Toronto
7 min

The joy & agony of non-monogamy

Why one man sometimes just isn't enough

CASUAL ENCOUNTERS. For many gay men, monogamy is just not in the cards. Credit: Tony Fong

I just don’t understand gay men anymore.



Take my current relationship, which is entering its eighth month. “The honeymoon period,” I hear you say. Not exactly!



It’s been one of the most emotionally and intellectually challenging periods of my life – admittedly one of love and nourishment, but also of nagging doubts, escalating resentment, petty jealousies and childish competitiveness. The honeymoon was over before it began.



The reason behind this state of affairs is our inability to agree on a relationship arrangement that works well for the two of us. You see, he wants a non-monogamous relationship. I don’t.



I’m the old-fashioned type who believes in finding a partner and building a stable, caring relationship, in which sexual and emotional exclusivity, at least in the initial period, is the norm and not the exception.



But in the world that the gay liberation movement of the 1970s has handed over to us, and even in the so-called post-AIDS era we’re living in, that puts me in a minority. (Things might be changing somewhat for younger gay men if the results of Xtra’s recent readership survey are anything to go by. According to the survey, 37 percent of respondents are in long-term monogamous relationships, and younger people – those under 35 – were more likely to be involved in such relationships.)



Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing against non-monogamy as a chosen lifestyle between any two adults, and I don’t want to undermine its political significance. Neither am I suggesting that the straight, till-death-do-us-part model should be adopted wholeheartedly by gay men and lesbians.



Many gay men of my generation – now in their mid to late 30s – have come to see non-monogamy as inevitable. It’s unrealistic, my friends repeatedly tell me, to expect complete sexual and emotional fidelity from one partner. Boys will be boys and men will be pigs.



Monogamy, my boyfriend says, is a plot concocted by mainstream society to break down the radical spirit of the gay community. (You gotta love a man who says something like this without any hint of irony.)



I remain unconvinced. So, trying to find answers – maybe even reassurances – for my own relationship problems, I set off to explore the historical, psychological and social factors that make monogamy such a rare commodity in the gay male community.



Non-monogamy is part of the history of our evolvement as a community. Over the last 30 years or so, elaborate intellectual arguments have been constructed in its favour.



In the early 1970s, the then-young urban gay culture had an imperative mission to break the boundaries of heterosexual dominance. Women burnt their bras as gay men took off their underwear at every available opportunity. To be a sexual outlaw was a political statement as well as a reality of the day-to-day life of many gay men.



The very definition of being gay was inextricably linked to sexual freedom, which in turn was part of the fight against patriarchy, racism and other forms of discrimination. Rebelling against heterosexual norms was essential to our identity as a community.



“Having a lover – or wanting one,” an extreme but fairly representative article in The Body Politic claimed, “had nothing to do with the heart’s desire; you were merely identifying with oppressors.”



The sexual culture of gay men was expanding rapidly as gay bars, bathhouses and sex clubs sprang in virtually every major city in North America, Western Europe and beyond.



Even in the 1980s, during the peak years of the AIDS epidemic, there was a fear of losing our hard-earned sexual freedom. Gay and AIDS activists had a political investment in ensuring that sexual practice and morality remained distinctly apart. AIDS, the argument went, is a disease just like any other – it doesn’t matter how many men or women you sleep with, it’s what you do that counts.



I became involved in gay politics during the early ’90s queer activism phase. The rhetoric was different – more theoretical, more elaborate – but the sentiment remained the same: having sex with different partners is our way of defying straight-imposed rules.



It was around the same time that I started my postgraduate university work. Life was theory. Political discussions about “heterosexist hegemony” and “sexual anarchy” were the order of the day. But radical sexual rhetoric, I soon came to realize, leaves little room for human emotions: insecurities, jealousy, even love.



My first “open” relationship opened nothing but a can of worms of jealousy and competitiveness – any man you can do, I can do better. Call me prim, but hearing how your lover seduced the milkman somehow never had the same impact on me as seeing that scenario played out in porn flicks. This is my lover and this is our home and, above all, it’s my feelings at stake.



That relationship, as a friend described it, was a perfect example of “non-monogamy gone wrong.” Non-monogamous relationships, he told me, can only work within a tightly controlled and mutually defined framework. In the dilettante way it’s practiced by many of us, it’s a recipe for disaster.



The form of non-monogamy that many people believe to be the most realistic is one where both partners share an understanding of, let’s just say, the sexual urges of the male species. Outside sexual activity is accepted within certain limits, from occasional encounters during holidays or business trips, to quick and infrequent visits to the local bathhouse, cruising area or gay bar. In the classic open relationship model, such understanding doesn’t affect the emotional bond two men have between them.



