Earlier this year, I wrote two articles about BDSM—bondage, dominance/submission, and sadomasochism. I argued that BDSM, unlike homosexuality, was inherently problematic and wasn’t an orientation. Defenders of BDSM—Dan Savage, Jessica Wakeman, Clarisse Thorn, Jillian Keenan, and dozens of Slate commenters—wrote back, rejecting these arguments. Then, two months ago, Dutch psychologists published a study of kinksters and mental health. I started digging around. There isn’t much quantitative research on this population, but I found a few decent studies that can help us clarify this debate. Is BDSM sick? Let’s look at the evidence.
1. How many people do BDSM? There’s only one good random-sample survey on this question. It was taken in Australia a decade ago. Nearly 20,000 people between the ages of 16 and 59 were interviewed by phone. In the whole sample, 1.8 percent of men and 1.2 percent of women answered yes to the question, “In the last 12 months, have you been involved in B&D or S&M?” (The question went on to explain, “That’s bondage and discipline, sadomasochism, or dominance and submission.”) Among respondents who were sexually active, the BDSM minority barely increased, to 2.0 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women. Among those who had a sexual partner in the previous year, the figure was 2.2 percent of men and 1.3 percent of women.
That’s roughly equivalent to the sexually active gay population, as measured by similar self-reporting. In the Australian survey, the authors reported, “less than 2 per cent of men and women” said they’d “had sex with a same-sex partner in the past year.” The percentage of respondents who said they’d ever had a gay sexual experience (not just in the last year) was higher—six percent of men, nine percent of women—and presumably the same is true of BDSM. In the Dutch study, for instance, 448 respondents accessed and completed a BDSM survey through a Web site devoted to personal secrets. Of these, three percent “indicated having had previous BDSM experience.”
2. Is it an orientation? Previously, I argued that homosexuality is fixed (an orientation) but that BDSM is flexible (a lifestyle). Kinksters replied that BDSM, too, is an orientation. What do the data show? Mostly flexibility. In a study of Finnish BDSM enthusiasts, 27 percent “endorsed a statement suggesting that only sadomasochistic sex could satisfy them,” but only five percent “no longer practiced ordinary sex.” Furthermore, 40 percent had changed their “preference” or “behavior” (in the authors’ words) from sadism to masochism or vice versa. In another study, conducted in southern California, “32% of the sample indicated that BDSM play occurred less than half the time they spent in sexual activity with partners, and just 11.2% indicated that BDSM play was their only form of sexual activity.” The core group, dedicated to BDSM, seems vastly outnumbered by dabblers.
3. Is it physically dangerous? That depends on what you’re doing. In the Finnish study, bondage and flagellation were standard: More than 80 percent of the sample had done them in the preceding 12 months. The riskier stuff was far less common: piercing (done by 21 percent of the sample), skin branding (17 percent), hypoxyphilia (suffocation games, also known as breath play—17 percent), electric shocks (15 percent), and knives or razor blades (13 percent). The California study found a similar pattern: Bondage, flogging, and spanking were standard (more than 80 percent had done them), but other practices—“fire play” (20 percent), “piercing play” (20), cutting (14), branding (9), and scarification (5)—were rarer. Some potentially dangerous activities were surprisingly common—“electric play” (42 percent), “knife scenes” (40), and “breath play” (27)—though in many cases, the implements were probably just props. It looks as though about 20 percent of these folks are actually cutting, burning, zapping, or partially suffocating each other.
That’s a minority, but it’s still worrisome. In the Finnish sample, those who said they’d previously suffered sexual abuse—23 percent of the women, and 8 percent of the men—were particularly problematic. According to the authors, “Visits to a physician because of injuries obtained during sm-sex were significantly more common among the abused respondents (11.1%) than among the non-abused respondents (1.8%).”
BDSM community leaders preach the importance of “safe words”—prearranged signals that the restrained, flogged, or dominated participant can use to withdraw consent and stop the action. In the Finnish study, 90 percent of the sample said they “sometimes” incorporated such words in their encounters. But fewer than half did so “without exception.” That, too, is a problem.
