Dan Savage on the Virtues of Infidelity

man in between two girls holding hands at his back

Sex-Advice columnist Dan Savage, best known for his It Gets Better project, has spent 20 years telling us that monogamy is harder than we admit and promoting a sexual ethic that he thinks honors the reality — rather than the romantic ideal — of marriage. In Savage Love, his weekly column, he argues against the American obsession with strict fidelity to one partner. In its place he proposes something the article calls American Gay Male, after the gay community’s tolerance for pornography, fetishes and a variety of partnered arrangements, from strict monogamy to wide openness.

Savage believes that it is a mistake to treat monogamy (rather than honesty or joy or humor) as the main indicator of a successful marriage.

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage says, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar ­ian and fairsey. And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

Personally, I think Savage is right, but that most people rule with their heart instead of their head. There’s a huge difference between my wife telling me that she got drunk and hooked up on a business trip to Portugal than her telling me she’s in love with another man and leaving me. Honoring the greater entity known as the relationship is more important, more honest, and more realistic than 100% fidelity.

I’m not advocating for cheating, but a rethinking of what’s “effective”, given human desires, the value of a stable relationship, and the length of a lifetime commitment.

Explore the article here and share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  1. 1

    Interesting article.

    We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

    I agree with this statement. I think to marry and ignore the realism that one or both partners will continue to have desires for other people, at some point, is dangerous. Even if they don’t want to act on it, the desires are there. I think the more we require our partners to say, “No, honey, I can’t even imagine having sex with someone else.” The more invite the lie, the secrets of their private mind, and the dark fantasy for those desires.

    Being open about our desires, fantasies, kinks does strengthen a marriage. Often talking openly about  these things  brings the couple closer and strenthens their bond especially if they can bring those things into the marriage. And being allowed to voice them can  make the desire to actually act outside of the marriage less necessary.
    “If you are expected to be monogamous and have one person be all things sexually for you, then you have to be whores for each other,” Savage says. “You have to be up for anything.”

    Agreed. People in long term relationships should be having the best sex of their lives because they know their partner so  intimatly and well. They should KNOW all thier partner’s little dirty desires and be fulfilling them. While I don’t think someone should do a sexual act they find abhorrent or causes them pain that they’re not into, or emotional turmoil, I do think they should be doing everything else their partner wants whether it cranks their chain or not.

    It’s probably not a popular opinion but I also think partners should be available sexually to each other whenever the other wants them whether they are in the mood or not.   And do so enthusiastically because you love your partner and your relationship and want to foster a strong, connected one. Of course, not if there is sickness or some emotional distress.

    Ultimately, if a person KNOWS they cannot be happy in a monogamous relationship, they shouldn’t get into one. There are poly goups, swinger groups and just about everything other group in every state. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a like minded partner if it’s that important. Cheating behind your partner’s back when they trust and believe they have fidelity is unacceptable at all times.

  2. 2

    I have reread this article, and maybe I’m missing something here. However the messages from Evan in previuos articles have been (as I understand) that when choosing a boyfriend there are certain behaviors when we should walk away, and that infidelity was one reason not to stick around. Now I can be wrong, and maybe you didn’t say this, but that’s the assumption I was making. A once a week texting boyfriend is not a keeper, but one that has sex with others is ok? Yeah we all have urges, and I’m into talking about fantasies, but now we should relook at not expecting monogamy because males aren’t built that way? I’m uncomfortable with this. Yes I have heard jokes like monogamy was introduced to marriage at a time when people only lived to twenty, but really you would be ok with your wife having sex in Greece, than being emotionally bonded with another and leaving you? I guess I’m not cool, and wouldn’t be if my boyfriend cheats. Evan, I have always respected your opinions, this one I’m just not sure. Please explain.
    Thanks (fyi I told my bf I’m heading to Greece lol).

    1. 2.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be uncomfortable with this, Judy. Dan Savage simply makes the point that it may be more realistic and effective to not let the occasional sexual infidelity ruin the entire relationship. I have never been unfaithful, but I am inclined to agree with him in principle. Would I give up everything I’ve built with my wife and family because she committed an indiscretion and told me about it? I sure hope not. Savage suggests taking that principle to the next level, like gay men do – realizing that men aren’t wired for monogamy and instead of neutering them and putting them in a cage, understanding this and building a meaningful, lifetime relationship in spite of this. If you can’t do that, that’s your prerogative. But a big reason that there’s so much marital dissatisfaction is because men are being asked to do something that doesn’t come naturally. And if he lacks integrity or is too selfish or doesn’t see his relationship as a larger entity worth nourishing, that marriage will end in some form of infidelity or falling out of love. If you can’t understand the nuanced difference between what I just said and your interpretation “Evan says I should put up with a man who cheats on me and refuses to commit to me after six months”, I’m not going to explain any further. Reasonable people can disagree, but please interpret Savage’s point clearly. The real question isn’t whether this makes logical sense – it does – but whether it works as well in practice, given most people’s level of insecurity, mistrust and jealousy around this topic. With people who can handle it, it sounds like an elegant solution. With people who can’t, obviously, it’s not going to work.

