By Ari Karpel
Originally published on Advocate.com July 07 2011 3:00 AM ET
When birth control pills were making Megan’s sex drive almost nonexistent, she told her boyfriend, Colin, what many gay men in a similar position might say to theirs: “If you want to have sex, feel free to sleep with someone else; just don’t tell me about it.”
Last year, after six years together and a year and a half of marriage, Colin’s chronic back pain was making sex less than fun. So he returned the favor: “Sleep around all you want,” he said. “Just don’t do anything stupid, and don’t tell me about it.”
That’s how Megan, now 25, and Colin, 26, college sweethearts who live in Minneapolis, came to fashion a committed, nonmonogamous marriage. They don’t flaunt their unconventional lifestyle (they requested that their last name not be used), but they are hardly alone. By designing a relationship that doesn’t fit a typical married couple, Megan and Colin have joined a small but growing number of straight couples who are looking to gay male relationships as the model for long-term, nonmonogamous unions.
Anti-equality right-wingers have long insisted that allowing gays to marry will destroy the sanctity of “traditional marriage,” and, of course, the logical, liberal party-line response has long been “No, it won’t.” But what if—for once—the sanctimonious crazies are right? Could the gay male tradition of open relationships actually alter marriage as we know it? And would that be such a bad thing? With divorce rates at an all-time high and news reports full of famous marriages crumbling at the hand of flagrant infidelities (see: Schwarzenegger, Arnold), perhaps now is the perfect time for the gays to conduct a little marriage makeover.
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Welcome to Queer (Roving) Eye for the Monogamous Straight Couple Lie, brought to you in part by writer Dan Savage, who coined the term monogamish to signify committed relationships in which the partners are, he explains, “mostly monogamous, but there’s a little allowance for the reality of desire for others and a variety of experiences and adventure and possibility.”
Monogamish relationships are not about wild promiscuity or even Swingtown-style polyamory, two things the term nonmonogamy connotes. “It suggests a degree of promiscuity that isn’t true for most nonmonogamous gay couples I’ve known,” says Savage, who wants to promote qualities that make for an enduring union. “People primarily want stable, long-lasting partner bonds. They want safety.”
They also want to fuck other people, whether a relationship is open or closed (see: Gingrich, Newt). While many people believe that monogamy is the natural course of relationships, there are plenty of others who do not, and just as many who feel that strict monogamy denies a natural desire for life experience. “If it’s open in a controlled way, then it’s less destructive to a relationship,” preaches Savage, whose podcasts, column, and blog have become a soapbox for his views on relationships.
He can count Megan and Colin as devotees. Or at least Megan, who credits Savage with helping her find a framework for the relationship with Colin, who does not agree with all of the columnist’s views. “My husband does think much of his advice is good,” she says, “but when Dan Savage talks about how monogamy is unnatural, my husband gets really angry at him. [That’s when I try to] convince him that he’s a journalist, not a scientist.”
Nevertheless, Savage’s own account of his monogamish relationship (he and his husband, Terry Miller, have been together for 16 years and have a 13-year-old son) fosters a sense of support and community for couples who find little of it elsewhere. When he posted to his blog that The Advocate was seeking monogamish straight couples to interview, more than 25 couples eagerly emailed within 24 hours. And every one of them asked that their last names not be printed.
Divulging the bounds of an unconventional relationship can be akin to coming out of the closet. Megan and Colin don’t tell their friends because, she says, “They wouldn’t understand.” Word about one of her dalliances got out when the girlfriend of a man she’d been with came upon an incriminating email. “She then sent an email to his friends and family accusing him of sleeping with me—which was true,” recalls Megan, “but not anything anybody knew, and not when she and he were together.” One of Megan’s friends who received the email could not fathom the accusation. “She said to me, ‘I know you would never do this, you would never cheat on him, you’re not that kind of person, you two are perfect together.’ ” Megan tried to explain that there might be scenarios in which what she did is OK, but to no avail: “She doesn’t see cheating or nonmonogamy as anything other than this horrible thing that a couple can never recover from.”
Even many gay male couples, who Savage describes as having “perfected nonmonogamy,” fear disclosing that their relationship is anything but one-on-one. Gary (not his real name) is out in every area of his life, and his family is completely supportive. “But I don’t tell my family, even my brother—who I’m incredibly close with—that I have sex outside of the relationship with Ben,” his partner of 14 years, he says. “I have never said that to him.”
Gary and Ben, who live in Los Angeles, won’t reveal their real names because Ben has a high-profile career in television. “We have too much to lose,” Gary says. “But we also don’t want people passing judgment on us.” Which is why they don’t even tell most of their friends.
Sex therapist Timaree Schmit says she can understand gay couples’ desire to conform—at least outwardly—to the kind of conventional relationship that society deems “deserving” of marriage rights. “It’s been a big part of campaigning for marriage equality to repeatedly prove the ‘normalcy’ and stability of same-sex couples. People may feel pressure to make their relationship fit into a more acceptable box.”
Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen recently completed The Couples Study (TheCouplesStudy.com), an examination of nonmonogamy among 86 gay couples. A long-term gay couple themselves (36 years), they had found that little research had been conducted on how gay men navigate this terrain, so they embarked on an admittedly limited and self-selective study (they found many long-term couples who fit the bill, but relatively few who were willing to participate), but one that gives a view of the diversity of experiences. In fact, the thing they found most striking is that while nonmonogamy seems to be fairly pervasive among gay couples (though they did not hear from the many monogamous pairs), there is surprisingly little support within the gay population for such relationships.
