Who Needs Monogamy When There's the Internet?

Talking with Tristan Taormino about sleeping around online without breaking hearts

Is it cheating to have sex with someone online if you're dating someone else in real life?  What if your flesh-and-blood partner agrees to the internet version of an open relationship?

 Well, should you decide that sleeping around via the World Wide Web is a-ok, you certainly wouldn't be the only ones "opening things up." Voice sex columnist Tristan Taormino just wrote a whole book on the subject of nonmonogamy―that's pretty much anything that falls outside of the "sleep with one person at a time for the rest of your life" model―and she says go for it.

"It's no secret that traditional monogamous marriage in America is in serious trouble," writes Taormino in Opening Up: a Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships , which came out in June from Cleis Press. Divorce rates have skyrocketed, couples therapy has become a booming business, and according to her "lots of people seem pretty unhappy." Blame monogamy, which she says "sets most people up to fail." While it may work for some, a lot of us have desires that fall outside the Prince (or Princess) Charming model. That's where nonmonogamy enters.

Taormino says that millions of American "revolutionaries" are already venturing outside the stuffy walls of relationship exclusivity―and this book is for them. Practical and vast, Opening Up is a do-it-yourself guide, an emergency-repair manual, and a flat-out bible for open relationships. Still, there's one possibility Taormino didn't write about: nonmongamous sex exclusively on the internet. We recently called up the open relationship expert herself and asked how she thinks her advice would apply to readers who are considering opening up to cybersex.

"Some of the things I cover in my book definitely apply to cybersex," she says, speaking to us while on the road for her book tour. "People shouldn't assume because it's cybersex that they don't need rules. That's a mistake because I think we can get emotionally involved with the people that we meet online. We see it happen all the time. While the physical consequences of having cybersex―it's super safe!―are great, I do think there are emotional boundaries you need to consider and there can be potential pitfalls." 

Along with Taormino's help, five guidelines to avoiding those pitfalls when opening up your relationship to cybersex.

1. Test the waters with a cybersex discussion

"Misconceptions about monogamy are everywhere in our society, making them hard to escape and easy to internalize," writes Taormino in Opening Up's introduction, and the same is certainly true of cybersex. Instead of confronting your skeptical partner with the "cybersex isn't just for pervs" monologue, she recommends testing the waters first if you're interesting in sex online. "Directness is always good but sometimes that's not the way that people interact. Try saying, 'I read a poll that said cybersex is cheating. What do you think about that?' Open the discussion… People have very different ideas on the subject. Some people think, 'It's just the computer. Do what you want.' Whereas people who've had interactions online knows it can turn into something really serious."

2. Agree on the details beforehand

Taormino stresses communication above all in successful non-monogamous relationships.  That means listening to and negotiating with your partner. "If your he/she comes to you and says, 'I want to hook up with some people online,' don't dismiss it…. Plus, even though you're not having sex with someone in real time, it's totally valid for people to bring up specific sexual activities and say, 'Are these ok to have with someone online?' For example, you may do S/M with your partner and you're the top and you don't want anyone else to top her, even if it's someone online. At the very least, people need to have a conversation and come to some agreement. You need to talk about how far it can go. Can you meet this person in real time? It's good to address that at the beginning."

3. Set limits on how long you spend online

"The amount of time you spend is a really important issue," says Taormino, "because again, you have to treat it as another relationship, and that's going to take away time with your real-time partner. So it's important to set limits about how long someone can be online or how many chat sessions a week or what the level of contact should be.  Because it is contact, even if it's not face-to-face contact. Between texting, chatting, email, webcam, you could spend seven hours a day hooking up with someone."

4. Weigh the pros and cons of couples' cybersex

One way nonmonogamous partners avoid jealousy is by having their extramarital adventures together. Taormino warns though that, when it comes to sex online, the success of that approach depends on your partner. "One thing cybersex affords us that real sex doesn't is we can be whoever we want to be. If you want to you can take a radical leap in identity, like you're a 55 year-old woman from the Midwest and you want to be a 19 year-old gay male hustler. That might be impossible to explore while sitting alongside your current partner…. You're not going to be able to get down into it if someone who knows you're not that is present… But some real-time partners have amazing imaginations and are very adventurous."

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