Three female couples did discuss sexual exclusivity at the beginning of their relationship. These couples’ sexual negotiations were generally lighthearted, and often took the form of ‘teasing’ or making playful statements about unacceptable behaviours. As Ellen (114a) recounted:

I love Holly and I jokingly say, ‘I’m very jealous I don’t want to share her with anyone else’, I just wouldn’t want to do it.

Her partner Holly (114b) recalled a similar discussion.

I guess we have teased each other […]. The idea has come up in joking about whether we’d be with somebody else at any point. And Ellen’s made it very clear that she would not like to see me with anybody else, and I know that I wouldn’t like to see her with anybody else. And so I guess from that I’ve concluded that it is a monogamous relationship.

Another couple, Emily (125a) and Gail (125b), recalled a similarly playful conversation when Emily attempted to set the ground rules. She explained:

I think I probably said something like, ‘That means you can’t be snogging any teenagers or anything like that’.

Zoe (109a) and Rebecca (109b), in contrast, had different recollections of how they reached their agreement about monogamy. While Rebecca has no previous sexual experience with women, Zoe is both older and more sexually experienced. Rebecca recounted:

The only time we sort of discussed it is, we hadn’t actually said that we were in a proper relationship or anything. We were dating each other and like I wasn’t seeing anybody else and I was hoping Zoe wasn’t and as far as I was aware she wasn’t. We were spending all the time together and, I think we were driving back from somewhere […] and I’d said, ‘what is our relationship, are we in a relationship or?’ ’cause I thought I needed to find out just to make sure ’cause I wasn’t sure how things went and we agreed then.

Zoe’s version was quite different.

It wasn’t far into the relationship and we said well, Rebecca said ‘have you been with anybody else’ and I said ‘no, I’ve never been with anybody since being with you and I think I want to keep it that way’ and I said ‘have you’ and she went ‘no’. I said ‘so it’s an exclu­sive thing then’ and she went ‘yeah’ and then that’s it. Since then I’ve never been with anybody else.

While Rebecca remembers that the conversation was about ‘being in a relationship’, Zoe remembers it as being explicitly about sexual exclu­sivity. Thus, the narratives about sexual commitments, like any other aspect of the relationship, are subject to the vagaries of memory but also scripted from the perspectives of different relating selves; in this case Rebecca presents herself as needing to clarify if they were in ‘a rela­tionship’, while Zoe presents Rebecca as clarifying the exclusive nature of the sexual commitment. Of course, Rebecca may have assumed that being in a relationship implied sexual exclusivity, and both her and Zoe’s version of the conversation may well have captured its spirit.

More men than women explicitly agreed to sexual exclusivity at the onset of the relationship, and their conversations had a more seri­ous undertone. This seriousness reflected the ways in which different approaches to sexual commitments were perceived to be more common among men than women. Those men who had assumed their relation­ship to be monogamous often seemed to have done so on the basis that if the partner had wanted an open relationship they would have made that clear. In terms of explicit negotiations, Henry (217a) describes the ‘thirty second conversation’ he and his partner had: ‘Kurt said "I’m looking for exclusive [relationship]". I said "me too"’.

Other men had more detailed conversations about what they expected from the relationship, such as Edwin (211a) and Ivan (211b). When their conversation took place, Ivan was about to leave the country and they had agreed to meet in Rome before he returned to his home country. Edwin had explained to us that he is someone who needs to ‘talk eve­rything through’. So, in an orderly manner, they had agreed on being ‘boyfriends’ and Edwin instigated a conversation the following day about the terms and conditions. He explained:

I wanted to sit down and have a chat about what exactly he imagined a boyfriend to be and about what I imagined it to be, to make sure we were on the same page.

Ivan elaborated on this in his interview.

We talked about how we saw relationships and what was important to us, and it came up with both of us that being in a monogamous rela­tionship was what we both wanted and it certainly still is for me.

