With same-sex marriage gaining legal victories and public acceptance, a new debate is percolating: Will the change in marriage rights lead to change in the nature of marriage — such as a reassessment of monogamy? Not long ago, that possibility was brought up by conservatives who warned of the perils of abandoning traditional marriage. Now, supporters of same-sex unions are raising similar questions — mostly with ambivalence.
Last month, an article in Gawker, a left-leaning website, focused on same-sex marriages that allow extramarital sex. A few days later, just as the Supreme Court struck down the ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages, Slate.com ran a piece by Hanna Rosin titled, “The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous.” Rosin asserted that “in legalizing gay marriage” — which she supports — “we are accepting a form of sanctioned marriage that is not by habit monogamous,” with possible wider repercussions.
Outraged commenters accused Rosin of shoddy journalism and veiled bigotry. A response from gender and sexuality scholar Nathaniel Franks argued that gay couples may not be less monogamous than straight ones; that marriage may encourage gay monogamy; and that if gay culture pushes straight society to reconsider its norms, that may be good.
Facts about sex are often elusive, and Rosin’s provocative headline was likely inaccurate — especially for lesbians. A University of Vermont study in the early 2000s found that 40 percent of gay men and 5 percent of lesbians in civil unions (and 3 percent of straight married couples) had agreements allowing extra-couple sex. Nearly 60 percent of gay men and 9 percent of lesbians admitted to such liaisons, compared to about 15 percent of straight spouses.
One common view is that non-monogamous gays are simply being men, “untamed” by women. Others point to a gay male culture that developed in defiance of traditional sexual restrictions; young gay men today may be more monogamous, though there are also reports of more young lesbians embracing a “liberationist” culture that includes multiple partners. Some who are monogamous, such as Cathy Marino-Thomas, a lesbian activist quoted in Gawker, still praise gay culture’s sexual openness and suggest that more heterosexual “honesty” on the subject would reduce “the stigma around sexual freedom.”
But would lifting this stigma do more harm than good? Some respond with, “Don’t like open marriage? Don’t have one” — a variant on similar statements about gay marriage.
Yet the analogy fails. Your heterosexual marriage cannot suddenly turn gay; your monogamous marriage can turn non-monogamous. Yes, open marriages require mutual consent — but with cultural strictures removed, spouses who want exclusivity will have far less leverage to demand it. (Accounts of open relationships show that the façade of consent often hides tensions and pressures to accede to a partner’s wishes.) Moreover, if monogamy is merely one valid option, even unilateral straying is likely to be seen as less immoral. Eventually, monogamists may be chided — as one woman was in the comments on Rosin’s article—for being so fixated on sexual fidelity.
The case for marriage equality has been so compelling in part because opponents could never coherently explain how same-sex unions would damage or cheapen marriage. Acceptance of non-monogamy would do both — in a way that old-fashioned “dishonest” adultery cannot, since it doesn’t challenge the ideal of sexual exclusivity as an essential marriage feature. The argument that a couple’s marriage is no one else’s business is nonsense; as plenty of gay activists say, marriage is not just about legal rights but about social affirmation.
Right now, an anti-monogamy revolution seems unlikely: Over 90 percent of Americans think extramarital sex is always wrong. But there is a visible media trend of sympathetic coverage for non-monogamous relationships — and, at least judging by discussions on liberal websites, a growing number of people who feel that being “judgmental’’ toward open or multipartner relationships is intolerant.
This trend should be opposed by everyone who cares about marriage, including equality advocates who have passionately argued for the inclusion of gay men and women in the marriage culture. No one wants to stone adulterers. But if there’s anyone who belongs in the closet, it’s people, gay or straight, who want to enjoy the social privileges of marriage and keep their “sexual freedom” too.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.