I learned to be monogamous by failing at polyamory, says Rosie Wilby
One mild December evening six years ago, I smiled furtively to myself on the train across London. I was on my way to perform a comedy set at a sex party, the sort of event my nerdy, prudish younger self would never have known about or dared to attend. Yet, having obsessively explored the psychology of sex for a comedy show, I had discovered a new curiosity about actually having more fulfilling sex rather than just talking or thinking about it. Coincidentally, the fancy-dress theme for the party was “science”. So I had cobbled together a “sexy lab assistant” look, combining hot pants and knee-high boots with a lab coat and glasses. It was just about enough of a disguise to make me feel a bit more sexually empowered than usual.
Once I arrived at the party, I noticed a buzz in the air right away. People seemed to be drinking very little, yet they were communicating their innermost desires, whispering in one another’s ears, stroking and touching one another with a carefree ease. Some had made a huge effort with elaborate, often skimpy, costumes. I struck up conversation with a couple, slightly younger and more athletic than me, who seemed friendly and easy-going. It was only when the man asked me to hold onto his girlfriend’s leash while he popped to the loo that I started to feel awkwardly out of place. I looped the leather around my hand and thought, “Oh god, what if they think I want a threesome? I was just being friendly.”
“I’ve been looking for someone to dominate me,” the woman said.
I smiled anxiously, glancing in the direction of the toilets and wondering how long the boyfriend would be.
“Have you tried Shibari?” she asked.
Thinking it sounded like a kind of relaxing meditation, I replied, “No, but that sounds divine.”
When the boyfriend returned, I discreetly googled Shibari. It turns out it’s a type of Japanese rope bondage.
I was spared further awkwardness when the cabaret show started and the crowd headed to the stage to watch, all too glad to relinquish my temporary and unconvincing dominatrix status. There was a strict curfew for the cabaret: once it was over, the cordoned-off sex room would be opened.
After my set I enjoyed chatting to a smiley man dressed as a faun and even had a brief snog – my first with a member of the opposite sex for quite some time. It had a certain novelty about it, I suppose. But, before long, I said goodbye and decided to run for the night bus. I hesitated for a moment as I passed the sex room, catching a sideways glimpse of an orgy developing. That looked way too full-on for me. But there was no doubt in my mind that the evening had been a turn-on. I felt more alive.
So how did I end up here?
Growing up in a small town in Lancashire, I was always a shy child, surrounded by utterly monogamous, long-term couples. My parents, already in their 50s when I was a teen, seemed steadfast in their love for one another, even if they sometimes found each other irritating. It was the same for grandparents, aunts and uncles, older cousins, teachers and all my adult role models. Infidelity was something that only happened in TV dramas. Marriage was a lifelong, exclusive commitment.
Even when I came out as a lesbian aged nineteen at the end of the 1980s, it didn’t shake my sense of searching for one all-consuming love, a sole partner I would surely spend the rest of my life with. My mum, a feminist hippy who was a bit ahead of the times, recited lesbian love poetry at the tea table, somewhat to the embarrassment of my dad and me. She bought huge piles of books by lesbian authors and selected the best ones to pass on to me. The narratives, even where sexuality had broken away from expected norms, were all about finding “the one”. Throughout my twenties, I clung to this narrative. Monogamy seemed beyond question.
But then, shortly after my 40th birthday in 2010, all my romantic dreams were shattered when I had my heart completely broken. My partner, Sarah, who I’d been with for five years, the person I assumed to be my “one”, dumped me by email. Worst of all, it slowly emerged that she had already begun a new relationship with someone else behind my back. Perhaps all those stories I’d been told about monogamy weren’t true after all.
It felt like a huge loss of my sense of sexual self. Sarah was the first person I had truly discovered a reciprocal sexual attraction with. My sexuality had seemed possible for the first time, after years and years of painfully secret, unrequited crushes on unavailable straight women, and slightly lopsided connections with disproportionately amorous gay ones. And then that possibility had been betrayed and crushed.