Trevor (226a) and Wayne (226b) recalled a similar conversation. When asked how the sexual exclusive relationship had come about, Trevor explained:

[W]ithin a couple of weeks we’d sort of sat down and said is this going somewhere and if it is, what are the rules of engagement really […] and Wayne was like, ‘I do monogamy, it’s all or nothing, so either it’s an exclusive relationship or it is just a brief fling […] I say ‘yes’ […]. We actually did have a chat about, what does monogamy mean to you, what does it mean to me, what does it mean to us if this continues to go somewhere, so no it was a very clear conversation.

On the basis of their accounts of agreed monogamy, these relation­ships seem to epitomise the negotiation that Giddens (1992) associates with contemporary intimacy. He argues that because it cannot be sim­ply assumed that people’s approaches to sexuality and relationships will follow a given path, partners have no choice but to make explicit the nature of their commitment. Together with the five couple accounts of agreed non-monogamy that will be considered in due course, the nine couple accounts of agreed monogamy suggest that it would be mistaken to equate formalised same-sex relationships with an unthinking retreat to convention. The fact that a total of 26 out of 100 interviewees had explicitly discussed the nature of their sexual commitment (one non­monogamous couple did not have an explicit discussion as such) illus­trates that young same-sex partners do not always follow convention in an unthinking way. At the same time, the extent to which sexual exclusivity was agreed and assumed by younger same-sex partners underlines the continuing salience of the conventional links between sexual exclusivity and commitment, even if couples were aware of the alternative possibilities.

As noted, five of our couples described their relationship as non­monogamous. The point where this was first discussed and agreed between partners varied. Three couples organised their relationship in this way from the start, and in two cases non-monogamy was instigated further into their relationship. Of those who set out as non-monogamous, in two couples one of the partners was already seeing someone else. The third couple, Otto (212a) and Phil (212b), simply carried on with their estab­lished sexual practices, which included casual encounters. Phil explained:

We’ve just never really discussed it [having an open relationship]; it’s come up in conversation with other people, when I’m just having a conversation and Otto has never said to me ‘that’s not what I want, I want a monogamous relationship’.

The absence of explicit negotiation is notable in the case. Here, both partners assumed non-exclusivity, presumably on the basis of their matched relating histories. The only female couple that had an open relationship, Juliet (107a) and Veronica (107b), highlighted the impor­tance of choosing your sexual partners wisely. As Veronica puts it:

There are people who we know who are highly strung, complicated in relationships with other people where it could potentially back­fire massively and cause huge problems, lesbian drama, within the community and within the group of friends we know.

Just after Veronica and Juliet met, Veronica had a brief ‘fling’ with a visiting business partner. Veronica and Juliet both knew this was ‘nothing serious’ as the business partner lived abroad which meant that this woman ‘wasn’t taking anything away from the relationship’ as Juliet explained. A few years later, Veronica met another woman. This time around, she was more concerned, partly because they had no ground rules in place and also because this woman lived locally. Juliet was worried that Veronica would leave her. As it turned out, Juliet was not the only one who needed some kind of reassurance. Sue, the potential sexual partner, was not convinced that Juliet was happy with this arrangement so she arranged to meet Juliet to find out for herself. Veronica recalls:

I was like, ‘oh my god, oh my god, that’s such a bizarre situation’, ’cause I couldn’t do anything about it, ’cause I wasn’t there. So I knew that Juliet would be a bit freaked out by this woman just kind of going to talk to her, but I also knew that it was the only way that I could get Sue to believe me that this was actually all fine and, you know, above board. So they had what was probably a bizarre conversation.

Veronica’s account illustrates how highly contractual arrangements around non-monogamy could be. Sexual contracts were often more straightforward for men who, like Felix (213a) and Cameron (213b), tended to be involved in more casual ‘hook ups’. Two couples – Frazer (215a) and Todd (215b), and Neil (218a) and Ian (218b) – explicitly discussed non-monogamy some time after the relationship had been formed as a result of a partner having had sex outside the assumed to be monogamous relationship. Frazer, explained that for many years their relationship had remained monogamous, but one day, ‘tempta­tion’ came his way. This was still clearly upsetting for Todd and when we asked him about his arrangement with Frazer he responded: ‘To be honest, it’s a question I don’t really want to talk about’. The agreement now is that sex outside the relationship is acceptable as long as neither partner is explicitly told about it.

