One night I went to a bar with my friend Mike. There were bands playing, it was crowded, and we casually struck up a conversation with a woman named Heather. After an hour or so, Mike decided to leave. He was tired, he didn't like the music, and, increasingly, Heather and I were focused on each other. As he was leaving, he noticed that she and I had moved closer to each other, and he grinned at me just before he walked out the door.
Heather and I talked more, drank more, talked more. We were now sitting side-by-side in our booth in the dark lounge. We began kissing. After a few minutes, she broke away and laughed.
"Is there anything I should know before I get smitten?" she asked, and I realized that she somehow hadn't noticed the ring on my finger.
I held up my hand and showed it to her. "Maybe this?"
Her smile changed. "Ah. Like I said, there had to be a catch."
"Sorry. Do you want me to leave?"
She thought about it. "No, I'm having a good time hanging out."
We got more drinks. She stayed beside me in the booth, but we talked instead of making out. "I kind of want to take you home with me," she said. I stroked her hair and kissed her again and said, "Sounds good to me."
"Really? How long could you stay?"
"I'd like to stay with you all night, if you want me to."
A few minutes later, I was standing outside the bar, phone in hand, calling home. "Hey," my wife said sleepily.
"Hey, sorry to wake you. I just wanted to let you know I probably won't be home tonight."
"Oh… Is it anybody I know?"
"No, I just met her tonight."
She laughed. "I love you."
"I love you, too. See you tomorrow."
The next day, I got a call from Mike, "So, did you get with Heather last night?" he asked. "Yeah," I replied, "I spent the night with her. She's really cool."
"Do you need me to cover your ass with Anni? I can tell her you got drunk and crashed on my couch."
"She knows where I was," I replied. He was immediately alarmed.
"Shit, dude… How did she find out?"
"I told her. I wouldn't do it behind her back."
"You told her? For real?"
"Yeah, before Heather and I left the bar. She's okay with it."
"Barry, that's sick. I mean, gross."
"It's just wrong."
Anni was his friend too. For me to be unfaithful to my wife, his friend, was okay. For me to lie to her about it was also okay. Moreover, he was prepared to lie to her to help me get away with it. But telling her the truth? And her not having a problem with it? Sick. Gross. Wrong.
Mike was married too, and fucked around at least as much as I did. But he hid it from his wife, so that was okay, or "normal." This story would just be funny if Mike's attitude weren't typical.
When my marriage to Anni ended after seven years, most of our friends decided that our lack of monogamy had been the cause. Or, since few of them were monogamous, but all paid lip service to monogamy, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that they thought a lack of dishonesty had been the cause.
Our marriage had largely been happy. It ended for most of the usual reasons. I say "most," because infidelity was not among those reasons.
I once had an affair with a married woman whose husband didn't know what was going on. She told me that while she loved her husband, she couldn't be monogamous. I asked her if she'd ever talked with him about having an open relationship.
"I couldn't handle that," she said.
"I couldn't handle him fucking other women."
She was in bed with me, naked, when she told me this.
At a newspaper where I worked, my editor asked me to write a piece about a local polyamory support group. "Perverts make good copy," he said cheerfully. (He was married, but known for putting the moves on his female staff.) He was disappointed when I reported that the group not only didn't have any perverts, but that it didn't even have any members who were promiscuous.
Not that I'm knocking promiscuity. I couldn't. I have never been polyamorous, but I am promiscuous. Most of the polyamorous people I know aren't promiscuous; they have more than one relationship. Really, I've found that they're more into relationships than most "monogamous" people, which is why they have more than one at the same time.
I'm not polyamorous. I'm just a slut.
And so are many, or most, of us. We just don't talk about it. The reason most of us don't talk about it is that "promiscuous" is almost always used as a pejorative. "Slut," of course, is used as an insult. But try asking someone what's wrong with being promiscuous, and see how flustered and frustrated they get. They'll likely answer, "Well, cheating is wrong." But how is it cheating if you're honest? Or they might say, "What about the people who might get hurt?"
The hurt, like all problems that seem to arise from non-monogamy, actually arises from our belief that we should be monogamous, and that our partners should also be monogamous. I remember how scandalized reviewers and fans of Julie and Julia were when its author, Julie Powell, wrote another memoir, Cleaving, about how she cheated on her husband. What so many of those who stood in judgment of Powell — including Powell herself — seemed not to realize was that her supposed wrongdoing was only wrong because she felt forced to lie about it. Reviewing the book, I wrote:
Something that doesn't seem to occur to Powell, though, is that she isn't the problem. What's causing all the pain and confusion is an unquestioning acceptance that monogamy is a virtue. Powell clearly loves her husband; indeed, she finds life without him unthinkable. She doesn't seem to mind when he has an affair, since it doesn't make her doubt that he loves her and wants to be married to her. She just doesn't seem to be a sexually monogamous person, and I can't see that there would be any problem were it not for the (perhaps self-imposed) expectation that she should be, or should be perceived to be.
If you know your partner is having sex with other people, doesn't that mean you have to deal with jealousy and insecurity? Of course, just as you do if your partner isn't having sex with other people, or at any rate you don't know they are. The problem isn't sex, it's making our bodies and other people's bodies symbols of control and ownership — and lying about behavior that crosses the boundaries of "normal" relationships.. I have been in relationships during which I have had various other sex partners, and in relationships in which I had sex with few or no other people. I consider these relationships to have been equally non-monogamous.
While I was working on this article, I sent a draft of it to a friend who is 72 years old and has been married to his wife for 49 years — three years longer than I have existed. They have never been monogamous. He wrote back:
And the the truth shall set you free. But in the US of A, hypocrisy rules. I think G. and I are living proof of what you are talking about. When I have told the truth, or my version of the truth, about sex I have been shunned, ridiculed, and ignored.
I don't know if my current partner and I will be together as long as these friends have managed, but I do know that our time together will be honest, not based on lies.
Barry Graham is a novelist, journalist, poet and Zen teacher from Glasgow, Scotland. He has been based in the U.S. since 1995, and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of more than a dozen books and his work has appeared in Harper's, Flaunt, Parabola, Las Vegas Life, The Arizona Republic, and Scotland on Sunday.