What the hell is wrong with straight people?

We were having dinner at the house of some friends, a nice married straight couple, terrific parents to three girls. Our kids were tearing around in the yard and the adults were well into a third bottle of wine when the conversation turned to sex. We knew the wife was relatively young and sexually inexperienced when she married–she confided as much to us the first time we’d been over to dinner, almost a year before. She felt as if she’d missed out, she told us. She’d never really had any sexual adventures; she’d never done anything she regretted or looked back on and thought, “Wow! Was that me?!?”

We were the only gay couple she knew, and she had been initiating awkward conversations about sex with us ever since we met. She seemed hung up on our gayness, but not in a bad way. What she seemed was jealous. She assumed that, because we were gay, we had both had wild sexual experiences, the kind of adventures she had missed out on, and after two or three glasses of wine she would start demanding the details. Tonight she wanted to talk about infidelity.

“Have you ever cheated on Terry?” she asked me.

I looked at Terry and made my “am I allowed to answer this question truthfully?” face. He nodded and made his “if you must” face.

“Sure, I’ve cheated on Terry,” I said, after checking to make sure the kids were all out of earshot. “But only in front of him.”

She laughed and looked at Terry, then me, then Terry again. Were we joking? I shrugged my shoulders. It wasn’t a joke, the shrug said. I had “cheated” on Terry–but only in front of him, only with his permission, only with someone we both liked and trusted, only when we were in one place and our son was in another. We’ve had a threeway–actually we’ve had a couple. While threeways hardly register on the kink-o-meter anymore, they’re considered the absolute height of kink for people like us–parents, I mean, not gay people. As parents we’re not supposed to be having sex with each other anymore much less having sex with other people.

She demanded the details but I would only give her a basic outline. One was with a nice French guy we met on a just-the-two-of-us vacation. He looked a lot like Tom Cruise, which was nice, and was practically a gay virgin, which for safety reasons was even nicer. The other was with an ex-boyfriend of mine, a tech millionaire who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building a playroom in his basement, a sex-toy wonderland. After hearing a friend rave about David’s playroom, Terry wanted to see it for himself, so we went over for dinner, and one thing lead to another, and that’s as much as I’m willing to reveal.

We told our friends that we regarded threeways the same way Bill Clinton regarded abortion–best when they’re safe, legal, and rare. Really rare–two in ten years? We get to vote for president more often. And with less pleasant outcomes.

When we were done our neighbor’s eyes widened and she leaned in and grabbed my arm.

“That’s wonderful,” she said, a little too loudly. “I would love to have a threeway. But I wouldn’t want my husband to know the details.”

She said all of this in front of her husband, who laughed. He thought it was a joke.

A couple of bizarre double standards have been getting a lot of press since those “activist judges” in Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, California, and Washington discovered a “new” right to same-sex marriage in their state constitutions.

The double standard relentlessly promoted by opponents of gay marriage is that marriage is about having children. Since gays and lesbians can’t have their own biological children, opponents argue, we shouldn’t be allowed to marry. It has been almost comically easy to punch holes in this argument. Not all married straight couples can have children. My brother and his girlfriend could marry tomorrow despite his vasectomy. After my grandmother’s death my grandfather married an elderly widow. Both of my parents are currently in childless marriages.

And it’s not exactly a secret that thousands of gay and lesbian couples have had children or plan to have children through adoption or artificial insemination. If marriage is about children, how is it that childless straight couples can marry but same-sex couples with children cannot? By promoting this double standard social conservatives have unwittingly exposed the shocking truth about straight marriage in America, never mind what us homos will or won’t or can’t do.

The institution of marriage, as straight people currently understand and practice it, is terrifically elastic and hard to define. Marriage is whatever two straight people say that it is. Kids? Optional. Honor? Let’s hope so. Till death do us part? There’s a 50/50 chance of that. Obey? Only if you’re a Southern Baptist with two X chromosomes. A modern marriage ceremony can be sacred (church, family, preacher) or profane (Vegas, strangers, Elvis). What makes a straight couple married–in their own eyes, in the eyes of the state–is a license issued by the state and the couple’s willingness to commit to each other. They don’t have to be in love, they don’t have to have children, they don’t even have to have sex. Just exactly what a straight couple is committing to when they marry is entirely up to them. It’s not up to the state, their reproductive systems, or even the church that solemnizes their vows.

