Dear Dr Ren:
I am a middle aged gay man who is very independent and busy with my career. I also don’t feel I have the right to own anyone’s body so I am personally against marriage.
However, I am not into promiscuity–at least the shallow scene it can be–and too often sex friends have been based on, well, just sex. I want my one or two sex partners to be close friends but not to have them commit their bodies or their entire lives to me exclusively.
I have been hearing lately of polyamory. How is being in a polyamorous relationship different than having a sex buddy? Can it be just as shallow, or are there deep friendships involved?
I hear poly is very popular in the lesbian community. It sounds like there are more options there than for most gay men these days. How are you gals managing it?
Do you have any advice about how to have such an “open” relationship in a positive, non-judgmental way in the gay male community?
Poly Maybe Wants Some
Dear Maybe Wants Some:
Some of what you ask revolves around semantics, some involves gender-based behaviour, and some relates to the differences between ideology and reality. Let’s examine this one bit at a time.
First, you mention sex friends, sex partners, and sex buddies–all terms that can be used in a poly relationship, too. Polyamory literally means loving many.
Practically, it means sexual inclusivity, or being open to sensual and sexual experiences with more than one person at a time. You describe your own situation the same way. “Fuck buddy” and “secondary partner” may fill the same position, though the labels read differently. It’s just semantics.
You seem to think that lesbians form deeper friendships with their sexual partners and this may be true to a certain extent.
In general, women are more sensitive to the nuances of relationships and therefore may be better able to juggle several fluidly. We also tend to be more verbal than men, so we don’t mind (to a point) spending the endless hours sometimes necessary to manage multiple relationships. Being willing to stick around for the emotional connection even after the sexual zing has departed also fosters ongoing compound relationships among women.
Men dance these dynamics differently. Take sexual frequency, for example. Research on hormonal influence tells us that if we take three couples–gay, lesbian, and het–and count how often they engage in sex, we’ll find that frequency declines depending on how many males are in the couple: first, gay men; second, the het couple; and finally the lesbian pair. It follows, then, that gay men may feel more at ease forming sexual liaisons while their sisters may be more comfortable making friends. Thus the gender-based behaviour differences.
Finally we come to the distinction between what we say and what we actually do. This is true of those who profess to be monogamous/sexually exclusive (and who secretly cheat) and those who claim to be poly but in reality so control the conditions of inclusion that the spirit of polyamory is quite lost. This mislabelling is common across all orientations; sometimes deceptive, sometimes not.
What you may be seeing in the lesbian community is a small but committed group of women working intentionally to overcome conventional restrictions about sex and relationships. Perhaps not so noticeable are many more women treading the beaten path of vanilla sex and conventional coupling. And there are still a sizeable number of merged dyads characterized by lesbian bed death.
The women’s community is as diverse and complex as is yours, and as young historically. We’re all figuring it out as we go.
So though the boys’ and girls’ communities may look outwardly different, I believe there are many similarities. Most of us couple monogamously in serial fashion with brief periods in between long-term episodes. During the in-between phase there are some differences: men tend to be slutty at these times while women usually date one gal at a time until finding a keeper.
This monogamous method does not suit our biologically social nature long-term and not everyone can adapt to it. Poly is an alternative that fits those who, like you, abhor ownership from either side and who do not expect any one person to fulfill all their needs. It requires relearning how to manage jealousy and discretion. It also requires a sex-positive attitude and good communication skills. Good self-esteem helps too. Poly relationships build those characteristics in turn.
It sounds like you have already established some form of a poly lifestyle. If it feels too shallow for your liking, work to deepen your friendships. Discuss your relationships on a regular basis and negotiate their structure. You have a much better chance of getting what you want if you ask for it.
Educate yourself about the rules (read The Ethical Slut). Ensure that each of your new lovers understands your position. Seek out others who concur. Live according to safe, sane, and consensual ideals and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by others who share them.
Love is infinite. Make lots.