How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!
Every week, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.
Dear How to Do It,
What is the horny single person’s responsibility vis-a-vis ethical non-monogamy? I, a gay guy, personally choose not to play with couples, because trying to split my attention evenly between both guys stresses me out, but I do generally have fun in larger group situations, so that’s not what it’s about. What I’m really asking about is: Am I supposed to just simply believe a guy who’s flirting with me and chatting me up when he drops that he’s “partnered but in an open relationship”?
My first instinct is to assume he’s lying, because in my experience, guys on Sex Brain (including me) frequently bend the truth to get what they’re horny for. And for all I know, the other half of that couple is home snug in bed and believes that he and his partner are in a monogamous relationship, or some version of monogam-ish that still wouldn’t allow the other guy to get naked and sweaty with a stranger like me. So whenever I find out a guy I’m flirting with is in an “open relationship”—and I only use the quotes to indicate my skepticism about his truthfulness, not to judge open relationships generally, because I have no problem with them when practiced ethically—I just politely say that I don’t play with partnered guys, not even open ones. That it’s not a judgement, just a personal rule of mine. And almost universally, I get follow up questions: “Why not?”
I admit my personal experience makes me sensitive to the issue. I’ve been on all three sides of that triangle: I’ve had clearly expressed and agreed-to boundaries violated by a partner; I’ve been the partner who violated the boundaries; and I’ve been the Other Guy who was just trying to have fun but stepped right into the drama. Ironically, this is one area where I do trust guys on apps more than in person. Logically, a local guy with a face picture in his profile who says he’s in an open relationship is pretty likely to be telling the truth, as opposed to a guy wearing a ring who’s chatting me up in a dark corner of some bar, who runs much less risk of being caught offsides. I don’t mind turning down a chance to get naked with a hot guy once in a while, because there is always more cock and ass to chase after. But this is a conversation I’ve had so many times now, and I always feel like I’m the outlier. I feel like if we’re an actual queer community, we owe it to each other to do better than assume the the horny guy trying to get in my pants is telling the truth about his relationship status, and to spare a thought for the partner who’s not in front of you with a raging hard-on, whose life might be turned upside down by what is about to go down. I feel like it’s the responsible way to behave.
All of that sounds like I’m asking for validation of my take on this, which I wouldn’t mind, but at its root, my question is: As the world and presumably our sex lives continue to reopen, what is the single person’s responsibility here?
—The Other Guy
Stoya: So, I suspect you’ve got a lot to say about this one.
Rich: I do!
Stoya: ::pulls up chair, grabs snack::
Rich: Heh. So, there are a lot of things going on here. The first is the notion of “sex brain” and the lies people tell in order to get to rammin’. And this has actually been shown to be the case in at least one widely circulated study, in which people who were “sexually primed” were found to be more likely to say something they didn’t believe, ostensibly to impress someone “of the opposite sex” (the study was of hetero people).
Stoya: So this is a documented phenomenon.
Rich: Yep, at least in one study. I think when you’re dealing with strangers who want something from you, it’s wise to have a little bit of apprehension or skepticism.
Stoya: As a conventionally attractive cis woman … yes. In my experience, dudes will say anything. Women are more likely to neg me, oddly.
Rich: Don’t even get me started on negging. Insulting someone for the sake of manipulation is among the worst social behavior, and so many people do it casually.
Stoya: I think we can say that generally speaking, people of all gender presentations will behave differently to access sexual interaction.
Rich: And sometimes this is merely putting your best face forward, and sometimes it’s actively deceiving. There’s a spectrum. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to have boundaries like the one our writer describes. If nothing else, If nothing else, you might avoid drama by not hooking up with someone who is partnered, even if it’s all ethical. And avoiding needless drama is an extremely healthy life path.
Stoya: Agreed. I believe in intuition. And I also believe that sometimes people ascribe their intuition to physical or verbal cues (like wedding rings), when the reality could be that our writer gets a vibe. So I want to say that a vibe is enough.
Rich: “No partnered guys” is something I see a lot on dating apps. As a partnered guy on a dating app, I always think, “Fair enough!” Even when you’re doing things ethically, drama has a way of showing itself. Your boyfriend can be cool with you hooking up with others in the abstract, but particularities of a situation may trigger sensitivity. And to rope a stranger into that sometimes feels like asking a lot. I’ve been the third in situations that have gotten tense between the partners. I’m not trying to manage a crying boyfriend who isn’t my crying boyfriend, you know?
Stoya Yes—ending up as a couple counselor when you were there for a fun romp can be surprising, irritating, and disappointing.
Rich: Even the most ethical open relationships are vulnerable to complications so if your goal is to avoid that entirely, I support that. ”There is always more cock and ass to chase after,” he writes, and this for a lot of young gay men in major metropolitan areas is very true. All of this said, much of the recent data on this matter suggests a rather visible minority of gay relationships—maybe 30 to 40 percent—are open. So to assume everyone is lying is not quite sound if your goal is an accurate survey of the landscape.
Stoya: I have a trauma-informed approach here. From what the writer hints at, he’s seen this go wrong over and over. So when I put myself in his shoes, I’m proud of him for continuing to date at all in the face of all these experiences that suggest people can’t be trusted. Some people are more sensitive to patterns than others, and more focused on the risks than the potential for fun and relentless optimism.
Rich: Yes. And we’re talking about sport sex here. This is all elective activity, nothing mandatory. In such a realm, you really can shape your experience so that it works best for you. If you’re doing something for fun, avoiding pain, drama, and complication is not just wise, but essential. There’s truly no obligation here—that’s the point of NSA sex!
Stoya: So we’re validating his thoughts and feelings around this as right-for-him, and leaving space for people who feel differently to do their thing.
Rich: All in a day’s work here at How to Do It!
More How to Do It
I’m a 27-year-old straight woman. I recently dated a man for several months who was odd about sex—he frequently mentioned that he had a small penis (which he did) and that oral sex was what made him a good lover. I don’t particularly care for oral sex, but I cared for him very much. There were a lot of problems in the relationship outside of sex—he had a bit of a cruel streak, and then there would be an apology spiral—and we eventually broke up. I have moved on and am dating a lovely man. But yesterday my ex sent me an email that made my jaw drop.