This is the reason so many defenders of “traditional marriage” sputtered their way through their appearances on Nightline and the Sunday morning news programs in 2004. Traditional marriage is just one option available to straight couples. A religious straight couple can have a big church wedding and kids and the wife can submit to the husband and they can stay married until death parts them–provided that’s what they both want when they marry, and that’s what both of them continue to want throughout the marriage. Or a couple of straight secular humanists can get married in a tank full of dolphins and never have kids and treat each other as equals and split up if they decide their marriage isn’t working out–again, if that’s what they both want. (It should be pointed out, however, that a religious couple is likelier to divorce than a couple who marries in a tank full of dolphins. Divorce rates in the United States are highest in conservative red states, and lowest in–it’s almost too good to be true–true blue Massachusetts, the only state in the union that currently offers full marriage rights to gays and lesbians.) The problem for opponents of gay marriage isn’t that gay people are trying to redefine marriage in some new, scary way, but that straight people have redefined marriage to a point that it no longer makes any logical sense to exclude same-sex couples. Gay people can love, gay people can commit. Some of us even have children. So why can’t we get married?

But supporters of gay marriage have been peddling a double standard of their own, one that’s just as easy to punch holes in.

Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, told the Associated Press that “it serves the common good also to support same-gender couples who wish to pledge fidelity, monogamy, and lifelong commitment.” On Larry King Live, Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, claimed that he was only “advancing the bond of love and monogamy.” On CNN Newsnight with Aaron Brown, conservative commentator and early gay-marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan described the gay marriage movement as “a very conservative thing. . . . We’re arguing for the same conservative values of family and responsibility and monogamy that everybody else is.” In the Washington Times, Democratic consultant Michael Goldman encouraged Democrats to defend civil unions for gays by saying they’re “about two things, which I favor–monogamy and accountability.”

Excuse me?

Straight couples don’t have to be monogamous to be married or married to be monogamous. Monogamy no more defines marriage than the presence of children. Monogamy isn’t compulsory and its absence doesn’t invalidate a marriage. There are hundreds of thousands of heterosexual married couples involved in the organized swinging movement–which I explored in my last book, Skipping Towards Gomorrah–and God alone knows how many disorganized swingers there are out there. Married straight couples are presumed to be monogamous until proven otherwise, of course, and that assumption serves as a powerful inducement to be (or appear to be) monogamous. Even most swinging couples prefer that their family, friends, and associates see them as monogamous. But as with children, monogamy is optional. As much as it may piss William Bennett off, married couples get to decide for themselves if monogamy is a part of their commitment. Or slots, for that matter.

By promoting the erroneous notion that monogamy defines marriage, and that all gay couples who want to marry want to be monogamous, supporters of gay marriage are creating and, in some cases, attempting to enforce a double standard of their own–one that opponents of gay marriage can poke holes in pretty easily. Just as supporters of gay marriage can produce gay and lesbian couples with children, opponents of gay marriage won’t have to search for long before they find non-monogamous gay couples among the thousands of same-sex couples who have wed in Canada and Massachusetts.

Indeed, my own relationship presents a tough case for opponents and supporters of gay marriage alike. My boyfriend and I have a child; we’re thinking of adopting another. If children are the gold standard, we should be married. But if monogamy is the gold standard, then the couple of threeways we admit to having disqualifies us.

All sorts of nightmare scenarios play out in people’s minds when a male couple–particularly one with a child–admits to being non-monogamous. (Maybe that’s why so few will admit to it.) While married couples are presumed to be sober monogamists until proven otherwise, non-monogamous gay male couples are presumed to be reckless drunken sluts until proven otherwise. “Children will suffer the most [if gay marriage is legalized],” says James Dobson, the conservative Christian leader who unmasked deep-cover homosexual operative SpongeBob SquarePants. “Homosexuals are rarely monogamous,” Dobson has warned, and children, “who by their nature are naturally conservative creatures, will be traumatized by the ever-changing sexual partners of their parents and the instability of home life. Foster care and homelessness among children will rise.”

Dobson paints a scary portrait of gay parents, one that’s misinformed by stereotypes about gay men, monogamy, and promiscuity. In Dobson’s world, a gay man is either a one-guy-kinda-guy (a one-in-a-zillion rarity) or a one-thousand-guy-kinda-guy, and there’s no in-between.

