Sex as an extreme sport

I wanted emotional exploration -- only monogamy stood in my way.

By Zachary Karabell

Published June 26, 2000 7:11PM (EDT)

I'd met this woman at a seminar and asked her to have coffee with me. As the conversation headed in a flirtatious direction, I began to tell her about my marriage, about how my wife and I were open to having other lovers. I talked about how we had deliberately not included a vow of monogamy in our marriage ceremony.

I knew almost as soon as I started answering her seemingly innocuous but loaded questions that this would be the beginning and the end of our acquaintance. She glared across the table with undisguised contempt. "Oh really," she said. "Well, my father had an affair. It destroyed our family and I just think it's so totally wrong." The subtext was equally damning: "You sleazebag! A married man, trying to pick me up -- get real." We never spoke again.

Five years later, I was divorced and living in New York. "I hear you're the one who doesn't believe in monogamy," said one woman, out for drinks with me and a group of friends. "Tell us about it." I was already developing a reputation as the designated maverick. "It's not that I don't believe in monogamy," I explained. "It's that I don't think that monogamy is the only possible expression of human needs and desires."

"Sure," another friend replied. "That's just a convenient way of not committing to one person. And by the way, didn't you get divorced?"

Well, yes, I did. But not because my wife and I had affairs. I got married just out of college, when I was 21. At the time, marriage was the unconventional thing to do and that was appealing. Both of us liked to shock our friends, and telling them that we were getting married, moving to Europe and willing to have sex with others pushed all the buttons of envy and surprise.

When I first met my future ex-wife, she was dating two other men and I was involved with another woman. She didn't tell the other men she was seeing me, and I lied as well. Of course, it was college and rules were for adults. Still, the deception was nauseating and ultimately hollow. But the sex, oh my ... The excitement of sleeping with two women, the thrill of the illicit, the knowledge that she was as complicit as I was -- it all combined to create an erotic charge.

I realized that I wanted both an intimate relationship and no sexual boundaries. Some people like extreme sports, the adrenal thrill of challenging limits (and cheating death) by jumping off cliffs or skiing at 70-degree angles. I enjoyed extreme emotions. I wanted to venture into the unknown and non-monogamy was a frontier that few people wanted to traverse. I got married determined to explore.

It didn't exactly turn out that way.

For most of my marriage, non-monogamy was an idea to be probed at a later date. Then it finally happened. "I've been having an affair, with a doctor," my wife told me on the phone one day while I was away on a trip.

I was bewildered and angry, and of course I had no moral leg to stand on. I didn't mind the fact that she had had sex with someone else as much as I minded that, for her, the affair was a sign that it might be best to end the marriage. I tried to persuade her to stay, and for four years she did -- in body more than in spirit -- as we slowly consumed each other in anger and hurt.

Sexual experimentation remained part of the script that we shared with others in public, but like the couple who always talk about taking that trip to Fiji, we never did much to make it real. Both of us slept with a few other people in the remaining years of our marriage, but we didn't share our experiences with each other, we didn't delve into the feelings they brought up ("Did you enjoy it? Why?" "Does that threaten you?" "Why does sex with another man/woman make you think that I might leave?") and we didn't revel in our discoveries ("That turns me on ... Do that with me!"). Whenever we slept with someone else, we confessed, with neither guilt nor delight, and we went on.

I hated that. Instead of living a life probing boundaries, I found myself in an unhappy marriage, having affairs. (Actually, it was only two affairs, but who's counting?) Sex with others was supposed to plunge us into questions about love, intimacy, safety and pleasure, questions that we would explore -- and answer -- together. Sex with others was supposed to deepen our connection by going to the heart of what it means to be with another person. Instead, our affairs became the ultimate clichi, the familiar symptom of a relationship at its end.

But the affairs were not the cause of the relationship's end. They were a tail-end manifestation of deep, and ultimately intractable, problems. If anything, they allowed us to cling to the increasingly painful illusion that we were a good couple. After all, I said to myself at the time, we were so strong in our love that we allowed each other to have flings. But that wasn't really true, and neither of us took much comfort in that fantasy.

Newly divorced, I was still tormented with the old questions. Why is it OK for old Italian couples in Rimini to have wink-and-nod affairs each summer (which they purportedly do), so long as no one talks about it? Why are the French seemingly able to see extramarital dalliances as inevitable and even healthy? Why is it so important for Americans to maintain the illusion of monogamy even at the expense of emotional honesty?

It doesn't take superhuman powers of observation to notice that many of us cannot take a vow of monogamy and keep it forever; and when we do, it is often out of fear of the consequences, not out of commitment to our partner. Far from signaling true connection, monogamy can become a substitute for emotional attachment. I wasn't sure what was possible, but I knew that I didn't want to be in a long-term relationship cemented by fear. Single or married, I still had the same goal: to untangle the confusing web of sex, loss and intimacy.

Monogamy is the lightning rod of modern relationships, charged and dangerous. If you want to bring a casual conversation to a grinding halt, talk about politics or monogamy; if you want to prematurely end a flirtation, suggest that you actually consider polygamy a potential path to domestic bliss. I wanted to stand in the middle of the storm and see what would happen when lightning struck.

