That, anyway, is what Dan Savage, America’s leading sex-advice columnist, would say. Although best known for his It Gets Better project, an archive of hopeful videos aimed at troubled gay youth, Savage has for 20 years been saying monogamy is harder than we admit and articulating a sexual ethic that he thinks honors the reality, rather than the romantic ideal, of marriage. In Savage Love, his weekly column, he inveighs against the American obsession with strict fidelity. In its place he proposes a sensibility that we might call American Gay Male, after that community’s tolerance for pornography, fetishes and a variety of partnered arrangements, from strict monogamy to wide openness.
Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.
“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”
It may or may not surprise you to learn that I only sort of agree with him. It has taken me a while to form a coherent statement of my views on the subject, but here we go:
When it comes to consenting adults, it's all fair game. I'm a monogamist, and so is Erik. In all honesty, I can barely bring myself to bother with one person's romantic sensibilities (he's worth it); there's no way I'd be willing to add in even a casual partner. I've never had a moment's interest in separating sex from emotion; I don't really think it's for the best, and my understanding of Biblical concepts holds me firm in this decision.
That said, I honestly don't give a rat's ass what anyone else does, within reasonable limits, which I will get to shortly. Monogamous? Great! Triad? Fine! Swingers? Why the hell should I care?
Now, let me get to the caveat in all of this, the reasonable limits I mentioned a sentence or three ago. Obviously, the usual disclaimers apply: no children, no animals, no one mentally incapable of agreeing, and no one forced/coerced into things.
That last part is the sticking point, though it seems obvious enough--I'm saying no raping, right? And of course I am, but that's not all I am saying. I'm talking about not coercing one partner into agreeing to let the other one stray for fear of losing the marriage.
I've seen this more than once, okay? A woman will say "We're poly," and then a little while later will admit that her husband is the only one with outside partners, 'cause she just doesn't want any. And while I'll readily admit that could be true--and probably is in a few cases--it doesn't sit right with me. Why? Power dynamics. When only one person is going outside the marriage, that reads a hell of a lot more like the other person didn't have much of a say in the matter.
I'll also go so far as to say that, if you don't put it out there before the marriage that you want to be poly, you don't get to go back later on and decide you are, not unless you both do. Once upon a time on a message board I read something to the effect of "I felt the need to be poly for a while." Dude (this was actually from a woman), that's not poly; that's infidelity. And yeah, I'll call you an ass for that.
Interestingly enough, I discussed this briefly with my best friend on Sunday. Savage's outlook in the story I linked is described as "Gay American Male", and the gay men I know certainly tend to be more likely to have multiple sex partners, even while in the midst of an otherwise committed relationship. It strikes me as odd, but hey, I'm not gay. So it was with a bit of mild surprise that I heard my best friend say he thinks open relationships are all well and good, but marriage itself should be monogamous. Maybe that would be a use for civil unions?