For some couples, monogamy has lost its luster.
When monogamy was invented, it didn’t have quite the long tail it does now.
“We used to live until we were 40,” says Australian sexologist Chantelle Otten. “Now we’re living until we’re 110. But your sex life doesn’t have to die as
Chantelle isn’t just your typical sexologist (if there is such a thing), but a psycho-sexologist (as in psychology), “but not a psychopathic-sexologist,” she deadpans. She’s a sex detective of sorts, famous across the Ditch for empowering her clients and other fellow Aussies to embrace their sexuality, and for openly discussing her sex life with Paralympian tennis star Dylan Alcott, the couple instrumental in helping to remove the stigma around disabled sex.
Chantelle’s clients come to her for a range of issues, stemming from vaginismus and erectile dysfunction to coaching couples on how to, well, insert a little fantasy and eroticism into their bedrooms (and cars — it’s not called “sex drive” for nothing).
During the week of our chat, she’s stepping into her role as resident sexologist for the dating app Bumble, visiting Auckland to host an event called “Modern Romance” at Hotel Britomart, attended by local entrepreneurs and influencers. She’s also here to chat to Viva about the findings from Bumble’s recent study conducted both here and in Australia, some of it reiterating what we already knew: Kiwis are a conservative bunch when it comes to sex.
But there are also some intriguing statistics, namely, that one in three Kiwi singles either don’t believe in monogamy or believe in “ethical non-monogamy (ENM)” — relationships in which both partners consent to their other half having a romantic and/or sexual entanglement with people outside the partnership.
According to the study, Gen Z is less likely to believe in monogamy (58 per cent of respondents), compared to Millennials (65 per cent) and Gen X (80 per cent). While this is undoubtedly partly down to younger singles sewing their wild oats — people for whom the stakes aren’t as high as those committed to a life partner — it also jibes with a reported rise in young people stalling committed relationships due to post-pandemic unease. When the future is uncertain, goes the theory, why invest your time and effort into something long-term? Especially if your own parents have split.
“It’s very interesting that for Gen Z, ethical non-monogamy is on the menu, but you definitely do notice for older generations like myself, and a lot of people who come to my clinic, it’s still not on the menu just yet,” says Chantelle, a Millenial (Gen Y).
“My generation is still coming to terms with that and how to navigate that, because we’ve grown up with this traditional view that you’re with one person for the rest of your life, and you should be having the best sex ever with that person, forever.”
Swinging on the rise
Due to the taboo nature of non-monogamy in our society, it’s tricky to know just how many Kiwis are practising it in its “ethical” form, as opposed to simply cheating. However, the New Zealand website Kiwi Swingers has more than 170,000 members, and overseas, swinging is reportedly gaining in popularity.
The company Cruise Ship Mingle was launched in 2017 with singles in mind but after Covid, found that 70 per cent of travellers (who perhaps misread the word “cruise”) were couples looking to swing. The dating service saw a 500 per cent rise in sign-ups post-lockdown as couples were drawn to the anonymity of shacking up with others while on holiday.
The reasons behind the rise of ENM are numerous but it’s clear that the pandemic — with its endless lockdowns, in which many of us were stuck inside day after day with our other halves and all their infuriating habits — has played a contributing factor.
Throw into the mix the prevalence of prominent figures giving concepts such as ethical non-monogamy more airtime: trailblazers such as Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel who recently spoke in New Zealand, have long talked about the nuances of infidelity and desire.
“Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another,” she has said, “it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves.”
Meanwhile, the sex-positivity movement continues to gain ground, the idea that it’s healthy to pursue pleasure, as opposed to harbouring feelings of shame. Fuelled by advocates in the media and social media (Chantelle Otten among them), it’s proving empowering to women who want to live as men have done for millennia: having sex with whom and when they want, without being labelled a “slut”; bringing sex and all its kinks into the open; challenging the taboo nature of sex, self-pleasure, monogamy, you name it.
“There’s a lot more acceptance around non-traditional views of sexuality,” agrees Chantelle, who has experienced her fair share of public outrage over her own attitudes to sex, (google the restaurant sex toy incident for evidence). “We’re becoming more educated on sex and as a society we’ve evolved so much.”
When it comes to ethical non-monogamy (ENM), the definitions are diverse, from swinging to polyamory and open relationships.
