Non-monogamy: is it the last sexual taboo?
Not long before my second wedding, I acquired the worst reputation in my then-workplace, a community-based mental health service. This happened despite the fact that my chronically under-dressed colleagues of every gender and sexual orientation sported pierced eyebrows and tattooed bum cracks.
Still it was I, the un-pierced and non-tattooed, the conventionally engaged one, who managed to upset our institution’s elastic moral status quo.
This happened when one night, during after-work drinks, we got to storytelling our sex lives. Not wanting to fall behind the picaresque tales I’d heard, I mumbled something about an ‘agreement’ with my husband-to-be, which emphasised emotional rather than sexual fidelity.
A sharp silence cut into our bubbly table. “What’s the point of getting married, then?” asked a woman who had just told a graphic story about partaking in an orgy. “If I ever get married, I know I’ll be very loyal.” She glared at me fiercely. Soon after, the conversation turned to parenting concerns.
Publicly at least, distrust, even condemnation, seem to surround non-monogamy. The common wisdom suggests that when couples open up their gates to let strangers in, something about them must be very wrong.
While scientists cannot reach consensus about whether humans are naturally monogamous or not, the consensus among leading therapists and the general public remains that a sexually and romantically exclusive relationship is the only practical, and moral, option.
In her bestselling book Mating in Captivity, which explores sexuality within committed relationships with uncommon honesty, therapist Esther Perel argues that non-monogamy remains one of the last sexual taboos in the new millennium.
At a time when Sexpo exhibitions have become mainstream entertainment, Dolly magazine advises girls on how to perform fellatio while wearing braces and labiaplasty is increasing in popularity, we still, according to Perel, consider monogamy to be the only realistic option, while non-monogamy is seen as an indicator of ‘a lack of commitment or a fear of intimacy’.
While I agree with Perel that we tend to associate desire extended beyond our partner with immaturity and an inability to commit to duty, I think we also attach to it even more severe flaws. Sheer egoism, for example. Or even ‘monstrosity’ was what American novelist Frederic Tuten suggested in an interview for a New York magazine where he proposed that people can live non-monogamously but should never speak about it publicly for their own safety.
Ironically, Tuten’s interviewer, Philip Weiss, chose to ignore his subject’s advice, and in the same article admitted his own desire for extra-marital sex, instantly fulfilling Tuten’s prediction. Once he acknowledged something many of us may at least occasionally feel, whether we are in happy, unhappy, sexless or sexually satisfying relationships — that itching for something additional — all hell broke loose. The readers responded with electronic condemnations, wishing upon him a range of misfortunes to put the biblical plagues to shame.