For a long time it was odd to me that I could be in a social situation where my multiple intimate partners were present, we would all be okay with the situation, but people who were not involved with us would be freaking out. For example, I would throw a cocktail party at my house. I would invite the three men I was currently sleeping with. They knew about each other and they personally knew each other. None of them had an issue that I was not monogamous and none had a desire to “one-up” the others when we were together. When other friends would ask who was going to be there, I would tell them these three men were coming. For all my more traditionally focused friends, this revelation was greeted with looks of confusion, concern, horror and confusion again. I would be asked, “Do they know about one another?” “So I shouldn’t say anything about you?” “How do I talk to them?”
I have always been open and honest I am not monogamous. My partners always know before we ever get to the sex that I have other partners. They know each other’s names (or at least nicknames), they know how I feel about my other partners, and they know the sexual health status of the other partners. My policy has always been honesty and disclosure around non-monogamy. I want to make sure everybody is reading from the same book, and if they are searching for that great myth of heterosexual monogamy where neither person has a sexual past, they know to put this book back on the shelf.
The people I partner with are fine with non-monogamy. So why are so many people who I am not in a relationship horribly concerned about me sleeping with more than one person?
Some friends have framed the issue in terms of health. They will inquire if I am “being safe.” At 40, this is a little weird. I understand that my parent’s concern when I was younger. I have been an HIV educator and part of the HIV support community for 27 years. For heaven’s sake, I was the Executive Director of a non-profit that supported people living with AIDS. I know more than most people about the risks of STI’s and the appropriate ways to protect myself. I am not sleeping with the friends who ask, so I am a bit confounded by the deep concern about my safety. I know there is more to this question, because I will be asked multiple times by the same people.
I think I have figured out the deeper issue. Non-monogamy strikes as the heart of everything Americans have been taught about romance and love. Romance and love are supposed to be unconscious. For some reason, talking about love and sex and romance is seen as a way of devaluing it. Americans are also not supposed to have sexual pasts. We are supposed to come into our great romantic love relationship with little experience prior to falling in love. Unless you are very young and your great romance is your only romance in a lifetime, this is not going to happen. Non-monogamy shatters these illusions.
Talking about sex and love in a mature, respectful and thoughtful way is not widely practices. Sure, people will wax rhapsodic about a new love or say they just got laid, but the idea of talking to your partner about sex and feelings is not something most people do until they need a couple’s therapist. To do non-monogamy ethically and successfully, you have to be willing to have these conversations. I tell my partners that I have other intimate partners. All my current partners know how I feel about my primary – he comes first and he and I do things (sexually and otherwise) that are not open to other partners. I am honest about sexual health and risks.
This is weird for people who do not practice non-monogamy. I have never had a conversation with a friend about their affair that included any discussion with the outside partner about sexual health or their feelings about that person or their spouse prior to starting the affair. People who have affairs generally don’t admit that they are preparing to step out on their partner until “it just happens.” This means that risks are taken that do not need to be taken and there is a lot of lying. There is great pain when the person having the affair feels they must choose between partners. Often the person having the affair feels isolated and tries to make a complex emotional decision in a vacuum.
The person who was faithful feels betrayed. When I have talked to the person who was cheated on, the biggest part of the pain comes from the lying and betrayal of trust. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me, “If my partner had just had the conversation about wanting to have sex outside the relationship, we could have worked something out. Its the lying that kills me.” Yet, nearly universally, people in marriages where affairs have happened, still cannot believe that I am open about being non-monogamous.
Americans are also supposed to deny attachment or knowledge gained from prior relatioships. I watch television and movies. One common recurring theme is the “rid the ex” idea. At some point in a movie or television series, a romantically involved couple will discover that one of the partners has something from a past relationship (a physical object, emotional baggage is rarely addressed). The guy will have a book or the girl will have a bra she wore with a past lover. The couple fights and the object is generally discarded. The idea behind this is that we must rid ourselves of all tokens of past relationships in order to move into our great love relationship.
This confounds me. Unless the object(s) in question bring up negative memories or is something wildly inappropriate (e.g., an engagement ring that the person still wears) there is little need to banish all objects from a prior relationship. We all age. We all engage in multiple relationships. We all accumulate crap from these relationships. I don’t get the big deal.
I have pieces of art my ex-wife and I purchased. I still display them in my house. They remind me of very good times I had with my ex. They are objects of beauty, so I keep them around. I did get rid of the dildo that I used exclusively on her through the relationship. Every time I saw it, I would think of her. This was not useful when I was with a different sexual partner, so I tossed it. The dildo needed to go. The art, the linens I bought when we were together, and other things are still in my house and they are not points of contention.
As part of getting rid of our pasts, we are supposed to deny that we ever had a very intimate relationship. Sure, we acknowledge that our partners may have sleep with one or two people before us, but we are supposed to be their pinnacle sexual experience. We are not supposed to know that they had a ton of fun in bed with someone else. This is odd. We treat sex like politics. We want the least experienced person to occupy important positions. But, really?
Sex, like everything else, requires practice and learning. I want my partner to have a fair amount of experience under their belt. I want them to have taken time to learn about what to do sexually. I want them to be pretty damn expert level at some things. I don’t want to have to teach every partner the basics. I look at it like talking about politics. I have a graduate degree in Political Science. I have practiced in the political realm. Sure, I can teach Gov 1101, and have many times, but those classes and conversations are pretty boring to me. The conversations I find most interesting and fulfilling come from talks with people with at least my level of experience in the field. Those are the conversations I find engaging and I learn from. Gov 1101 is necessary, but is something I only do for pay. It doesn’t interest me beyond that. I am the same with sex. I don’t want to be your first. There is little in that experience for me.
Being honest about my experience and my non-monogamy strikes at the heart of American ideas of love. It requires people to acknowledge that someone can be honest and open about sexuality and love with all parties involves. I have traditional friends. They entered their marriages with a commitment to monogamy. At 40, I have two couples in my life who have managed to do that. Everyone else has experienced an affair or decided that under certain circumstances they will open their marriage to a third party. This is all very hush-hush as they are terrified of being judged. The stupid thing about this is, everyone is doing it. I am just honest and open about what I am doing. I think it might be the honesty that is most terrifying to people.
Non-monogamy is not uncommon. Honesty about it is. We need to get past the place of judging people for doing something most of us do and stop punishing honesty. I know many people are more comfortable keeping their open marriages in the closet and would never identify with non-monogamy. The reality is, if you are sleeping with more than one person (or your partner is), you are not monogamous. Non-monogamy has thousands of permutations. Get honest with yourself and stop judging others who are doing the same thing, just in the open.