“It might just be going to a swingers’ club once in a while,” says Chantelle, “or it might be having a hook-up once a year with someone else, or hiring someone to be part of your sex life, or inviting someone to be part of your sex life in a threesome.”
For Jodie*, an Auckland media specialist, it was the latter that led her on a thrilling journey that she says elevated her otherwise happy and fulfilling marriage. But when she let a close friend know about her occasional three-way trysts with her husband and other women, she was surprised by how shocked the reaction was.
“They were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re ruining your relationship!’ They just couldn’t really understand the benefits.”
Jodie is 32, intelligent, educated and attractive. She’s been with her husband for seven years, and says their relationship is loving, intimate and trusting. Did her friend have a point? Why try and fix what ain’t broken?
“I don’t think there was ever really a time when we said, ‘Right, this is what we’re going to do’. It definitely happened more organically for us,” says Jodie, who was keen to explore her bisexuality with her husband.
“He knows I’ve always had an attraction to women. We got into this monogamous relationship, just the two of us. But after having a few drinks, I’d meet a girl and be quite flirtatious. He’s always been really comfortable because he trusts me fully and I would never cheat on him. But I think he finds it an endearing side of me.”
Their boundaries: no penetrative sex with a third party, and that person had to be female. They were also careful to ensure consent was made clear from the start, and that everyone involved felt safe and comfortable.
Jodie says she found the experience brought her closer to her partner, partly because it was something pleasurable and exciting they got to experience as a couple but also due to the heightened level of communication it required.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time in those endeavours where we’ve felt jealous or threatened. If anything, it’s made us feel more empowered and brought us closer together. We were almost giddy with each other again. It’s actually quite surprising how much it really reignited our passion for each other.”
Marriage: Necessary or outdated?
If a third of Kiwi singletons are seriously considering dabbling in the ENM lifestyle, what does this say about us? Have we simply been suppressing our human nature for decades?
“I absolutely think so,” says New Zealand somatic sexologist Morgan Penn, host of the podcast The Trainee Sexologist.
“It’s very archaic to just marry one person and stay with them for your whole life. I think we’ve been very suppressed by religion and society and we’re coming into a time where it looks different.”
Ethnical non-monogamy can work for some people but equally, she says, we should, as a society, have a deep reverence for a healthy union.
“I think what’s lacking is all the skills we need to go into an ethical non-monogamous relationship. Like honest communication, boundaries, all those things. If we were actually doing that properly in relationships, we might not necessarily be going out there and opening up relationships.”
Morgan agrees that younger adults are likely to be more open to the idea because of their youth, adding that Gen Z has a more fluid appreciation of sex, and many have grown up with divorced parents.
“So we’re seeing the standard we’ve always had on a bit of a pedestal in our relationships, like marriage is not really working. We’re living in a time where we get to create what we want and we’re not too worried about what society thinks about that.”
Morgan says she’s seeing a lot of clients who got married when they were young — teenagers and high school sweethearts. Now they’re finding themselves in their mid to late 30s and early 40s and feeling like they’ve missed out. Rather than break up, they’ll make an appointment to discuss the fact they’re not happy, and to investigate alternatives to breaking up.
Her advice to those couples is to do some digging around what’s going on in their relationship, and what needs aren’t being met, or where they could be more fulfilled.
“If it lands in a feeling of being unsatisfied sexually but they still feel very connected to their partner and want to keep journeying through life together, then absolutely, opening it up to be able to be intimate with other people is a great option.”
But the homework doesn’t stop there. If the thought of discussing your sexual plans with your betrothed makes you cringe, ENM might not be for you. Getting together with someone outside of your partnership requires what she calls “radical honesty” and a need to genuinely care about the other person’s feelings.
“So while this might be like a great new playground and you feel really entitled to it,” Morgan explains, “you still have to have the utmost care about your primary partner.”
Surely all this talking is a buzzkill? What could be less sexy and mysterious than laying it all on the table beforehand?
Morgan says talking about sex actually builds desire, as it creates safety and clarity, and a sense of relating to one another.
However, not every couple is ready for ENM. “One of the big things that would be a red flag for me is if the relationship’s foundations aren’t stable,” she says. “If there’s a lack of trust already or insecurities are coming up or their communication is really disjointed. Or if there’s one person in the union that’s really into it but the other person’s not. That normally doesn’t end well unless both parties are open, curious and feeling in a good safe space.