4. Is it mentally unhealthy? For the most part, no. The surveys vary, so let’s take them one by one. The California study, conducted by Pamela Connolly of the California Graduate Institute, found a “significantly higher level of narcissism” in its BDSM sample than in the general population. Connolly esimated that 30 percent of people in the sample were clinically significant on that scale. Theoretically, a high narcissism score implied “little interest in give-and take in social life,” but Connolly cautioned that it could signify “personality strengths as well as personality pathology.” Only two of the 132 participants met the criteria for pathological narcissism, and Connolly noted an “absence of borderline pathology.” ...
The Ombuds Committee for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) handles complaints and concerns regarding the conduct of NCSF officers and staff, and the operations of NCSF institutions. The NCSF Ombuds Committee shall be established as an Advisory Committee, as per NCSF bylaws, to review Coalition administration and activities, assuring ethical and effective fulfillment of NCSF’s mission and goals.
The Committee shall consist of three people, appointed annually by and accountable to the NCSF Board, for rotating two-year terms. The members may be reappointed for one subsequent two-year term. The members must be members in good standing with NCSF, either a Coalition Partner representative, a Supporting Member, or an Individual Member.
Please send your nominations to:
1. Name and contact info of nominee – email and/or phone #
2. Professional experience that would assist you in performing the job of an Ombuds volunteer
3. Experience in the kink, leather, fetish, swing or polyamory communities that is relevant to performing the job of an Ombuds volunteer
4. References, professional and/or alt sex communities related.
Nominations will close May 8th, 2014.
Interviews of the nominees may be conducted by telephone or Internet chat. Applicants shall be assessed for the following:
a.knowledge and experience of processes for arbitration and/or adjudication of disputes;
b.familiarity with NCSF’s mission, bylaws and policies, and the ethos of the Coalition’s constituent communities (BDSM/kink/fetish, polyamory, swing);
c.capacity to remain objective and impartial in reviewing information;
d.overall character and reliability.
To prevent potential conflicts of interest, no Ombuds Committee member shall concurrently serve as an officer, staff member, or Board member of NCSF. The Committee shall select a chair from amongst its members annually.
NCSF is here to help you, so please help us! Support NCSF by becoming a member, volunteering or donating today! www.ncsfreedom.org
“Poly-Cocktails,” I learned last week, doesn’t refer to tropical drinks or even complicated ones. Rather, it’s the name of a Lower East Side party for people who are done with monogamy.
This revelation, care of a Rolling Stone article that’s been making the rounds, is mustered as evidence that Millennials think differently about sex and marriage than past generations. To the point where, gosh, well-dressed, educated young men and women are having open relationships.
The article practically gushes about its subjects: “Leah and Ryan, 32 and 38, respectively, don’t fit … preconceived ideas [about open relationships]. They’re both young professional types. She wears pretty skirts; he wears jeans and trendy glasses. They have a large, downtown apartment with a sweeping view.”
Wow, even people with money want to have sex with people who aren’t their significant others?
The author goes to great lengths to suggest that this is not your parents’ (or grandparents’) open relationship. Move over, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Forget about the key-swapping parties in “The Ice Storm.” This is the New Monogamy, “a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one longstanding relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the longstanding relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time.” How mature.
Note to Rolling Stone editors: Plenty of married couples acknowledge this. But they also acknowledge that having their “needs met” may not be the only or the most important reason to get married and stay married.
“There will always be an avant-garde,” says William Tucker, author of the new book, “Marriage and Civilization.” Yet the statistics (largely absent from the Rolling Stone piece — why let facts get in the way?) suggest that middle- and upper-class Americans (those most likely to make up that avant-garde) are actually the most likely to marry.
Which is not to say that nothing’s changed. The average age of marriage has skyrocketed over the past half-century, which has meant several changes for Millennial relationships.
