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Same-sex marriage advocates frequently ask, "How would gay marriage affect your marriage?" The question is posed rhetorically, as if marriage is a private institution with no social consequences.

But The New York Times, of all papers, argues that gay unions could significantly alter marriage norms. A new study of gay couples in San Francisco shows that half are "open," meaning that partners consent to each other having sex with other people. The Times says that the prevalence of such relationships could "rewrite the traditional rules of matrimony" by showing straight couples that monogamy need not be a "central feature" of marriage and that sexually open relationships might "point the way for the survival of the institution."

In the gay community, open relationships are neither news nor controversial. Many of my partnered, gay male friends are in open relationships, some of which have lasted for decades. But the Times reporter, Scott James, who is himself gay, notes that nobody in an open relationship agreed to give their full name for the story, worrying that "discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage."

Indeed, some gay activists were upset with the Times. Gay political commentator Andrew Sullivan derided the piece and pointed to several critiques of the study. However, Sullivan himself has made the same argument, saying that gay male unions could "help strengthen and inform" traditional marriages.

"Among gay male relationships, the openness of the contract makes it more likely to survive than many heterosexual bonds …. There is more likely to be a greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman," he wrote in his book Virtually ...

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Same Sex, Different Marriage
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May 2010

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