Michael C. LaSala Ph.D., LCSW

Gay and Lesbian Well-Being

Is Sexual Fidelity Possible…or Even Necessary?

What gay men can teach us about sex outside of marriage

Posted Feb 10, 2011

Elliott Spitzer, John Edwards, and Bill Clinton are just 3 of the many successful men caught up in scandals involving sex outside of the sacred bonds of matrimony, and though the details are still emerging, it appears that this was also the intention of Chris Lee and possibly Anthony Weiner. In our society, sexual monogamy in a marriage or committed relationship is considered sine qua non and therefore rarely questioned. But maybe now it is time for us to reconsider the supposedly irrefutable connection between love, commitment, and sexual exclusivity.

Gay male couples have something important to teach us about this highly charged topic. Many coupled gay men maintain unions in which they have agreed to be sexually nonexclusive, with little or no relationship repercussions. In my own research of 121 gay male couples, I compared couples who promised to be sexually exclusive to those in which both partners openly agreed to engage in outside sex and found that there were no significant differences in relationship satisfaction-both types of couples were equally happy--some openly nonmonogamous couples a bit more so. Even some couples in which both partners had agreed to be monogamous but one member was "cheating" could be happy and well-adjusted. How can this be?

Well, first we have to consider the issue of gender. Many men (and perhaps some women) may not be built for monogamy. Research comparing men and women suggest that males are more likely to engage in and enjoy sex without emotional commitment, and are more likely to value sexual variety. In other studies, husbands who were unfaithful in their marriages reported that they were quite satisfied with their sexual and emotional relationships with their wives. They fooled around because they wanted sexual diversity and the sense of adventure that comes with it-not because they were somehow unhappy or dissatisfied in their relationships-which is the prevailing wisdom.

Some scientists believe that men are biologically wired in a way that inhibits their ability to stay faithful to one partner. Perhaps, but let's keep in mind that as boys grow into men, they are generally encouraged to have as much sex as they can, and to always be prepared to go for it if the opportunity presents itself-so it is unclear whether nature or nurture (or both) is at play. Men who seek and get a lot of sex from a variety of women are called flattering names-while women are not supposed to be interested in casual sex with many partners and when they are, we all know what names they are called. Nevertheless, some research of couples who are engaged in "swinger" lifestyles suggest that once this stigma is removed and women are given permission to have sex with multiple partners without emotional commitment, many take to it like ducks to water.

When men step out or even have affairs in countries like Italy or France, this does not create a career-obliterating scandal, and as the Spitzers and the Clintons demonstrate, casual flings do not need to mean the end of a marriage (or career, for that matter). I don't pretend to know the particulars of the relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton, or for that matter, Jack and Jackie Kennedy but if you are in an ongoing relationship in which one member keeps going outside for sex, then, like it or not, you are in a nonmonogamous relationship (or should consider naming it as such)

Progressive, sex-positive theorists argue that the norms our society places on sexual expression are overly restrictive and the punishments meted out to those who break the rules, too harsh. Others question the notion that being in a relationship means you own your partner's body. One of my gay male research subjects described that what was more important in his relationship was monogamy of the heart, not the genitals.

So, where does this leave us? As a start, we need to stop wringing our hands when a man steps out of his marriage for casual sex. Psychologists and other mental health providers need to also be ready to discuss sexual non-exclusivity as a potentially viable option for their client couples struggling with sexual fidelity. We can also turn to sexually non-exclusive gay couples to learn how sexual nonmonogamy can (and does) work for them. They will tell you that what's needed are mutually agreed upon rules that maintain the primacy of the couple relationship and discourage outside emotional involvement. (We're talking monogamy of the heart, remember?) Examples of such guidelines include limiting such activity to when one partner is out of town, to threesomes when both partners are present, and also to no more than 2 or 3 encounters with the same person. The Edwards' marriage may have fallen apart because John fell in love with another woman whereby that of the Clintons and the Spitzers persisted because Bill and Elliott clearly did not. Of course, as smart gay men in nonmonogamous relationships will tell you, safer sex outside the relationship is always a must.

Whatever the reason, the experiences of gay and heterosexual men   (and women) who have sex outside their happy unions should make us pause and question the prevailing norms around sexuality and committed relationships. It is time for society, psychotherapists, and couples themselves to consider that when it comes to love, commitment, and sexual exclusivity, one size that does not fit all.


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About the Author

Michael C. LaSala, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the School of Social Work at Rutgers University, and author of Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child.

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