First, when people do get married today, they’ve typically been living on their own for more than a decade and are less likely to take advice from their families than, say, someone marrying at 21. Second, they’re more likely to have sampled the other options and have a longer list of things they’re looking for in a mate.
One’s 20s have long been a period of experimentation, Tucker notes. And, thanks to the pill, it can be experimentation without major life consequences — i.e., a baby.
Indeed, when the pill was first introduced, he reports, people talked of birth control as something that “would allow men and women to do a better job of finding the right person — people wouldn’t be forced into marriage before they’re ready.”
Yet there’s little evidence that the pill has vastly improved our choice of marriage partners. The divorce rate certainly hasn’t dropped.
In other words, the New Monogamy, which is really one long not-completely-faithful relationship after another, isn’t improving the prospects for what most young adults still say they want — a happy and faithful marriage. ...
A few weeks ago, Lady Elizabeth had her pain slave over for coffee and a “medical scene.” He had brought his camera with him, and, lying supine on the operating table, he managed to snap a few pictures of her as she performed urethral insertions on him with a long, silver needle. “He gets points for having steady hands,” she told me. No nurse get-up was donned that day, and she had foregone her standard head-to-toe latex: the dominatrix who appeared in the photographs wore jeans, a tank top, and something like a snarl twisted across her doll-like features. “Wow, I’m a really nice person when I’m not hurting you,- but gosh” she said, flipping through the photos later. Ever attentive, her slave was quick to reply. “Well, you’re a really nice person while you’re hurting me, too! It’s okay!”
When I ask her to describe the woman in the image, the question extends between us like a tightrope -— smooth, slippery, and a little slack. “Diabolical,” “scary,” and “perverted” are all words that skim past as we fumble. As Elizabeth settles on “real,” there is something of the teetering quality of a funambulist in the way she plucks the word from the ether. The term is unsatisfying to both of us. I am not yet sure what the “reality” of the professional dominatrix looks like to her — I cannot tell you exactly what she saw in the image — but this sense of verbal instability, she tells me, is part of her job description. As a professional dominatrix, Lady Elizabeth lives in constant suspension between planes of communicable wants and the dark, moving shapes of the physical realm. Her purpose: to bind together the known and the unspeakable, coagulating desire into its most powerful corporeal embodiment.
If the dominatrix’s profession is based in part in physicalizing the abstract through language, Lady Elizabeth is particularly well-equipped for the challenge. In addition to her job as a dominatrix, she holds a PhD from an Ivy League university and has written a dissertation on gender, language and meta-communication in S&M communities. As one immersed in both the study and practice of her field, Lady Elizabeth’s position as a BDSM practitioner is twofold—she is immersed in the reflexive academic project of talking about language, and, as a practicing domme, traffics in modes of communication that can only be experienced through nonverbal means.
It is fitting, in this sense, that I first encounter Lady Elizabeth through her website, where the seduction of image tugs against her purported affinity to word. Flipping through her photo gallery, readers need not be able to articulate their fantasy so much as point to the visual aid that renders it in dazzling Technicolor: Lady Elizabeth in a hula skirt, coconuts in hand; Lady Elizabeth in white riding pants and a riding crop; Lady Elizabeth in a cowboy hat and jeans, brandishing a bullwhip. Lady Elizabeth in a floor-length black latex tube dress, red hair swept over one shoulder, testing a plaited leather cane in her tightly clenched fist.
I discover the site on a Monday. By Tuesday, I’m an addict. Lady Elizabeth’s webpage is only one of many within a labyrinthine online kink community, home to The Pervocracy, Fetlife (Facebook for fetishists!), and CollarMe, a dating site for locating “like-minded kinksters in your area.” These woods are dark and deep — like many other pro-dommes, Lady Elizabeth has a Jessica Rabbit physique, the vinegared gaze of a video-game villain, and a lengthy list of talents including remote-control TENS unit capabilities and a specialty in nanny/teacher play. However, it has not escaped me that her namesake, Lady Elizabeth Foster, duchess of Cavendish, was a novelist from the early 1800s who was famous for her ménage a trois with the Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Georgiana Cavendish. Lady Elizabeth Foster is famous for her dalliances in French intellectual circles, her riotous parties, and her slew of illegitimate children. In her letters to Georgiana, Lady Foster refers to the Duke by their pet name for him, “canis.” We need not have been there to hear the two of them whisper it in his ear — this kink (their kink) takes place on the page.
