Two major studies out of San Francisco are taking a look at open relationships among gay, male couples like never before. The first study (to be released this month by San Francisco State University) looks at 556 male couples, half of whom had mutually agreed to outside sexual experiences, over the course of three years. The second (Lowen and Spears, 2009), focused exclusively on long-term (together for eight years or more) gay male couples who maintained consensual open relationships, of which 75% felt their outside sex had no negative impact on their primary connection.
It seems the debate about the validity of alternative relationships rages more strongly among gay men. This is partially a result of our community being more “out of the closet” regarding our sexuality and partially because some view open relationships as a threat to our ability to gain equal marriage rights.
Understanding open relationships has been a personal journey for me. As I was growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist home, although my parents exemplified monogamy (and still do after 56 years), not everything about it made sense to me. Although it seemed obviously unrealistic that one person could ever meet all of another person’s needs, when it came to sex there was absolutely no wiggle room. Furthermore, as my education advanced into sexology, I saw all kinds of relationships and sexual configurations defying the odds and working as successfully as any monogamous model.
These days I am most comfortable in an open relationship. This is where most monoga-maniacs will stop listening and stigmatize me as a “sex addict" who is “unable to commit.” What’s missing from this stereotyping is a major component found in these studies: There are very specific things about that these open relationships that are monogamous — safe sex, emotional primacy ... really, anything that's been negotiated in advance. Indeed, monogamy often comes down to a matter of degrees, even in mutually exclusive relationships. Where one couple draws the line of innocent flirting is not where another couple would draw the line. I like that an open relationship allows freedom to design a long-term connection precisely the way it works best for those involved.
It can be argued that there is a historical progression occurring, though most people can’t bring themselves to see it. Just as humanity has gone through industrial and technological evolutions, we go through emotional ones.
Believe it or not, there was a time that the church condemned all sexual relations as merely concessions to a weakness of the flesh — marriage included. Throughout most of humanity’s existence, marriage was used mainly as a business contract to secure (male-dominated) property. The more he could marry his children off to wealthy spouses, the more secure the family name. The more kids a wife could bear, the more of them could be put to work in the field. What made perfect sense at the time would now be considered crimes against children.
Over the past 150 years or so, Western civilization has upheld the view that the only valid relationship model is “one man and one woman in monogamous commitment forever.” After all this time, more and more people are asking, “How’s that workin’ out for us?” especially when about half of the straight marriages don’t behave monogamously, despite professing the ideal.
Still, the majority of us hang all our romantic hopes on this single ideal as if any other possible option would bring on the apocalypse. It would be like an engineer saying, “It’s wrong to make airplanes because the best designed mode of transportation is the automobile.” It just makes no sense, because in this day and age, we have options that serve different purposes.
I have no stake in pushing open relationships as the wave of the future. I’m simply suggesting that, just as there are a multitude of ways to travel, there are a multitude of options to create and modify the kind of relationships that meet our needs more deeply. For better or for worse, we live in a world that can produce almost our every whim from the options we choose. How long did we think holy matrimony would last before we began to upgrade our emotional operating systems?
What I think is most wonderful is that once again the gay community is ahead of the curve. Because our civil rights movement is about sexuality, gender, and those we love, we are already exploring options and learning from experiences in ways others can’t even bring themselves to dream about. That’s why I’m proud to be a queer! So let’s get marriage equality, and let’s not be held back by a model that only works for about half our population. One hundred years from now, they will look back on us as the ones who paved the way for more freedom, pleasure, satisfaction, and sexiness in our relationships.