After my divorce, I was in an open relationship with a woman named Ariel. We talked about the sex we were having with others. We didn't have ground rules, but we understood that while we might sleep with other people, we were committed to each other. We swapped sexual details, and took delight not only in what was easy but also in what was challenging.

The trajectory of our relationship was fairly typical. I would have a one-night stand and Ariel would have one too. We tacitly competed in an effort to maintain sexual parity. By the end, she certainly won that absurd contest.

She would tell me, glowing, about the incredible sex she had with a couple. "Oh, my God, it lasted all night." I would listen, my heart beating rapidly, flushed, excited and also unnerved. She always seemed to have the more dramatic experiences. "I placed this ad and found this couple, and the three of us ..." The three of you? I thought. Where am I going to find a couple? Jesus Christ, I am so lame. And then I would find someone and Ariel and I would be even -- sort of.

Whenever I met an interesting new woman, I was upfront with her about being involved in an open relationship. Sometimes that meant a replay of that coffeehouse scene years before, and though no one ever threw a glass of water in my face, I did get some pretty frosty reactions. But other times the woman was willing to play along and go to bed. Eventually, I'd kiss her goodbye, and report back to my lover.

The resulting conversations with Ariel ran the gamut from reassuring ("Yes, I still love you") to erotic ("You did that?" -- fire in her eyes; "like ... this?" -- fire in mine). At times, we talked about why sleeping with someone else aroused such strong reactions. What is at the heart of that gut-wrenching fear that often accompanies hearing that your lover has had sex with someone else? Why does sex trigger that fear more acutely than almost anything else? Is it fear of abandonment? Loss? Why is having a one-night stand more threatening to most of us than having a long, intimate conversation in which we bare our soul but not our bodies?

I wanted to explore these questions. I believed that only by pursuing them could I become more aware. Granted, I could have just posed them as a thought experiment and talked about them with friends. But that would have been too abstract -- and too safe.

I started seeing another woman, Claudia, regularly. So I was now dating two women; but unlike in my college episode, both of them knew about each other. It was a bifurcated life. The relationship with Ariel continued, but now she was threatened by Claudia. Claudia, who also took other lovers, made it clear that she wouldn't be content for long with what I was doing.

I tried to explain to both of them why I was doing what I was doing. I said I wanted to base my relationships not on the fact of sexual fidelity but on intimacy that was grounded in an eyes-wide-open embrace of whatever life might bring.

For each of my questions, I got answers. I wanted to know why sex aroused such contradictory and passionate emotions, and why monogamy is a cultural default setting. "Because that's the way people are," Claudia shot back angrily. "Because it doesn't feel good when you have sex with other people," Ariel said, full of hurt.

Fair enough. But monogamy is not just "the way people are." As anthropologists such as Helen Fisher have shown, monogamy is only one of the many strategies people use to ensure stability. The key, in all instances, is to strike a balance between maintaining relationships to raise kids and providing outlets for desire, both male and female.

What I didn't hear, from either my friends or my lovers, was that monogamy was desirable because it provided a channel to greater closeness, because it was a way of exploring the unknown. Instead, I listened to a familiar litany, full of shoulds and oughts and moral opprobrium, all of which I understood, even respected, but couldn't support.

The longer my dual life continued, the more I wanted the two women to meet. If the point was to explore and create intimacy, keeping the two relationships utterly separate was beside it. But they were not willing, and I wasn't willing to wait, or to push, or to continue. And so these relationships ended because I would not commit to monogamy and they would not commit to the kind of emotional exploration I craved.

Looking back over the past 15 years, I realize that it was never about sex. In fact, it was never about monogamy per se. Had I met a woman whom I loved, who said to me, "Look, I want to be monogamous because through that we can access an incredibly deep level of love and intimacy. Let me lead the way," I would have leapt at the prospect. Had this same imaginary woman also said, "Look, I have no idea where the path will lead, and I'm not ruling out any destination," I would have been even more eager. I didn't meet that woman and I wasn't looking for her. I wanted to find my own way through the confused and confusing waters of sex.

For the past year, I've been with a woman I love deeply and passionately. I have no desire to be with others. I share with her a deep affinity for looking into the nooks and crannies of our psyches. Nothing is beyond the pale. That doesn't mean that all is bliss; it's often hard work, but it's good work.

Whether this state of affairs means lifelong sexual exclusivity, I don't know. But I don't really care. I was never committed to non-monogamy, no more than I am now committed to monogamy. My loyalty is to the woman I love and to exploration.

For more than a decade, I focused on monogamy and its obverse. Having learned something there, I'm now trying to learn something new, about intimacy through monogamy. Some people might say that that's where we all ought to begin. But unless the exploration is uncoupled from fear, or at least until the fear is recognized, intimacy is null and void. For me, because sexual relationships have an incomparable edge and rawness, sex is the most direct way to confront these questions and move through them.

"So you're settling down," my friends say. "What about your big ideas now?" they tease, wondering if perhaps I've seen the light. I can see where the conversation is going, but mostly I let it be. "I'm happy," I say, and leave it at that.

Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

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