'If I know what love is, it is because of you.' — Hermann Hesse
Of the many questions gay men face in forming romantic relationships, two are most prominent: 'Can gay men be monogamous?' and 'Should they be?' If you want to stir it up at a gathering of friends, go ahead and touch this 'third rail' of gay male discourse and watch the sparks fly. Everyone, it seems, has a point of view.
The open relationship argument goes something like this. Gay men, being men, are by nature inclined toward sex with multiple partners. It's not only natural, but is a vital component of urban gay male culture and offers a sexually-charged counterpoint to heterosexual norms. Open relationships, it's argued, challenge traditional beliefs that equate relationship with ownership, that is, the exclusive control of one person's body by another. When men give each other permission to have sex with others, they are expressing an unselfish love that strengthens the relationship and enhances their sexual chemistry.
The monogamy side, in contrast, views a closed relationship as a more stable one in which the bonds of love are expressed and reinforced through fidelity, restraint and moderation. Some would add that monogamous relationships are more secure, that men in monogamous relationships are happier, and that monogamy fosters psychological health and inhibits the spread of HIV. Proponents of monogamy often view non-monogamy as a visceral reaction to our history of having been criminalized and stigmatized. Sex with multiple partners is a deeply ingrained response to oppression in which the gay man declares: 'No one, not even a partner or spouse, can tell me what I can and can't do sexually.' While that response is understandable, the monogamist might argue that it is irrelevant to the modern gay male relationship. Gay men don't need to be furtive anymore … they can claim the right to a committed, primary relationship. Finally, those who promote monogamy sometimes suggest that gay men would have a lot less need for the psychological validation obtained through sex with strangers if they felt good about themselves to begin with and overcame the effects of homophobia.
What do male couples themselves say about this matter? Surveys are awfully misleading or inconclusive in that they never are based on true, representative samples. Still, they all report that varying degrees of non-monogamy are fairly common among male couples. Gay men seem more likely to explicitly address this question in their relationships than lesbian or heterosexual couples. Although the question may come up at various points in the course of a relationship, it often appears when the initial throes of passionate attraction to each other subside. Unfortunately, I've yet to find research that describes the process by which male couples determine their sexual agreements, or their reasons for any arrangement they may have.
So I'm left to my own observations and your input. Let me hear your own thoughts about what paths you've chosen, what works, and why. I'm betting that women, queer-identified and transfolk have something to add to this discussion. After all, the question of sexual fidelity is by no means unique to gay men, and others may approach the question in ways that have much to recommend. In a future column, I'll propose some guidelines for those couples inclined toward non-monogamy, even at the risk of hitting that third rail.
Bruce Koff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and COO of Live Oak, a group of psychotherapists and consultants who provide counseling and educational services that enhance the emotional and psychological well being of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Koff specializes in clinical practice with LGBT individuals and their families. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.liveoakchicago.com .
Copyright 2008 by Bruce Koff, LCSW