People who are in non-monogamous relationships don’t run around saying that people who are monogamous aren’t really in love and aren’t really committed, but often you hear people who are in monogamous relationships saying that people who are in open relationships are not really in love, are not really committed, because they couldn’t do that if they were really in love or if they were really committed. And I think that’s often the monogamy folks projecting their insecurities around infidelity and cheating onto the non-monogamous. It’s not the non-monogamous who are prescriptive.
And the way we talk about monogamy is a problem. People are told growing up that one day they will fall in love and they will make a monogamous commitment, which will be relatively super-easy, because when you’re in love that means you don’t want to have sex with anyone else but that person. The actual fact, with experience plus also a mountain of research and data, shows that if you make a monogamous commitment, you will still want to fuck other people. You will. (Laughs) In a monogamous commitment, what you’re saying to your partner is that “I will refrain from fucking other people. I will still want to.” That actually makes that commitment more meaningful. If monogamy was easy, and people didn’t want to fuck other people when they were in love with someone, then we wouldn’t have to make a commitment not to do that.
What’s the difference between monogamish relationships and open relationships? You know, it’s difficult when you talk about monogamy and not-monogamy. When you talk about monogamy, that’s one thing, and it’s identical. Everybody who is monogamous is doing the exact same thing: two people who are not fucking anybody else except each other. Open relationships come in so many different flavors. There can be as many different types of agreements and allowances for outside contact as there are open relationships. You may meet someone who says, “I’m in an open relationship,” and what they mean is that “my partner and I rarely and occasionally might have a three-way, once a year. Maybe.” Then you meet people in open relationships who have sex with two or three or four or five or 10 other people every week, who are just out there whoring it up.
Terry and I are gay men—cat outta the bag there, right? When I would say that we are not monogamous, people would presume, because we’re gay men, a degree of promiscuity that made both of us really uncomfortable. Because we are not that promiscuous. But even other gay people would think, “They’re a gay couple, they’re not monogamous, they must be fucking a million people.” And we are so much more monogamous than not. Ninety-nine percent of the time if Terry or I are having sex, it’s Terry and I having sex with each other. To say “not monogamous” when there are these stereotypes about gay men and gay men have so much access to so many willing sex partners—because men are pigs, not just gay men, all men—made us uncomfortable. We’re much more monogamous than not. I was saying that for a long time, and one time I said we’re “monogamish,” which is monogamous with a little squish around the edges.
I’ve had gay men tell me that they think straight people have a very old-fashioned view of relationships and love, for that reason. Well, you look at the data, and gay male couples are the least likely to be monogamous. Straight couples and lesbian couples are the most likely to be monogamous. Which tells me the problem with monogamy is not gay men, it’s men, period. If you want to make marriage safe for monogamy, you need to ban marriage that involves men at all. Only lesbians should be allowed to marry, if monogamy is what marriage is defined by.
After 22 years, do you get any letters that even make you cringe? Or are you totally jaded to anything anyone could ever write you? I’m pretty jaded. Sometimes I’m shocked how stupid people can be. The letters that break my heart are the people who are 25 or 30 and say “I’ve been reading you for 15 years; I’ve been reading you since I was 14 or 15 years old, and here’s what I did.” And I think, oh my God, you read me, but you didn’t pay attention? Nothing stuck? I’m just sometimes shocked that someone could read me for 15 years and make the same sort of junior varsity mistakes that I would think that 15 years of reading my column would inoculate you to that sort of shit, but apparently not
One of your more famous concepts is “GGG.” Could you give a quick definition of what that means? Good, giving and game. Good in bed—you have to work on those skills. A human being is way more complicated than a violin. No one expects to be able to play a violin the first time they pick it up, but everyone thinks they should be really good at this sex shit the first time they give it a bang. Giving, which is that you sometimes give pleasure without an expectation of an immediate return on that. Which is sometimes hard for people to wrap their heads around. You don’t want to be with someone who takes and takes and never reciprocates. But sometimes, you know, you do for your partner. Your partner is horny and you’re not, you help them get off, or you only have time for a quickie and you didn’t get to come, and that’s fine. You can give without and expectation of immediate return. And game: up for anything within reason. That you should do for your partner, you should go there, you should want to be the person who makes their dreams and their fantasies a reality, not the impediment, not the block.
There’s a stupid thing we are told about sex, which is that you should never do anything that you don’t want to do. But some people define that so broadly, “don’t want to do,” some people define that as that you should never do anything that doesn’t turn you on, that isn’t something you want to do, that wasn’t something you were fantasizing about.
