The New Monogamists
By Tim Murphy
CHANGING OVER TIME
Savage may be onto something; maybe what appears to be a generational split is actually part of a pattern, which experts and therapists say they’ve seen consistently over the decades, in which gay couples open up their relationships after the initial years of monogamous passion have cooled and they’re looking to jazz things up a bit. Studies as far back as the pre-AIDS era have consistently found about half of all gay male couples to be nonmonogamous at any given time (versus far lower rates for lesbian and hetero couples), and that nonmonogamy takes many different forms, from carte blanche openness to specific rules (only when we travel; no fucking allowed) to extramarital sex only when the couple is together.
Lanz Lowen, 60, and Blake Spears, 61, from San Francisco, have been together for 37 years, have always been nonmonogamous, and were recently married. Partly because they were curious about how other gay couples negotiated nonmonogamy, they published “The Couples Study” in 2010, an extensive survey of the ways in which a wide cohort of mostly Bay Area male couples practiced nonmonogamy, from full disclosure to “don’t ask, don’t tell” to “we only play together.” Mainly because they sourced respondents from their own social networks, their youngest respondent was 33 and the average length of time together for responding couples was 16 years. Only since the study was published, they say, have younger gays been reaching out to them, asking for advice on how to make nonmonogamy work.
“We wonder the extent to which younger gay couples are aware of and influenced by the history of nonmonogamy in the gay community,” says Lowen, an executive coach. “We suspect they’re somewhat aware, and it plants a seed for something they may consider, say, six years down the road, when they’re wanting more variety.”
The Young Swingers
Of course, even in a world in which more and more straight people are coming forward about being polyamorous, it’s still easier to find young gays willing to go on the record as monogamous than as, well, millennial swingers. One such open couple are Ben, a teacher, and Jory, an executive, both 30, who just moved from Atlanta to San Francisco, where they say they find much more acceptance of their nonmonogamy. (No surprise there.) Together for seven years and legally married in D.C. three years ago, they decided a year ago to start hooking up together with thirds and other couples, after having talked about it for several years.
“I can’t tell you how intensely this decision has changed our life for the better,” says Jory. “I was afraid it would make me jealous, but we really wanted to have sex with other people. We’ve got a lot of love to give.”
During the first few hookups with other guys, says Ben, “it felt adventurous and wild, but also safe because we were together.”
“We’d found that in trying to protect our monogamous relationship, we’d closed off a lot of people,” says Jory. “We were going to bars and not even meeting new friends. Now we have a lot more friends.”
At first, they say, they were meeting guys through Grindr. But now they like to meet guys when they’re out, or through friends. “We have that reputation now,” says Ben.
That’s not to say it never gets tricky for them. Sometimes they sense that the third guy is more into one of them than the other. (Thankfully, they say, they both go for the same type—young, scruffy guys who look more or less like they do.) “That makes me feel—not jealous, but inadequate,” says Jory.
“I can pick up when Jory’s not having a good time,” says Ben. “Then I don’t either.”
But for now, at least, they seem to be thriving at nonmonogamy, enjoying sexual variety while making new friends. That’s not to say it works out for everyone who tries it; in New York City, “Marco,” 33, a teacher, and his boyfriend, “Stephen,” 44, an actor, have an open relationship that allows for sex with others, together or apart. They’ve had tension over the fact that Marco keeps going back for sex to an older guy even though Stephen has said it makes him feel uncomfortable and threatened.
And yet, they let the openness continue. “It’s not a totally clean business,” says Stephen. “It takes work. But what I’m feeling is simple jealousy. We wouldn’t be happy with pure monogamy.”
The Marriage Factor
Love and marriage may go together like a horse and carriage, but must marriage and monogamy? Says Jean Malpas, a New York City psychotherapist who sees gay and straight couples, “One of my gay couples just were remarking that they’d been together five years and were still monogamous. They said, ‘Maybe it’s because we just got married. It’s harder to imagine being in an open marriage than an open relationship. Maybe that’s because marriage is what our parents had?’ ”
But Malpas also says that, increasingly, the straight couples he sees are discussing polyamorous or open arrangements, or the possibility of such. This suggests that, perhaps as much as traditional marriage is conservatizing some gay couples, the increasing visibility of gay relationships is turning more straight couples on to the idea of some degree of openness, or at least of alternate ideas of what marriage can look like.
One thing seems clear: It doesn’t appear that the increase in availability of legal marriage for gay men is creating a marriage-or-nonmonogamy dilemma. Most couples and experts I spoke to said that the decision to be monogamous or not was its own issue, one into which legal marriage factored little. Says Jory: “It’s our relationship and we can do what we want with it, married or not.”
Back in Manhattan, the Ailey-dancing Douthit-Boyds feel the same way. And what they want to do with their relationship is keep it to themselves, at least where sex is concerned. After all, they both point out, why should they be looking afar for hotness when they’re both young and hot themselves? (So hot, in fact, that at separate times, each has been chosen to be the poster boy for Ailey on Carrie Bradshaw–type bus ads around the city.)
Says Antonio: “We have friends in open relationships. Some work fine; they have an understanding. But to be honest, most get a bit messy.”
“When you think of an open relationship, the key word is relationship,” says Kirven, sounding exasperated. “If you’re trying to find something with so many other people, how can you put your focus into one solid thing?”