“That’s the thing with ethical non-monogamy and open relating — you can’t hide anything. You’re holding mirrors up to each other and you’ve got to do the relationship work that you may have been sweeping under the carpet. So it’s not for the faint-hearted.”
If you’re worried things will go the way of the free-loving hippies of the 70s, that seems unlikely when you look at the Bumble research’s other findings: rather than suggesting New Zealand singles are exploring more liberal concepts when dating — or that we’re a sexually confident nation — the numbers say otherwise, with 39 per cent of singles saying they feel inexperienced, while a further 20 per cent feel their lack of experience makes them “vanilla” in the bedroom.
In Auckland, say several of the women at the Bumble event, there’s also the awkward nature of keeping potential hook-ups discreet, knowing you might bump into a one-night-stand at work or a friend’s barbecue.
When it all goes pear-shaped…
For every couple who have successfully opened up their relationship, there is another that has faltered. Annie* and her husband Mark,* both 36, had been married for five years when they decided to try ethical non-monogamy, not that they knew that’s what it was called at the time.
“Things were a bit stagnant after the first big lockdown of 2020,” says Annie, who works in the property industry. “We’re both quite independent people with busy lives, so to suddenly be thrown together 24/7, it definitely put a dampener on our sex life.”
Add a toddler into the mix, and a roster Annie had drawn up to help ease the domestic drudgery that she says caused a sore point with Mark, and they started to bicker.
“As soon as we were able to go out again, we actually went out separately,” she says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision; I think we just needed our own space.”
One Saturday night, at a casual get-together at a friend’s place, Annie was introduced to a friend of a friend, a younger man named James*, with whom she felt an intense physical attraction, the pair spending much of the evening enraptured in conversation. It could have led to something that night, she says, but rather than cheat on Mark, she made the bold move of telling him.
“I didn’t want him to find out any other way, as it was pretty obvious to all our friends we had something going on, and I didn’t want there to be any level of infidelity either, even if nothing had physically happened.”
Annie says she dreaded the conversation but to her surprise, the news she felt lust for another man turned Mark on. After much conversations on the topic, some of it uncomfortable, some of it surprisingly erotic, Annie says it was like the ignition had been switched on in the bedroom. Soon afterwards, Mark suggested they bend the rules of traditional monogamy: Annie could sleep with James if they both wanted, if Mark could sleep with another woman should the opportunity arise.
“When I look back now, I wish I’d put the brakes on,” says Annie, who did go on to have a sexual relationship with James. “Deep down I knew it was just supposed to be about sex, but it very quickly became something more.”
It could’ve ended there but knowing Mark was out having fun himself during his nights out, and knowing the emotion involved in her own supposedly casual hook-up, “it drove me crazy,” says Annie. She and Mark separated five months later. Annie says James was keen to continue a relationship with her but the devastation she felt towards the end of her marriage made a new romance too hard.
“I know it sounds selfish but I just couldn’t stand the thought my husband could be out there having sex with someone else. I really feel like we hurt one another unnecessarily. There were a lot of ‘blamey’ conversations. It was like we’d forgotten everything we’d talked through. We’d made this rule not to tell each other any details about being with other people but some pretty hurtful things came out. There was a lot of jealousy.”
ENM: A how-to guide
For paired-off lovers still keen to stay committed while dipping a toe into, well, someone else’s bed, sexologist Chantelle’s advice is to start small. She recommends going to a swingers’ club — a safe space, she calls it — as you don’t actually have to get involved.
Make rules of engagement first, she adds, and ask one another: are you planning on engaging with other people? What does that conversation look like? How are you going to navigate consent?
Chantelle often recommends couples go to a sex club, sit together and survey the scene as a couple. “You’ll ask yourselves, do we want to do this? Or are we happy just having sex with each other?”
Adds Jodie, “You just have to talk it out as much as possible. Ask all of the questions, set your boundaries, make sure your partner sets their boundaries.
“If you’re going to dabble in having a third person come in, make sure you’re both very clear about what your boundaries are, what makes you feel comfortable, or not comfortable and also make sure the third person knows what your individual boundaries are as well. Whenever we had a woman come home with us we’d say, ‘these are our rules’. It just mitigates any kind of bad situation, really.”
*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.