Recent Comments

    The Evolution of Gay Male Monogamy

    By Tom Moon, MFT–

    In the years immediately after Stonewall, the new gay liberation movement was primarily about sexual freedom. Sodomy laws criminalized gay sex almost everywhere in the country, with penalties ranging from imprisonment for two to ten years and/or a fine of $2,000, so naturally enough, the first emphasis of the movement was about the freedom to have sex. Emblematic of the time is John Rechy’s 1977 book The Sexual Outlaw, which follows “Jim” (Rechy himself) as he cruises the parks, bars, bathhouses and beaches of L.A. His anonymous encounters are presented as subversive acts against an oppressive society.

    The new movement was often overtly hostile to gay relationships. I remember witnessing couples being openly ridiculed, accused of practicing “couple-ism,” and aping heterosexual norms—especially if the couple was monogamous. Authentic gay liberation, it was frequently argued, meant overthrowing all of these “patriarchal structures”—and having lots of casual sex.

    In the first study of gay male relationships, The Male Couple (1984), authors David McWhirter and Andrew Mattison argued that the expectation of monogamy, often identified with stability and intimacy in heterosexual couples, might actually be detrimental to gay relationships. Only 7 of the 156 couples in their study were monogamous. They wrote: “Sexual exclusivity among these couples is infrequent, yet their expectations of fidelity are high. Fidelity is … defined … by their emotional commitment to each other. Ninety-five percent of the couples have an arrangement whereby the partners may have sexual activity with others at some time under certain conditions.” It continues: “[A]ll couples with a relationship lasting more than five years have incorporated some provision for outside sexual activity in their relationships.”

    But by then, a slow sea-change was already under way. Some of it, no doubt, was a reaction to the AIDS epidemic, which convinced many gay men that having multiple sex partners was dangerous. In addition, as younger gay men started growing up in more accepting environments, where even marriage was becoming a realistic option, they were less likely to begin their sexual lives with furtive sexual encounters, and so they were less inclined to experience it as something that had to be anonymous. Whatever the reasons, by 2000, in one survey, 70% of gay men in relationships described themselves as monogamous.

    But it still surprised many when, in 2016, Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen (who had been together in a non-monogamous relationship for over 40 years), released a study of younger gay men, aged 18–40. They found that a whopping 86% of the men in relationships were monogamous, and 90% of the single gay men were seeking monogamy. Even in a group of interview subjects recruited from Grindr, 81% of the 325 single men reported that they were seeking monogamy.

    Several of my older gay friends (over 55) were apoplectic when they learned about these findings. Younger gay men, they raged, had sold out the promise of gay liberation for respectability. “They’ve all volunteered to go back into prison!” one of them lamented.

    But it does seem that monogamy has become the prevailing norm among younger gay men. In November 2016, Zachary Zane, who was himself in a polyamorous relationship, wrote in OUT Magazine that “when I even hint at the idea of not being 100 percent monogamous, guys throw more than hissy fits; they have full temper tantrums.” He went on to ask: “Why does the mere mention of a non-monogamous relationship make these guys’ blood boil? Why do they feel that it’s important that everyone be like them, in a monogamous relationship, when it doesn’t affect them?”

    We’ve made a 180-degree turn. Where once gay guys felt judged for valuing monogamy, now they feel judged if they don’t.

    But one thing that seems not to have changed at all, after fifty years of struggle, is how many gay men haven’t grasped the fact that to value freedom is also to value diversity. In the conclusion of their study, Spears and Lowen write that “we heard both monogamous and non-monogamous respondents complaining of the lack of support for their respective relationships … . [A]s a community, let’s stop proselytizing our preference as ‘the right way’ and demonizing that which we don’t embrace.”

    “We need to create norms in the community where both monogamy and non-monogamy can be rationally discussed and considered. If we can do that, both monogamous and non-monogamous couples will feel supported by the larger community.”

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website