Although Ian (218a) and Neil’s (218b) arrangement was provoked by similar circumstances, the outcome was dramatically different. Neil had sex with a work colleague and decided to tell Ian immediately.

[Ian] was quite angry but then after half an hour he basically was quite interested to hear how it actually developed and what hap­pened and I suppose that actually opened a door shall we say to experiences outside of our relationship.

Neil (218b)

Unlike Todd and Frazer, Ian and Neil now explicitly agree that their sexual ‘needs’ differ and have agreed to inform each other whenever they have sex with someone else.

In total, seven partners (five male and two female) had sex outside of their assumed monogamous relationships, which they then disclosed to their partners. Young same-sex partners’ accounts of these events and disclosures are notably different from those reported in research on heterosexual affairs (Allan, 2004; Buunk and Djkstra, 2004). The partner who had not had sex outside the relationship tended not to use morally charged words like ‘cheating’ or being ‘unfaithful’. Instead, these events tended to be framed by the couple as a ‘mishap’. For example, Benjamin (219a) and Leroy (219b) had been together for almost 10 years when they ‘married’. They recounted that they had always been communica­tive with each other, but the stress of long-distance commuting started to take its toll on Benjamin. Their communication ‘broke down’ and Benjamin made what he termed a ‘mistake’ (i. e. he had casual sex out­side the relationship). He told us what had happened when he ‘came clean’ to his partner and revealed all the details. What upset Leroy the most was not necessarily the ‘act’ itself, but the fact that Benjamin had left it for months to tell him. Benjamin reflected:

He won’t forget that. But the relationship’s based on trust and hon­esty and one of the things he said is, ‘Do you want this to be an open relationship?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ And that was just a stupid mistake and, ‘no, I want it to be exclusive’.

A non-negotiated sexual affair, or the betrayal of trust associated with it, could be painful and confusing for the ‘betrayed’ partner, but it could also open up the opportunity for renegotiation of the nature of sexual commitment. Interestingly, few partners took up this opportunity. In a similar way to Benjamin, Victor (216b) had what his partner described as an ‘accident’, a term that refuses the position of being the ‘victim’ of an affair (see Allan, 2004). Despite his partner’s understanding response, Victor himself could not put the issue aside. He recounted worrying constantly that he might make a habit out of it, or worse, that he would become like his father who was consistently ‘unfaithful’ to his mother:

It’s not something that we really talk about – it’s not something that I am comfortable talking about […] it’s something that I think was a shocking betrayal and, I tortured myself for it and I’m probably – only about now that – I’m comfortable I’ve not caused long-term damage but a part of the problem I had was I it made me think ‘what have I done here.’

What is interesting here is the effect that the ‘betrayal’ has for the ‘perpetrator’ and that it is Victor’s own sense of ontological security that seems threatened. The incident clearly cast a shadow over the rela­tionship to the extent that it troubled Victor’s perception of his own ‘relating self’. In light of the insecurity that this prompted for Victor, it is perhaps not so surprising that he did not seize the opportunity to dis­cuss or renegotiate the nature of the commitment anew. Both partners viewed Victor’s non-negotiated sex outside the relationship as a test of the couple commitment, and it was this commitment that ‘inevitably’ won out. Thus, the commitment was not simply given, but ‘won’.

As the personal stories considered in this section illustrate, the assumed or agreed ground rules that governed sex or relationships with others could change over time, as could the meaning attached to sexual monog­amy. Time was also an important element of other stories about sex within the couple and the meanings attached to it.

