Our Dirty Little Secret, So What?

Part 2: Jealousy and Feeling Special

I recently wrote about non-monogamy being gay men’s dirty little secret. This is the second part of my response to why it matters that it is a dirty little secret. My overall concern is that by not being open about this aspect of our relationships—beyond simply acknowledging that non-monogamy is the norm among gay male relationships, but not discussing how this affects us—we will not and cannot form healthy ways of dealing with the particular challenges. In my previous response, I focused on the particular challenges of health and physical harm. Here I want to focus on how not talking about how we react to the specific behaviors of non-monogamy can cause hurt, and eventually resentment.

Jealousy, envy, and self-esteem are concerns for just about any relationship. But for non-monogamous relationships they may take on greater intensity. In monogamous relationships there are pretty clear boundaries on acceptable flirting and sexual behavior. In non-monogamous relationships the boundary is less inherently clear. I think all of us have found ourselves in a conversation with friends in which one person claims that oral sex does not count as sex with another person claiming that it does. In traditionally monogamous relationships you pretty much know that you are staying away from everyone else’s genitalia and keeping your genitalia away from everybody else. But in non-monogamous relationships there can be a lot of different facets to negotiate with regard to what is acceptable behavior and what is not. There may not be agreement on what is acceptable, respectful flirting or sexual behavior. How does one know he is going to hurt his partner unless this is discussed in advance?

Whom a partner plays around with can also be a point of tension. It can be a little upsetting if your partner plays with a guy that you are really hot for, but have not been able to land. Or your partner might end up playing with a guy that you don’t like, or even your ex—for many of us this could feel a little annoying. If your partner plays with a lot of guys and you are more selective you might find yourself feeling devalued. Sometimes we end up tricking with someone who mistakes the encounter for more than a trick. If that trick tries to impose himself into your relationship, then that is likely to cause a bit of stress.

I think we all want to feel special, especially to our partner. Many gay guys have had, or will have, over 1,000 partners in their lifetime. If you sleep around a lot, your partner may at times feel like he is nothing more than one in a line of guys for you—the one that it is convenient for you to sleep with regularly. Differences in libido, taste, style, and the type of person one attracts can make the openness of the relationship feel unfair. The difference in attention that each partner gets while you both are out in public can also be a problem. It is not uncommon for someone to find one member of a couple attractive and not the other, which can cause one partner to be the center of attention while his partner feels shoved to the side. In monogamous relationships neither of the partners are prey and this dynamic really doesn’t develop.

There can be additional pressure on the relationship from the secretive aspect of them. One of the great accomplishments for the GLBT community in the last 30 years has been our ability to be open about who we are and who our primary love interest is. This freedom has relieved a great deal of community stress. But for many of us, we still feel the need to keep this characteristic of our relationships secret and would feel uncomfortable if people knew that part of us. Maintaining secrets drains us of psychological energy. Most of us would feel comfortable going to a therapist to discuss the lack of sharing of chores within our relationships, but few of us would feel perfectly comfortable going to a therapist to discuss the fact that differences in tricking behaviors between us and our partners has become a point of conflict. Without talking about this, at least between partners, leaves the couple vulnerable to unintentionally hurting one another, which will eventually develop into resentment.

Our Dirty Little Secret, So What?

Part 1: Health and Physical Harm

I recently wrote about non-monogamy being gay men’s dirty little secret. So what? The problem with being unwilling to talk about the nature of our relationships means we do not deal with the particular challenges of non-monogamous relationships. Let me clarify that I do not mean to imply that non-monogamous relationship have more or harder challenges than monogamous relationships, simply that our relationships have unique challenges that are not addressed in all the self-help books on (monogamous) relationships or the couples counseling training that most therapists receive. Without talking about these specific challenges, one cannot address and solve them though. By bringing the truth of our relationships out from the shadow and into the light, we can begin to deal with our relationships in the same healthy ways that people in monogamous relationships do.

Non-monogamous relationships face health and safety concerns that monogamous relationships don’t face. Perhaps the most obvious concern is STDs. Even if both partners are HIV+ there is the risk of re-infection by a different strain of the virus that can compromise the effectiveness of one’s treatment. Syphilis, Herpes, and Chlamydia are all common in the gay community and, despite the availability of medical treatment, these diseases can cause real problems. Even if you know your partner is playing around with other guys, it can still be pretty disturbing for him to bring an STD into the relationship. Monogamous relationships have a much lower risk of this. Fooling around with a bunch of guys can even bring more flu and cold viruses into the relationship as well. As minor as that can be, it can also cause extra stress.

