I was monogamous once. Hated it. I was living with Tim, with whom I’d had killer sex at the beginning and to whom I’d issued the standard warning: I’m not monogamous. After the first year, things fell apart. I discovered that he had a fatal flaw, a weak personality. He discovered that I drank too much when I was unhappy. Sex became infrequent and then stopped altogether. We still liked each other and it was going to be a lot of work to break up. I had moved to be with Tim, and the thought of the drive back to California with my old, slow Volvo wagon packed with my household goods was an incentive to work it out. Though we weren’t having sex, he asked me not to sleep with anyone else, as that would make him feel inadequate.
I did not have any particular desire to sleep with anyone and no candidates, but all it took was for me to agree to this sacrifice for a hot opportunity to present itself in the form of a damn cute working class boy of Italian descent. Let your imagination work, you probably can’t make him hotter than he was. I refrained, and I went another year without sex before finally packing up the Volvo and driving home to California, where in my desperation I took up with a rude and messy cello player whose table manners were so primitive, my pet name for him was Troglodyte -- Trog for short. I’m still bitter about that year without sex and the missed opportunity with the Italian boy and the very idea that Tim somehow benefitted from my sexual frustration. I never again agreed to be monogamous with anyone. My husband and I will celebrate 23 mainly happy, non-monogamous years together in June.
Non-monogamy has been good for me, but it was rough in the beginning. The beginning was, as for most people, high school. I was a smart kid in San Francisco, and I was both astonishingly naive and naturally broad-minded about sex. My first boyfriend was a geek named John. On our first date, his mother drove us to see a comedy with Vanessa Redgrave, unexpectedly double billed with an X-rated Swedish movie about everybody fucking everybody else. We giggled a lot afterward. I suppose my first date was a kind of omen. John and I did the usual kid groping, nothing below the belt. Then one day, he asked me if I wanted to make out with his best friend. Looking back, I guess he was trying to impress his friend. I thought this was a great idea and happily complied. John’s feelings were hurt, and neither boy would talk to me afterward. I was confused. It hadn’t been my idea in the first place. This was my introduction to being blamed for what boys wanted.
That was upsetting but not world shaking. I began dating Nick, my best friend Tanya’s brother. Later I dated Nick’s cousin Nick, who was attractive and experienced enough to introduce me to some more advanced sexual activities short of intercourse. Then, at a party, I made out with this rat-faced bad boy friend of the Nicks whom I rather fancied, God knows why. To my surprise and bewilderment, I became the object of gossip. Tanya dropped me. The Nicks were over me. The rat-faced boy was cold. A sweet girl named Natalie did me the kindness of explaining that no one wanted to be my friend anymore because I was a slut, before she quit talking to me, too. I was a little indignant -- I was a virgin, for Christ’s sake. Even I knew enough about sex to know I wasn’t a real slut. Not yet.
But no matter. I may have lost all my friends in one weekend, but I moved on to a hipper crowd. It was the sixties, and my academic high school had a hippie clique that I became part of. I dove into the counter-culture. I cut school, took drugs and went down to the Haight. I was embarrassed that I had ever hung out with the uncool kids in Tanya’s crowd. Clearly, those bourgeois, unenlightened teenagers were dupes of an oppressive capitalist system that would collapse if we all made love and not war. Among my new friends, free love was a moral imperative. Selecting one mate and rejecting all others played into the hands of the military-industrial complex, not to mention the patriarchy. I’m pretty sure we didn’t know what we were talking about, and most of my high school hippie friends grew up to have conventional relationships as the counter culture in general retreated from its more experimental territories. But in my naive, wide-eyed way, I knew what was good for me. I embraced free love for life.
Over time, I’ve understood my preference to be largely personal, but also political. It is both a choice and a recognition of my own nature. I am capable of engaging in more than one relationship at a time. If I’m committed to one partner, the fact that I’m attracted to someone else doesn’t change my commitment. I don’t need to leave one person to be with another. Whatever I’m doing with a person -- marriage, relationship, dating, friendly fucking, one-night stand -- is defined with that person, unaffected by my feelings for any other lover.
