After researching swinging and other forms of consensual non-monogamy for years, and attending hundreds of erotic events, I often find myself thinking that there are some things that people in monogamous relationships could learn from these sexual pioneers—even if they intend on being monogamous forever. After all, it wasn’t simply having multiple sexual partners that made people in these types of relationships different, it was the beliefs and attitudes they held that shaped how they practiced sexual relationships more broadly.
Here are five things that I am grateful to have learned during my research:
- Sex can make a relationship unique and special. Love can make a relationship unique and special. But there are many other ways to make a relationship unique and special as well.
Swingers, for example, believe there is a difference between recreational sex and the love that develops between long-term, committed partners. Many couples who play with others in the lifestyle want to reconnect with each other afterwards, because they believe the experience brings them closer together. Some couples save certain acts—like kissing or orgasm—only for each other or create other boundaries to help them maintain a feeling of “specialness” about their relationship. Others do not feel a need to do so. For polyamorous individuals who maintain intimate emotional relationships with multiple partners, each partner becomes unique, though not necessarily through the sex or the emotional connection. Some polyamorous individuals categorize their partners hierarchically (primary partners and secondary partners, for example), legally (a spouse and a girlfriend), or in other ways. The value of any of these ways of conceptualizing why a relationship is unique and special, and how to keep it that way, can be debated—and certainly is—within non-traditional sexual communities. But consciously thinking about this issue might be useful for more traditional couples as well, such as those who have ceased having sex or been touched by infidelity but do not wish to break up.
2. Attraction to someone besides your regular partner does not necessarily mean something is wrong with you, your partner, or the relationship.
People in consensually non-monogamous relationships recognize that feeling sexual attraction for someone other than a regular partner can be natural, even healthy. Obviously, many monogamous individuals also realize this! But at the same time, many people try to safeguard their relationship by preventing even the possibility of attraction to others. When I interviewed people about their marriages, I listened to men who would never allow a female coworker in their office alone or consider having a female friend or confidante. I interviewed a woman who became distressed because she noticed that her boyfriend had an erection while he slept; she assumed that he must be dreaming about someone else.
But with consensually non-monogamous couples, I was struck by how calmly and productively this conversation could unfold. Like monogamous people, consensually non-monogamous people do not always want or need to act on such attractions (despite stereotypes that consensual non-monogamy means promiscuity). If a consensually non-monogamous person chooses to act on an attraction, they also (ideally) choose to do so openly and honestly rather than betraying their partner’s trust. Being able to admit to oneself that one is attracted to others can be a relief—it doesn’t mean that you are failing in your relationship. Further, being able to discuss such a possibility with your partner can spark important conversations about what monogamy means to each of you, where your boundaries are, and how to reassure each other over the years when faced with situations or individuals who feel threatening. In a study comparing monogamous and consensually non-monogamous couples, I found that while consensually non-monogamous couples frequently discussed what they meant by “cheating” and what the rules were for their relationship, the monogamous couples simply assumed they already knew the boundaries (and their assumptions did not always match up. Frank and DeLamater 2010).
3. “New relationship energy,” or NRE, is scary but doesn’t last.
NRE is a term used in polyamory communities (and sometimes among swingers as well). If you’ve fallen in love, you’ve felt NRE in those early days of a relationship—the butterflies in your stomach, the obsessive thoughts about someone, the lack of concentration that comes from fantasizing about the next moments you will spend together. Other people in your life can feel it, too. If you’re in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, it can be hard to watch your partner become enthralled with a new lover. Jealousy can arise as your partner spends time or money on someone else. Sometimes, your sex life takes a hit because their energy and interest is channeled elsewhere. Watching someone else be idealized can cause some of us to fear abandonment or the loss of our spouse, home, or life. These feelings and fears are normal, but do not need to overwhelm us. (Although sometimes they do overwhelm us, even those of us who have years of experience in consensual non-monogamy!)
But NRE will fade. Newness doesn’t last forever, and idealization fades, even if an emotional connection can last a lifetime. Sometimes it takes just a few weeks, other times it takes longer. Eventually, though, the emotional and chemical effects of newness are replaced by a comfortable (but less threatening) bonding between partners or the interest fades away altogether. Understanding NRE could help monogamous people who experience feelings of anxiety, fear, or loss when a partner cheats or even develops a crush on someone else. An understanding of the emotional and physical “high” associated with NRE could also be useful for people who repeatedly end relationships after the honeymoon phase and continually pursue new partners because they believe that love is only found in such intensity.
4. It’s ok to be a highly sexual woman, and to love one.
Women with multiple partners can’t suddenly escape the “slut” stigma that pervades society, and sometimes feel the weight of social judgments even after a beautiful non-monogamous experience. But consensually non-monogamous communities are places where women (ideally) can embrace their sexual desires and identities. Sexual double standards have a drastically limited place in the lifestyle, for example, where many women finally feel accepted after years of put down for how they dressed, who they had sex with, and for enjoying it. A man who cannot accept that one of the basic tenets of lifestyle sexuality – whether or not it is actualized in every situation – is women’s freedom to consent to multiple sexual encounters is not going to find the lifestyle pleasurable or welcoming. But for men who do accept this fact, sexuality can transform from an experience of scarcity to one of abundance. The atmosphere at erotic couples’ events tends to be respectful, cooperative, and focused on ongoing, explicit consent. Many female swingers consider themselves bisexual, bi-curious, or interested in women in certain situations. Even among those women who identified as straight, other women were often approached as potential allies, not as competition.
5. You can learn how to have better sex by developing skills.
Very few people—except those who go to sex parties or sex clubs—have the opportunity to actually watch others have sex except in pornography. At one party that I attended, a male porn star taught the men how to make a woman ejaculate, using his willing girlfriend as the model. Couples stood around the queen-sized bed, trying to get the best view and asking questions. Sometimes the lesson was serious, as when he guided another man’s fingers inside his girlfriend’s vagina to help him find the correct spot to stimulate. Other times, people made jokes (“Wear your goggles if you want a closer look”). The cooperation between men was fascinating, as was the response of some of the women who had felt ashamed by “squirting” in the past but now saw it as a desirable occurrence. Also interesting was the fact that he taught a sexual technique to the audience as straightforwardly as if he were teaching a class on yoga or massage. Although ejaculation isn’t something that every woman will necessarily enjoy, it isn’t a complete mystery, either, and everyone who tried it was able to do it. In other settings, I heard people share tips and techniques through conversation or demonstration as well—and even ask for feedback. When sex is not shrouded in shame and secrecy, it becomes a potentially pleasurable activity that one can become educated about and skilled at. Certainly, individuals in monogamous relationships also aim to become better lovers in a variety of ways. What they don’t usually have, though, are friends who are watching!
Katherine Frank and John DeLamater (2010) ‘Deconstructing Monogamy: Boundaries, Identities, and Fluidities across Relationships’ in Meg Barker and Darren Langridge (eds) Understanding Non-Monogamies. London: Taylor and Francis.
Katherine Frank is a cultural and psychological anthropologist, sex researcher, and life/sex coach. Her academic research focuses on the symbolic and emotional power of sexuality, and the process of sexual meaning-making. Her most recent book, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), explores group sex across time and place. She is also the author of G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire (2002) and a coeditor of Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance (2006). Other work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Archives of Sex Research, Deviant Behavior, Journal of Sex Research, Qualitative Inquiry, and Sexualities.