Who someone chooses to love and how they love them isn’t a topic that many are comfortable talking about in public. Four people with experience talking about sexuality and relationships took to the stage to have a productive conversation about monogamy, non-monogamy and how people structure love as part of a new series of events centering civil discourse.
The evening was titled Polyamory and Monogamy and held at the Clinton Street Theater on Feb. 11. Organized by OutSpoken, a group created by computer scientist and author Steven Parton, the event was the first in what Parton hopes to be a regular series of evening conversations designed to engage speakers and audiences in dialogue to bridge what Parton calls “tribalistic gaps.”
On stage were four speakers, two on each side, with Parton moderating in the middle. On the non-monogamy side sat Margaret Jacobson and Kerry Cohen. The monogamy side was represented by Dr. Jane Guyn and Sebastian Rogers. Although grouped by their stance on monogamy, each speaker argued from a radically different position.
Jacobson is in a non-monogamous partnership with their current husband but also claims a second partner. They raise their two kids with their ex-husband.
Cohen and her ex-husband raise their kids in a non-romantic domestic partnership, and they each have a separate partner on their own. She’s also a psychologist and relationship expert.
On the monogamy side, Guyn is a PhD sex therapist who has been married to one man for 40 years and counsels individuals in both monogamous and non-monogamous partnerships.
Rogers is a born-again Christian who has been actively monogamous “since [he] found god fifteen years ago.”
“Before that I was serially monogamous, but internally less than faithful. I was practicing monogamy the wrong way,” he said.
Parton opened the evening by explaining the reasoning for producing the event. “We have too much agreement and not enough disagreement, and it’s actually led to more tribalism and animosity.” Noting the loose connection between the evening’s theme and political discourse, Parton said, “Honestly, it just was about looking at days coming up and seeing Valentine’s Day on the calendar and thinking that could be a good launching point. More than anything, it’s about how we don’t like talking to people who aren’t exactly like us anymore.”
Rogers was given the first opening statement, freely admitting to the audience that he was speaking from a religious perspective. His argument weaved explicitly Christian statements such as, “Monogamy is iconography; it represents the truth of God and his sacrifice” with statements that found more agreement among his fellow speakers and the audience. He argued the foundation of non-monogamy was honesty and consent and conceded that “if you’re not honest with someone, you’re not really known. And if you’re not known, you’re not really in a relationship,” generating snaps and nods from the crowd.
Non-monogamy rebutted next. “I believe in monogamy, but we’re just given this one model and there’s no way to fit everyone into this mold,” Cohen said.
Jacobson echoed a similar sentiment in their discussion, saying, “I don’t believe we should just stick with one thing that we inherited. We’re just one country. There are plenty of places where monogamy isn’t the norm or didn’t used to be.”
Both of the non-monogamy speakers stressed that adherence to a strict model of relationship is harmful to individuals and society.
Guyn spoke primarily from her personal experience being married for four decades, along with expertise from her professional career. Unlike Rogers, she has no religious attachment to monogamy and instead argued that individuals are responsible for their own relationships and can’t find satisfaction simply by avoiding monogamy.
“I think that there’s ways to have satisfying relationships regardless of container,” Guyn said before the talk. “I’ve been having sex with one man since the Reagan era. That doesn’t mean it’s not hot…it’s about taking responsibility for your own turn on.”
Guyn found common cause with the two people on the non-monogamy side who both expressed a relationship model based on appreciation of the self.
“Non-monogamy has been a wonderful thing because my biggest relationship now is with myself,” Jacobson expressed. “I want to meet my own needs first then see what people can add to my own life.”
Jacobson also agreed that trust and consent are the basis of non-monogamy, but used that to rebuke the assertion that non-monogamy is only about sexual urges, “People think like ‘oh you’re living that crazy lifestyle.’ It’s not having a lot of sex, it’s a lot of processing! That’s why it’s not for everybody.” Jacobson explained that they have to balance the needs of multiple individuals and what they may be going through, while also raising their kids alongside their ex-husband. Cohen agreed that non-monogamy can be too much for more introverted people.
Few minds were changed at the end of the evening, but none of the speakers went on stage with the intention of winning followers for their side. Sometimes it’s enough to just be heard and understood.