A “safe word” is a previously agreed -upon code word which, when spoken, halts uncomfortable physical action during a bondage scene. To me, the phrase seems somewhat redundant. As a student of literature, I have always thought of words as “safe,” and the project of learning to wield and manipulate them as means of self-armament. Confronted with the sharp-edged patent leather ambiguities of the domme world, however, I find myself on unsteady ground. With its plethora of double (sometimes triple) entendres and unending scroll-down menus for preferred role options (on Fetlife, you can choose among “ageplayer,” “babygirl,” “bottom,” and “top,” along with 39 other self-identifications), this language is not English as I have encountered it in my academic life or elsewhere. I am not only BDSM illiterate, but unversed in the principles of articulating desire through these words — be they safe, dangerous, or otherwise.
The voyeuristic pleasures of my one-way mirror vantage into domme world soon become impossible to sustain. On Fetlife, users who only look at others’ accounts but do not engage with them are quickly dubbed creeps; a few weeks into my idle membership, the site’s webmasters send me an email which includes the phrase, ‘FetLife is not a meat market.’ With this, my road out of the virtual realm and into Lady Elizabeth’s dungeon is swift, though paved with stuttering. When I first call her, Lady E’s voice has all the lilts and cadences of a slightly huskier-toned (albeit phone-sex-proficient) Terry Gross, and, though I am the one doing the interviewing, I can’t shake the tics of a first-time guest on “Fresh Air”. Mumbling. Silence. The sense of being stuck in a role play scenario that’s struggling to get off the ground. On the day of our meeting, typos riddle my confirmation texts, to her glib reply: “great, will be here playing secretary (as in emails, not the hot film)”. ...
There's nothing wrong with taking ownership of one's body and pride in one's sexual fantasies
by Anna Pulley
Amanda is a tall, slender musician, whose sweet countenance and nerdy glasses belie the filthy things that come out of her mouth at times. “I’ve never felt as strong and alive and human as I’ve felt when somebody was fucking me with my face pressed up against my bathroom mirror,” she tells me.
As someone who writes about sex for a living, I’ve found this disconnect to be generally strong among women talking about sex. The common adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” applies doubly when it comes to desire, specifically the desire for rough sex, which has always had its detractors, but is back in the news again after Duke porn star Belle Knox called it empowering, and critics claim that engaging in it is terrible, wrong, anti-feminist, and in extreme cases, that it’s “destroying the country”–because consensual sex between adults is definitely the same thing as Armageddon.
“I’ve been called a hypocrite and mocked for daring to talk about empowerment if I have also not kept adequately hidden away my enjoyment of rough and dirty, nasty and filthy, saliva-dripping and name-calling-filled sex,” writes Belle Knox, the Duke student who’s been cast in the spotlight for her rough sex porn clips, in her recent xojane essay. Knox’s “greatest crime” as she relays it, is simply that she admitted to liking rough sex. I think her greatest crime is that she’s a Libertarian (just kidding). Knox’s essay raises some important points, and one would think that, considering that more and more people of age have grown up with insta-access to a variety of kinky porn, an admission of rough sex wouldn’t be a big to-do. Yet apparently it is. One of Knox’s disparagers commented, “So being choked, spit on, and degraded is now empowering?”
Amanda thinks it is: “I do find it empowering, both as a top and a bottom–I think that power is not something that people, especially women, are super accustomed to either feeling purposefully or are encouraged to savor as such.”
