“Monoga­my is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”

Judith StaceyMark Oppenheimer’s epic and exciting piece on Dan Savage’s new framework for marriage included an extensive interview with Judith Stacey, author of Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. I thought Prof. Stacey gave the best quote of the article (printed above), and gave Savage’s argument the academic perspective it lacked.

Judith Stacey, a New York University sociologist who researched gay men’s romantic arrangements for her book “Unhitched,” argues that gay men, in general, will continue to require less monogamy. “They are men,” she said, and she believes it is easier for them — right down to the physiology of orgasm — to separate physical and emotional intimacy. Lesbians and straight women tend to be far less comfortable with nonmonogamy than gay men. But what matters is that neither monogamy nor polygamy is humankind’s sole natural state. “One size never fits all, and it isn’t just dividing between men and women and gay and straight,” she said. “Monoga­my is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”

I asked Stacey if, given the differences between men and women, she thought Savage’s vision was unrealistic for straight couples. Yes and no, she said: “I believe monogamy is actually crucial for some couples and totally irrelevant for others.” That does not mean that nonmonogamous couples are free to do as they please. Creating nonmonogamy that strengthens rather than corrodes a marriage is surely as much work as monogamy. Couples should make vows and honor them. Not all good relationships require monogamy, but they all require what she calls integrity.

“What integrity means for me is we shouldn’t impose a single vow of monogamy as a superior standard for all relationships,” Stacey said. “Intimate partners should decide the vows you want to make. Work out terms of what your commitments are, and be on same page. There are women perfectly happy to have agreements in which when you are out of town you can have a little fling on the side. And rules range from ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to ‘I want to know’ to ‘bring it home and talk about it and excite our relationship.’ ”

Stacey and Savage each say that monogamy is the right choice for many couples; they are exalting options, not any particular option. As a straight, monogamous, married male, I happen to think this is a good thing: if there are people whose marriages work best with more flexibility, they should find the courage to choose an arrangement that works for them, society be damned. I also recognize, however, that we may choose marriage in part to escape the terror of choice. There are so many reasons to marry; we could call them all “love,” but let’s be more specific: admiring how she looks in a sundress, trusting her to improve your first drafts, knowing that when the time comes she will make the best mother ever. But another reason might be that life before her was so confusing. In all those other relationships, it was never clear when there was an exclusive commitment or who would use the L-word first or when a Saturday-night date could be assumed.

Judith Stacey had another piece in the Times, on the Room for Debate blog, about marriage, and you can read an excerpt from her book on From the Square.

Three polyamorous brothers-in-law

A short excerpt from Judith Stacey’s Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, detailing one of the dozens of committed relationships she found outside the bonds of marriage.

Matt and Robert enjoyed close relationships with most of their siblings, nieces and nephews, and extended kin. Particularly titillating to Matt, Robert, and to most of their relatives was the household in which Matt’s gay brother-in-law Kevin Engelhard lived. In 1997 Matt’s younger sister Sophia had married Kevin’s older brother. When I interviewed Sophia in 2001, she reported that their three-year-old daughter was basking in the adoration of five gay uncles. Sophia chortled, “I get a giggle out of it.” Evincing admiration and perhaps a bit of envy, Matt described a successful, if improbable, domestic-sexual trio that Kevin and his committed life companion Tom Leske had formed. The thirty-something couple had invited Scott Jones, a “gorgeous boy toy” twelve years younger than they, to join their bed, household, and marriage.

Kevin and Tom had exchanged rings, fused their finances, and lived together in wedded harmony for eight years before they added Scott to their family. Their sexual relationship, like Matt and Robert’s, had evolved from early years of tacit monogamy into a negotiated form of open relationship. In this case, Kevin and Tom had agreed to permit each other “occasional serendipitous” recreational sexual encounters and also to occasionally go cruising jointly for a sexual threesome. They were not seeking a permanent threesome, however, the first night they invited Scott to share their bed with them, nor even when they offered him temporary lodging after Scott’s landlord had suddenly sold the apartment building where he had been living. However, all three men soon fell in love with one another, and Scott never moved out of their bed or lives. Instead, one year later, Kevin and Tom placed a ring on Scott’s finger as well. Continue reading