      1. 2.1.1

        Evan, I read Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance book where he discusses Dan Savage’s view further and I definitely see a point and can understand the perspective that in evolutionary terms: people (Men more than women) were not made to be monogamous and committed to one person for the rest of their life….BUT, from an evolutionary perspective – when surroundings (society, our environment, etc…) changes, then those adaptable characteristics will change as well. Back in the day, there was a NEED for men to spread their seed to populate the world. We have overpopulation right now, the need to “spread your seed”, “sow your wild oats” is no longer needed. We are living in the kind of world where partnering up with 1 partner to survive (combining finances) will create a better life (i say that loosely to imply being able to buy a house, put your kids through school, travel, buy more food) all because you have 2 incomes. You also have a partner in crime for every day life stresses which back in the day were not as prevalent as they are now or not as readily talked about (stress of holding down a job, bad commute, etc..). In evolution, when your environment changes (drought for example) a species can evolve to have a characteristic that will help them in that situation or can GET RID OF a feature (long beak in birds, lots of fur of animal, etc..) that is longer needed….We do not need to increase our population and our world that we live in is the kind where people have a lot of emotions and  readily talk about them,    and strive for a “soulmate” and intimacy, and can benefit of a long term partner in crime…So, thought I definitely understand Savage’s perspective, I do not buy the argument that people NOWADAYS are not meant for  monogamy for life. Totally open to a counter argument for this.

        As background: I got married a few months ago (met my husband online) after reading your Why He Disappeared book and taking away some valuable life/dating lessons. My husband and I were having a discussion about this topic last night.

  3. 3

    I agree with Judy – I think an indiscretion is not something that should be condoned because gay men are doing it – what about HIV and other diseases? The reason I would enter into a monogamous marriage is because I want unbelievable safe sex with a partner who wants to put as much effort into as me. I would hope that it is so good that neither of us wants to stray. I can see – don’t blow up the whole relationship if it happens and the relationship is otherwise good – but it would take a lot more effort to fix it and get back to where you were. I cannot see – that is okay because gay men said so. Sorry

  4. 4

    I know of people who have mutually agreed to have sex with others while in a committed relationship. These types of individuals are able to separate sex from the emotional attachment that (men morseso than women) usually develops afterwards. I am not able to do this. I have to have an emotional connection with a man before I can have sex with him. As a result, my primary relationship would be in danger if I engaged in a sexual relationship with someone else.

  5. 5

    I am open to considering this as very real for some men. But I would just as soon be single  and have various lovers of my own than a serious relationship with a mate who cheats. What’s the point? Who knows what diseases they might being home? A female player is at least in control of how much protection she uses in her liasons.

  6. 6

    Thanks Evan for the response, and clarifying this point of view.    My interpretation may have come across as black and white(putting up with cheating,noncommital men). That is not what I meant, it just seemed to differ from what I thought you were originally saying what non negotionable behaviors were. This “new” way may aid the male species biological make up, but for the female species it would be very difficult to manouvere. No I would not end a healthy relationship due to a mistake made by a partner, however studies have shown that after extra marital affairs have been discovered, even with counselling a good percentage(not sure of accurate percentage) do not stay together. This may be due to the woman’s biological make up? But also taking note, women are now more involved in extra marital affairs so there goes the biological make up theory of mine :))I also agree with AQ’s concern of disease etc. Thanks Evan for the clarification, on paper your interpretation makes sense. I’m just wondering in actuality how many couples would agree with this. That’s what makes this blog go round, everyones opinion is respected. Keep the articles coming!!

  7. 7

    This is the part of the article that really spoke to me:

    Judith Stacey, a New York University sociologist who researched gay men’s romantic arrangements for her book “Unhitched,” argues that gay men, in general, will continue to require less monogamy. “They are men,” she said, and she believes it is easier for them – right down to the physiology of orgasm – to separate physical and emotional intimacy. Lesbians and straight women tend to be far less comfortable with nonmonogamy than gay men. But what matters is that neither monogamy nor polygamy is humankind’s sole natural state. “One size never fits all, and it isn’t just dividing between men and women and gay and straight,” she said. “Monoga ­my is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”

