Monogamy: Gay Men, Lesbians, And Straights

Gay Marriage Becomes Legal In California

Nathaniel Frank rebuts a Hannah Rosin’s post on same-sex marriage, which cites “decades-old statistics from the counterculture” to argue that married gays won’t likely be monogamous:

[H]ow different are gay and straight couples? Probably different but not that different. Data on straight monogamy are all over the map. One report suggests 70 percent of married men cheat. (OK, that was a Fox News report, but shouldn’t that skew toward idealizing heterosexuality?) A nationally representative survey of 884 men put the number at only 23 percent. A much bigger but unrepresentative MSNBC survey found that nearly half of adults cheat—exactly the same percentage as the San Francisco study found with gay men. Other reports have found the same—that 50 percent of married men cheat—and one also found that the vast majority will not admit to it, perhaps even on surveys.

The gay male culture of nonmonogamy, rooted in gay liberation (and again, not all gay men are part of it), is likely to encourage both nonmonogamy and honest reporting of it, a key difference from the norms and expectations of the heterosexual mainstream.

I’m not so sure, if only because these things tend to be kept private (for good reasons); and because the possibility of a monogamish marriage diminishes very quickly among heterosexuals and lesbians. And gay men are, to my mind, more likely to be influenced by the 99 percent of marriages that adhere to cultural norms than the 99 percent are to be influenced by the 1 percent. Dreher offers a critique of Steve Thrasher’s piece on married non-monogamous gays:

In the piece, someone praises gays for being “honest” about their sexual behavior, unlike hetero hypocrites like “Newt Gingrich.” But that’s just it: Gingrich’s infidelities were an occasion of moral opprobrium and legal consequence for him. If Gingrich and one of his wives had written a prenuptial contract that provided for his desire to wander sexually, there would have been stigma attached to it. That stigma is important to maintain. Of course there are straight people who commit infidelity within marriage, and there are, no doubt, straight people (swingers) who negotiate infidelity within the context of their marriage. The point is that these people are outside the norm, and are seen as outlaws in some sense. On Thrasher’s account, that’s not the case for gay men.

Gingrich is such an outlaw he has just been given a spot on CNN’s Crossfire and had a good run for president as a Catholic Republican! So I think Rod overplays his hand here. That barn door has been swinging wide or at least ajar for quite a while now. Nonetheless: it’s obvious that marriage between two men and between two women will be inherently different in some respects both from each other and from heterosexual marriages. But the core issue isn’t gay or straight, it seems to me; it’s male and female.

We do not hear moral panic around lesbian marriages, for example, because they tend to be more monogamous than straight ones – and more numerous than gay male ones. Hence the net result of marriage equality may be a slight uptick in monogamy as more women enter the institution. Heterosexual men are also constrained powerfully by the woman they are married to – but do break those constraints (often by lies or discretion) as the stats show.

The other core issue, it seems to me, is whether you have kids or not. Again this distinction is much more salient than gay vs straight. Monogamy matters much more insofar as it helps rear children in a clear and settled and stable environment. But childless couples? I would not want to peer into whatever arrangements they might have made with each other (or not). I’d simply hope they protect their own privacy, and be able to forgive one another and communicate with each other.

What’s different about a gay male couple is that extra-marital indiscretions can be – but not always are – negotiated/forgiven/understood – because men understand men and male desire, and the difference between mere sex and major betrayal. Dan Savage and I discussed this here. Does this mean gay male couples should publicly challenge the social norm of monogamy? I don’t believe so. What we can do – and what some straight couples do – is contain the details of our relationships to one another. It’s called discretion. And discretion is not the same as infidelity, which is ultimately and rightly defined by the couple themselves. (By the way, I see no relevance at all in the way any couple meets. Very sleazy hookups can lead to very stable marriages; squeaky-clean introductions can become living hells.)

Is there some hypocrisy here? Of course there is – as there is among straight couples who deal with an infidelity privately while “keeping up appearances”. A little hypocrisy is sometimes the tribute vice pays to virtue. Bottom line: I don’t want to investigate the private details of people’s marriages, straight or gay, but I do think upholding a public norm of fidelity is worthwhile, and more than worthwhile when children are involved. Equally, I think the obsession with sex in marriage mistakes wood for the trees (that was an attempt at a pun). Marriage is about so much more than sex. Fidelity is about much more than monogamy. And the more we appreciate that, the stabler and happier our marriages will be.

More Dish on gays and monogamy here, here, and here.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)