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17 Oct 2006

what is monogamy anyway?

Defined as being the "practice of having a single mate during a period of time," monogamy has been a passionately debated concept within the gay community and whether the practice can be used as a benchmark of commitment and/or morality.

Monogamy is a heated word. It is a patriarchal construct for some, and the corner stone of relationships for others. Some gay men think monogamy and homosexuality are polar opposites. While for some lesbians, these two words are practically synonymous. Some queer activists say monogamy is a devise used by homophobes to invalidate gay culture. Other queer men eroticise chastity by putting a lock on their private parts and giving the key to their lover. In America, violating the monogamous code can lead an average guy to have his member cut off, or a president to face impeachment. How many people we sleep with is apparently a very big deal.

Monogamy has quite different meanings in gay and straight societies. In gay society, monogamy usually means sexual fidelity to one's boy or girlfriend. In straight society, it means each man can only marry one woman - marrying two or bigamy is illegal in many countries. The heterosexual definition of monogamy, strictly speaking, need not include sexual fidelity, as long as the girlfriend stays out of sight. To be fair, analogous things can be said of gay monogamous relationships. The most extreme definition of monogamy comes from the Christian church, where each person is expected to abstain from sex until marriage, and then till death do they part. This means the church's definition of monogamy is to have sex with only one person in your entire earthly existence (and sparingly, only to produce children, never for fun).

Speaking of the church, someone should tell them that monogamy is unnatural. Most animals are not monogamous, even when they form a permanent pair. Scientists have found that the offspring of many supposedly monogamous animals have genes from, ahem, shall we say, third parties. And don't forget to tell them about lesbian lizards and gay penguins in nature too, but I digress.

Walking down the street of Castro the other day, I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt that said: Define 'Boyfriend'. When a question like that appears on a tight T-shirt in the gay capital of the world, you can be sure it is the burning question of gay society today. So, how would a gay man define 'boyfriend'? Someone he has slept with more than three times in a roll? Any man that he's still seeing after three weeks? Someone with whom he is (gasp) monogamous for more than three months?

Jokes aside, with the advances in gay marriage all over the world, gay monogamy is becoming a serious issue. It is only a matter of time before gay men start to sue each other in court for divorce on grounds of infidelity. Like one cartoonist says: legalise gay marriage and let them suffer like the rest of us.

It is hard to write about monogamy without cracking up because this word is just so dripping with moral overtones. But being a generally serious writer, I do have a serious point, and I'll get to it now.

The world is mistaken in thinking that monogamy is a moral good. You can decide, by an act of will, to be monogamous to your partner. That does not mean the desire for sex with others is no longer there. You can make the denial of that desire as the foundation of your relationship, as in, if we love each other enough, we will control ourselves. But what kind of love is it anyway if you need to cage each other's sexual energy? Do you really think caging each other will make you love each other more?
Monogamy is neither moral nor immoral. It is something quite different. Monogamy is a relationship indicator.

I'll explain what this means. I have a gay couple friend here in San Francisco who had been together for 14 years. As they get to know each other more and more, the love and devotion between them grow as well. They know each other's body so intimately that increasingly, sex with strangers just cannot come close to the intimacy and sexual compatibility that they share. Eventually, without deliberately trying to be monogamous, they realise that they would rather have sex with each other than with anyone else. When there is no moral anxiety over monogamy, its appearance in a relationship becomes an indicator that the relationship is working.

Long-term monogamous relationship among gay men is unusual for many reasons. I would go out on a limb and suggest that one reason is because we jump into monogamy too early, thinking that by promising to be faithful to each other from the start, we can create a loving devoted relationship. For some, that might in fact work. But for many others, what happens instead is that after a few years, both start to get bored and itch for something more exciting outside. Monogamy is more real as the natural result of a devoted loving relationship, as opposed to its starting condition.

If we can start thinking of monogamy as an indicator rather than a moral value, we will save ourselves a lot of trouble. No more icky arguments about cheating, no more sexual frustrations within 'monogamous' relationships, no more strategising about whether to choose an open or a monogamous arrangement, no more game-playing. And without all these yucky stuff, we can better concentrate on building strong loving relationships and show those clueless heterosexuals what marriage is really about.

Reader's Comments

1. 2006-10-17 13:59  
I am totally with this article.

Since I was 19, I always longing for a monogamous relationship like everyone else. However, from relationship to relationship, with my own will power I had been faithful to all my ex bfs. However, I learned that the reason I am being faithful was because I wanna prove to myself that I can be a monogamous lover as what most ppls would expect a bf to be. Deep down I know I still have the itch to go for someone else. I dun dare to explore this itch but ignore it and mainly due to my insecurity with relationship. I was trying very hard to be an ideal faithful bf in hope that my other half will do the same. I guess I can said that I am faithful because I am insecure and I worry my other half will cheat on me. Therefore, with my will power, I controlled myself.

