What is it with gay men and open relationships? Are they evidence that our relationships are as varied and individual as we are – or proof that gay men have commitment issues? Should we live by our own rules and choices – or are we greedy, selfish and promiscuous? And now that same-sex couples in Britain can get married, are open relationships still valid – or do they make a mockery of marriage? We surveyed 1,006 gay men and asked them what their opinions on open relationships are.
Gay men in open relationships will often tell you that those who are most vocal about open relationships are either single, recently entering a new relationship or in a monogamous relationship. So we decided to look at just what these men thought about open relationships in general.
Single men who have no experience of open relationships: 27% of these men think open relationships can be a good thing, 41% said they can be bad for relationships, 32% said they weren’t sure, 33% believe that ‘open relationships are not real relationships’, 53% said they’d rather be single than in an open relationship, 29% believe relationships end up open because gay men can’t be monogamous.
23% of the single men in our survey said they had some experience of open relationships. This is what they think: 37% of these men think open relationships can be a good thing, 28% said they can be bad for relationships, 35% said they weren’t sure, 24% believe that ‘open relationships are not real relationships’, 26% said they’d rather be single than in an open relationship, 22% believe relationships end up open because gay men can’t be monogamous.
Of the men who are currently dating:
When it came to men who are currently dating there wasn’t much difference in the stats in comparison to single gay men - both with/without the experience of open relationships.
Of the men who believe themselves to be in a monogamous relationship/marriage/civil partnership: 45% have been in a monogamous relationship/marriage/civil partnership for over three years, 20% have experience of being in an open relationship.
Men, who believe themselves to be in a monogamous relationship/marriage/civil partnership, with NO experience of open relationships: 18% of these men think open relationships can be a good thing, 30% said they can be bad for relationships, 51% said they weren’t sure, 33% believe that ‘open relationships are not real relationships’, 54% said they’d rather be single than in an open relationship, 19% believe relationships end up open because gay men can’t be monogamous.
Men, who believe themselves to be in a monogamous relationship/marriage/civil partnership, with SOME experience of open relationships: 50% of these men think open relationships can be a good thing, 12% said they can be bad for relationships, 38% said they weren’t sure, 18% believe that ‘open relationships are not real relationships’, 20% said they’d rather be single than in an open relationship, 15% believe relationships end up open because gay men can’t be monogamous.
What these stats are showing is gay men, who have experience of open relationships, are more open and favourable to them. Gay men who have no experience of them tend to be more critical and vocal of open relationships, which is exactly what gay men in open relationships told us.
“I can’t understand at all why people who love each other would want other people involved,” says Lee, 44 from Caerphilly. “Is their sex life that bad? If I’m in a relationship with someone I want that person to myself.”
“I think that being in an open relationship is strange,” agrees Tom, 22 from Nottinghamshire. “It’s like you don’t want to be single, so you get with someone until someone better comes along. In a relationship, you should be committed to each other, not to anyone else who’s attractive and who you want sex with.”
“I’m not sure that they can work. Emotions and jealousy come into play,” admits Colin, 40 from London. “I have been interested in sex with other people while in a relationship, but the thought of my partner doing the same is difficult to accept.”
“I used to be quite aggressively anti-open relationships and the people who are in them,” says Marcus, 27 from east London. “Mostly because I never understood them. Lately, I found out that one of my housemates is in a very long term open relationship and he explained to me why he’s in one, what safety measures they take, and that they communicate… a lot. Ever since then my whole attitude towards open relationships has changed. So much so that I would consider one.”
“Honesty is a very important value for most people, so if one can’t or doesn’t want to be monogamous, an open relationship is a realistic way of connecting with other people without hurting the partner or suffering isolation,” adds Emanuele, 40 from London.
“I think if you meet someone and you’re both on the same page, then why not give it a go?” says Ryan, 23 from Liverpool. “I don’t think it means that you love the person you’re in a relationship with any less. As long as you keep your partner updated on what you’re doing, and always be as safe as you can.”