Before I argue with Dobson, I would like to agree with him on one point: Dobson is absolutely correct when he says that children are naturally conservative creatures–but not in the modern sense of the term “conservative”: I’ve never met a child who took a strong position on tax cuts and most of the children I know are budding welfare queens. (Allowances, like welfare, can create a troubling culture of dependency.) Children are also instinctively horrified by the death penalty. Children are conservative inasmuch as they require stability in order to feel secure and therefore generally prefer things to stay the same. They need ritual and familiarity. One of the most underrated virtues–one I’d like to see virtuecrats promote to parents everywhere, and a virtue many homos have a problem with–is constancy. Once you’re a parent you simply have to stop reinventing yourself while your children are young. Parents who burn through a series of religions or change partners every six months or switch genders are, in my opinion, terrorizing their small children. Children not only need their parents to stay together, they need their parents to stay relatively the same. I’ve got your back on that one, Jimmy.

Now, back to those reckless inconsiderate drunken sluts:

Dobson believes that there are two kinds of gay male couples out there: so-rare-they’re-hardly-worth-discussing monogamous gay male couples, and gay male couples whose home lives are characterized by an ever-changing roster of sexual partners. Dobson isn’t alone in assuming that non-monogamous gay men are always and everywhere appallingly promiscuous; other gay people make the same assumption when a gay couple admits to being non-monogamous. So I feel obligated to paint a more detailed picture of our non-monogamous behavior: My boyfriend and I don’t hang out in sleazy bars at all hours, we don’t have anonymous sex with men we’ve met on the Internet, and neither of us is willing to take irrational risks for the sake of the next orgasm. Like a huge number of straight couples, however, we have an understanding. We’re allowed to “cheat” under a set of highly unlikely circumstances and all outside sexual contact has to be very safe–indeed, it has to be hyper safe, almost comically safe. We’ve never done anything, nor would we ever do anything, that would put our child at risk. (There will be no Kramer vs. Kramer moments, i.e., no strange adults wandering nude through our house in the middle of the night.) For all intents and purposes, the limits we’ve placed on outside sexual contact have resulted in a sort of de facto monogamy. In the ten years we’ve been together the planets have aligned on only a handful of occasions. We’re more non-monogamous in theory than in practice. If I had to pick one word to describe our approach to non-monogamy it would be “conservative.” Unfortunately the word “conservative” has been hijacked–and ruined–by sex-obsessed, puritanical asswipes like Dobson.

Far from undermining the stable home we’ve built for our child, the controlled way in which we manage our desire for outside sexual contact has made our home more stable, not less. Unlike most couples, we’re not going to break up over an infidelity. We’ve already been there, done that, had a very nice, very safe time, thanks, and might want to do it again sometime.

Depending on who you’re listening to at any given time, you’re either going to hear that marriage will change gay men, making us more monogamous, or gay men are going to change marriage, making it less monogamous. On NPR’s Talk of the Nation Jonathan Katz, executive coordinator of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale, made the case for the latter. Monogamy is “one of the pillars of heterosexual marriage and perhaps its key source of trauma,” Katz said. “Could it be that the inclusion of lesbian and gay same-sex marriage may, in fact, sort of decenter the notion of monogamy and allow the prospect that marriage need not be an exclusive sexual relationship among people?” In his book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, Jonathan Rauch argues for the former: “Once gay couples are equipped with the entitlements and entanglements of legal marriage, same-sex relationships will continue to move toward both durability and exclusivity.”

I think it’s possible that Katz and Rauch are both right. If gay marriage is legalized, not all gay married couples will choose to be monogamous, just as not all straight couples choose to be monogamous. I expect that married gay male couples will be non-monogamous at higher rates than married straight couples. Gay men are men, first and foremost, and men place a lower value on sexual exclusivity than women do. (Lesbian couples, on the other hand, are monogamous at higher rates than straight or gay male couples.) But with marriage comes the assumption of monogamy and, if a couple has kids, a host of logistical and ethical roadblocks to being non-monogamous. Marriage may not transform gay men into models of monogamous behavior, but marriage and family life will nudge us in that direction, moving us toward durability and exclusivity in some cases, decorum and hypocrisy in others. In other words, married gay men will most likely act more like married straight men, i.e., likelier to cheat than married women but motivated to cover it up. And like most swinging straight couples, non-monogamous gay couples will probably keep their mouths shut.