All relationships have some rules, and these pretty much protect the relationship from interference by others. For instance, if I share finances with someone --my husband, for instance -- spending money on a lover is something we discuss. A relationship may require a certain amount of dependable contact, like how often he calls or how many nights he spends at home, or it may be pretty casual. The expectations are set with the partner. My relationships are ranked, because this is what works for my husband and me. That means I have a greater responsibility to my husband than to a boyfriend or casual lover. I’ve never had a lover who didn’t understand boundaries, perhaps because I don’t get confused about them myself.
I am, of course, perfectly happy to be with someone who is also non-monogamous. I’m not jealous or competitive. I need time alone. I’m self-possessed enough not to be threatened by other, possibly younger and cuter, women. I believe that whoever I’m with is with me because they want to be, not because they have no other choice. I do not believe my husband or a boyfriend will leave me because they meet someone who outclasses me. I don’t get involved with anyone that shallow. My relationships, like everyone’s, end when they no longer suit me or my partner, not because someone outside of the relationship caused them to fail.
Not only don’t I mind not being monogamous, I’m at a loss to understand what monogamy offers that I don’t have in my non-monogamous relationship. My marriage is a long-term relationship that along the way became legal. We’re still in love. My husband is romantic, sweet, supportive, loyal, a friend. He buys me gifts and loves to take me out. He participates in my family, generously helping take care of my elderly relatives. He reads poetry to me. He looks after me when I’ve had surgery, which is often. He’s taken over a lot of domestic responsibilities as I find them more difficult. He supports me financially now that I don’t work. He and I have great conversations. He’s a terrific lover. What exactly am I missing because he’s got a girlfriend? The satisfaction of knowing my man never has sex with anyone else? I place no value on that.
I know the objections and stereotypes. “You must have low self-esteem.” No, I’ve always liked myself and expect to be treated well. “Sex isn’t as sweet when you know he has other women.” Yes, it is, and there’s a reason he gets the girls. “He will never quite trust you knowing that you might be with another man.” Yes, he will, because there is no jealousy and no lies. “You are not truly committed to your marriage because you allow others into your lives sexually.” We are very committed; our so-called “open” marriage is not really open to anyone else. We’ve had more than our share of challenges and would not be together today if our marriage didn’t matter a great deal to us. “You can’t avoid jealousy and its corrosive effects.” Yes, you can; it all depends on the interpretation you choose to put on your partner’s sexual autonomy. If you don’t believe you’ve been done wrong, you won’t feel hurt. If you don’t believe that other people are better than you, you won’t feel jealous or threatened. “That might work for you but not for most people.” Monogamy isn’t working for a lot of people, either. It might be time to change attitudes.
I believe monogamy is way oversold. First of all, very few people are truly monogamous. So-called serial monogamy is not monogamy, if monogamy means having one life partner, as it does for geese and wolves. I don’t know a single person who has mated for life. In fact, among primates, there is one true monogamous species and it’s not us, it’s the Borneo orangutan. Statistics -- divorce statistics and surveys of sexual behavior starting with Kinsey -- demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans have more than one sexual partner in their lives. Even accepting the convenient “one partner at a time” definition of monogamy, a large number of people are not monogamous, having sex outside of their marriages.
I do not want to accuse anyone of hypocrisy for claiming to be monogamous. There are some people who are by temperament monogamous and I would not deny them the satisfaction of their achievement. There are others who subscribe to monogamy but for whom monogamous behavior is unnatural. As there is scant support for openly rejecting monogamy, they may try and fail to be monogamous, causing themselves and their partners unnecessary pain.