Now, when I am 29, 10 years later after reading this article. I realised that I only want to be monogamous because I actually love the person I am with and trying to build a good relationship. If i wanna be faithful, now I wanna do it because of love and not because of my insecurity.

A good eye opener article. :)
2. 2006-10-17 18:27  
-I think there is a very importnat point being missed here
-what about the hurt and anger that is inflicted upon the faithful partner if the other has not been monogamous-and what happens to trust

-surely you are in a relationship because you love each other and therefore by defintion would not wish to cause pain/hurt to your partner

-by all means some couples can have very successful open relationships, but to be honest I have come across very few examples

-gay men tend not to be monogamous because we do not have the social and moral guidelines as instilled by society/media/family that heterosexuals are subjected to

-and lets face it what man would refuse sex when its readily available

-however a partnership is about trust love and respect-and yes I agree we may well be denying ourselves sex-but surely by refraining from sleeping around you are demonstrating the love ,respect and trust that you have in your partner
3. 2006-10-17 21:58  
JEEEEZ I'd be happy with just one decent gay guy who is responsible and loyal cos well who wants to be riddled every disease under the sun, how ever I know of a group of fantastic gay guys here in Sydney who are in a solid group relationship, they're not sleazy queers but really responsible gay guys loving and supporting each other... so if you can make it work HELL why not! relationship recognition shouldn't just be for singles also for those choosing group relationships
4. 2006-10-18 22:47  
I think it is an insult to think heterosexuals are clueless-- I mean my parents have a healthy marriage and remained happy and only had each other. I think love can transcend all and it is best to make a commitment to each other and strive for monogamy and oneness. Of course, there will be temptations along the way, but values are important to strive for and reach. I have never seen anyone really happy in an open relationship and they don't last!
5. 2006-10-19 06:41  
"Monogamy is result of a devoted relationship" Yes! Yes! While how to get there is a challenge and it cannot start from no where. So, I will disagreed with "we jump into monogamy too early..."

By having and acknowledging a monogamous attitude and thought in mind before a beginning of a relationship can be a good start. As it not only set the tone of a relationship, also it helps to build up compassion, trust and respect as it goes. It is all about the mind set and making sure both are taking it seriously. So when there is a temptation, we will be more cautious about what to do next, while not just jump straight into seduction.

For the the comments on heterosexual marriages, I will say, "Yes, such things do happen, but not all." It is just like the world, totally divided. At least, my parents aren't. They are such loving couple that I am very envy of~ *smile*
6. 2006-10-19 21:48  
Monogamy should not be imposed on people for questions of morality, diseases, insecurity or otherwise. If you want to be monogamous, then be monogamous for your own sake and don't expect your partner to ever be monogamous. If your partner and yourself both want to be monogamous and you're both happy with it, then that's great. Just remember that humans are often tempted and will often sleep around, especially if they have unsatisfied sexual urges. So make your own choices and let others make their own choices as well.
7. 2006-10-20 12:32  
When two people commited for a monogamous relationship in the beginning, they are in monogamous relationship.

In my opinion, no matter how itch or how big your desire is to have sex with other people, you cannot do that as both of you already declare that you are in a monogamous relationship.

If you have the itch or desire to do so, discuss with your partner and find a way out. If not, that means cheating.

If you cheated, can you imagine what the other party feels? Hurt? Betrayed? Pain?

I think what most important is don't do it behind your partner's back if you already declare that you are in a monogamous relationship.
8. 2006-10-22 14:51  
How I wish you had written this 2 years ago, my 7 year relationship might still be in tack. Monogamy was never an issue or proplem with us we both indulged with others, and sometimes together. The problem was, no limits. Now the sadness is sometimes overwelming. To late, he still doesn't understand. Not easy to learn the hard way, no pun intented. WE BOTH LOST SOMETHING WE WILL NEVER FIND AGAIN AS NO LOVE IS EVER THE SAME.
9. 2006-12-13 01:31  
what monogamy and marriage? do it ur way, ur style. because after all, everything we do is "immoral". but honestly one is more than enough, don't ur lover tire u out before u can think of anything else?
10. 2010-02-04 09:28  
"Monogamy is a relationship indicator...its appearance in a relationship becomes an indicator that the relationship is working." This implies that if it doesn't appear, the relationship is NOT working - right?

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