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Freedom from Sexual Self-Denial: Why Not Have Sex With People Who Aren't Your Partner?

Infidelity is treated as selfish, while monogamy is celebrated. But what's so great about living a life of self-denial?

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Is that the thought process of someone who’s cowardly, careless or motivated only by hedonism?

I found out about such powerful psychological effects firsthand. My logical side was appalled by my crying—I was going to have other partners, too!—but my ego was screaming for comfort. My own experiences in the past had proven to me that I could have orgasms with men I wasn’t interested in dating; I could have good sexual chemistry with men who were not conventionally attractive; and I could even have a positive sexual encounter with someone without craving a repeat. I knew Jason had practiced safer sex and I knew that he loved me. There was no threat to my safety and no betrayal of trust. So why was I suffering so much? Probably because Jason’s news forced me to confront the way I perceived myself (impervious, rational, independent) versus the reality of how I actually am (insecure, emotional).

Janet Hardy puts this suffering in a positive light, by calling it “a gift, although it doesn't feel like one. It means that you get to make yourself stronger by figuring out what it was that triggered your jealousy, and working to solve it.” And that’s what I started to do. As I searched for a word to describe my internal experience, only one came up: humiliated. This was not a sensation I’d dealt with much. It was hardly a word in my vocabulary. But Jason’s affair had unleashed a slew of overwhelming insecurities—that I’m not sexy enough or pretty enough or satisfying enough—that left me vulnerable and exposed.

Therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, recognizes the volatility of such personal fears by encouraging the couples she sees to “find out where sexual exclusiveness begins or ends. When do you feel that boundaries have been stretched too thin and therefore the relationship is being threatened?” In my situation, it was less that I felt my relationship with Jason was threatened and more that I felt my own confidence, or rather my relationship with myself, was threatened. What I doubted was not his love of me but my own desirability and my worthiness to be loved. Personal issues that powerful wouldn’t disappear simply by requiring complete monogamy.

Furthermore, as Perel sees it, the distinction between monogamy and non-monogamy is erroneous. For her, “sexual exclusivity” and “fidelity” are more useful terms. “Fidelity is a relational constancy,” she explains. “A foundational respect, a pact, that may or may not include [sexual] exclusivity. Gay people have forever negotiated a monogamous relationship with a primary emotional commitment to one partner, with a deep sense of loyalty and devotion, that wasn’t necessarily sexually exclusive.”

Recent studies back her up. Although some estimates as to how many adults maintain open relationships are shockingly low (WebMD features two guesses that range from 4-9 percent to “less than 1 percent”) a study conducted by San Francisco State University found that 50 percent of gay couples were having sex outside the relationship with their partners’ consent. This circumstance seemed to have no effect on the couples’ happiness within their relationships when compared to the satisfaction of non-open gay couples.

Sadly, therapists as open-minded as Perel are hard to come by. David J. Ley, clinical psychologist and author of the amusingly titled Insatiable Wives, recently called out other therapists for being judgmental and hypocritical in their routine dismissal of alternative relationships. According to Ley, most counselors don’t receive enough instruction in human sexuality, and they fall back on cultural and personal biases in the absence of training. Just weeks ago in the Chicago Tribune, much-loved Dr. Ruth answered a female advice seeker who said she trusted her husband deeply and wanted to bring a third party into their relationship with: “Don't put [your marriage] at risk by having sex outside the marriage, in any form.”

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