America is experiencing another sexual revolution. Under the radar and certainly ignored by the vast majority of mainstream media and popular culture, tens of millions of men and women have opted out of traditional monogamy – boy meets girl, girl has baby, boy and girl get divorced or grow old together, not always happily – in favor of alternative sexual relationships.
Most marriages end in divorce or dysfunction. Eric Anderson, author of The Monogamy Gap, makes a convincing argument that these relationships crash and burn due to the intrinsic contradictions of monogamism:
“Young men entering into romantic/sexual relationships are misled into thinking that monogamy is capable of providing them with a lifetime of sexual fulfillment and that if they truly loved their partners they would not desire others. This, we are told, is because monogamy is healthy, proper, moral, and natural. Anyone deviating from or challenging this script is stigmatized.”
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about these different lifestyles. (I don’t say “new” lifestyles because, if anything, marriage and monogamy are still in their early experimental stages by anthropological standards.
Marriage only goes back a few thousand years in the Western world; marriage for love is barely 100 years old in the West and anything but the global standard even at this writing.)
Here are some of the most common nonmonogamous relationship formats in the United States today:
An open relationship is just what it sounds like: you are free to have sex with people other than your partner. And so is she.
“There are a wide variety of open-relationship models out there, and they can vary drastically from one couple to another,” psychology professior David Barash and co-author of “The Myth of Monogamy” told Men’s Fitness. “Having an open relationship can work really well for some people. However, as people, we’re also inclined to be sexually jealous of a partner being with someone else, and from a biological standpoint, we’re resistant to that partner having another relationship.”
The actors Mo’Nique and Will Smith have been reported to be in open relationships. The hip-hop artist Pitbull, 26, has been in an open relationship with his girlfriend for the last nine years. He says it works for them: “I’m not going to be worried about what she does when I’m not around. I think men are more bitches than women. They let their ego and insecurities come into play.”
Estimates of the frequency of open relationships in the United States vary between 1% and 9% of sexually active adults in committed relationships.
Generally speaking, open relationships work as complements to – as opposed to replacements for – powerful core relationships where trust and sexual attraction are strong. Communication is absolutely key. People don’t have open relationships in order to lie – they do it so they don’t have to.
Successful open relationships rest on adherence to a set of rules negotiated between the two of you: how often are you each allowed to have sex with other people? Can you stay out all night or do you have to come home by midnight? Do you want to meet the other man or the other woman? Consider your needs, don’t hesitate to ask for them, and always meet your partner’s needs if you can. And if you can’t, talk about it.
People in polyamorous relationships – which are a subset of open relationships – usually belong to a network, or “pod,” of people who either know each other very well or at least get together from time to time. Polyamorous people often arrange their relationships hierarchically. You might have a “primary” partner – this might be someone you live with, or your husband or wife – plus a “secondary” with whom you spend less time and to whom you are expected to be less devoted than your primary.
As any poly person will tell you, this can be a lot of work.
There are, of course, as many variations on polyamory as there are in mathematics. People belong to triad relationships (three people), quads and so on.
The main aspects that distinguish polyamory from ordinary open relationships are that polyamorous people usually know their partners’ partners, and that they typically have more elaborate rules concerning romantic hierarchy. “It’s like having a regular, monogamous relationship but having more than one of them,” a poly man named Mark told CNN. Mark and his wife “live alone and have no children, but they’ve been involved with two other couples with children for the past six years. Mark and his wife spend time with the adults and their children doing family-friendly activities but the adults also go out on dates, cuddle and more.”
Polyamory has become increasingly visible in recent years, thanks to shows like Showtime’s reality series “Polyamory: Married and Dating.” Researchers believe that as many as 5% of Americans are actively involved in polyamorous relationships. Anecdotally, the poly lifestyle seems to be especially attractive to Americans under the age of 30.
Swinging is no strings attached sex with the consent and/or participation of your partner. Couples, single men and single women set up dates with each other to meet for sex. As with polyamory and open relationships in general, transparency and honesty are key. The main difference between swinging and polyamory is that emotional attachments are minimal to none in swinging. It’s all just about the fun and the sex.
That said, swinging can become a long-term relationship when, for example, to couples get to know each other and start spending more time together.
Swingers are also more likely to go on adventures together, as opposed to separately. Not only is jealousy not supposed to be an issue, many swingers say they are turned on by watching their partners have sex with someone else. “Our best sex is with each other,” Sara told ABC News, while attending a sex orgy in Manhattan with her boyfriend Michael. “We have pretty amazing sex at home when we’re alone. When we come here it’s a physical attraction, not an emotional attraction.”
There is sizable swinging infrastructure of sex clubs, parties and even cruises that generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year in business in the United States.
There is no way to know exactly how many married couples are actively swinging in the United States, but it is generally agreed that about 15% will try it at least once.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Otherwise known as the relationship that everyone assumes Bill and Hillary Clinton have, this is where you can pretty much do whatever you want as long as you are discreet. Since DADT is not part of any kind of established infrastructure or ideology, it’s more of a do-it-yourself form of open relationship, and as such has been around for many years.
Among the generally accepted principles are: don’t bring home any drama and don’t bring home any STDs. In other words, don’t be having the boyfriend or girlfriend call up at 2 a.m. demanding that you move in with them.
This relationship is for the couple that wants to get a little on the side, but doesn’t want to deal with the jealousy, or the hard work of communicating that makes the jealousy go away.
And then there’s old-fashioned promiscuity
People forget this, but you don’t have to be pair bonded in order to have a good sex life. Quite the opposite. Thanks to the Internet, which allows you to pick up fellow sluts from the comfort of your home or smart phone, this is a golden age to sew your wild oats! Have as much fun as you want, but there’s one big rule: try not to hurt anyone.
What’s Best for Me?
The most important question to ask yourself when considering how you would like to structure your life sexually is: who am I? What do I like? What do I love? What do I see? It sounds incredibly obvious, and in some ways it is, but most people never take the time to be truly honest with themselves. They allow societal judgment, family, friends, colleagues to define them, and as a result they often end up in boxes. No one has to live with you more than you. Whatever it is that you want to do, as long as it is legal and doesn’t hurt anyone, go out there and do it.