[Note: This is the first in an occasional series explaining popular concepts and trends that affect the Christian community. This inaugural article is very lengthy—much longer than other posts will be, I promise— because the concept is controversial and will come as a surprise to many. In order to preempt some of the criticism this will generate, I decided to provide extensive quotes from supporters of this trend to establish its prevalence. However, I've also included a short version for those who merely want the gist of the article.]

The Concept: Monogamish — A term coined by sex columnist Dan Savage to describe relationships in which a couple is emotionally intimate only with each other yet engages in sexual infidelities or group sexual activity. Monogamish couples can be sexually polyamorous but remain emotionally "monogamous." (Another term used for this phenomena is "San Francisco relationships.") Although the term can be used to describe both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, monogamish coupling is generally considered acceptable, even normative, within homosexual communities.

The Short Version: A study by the Center for HIV Educational Studies and Training, "Alternatives to Monogamy Among Gay Male Couples in a Community Survey: Implications for Mental Health and Sexual Risk", will be published in this February's issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior. The study surveyed over 800 gay and bisexual men in the New York City area. A preview of the report notes:

Dr. Parsons pointed out that "the diversity in types of non-monogamous relationships was interesting, and something that hasn't been explored very much in research studies. Typically gay men have been categorized as monogamous or not, and our data show that it is not so black and white." CHEST's survey indicated that about 60% were single. Of those partnered, about 58% were in monogamous relationships. Of those that were non-monogamous, 53% were in open relationships, and 47% were in "monogamish" relationships (i.e., couples that have sex with others as a couple such as "threeways" or group sex).

What seems apparent from the CHEST study is that same-sex romantic relationships can be healthy and happy, and that gay men can be "committed" to their long-term partners while still being sexual with other people. Dr. Parsons adds, "Our findings suggest that certain types of non-monogamous relationships - especially 'monogamish' ones - are actually beneficial to gay men, contrary to assumptions that monogamous relationships are always somehow inherently better."

In an article for the Huffington Post, gay-rights activist Zach Stafford reports on the study and adds:

Prince Charming may not be charming forever, and we may find ourselves waking up one day wanting to invite Aladdin or Prince Eric or Prince Phillip to join us in our bed, if only a few times a month. And if our relationship is not monogamous but more "monogamish," we can still be happy. Indeed, we may find that monogamy isn't what we wanted all along.

A significant percentage of persons in same-sex sexual partnerships, including those who advocate for the legal recognition of same-sex "marriage", do not view monogamy or sexual exclusivity as part of the meaning of marriage. Despite their use of the term "monogamy," many are referring to "monogamish" relationships. This misleading shift in language leads many Americans to misunderstand what it is they are really supporting when they advocate for same-sex marriage. Marriage is not being redefined in a way that simply includes same-sex couples, but redefined in a way that excludes sexual fidelity as an essential component of the marital relationship.

The Long Version: One of the unspoken assumptions in the debate over same-sex marriage is that monogamy is equally valued by both homosexual and heterosexual couples. While far too many heterosexuals opt for a form of serial monogamy—marriage, divorce, remarriage—it is still generally understood that sexual fidelity is to be expected within the bounds of marriage. The same assumption, however, is not necessarily true within homosexual relations.

Many same-sex marriage advocates will naturally find such a claim shocking, if not scurrilous. The "It's about love" crowd have often been strong on empathy while weak on their understanding of how homosexual relationships tend to differ from those of heterosexuals. (It also seems to have escaped their notice that marriage may not be the only term that homosexual activists want to redefine.) But this isn't a controversial idea—at least it wasn't until recently.

Until a few years ago, most homosexuals and gay-rights activists freely admitted that the traditional view of monogamy was a heterosexual ideal that did not apply to homosexual relationships. Terry Mattingly notes in a Get Religion post:

As a visiting gay theologian once told me during a conference at [Iliff School of Theology], very few gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians have what he called a "twin rocking chairs forever" definition of monogamy. That was just too restricting, he said. Most gays, he said, believe that it is possible to be "faithful" to one partner and, thus, "monogamous," while continuing to have sexual experiences with others.

Mattingly also references a quote from a Scripps Howard column he wrote in 2000:

"Monogamy" isn't such a scary word, once people get the hang of redefining it to fit the realities of modern life, according to gay provocateur Dan Savage.

"The sexual model that straight people have created really doesn't work," said the nationally syndicated columnist, in a New York Times Magazine piece on post-modern sex. "All it does is force people to lie. ... In this society, we view monogamy like we view virginity, one incident and it's over, the relationship is over."

Heterosexual couples, he said, should relax and learn from homosexuals. Relationships must grow and evolve. "I know gay couples who have been together for 35 years. They have separate bedrooms. Sometimes they sleep together and sometimes they sleep with other people, but they're a great couple," he said.

Of course that was a decade ago, when homosexual activists were more once open about this redefinition of monogamy. Back then journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan felt safe to admit in his book Virtually Normal:

There is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman. . . .The truth is, homosexuals are not entirely normal; and to flatten their varied and complicated lives into a single, moralistic model is to miss what is essential and exhilarating about their otherness.

