“It’s not New York Escorts, there is the best sex party in New York, with the most fun, attractive crowd,” Anne assured me, adding that the attendees are a mix of swingers, “burners” (Burning Man–types), and fetish people. I was skeptical. How amazing could the participants of a paid orgy really be, even if it was invite-only? I also had serious reservations about whether I would actually be able to hook up amidst a crowd of “roughly 100 people.” But I trusted Anne, because she knows a lot about this stuff. See, Anne and her husband are in an open marriage: They’re happy, successful, attractive, deeply in love, and they also get to sleep with whomever they want. How unfair.
I’ve written previously about my own attempt to make an open relationship work. The year my girlfriend and I were open, our relationship was strained by arguments and insecurity, and our subsequent attempt at monogamy didn’t work out either. Sadly, two weeks ago, she and I broke up. And I have since finally admitted it to myself: monogamy just isn’t for me. Or at least not right now. The problem is, I’m still in the dark about how to make a nonmonogamous relationship function. It just feels like there’s so much working against you—jealousy, possession, unwilling partners, and a weighty social stigma. My hope was that spending time with Anne and her husband, as well as a room full of orgiastic swingers, would give me some insight into how I could have my relationship cake and eat it too.
According to Anne, a 32-year-old nurse, being nonmonogamous wasn’t a desire but a necessity. “In my late teens and early twenties I had two long-term relationships, one with a man and one with a woman,” she explained. “In both cases they were older than me, and both tried to convince me that when you really love someone, you don’t want to be with other people. I thought that because they were older, they knew better. So I tried it, but both times I failed miserably—it was stressful, I cheated so much, and I hurt my partners.” During that time Anne realized that, in fact, her desire to get laid by other people didn’t mean she loved her partners any less. “Restricting myself doesn’t make me happy,” she went on, “so after the second relationship ended, I said, ‘This is stupid, I’m never promising monogamy to anyone ever again.’”
That decision has worked out well for her, because she ended up meeting her perfect match. “My husband and I met through a couple that we were both sleeping with separately,” she said. “And there was never any expectation of monogamy.” She describes their marriage as being “very open,” but there are still ground rules. “Initially we had a zip-code rule,” she explained. “When we were in the same city, we could hook up with other people together—threesomes, sex parties, etcetera—and when he traveled for work, we could play separately.” However, as their relationship became stronger, their boundaries loosened, and now they can hook up whenever, as long as their extracurricular sex remains casual. “You have to challenge yourself,” Anne said. “If something doesn’t feel comfortable, you ask yourself why that is, and try to understand if and why your jealousy is irrational.”
But back to the sex party. Clearly, my biggest dilemma was what to wear: A cocktail dress? A gown? Lingerie under a trench coat? After much deliberation, I finally decided on a candy-pink-and-white eighties Escada power suit and white stilettos, figuring that, if ever there were a time to look like a horny version of the First Korean escorts, this was it.
Walking into the hotel, I was slightly intimidated by how many beautiful, well-dressed people there were. (Anne was right.) For the first two hours, people mostly danced, drank the free booze, and ate canapes. Many of the guests were clearly already friends or “playmates,” and the atmosphere was surprisingly classy, even reserved. It wasn’t until midnight that the suits and cocktail dresses began to come off. Suddenly the many beds, couches, and bathtubs were filled with people going at it.
Popular depictions of swingers are usually sensational or retro, but the crowd at the party seemed like normal, nice people who were no different from me, which was encouraging. I instantly noticed how respectful everyone was. Before engaging with another person, it was customary to ask, “Can I touch you?” The couples were very frank about the advantages of “the lifestyle,” as it’s called. One said that listening to each other’s hook-up stories was their ultimate turn on. Another couple, when asked about the virtues of being open, said that it prevents them from getting lazy or taking each other for granted—the slight competition keeps them engaged and motivates them to win each other’s affection every day.
Sex parties like this one, and discussions about alternatives to monogamy, have been getting increasing media coverage in recent years. Dan Savage, of course, is an active proponent of what he calls “monogamish”—opening the door of your relationship just a crack, to keep it from blowing off its hinges, as he puts it. The Ethical Slut, which is probably the quintessential book on nonmonogamy, has been selling consistently since its publication in 1997. And then there’s Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s 2010 bestseller, which argues that monogamy goes against human nature. The book’s enormous popularity spawned countless articles and debates about whether monogamy is in fact a social construct, and one that goes against our biology.