Kate, a theater director, agrees. “I think any act of the body that is chosen, not coerced, is inherently empowering. I’m exercising my own agency, my power over my own body. And there the power is in choosing to lose myself in the moment, to yield.There’s something very fulfilling in trusting [my dominant partner] to push me farther than I can go myself.”
Meagan, who works in the tech industry, also echoes that empowerment is about choice. “I’m successful and in control the rest of my life, so making the deliberate choice to hand over the reins to my male partner for a small amount of time is so hot.”
Of course, rough sex isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken off the table entirely or derided. Nothing is for everyone, after all, not even sex itself (just ask an asexual person). “I’m not always in the mood for it,” Kate attests. “And I would never be comfortable getting thrown around if it wasn’t my idea. I would certainly never advise someone to have rough sex if it didn’t genuinely turn them on. But I’m all for respecting an adult’s agency.” Agency and choice are two key words often championed by feminism, yet sometimes they don’t translate when it comes to the other F-word, and some feminists find rough sex to be, well, sexist.
Audre Lorde, a brilliant writer and feminist, wrote about the perils of sadomasochism in her book of essays, “A Burst of Light:” “Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically. Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable.”
Barring the fact that it is “legitimately enjoyable” for some people–“Sometimes I burst into tears from how hard I come. It’s wonderful, such a catharsis,” Kate says–Lorde is playing into a common criticism leveraged against rough sex. Namely, that it somehow implicates one’s activities outside of the bedroom, i.e., giving up power in the sack means you’re also giving it up in the world. Or worse, that you’re somehow contributing to existing oppressions that rely on power or dominance. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The sex you like doesn’t dictate who you are. ...
Our lives and loves sound complicated, and the world doesn't really understand -- but the truth is quite simple
by Angi Becker Stevens
My family is very ordinary to me. We eat dinner together. We gather in the living room and watch movies. Last weekend, we went on a camping trip and sat around the campfire making s’mores, the grown-ups enjoying a few beers while my 9-year-old daughter challenged us with endless rounds of “would you rather?” It all feels so wonderfully mundane that sometimes I have to remind myself that most people view us as strange at best, depraved at worst.
I’m polyamorous, which means I believe you can love multiple partners at the same time. I’m in a relationship with my husband of nearly 17 years, and my boyfriend, with whom I celebrated my second anniversary in May. (In polyamorous lingo, our relationship is known as a “V”; I’m the “hinge” of the V and my two partners are the vertices.) People often say our lives sound complicated, but the truth is, we’re quite harmonious. We often joke that we’d make incredibly boring subjects for reality TV.
That hasn’t kept the world at large from condemning us. The right has spent years warning that we are the travesty waiting down the slippery slope of same-sex marriage. With every stride forward for marriage equality, I can count on turning on the TV to find conservative talking heads lumping families like mine in with pedophilia and bestiality. But liberals, for the most part, don’t treat us much better. They’re quick to insist that same-sex marriage would never, ever lead to such awful things — failing to point out how multi-partner relationships between consenting adults do not exactly belong in the same category as “relationships” with children or goats.
Even people who don’t vilify us still have a great deal of misconception. Aren’t you just “having your cake and eating it too,” they ask me? Isn’t this unfair to the men? Doesn’t this hurt your daughter? The confusion is understandable. Many people have never seen a polyamorous family like ours before. So let me explain how it works — or, at least, how it works for us.
My path here was a long one. As far back as I can remember, I felt that loving one person romantically did not preclude the possibility of loving another at the same time. It seemed natural and intuitive to me. But I had no models for that way of living, so I assumed there was something wrong with me.
I married my husband and remained in a monogamous relationship with him for many years. I knew I wanted to be with him for the long haul. But I was never entirely fulfilled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that some part of me was repressed.
When I learned about polyamorous relationships, I knew that’s what I wanted. My husband wasn’t so sure, though. It sounded fine for other people, but just not him. And it still seemed unrealistic to me, so I never pressed the issue.