And in a 1998 issue of The Advocate we find this full-length article titled, "Monogamy: Is it for us?", and subtitled "The Advocate examines the controversial subject of monogamy from many angles":

One of the hottest debates in today's gay world involves the m word. Is it for us, we wonder, or is it just aping straight society? Is it a basic human drive or a dumb social construct? And, of course, each of us wonders, Is it for me?

But this m word is not marriage. It's monogamy. Etymologically, the word means "one marriage." So how can it possibly apply to a group of people who are not legally allowed to wed?

[. . .]

"A commitment is something made by two people, not by a minister or license," Carmichael says.

But, in fact, two men or two women making a commitment is different from a man and a woman doing it. Evolutionary scientists say males and females set different standards for sexual partners. They argue that since sperm is cheap, males instinctively want to spread their seed among many partners, but eggs are precious, so females seek copulation with one mate who will be a good provider. Socially, that results in compromises--marriage and adultery--but what happens when two people of the same gender don't have to meet in the middle?

One result might be the old joke: What do two lesbians take on their second date? A U-Haul. What about two gay men? What second date?

Thus, says neuroscientist Simon LeVay, gays and straights can be seen as biologically similar: The males share an interest in casual sex, while the females want to settle down. He cites studies from San Francisco in the pre-AIDS 1970s showing that the average gay male had had 500 partners up to the time of the survey interview; the average lesbian, fewer than ten.

[. . .]

Michael Cohen, a psychotherapist in Hartford, Conn., thinks monogamy is a social construct derived from religion and may or may not be natural.

[. . .]

Others disagree. Frances Donovan, who has "experience on both sides of the monogamy fence" and conducts workshops on that topic at educator and youth conferences, believes nonmonogamy is a negative definition. She prefers polyamory—the ability to love more than one person at a time—and says the key to successful polyamory is open, honest communication. At one workshop, participants listed several benefits of polyamory, including freedom, love, happiness, and trust.

Which brings us to two specific types of polyamory: threesomes and open relationships. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest advocates for monogamy view threesomes with equanimity.

"They can be shared experiences that couples go through together," Berzon says. "The key is that it has to be both partners' choice. If it is, my job becomes helping them think about the best ways to make it work."

"There's a difference between emotional monogamy; and sexual monogamy," argues Cohen. "If a couple have threesomes occasionally and are still committed to each other, they can usually separate the two."

[. . .]

Most people draw the line at cheating--that is, having outside relationships without the knowledge or consent of one's partner. "The rules are simple: If you are in a monogamous relationship, you don't cheat," says Jeffrey Denke, 26, a video producer. "It is a matter of self-control and will." The best way to combat the desire to cheat, he says, is to "explore a variety of sexual encounters together. Third partners and other couples are a great way to add variety to sex."

Yet Ann Northrop, a lesbian activist and coanchor of the Gay USA cable TV news show, sees the debate about monogamy as "a window of opportunity" for gays to be honest about our behavior--far more honest, in fact, than straights, who from U.S. presidents on down have never been paragons of monogamy.

"We don't have the hypocritical, hierarchical heterosexual system of rewards" that flow to folks in monogamous, committed relationships, she says. "However, we also have not talked openly about what we want from a relationship, where sex and intimacy fit in, and what may or may not work for us." Now, Northrop believes, is the time.

If you're wondering why the media didn't mention this concept of "monogamish" relationships until the same-sex marriage gained popular acceptance, the New York Times has the answer:

As the trial phase of the constitutional battle to overturn the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage concludes in federal court, gay nuptials are portrayed by opponents as an effort to rewrite the traditional rules of matrimony. Quietly, outside of the news media and courtroom spotlight, many gay couples are doing just that, according to groundbreaking new research.

A study to be released next month is offering a rare glimpse inside gay relationships and reveals that monogamy is not a central feature for many. Some gay men and lesbians argue that, as a result, they have stronger, longer-lasting and more honest relationships. And while that may sound counterintuitive, some experts say boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage — one that might point the way for the survival of the institution.

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

That consent is key. "With straight people, it's called affairs or cheating," said Colleen Hoff, the study's principal investigator, "but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations."

The study also found open gay couples just as happy in their relationships as pairs in sexually exclusive unions, Dr. Hoff said. A different study, published in 1985, concluded that open gay relationships actually lasted longer.

None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it. Of the dozen people in open relationships contacted for this column, no one would agree to use his or her full name, citing privacy concerns. They also worried that discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage.

Unlike the mainstream media, when it comes to admitting the true agenda of the gay rights movement, The Advocate can be refreshingly honest. "We often protest when homophobes insist that same sex marriage will change marriage for straight people too," says the magazine in a 2011 article. "But in some ways, they're right. Here's how gay relationships will change the institution—but for the better." (Note: The article itself contains some crude language, though I don't include those in the following excrpts.)

