“Dear the Gay Men Project,
I’ve been with my partner for three years, and he recently suggested we open up our relationship. I don’t know how I feel about this. I was hoping to get some advice from others who have opened up their relationship or are considering it.
From New York”
From the Gay Men Project:
Many thanks for writing in. This is a subject that I have a lot of interest in, but right off the bat I should make the disclaimer that I’ve been single for many, many years. So this isn’t really a subject I can speak to from personal experience.
That said, I have photographed and interviewed hundreds of gay men around the world these past few years, and this is a subject that came up a lot. Mostly because I developed a personal interest in the many ways gay men have chosen to pursue and define their relationships. So the question of whether one was in an open relationship was something I asked many of the men I met, assuming they had a partner.
So instead of giving you advice, I’m just going to share a few of the things I’ve learned and observed from my many years of asking about the subject. Keep in mind, I’m only sharing the stories of the gay men I’ve met–which I feel is a pretty representational group of gay men around the world, but of course, I don’t speak for everyone.
First off, many gay men are in open relationships. I can’t say the exact numbers, but I would say of the hundreds of gay men I photographed all over the world, of the ones that were in a relationship, a large number of those relationships were open. What that means, of course, is very different to each relationship. One of the things I found most interesting is that everyone defines the boundaries of an open relationship differently. Some people will bring in other people into their sexual activities, but only as a couple. Meaning a couple will invite a third or a fourth to join, and will only “play” together. I’ve met others who will engage in sexual activities outside of the relationship, but only in the absence of their partner. One person said it best: “I can’t imagine watching someone else kiss my husband.”
I think it’s interesting that every couple (or throuple, as I did come across one polyamorous relationship) has a unique set of rules that they abide to when opening up their relationship. Some don’t allow their partner to kiss, or sleep over, or bring someone into their home if they are not there. Things like that. Others are only open in their relationship when each partner is in different cities.
What I found most striking is this. Of the people that have been together extremely long-term–and I’m talking thirty, forty, and even fifty years–a majority were in open relationships. One of the couples I met who were very long term didn’t have sex with each other anymore. They engaged in all their sexual activity entirely outside of their partnership. Sex became less important than the other things that make up a relationship i.e. companionship, comfort, history, friendship.
On the other side of the spectrum, I did notice that the younger gay men I’ve met (I’m talking early twenties) tend to be more monogamous then men my age (I’m 33) and older.
I have a few theories on this. First off, most people open up their relationships a few years in. So perhaps younger gay men just haven’t been in relationships long enough to want to consider options outside of monogamy. But I think the bigger factor is that gay men are coming out a lot younger nowadays. I’m talking, like fourteen or fifteen-years-old. (personally, I can’t imagine having come out at fourteen!)
As such, when these young gay men are coming out they’re still living at home and under the guidance and authority of their parents. Add to that the fact that LGBTQ couples are more embedded in our pop culture (in the West at least), and in many places marriage is now an option, and it seems that the younger generation is more often modeling the foundation of how they approach relationships on the model most readily available to them when they first come out, that of their parents. And most likely this is a model perceived to be a monogamous relationship that results in a marriage. Because this is a model that young gay men are told they can now participate in, that’s what they are doing. Whereas many gay men my age felt this was a model that they were excluded from (specifically with regards to marriage) and therefore took the freedom to design their own set of parameters.
Anyways, these are just my thoughts. I’m far from being an expert on relationships, hence the reason I’m still single. I will say, from what I’ve gathered, if you are going to open up your relationship, communication and trust is key. And safety! I really encourage anyone who has first-hand experience on the subject to offer their insight for the benefit of the rest of us, and the larger community. I’m sure some people have very strong opinions one way or the other, and I want to hear them!