They call them “San Francisco relationships.”
A term coined by the local gay community, it’s defined as two men in a long-term open relationship, with lovers on the side.
A new study released this week by the Center for Research on Gender & Sexuality at San Francisco State University put statistics around what gay men already know: Many Bay Area boyfriends negotiate open relationships that allow for sex with outsiders.
After studying the sexual patterns of 566 gay male couples from the Bay Area for three years, lead researcher Colleen Hoff found that gay men negotiate ground rules and open their relationships as a way to build trust and longevity in their partnerships.
“I think it’s quite natural for men to want to continue to have an active and varied sex life,” said 50-year-old technology consultant Dean Allemang from Oakland, who just ended a 13-year-open relationship and has begun another with a new boyfriend.
“I don’t own my lover, and I don’t own his body,” he said. “I think it’s weird to ask someone you love to give up that part of their life. I would never do it.”
Hoff, who just received a $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to continue the study for five more years, initially started her research based on findings that HIV infection is on the rise among male couples.
“So much of the HIV prevention effort is aimed at a different set – men in dance clubs or bathhouses having anonymous sex,” she said. “HIV prevention might want to expand its message to address relationships; we have to look at risk in a greater context.”
In her study of gay couples, 47 percent reported open relationships. Forty-five percent were monogamous, and the remaining 8 percent disagreed about what they were.
Hoff wanted to find out what motivated gay men to have open relationships and what motivated their negotiated sex agreements. She found that HIV prevention was not the No. 1 concern when deciding how and whom couples would allow into their relationship.
Instead, men said open relationships were more honest to their nature, built trust among partners, and helped ensure a longer relationship.
Only for couples in which both men were HIV-negative was HIV prevention listed as the driving force behind choosing whom to have sex with.
Allemang and his boyfriend get tested routinely, but he admits that an element of risk is a trade-off in his relationship.
“So far, we’ve not had any problems because we make informed choices about who we have sex with,” he said.
With additional research funding, Hoff is working with colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta to study the effect of counseling to encourage boyfriends to go together for HIV testing.
Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears of Oakland, who have maintained a non-monogamous relationship for 35 years, funded their own couples study ( www.thecouplesstudy.com) to learn how others navigated intimacy with outsiders. Over the past four years, they interviewed 86 couples with at least eight years together in open relationships.
‘Not talked about’
“When we started this study, we felt we didn’t know many people with open relationships, but now our friend set is much more diverse,” said Lowen, 57. “People we didn’t think were open turned out to be. It’s just not talked about that much.”
Three out of 4 people described non-monogamy as a positive thing, and said it gave them a sexual outlet without having to lie. Participants reported it helped relationships survive by providing honest options and minimizing deceit, tension and resentment. Some “played” independently, others as a threesome, and about 80 percent agreed to tell all or some details of their encounters, the rest preferring a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Constant communication about negotiated sex agreements is the surest way to stay safe from AIDS and other diseases, Lowen and Spears said.
Having an open partnership is not incompatible with same-sex marriage, said Spears, 59.
At least half those interviewed were married, having taken their vows during one of the two brief times when it was legally sanctioned in the city or the state.
“It’s a redefinition of marriage,” Spears said. “The emotional commitment, the closeness, all of it is there.”
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