Desperate to move on, I set up an online dating profile and rushed headlong into a new relationship with Jen. She was four years younger… and lovely. Yet something was broken in my connection with my sexuality. While I loved the comfort and reassurance of hanging out with someone new, building a sense of companionship and loyalty with her, real physical intimacy felt like plunging myself into an icy pool of loneliness. After a year or so, I just couldn’t go there any more. At least, not with Jen.
As the months passed, I started to have intense crushes on other female friends. I felt so guilty. Because I really did love Jen. But more like a sister, I suppose. And that didn’t seem to fit with the societal idea of what being “in a relationship” should look or feel like.
One lunchtime in 2014 I started searching online for articles about sexless relationships, eventually arriving upon one about a polyamorous couple who had a platonic primary partnership and separate secondary lovers outside of that. Rules and boundaries were mutually, respectfully and consensually negotiated and agreed. There were no secrets, no lies. It all just made so much sense. This seemed like a potential solution for Jen and me. Surely if your relationship is great in every way except for sex, couldn’t you just “outsource” that bit?
That evening, across our kitchen table, I nervously presented Jen with some of the ideas I’d found. We talked in very hypothetical terms about how we would go about having a more open relationship and what our rules would be. Don’t choose someone we know, don’t bring them back to our shared living space, don’t involve our mutual friends. Above all, be discreet.
“As an intellectual idea, yes,” said Jen, “but… in practice?”
She was right. I could almost hear the sound of our names being crossed off party invitation lists. A spot of swinging would not play well with most of our “couple” friends. Discretion was a must.
Still, I was determined to tentatively give it a go. I headed out on casual dates, to sex parties and to a curiously sexless lesbian sauna evening where we mostly ended up tidying up after more hedonistic gay men.
Then one evening at a “sex positive” social held on a South London rooftop, a more chilled, casual event than a full-on sex party, I got chatting to a wise hippy-ish woman. She told me she was “demisexual”.
“What’s that?” I asked, intrigued.
“It means that I have to feel a deep emotional connection with someone before I can feel sexually attracted to them.”
Immediately I knew that this also described me. I felt seen.
“It’s considered to be on the asexual spectrum,” she continued, “but it certainly does not mean you have to be celibate.”
“So… how come you hang out here… in what maybe seems like quite a hypersexual community, where most people might be having more anonymous, casual sex than you’re looking for?” I asked.
She beamed and said, “Well, the thing about this community is that it embraces all forms of sexuality and sex. I love cuddling, kissing and flirting… and then maybe I would meet someone again and see what develops.”
On the bus home that night, I gazed out of the window feeling an overwhelming sense that, if I wanted to rediscover intimacy, it should perhaps be with my actual partner after all. Whether that partner was Jen, or somebody else.
Even though my year-long brush with the world of polyamory didn’t exactly result in much hot, sexy action and a long list of new casual lovers, it did equip me to better communicate what I was looking for. If you open up a relationship, however tentatively, it forces you to communicate your needs and boundaries, what you’re happy with and what you aren’t. I felt more empowered. This in itself was sexy, regardless of whether I was actually having sex.
So when, in 2016, Jen and I finally agreed to amicably and consciously separate (and remain close friends), I set about dating with a new confidence and soon met my fiancée, Suz, via an app. We are currently planning our wedding for next June.
Suz and I are happily monogamous. For her, this was an absolute must. And I was fine with that. Having experimented with polyamory and discovered that other ways of having relationships exist, I felt able actively to choose monogamy, rather than drift into it as the expected model of a long-term relationship.
For anyone else looking to experiment, I would only give one piece of advice. Communicate. That is the key, whether you remain monogamous or not.
Rosie Wilby is an award-winning comedian and author of “Is Monogamy Dead?” Her latest book, “The Breakup Monologues” (Bloomsbury) is out now