When I returned to school to finish my bachelor’s degree in my late 20s, I became friends with a man who changed my mind about all that. He believed in polyamory, too, and we had long conversations about it together: how it could work, how it was truly possible.
One night, I sat down with my husband and spilled everything. I told him that being polyamorous was a part of who I am, and I asked if he would at least do some research and give it serious consideration before dismissing the idea. He understood that I never would have asked this if it hadn’t been extremely important.
That conversation could have ended our marriage. But instead, our journey into non-monogamy began.
One of the biggest hurdles in non-monogamy — probably the hurdle — is jealousy. My husband was an incredibly jealous person back then, but he began to question its usefulness and purpose. Jealousy is born from a fear of losing a partner; if you believe that love and intimacy can be shared, and are not diminished by sharing, then that fear loses a lot of its power. It was liberating for my husband to step outside of the box that saw everyone else as some kind of threat.
Once he became comfortable with the idea, I began dating my friend from school. Those early days were not without challenges. Choosing to be polyamorous doesn’t mean you instantly flip a switch that extinguishes all jealousy. But it does mean that we seek to understand why we’re feeling insecure. Rather than saying, “You can’t do this with this other person,” we try to pinpoint what’s missing from our own relationship. We say things like, “I’m having a hard time, and I could really use some quality one-on-one time with you right now.” Being able to ask for what you need — rather than direct negativity at a partner’s other relationship — is vital in a polyamorous relationship. Opening ourselves up in this way was a revelation for my husband and me. We became more connected with each other than we’d been in years.
That first romantic relationship of mine only lasted 10 months (though he remains one of my closest friends). Afterward, I didn’t actively seek another partner. I was hurting from the breakup and not in any rush to put my feelings on the line again. Still, I was happy knowing I had that freedom when the right person came along. ...
Even after reading Rolling Stone’s recent article “Tales From the Millennials’ Sexual Revolution,” you might not have realized it was about polyamory. It was easy to miss. In several thousand words, the term appeared only one time. And no one could be blamed if the phrase that author Alex Morris chose in its stead caused even more confusion: “The New Monogamy.” Huh?
But despite the understandable confusion, Morris’ article was, at least in part, about polyamory. Novel terminology aside, it was the same old story about nontraditional relationships.
While well researched and amply quoted, Morris’ article engaged in an old, ugly trend of mischaracterizing polyamory as some kind of newly emerging phenomenon, discovered by Morris while investigating a “new sexual revolution.”
It isn’t that Morris’ profile was explicitly hostile, or even all that wary of non-monogamous arrangements. Rather, the well-intentioned reporting falls victim to an old laundry list of misapprehensions. Polyamory, according to Morris and countless other writers who have taken on the topic, is about frivolity and sex. That’s why it fits in an article that also deals with teenage promiscuity statistics and typical head-scratching over the vagaries of “hookup culture.”
I understand: Sex sells. Youth sells. Transgression sells. Package all three together and you’ve got a hot story.
But misleading stories about polyamory do a disservice, both to the immense diversity of polyamorous practice in this country and to readers who might be genuinely interested in exploring that diversity.
So, if I may temporarily take the dangerous step of speaking for my community, here are some common misunderstandings that have come out of these stories, and some clarifications for future stories:
Polyamory isn’t a trend among young people. It never was. Among the non-monogamous, there is everything from the youngish hipsters Morris profiles to long-standing domestic families with mortgages and children. Some are even on Social Security. The only common thread is deviation from strict, traditional fidelity.
Polyamory doesn’t entail a particular relationship structure. I’ve seen everything from the so-called open relationship to groups of three or more partners -- but for whom any outside entanglement would be a form of infidelity. And everything in between. The point is that those in every relationship get to figure out what works best for them. ...