  8. 8

    I think there is a lot of hysteria around monogamy – we are so conditioned by society to see sexual infidelity as a tragedy that when it happens, we automatically kick into tragic mode. This is all unnecessary and unhelpful. That said, I think that the ASPIRATION to be monogamous is extremely important for most couples starting out together: it is what enables us to bond. It is absurd to imagine our beloved whispering words of love and  desire in our ear one night, knowing that each of us has carte blanche to whisper the same things to someone else the next night!
    When we commit to being someone’s partner, we aspire to a lot of things – to be loving, supportive, generous, a good listener, do our share of the housework, to inspire them to meet their goals and to share their dreams. In all of these things, at some point, we inevitably fail, or at least fall short of what we hoped we would do. Our partners are not perfecr either. DOes this mean we should not aspire to these things? NO – but it does mean that we need to accept that we and our partners are not going to be perfect every minute of every day throughout our married life. As I see it, monogamy is just the same. We may aspire to it, but that doesn’t mean we will achieve it… and when we don’t, we should treat the disappointment the same was we do when our partners fail us in other respects. I suppose what I’m saying is there shouldn’t be a seperate category for sexual behaviour than for other behaviour. If your marriage vow was “I promise to be perfect at all times” how many of us would sign up to such a vow? It would seem absurd. We’d be setting ourselves up to fail. This is what we do when we automatically assume lifelong sexual fidelity from our partner. We might desire it, we botyh might aspire to it, but if our partner is not 100% perfect we’re going to go all tragic and walk out and say we’ve been irreprably betrayed? And if our partner did the same when we didn’t do our share of taking out the trash ??
    Clearly, someone who shows repeated lapses in this area, like someone who repeatedly doesn’t listen to us or repeatedly fails to do their share of the housework may end up being someone we decide we don’t want to stay with , but the occasional lapse should surely be something we can get over? I don’t think it is necessary to specify that its “OK” to seex sex outside the marriage – although that might work for some couples – all that’s necessary is to accept that in this area, like anything else, its a bit crazy to expect lifelong perfection.

  9. 9

    Fascinating question.   While I am obviously aware that this is a blog for dating and relationships, this seems to be one of those issues that make me think being married is not better than being single and unattached.   It just has a different set of issues.

  10. 10

    No offense but using gay men as an example is a mistake.   Yes I agree that men are wired different then women and so in a hetero relationship you have to deal with the two different dynamics.   Men may not have historically been monogomist, but it was not so open and somewhat hidden and discrete.   Wth many gay  men relationships as you say the sex with others is very open.

  11. 11

    Monogamny is not natural for males or females.

    However, monogamy is the best relationship model to follow. All other relationship models have been followed historically and society alway’s ends up reverting back to monogamy because pretty much anything else is disasterious.

    Problem is, people don’t know or  nor care why it is important. We live in a society today, where people are questioning every single rule we’ve followed in Western society and rather than doing their research about cause and effect of their choices, they pretty much now make up the rules as they go along, and have NO understand of what is going to happen.

    For example, did you know that  all sexually-free (civilized)societies end up matriachal. Do you know why? Is this what you want? What is the effect of a matriachal society do you think in comparison to what we have had?

    Comparing gay relationships to straight ones, is absolutely ridiculous. Gay sex does not result in a baby.(typical example of not thinking things through)

    Yes we all have urges, we can also control them. It’s why most of us don’t steal, even if we have the urge to take something that doesn’t belong to us.

    Can anyone say, WHY monogamy is important? Have any of you really thought about it? It’s much harder to control our urges, when we cannot come up with one rational reason as to why we should.

  12. 12

    I have lived in Eastern Europe and the middle east, as well as traveled all over the world. My personal observation has been that (generally speaking) many men who feel that   it is not a man’s nature to be monogamous, and who expect that their wives/girlfriends   should be more accepting in the event that they might want to have a sexual relationship with someone outside of their primary relationship, would NOT be as open or accepting if their wives/girlfriends wanted to pursue an outside sexual relationship with someone else. There’s definitely a double standard when it comes to men being monogamous versus women being monogamous.

    Although it may be unrealistic to expect lifelong monogamy in a relationship, there are consequences that can occur as a result of people who choose to engage in non-monogamous behavior. Arnold Swartzenegger and Marie Shriver are just one example.   I personally know women who have contracted STD’s as a result of the husband/boyfriend having more than one sexual partner. Some of these women knew that their partners were cheating, but since “boys will be boys”, they chose to turn the other cheek.

    Gay men can have sex with multiple partners and not develop an emotional attachment. However, women, by nature, often bond with a man after having sex. So although many may go into it thinking that it’s just for fun, they often end up becoming emotionally attached. Whereas, the man, who was simply interested in having a different sexual experience was simply having fun and had no intention of getting serious about the other woman.

