The New Monogamists
By Tim Murphy
Nick Joseph Selvaggi (left) and Cesar Anthony Fernandez
A GENERATIONAL SHIFT?
Wait a minute. Weren’t gay men the ones who were supposed to be reinventing the rules of matrimony and long-term relationships, showing the straights (and perhaps even a few U-Haul-to-the-second-date lesbian couples) how to loosen up and not feel compelled to tie love and commitment to sexual monogamy? What about the ’70s paradise of free love, Crisco, and poppers portrayed in books like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance, or in movies like Cruising? How did we get from being out-and-proud sexual outlaws to neat-and-clean gay couples who won’t even point out cute guys to one another?
There’s no definitive study—yet—to suggest that newbie couples of the marriage equality era are trending more monogo. But among those who study gay relationships, definite signs indicate that times are changing.
“Data we’ve collected [shows that] young men ages 16 to 25 are entirely focused on monogamy,” says Brian Mustanski, who studies gay relationships at Northwestern University. “Almost none of them can even conceive of having an open relationship. Many were shocked when I brought it up. I think that idea comes around later, in their 30s, after having had several relationships.”
Or could it be that gay men under 35 are embracing monogamy not out of wide-eyed, undying passion for one person but because, now more than ever, society, religion, and their families are urging them to? “Today’s younger generation of gay men [in the U.S.] is unique insofar as they are coming of age in an era that lends the possibility of same-sex civil marriage,” says Adam Isaiah Green, who studies gay male relationships at the University of Toronto. “No longer society’s default sexual outlaws, they’re presented with institutional opportunities to create intimate lives that are not too different from their heterosexual counterparts. They’re also adopting children more. These factors don’t in and of themselves equate with monogamous practices, but they’re probably correlated. Certainly they present a very different backdrop against which younger gay men may imagine their opportunities.”
This news could not come as more of a snooze to someone like the gay erotic photographer Tom Bianchi, 68, whose beautiful Polaroids of the hedonistic, Speedo-heavy Fire Island of the mid-to-late ’70s have come to epitomize a time before gays were invited to gambol behind the white picket fence of monogamy. Now a resident of Palm Springs, where he lives with his 39-year-old British boyfriend of three years, Bianchi thinks young gays who sign on to monogamy are missing out on a special aspect of the gay male experience. “Monogamy traditionally was a heterosexual norm to ensure the legitimacy of a man’s children, as in, ‘God forbid some bastard inherit my estate,’ ” he says. “Biology intends for men to spill their seed as far as they can. When you ignore that and shoehorn your sexuality into some simplistic form, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Ironically, says Bianchi, back in the swinging ’70s and early ’80s, he honored a lover’s request that they be monogamous. Bianchi ended up growing very close—platonically—with a good friend who was sick with AIDS. His lover got jealous anyway. “I told him, ‘I got what I wanted, which was to honor your needs, but you didn’t get what you wanted, which was not to feel jealous and insecure.’ ” Today, says Bianchi, he and his boyfriend often play with thirds and fourths, but always together and with careful mutual consultation beforehand. “Every single long-term gay male couple I’ve ever known has relaxed into some form of nonmonogamy eventually,” he says. “The rigidity of the absolute is very adolescent, like exchanging class rings. Sex is a very pleasant social pastime—way more fun than my parents’ bridge games. If you’re into maleness, why not have four armpits to stick your nose in instead of two?”
Bianchi is echoed by Dan Savage, the 49-year-old Seattle-based sex columnist who has talked publicly about being “monogamish” (almost but not quite monogamous) with Terry Miller, his lover of 18 years (they married in 2012). “I attempted monogamy in my 20s, too,” he says. “But life is long, and what you want at 25 isn’t necessarily what you want at 35 or 45. Every gay male couple I know in a serious and successful long-term relationship is nonmonogamous, even the ones who were monogamous the first 10 years.”
Savage says that Miller doesn’t like him to get explicit with the press about their sex life, but he allows that “we usually have one special somebody else for a while. We don’t dick around on Grindr. I certainly get fame whores throwing themselves at me, which I find a real turn-off.”