“As children we all hear traditional fairy stories with princes seeking adventures, battling dragons and slashing their way through enchanted forests, whilst the princesses sleep or keep house for dwarves until they are rescued,” says Matthew Hodson, Chief Executive of GMFA. “We grow up subjected to soaps and sitcoms which tell us that women are looking for a life partner but men are just looking for sex, keen to keep sowing their seed as widely, and for as long, as possible.”
”So in our gay world, where we have all been raised with the idea that, as men, our goal is to have as much sex with as many people as we possibly can, is it any wonder that so many of us do? With our social and sexual lives intertwined with a commercial gay scene, which commonly uses the prospect of sex to entice us off our sofas, shagging around can become a hard habit to kick, even if we do meet someone who we want to settle down with. Beyond that, most gay people will have grown up encountering attitudes that told them that they were not ‘normal’, outside of convention. It’s not a surprise that many gay and bisexual people seek sexual satisfaction and relationship setups that are outside of the norm.”
Of the 1,006 gay men, we surveyed 41% are in or have previously experienced, an open relationship.
Of the men who are in an open relationship or an open marriage/civil partnership: 27% of men in an open relationship have been in their current relationship for over five years. About 15% have been in an open relationship for less than a year. 50% of men in open marriages/civil partnerships have been in their current relationship for over five years. About 7% have been in an open relationship for less than a year. 57% said they have sex with other men who are not their current partner. 12.5% said they only have sex with the same person at the same time. 12% said they have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. 74% said opening the relationship was a mutual decision 75% said they have rules in place with their relationship but 21% admitted to breaking the rules at least once. 73% believe it’s possible to cheat - about one in five admitted they had broken the ‘rules’ or said they cheated. 93% strongly disagree that ‘open relationships are not real relationships’. 75% believe that open relationships are great. 40% said they’d never be in a relationship unless it’s an open relationship. 31% believe relationships end up open because gay men can’t be monogamous. However, 47% think that it’s quite possible to have a monogamous relationship but choose not to.
How they got into an open relationship varies – for some their relationship was open from the outset and for others, it was something that opened over time. Dan is 34 from Middlesbrough and has been in an open relationship for over three years. “We both agreed before we got together that being monogamous was doomed as we would both stray. If we had agreed to be exclusive, the relationship wouldn’t have lasted long – if it had started at all.”
“We both have interesting pasts and are into a variety of different things sexually so it made sense,” explains KJ, 30 from Scotland. “As we got more than a few months into the relationship, it became clear that neither one of us wanted to give up opportunities with other guys, so we agreed then.”
“I have never been good at monogamy. I needed to open the relationship for my sanity, and it would be the only way I could continue our marriage,” says Alex, 44 from Cambridge.
Chris is 48 from London and has been in an open relationship for over ten years. “We were both screwing around on the side in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation. I wanted to be in a situation where we were free to have sex with others without feeling guilty that we were cheating.”
ONE, TWO, THREE...
Some of the couples we surveyed are open only for mutually agreed threesomes.
“We talked about the prospect of threesomes and we thought we’d try it and see what happened,” explains Harry, 31 from London. “We enjoyed it and agreed that occasionally we can do it. We always discuss it and sometimes if one of us is not in the mood we don’t do it. It’s all about discussion and communication. It would be a no-no for us to have sexual relations outside the relationship unless doing it together.”
Francis is from London. His relationship has been open for over ten years, and together they enjoy threesomes and group sex. “We met at a sauna, so sex was a part of our relationship from the moment we locked eyes in the hot tub!” he says. “We tried monogamy, he cheated. We tried again, the same result. We had a grown-up series of conversations over time and saw therapists separately. We decided that we valued our relationship above all else, but also felt it was an important part of being gay men to celebrate our sexuality with others. We agreed to threesomes together and it has been great.”
For others, having a threesome was the catalyst for opening up their relationship even further.
“After seven years together circumstances led to a few threesomes happening unplanned,” says Alan, 32 from Bedford, “so we muddled through for a few years figuring out how it worked. Occasionally one of us would have sex with someone else without this being ‘allowed’ so we finally discussed everything and made out guidelines and came to an agreement.” Their relationship has now been open for over five years.
