Two days before the long weekend, I flew home to Canberra. My partner Hannah* picked me up from the airport. We’d been apart for eighteen days and it was wonderful to be back together. We went home and snuggled in bed, catching up. It felt great.
It was then that she told me she’d had sex with another guy. Two nights ago. In the very bed we were in now.
Hannah hadn’t betrayed me. I was in Brisbane for a while for work, and we’d agreed to be non-monogamous. I’d told her it was fine with me for her to see this guy, that she shouldn’t worry about me. I knew she liked him and I wanted her to feel comfortable doing what she wanted.
I told her these things because, at the time, the logical part of my mind was okay with everything. That part of my mind still is. But what has astonished me is the depth, complexity and difficulty of the emotional reaction from my subconscious. This isn’t a piece about non-monogamy. Instead, it’s about feeling those reactions, what they taught me and what I learnt about my own identity as a man – my masculinity.
One part of my reaction I identified pretty quickly. Sure, it wasn’t logical, but I could understand it and accept it. This was a fear of inadequacy. When I knew that Hannah was going on dates and now having sex with someone else, I felt worry. What if he was just better than me? Funnier than me? What if she decided that she’d rather be with him?
This isn’t jealousy – I wasn’t upset that he got to spend time with her. It’s more like a fear of rejection. This is, I figure, a deep human fear. I wouldn’t say I’ve entirely got over it, but I think it’s an okay and normal fear to experience. I’m only human.
But I’m not only human. I’m also male. And from birth I’ve been programmed with a set of ideas about what it means to be a man. Movies, my culture, my friends – they’ve fed me rules about what I, a man, should value and aspire to. They’ve taught me how to think, how to act and how to react.
Bit by bit, I’ve done my best to uncover, understand and sometimes undo or overwrite this programming. But, as this experience revealed, there’s still a lot out there. I found these emotional reactions confronting, not only because the emotions themselves were challenging, but also because they showed me some unhealthy elements of my masculinity that I haven’t yet been able to dismantle.
For example, Hannah told me that she had an orgasm during sex with this guy. Again, the logical part of my mind thought this was great! There’s an idea out there known as ‘compersion’ – that you can experience joy at another’s joy. This can apply to the delight in seeing a toddler hug a dog. But it can also apply to a partner’s sexual satisfaction. Why shouldn’t I feel happy that she got to have an orgasm? (And it doesn’t hurt that it helps to address the orgasm gap.)
But here’s where the masculinity crept in. I’m ashamed to write this, but part of me resented that he was able to make her come. Isn’t that weird? If Hannah finds my jokes funny, should I object if she also laughs at another person’s punchlines? Is this that different?
My reaction is consistent with a recent research finding that women’s orgasms can be a “masculinity achievement”. The study’s authors suggest that making women come can make men feel more manly. They conclude: “Women’s orgasms should be experienced … as a wonderful part of sexuality, not as something men give to women as an example of their prowess.”
So maybe for me, something about being a man was undermined when someone other than me got to make ‘my woman’ come. I realise “it’s not fair” to leave my partner unsatisfied, lying, à la Lily Allen, in the wet patch in the middle of the bed. But it was concerning to think that at some level I still valued Hannah’s orgasm for what it said about me as a man – and part of me was uncomfortable with her having a great time with another guy.
I’m now aware of a destructive temptation to somehow prove myself by giving Hannah a bunch of orgasms. However, I don’t want our sex to be about me – I want it to be about us. And, actually, it creates unpleasant pressure for Hannah if all I’m doing is desperately trying to get her to orgasm. So I’m trying to resist that temptation.
But one positive is that I have reflected on how I participate in our sex life. Since the recent developments, Hannah and I have had sex that I’ve found more interesting, diverse and fun than before.
The point of this isn’t to be better at sex than any other guy Hannah might hook up with. It’s to remember what a privilege it is to be having sex with Hannah at all. It’s to not take it for granted. The point is to continue to find and enjoy opportunities to connect more deeply through the experience.
Some people out there see non-monogamy as a chauvinistic thing, a way for certain heterosexual men to have more sex at the expense of their partner’s wellbeing. Maybe that does happen. But for me, non-monogamy hasn’t been like that. While some problematic ideas have shown up, I’ve been prompted to become more mindful of them and more self-aware. My partner has been able to grow and delight in her own sexuality, independently of me. And we’ve connected through the experience. In coming apart, we’ve come together.
*The persons concerned have been de-identified using pseudonyms.