Ambivalence and tensions in young gay men’s accounts of monogamy and relationships

Young Australian gay men’s feelings about sex and relationships are characterised by a tension between a desire for monogamy as the basis of a committed, enduring and mature relationship on one hand, and sexual opportunities associated with ‘the gay scene’ on the other, according to two recently published qualitative studies. Concerns about HIV and sexual health were rarely given as the reason to value a monogamous relationship, but the intimacy and trust of a committed relationship was sometimes thought to offer a degree of protection.

Duane Duncan and colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 61 Australian gay men, around half of whom were under the age of 30. The interviews explored issues of intimacy, relationships and monogamy with men who were either single or in a couple at the time of the interview.

Findings are published in two articles recently published in Sexualities and the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

Glossary

equivalence trial

A clinical trial which aims to demonstrate that a new treatment is no better or worse than an existing treatment. While the two drugs may have similar results in terms of virological response, the new drug may have fewer side-effects, be cheaper or have other advantages. 

culture

In a bacteria culture test, a sample of urine, blood, sputum or another substance is taken from the patient. The cells are put in a specific environment in a laboratory to encourage cell growth and to allow the specific type of bacteria to be identified. Culture can be used to identify the TB bacteria, but is a more complex, slow and expensive method than others.

qualitative

Qualitative research is used to explore and understand people’s beliefs, experiences, attitudes or behaviours. It asks questions about how and why. Qualitative research might ask questions about why people find it hard to use HIV prevention methods. It wouldn’t ask how many people use them or collect data in the form of numbers. Qualitative research methods include interviews, focus groups and participant observation.

HIV is frequently transmitted within committed relationships, so a better understanding of relationship dynamics is important for HIV prevention.

Just a phase

Most of the younger interviewees wanted to have a committed romantic relationship and presented monogamy as an ideal. Sex was seen as being more meaningful in this context:

“When I can find an emotional connection with one person and sex just amplifies that, that’s sort of how I view sex in general, which is why monogamy is more important to me.” (21 years).

Monogamy was presented as an ideal to work towards:

“I think for the most part gay males are looking for a monogamous relationship. Although it may be taking them some non-monogamous relationships to get there… the demonstration of that is just how hard we’re all fighting for gay marriage equality at the moment.” (21 years).

But many men saw themselves as being in a ‘phase’ of youthful sexual exploration that was facilitated and encouraged by the gay scene.

“If I can get this whole rooting [fucking] everybody out of my system now then I won’t feel like I need to do that when I’m older.” (29 years).

Many interviewees expressed considerable ambivalence and contradictory desires:

“I don’t wanna miss out on going out and having fun, and having lots of, well not lots of but a reasonable amount of non-committal sex and stuff. I wanna go out and have fun and not be committed but, you know, I also really wouldn’t mind having someone to be close with.” (19 years).

Whereas a committed, monogamous relationship was often understood to be mature and meaningful, casual sex was contrasted as being superficial. However it was also often understood to be typically male:

“You have to kind of accept that both you and your partner are gonna be male and males have a tendency – it’s kind of like a primal urge to just kind of procreate. So like monogamy to me doesn’t necessarily kind of fit within a kind of typical gay relationship – but I want it to.” (29 years).

Trust and communication

Several of the interviewees talked about monogamy as the basis for a secure, satisfying and special relationship. Sexual fidelity was an expression of commitment between partners that enabled feelings of security and trust to follow.

While the risks of HIV or sexually transmitted infections were not ignored, they were rarely given as explicit reasons for preferring monogamy:

“[HIV] is a concern, you know, so you always have to be safe. That doesn’t come into play though when I think about relationships and that they should be exclusive. That’s not the motivation … yeah, no that’s not something out there that crosses my mind, actually. I just think that’s how it should be.” (22 years).

This man linked emotional health with sexual health, suggesting that trust and good communication could be protective:

“I think it’s a lot healthier place for gay men to be, emotionally, when they both know, ‘Yeah, we’re travelling along the same path and we’re going in the same direction.’ I think that if all you’re saying is, ‘Okay, just be safe but do what you want and don’t talk about your feelings, don’t communicate, don’t have some sort of a goal,’ I think that’s not emotionally very healthy…it’s exposing yourself to sort of risks, STIs and stuff.” (31 years).

