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Monogamy, with benefits
For those of you who missed "Open Marriage," the ethical non-monogamy movement of the 70's:
Ethical non-monogamy is back. Not that it ever actually disappeared. But it seems to be making news again.
Last year the New York Times bestselling book Sex at Dawn (extensively reviewed on these pages) argued that we're all really designed for sexual promiscuity, and proposed that we adopt a more relaxed, European-style sexual ethic. This year sees couples expert Tammy Nelson's thoughtful piece on "The New Monogamy" --which if I understand it correctly is not quite monogamy at all, but something closer to non-monogamy. "Monogamy Lite," perhaps.
And this week in the New York Times Magazine, Mark Oppenheimer's article, "Married, with infidelities," discusses the work of Dan Savage -- writer, activist, and married but not entirely monogamous gay man -- who feels that heterosexuals could learn from homosexual men to be more honest about extramarital sex. And more accepting of it.
Why is ethical non- monogamy suddenly hot again?
The internet, of course, for one. We leave denser electronic trails. More secret infidelities get discovered -- in private life, as well as in public life. When it's more obvious who's being secretly unfaithful, it's natural to wonder if there might after all be better alternatives to the traditional lying and cheating.
Then there's the "You Are Not Alone" factor. The internet has fostered electronic communities of like-minded polyamorous and nonmonogamous people. As it has for many other sexual minorities.
But I think the strongest force bringing attention now again to non-monogamy may be the successes of the gay civil rights movement. What my fellow sex writer Marty Klein called "the normalization of being gay." Not too many decades ago, it was common to view homosexuality as a disease. Many people entered psychotherapy with the intent of curing themselves of their same-sex attraction.
Now, except for in a few fundamentalist enclaves, gay people are rightfully acknowledged to be simply different, not disordered. Even in the traditional religious world, where homosexual acts are still officially forbidden, there is greater recognition that humans are diverse, and that some of them just happen to be homosexual -- like it or not. A majority of Americans now support gay civil rights.
Now that diversity in sexual orientation has been understood and accepted by most Americans, it's not surprising that other kinds of sexual diversity are beginning to be recognized as well. Just as some individuals don't fit the heterosexual mold, some individuals and couples don't seem to fit the monogamy mold either.
Who are the new non-monogamists?
In my Manhattan sex therapy practice I see many individuals -- straight, gay, and in-between -- who have particular trouble with strict monogamy. Some are genuine sexually enlightened spirits. Some seem to have an above-average need for sexual novelty. Some have a below-average tolerance for boredom. Some are intimacy-challenged. Many are shame-ridden and deeply unhappy about their sexuality, their yearning for sexual adventure, or the practical necessity of hiding it. Some are just stuck in disappointing marriages. And many have all these attributes in some combination.
Traditionally such individuals would either divorce, suffer in silence, or simply cheat on their spouses. Advocates of the new ethical non-monogamy, though, encourage couples to openly negotiate how and when it might be acceptable to go outside the marriage for sex.
New York University sociologist Judith Stacey, quoted in the Oppenheimer article, prefers to think of "integrity" rather than monogamy as the ideal for couples. "Work out terms of what your commitments are," she says, "and be on same page. There are women perfectly happy to have agreements in which when you are out of town you can have a little fling on the side. And rules range from 'don't ask, don't tell' to 'I want to know' to 'bring it home and talk about it and excite our relationship.' "
I don't think the majority of women are so open-minded. The Oppenheimer article quotes infidelity experts like Janice Spring who like me are skeptical that many women would accept what looks to be mostly a male-driven sexual agenda.
The genie in the bottle
As a sex therapist, I think any acknowledgement of sexual diversity is a very good thing - and long overdue. As Stacey says, "One size never fits all." I've known some couples for whom "Monogamy Lite" made for a much happier marital life.
This is difficult territory though. The integrity ideal proposed by Stacey, or by Savage, or by long-time proponents of ethical non-monogamy like Dossie Easton, sounds great. But most writers on the subject agree that it takes a lot of time and energy to negotiate mutually acceptable boundaries (kissing OK? orgasms OK? intercourse OK?) and to deal with the complex feelings that might arise. As I wrote in "Sexual survival in the modern world," many couples I see these days in my Manhattan sex therapy practice hardly have time for even one sexual relationship - much less more than one.
Then there's the problem of cultural attitudes - which in general are still very strongly against non-monogamy. Things change, though. Maybe in the future we'll see polyamorous and non-monogamous relationships, like homosexual relationships, as just another version of normal. Maybe as non-monogamy comes out of the closet, more couples who are truly dissatisfied with strict monogamy will talk about it openly and honestly - rather than just cheating on each other.
It took several decades for homosexuality not to be regarded as deviant. Maybe the same will be true for non-monogamy. Maybe it will be quicker.
Or maybe the new non-monogamy will suffer the same fate as the old non-monogamy, the "open marriage" of the 70's: persisting only as a fringe movement, without having contributed much of lasting value to the general sexual culture.
My guess is that the genie of sexual diversity will not be as easily put back in the bottle this go-around. We'll see.
Thanks to Jack Drescher, MD for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.
Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD 2011
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See related article, "The search for sexual sanity continues"