Sex and time

The meaning of sex and its significance for the couple were embedded within the routines and practices of day-to-day life, and need to be understood within the context of couples’ changing priorities as the relationship developed. As noted earlier, many couples thought it was natural for sex to decline in terms of frequency, if not in terms of its significance, over the life of the relationship. Many couples recounted how, after the initial ‘honeymoon phase’ of a relationship (which could last from months to years), sex became less important as a desire, as an expression of commitment and as a route to intimacy. How women and men explained this tended to differ. Women more often than men emphasised lack of time and energy, while men more often than women referred to declining sex ‘drives’.

Motherhood had notable implications for our female partners’ sexual lives. Most mothers, like Maria (104b), saw this as inevitable and self­evident. Maria responded with laughter when asked about the importance of sex to her, and answered ‘I have an eight-year old’. The aftermath of pregnancy and childbirth were often linked to a changed body and a dif­ferent relationship to it. Kathryn (105 a) reflected on how childbirth had made it difficult for her and her partner to engage in sex for some time:

I had to have stitches and I got a wound infection and it all felt a bit odd down there anyway and it all feels a bit vulnerable there so that hasn’t particularly encouraged sort of sexual activity really.

Kathryn also struggled with how she saw her body as ‘different’, espe­cially with the extra weight she gained during pregnancy. These were important issues for most women who had given birth. Olivia (113b), for example, recounted never coming to terms with her changed body after childbirth despite her partner’s ongoing compliments. While childbirth was drawn on to explain limited sex or no sex in a relation­ship, parenting itself left little time for adult relationships. Partners in non-parenting relationships could also struggle to find the time for sex. As Josha (101b) puts it:

We don’t really have sex very often. I think that’s mostly because Amina is always so tired. I do feel guilty sometimes when I’m angry with her because I feel she’s not making the effort. But I know it’s because she’s tired and, erm and been at work all day whereas I haven’t […] Not because she doesn’t want to, or whatever.

As in Josha’s case, it was not uncommon for partners to link their dif­ferent ‘levels’ of interest in sex to the different lives they lived. Despite this understanding, a declining interest in sex could promote a sense of anxiety, which was often most acutely felt by the partner who was less interested in sex. Hanna (108a) and Tammy’s (108b) story highlights this. In their case, Tammy is more often tired and less often ‘in the mood’ but is the one who needs constant reassurance that this will not destabilise the relationship. She and Hanna have recurring discussions about the situation. To complicate matters further, Hanna is not wholly convinced that Tammy misses sex all that much, but feels she should miss it.

I think partly she does miss it, but I think ’cause she reads in all these magazines about if you don’t have sex then your relationship is doomed and, it’s just crap.

Hanna

Sex was never an important part of Mandy (126a) and Olga’s (126b) relationship. In fact, Olga recounted rarely having experienced sex without ‘a hidden agenda’. She explained:

You’re either doing it to prove that you can, or you’re doing it to say sorry for something, or you’re doing it to try and make the person stay with you, even though you don’t want to.

With such an outlook, it’s perhaps not surprising that Olga and Mandy hardly ever have sex. To Olga, intimacy is more important. She continued:

Physical intimacies and making sure that you always say goodnight to each other, that you always kiss each other before you go to work and, you know, you pay attention to that. You don’t do that kind of fifties wife left at home, husband going off to work peck on the cheek, ‘see you at six o’clock, dear’.

Men tended to explain limited sex differently. Like the women dis­cussed above, Robert (202b) recounted that his sex life often suffered because he and his partner were tired. However, the men’s discussions were more usually framed in terms of their sex ‘drives’. Overall, 18 out of the 25 male couples mentioned sex drive as factor that influenced partners’ different emphasis on sex in the relationship. Victor (216b) gave a common explanation:

I accept people for who they are and human nature. I accept that I, I have a very strong sex drive, I think stronger than Peter does.