So why not keep my mouth shut and let people assume Terry and I are strictly monogamous? That’s what Terry would have preferred. And it is what most non-monogamous couples do–gay or straight, it’s how most couples with understandings handle it. Like most long-term couples, my boyfriend and I don’t rub our friends’ and neighbors’ noses in the details of our private life. But no one gets to be openly gay unless they’re willing to be honest about who they are sexually, and that kind of honesty is a hard habit to break. (Plus I’ve got a book to write.) Once you’ve told people that you’re gay, telling them that you’re non-monogamous seems like pretty small beans. And with so many supporters of gay marriage pointing to gay men with kids to attack the right’s double standard while at the same time promoting a double standard of their own about monogamy, I feel obligated to go on the record. We want equal marriage rights, after all, not the right to be held to a higher standard than straight people hold themselves to.

I also feel obligated to point out that non-monogamy in marriage, at least for males, is more “traditional” than the expectation of lifelong sexual exclusivity. The idea that married men are bound by monogamous marriage vows is itself a relatively new concept–and its rise seems to correlate with rising divorce rates. Social conservatives describe marriage as an ancient institution and openly call for a return to traditional gender roles. But in the old days–the really old days–men weren’t expected to be monogamous. The Greeks and Romans passed laws punishing female adultery, not male adultery. Jews had the right to several wives and concubines and Greek men to one wife and several concubines. While Roman law allowed a man only one wife or concubine, adultery and prostitution were widespread and not a legal or moral issue. Matters didn’t change much until the 20th century.

Perhaps the Greeks and Romans were wise to value the survival of marriages over sexual exclusivity. They should lose points for owning slaves, treating women as property, practicing infanticide, and punishing female adultery, but they were on to something, I think. When the demands and pressures of monogamy threaten the survival of a relationship, it’s better to toss the baggage of monogamy overboard than to sacrifice the ship of the relationship itself. But I’m a conservative, what do I know?

I have to agree with Jonathan Katz when he says that monogamy is “one of the pillars of heterosexual marriage and perhaps its key source of trauma.” It’s impossible for two people to be all things to each other sexually, and the expectation that two people must be all things to each other sexually–that they should never find another person attractive or act on that attraction–does a great deal of harm. Human beings didn’t evolve to be monogamous and everything from divorce rates to Clinton’s impeachment proves, I think, that the expectation of lifelong monogamy places an incredible strain on a marriage. Monogamy is hard work; it’s not natural (even disgraced virtuecrat William Bennett concedes this point!), and it doesn’t come easily to human beings or many other mammals. But our modern concept of love has at its foundation not only the expectation of monogamy but the idea that where there’s love, monogamy should be easy and joyful.

This is, in a word, batshitcrazy.

If we want to promote stable, lasting relationships–particularly for all those naturally conservative kids out there–we shouldn’t encourage people to have unrealistic expectations about sex, love, and desire. Since I don’t demand or expect complete fidelity from my boyfriend I’m not traumatized when he finds another guy attractive; nor have I been traumatized when he’s acted on an attraction to someone else–provided that all of our rules have been followed to the letter, as they always have been. Unlike many straight couples, we’ve found a way to make our desire for others a nonissue. Indeed, as most heterosexual swingers report, the times we’ve had sex with other guys have actually enhanced our desire for each other. Far from tearing us apart, the times we’ve had sex with another person–the times we’ve gone and had a sexual adventure together–have renewed and refreshed our intimate life. It’s made our home life more stable, not less, and that’s good for us and good for our son, naturally conservative creature that he is.

All of this came rushing into my head when our friends–the woman who wanted to have a threeway and her husband–announced a few months later that they were divorcing. The wife wants to have her sexual adventures, the ones she missed out on by marrying so young. Since there’s no room in their marriage for a little constructive, conservative, stabilizing non-monogamy–and since they can’t have their sexual adventures together–their marriage has to end. It’s a shame, isn’t it? A little non-monogamy could have saved their marriage, I’m convinced, but they can’t conceive of being married without being sexually exclusive.

It’s too bad for their three traumatized little girls that their parents aren’t gay men, isn’t it?

Excerpted from The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family by Dan Savage. Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2005 by Dan Savage.

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