The American myth of love and marriage is a recipe for emotional disaster. We still pay lip service to the notion that young people will fall in love and meet each other’s physical and emotional needs for the rest of their lives. That’s obviously ridiculous when applied to everyone, but we have no other model of a “good” relationship. When, as is common, one partner has sex with someone else, the marriage suffers an upheaval. There is a painful confrontation with reality. Most couples lack a cognitive framework to understand the behavior. Rather than understanding, there is shouting, crying, slamming doors, packing suitcases, calling lawyers. If the couple manages to “work it out,” the straying partner is required to express guilt and remorse for what is natural behavior and make promises they may not be able to keep. Rarely does anyone really get over the sense of betrayal. The marriage has a storm cloud over it for the remainder of its existence. This scenario is much more common than the happy, mated-for-life one.
The statistics on who’s having extramarital sex -- 60% of men, 40% of women -- lead to the inevitable conclusion that any married person is as likely as not to have sex with someone else during their marriage. Roughly half of all married people qualify as strayers, adulterers and faithless betrayers. Half of just about everybody is going to commit what is perceived as a dreadful sin against their marriage, yet the numbers are high enough that adultery is equally the norm with monogamy. Our beliefs about marriage are in permanent, unhealthy tension with reality, with around half of marital partners attempting to be monogamous against their nature, like gays in the past who tried to live straight.
We ought to update the discussion and apply modern knowledge about sex and marriage to it. Why is sex outside of marriage even called adultery, which is a religious concept, not a biological or social one? Long before half of all marriages ended in divorce, we gave up the idea that a divorced woman was a fallen woman. It’s been over 50 years since Kinsey told us masturbation was normal, and we’ve stopped calling it self-abuse. Yet we persist in referring to sex outside of marriage in purely negative terms. We don’t even have an accepted neutral term, other than the overly-specific or the fringe-sounding “polyamory,” “swinging” or “open marriage.” We don’t have the words to discuss this issue in spite of the vastness of the information, not only about the prevalence -- the near-inevitability -- of sex outside of marriage, but also about biology and evolution, which drive this behavior. Sex outside of marriage will happen. We need a benign way to discuss it.
Monogamy was never the biological default. While the situation may not be as simple as we thought in the 60s, there is some truth to the notion that monogamy became important only when inheritance became a societal concern. It’s also clear that monogamy was only for women until recently, men in traditional societies all over the world being allowed the privilege of extramarital sex. In modern America, rather than question the necessity for knowing genetic parentage that justifies monogamy, along with the other norms of traditional marriage, we have merely extended the unreasonable expectation of sexual exclusiveness to men. In a perverse achievement for feminism, we now get to condemn men as well as women for acting on their biological imperatives.
I have known people, mainly women since more of my friends are women, who were happy in a relationship until they discovered that their partner had made love with someone else. Though nothing changed and she was satisfied with the relationship, this bit of information fundamentally and retroactively altered how she felt about it. The whole marriage was now seen as one big lie. Why? It seems to me to be an question of attitude and not much else. Like someone who yearns for what they can’t have and despises what they do have, the injured spouse chooses to give up her partner, home, shared interests, financial security, mutual friends -- everything that makes up a relationship, which is, after all, more than sex -- because she can’t have the one thing that she chooses to place value on, sexual exclusiveness.
It makes no sense to me and never has. I’ve been careful never to commit to a sexually exclusive relationship. Other than that one lapse with Tim, I’ve never allowed anyone to dictate to me how I use my body, nor have I ever demanded that a partner renounce all other relationships. I do have high standards for relationships. I expect a partner to treat me with respect, to remain interested, to pay attention. I much prefer a partner to give me the right kind of attention in the amounts (reasonable) that I need it in spite of spending time with other women, than to be taken for granted or bored by someone who never looks at another woman. That seems obvious to me. Of course, it’s not impossible to be in a rich, happy, sexually monogamous relationship, but what surprises me is the high relative value that many people place on exclusivity compared to intensity. They’ll put up with boring as long as he doesn’t share the boredom with anyone else.
Quite a long time ago, my life became seriously stressful. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and required increasing intervention. She lived with the illness for fifteen years and her care was my responsibility. There were constant problems and I worried about my mother a lot. My sexual response became erratic; try thinking about your mother and getting turned on. A few years after my mother’s illness began, I became seriously ill myself. For a year and a half, I was felled by hepatitis. I recovered but have periodic episodes of fatigue, where it’s hard to think, much less move. For thirteen years, we were financially stressed by my mother’s illness, having to find the money to pay 24 hour care.