The problem with that in a long-term relationship is that you picture a Venn Diagram. If two people only have 20 percent overlap, there is going to be all this other shit that neither of them gets to do that leaves both of them feeling more sexually unfulfilled in that relationship than fulfilled, and that’s a recipe for the collapse of that relationship. You’ve written the death warrant for that relationship if that’s your approach. Your partner wants to try X, and you’re like, “Well, I’ve never had any interest in X, so we’re not doing X.” And you’re like, “OK, I guess I don’t ever get to experience this thing that I’ve fantasized about all my life with my sex partner, because they don’t want to do it, and they’re not willing to go there with me or for me.” And I think that destroys relationships, specifically sexually exclusive relationships.
If you want a monogamous commitment, you’ve got to be whores for each other. You are saying, “I am solely responsible for this person’s sexual fulfillment.” You’ve got to honor that responsibility and live up to it. You can’t say, “I am the be-all and the end-all. I am the only source of your sexual pleasure, and all these things that turn you on, we’re never doing any of that shit.” Then you have these problems when both people in these relationships are saying this to each other about different stuff! And then those relationships collapse and fall apart.
You make monogamy sound so bleak. It doesn’t have to be bleak, so long as you’re whores for each other. You have to be the person that makes it happen.
You want your partner to look and you and think, “because this person is in my life, these things—intimacy, romance—this is the source, the wellspring for all that.” You don’t want that person to look at you and think, “Fuck. Because I am with this person, I never get a blowjob, ever.” Because then that person is going to go on Craiglist and find a freelance blowjob-er.
Are there any kinks that you recommend people not pursue? I tell people to be GGG, to go there, to be game for anything within reason. I don’t think people should do things that will traumatize them, leave them curled up in the fetal position on the floor when it’s over, sobbing. I don’t think you owe that to your partner.
What do you think about the new pope, how he advocated for civil unions when he was in Argentina? Well, that was a rearguard action. That was the church in Argentina being in retreat. They weren’t out in front saying, “Hey, we maybe we should treat same sex couples fairly and offer them civil unions.” If the church had said that in Argentina 20 years ago, maybe that would have spoken well of the new pope, but the church said it at the last minute to try to head off full civil equality and marriage in the past, but it was unsuccessful.
You never see the church in a country where gay people are being persecuted and there’s no push for marriage rights, suggesting that maybe gay people should have access to civil unions.
When the Catholic Church in Uganda or Nigeria or the Soviet Union or Ukraine, Germany, or anywhere else where there’s no push for marriage [equality], gets in front and says “civil unions for gay couples!”—that would be significant.
In the 22 years that you’ve written this column, how have people’s sexual attitudes changed in this country? People are a lot more open, particularly about kink. People are a lot more realistic about monogamy, and I think that I’ve helped drive that conversation, including people who are monogamous, are more realistic about monogamy. I think realism about monogamy can actually make a monogamous relationship likely to remain monogamous or be successfully monogamous. It’s when two people are lying to each other and pretending they don’t want to be sleeping with anyone else, and both are policing each other for evidence that they actually do, and they both should know they both actually do. It’s just a huge strain on a marriage. It puts a lie at the heart of the marriage. And people are much more realistic about that now. And partly because of conversations I helped to drive in “Savage Love.”
People are certainly way more realistic about kink and sexual variety, but that’s a conversation that I think was initiated by the AIDS epidemic that bled from the gay community into the straight community.
Sex-ed used to be predicated on not writing about what people were actually doing, not writing sex advice columns, but writing about what everyone had come to a consensus on what people should be doing. ... And then the AIDS epidemic happened, and in an instant, vanilla sex, vaginal or anal intercourse—vaginal is vanilla for straights, anal is vanilla for gays—was riskier, more dangerous than BDSM. If you were going to get tied up and flogged and jerked off, you were actually being safer than someone who just wanted to fuck. And we suddenly had to have this much more open and honest and realistic conversation assessing people’s risks and the risks of different sex acts and sexual interests. And suddenly things that had been stigmatized and dangerous and sick and unhealthy suddenly rose in their public estimation, because bondage presents no risk for HIV transmission, so long as you don’t follow it up with a good fuck, and many people into bondage don’t. And suddenly they were the safe boys and the safe girls.
Where were you when the AIDS epidemic started? I was in gay bars in Chicago. I came out in 1981, just as the HIV, just as AIDS—gay cancer, then GRID, then AIDS—began to slam into the gay community. I remember. I was there. I have a lot of dead friends.
I have never addressed the gerbil issue, but now, this week and this week only, I am breaking my silence. To begin, I would like to make a controversial statement: I have never had a gerbil in my ass.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino