The young partners we interviewed invested sex with diverse meanings: it was important as a source of pleasure, linked to the ‘connection of souls and bodies’, an expression of love, and an aspect of intimacy and closeness. In some cases the quantity and/or quality of sex was seen as a measure of how the relationship was progressing. At the same time, sex could be a source of anxiety and worry. It was sometimes the focus of arguments, tensions and intense discussion, and could be linked to a sense of self and relational vulnerability. For a few men, sex and love were separate entities and this could facilitate a sexually non-monoga­mous relationship. For the majority of our interviewees, both male and female, sex was relatively important to the relationship, but it was never the most important aspect. Most partners believed their relationship could survive without sex as it was not an essential aspect of intimacy and closeness. The significance and importance of sex changed as the relationship progressed. While sex could be (but was not always) key to the formation of the relationship, many thought it was natural for sex to become less important over time. As Duncan (214b) puts it:

I think in any marriage or any partnership there is an old saying ‘save a penny in the jar for the first year’ […] I think as you do grow older a little bit, sex is fine and sex is good, but sometimes you just want a pair of slippers and watch the television. So on that side, it is a case of ‘yes sex is good’ but it just depends on the mood.

Prior to meeting their current partners, our interviewees had diverse experiences of sexual relationships. Forty-one women and 43 men had had previous same-sex experience before entering into their current relation­ship. Fifteen women had had sexual relations with men in the past, and seven men had had sexual relations with women. Participants tended to describe their previous approaches to sexual relationships as ‘mostly serial monogamy’, ‘mostly casual’ or ‘promiscuous’. In reality, the boundaries between these categories were blurred. As Robert (202b) puts it:

I’d like to say that I was a serial monogamist but then that would imply that I was being monogamous at those times [laughs] but I sup­pose in the pattern probably did follow [serial relationships].

As Robert indicates, sex in practice did not always match up neatly with the terms used to describe approaches to sexual relationships. Similarly, sexual ideals and desires could not simply be read off sexual practice. Fredrick (209a) recounts:

I – had meant to try playing the field because I’d never tried playing the field, never had a one-night stand, any of things you’re meant to do as a gay man, and I ended up just being a serial monogamist.

While Fredrick puts his approach to sexual relationships down to chance, others, like Maria (104b) who also described her approach to sex as serial monogamy, clarified the two different phases of serial monogamy she had had. In the first phase the emphasis was on sex, and in the second phase the emphasis was on friendship before sex. She recounts:

when I met Doris I was in a totally different phase of my life, I was no longer interested in being young and out on the scene it just didn’t interest me at all and I had, before I met her, made a decision that [if] I did date again I was going to be friends with the person first in terms of have a good relationship because […] previous to the that […] I was on the scene so I was the only black lesbian around which meant lots and lots of attention but it was just vacuous.

Men were more likely than women to have had a history of casual sex, and as the earlier quotation from Fredrick suggests they tended to see casual sex as a fairly ordinary aspect of single life for gay men. Very few men viewed casual sex negatively, although several recounted that it was not something they had been interested in. While it was the case that several women had enjoyed casual sex in the past, women on the whole were more likely to express a range of views about casual sex. Tammy (108b), for example, was at pains to clarify that, while she had had sexual experiences before her current relationship, she had not had casual sex, implying that that would have undermined her moral character:

I had one other relationship before like we met, which had ended about three months before I met Hanna, I think that lasted on and off for about a year, I hadn’t had like any casual sex or anything.

While Hanna (108a), Tammy’s partner, had experienced (and presum­ably enjoyed) casual sex in the past, the way in which she contextualised this in terms of her previous ‘immaturity’ suggested a degree of shame:

I’m not proud of it but I used to have like quite a few one-night stands and that and I had like a few relationships and I was quite I would say more immature.

While a few women and more men used ‘promiscuous’ to describe or clarify their approaches to sex before their current relationship, women were more likely than men to use the term in a pejorative way. Fay (113a), for example, clarified that her previous casual relationships should not be read as indicative of her promiscuity:

Not by any stage promiscuous […] but yeah probably in four years of studying, five or six different people, [a] couple may have been for a couple of months, others may have been casual really.

Graham (204b) gave more of a detailed description of his own ‘pro­miscuity’, while at the same time challenging the moral implications of the term:

I suppose most people would say quite promiscuous really, but that’s a very subjective thing, certainly my mother would describe my life before I met Andrew as quite promiscuous but then I’d never discuss anything like that with my mum anyway, but to other gay friends you know I just lived the life of a single gay man and I probably had casual encounters or different sexual partners, at least one different partner every couple of weeks […]. And sometimes I’d see people more than once. I had a small number of what you would call fuck buddies […] I viewed it as safer, to have regular sex with a small number of guys rather than you know meeting a stranger every single time.