Anti-equality right-wingers have long insisted that allowing gays to marry will destroy the sanctity of "traditional marriage," and, of course, the logical, liberal party-line response has long been "No, it won't." But what if—for once—the sanctimonious crazies are right? Could the gay male tradition of open relationships actually alter marriage as we know it? And would that be such a bad thing? With divorce rates at an all-time high and news reports full of famous marriages crumbling at the hand of flagrant infidelities (see: Schwarzenegger, Arnold), perhaps now is the perfect time for the gays to conduct a little marriage makeover.

Welcome to Queer (Roving) Eye for the Monogamous Straight Couple Lie, brought to you in part by writer Dan Savage, who coined the term monogamish to signify committed relationships in which the partners are, he explains, "mostly monogamous, but there's a little allowance for the reality of desire for others and a variety of experiences and adventure and possibility."

The typical response by straight same-sex marriage supporters is that while such "monogmish" relationships may be common, their committed gay friends would never dream of engaging in such infidelity. Or so they may think:

Even many gay male couples, who Savage describes as having "perfected nonmonogamy," fear disclosing that their relationship is anything but one-on-one. Gary (not his real name) is out in every area of his life, and his family is completely supportive. "But I don't tell my family, even my brother—who I'm incredibly close with—that I have sex outside of the relationship with Ben," his partner of 14 years, he says. "I have never said that to him."

Gary and Ben, who live in Los Angeles, won't reveal their real names because Ben has a high-profile career in television. "We have too much to lose," Gary says. "But we also don't want people passing judgment on us." Which is why they don't even tell most of their friends.

Sex therapist Timaree Schmit says she can understand gay couples' desire to conform—at least outwardly—to the kind of conventional relationship that society deems "deserving" of marriage rights. "It's been a big part of campaigning for marriage equality to repeatedly prove the 'normalcy' and stability of same-sex couples. People may feel pressure to make their relationship fit into a more acceptable box."

If only heterosexual society wasn't so prudish and didn't defined "normalcy" so narrowly, then gay men could truly be themselves:

Schmit says that the sexual context in which many gay men initiate relationships can smooth the way to normalizing nonmonogamy, and that's not frequently how straight relationships kick off. "Plus, the steam room clause," she says, referring to the one among some men in which sex at the gym does not count, "doesn't really apply too well to straight people."

[. . .]

This is where gay male couples and Savage's outspoken role come in. "More than anything, gay marriage creates opportunities to broaden the conversation about marriage," says Sitron. "I don't think gay men are [necessarily] going to bring something [new] to marriage, but they are going to change the conversation about marriage."

"I really enjoy sex, and I like looking at porn, and I like sexy guys, and I love Ben," declares the happily committed and nonmonogamous Gary. "When [it became clear that] we could figure out a way to have all of these things together, without hurting each other, I thought, That's a good goal." [emphasis in original]

"A way to have all of these things together." Sure, why not? Why shouldn't they be able to have a marriage license that includes a steam room clause? If that is the "good goal"—the gay man's eudemonic objective—then who are we to say that they shouldn't have it all—even if the "all" includes porn, a partner, and polyamorous playmates?

We've finally reached the point in the debate where it is no longer possible to be self-deluding about what same-sex marriage advocacy requires: If you support same-sex marriage you are tacitly endorsing non-monogamous marital relationships.

For years, heterosexual supporters of the cause were able to fool themselves into thinking that what gay rights activists wanted was parity with straight relationships. Then, when it became obvious that many homosexuals reject the "heteronormative restriction" of monogamy in marriage, the advocates proposed a two-track compromise: straight marriage would still be expected to be monogamous while gay marriage could be as polyamorous as they wanted.

But it doesn't work that way.

There cannot be a "separate but equal" basis for "marital" relationships, with heterosexuals expected to adhere to a standard of sexual fidelity while gay couples are allowed to redefine monogamy to include polyamourous sexual escapades. The lower standard will eventually prevail, with the stricter "sex with spouse only" being a valid option, but not an ideal—and certainly not the norm. A significant percentage of heterosexual men will follow the example of their gay brethren and simply refuse to "marry" if it comes with an expectation of sexual exclusivity. After all, why shouldn't they have the same marriage rights as gay men?

Since women have the most to lose from such arrangements, they may prefer to retain the one-man/one-woman rule. But it doesn't matter what they want. In every struggle for expansion of man-made rights, some people win and some people lose. Straight women will simply have to accept the loss for the greater good of normalizing homosexual conduct and preferences. If monogamy is not considered a necessary component of same-sex marriage, then it will only be a matter of time before the leavening effect of language reduces the cultural significance of monogamy in all marriages. Refusing to allow a husband to take a lover will be viewed as backward and old-fashioned as refusing to allow a wife to work outside the home.

This is the future that many advocates of same-sex marriage are, whether the realize it or not, are fighting for. But is this really what they want. Are they really ready to redefine marriage in a way that leaves out monogamy?

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Joe Carter


Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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