that infidelity is a huge problem in marriage. But what does infidelity mean? It does not necessarily mean shagging outside marriage. It means violating trust. Don’t conflate the two.
If somebody has promised to be monogamous and then is non-monogamous, then that is probably infidelity. Many of the commenters who experienced suffering through non-monogamy dealt with that. There are some deeper problems here, however.
First, I would be willing to bet that the assumption of monogamy was implicit, and not explicitly discussed until it was too late.
Secondly, because of this toxic assumption that non-monogamy means you cannot be committed to your primary relationship, expressing interest in non-monogamy is seen as the first step towards breakup or divorce. If we could break that toxic assumption, people would be a lot healthier.
The third problem is that all too often “opening one’s relationship” really is code for “I want to break up, but I am too chicken to say that out loud.” This is the same phenomenon that has convinced the world that male bisexuality doesn’t exist: a lot of young gay men come out as bisexual before coming out as gay, so everybody thinks that whenever anybody claims bisexuality it is “just a phase”. That is not so good for actual bisexuals (assuming they exist).
People in polyamorous relationships can still be cheated on. It is very rare that “anything goes”, and the rules around what constitutes infidelity get weird. I remember Ferrett writing about movie nights as components of infidelity.
We need to be more explicit about what infidelity means. We really really have to break this conflation of non-monogamy and non-commitment to a relationship. But we also have to accept that people change as they age, and what worked when somebody was twenty may not work any more. If we can hold those contradictions without jumping to the conclusion that they mean one’s marriage or primary relationship is over, then we will be better off. People who are in committed monogamous marriages have to negotiate these kinds of changes all the time, but for some reason we have huge hangups when these conversations are about sex.
Does having a sex partner outside a committed relationship mean that you are less committed to your primary partner? It can be, but this is not necessarily the case. This argument always blows my mind because there are clear analogies that everybody accepts as counterexamples.
I am told that sometimes straight people reproduce. Some straight people report having deep, intense love for their children. Does this mean that they don’t love their spouses any more? Furthermore, straight people sometimes reproduce multiple times. Sometimes the older children feel threatened by their younger siblings, and worry that their parents won’t love them as much because they have to compete for their parents’ affection. Is this true? Are all these reassurances we give to those older siblings lies?
I have no doubt that some people love certain children more than others, and I have no doubt that some people love their children more than they love their spouses. I think it is more common for the love to be spread around. Does that mean every child is “loved equally”, whatever that means? I don’t think so. I think parents love their different children in different ways, but they love them all.
Some of you might be squicked out by the comparison between spousal love and the love for one’s children. I am referring to emotional connection: the underlying claim against non-monogamy is that if you shag somebody outside your marriage you have lost the emotional bond to your primary partner. This may be the case sometimes, but I do not think it is universal.
If we accept that people are somehow capable of loving their spouse and their children, or that they are capable of loving multiple children simultaneously, why is it so outlandish to think that emotional connection is exclusive to a single sexual partner?
Sex as Sacred
Years ago I read a blog post by a Livejournaler named paulintoronto (whose blog, alas, has been expunged from the Internet). This blog post contained a sex manifesto that shocked and upset me. Here are some excerpts:
Without getting too detailed, since I want this to be a public, not a screened, entry on my blog, I’ll say that there are certain kinds of sexual acts — some might say “fetishes” — that I enjoy and that Bob does not. It wouldn’t kill me to refrain from such acts, of course; and it wouldn’t kill Bob to engage in them. But I don’t want to refrain, and he doesn’t want to engage. So, just as I go elsewhere to practice speaking German, I go elsewhere to practice certain sex acts. This does nothing to harm our relationship. On the contrary, I thi[n]k it makes our relationship stronger.
In short, I take the position that having sex is just one of many enjoyable human activities. If Bob were to have sex with someone other than me, I would consider it in no way different than if he were to go out for dinner with someone other than me, or discuss a play with someone other than me, or buy a present for someone other than me.