Umberto similarly recounted that he and his partner Garry (227a) had different sex drives. Umberto struggled to strike the right balance between pursuing sex and ‘pestering’ Garry as he phrased it, which often resulted in him questioning whether he had done something wrong. Other male couples also recounted different levels of sex ‘drive’, but did not rate sex as the most centrally significant aspect of the rela­tionship. Edwin (211a) said:

I’m usually up for it all the time whereas I don’t know if he is, but I also don’t think it’s the pinnacle, be all and end all of a relationship. I think it’s just one aspect of a relationship.

While it appeared relatively easy for a male partner to claim that they had a stronger sex drive or to suggest that their partner had a weaker one, to be the one with the ‘weaker’ sex drive or the one who had lost his libido was a different story. Instead of embracing the identity of the one who wanted less sex, Ivan (211b), for instance, explained his lim­ited sexual desire in biologistic terms by noting that he had never had a ‘particularly high sex drive’. Oliver (210a) saw his diminished sex drive as a more complex biological, medical and emotional matter. He had been on medication for a long time which, he recounted, had affected his libido. This was combined with his unease about openly acknowl­edging the significance sex has for him:

I do enjoy sex with Ben and I do like it because it’s not just sex; there is a love to it as well and it’s very tender and passionate. But part of me finds it very hard to acknowledge that openly and with ease, […] and that was coupled with my [condition which] cut my sex drive to zero. My testosterone levels went down to nothing.

In addition, Oliver suggested that his depleted sex drive might be related to how long he and his partner had been together, just over five years. Being the one with the higher sex drive could also have its prob­lems, not least because it carries an additional pressure of never having the option to say no to sex. Jeremy (206a), who claimed to have a higher sex drive than his partner Stewart (206b), described this dilemma well.

I feel sometimes that when he wants to have sex and I perhaps don’t, that I do because I know that that’s less frequent than when I would like to have sex with him.

This is complicated by Jeremy’s need to be reassured that Stewart wants to sleep with him but ‘not anyone else’. From Stewart’s perspec­tive, sex is ‘not everything’ or a reason to end the relationship, but at one stage he felt he was not giving Jeremy what he wanted in a rela­tionship. So he suggested that they should involve someone else in their sexual relationship. Yet it became quite clear that neither felt they would be able to cope with the emotional fall-out of this in practice.

Sexual insecurities

Some theorists have linked the anxieties that sex can generate to tech­nologies of governance in late modern societies. For example, Gail Hawkes argues that contemporary discourse on sexuality consistently presents one’s sex life as in need of constant attention. To be ‘good’ at sex is presented as the individual’s responsibility. Hawkes (1999) argues that the encouragement to see oneself as a primarily sexual being involves the production of anxieties about how good the individual is at sex. This incites people to become sexual consumers as a means of dealing with these anxieties (1999: 51). In our study, when sex was identified as a source of anxiety it was often linked to a partner’s belief that they had ‘a problem’ with sex (wanting too much or too little). The tendency was for this partner to struggle with a sense of blame for intro­ducing an element of insecurity into the relationship, whereas the other partner’s usual response was to say that sex was not the most central aspect of a relationship and to emphasise the value of companionship instead. Linda (117a) and Natalie (117b) are an example of this. We first interviewed Linda, who seemed to downplay the importance of sex:

I’d say it was quite important, I guess in the sense that a lot of those things that we’ve talked about like, it’s been the sort of the compan­ion side of it as well. Obviously there’s, you know, that side of it, the fact that we get on so well and we love being together and that we love each other is all, you know, is more important.

But when we interviewed her partner, Natalie, the picture looked very different. She initially struggled to discuss the sexual aspect of her relationship with Linda. The interviewer asked how important sex is to her, at which point, ‘the problem’ started to unfold:

Natalie: Yeah, this is going to be difficult, not necessarily to

talk about […]. But a difficult subject for me I think.

Interviewer: Is it?