About eight years ago, I developed arthritis, which led to a hip replacement and a permanent bad back. I have degenerative disc disease, a condition where your spinal discs are destroyed by arthritis and the bones begin to slide out of line and collapse. It hurts sometimes. A few years ago, menopause knocked me flat. I was tired all the time. I went dry. My husband’s penis felt to me like it was covered with broken glass. I could still get sexual release by other methods, but the idea of approaching sex at all was discouraging.
Before I lost my job in tech, I saw the writing on the wall and applied to law school. My medical problems accelerated while I was getting my law degree, a grueling process in the best of times. I had three of my ten recent surgeries while in law school, as well as numerous diagnostic and palliative procedures, usually involving needles in my back, hips and knees. I began taking pain pills. My sex drive went missing. I mention all these factors because I want to be clear that my sexual withdrawal from my husband had nothing to do with him and was not a result of changed feelings on my part. It was physical and to some extent, social, in that the lack of a safety net focussed the stress of my mother’s long-term illness on me in very damaging way.
Around the time I started having health problems, my husband and I met Stephanie, a delightful young artist and stripper who worked on our magazine, Frighten the Horses. My husband and Stephanie dated for several years. She remained our friend after they stopped dating. She was always welcome in my house. I liked her because she was a hoot and she treated my husband well. The fact that she was 17 years younger than me and had a perfect body did not faze me; my husband was with me for reasons beyond looks or age, and the bond between us was not altered by this beautiful young woman. If anything, I was relieved that he had someone he loved and who was a refuge from our stresses.
Stephanie at 25 in 1994
A few years later, he began dating Yvonne, a graduate student whose dissertation merges linguistics and physics. She’s one of the few people I’ve met whom I consider smarter than me. She’s also much younger and they seem to have a very hot sexual relationship. I invite Yvonne over once in a while for dinner and we recently did a project together. These are just a couple of the lovely women my husband has dated since we’ve been together, and they are the ones whom I bless for making his life better when I couldn’t.
A year and a half after I graduated from law school, having resigned myself to a life of illness, stress, seizures and pain, I came out the other side of the turbulence. My mom had passed away. The doctors miraculously patched me up into reasonable shape. Though I’m no longer an athlete, I get around pretty well. I’m not tired anymore. My libido came roaring back to the level I enjoyed in my 30s. Menopause was defeated by life-affirming hormones, and sex no longer feels painful. In fact, it feels great, which is lovely for me and very nice for my husband.
Now that the horrible period is over, I have the satisfaction of knowing that my husband was not forced to pay for my illness with enforced celibacy. I was never tempted to ask him to share in my sexual limbo. He gave me more than most men would have given, but he did not give up -- nor did I try to take from him -- his identity as a sexual being. We are together because we love each other, have a life together, are emotionally attached. He was heroically faithful to me, taking care of me physically, financially and emotionally. He had lovers with my knowledge and approval. What kind of bitch would I be to begrudge him that R & R when I couldn’t even perform sexually? While I have guilt, perhaps unnecessary, for what I put him through, there is none over denying him sex. In 23 years, he and I have had absolutely no drama over sex. How many married couples can say that?
What’s sauce for the goose, etc. Recently, I began corresponding with an online friend and it turned into sex very quickly. Fooling around on the internet was completely new to me, but I’m a quick study. As many people who have love affairs have discovered, your married sex life improves, too. There has been no negative fallout from my online affair, which has in fact progressed to a couple of face to face meetings. My new lover and I are happy and energized by the affair. Neither of us has any desire to leave our spouses. Neither feels the need to blow up our lives, hurting those who have family and social connections to the couples we are in.
My husband is happy for me. He supports my love affair, while continuing to enjoy a relationship with Yvonne. We are reclaiming our own sex life. Neither of us tells any lies. Let that sink in. No lies, ever. How many married couples can say that?