In high school I lived, breathed, and swore monogamy. I had a serious boyfriend; I never dreamt of cheating on him. That's not to say I didn't fantasize about other guys. I had a rather lengthy mental list of boys-I-would-hook-up-with-if-I-were-single. I imagined myself in another, more single, life-a happy slut. But short of a very drunken, pizza and puke involved New Year's senior year (oh God) I never breathed a word about my secret desires. Quite the opposite, in fact. If a boy so much as brushed against my hand, I threw rocks at him. Because one day when I was 14, my father picked me up from school and told me had an affair, had cheated on my mother, and might divorce her. Translation: one day when I was 14, my father forever warped my understanding of monogamy.
Monogamy, or the lack thereof-otherwise known as polyamory, non-monogamy, and my personal favorite, the "open relationship"-is the hot issue of the day. (Fucking Facebook needs to get rid of that option. It just complicates things. No, really, Mark Zuckerberg. I adore Facebook. But the whole "open relationship" category needs to bounce.) So naturally the whole world is confused. Redbook strongly believes "being open and honest means acting responsibly and maturely, not like a self-indulgent kid who wants to have his cake and eat it too!" New York lauds the "new monogamy ... as a sign of the times and our evolution." Betty Dodson, "the mother of masturbation," just possibly the queen of sex, and my latest personal hero-and undoubtedly in the public eye-has been happily involved in an open relationship for the last five-plus years.
And yet a husband-and-wife duo writing about their open marriage in two best-selling books on relationships must hide their identities in order to protect their professional and social reputations. The literary world is heatedly debating the world's most famous open marriage, that of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir: Hazel Rowley, Beauvoir expert and author of Tête-à-tête, a recent book chronicling the Sartre-Beauvoir relationship, believes that the Sartre and Beauvoir's "pact" allowed Beauvoir to be what Rowley describes as the truly independent woman. But a similar New Yorker article questions whether "the pact was just the traditional sexist arrangement-in which the man sleeps around and the woman nobly 'accepts' the situation... Beauvoir was formidable, but she was not made of ice. Though her affairs, for the most part, were love affairs, it is plain from almost every page she wrote that she would have given them all up if she could have Sartre for herself alone."
But non-monogamy and the open relationship are not always one and the same. My best friend jokes that she's been involved in several relationships since she got to New York-if by relationship you mean guy who has a girlfriend who happened to be out of town the night my girlfriend went home with him. Sex is the constant act: it involves a penis (or two), a vagina (or two), and sometimes an ass (or two). Monogamy is the changing factor. In a sense, monogamy is the framework within which sex gains its emotional value: after all, monogamy goes hand in hand with the "college-marriage."
Non-monogamy often has the reverse effect: we often sleep with several people at once simply to convince ourselves we're not developing feelings for anyone in particular.
It's hard to say which is the greater social construct: monogamy or the open relationship. Monogamy is certainly no longer guaranteed. But is monogamy merely a social ideal that would otherwise not exist? Is the open relationship the true and honest commitment? Or does the open relationship, "the notion that being with others is acceptable as long as you're truthful with each other afterward, grossly [disregard] the fact that it will still be hurtful," as Redbook blindly preaches? If monogamy doesn't signify commitment anymore, then what does?
My father told me he cheated on my mother nearly seven years ago. This year, I had sex with my ex-boyfriend even though he has a new, serious girlfriend. The divorce child in me doesn't come out that often. That's a blatant lie. The divorce child in me comes out entirely too often. But my father had real monogamy to contend with; I only have the practice version. Real monogamy comes with a ring, a house, children, and "till death do us part." Practice monogamy involves jealousy and loneliness and pain; it doesn't involve life-long regret. I hate that I have to practice. But I don't get the real thing.
Miriam Datskovsky is a Barnard College junior majoring in human rights and political science. Sexplorations runs on alternate Mondays.