This generation is radically rethinking straight sex and marriage, but at what cost? In Part One of a two-part series, Rolling Stone goes under the covers in search of new approaches to intimacy, commitment and hooking up. Read more: http://www.rollingst
By Alex Morris
By the end of their dinner at a small Italian restaurant in New York’s West Village, Leah is getting antsy to part ways with her boyfriend Ryan, so that she can go meet up with her boyfriend Jim. It’s not that she means to be rude, it’s just that Jim has been traveling for work, so it’s been a while since she’s seen him. Ryan gets this. As her “primary partner” and the man with whom she lives, he is the recipient of most of Leah’s attention, sexual and otherwise, but he understands her need to seek companionship from other quarters roughly one night a week. Tonight is one of those nights, and soon Leah will head to Jim’s penthouse apartment, where the rest of the evening, she says, will probably entail “hanging out, watching something, having sex.” “She’ll usually spend the night,” Ryan adds nonchalantly, which gives him a chance to enjoy some time alone or even invite another woman over. He doesn’t have a long-standing secondary relationship like Leah (“I’ve actually veered away from doing that”), but he certainly enjoys the company of other women, even sometimes when Leah is home. “I like everyone to meet each other and be friends and stuff,” he explains.
When Leah and Ryan met at a wedding four years ago, they didn’t expect to develop this type of arrangement. Neither of them had had an open relationship before, though it was something that Leah had contemplated. “I remember the first night, I was telling him about my difficulty with monogamy,” she says. “I don’t know why I felt the need, but it must have been on my mind a lot.” In almost every relationship she’d had, she’d found herself cheating, though she didn’t know if this was a character flaw or a problem with the conventional system. For his part, Ryan was unfazed. “I was just trying to get into your panties,” he says to her, laughing.
Because they started off dating long-distance (Ryan was living in Colorado at the time), it was understood that they would not be exclusive: They initiated a policy Leah describes as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But when Ryan moved to New York and began living with Leah a year and a half later, he assumed they would transition immediately into monogamy. “I thought, ‘All right, the long-distance shenanigans are over now, we’re moving in together, and it’s time to have a real go at this,’” he says, taking a sip of his beer. He was therefore surprised when the first thing Leah gave him after the move was a book called The Ethical Slut, considered to be a primer on how to handle a non-monogamous relationship.
Certainly, open heterosexual relationships are nothing new. Even the term “open relationship” seems like a throwback, uncomfortably reminiscent of free-love hippies, greasy swingers and a general loucheness so overt as to seem almost kitsch. But Leah and Ryan, 32 and 38, respectively, don’t fit these preconceived ideas. They’re both young professional types. She wears pretty skirts; he wears jeans and trendy glasses. They have a large, downtown apartment with a sweeping view and are possessed of the type of hip hyperawareness that lets them head off any assumptions as to what their arrangement might entail. Moreover, they see themselves as part of a growing trend of folks who do not view monogamy as any type of ideal. “There’s this huge group of younger people that are involved in these things,” says Ryan – an observation that seemed borne out of a monthly event called “Poly Cocktails,” held at an upstairs bar on the Lower East Side a few weeks later, in which one would have been hard-pressed to realize that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mixer (a guy who’d wandered in accidentally must have eventually figured it out; he was later seen by the bar grinning widely as he chatted up two women).
In fact, Leah and Ryan are noticing a trend that’s been on the radar of therapists and psychologists for several years now. Termed “The New Monogamy” in the journal Psychotherapy Networker, it’s a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time. Or, more specifically, that going outside the partnership for sex does not necessitate a forfeiture of it. “I was at a practice where we would meet every week, six to eight therapists in a room for teaching purposes and to bring up new things coming into therapy that weren’t there before,” says Lair Torrent, a New York-based marriage and family therapist. One of the things all the therapists had noticed over the past few years was “that couples – and these are younger people, twentysomethings, maybe early thirties – are negotiating what their brand of monogamy can be. They are opening up to having an open relationship, either in totality or for periods of time. I have couples that have closed relationships or open relationships depending on how they feel about the relative health of their relationship. It’s not so dogmatic.” ...