But what do the alternatives look like in practice? To get a more detailed idea of how people manage nonmonogamy successfully, I’d spoken with Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, a researcher and adjunct professor of human sexuality at NYU. Vrangalova had explained that nonmonogamous relationships generally fall into one of three main categories: swinging, polyamory, and open relationships. Swingers are the most couple-centric of the three—these are lovers in a committed relationship who have strictly casual sex with other people, which they typically engage in together, at a swingers’ party or some other “lifestyle” event. Open relationships are similar in that a committed couple can have casual hook-ups, but their extracurricular sex tends to happen independently. These couples will usually create specific boundaries based on their personal comfort levels—for instance, a “no sleepovers” rule, or an “area-code” rule. Finally, polyamorous refers to people who have multiple simultaneous relationships that are not just sexual, but emotional and romantic as well. For instance, one could have a primary partner and a secondary partner, or three or four people could all be romantically linked together, known as a triad or a quad, respectively.
In other words, it’s pretty complicated, and making it work requires serious effort. And from what I gathered at the sex party, this is very much the case. I was repeatedly struck, not just by their respectful demeanor, but also by how thoroughly—almost tediously—the partners communicated. Because trust is key, people are very vocal and direct about their desires and comfort levels. “What’s your rule?” was probably the most common question of the evening, as people tried to gauge each other’s relationship boundaries. I had a girl in her early thirties walk up to me and say, “Hey, would you like to play?” When I nodded yes, she said, “OK, but it has to be on this bed, because that’s my husband getting a blow job over there, and our rule is that we can play independently as long as we are in the same room.”
There was also a certain lingo that everyone there seemed familiar with. At one point, a group was discussing how they deal with “N.R.E.,” which someone eventually explained to me stands for “new relationship energy.” “N.R.E. is inevitable,” one woman said. “When your partner is having N.R.E. with a new hook-up, it can make you feel uncomfortable or jealous, but you have to remind yourself that it’s normal, and that it will eventually fade.” The unashamed, straightforward nature of it all was strangely charming.
I kept thinking that, underneath all the openness, there had to be a considerable base level of security in these relationships. It can’t be easy to say, “Have fun at the orgy, honey,” if you suspect your partner might leave you for one of his or her hook-ups. Anne confirmed this. “Security in your relationship is critical,” she urged. “But confidence in yourself and your self-worth is equally important. I know that I’m a good, valuable person, and that even if my husband left me for someone else, I would be fine. That’s a big deal.” And here is where I might run into challenges. Even if you’re a confident person, and confident in your sexuality, feeling secure in a relationship is a more slippery slope. At least for me. I’ll admit that I can be a jealous person and a total hypocrite—I want to be free to do whatever I want while my partner stays locked in a cage. (Duh.) Many of my past relationships have been tainted by insecurity, jealousy, cheating, and lying, often fueled by bad communication and secrecy.
By comparison, the couples at the party seemed open and honest in a way that many “normal” couples aren’t. Let’s not kid ourselves: adultery is rife. In a way, the socially accepted norm of monogamy requires lying. It’s almost like monogamous couples actually prefer to be lied to rather than deal with the uncomfortable reality of extramarital attraction. With nonmonogamy, you’re admittedly entering into risky territory. But with ground rules and communication, the result could be a more honest, fulfilling relationship. And since keeping jealousy in check and feeling secure can be the hardest parts of maintaining a relationship for me, I began to wonder if nonmonogamy could teach me something on a deeper level that monogamy couldn’t—if perhaps these orgy people were really onto something.
At the party, I ended up getting to second base—further than I expected to go—with an Asian-Escorts-looking couple in their twenties. Still, my nerves eventually led me to drink a little too much, and I ended up falling asleep at the height of the orgy. (Embarrassing.) I was eventually woken up by a very nice woman. “Sorry, honey, you can’t sleep on this bed,” she said. “People need to have sex here.”