Rosie Wilby: Is Monogamy Dead?
What is the future of monogamy in the 21st century, online world? Christopher Bryant met up with met up with Rosie Wilby to talk about this dangerous subject, and the ways in which we’re all polyamorous without necessarily knowing it.
Rosie Wilby – Is Monogamy Dead? (Click image to enlarge)
Following her hit stand-up show The Science of Sex, which looked at the science of sexual attraction, Rosie Wilby started to explore the subject of monogamy. The result of this wild and varied journey is the subject of her latest show, Is Monogamy Dead? I met up with Rosie to talk about this dangerous subject, the varied language of the polyamorous, and the ways in which we’re all polyamorous without necessarily knowing it.
What led you to write Is Monogamy Dead?
I was thinking about the Edinburgh Festival, and themes I wanted to write about. Monogamy came up when I was doing The Science of Sex, and it has been coming up more and more. People’s relationships breaking down, people having affairs, gay women, gay men, straight couples – it seemed to be quite an issue, and something of a problem. I started thinking about it, and reading about it. A bisexual woman called Meg Barker has a book called Rewriting the Rules, and so I ended up making contact with her. She’s polyamorous.
I’d always been led to believe that monogamy was the only optional, but there are options that don’t just involve having an affair. There are people who are polyamorous, people who have open relationships. I knew gay men who had open relationships but I hadn’t really come across polyamory. To meet people who were negotiating these sorts of multiple relationships and lives was interesting and mind blowing. And there’s such fun language in that world. Using words like polysaturated to mean you’ve reached a threshold of lovers.
Then I put up an anonymous online survey. I didn’t know if people would respond unless I offered a prize. But actually 100 people replied quite quickly. They were keen to talk about how they were in a relationship where they desperately wanted a way to express their sexuality, maybe by having other partners; how trapped they felt; how difficult people were finding it to negotiate this sort of thing. In some ways it was difficult to write comedy about it because I felt quite emotional and serious about it. I balanced those things by also writing some serious articles.
That makes sense. It was something I wanted to ask about, how you manage a subject that is so touchy. For many people who’ve experienced the issue there’s no humour at all.
It is a difficult subject. It’s not been an easy show. In Edinburgh some audiences loved it, some were a little uneasy. Particularly at the time of day I was performing, which was 5 pm. It wasn’t always easy to sell the show. But when I did it in London at Camden Fringe at 9.30 pm the audience went with it. I also did the show in Brighton, where it went down well. Quite a few people from a polyamorous group came along.
It’s been challenging to write comedy, and I’ve had to be lighter about it. There are funny things in the survey. I asked what counts as infidelity. There were different options, such as kissing someone, having sex with someone, more emotional types of cheating like staying up all night talking to someone, or falling in love with someone without any sexual or intimate contact. There was even thinking about someone else, which a scary seven people counted as infidelity. How could you police that?
And how could you stop yourself?
You can’t! It’s human nature.
Recently I was with an ex and a group of friends that had known each other for 12 years. In that time only a few relationships had lasted the course. I wondered if there was some way that if lesbians talked about things differently whether some of those relationships would have lasted.
It seems in my own experience that lesbians are quite black and white. They can be possessive and jealous, but that’s generalising. I think the culture’s changing. I’m meeting women online who are ten years younger than me who have a girlfriend but want a fling on the side. I don’t think that’s what was happening 10 years ago.
Rosie Wilby (Click image to enlarge)
Do you think open relationships and polyamory are the way forward?
I think there’s something that makes sense in a philosophical, neuroscientific way about some sort of open relationship. Some of the polyamorous people were happy, fulfilled and could explore different aspects of their personalities. When you’re in a monogamous relationship you do focus on the intense relationship with the one. It’s so much pressure and expectation that it’s almost as if it’s set up to fail.
I think we all have a polyamorous set up and we don’t realise it, because we all have friends and some of those friends we love deeply and confide in more than we do our own partners. But we still think of it as a friendship. It can go from someone who you say hello to now and then to someone you’ve cared about and shared things with over 20 years. I think it’s weird that we distinguish friendship from a relationship when friendship can almost be more.
Within polyamory there’s more recognition of those different types of relationships. Some of the relationships that are counted as key in a polyamorous relationship are not sexual, although they may previously have been.
I talked to a friend of mine about this and she said she couldn’t have an open relationship, but then she said, “what about love affair friendships?” That was her terminology for friends that she was probably more deeply in love with than her partner. There was no sex, and they were mostly straight women that she had this love affair friendship with. She painted a picture of her and a group of straight friends from school who would still meet up for weekends with no partners allowed, and it was more romantic than any love story. We don’t have the right sort of language for that.
Of course there are many people in say they are in monogamous relationships who definitely aren’t. One might be, but the other is not.
It’s about honesty in the end. If there’s any sort of message I’m trying to put across it’s that honest is the best option. I’ve been caught up in the dishonesty of other people. The impact of someone having an affair has far-reaching, negative repercussions. There’s a strong ripple effect that affects so many friends. Were you in on what was going on? Then when the ex finds out they want to know what you knew when and it damages your friendship with them.
Some people in open relationships say that they are faithful to an agreement.
I would assume that being in a relationship requires a level of emotional maturity that can be quite hard to reach.
It’s tricky. How much would you discuss it? If you had a very honest relationship you wouldn’t want to go into great detail about your other lovers, would you?
Do people come up and talk to you at the end of the show about their situations and what the subject brought up for them?
Yes, mainly women. But that’s probably because I’m a woman. That’s just the way it works. There were some men who filled in a survey and that was quite revealing. Straight men particularly. There were some who were fine with their girlfriends doing something with other women, but they wouldn’t do anything with a man involved. That’s known in polyamorous terms as a “one penis policy”.
Do people talk to you about the new app culture, with the advent of Grindr and Scruff etc.?
Yes. It’s changed the world in a worrying way. It commodifies sex. It’s like ordering a pizza.
The app culture seems to be the opposite of what you’re talking about, which is about how as human beings we negotiate these ideas. The apps are more like shopping.
It’s all about tick boxes and availability. But now the stats are saying that half of all couples meet online. You can be snobby about meeting someone the old fashioned way, whereas meeting someone in a club is quite awful in many ways. But there’s something about meeting someone in an organic way because it’s the right time for you. You go online dating maybe in response to a heartbreak, or before you’re ready, to refuel your sense of self esteem.
Has this show inspired a follow up?
I’ll probably leave this subject for a little while. My next Edinburgh show will be quite different. I have an idea for a column that’s about sexual fluidity. Even though I’m pretty fixed in the fact that I’m a lesbian I’m thinking of going on some dates with men and having us rate each other.
There’s an underlying message. I went through a phase when I first came out of being separatist. I joined feminist groups and fell into the thinking that men were the enemy and I didn’t need men in my life, that I would be a feminist lesbian, and many years later I realised the tragedy of that, because it loses a whole range of amazing people, because men are brilliant, even if I don’t want to have sex with them. Through life choices we shut ourselves down. And there are a lot of gay men who don’t like mixing with women. I think that’s a shame as we can offer each other so much.