How To Talk About Non-Monogamy Without Losing Your Mind

Discussions of infidelity tend to freak everybody out. But contrary to popular belief, it is possible to talk about monogamy, non-monogamy, sex, and cheating in a rational way.

That's what Mark Oppenheimer does in his Times magazine piece on infidelity as viewed through the personal beliefs of Dan Savage. Savage is, of course, just one dude, but the It Gets Better Project has made him more prominent than ever, and he's become one of America's most visible and vocal critics of monogamy. Actually, he says monogamy is right for many couples, and describes his own marriage as "monogamish." But Oppenheimer quotes him saying some pretty strident things, like this bit:

"The mistake that straight people made," Savage told me, "was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey." In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women "the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed," we extended to men the confines women had always endured. "And it's been a disaster for marriage."

Of course, not everyone's cool with their partner relieving pressure into someone else's orifices, and Sady Doyle points out that being down with everything your significant other wants can work out not-so-great for women:

I don't think you should flip out on your partner if they share something sexual with you. But I think sometimes it's much harder for women to say, ‘I'm not into that,' or ‘Please, I don't want to do that, let's do something else,' than it is to say, ‘Sure.' Putting all the onus on the person who doesn't have that fetish or desire, particularly if the person who doesn't have that desire is the woman, really reproduces a lot of old structures and means of oppression for women.

For every person who's been flipped out on for revealing non-monogamous urges, there's somebody who's been shamed by a partner for not being okay with non-monogamy. And for everybody who calls non-monogamists cheaters (even though, as Coke Talk so sagely suggests, they often aren't), there's somebody else who dismisses monogamists as uncool, deluded, or insecure. This has frequently seemed to me like a singularly unproductive debate, one in which old wounds get reopened (anybody who doesn't have some bad memories about fidelity or fidelity issues is either very lucky or fifteen years old), people get defensive, and nothing gets solved. Luckily, Oppenheimer has found someone who cuts through all that. Her name is Judith Stacey, she's a sociologist, and she says, "Monoga­my is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what's natural." And:

What integrity means for me is we shouldn't impose a single vow of monogamy as a superior standard for all relationships. Intimate partners should decide the vows you want to make. Work out terms of what your commitments are, and be on same page. There are women perfectly happy to have agreements in which when you are out of town you can have a little fling on the side. And rules range from ‘don't ask, don't tell' to ‘I want to know' to ‘bring it home and talk about it and excite our relationship.'

It seems obvious — partners should talk about their expectations for sexual exclusivity or lack thereof, and work out an arrangement that works for both (or all) of them. And yet this ridiculously simple message frequently gets lost in useless debates about what women want, what men need, what's right, what's wrong, and what's normal. Why can't we just accept that every relationship is different and everybody should negotiate fidelity on their own terms? I think it's those wounds I mentioned above. No matter what our attitudes toward exclusivity are, a lot of us have been hurt — by cheating, or by a monogamous relationship that was uncommunicative and unfulfilling, or by people who told us that whatever we wanted to do with other consenting adults was wrong or gross or perverted. This can lead us to lash out at anybody living in relationships we find threatening, even if said relationships don't actually threaten us in any way. We all deserve better than this, and we can start by treating each other with respect, whether were monogamous, polyamorous, or somewhere in between.

Married, With Infidelities [NYT Magazine]

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