Spears and Lowen were also surprised to discover such a wide range of kinds of nonmonogamy. “We thought we might find some models that we could slot some couples into,” says Spears, “but people had such a wide variety of approaches to nonmonogamy. And I think it spoke to the amount of creativity in the gay community.” They did identify some key characteristics and outlined the various ways in which couples live out their agreements, including having sex beyond the couple (12% do so together; 56% do it both together and separately; 32% play only independently — stats that seem to shift as relationships evolve), degrees of talking about their experiences together (40% had full disclosure; 40% had varying degrees of it; 20% took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, much like Megan and Colin), and kinds of outside sexual contact (34% will only have no-strings, anonymous encounters; 40% have friends with benefits; and some couples in both the aforementioned categories have differing preferences, meaning one likes it anonymous and the partner likes to have sex with friends). Seventy-five percent of the study’s participants put some rules on what constitutes their commitment and what will violate it.
Forty-two percent of the study’s participants agreed to open up within the first three months of their relationship, while 20% agreed on nonmonogamy only after a period of turmoil in which one partner was caught having cheated.
For the most part gay couples have had to figure out how to create these relationships for themselves. Ben and Gary began to open their relationship within the first year, at Ben’s request. “I rejected it,” recalls Gary. “I took it personally. Do you not think I’m an adequate lover? I felt like it was a slippery slope into who knows what.” But when they passed a hot guy on the street one night, it led to a conversation in which Ben convinced Gary to welcome an anonymous third into their bed. “So it started with us together, only,” says Gary. “The rule was it’s OK to play as long as we’re both there. Then that changed to as long as it’s respectful and it’s safe and as quickly as you can tell the other, tell me how hot it was so that we end up in bed together and we have sex.” That was stage 2. “Stage 3 is ‘OK, I don’t have to tell you every time, but I also will not lie about it.’ ” And that’s where they are today, having sex with a third together on occasion, having sex with partners independently, and sharing hot talk about the experiences. “What keeps a good temperature and pulse on this is we still have a great sex life and we keep it fun,” Gary says. “If not, this would be harder.”
The Couples Study suggests that consensual nonmonogamy can have a stabilizing effect on relationships. Dave, 35, and Maya, 33, a (mostly) straight couple, can attest to that. Married with a child in Los Angeles, they have a somewhat open relationship. She describes herself as “bi-comfortable,” while he is straight, and the few outside experiences they’ve had have been sharing lap dances at strip clubs and once hiring a stripper to join them for a three-way in their hotel room in Las Vegas. “Having an open relationship, even when we don’t act on it frequently, has been great for us and for our sex life,” says Dave. “It makes us feel more secure with each other, and we don’t fear cheating. Also, it’s improved the sex just because it’s exciting to think about having sex with other people.”
All of this flies in the face of the kind of marriage we’ve been told is right and traditional, but Justin A. Sitron, an assistant professor of human sexuality at Widener University, says that such views stem from “a paradigm that is really more fantasy than it was ever reality.”
Sitron says, “The 1950s family, with a mother, a father, and 2.2 kids was very much a representation in popular culture, but it wasn’t necessarily representative of real life. There was still divorce, nonmonogamy—consensual and non-.” In other words, the one man, one woman (or one man, one man) forever ideal may not be the most realistic or attainable model for everyone, and a little leeway can go a long way.
Sitron cites jealousy and dishonesty as obvious challenges in this kind of relationship and forgiveness, empathy, and self-awareness as essential qualities for a successful nonmonogamous pairing. “The requirements of nonmonogamy are the same whether it’s a heterosexual couple or homosexual,” he says.
Not surprisingly, there are even fewer models in the straight world. The ones that exist seem to be people who can be written off as kooky artist types, like Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton, who has a daughter with her husband but also has a boyfriend; and Mo’Nique (coincidentally, an Oscar-winner in the same category), who has spoken often of her open marriage. “We see examples of cheating everywhere,” says Schmit. “But openly discussed nonmonogamy? That is more taboo.”
Schmit says that the sexual context in which many gay men initiate relationships can smooth the way to normalizing nonmonogamy, and that’s not frequently how straight relationships kick off. “Plus, the steam room clause,” she says, referring to the one among some men in which sex at the gym does not count, “doesn’t really apply too well to straight people.”
“We’ve created a situation where, if you’re a good person, the only way you can ever have sex again is to leave your spouse, to divorce,” argues Savage. “Then you’re a good person and you can sleep with someone else — as if divorce and a broken family is the least worst option. I think adultery is the least worst option.”
This is where gay male couples and Savage’s outspoken role come in. “More than anything, gay marriage creates opportunities to broaden the conversation about marriage,” says Sitron. “I don’t think gay men are [necessarily] going to bring something [new] to marriage, but they are going to change the conversation about marriage.”
“I really enjoy sex, and I like looking at porn, and I like sexy guys, and I love Ben,” declares the happily committed and nonmonogamous Gary. “When [it became clear that] we could figure out a way to have all of these things together, without hurting each other, I thought, That’s a good goal.”
Megan and Colin’s open relationship evolved for very different reasons than Ben and Gary’s, and it reflects a certain pragmatic approach rather than some unconventional impulse. “Part of it is necessity,” Megan explains. “But I’m open to this because of who I’m with, not necessarily because of who I am. But I’d much rather be in an open relationship than be sexually frustrated or divorced. I’d far, far rather be in this situation than be in any of the supposedly honest alternatives.”