Will Gay Marriage Rights Include the Right to Be Unfaithful?

The ability to marry now means that many couples who have had to forge their own definition of a committed relationship will now have a ready-to-adopt model that according to some pundits, has been in place since Adam and Eve.
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The two Supreme Court rulings passed in late June -- striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and overturning California's Proposition 8 -- have opened the door for gay marriage and marriage recognition.

Lately I've been focusing my research on infidelity, so as the door swings open for many gay and lesbian individuals to join in matrimony, I wondered how the skyrocketing rates of marriage in these individuals might affect the rates of their infidelity.

The dictionary definition of infidelity includes, first and foremost, an act of sex that occurs with an individual outside of marriage. Thus, at least by legal standards, if you are not in possession of a marriage contract, then adultery can't exist. The vow of "forsaking all others" reduces the spouse to only one sexual target -- his or her mate -- as long as they both shall live.

But these days up to 50 percent of people who consider themselves monogamous still choose not to wed, blurring the line of whether or not they are really engaged in betrayal if they have sex with others. Up until the last decade the gay and lesbian couples fell into that gray area; since they took no marriage vows (simply because no authority would allow them that chance) were they legally free to have sex outside with someone other than their significant other?

Researchers into gay and lesbian relationships point out that because of the lack of societal norms for what a relationship "should" look like, homosexual couples had the both the exhilarating opportunity and insidious angst of defining for themselves what coupledom meant. In pioneering the social "norms" of a committed relationship, the culture of monogamy is not highly entrenched in gay dyads (particularly among men). One frequently cited report from 30 years ago showed that, compared to straight couples, lesbian pairs have fewer outside partners, whereas coupled gay males have more partners and seek more variety. More recent data from the San Franscisco area showed that among gay men who were in committed relationships, 45 percent stated they agreed to be monogamous, and 47 percent wished to have open sexual options.

The ability to marry now means that many couples who have had to forge their own definition of a committed relationship will now have a ready-to-adopt model that according to some pundits, has been in place since Adam and Eve. Of course, if you want to go back to biblical times, monogamy was a concept that didn't work very well then. (How many wives did King David have?) Our post-industrial, Western model of marriage may be the more generally accepted template: two people fall in love and decide that they wish to exclusively be with each other, part of this agreement is the decision to have sex with no one outside of the marriage.

Arguably, this model may not be working out so well either. Conservative estimates of infidelity put rates at up to 40 percent over the span of a marriage, with some research suggesting even higher rates. In almost all studies, men stray more than women. If heterosexual relationships have a tough time meeting the faithfulness standards, should we expect the homosexual communities to do much better? And more to the point, do they want to accept this model as their own?

One fascinating study shines a compelling light on the question of lifestyle choice. When gay male couples agreed to open relationships, they were more likely to use safe sex strategies during extra-"marital" relationships than those men who pledged monogamy, but strayed anyway. The hidden nature of their unfaithfulness lead to increased health risk for both partners. It raises the question of whether it's just more reasonable to not promise to do something that you won't, or can't, do anyway. But knowing that affairs are open doesn't necessarily mean that all parties can chill over the issue of infidelity: one small study showed a huge degree of anxiety and jealousy even when one man agreed his partner could see other men.

With the advent of the Supreme Court ruling, many gay and lesbian couples will have their marriage recognized by their state or their country. Will the new norm of gay marriage include sexual exclusivity? Will the formality of a marriage license push gay couples toward a promise of sexual fidelity that may have seemed less important before their wedding vows? Now that marriage is within the reach of so many gay and lesbian couples, it remains an open question how they will confront the issue of infidelity.