Irrespective of individuals’ sexual histories, the overwhelming major­ity (45 couples) described their current relationship as sexually monoga­mous or exclusive. The remaining five (one female and four male couples) defined their relationships as non-monogamous or open. Since the 1970s, studies have reported the prominence of non-monogamous practices among gay men, and some have implied that sexual exclu­sivity may be an exception rather a rule (Blasband and Peplau, 1985; Blumstein and Schwartz, 1983; McWhirter and Mattison, 1984; Peplau and Cochran, 1981; Peplau and Gordon, 1983; Sahir and Robins, 1973). More recent studies have focused on how non-monogamous relation­ships operate (see for instance Heaphy et al., 2004; Klesse, 2006, 2007, Yip, 1997). Attention is less often given to monogamous same-sex relationships, the assumption being that the meaning and significance of monogamy for the couple is obvious. One of the ‘obvious’ political meanings afforded monogamy in the literature on queer relationships is that it is linked to heteronomative ideologies. This understanding of monogamy has underpinned some criticisms of political campaigns for same-sex marriage. In an overview of such criticisms, Hull (2006: 79-84) notes that some critics have argued that such campaigns risk ‘reinforc­ing the romantic/sexual couple’ as the single model for intimate life (Waters, 2001), while others suggest that they betray the promise of gay liberation and radical feminism by glorying ‘the monogamous dyad’ (Card, 1996; Polikoff, 1993). Others still have argued that same-sex mar­riage makes gay sexuality ‘less threatening to the straight world’ (Hull, 2006: 83; Warner, 2000). While Bersani (2010) recognises the legitimacy of homosexual couples’ demands for legal rights and benefits that are similar to those enjoyed by heterosexual married couples, he comments that what is surprising in the current ‘conjugal fervor’ is how:

[A] community that has been at times notorious in its embrace of sexual promiscuity has […] made an unprecedented attempt to persuade what is curiously called the general population of the gay commitment to the ideal of the monogamous couple.

Bersani (2010: 85)

For many critics, the risk inherent in claiming the ‘right’ to marriage or marriage-like legal arrangements is that it endorses the monogamous couple as the only legitimate focus of sexuality and redraws – as opposed to fundamentally challenges – sexual hierarchies. In this respect, marriage (be it heterosexual or same-sex) potentially tames queer sexualities, and more radical approaches to sex and relationships (e. g. non-monogamy and polyamory) could be further marginalised and the relational imagi­nary further restricted. Thus, same-sex marriage risks neutralising the potential that same-sex relationships have previously been thought to have for challenging the norms, values and power associated with disci­plined sexualities. The belief in such potential was linked to theoretical possibilities that living outside of heterosexual norms offered for more easily separating love and sex, seeing sex as a source of mutual pleasure and for negotiating the interpersonal significance of sex. This was sup­ported by empirical work, such as that referenced above, that suggested that same-sex partners (and especially gay male partners) often success­fully negotiated non-monogamy and in some cases polyamory.

In terms of the meanings our young partners attributed to monog­amy, in describing their relationship as monogamous they mostly but did not always mean that they only engaged in sex with their couple partner. Some couples did engage in threesomes and still regarded their relationship as monogamous (see also Heaphy et al., 2004). The majority of our partners had assumed their relationship would be monogamous by the time they committed to each other, although nine couples had explicitly discussed or negotiated this. As most partners had never had an explicit conversation about sexual exclusivity, many seemed surprised when we asked them about how the monogamous commitment had come about. Our question seemed to catch them off guard, and at times they were unsure if they understood our question correctly. The following exchange illustrates this:

Interviewer:

Is this a monogamous relationship?

Annabel (124a): Yeah absolutely.

Interviewer:

Yeah, how did that come about?

Annabel:

What being monogamous?

Interviewer:

Yes.

Annabel:

Er [long pause] I don’t know. Monogamous is just the two of us isn’t it?

Interviewer:

Yes.

Annabel:

Yes sorry [laughing]. ‘Cause I’m thinking about that I’m just; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Interviewer:

Hmm.

Annabel:

I just don’t think, especially in a marriage, I don’t think there’s any other any other way for it. There’s no room for anybody else.

Where there was confusion, as in Annabel’s case, the question about how monogamy came about troubled the assumed to be ‘self-evident’

links between

being a committed couple and sexual exclusivity.

Annabel’s partner Kenzie (124b) seemed equally bewildered:

Interviewer:

Would you describe your relationship as monogamous?

Kenzie:

Oh yeah definitely.

Interviewer:

Hmm. How did that come about?

Kenzie:

How did that come about?

Interviewer:

Yeah.

Kenzie:

We’re using the right words aren’t we?

Interviewer:

Yes.

Kenzie:

I think that’s just a given. It’s always been a given since the very start yeah.

In Kenzie’s case, the assumption about the sexually exclusive nature of her relationship dated back to her and Annabel’s ‘first kiss’. Our young partners’ assumptions about sexual monogamy contrast sharply to Weeks et al.’s (2001) and Heaphy et al.’s (2004) findings about previous generations’ same-sex relationships, where monogamy tended not to be assumed and was almost always explicitly discussed at some point or other. Such assumptions are more in keeping with findings about heterosexual relationships where sex outside the relationship is cast as cheating (Allan, 2004). In our own study, assumptions about sexual exclusivity tended to be linked to particular milestones in becoming a couple: when the partners first slept together, when partners started ‘going steady’, when love was first mentioned, when one or both part­ners expressed a desire to commit or the couple had moved in together. Among women and men who had a history of serial monogamy, part­ners saw sexual exclusivity as carrying on as they ‘had always done’. Two men linked this to their upbringing, which they said resulted in a ‘straight view’ of the world. Generally, partners believed that there was little reason to discuss sexual exclusivity with their partner because they were not interested in anyone else. They assumed that this was the case for their partners as well.