“I’ve always had monogamous relationships but only by default,” says Martin, a smartly dressed, good-looking scientist in his 40s with floppy hair. “All my partners have known I would have been up for meeting other couples but they didn’t want to go there and I didn’t want to throw a good relationship away for that. Then last year I met someone online who offered me an open relationship. I was filled with warmth because it let me be me. I felt fulfilled. The relationship didn’t work for other reasons but it made me realise that being open is what suits me. I guess I’m trying to chase that.”
A younger blonde girl called Barbara, chips in: “When I was a teenager I remember my best friend confessing she kissed a guy I was dating. I said: ‘Brilliant go for it!’ I think she was expecting some sort of drama but I liked the idea we could share. I knew then I had a different take on relationships.” Barbara has been with her boyfriend for six years but they both see other people. “We went swinging a few times but found it emotionally unsatisfying. It’s a pose-y atmosphere. We wanted more.”
Martin, Barbara and I are sitting on the grass outside a community centre in Dorset countryside. It’s 9am on a Saturday and we are waiting for our induction talk. It’s a mixed crowd this weekend. There’s a lot of pink hair and tie-dye trousers but there’s an equal number of well-dressed, chipper professionals from all corners of UK and some from Europe. Ages range from mid-twenties to fifties. The one thing they do have in common is that they don’t follow monogamy.
But then, who does these days? Tom Conti confessed recently he’s had an open marriage, joining the likes of Megan Fox and Brian Austin Green and Tilda Swynton and John Byrne. Cameron Diaz apparently doesn’t believe in monogamy and Carla Bruni once said it was ‘boring.’ Then there’s been the recent rise of middle-class sex parties, such as Fever and Killing Kittens, made trendy by the glamorous former friend of the Duchess of Cambridge, Emma Sayle.
Even the revered philosophist Alain de Botton made infidelity the theme of his latest book How to Think More about Sex, suggesting that it is unrealistic to expect lifelong sexual satisfaction from one partner. Several other big-splash titles this year have pushed for a rethink on fidelity: Catherine Hakim’s The New Rules, Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn and Eric Anderson’s The Monogamy Gap.
Redefining relationship boundaries is what Open-Con is all about. Now in its third year, it calls itself a place which puts followers of ethical non-monogamy in touch with each other. Some of the attendees identify as ‘polyamorous’ (you have more than one concurrent relationship), some are in open marriages, some are simply curious committed couples.
But before you get excited, the event’s website makes clear it’s about meeting not mating: “OpenCon is a place for intelligent conversation and socialising. It’s not a sex club, a fetish club, or a dating service,” it warns.
There are workshops and chaired discussions covering all the topics you’d expect to worry about if you tried an open relationship – dealing with jealousy, how to come out to your friends and how parenting fits in with it all.
I opt for Poly 101 – an introductory lesson to a polyamorous lifestyle.
We cover things like managing your time when you have multiple partners: “I keep a public Google calendar so my partners know when I’m free without needing to calling me. I block some days out. That’s important or you end up having no time for yourself!” says our pretty instructor, who looks about 16.
Someone asks: “What if you fall in love with one of your partners and it overtakes what you have with your main partner?”
“It happens all the time,” she answers. “It’s what we call ‘new relationship energy.’ It’s important to be aware of because you need to ensure you make time for your other partner.”
Then we move onto safe sex practise. This is taken very seriously by people in open relationships. Protection is de rigueur unless you are in a ‘closed’ relationship – a circle of lovers who have agreed to be monogamous amongst each other.
Which brings us to the lingo. There is a whole lexicon to describe concepts that the hetero-monogamous couple would never need. A ‘metamore’, for instance, is your partner’s partner. A ‘sweetie’ is a casual sexual partner. There are ‘triads’ (three-way relationships) or ‘quads’ (four-ways) and everyone has a ‘polycule’ – an individual tree diagram which links your web of partners and metamores thrice-removed.
“One of my metamores has boundaries against unlimited chains so there is a lot of delicate negotiation going on at the moment,” says one American brunette, in her 30s.
Confused? She explains that one of her partner’s partners wants to limit the romantic chain of people sleeping with each other. That means she must control not just who her own partners can date, but their date’s dates too. “It’s mainly for safe sex concerns,” she clarifies.
She isn’t the only one to mention boundaries. In fact, the sine qua non of open relationships seems to be individualised rules. Some only permit their partner to see the same sex. Some hierarchise their partners – they have a ‘primary’ committed partner and everyone else is ‘secondary’. As one man put it: “Just because you’re open doesn’t mean you’re not cheating.”
Meg Barker, author of Rewriting the Rules, which covers open relationships, was one of the speakers: “People in monogamous relationships often assume they have a shared set of rules which can cause problems. For example their partner thought it ok to go online and look at porn but they didn’t. They thought it was ok to stay friends with an ex, but their partner didn’t. In open relationships, you tend to bring all these things up and negotiate from the start.”
But how do you go about suggesting going open in the first place? Philip, a 30-year-old-accountant, casually dressed in combats and a cap, gives me some insight: “Sarah’s been my only girlfriend. We got together at 19 at university.” He says. “In the last two years we started to talk about feeling like we may have missed out. We joked about meeting other couples but never did anything about it. We had a mutual female friend who was very flirty with both of us. One night we were at a party – I had to leave for some reason and Sarah said ‘would you mind if something happened between us tonight.’ Like a typical bloke I said ‘go for it!’ I was turned on. They got it on that night and after that she regularly joined us for threesomes. That’s been our only experience but we’re keen to try again.”
For some, the worry is not what to say to your partner, but what to say to the outside world. Non-monogamy may be cool in a book, or if you’re a celebrity but it isn’t widely accepted. One 40-year-old, who worked in academia, said he feared his career would be ruined if he came out as being ‘poly’. Another 28-year-old bisexual girl who works in a bookshop already did come out: “People reacted so much worse to me saying I was open than they did to me admitting I was bisexual,” she says.
This week’s ruling that same sex couples can marry is being hailed as a victory for equality even though homosexuality has been mostly accepted for a long time. It is now hard to conceive that homosexuality was once so heavily stigmatised. But it was still illegal in the UK until 1967 and only declassified as a mental health disorder in the 70s. But today’s acceptance has been preceded with marches and hard fought gay rights campaigning. Only this week do gay couples get the right to tie the knot in the same way as heterosexual ones. When you think about how long that has taken, non-monogamy, open relationships and polyamory have a long way to go.
Perhaps in 30 years we will be rejoicing that a ‘quad’ can now get married (they’d have to widen the church aise for four though). And we’ll laugh at how shocking we once found Carla Bruni and Cameron Diaz and all those monogamy bashing books.
Names and professions have been changed.