Natalie: It used to be absolutely vital and it isn’t so much now,

I’ve kind of lost my, I’ve lost my way with it a bit really, so, I want it to be very important ’cause I know that it is important in a relationship but I just am not, I don’t really have a great sex drive anymore but I used to and I used to be terrible, meaning that I used to, used to be, just have a very high sex drive and my relationships were, a lot of them were based on sex. Maybe that’s why.

At this point, the interviewer asked if this was that something that Natalie had experienced within the context of this relationship or before it. She replied:

It’s kind of happened in this relationship as well but that’s, it’s me, it’s to do with me. It’s not, this is, it’s not Linda, it’s happened before for different reasons, it’s happened before in a previous relationship because I just did not want to. I didn’t feel attracted to the person anymore. And, also wasn’t great, was on medication etcetera, and just, it wasn’t happening and I just – I don’t know I’ve just got issues with it […] I just seem to just lose, I just seem to lose my sex drive really. And then it’ll come back. But it’s, it’s a bit of a problem really, I’m not happy about it.

While this quotation is full of meaning, we use it here to illustrate the ways in which the ‘loss’ of sexual desire can be experienced as deeply troubling for a partner, but also the way it is seen to potentially destabilise the relationship itself. It seems that Natalie is less concerned about the meaning that her partner may attribute to Natalie’s loss of sex ‘drive’, but more the unclear meaning of this for Natalie herself. She ‘knows’ that sex is important in a relationship and in light of her love and commitment to her partner cannot understand her own ‘lack’ of sexual desire. Underneath narratives like Natalie’s, there seemed to us to be an anxiety that such ‘lack’ might signify desires that were beyond partners’ articulation: to no longer have sex with their current partners. Henry (217a) and Kurt (217b) told a story that was similar to Natalie’s and Linda’s. Although Henry downplays the importance of sex and says he loves being with Kurt and how safe this makes him feel, Kurt’s ver­sion of their story is very different. Like Natalie, Kurt seems uninterested in sex, and this is not new. In fact, his interest in sex has also declined in all of his previous relationships. He said:

I’ve never been [sexually active], I don’t know why. So, I think the word is […] active, it’s sort of been [laughing], I don’t know what the word would be that I had to describe it, it’s not that I don’t care if nothing happens, that’s not true, I just don’t […] I mean the amount of drugs I’m on suppress a lot of things and I do know that because I’ve been off them before and it does change the way I am but I sort of quite happily go to bed and just sleep and wake up in the morning and do the next day as it comes and then go back to bed and sleep [.] it does worry me and upset me a little bit because I know Henry’s different to that and I wish sometimes it wasn’t the way it is.

Kurt genuinely believes that Henry does not reveal his frustrations with their sexual life, but on Henry’s birthday he (Henry) joked about getting himself ‘a prostitute’, which alarmed Kurt. He is convinced that the sexual aspect of the relationship is not enough for Henry. They have never actually discussed this and all Kurt wants is for the problem to be ‘fixed’. He commented:

Kurt: I just hope deep down inside there’s enough between Henry

and myself to keep us together.

Interviewer: Don’t you think that Henry would understand?

Kurt: Yeah but it doesn’t stop his it wouldn’t stop his frustra­

tions or his needs or stuff as well.

What is interesting about Kurt’s response to Henry’s ‘joke’, is how similar it is to other partners’ responses (like Benjamin’s quoted earlier) when sex outside the monogamous relationship had led to an oppor­tunity to renegotiate the nature of the couple’s sexual commitment: a heightened sense of anxiety, the desire not to discuss the issue further and an active refusal to engage with the non-monogamous option. Also among those who had internalised their ‘weaker’ levels of sexual desire as a personal problem (like Natalie quoted earlier), non-monogamy was rarely seen as a possible solution. Rather, the tendency was to live with the anxiety it generated and rarely to discuss it. In this sense, and in assuming non-monogamy from the outset, the partners mostly (but by no means always) refused the opportunity to negotiate a sexually open relationship. In doing so, they refused to be at what some see as the ‘vanguard’ of relational innovation and experimentation.