Charley is 28 from London and has slept with over 100 guys in addition to his partner during their five-year open relationship. “About a week into the relationship we agreed we should have threesomes,” he explains. “I had sex with someone else about four months after that, and later found out he had too, so we decided we should be allowed to have sex with other people.”
Anyone in a relationship should abide by boundaries and rules for it to work. When a couple agrees to an open relationship, they haven’t agreed to throw out the rulebook – they’ve simply agreed to tailor the rules to suit them. So what are examples of such rules?
“Be honest with each other about what you get up to,” says Nige, 47 from London.
“Don’t have sex with his friends,” says Paul, 42 from London.
“No dates, no swapping numbers, not in our own bed,” says Ollie, 30 from Brighton.
“No mutual friends. Never in our house. No dating scenarios – just sex. Always with protection. If asked, we will tell the truth,” says Bruno, 36 from London.
“Regular STI tests. No bareback. If there’s a guy who wants a threesome we don’t meet him separately,” says Dave, from Manchester.
“Certain things and people are off-limits. We always take priority over a potential shag. Always use protection with other people,” says Alan, 32 from Bedford.
“Always safe, no more than once with any one guy, not at our place, no lying, no drugs,” says John, 31 from London.
“As long as it isn’t someone the other knowingly hates, and as long as it’s safer sex, we don’t mind,” says Alexi, 38 from London.
“No bringing guys back to our flat. Being discreet when with other guys, and telling others about our open relationship. Thinking about safety, for example, texting if you stay away overnight,” says Toby, 41 from Brighton.
“Time we could spend together is always spent together – no making excuses to have fun elsewhere. Sexual freedom but emotional monogamy: having a crush is fine, saying you love someone else is not. If either of us wanted to be exclusive again, then we would respect that. Always safe,” says Brett, 34 from London. “If it causes issues like STIs or stalking, I won’t be angry if you tell me – your health and happiness equals my health and happiness.”
The vast majority of men in open relationships/marriages/civil partnerships told us they always abide by their rules – however, 21% of those currently in an open relationship, and 15% of those in an open marriage/civil partnership, admitted to having broken the rules on occasion.
“I did have sex in our place,” Bruno admits. “My partner doesn’t know.”
“We did have a rule about it not being in our joint bed but we both broke that,” says Jon, 43 from Leeds.
“I broke the bareback rule and consequently went on PEP. My partner knows,” says Richard, from London.
“Be clear what your rules are and stick to them, or be prepared to renegotiate those rules if you find that they’re not working for you,” GMFA’s Matthew Hodson advises. “Having the security to be honest about any sexual risk that may occur outside the relationship is vital, otherwise there’s the risk of introducing infections into the relationship.”
THE HIV/STI RISK
Over two-thirds of the men we surveyed who are currently in an open relationship said they don’t use condoms with their partner – although 64% say they always use condoms with casual partners. 55% have picked up an STI during their open relationship, with 70% believing they got that STI from a casual partner.
Similarly, 64% of the men we surveyed who are currently in an open marriage/civil partnership said they don’t use condoms with their husband – although 62% say they always use condoms with casual partners. 48% have picked up an STI during their open relationship/marriage, with 67% believing they got that STI from a casual partner.
The most common STI picked up in both situations was gonorrhoea, followed by chlamydia, crabs, syphilis and HIV.
A small percentage of the men in open relationships said they became positive while in their open relationship/marriage or civil partnership.
James, 32 from Manchester told us, “My partner and I became HIV-positive about a year into our open relationship. We had rules of ‘condoms only’ while playing with others but after we both were diagnosed we both admitted to each other that we barebacked with others. We don’t know if we gave it to each other or were infected from sex with different people. We made our bed and now have to lie in it.”
Simon was diagnosed with HIV in August 2012 after being in an open relationship for six years. He told us: “We were in a semi-open relationship. We only had sex with the same person. Mainly threesomes. Back in 2012, I was diagnosed with HIV and my civil partner wasn’t. It led to the break down of my civil partnership as we had trust issues after I was diagnosed”.