As I have aged I have grown more and more in concordance with this view. We have such huge hang-ups about sex that we put it in a special category, but those hang-ups are unnecessary and actively harmful.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that people see sex as special. But it doesn’t have to be special. As paulintoronto writes:
I do not consider sexual activity to be a special category of behaviour that is essentially and importantly different from all other forms of interpersonal contact. Yes, physical intimacy can embody an emotional connection between two people, and enhance a deep romantic bond. But sex can also be a source of amical pleasure between two friends who find each other attractive, or who share the same sexual tastes. And it can be a relatively impersonal exchange with a stranger or near-stranger for mutual satisfaction. In short, it can be extremely meaningful, or it can be absolutely meaningless, depending on the context and the attitudes of the participants.
I feel a lot of our hang-ups around sex come from the intersection of procreation, complexity, and the concept of humans as property. If somebody has many sexual partners, and they get pregnant, then whose baby is it? Who has the property rights over this new being? Who is responsible for raising this creature until it leaves for college and only visits on holidays?
Fortunately, pregnancy and paternity are not the same threats they used to be: we have homosexuality now. Furthermore, I am told that even straight people have techniques they can use to have sex without babies. Maybe it is time to re-examine the pedestal upon which we have placed sex and put it in the context of other activities.
Moreover, I have written before that two-parent households are a crime against humanity, and I stand by that. Two parents are not enough, especially as the number of children grows. Polyamory is one mechanism for building the support networks kids need to thrive and parents need to get some sleep once in a while.
In the Going Gently comments, there was one defence of shagging outside marriage that spoke to me (albeit a muted one):
The same could be said for relationships and recreation. You have to find what fits you and just enjoy it. Different strokes for different folks. Variety and Diversity makes the world wonderful and exciting.
I agree strongly with this. I would go even farther.
I am not trying to say that non-monogamy is for everybody. Dan Savage thinks that most people are inherently non-monogamous, but I do not agree. I think that monogamy works “well-enough” for many people, even those who would benefit from non-monogamy if it is was an option for them. I am also not trying to push the tired cliche that polyamorous people are somehow “more evolved” than monogamous people are. If monogamy works for you — and you actively know this, as opposed to falling into the default assumption — then great. But I would ask you to show a little more compassion for those people who have better lives because they shag other people outside their committed relationship.
What I do feel — strongly — is that this insistence on monogamy-by-default hurts a lot of people, and the harsh blanket judgements that non-monogomy is a “recipe for disaster” are not warranted.
Again, there are parallels to homosexuality here. A lot of gay pegs were forced through straight holes (so to speak). This caused a lot of distress — not only for the gay people who married straight people and were unhappy, but also for their spouses. (A footnote here: I also believe that many of these gay men in straight marriages appreciated having children, so the record is somewhat mixed. But I still think there was a lot of heartbreak.) It is true that there are a lot of gay people who are unhappy with the homosexual lifestyle, but there are also a lot of gay people who found stable, happy relationships with people they were actually attracted to.
I think the same is true of non-monogamy. If we accepted monogamy as a spectrum, and accepted that some people are non-monogamous, then there will still be a lot of heartbreak and unhappiness with the non-monogamous lifestyle. But there will also be a lot of people who will find stable, happy lives that are more in concordance with what they want and what is good for them. I know this because people are building those kinds of relationships now, despite the stigma and social judgement. I long for the day when more people (especially more straight people) will be open about these things and serve as positive examples for the rest of us.
I do worry that we will eventually accept non-monogamy in the same way as we accept homosexuality, but only for the most heteronormative expressions of such. Just as we disapprove of any homosexual that does not want stable monogamous marriage to one partner, we will continue to disapprove of any non-monogamous person who does not seek a stable set of long-term partners that mirrors the nuclear family except for having more adults shagging each other. This is a mistake. Some people are polyamorous and want to form long-term connections with a small set of people. Some people want to go on gay cruises and shag all the passengers. I agree that one option is risky and potentially more complicated than the other, but I disagree that one is morally superior.
As you might have guessed, a lot of my perspective comes from listening to too much Dan Savage, and my observations from reading the blogs of gay men. This does not mean that I believe gay men have the mix right. Quite the contrary, in fact. As I have written before I feel that gay male sexual culture is polarized: either endless meaningless hookups on Grindr, or the white picket fence of monogamous, socially-approved gay marriage. I think a lot of guys are deeply unhappy because they are tired of the meaningless sex, but don’t really want monogamous marriage either, and they don’t see anything in between. I want there to be lots in between, and I want it to be socially acceptable for people to be out and proud about the diverse ways they make their lives work without ignorant, toxic social judgement.