Giving up condoms could be a significant symbolic moment that solidified the commitment of the partners to the relationship. The HIV and STI risks implicit in the decision to stop using condoms appeared to ‘raise the stakes’, but were not central to that decision.

“That’s kind of part of what I would consider being a relationship [giving up condoms]. I think, on an emotional level, it’s more intimate like if you don’t use condoms. ‘Cause again it’s the absolute most intimate thing you can do with anyone so I think that’s also another aspect why it’s good to wait. Like quite apart from the STI issue.” (33 years).

Men who were reluctant to have sex outside a relationship felt at odds with the sexual culture of the gay scene:

“I think that there’s sort of this odd pressure on gay men to suddenly have such an incredible sexual history. And it has intimidated me in the past because I wonder, am I abnormal or am I actually normal?” (21 years).

“I think my preference for monogamy is very traditional. Like just a gay equivalent of straight couples. I suppose I’m a pretty traditional guy.” (23 years).

Changing expectations

Whereas some of the interviewees indicated that they expected casual sex to be a phase they would grow out of as they got older, others indicated that as time went on, they had developed a pragmatic acceptance of sex outside of traditional relationships:

“When I first went into the scene I was really kind of idealistic and I thought ‘I will only have sex with people if I’m in a relationship with them.’ But then it became over time quite clear that it’s hard to have relationships in the scene . . . I would still prefer to have sex in a relationship, but if there’s not one on the horizon, I’m not going to be, you know, celibate.” (30 years).

Some men had decided that ‘fuckbuddy’ relationships provided an alternative to traditional relationships:

“I guess growing up and realising that hey, intimacy can be more than just sex and I can be intimate with someone and have that connection with them without having that fully-fledged monogamous relationship . . . we’re two really good friends, I trust you and I feel comfortable with you. And I enjoy sharing time with you. I will share a bit more with you.” (22 years).

Similarly, men who were in relationships often found that their sexual desires and the nature of the understanding they had with their partner evolved over time. Interviewees sometimes expressed uncertainty about whether monogamy would be sustainable across a long-term relationship, often referring to essentialist ideas of men’s sexual drive or mentioning the sexual pressures of the commercial gay scene.

Men talked about the need to be flexible and adaptable. This man hoped that his boyfriend would ‘evolve’ to accept non-monogamy:

“I think he’s slowly becoming less like he was [innocent] and more like I am [experienced]. I can see it happening over time.” (22 years).

But in the same interview, he expressed a longing for the emotional stability of a committed relationship:

“I’d be happy to settle for just normal sex and one-on-one for ages if it meant like an actual loving, long-term, committed relationship that went deeper than sort of 22-year-olds tend to go… strict monogamous... commitment for the rest of your life I could never, ever, ever possibly do. But if I had to choose it would probably be monogamous.”

Conclusion

Duane Duncan found that while monogamy was idealised as the best structure for a ‘mature’ and ‘satisfying’ relationship, it existed alongside casual hook-ups, serial relationships and fuckbuddy relationships. The tension between men’s desires for commitment and for exploring the sexual possibilities of the gay commercial scene was managed by the belief that as they became more mature, they would ‘get serious’ and ‘settle down’.

Men tended to see monogamy as the best way to build trust, commitment and intimacy in a relationship. They did not think of monogamy as an HIV prevention strategy, but the greater meaning and emotional stability it provided might protect them from the excesses of the gay scene – which HIV and STIs were implicitly associated with.

References

Duncan D et al. ‘I'd much rather have sexual intimacy as opposed to sex': Young Australian gay men, sex, relationships and monogamy. Sexualities 18: 798-816, 2015. (Abstract).

Duncan D et al. Trust, Commitment, Love and Sex: HIV, Monogamy, and Gay Men. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 41: 345-360, 2015. (Abstract).