Adam thought he was in a monogamous relationship only to be diagnosed with HIV in 2013. His partner of that time admitted that he was having casual sex with others he met on Grindr. He told us: “After I found out my partner was cheating on me, only after I was diagnosed with HIV, we tried to work things out but the trust issue just killed us off. We both had to deal with HIV so I couldn’t use that against him. We’re still friends”.
90% of men currently in open relationships and men currently in an open marriage/civil partnership say they talk about HIV and STIs with their partner/husband. The vast majority also have regular sexual health check-ups.
Monogamous couples are far less likely to discuss STI’s or have sexual health check-ups because they don’t think they need to – which on the whole is true but, as GMFA’s Matthew Hodson explains, this can be a risk.
“Open relationships with agreed boundaries encourage honest discussion of any risks that have been taken,” he says. “If you’ve made fidelity the foundation of your love it can lead to partners not being entirely honest about what’s going on outside of the marital bed – and that’s when the risks start getting serious. It’s likely that the majority of new HIV infections aren’t from lustful liaisons but from intimate sex acts between loving partners who’ve decided that they no longer need to use condoms. As Public Health England bluntly states in their HIV in the UK report, ‘unprotected sex with partners believed to be of the same HIV status is unsafe’.”
CONDOMS VS NO CONDOMS
Of the men who were already HIV-positive and in open relationships, 14% said they don’t use condoms with other men while 53% said they always use condoms and 30% said ‘sometimes’.
Michael is one of the men living with HIV who doesn’t use condoms with men who are not his partner. He said, “I don’t use condoms with other men because I generally sero-sort and I’m currently undetectable. My partner is also HIV-positive. I tell everyone I meet, who say they are negative, that I’m HIV-undetectable. It’s up to them as to what kind of sex they want. We are all adults here.”
Eric is 27 and from France. He’s been in an open relationship for four years. He told us that he sometimes doesn’t use condoms with his casual partners depending on what their status is and his current viral load. He said: “I generally talk to all new partners about my status, but accidents happen. I try my best to have the ‘talk’ but some men just don’t care. As soon as they find out I’m undetectable then they seem not to worry too much”.
Alex is 34 and from Bolton. He’s been in an open marriage for two years now. He told us he always uses condoms with his partners, whether they are HIV-positive or not. He said: “I don’t care what status someone is. This is not about HIV, it’s about protecting my husband. I don’t want to pick up any STIs, like hep C, and then pass that on to him. The only person I don’t use condoms with is my husband. I would feel awful if I passed anything on to him”.
Matthew Hodson of GMFA told us: “STIs make someone with HIV more infectious and people without HIV more vulnerable to infection. If you’re used to having unprotected sex with your main partner it may be difficult to regain the condom habit when you have sex with others. This isn’t to suggest that such risks can’t be managed – clearly some couples do this very well, but it’s a challenge which requires excellent communication, honesty and trust to meet.”
Open relationships don’t always work out. Just like any relationship, those in an open relationship aren’t immune to broken rules, fear, disrespect, jealousy and lies.
“It worked for six years,” says Mike, 29 from Manchester, “then he got emotionally involved with a shared fuck buddy, spending a lot of alone time with him. Six months later we split, and now they are together.”
“I negotiated an open relationship,” says Jason, from London. “Then I met a guy out clubbing who I really liked. Within four days I split up with my partner of five years, then split up with the new guy six weeks later.”
“It worked for about two years. We were both very happy with the arrangement we had. We often shared guys,” says Paul, from London. “It went bad because my partner started breaking our rules and disrespecting me, although in retrospect I think this was a reflection of other problems in the relationship.”
“I don’t feel that it worked. There is always someone who is getting more sex and the relationships where the guys only play together never work,” says Criz, from Glasgow. “I knew he was seeing someone on a regular basis, and when I asked he lied about it. That’s what split us up.”
“It made me extremely paranoid about picking up STIs from my partner,” admits Otto, from London, “and then jealousy – is he better than me, bigger than me, etc. I wouldn’t do it again!”
