If research is to be believed, less than half of the gay men in relationships in Sydney are monogamous. The majority are in open relationships, with most having rules about what can and can’t be done outside the relationship.

It’s a controversial topic. At a time when gay rights activists around Australia and the world are lobbying for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the fact that a majority of gay men claim to be in open relationships might not sit easily with some. Gay and lesbian organisation Australian Marriage Equality, for example, refused to comment for this story.

But the data on gay men’s relationships is interesting, to say the least. While the lack of monogamy in the community is not new -“ experts say the figures have been the same for years -“ it’s not often openly discussed.

Heterosexual couples are certainly not all monogamous, even though most of them would have us believe otherwise. But there are no fast facts on how many of their relationships are open.

Gay men’s sex lives, on the other hand, have been studied very closely over the years in an attempt to understand the transmission of HIV and other STIs.

Garrett Prestage, a lecturer at the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (NCHECR), is one of the researchers studying gay men’s relationships.

Over the years, through all the research we’ve done in Australia, the amount of men in open and monogamous relationships is close to 50/50, but we have noticed slightly more in open relationships and slightly less in monogamous relationships, he told Sydney Star Observer.

A reason for such a high rate of open relationships being recorded could simply be that gay men were more likely to be honest about it, where as heterosexual couples might not, Prestage suggested.

Another reason could be a lack of recognised models for gay men to base their relationships on, he said. Unlike heterosexual couples, gay men and lesbians have had to make up their own rules and develop their own kinds of relationships.

But the relationships lesbian couples had seemed to be quite different to those of gay male couples, Prestage said.

Given it looks like lesbian relationships are fairly monogamous, in the same way heterosexual relationships seem to be, it may just be about men, he said.

Maybe there is just the simple fact of gender. Everything being equal, maybe men prefer to have those sorts of relationships and women don’t.

Baden Chalmers, acting manager of ACON’s Gay Men’s Education Team, said he believed the theory about a lack of relationship models could be true. We don’t have anything to base what our relationships are going to look like when we grow up, he said.

Both Prestage and Chalmers said the majority of gay men in open relationships formed agreements with their partners about what could and couldn’t be done outside the relationship.

Indeed the ongoing Health in Men survey, conducted by the NCHECR, found 87 per cent of men in relationships entered into some sort of agreement about sex with each other or other people.

Out of those who did have casual sex outside the relationship, 34 per cent agreed to always use condoms, the study of 1430HIV-negative men found. Of those who had agreements with their partners, 28 per cent reported having broken those agreements and a third of those men did not inform their partner.

Research is still showing that between 25 per cent and a third of seroconversions happen in the context of a relationship, Chalmers said, adding that the most important thing for people in open relationships was honesty and communication.

David Bourne is a Darlinghurst psychotherapist. He says he has seen quite a number of gay couples for counselling about issues relating to monogamy and open relationships.

There are many dimensions to the issue. Clearly one of them is that sex outside the relationship is very readily available in Sydney. Sex is right on the doorstep. If you live in a rural community, the temptation isn’t there so much, Bourne said.

The main reason men seek sex outside their relationships is validation, he believes.

I think for a lot of gay men validation is an important issue. A lot of gay men come from families where particularly the father has not been able to be as supportive and admiring to the son as would like. So the son is constantly craving attention, validation, admiration, he said.

You can get that in a relationship for the first six months, but the validation doesn’t last. The individual needs to have more validation, which might be found at a sauna or a sex club or at a party, and having extra-marital affairs.

Whatever causes people to choose to live in open or monogamous relationships, it was important not to judge those who had different relationships to one’s own, Chalmers said.

The great thing about our community is that we have this great diversity of relationships. It’s quite possible for a couple to be monogamous, it’s also quite possible for a threesome to live together permanently. If they’re happy with that, then who are we to say that’s wrong?

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