Sex and relationships column: Why nonmonogamy?

BY ROSE AFRIYIE

Published October 1, 2008

If you’ve heard a reference to the 1960’s or ’70s in recent weeks, it has probably either been a segue into a war hero story about John McCain or a lecture from his conservative ilk wagging a finger of judgment at the sexual revolution that happened during that time. While people may think of this sexual revolution simply as an anything-goes, free-love affair of moral decadence, consider another reading.

Sure, it’s true that this era of sexual enlightenment is regarded as a time when nonmonogamy, a practice of sexual or emotional involvement with more than one person, was at its height. But the goals of nonmonogamy don’t begin and end at having sex with different people. It’s more about possible downsides of monogamy: a lack of autonomy, jealousy and excessive constraints on other social relationships.
This begs the question: What lessons can be learned from nonmonogamy practiced decades ago that can benefit both the monogamous and nonmonogamous here at the University?

One place to start looking for answers is an essay published in the 2004 Sage Journal on Feminism and Psychology, “The Personal is still Political.” Offering a historical account of ’70s nonmonogamy, the essay concluded, “This was not an individual matter, but part of a collective understanding forged through overlapping political, friendship and sexual networks, which enabled us to discuss and challenge emotional responses such as jealously and insecurity.”
In other words, nonmonogamy — not to be confused with infidelity, which is the act of violating a mutually agreed upon commitment of sexual exclusivity — requires people to communicate, negotiate and set boundaries.

Sounds like useful skills?

I know what you are thinking: Plausible theory, impossible practice. It may be even tougher to understand the significance of this when you consider students reported sexual behavior. According to a 2006 National College Health Assessment survey conducted with University Health Service found that only 24 percent of students at the University had at least two or more partners a year with respect to oral sex, sexual intercourse and anal sex. Compare that to the 41 percent of persons who reported having at least one partner.

There is a lot these numbers don’t tell you, though. While they tell us that students use more restraint when selecting their partners for sexual behaviors with a higher risk of disease transmission, my theory is that these numbers don’t represent a true assessment of the state of monogamy on campus because they don’t cover a broader range of sexual associations.

For example, how many students have tongue kissed another individual? Masturbated with someone else? Given a hickey? Manually stimulated someone with his or her hands? While these activities may not generally be counted as sex, they would factor differently when assessing monogamy. Thus, if you have engaged in these activities with more than one partner over a period of time, you may be more nonmonogamous than you think.

And that’s OK. Nonmonogamy offers more practical measures for those who are committed or freelancing. For the monogamous among us, sexual exclusivity doesn’t have to mean that you can’t make new friends with members of your partner’s sex. Monogamy can mean that you trust your partner enough to know that your partner’s friends are just friends. Nonmonogamy also teaches us that the face of jealousy doesn’t always look like Ike Turner — roaming through your partner’s belongings fits that category, too. Your staples of autonomy can still exist in a relationship, and it shouldn’t be a requirement, for example, that you offer your pin number and Facebook password to someone you are seeing monogamously.

For those who want to explore an alternative, nonmonogamy allows people to recognize that they are sexual beings with sexual needs despite their relationship status. It’s possible to communicate sexual interest to someone you find attractive while also disclosing that presently — or indefinitely — you can’t meet the requirements of a formalized commitment with that person. But it also allows you to face your ephemeral partners the morning after, or days after in the street, because you’ve been honest about the terms of your exchange.
As college students, the temporal constraint of graduation makes nonmonogamy a viable option that one should be afforded without judgment.

Some may find nonmonogamy inconceivable for them. Admittedly, it is not for everybody. But we aren’t the rational species on the planet for no reason. Let’s not only be empowered to investigate our respective disciplines but also the source of jealousy and possession that sometimes come over us when we romantically engage. We have an obligation to ourselves to develop a rubric for our sexual limitations and desires that allow us to truly pursue happiness.

Rose Afriyie is the Daily’s sex and relationship’s columnist. She can be reached at sariyie@umich.edu.