One of the advantages of monogamous relationships is that you no longer have to worry about psycho tricks. Monogamous couples are almost never attacked or killed by strangers they took home for sex. This obviously happens pretty infrequently with non-monogamous couples as well, but it does happen. I like a guy who looks a little edgy. Many of us fantasize about, or even bring home, rough trade. But some of the most respectable looking guys are also the most dangerous (Andrew Cunanan was rather presentable and he killed four gay men before killing Versace). Sometimes when I (or we) have had a trick over I worry about what he might steal. I usually assume that my partner and I could probably take down a stranger we brought home for sex if he physically threatened us—even though I know nothing about the guy’s fighting skills or whether he is armed. By being in non-monogamous relationships we give up some of the safety gained in monogamous relationships.

Another concern can be whether one’s partner is engaging is dangerous sex acts when you are not around to help him, should something go wrong. When my partner and I play with another I always make sure that anyone who fucks him wears a condom and share our rule of “cum on us, not in us” (I am rather old school in my safer-sex practices). Sometimes the reason for the open relationship is because one partner has a fetish that is not shared. Sometimes that fetish (e.g., bondage, flogging, electro-stimulation, fisting) has specific physical risks. In realty, we hear little about scenes with strangers going wrong and causing physical harm. In my field, I probably hear about it a little more—people are more likely to tell an open-minded therapist bound by a confidentiality agreement than their friends.

Though few of us take on these concerns on a daily basis for our partner, the risk itself can sometimes cause stress within the relationship. Ever worry about your partner when he was off playing with someone else? Ever worry about a quirky trick you (or you and your partner) brought home? This type of worrying is part of the human condition—at least in the mild form. The threats we experience are real and there can be a real affect from those threats—even when the threat is never realized. When we are more honest and open about the true nature of our relationships we can better alleviate or manage these threats. We can share ideas about how to best protect ourselves and reduce the threat and the stress.

Non-Monogamy: The Truth about Gay Male Relationships

A few years ago my parents visited the Ripcord with me and my partner where they saw guys, some of whom are in relationships, hug and kiss each other rather freely. After we left my mom asked me why guys did not get jealous and claimed that in the heterosexual community the same behavior would basically lead to fights. My partner and I explained that because it is the cultural norm for the gay community we know that (usually) it is simply an expression of friendly affection and not a romantic or even sexual advance.

Another way in which our cultural norms are different is that the majority of our relationships are not monogamous. A study a few years back found that 66% of couple gay men reported that they had had sex with someone besides their partner within the first year of the relationship. The same study found that within 5 years of a relationship 90% of coupled gay men had had sex with someone other than his partner. Another study found that 50% of the gay male couples who entered into same-sex unions in Vermont did not value sexual fidelity. When I have been in monogamous relationships with another man my friends occasionally ridiculed me, or at least found it strange. Clearly, monogamous coupling is not the norm in the gay male community.

Okay, so what exactly is a non-monogamous relationship? When I talk about non-monogamous relationships I mean a situation in which someone has one (or more) primarily love interest(s) with whom he is not sexually exclusive. So, if you are in a relationship and you and your partner play together with other guys, then you are in a non-monogamous relationship. If you and your partner have sex with other guys when the other is not around, or “have an open relationship,” then you have a non-monogamous relationship. Technically, if you are in a closed relationship with more than one other person (polyamorous), even you all of you are sexually active only with each other, then you are in a non-monogamous relationship.

We do not talk about the non-monogamous aspect of our relationships much though. Sometimes our relationships are non-monogamous and we do not even admit it to each other. We will talk about the tricks that we have had, but rarely do we talk about the impact this feature of our relationship has on our relationship. After a series of relationships that were either monogamous or unspokenly non-monogamous, I am currently in my first openly non-monogamous relationship. Even though it has been a number of years, I am still a little fascinated by the whole idea. But I have only found one friend who will talk to me about how the non-monogamous aspect of his relationship operates and how it affects his relationship. Friends may admit to having a non-monogamous relationship, but they don’t talk about them. There are a number of books that address non-monogamy—especially polyamory—but the majority of these books are geared toward heterosexuals and few tackle the true challenges of open relationships, and even fewer address the gay male experience specifically.

I think, despite the pressure and support from within the culture for non-monogamous relationships, we are still a little embarrassed about our relationships. We have all been raised in a culture that says that monogamy is the correct way to have a relationship. Few of us share the fact that our relationships are non-monogamous with our friends or colleagues outside of our community. I think most of us would be horrified to see a non-monogamous gay male couple on mainstream TV. I feel comfortable bringing my parents to the Ripcord and they know that my partner and I are into leather, but even I am not sure I want them to know that I am in a non-monogamous relationship. After all, as a community, we have spent the last 20 years trying to convince society that our relationships are “just like theirs” in order to receive acceptance. It is like our dirty little secret.