“It was great, to begin with, but then my partner started to get jealous when I would see other guys,” explains Adam, 27 from Falmouth. “We were always open about who we went with. But he started to become possessive over me and angry when I slept with someone else – although he would be sleeping with others as well. He started becoming violent and one night he beat me.”
“For many of us, jealousy is a hard habit to kick,” acknowledges GMFA’s Matthew Hodson.
“Often there’s one partner who’s more interested in playing around than the other, and that can lead to tensions and sometimes deception. If you’re going to open up your relationship it’s important that you make sure that you are both OK with it, and that you can navigate some of the bumps that you’re likely to encounter.”
“Being in an open relationship can be a mixed blessing,” adds Andre Smith of Positive East. “While it may serve as the perfect answer for those who want to be in a relationship with a significant other but are afraid of commitment, it can also be an emotionally and mentally painful experience. The positive aspects, according to the clients I work with, are that you don’t get bored, the type of sex you have is more varied, you get to be with other people, and you don’t suffer from guilt as you’ve been open with your partner.
“The negative aspects include jealousy, guilt, insecurity, increased risk of sexual infections (especially with multiple partners), fear of your partner falling for another, and spending too much time with others and not enough time with your significant partner. Ultimately, honesty, clarity, and clear communication around what both parties feel is acceptable and what is not will determine the success of any open relationship.”
OPEN TO STIGMA
Overall, 65% of those surveyed believe there’s a sense of stigma attached to gay men who are in open relationships.
“I personally think the stigma comes from people’s ignorance and misunderstanding of open relationships,” says Marcus, 27 from east London. “A lot of my friends see them as weak relationships or as one cheating on the other.”
“People assume open relationships are less serious and less committed, or the individuals are not happy with the relationship,” says Rob, 38 from Bristol. “Those things aren’t necessarily true.”
“I believe they perpetuate heterosexual society’s belief that all gay men are only interested in sex and cannot commit to a monogamous relationship,” says Joe, 44 from Blackpool.
“The general perception is that gay men are sluts. Open relationships tend to prove the point,” adds Gary, 36 from Glasgow.
“I guess that open relationships play into stereotypes of gay men being promiscuous,” acknowledges Warren, 40 from Liverpool. “Open relationships aren’t unique to gay men though, nor is promiscuity. Neither of these is necessarily bad things! I’d rather hope to see that, just like straight relationships, there is diversity amongst gay relationships. There isn’t just one single way of being gay.”
“We shouldn’t forget though that many heterosexual couples are also non-monogamous,” says Matthew Hodson. “For some, that’s because they’re in open relationships, or they swing, and for others, it may be because they’re hooking up outside their relationship – just look at the numbers using the Ashley Madison website, explicitly targeting men interested in extra-marital sex. Because gay and bisexual men are more likely to consider ourselves as outside the norm, it’s likely that we’re more comfortable being open about the fact that we have sex with other people than, say, your parents might be.”
Ultimately, there are many reasons why a relationship, either open or monogamous, succeeds – or fails.
“When I came out of my relationship, everyone gave me a knowing look of ‘well, you were in an open relationship so this was bound to happen’. This is not the case – it was a contributing factor amongst many others,” says Craig, 33 from Birmingham. “The tendency is to see relationships the traditional way – monogamous – and any other type of relationship contrary to that must be the reason for a breakdown. I have friends that have been incredibly snooty about my being in an open relationship, but then admit themselves to having cheated on their partners, as if them not knowing makes it better somehow.”
AJ is 30 from the Midlands and has been in a monogamous relationship for over five years. “I don’t judge those who choose an open relationship, and don’t like it when those in monogamous relationships judge those in open relationships,” he says. “I would imagine it has to be something both parties are happy with, or it won’t work. Both parties would need to discuss their own boundaries and talk if their feelings change. But this is equally true of monogamous relationships. Monogamy has to be what both partners want or it will lead to resentment and one person cheating on the other. So I think relationships are relationships, they’re unique to the individuals in them and if they’re to work people need to communicate.”