“You can have it all,” says Mark, when I ask for his opinion on non-monogamy. “This is what’s so good about being gay: having the lover and having the freedom to explore others.”



For Mark, as for many other gay men, there’s an important difference between sexual and emotional monogamy. He considers himself to be emotionally committed to his 10-year-old relationship with his partner Sam. A key rule both men say they don’t break is to never bring anyone home, and another is not to go into the specifics of their sexual encounters.



If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the sauna – so spare each other the nitty-gritty of your latest conquest’s finely proportioned penis or superior blowjob skills. Like all relationships, an element of compromise is involved in this arrangement, which may explain why it’s worked for so long for them.



A more radical form of non-monogamy – and one potentially more fraught with problems – is where a secondary partner becomes involved with one member of a couple. As several lesbian friends tell me, this model fits better into their lives.



Whereas some gay men prefer fast and anonymous sexual encounters, facilitated by the availability of several avenues of opportunity, women rely more on the social network. It’s easier for sexual relationships to develop along the friendship model. Within that model, a more in-depth relationship can take place.



I’ve yet to meet, though I’m sure they’re out there, a gay man who says he can handle this kind of relationship without some serious repercussions. “I don’t think I can take it,” admits David. “I’m not sexually jealous, but I’m emotionally jealous.”



In devoting so much time to nourishing their primary relationship, how many couples actually care about the emotional well-being of those who enter their lives as secondary, sexual partners? And do these secondary partners take into consideration the effects they have on an established relationship?



These are issues for which it’s impractical to come up with clear-cut answers. In talking to friends, I realized that we all need to clarify more basic issues first. For example, there’s confusion regarding the difference between non-monogamy and promiscuity.



Promiscuity, the consensus was, applies more when you’re single and unattached. It’s a right even those in favour of monogamy would defend to their dying days. But once you enter into a relationship, where a certain amount of responsibility is required and expected, the picture is different.



Quite often, gay men’s inability to commit to a monogamous relationship stems from a refusal to take emotional responsibility seriously; and from a mentality that prioritizes sexual pleasure over any other form of gratification. It’s a sexual greed that designates every other gay man as a potential sexual conquest.



For Hanny (not his real name), who recently became single, monogamy is simply not in the cards. “I’ve decided that I enjoy sex a lot, and I want to keep enjoying it with many sexual partners,” he tells me. “I’m going to separate sex from love in my next relationship. Monogamy hasn’t worked for me in the past.”



He sees non-monogamous relationships as more honest and as less likely to cause rifts between lovers. Of his previous relationships which started on a monogamous basis, he says: “I found that both my partner and I were weak and would stray. The straying caused a breach of trust in our relationship and the relationship eventually fell apart.”



But sex within your primary relationship should always be explored first, for reasons that transcend pure physical pleasure. “Part of establishing the emotional intimacy between a couple, at least in the beginning, is through sex,” says Patrick. “It’s the easiest way to feel close to someone.” Before outside sexual pleasure is actively sought, he believes, emotional intimacy and trust must be secured between partners.



It suddenly hits me that this is where my boyfriend and I went wrong.



Gay relationships have evolved dramatically since the heyday of gay liberation. Although homosexuality has existed throughout the ages, two men or two women living together in a recognized partnership or family unit is a relatively recent thing.



We have experimented with – even helped create – sexual freedom. And while some of us have settled down with our partners, many have realized that the Ozzie and Harriet model is not for us, and come up with different arrangements.



The open relationship is a cherished gay institution, an agreement that combines stability with sexual adventurism. Talking to straight friends, I realize that it’s not an option that’s open to them, as they listen to me with equal measures of shock and jealousy.



The ’70s battles for sexual freedom have been taken over, in the last few years, by the fight to legalize gay marriages. This in turn brought to the forefront same-sex employment benefits and rights.



For some “old-school” gay activists, these are very different battles from the ones they fought in the ’70s. But while today’s activists have turned their attention to new goals, those decades-old battles continue to have a profound effect on the gay male community.



I remain skeptical about whether non-monogamy can work for me, being the emotionally jealous type. But I’m probably – though somewhat reluctantly – moving towards the variation that allows casual encounters.



Look at the bright side: I can have sex with other guys and say I’m doing what makes my man happy. Don’t say I don’t compromise.





Check out Xtra publisher David Walberg’s take on non-monogamy by hitting the button for the previous story!