  13. 13

    Actually, this is a huge cultural fallacy, about what men are *wired* for. It’s been the popular pop-science argument for those who think they are being so “evolved” and “edgy” to claim that men just aren’t *wired* to be in a monogomous relationship. When it’s actually the same old tired argument that’s been used since the beginning of time when as Dan Savage points out, men could more opennly degrade their monogmous relationships to step out with other women. So it’s funny to me that today we get jazzed up versions of “why it’s okay that men treat women like toilet paper” and people act like this is a brand new “evolved” concept like men haven’t been cheating since the dawn of time on their female partners.  

    That “wired” word is a tricky little word. What are we really “wired” for? The true scientific approach is to admit that humans, men and women, are infact “wired” for both approaches to a relationship. We actually have genes and hormones that either support the benefits of having many different partners but we also have genes and hormones that support the desire to be close to just one person. So when people say things like people just aren’t wired to behave one way over another, it’s stereotyping and limiting and pretty surprising coming from a a gay male in american that have had more then their fair share of labels thrown at them. Why is it okay to stereotype and degenerate the desire to be monogamous but if you put such limitations on people’s sexuality, you’d be called a “hater” of some kind?

    If you are a person that does not see the benefit or is incapable of being monogmous, then simply don’t get married or committ to one person. Or have a relationship where you set these rules before hand. However, it bugs me when people use this argument to point to others that do value monogomy and tell them they are being unrealistic. It all comes down to free will and choice. You ultimately choose what person you want to be. Is it harder to forgo your own self pleasure with temptation then not indulge?Absolutely. But what people seem to forget that that is the backbone of all things in life. Somehow we expect to work hard in our careers but we expect relationships to be easy. Wrong. Relationships take hard work if you value them enough.Men an women are “wired” for both approaches to a relationship. So trying to argue that one is “unnatural” over the other is scientifically (and thus naturally) wrong.  

    And if you think about it, is insulting to all the men out there that are happy in their committed monogomous relationships. Basically these men   are being told that they must not be normal men because *real* men are just not *wired* for monogomy. And women must put on their happyy faces and pretend this is going to lead them to better relationships while they are once again being fed sado masochistic “advice”. The message: You too can have a GREAT relationships, as long as you understand that your man NEEDS more women then just YOU”. Once again women are being asked to accept less then what they might deserve. So inbetween the whole, women should pick ulgy men articles, now women shouldn’t even expect monogomy because “men aren’t wired for it”. Also add in the fact that men want their partners prettier, in better shape and younger then themselves, and don’t even want to pay for dates anymore; you got to wonder how evolved we really are in 2011 vs 50 years ago when women were probably sold the same messages (except the paying part).

    As far as using men’s uses of mistresses and prostitues and the likes of that, that isn’t so much an argument for “nature” as it is for old cultural standards. Men were allowed and encouraged to indulge themselves. Women were not. Women’s sexuality was to be locked up and thrown away where mother and wives served one purpose and prostitutes served another. That set up has nothing to do with what is natural and everything to do with a social working system that was all about men being able to indulge themselves while limiting women. If JFK lived today, he would never have gotten away with the stuff he did only a few short decades ago.

    So when someone says that men weren’t meant to be monogmous, they aren’t talking about nature so much as old cultural standards and ideals because men and women have chemicals and benefits from both monogamous relationships and diversity in sexual partners. It comes down to what *you* choose. And that is really the whole point. It’s a choice.

  14. 14

    In my book, there’s a reason men and women are hard-wired differently, and that reason is because they bring a balance when they join forces. I realize that’s a very broad statement, and I honestly can’t say how it translates over into same-sex couples.   But I do know that I am weary of the men-must-stray mantra, and I wonder why more men aren’t offended by the simplistic, although supposedly “scientific,” conclusion that the male species just cannot keep its wild oats at home. It’s a cave man thing.


    I’m also weary of the glaring double-standard that says women can/should adapt to and accept that their men-will-be-men and that means they will pursue extra-marital sex. As if it’s a foregone conclusion, founded on rational analysis, conjuring up an image of the evolutionary chart, with the hunched-over Early Man, club in hand, shrugging and throwing up his hands and declaring, “I can’t help it, I’m a guy!”

    Well, humans used to eat their food with sticks, too, but we eventually found better tools, didn’t we?

    Marriages in this country are in a lot of trouble for so many different reasons, not just fidelity problems…financial stress, employment insecurity, addictions, the need for both parents to work full-time while trying to raise kids, unemployed family members moving in   — to name just a few. I do think we’ve outgrown the institution of marriage as it existed in the post-WWII era.

    But whether married or simply in a committed, non-married relationship, fidelity and commitment are why we consciously choose to couple, isn’t it? If you think you can’t handle one sex partner for the rest of your days, then don’t get into a monogamous relationship. As others have said here, there are other options.  

    I think the most compelling reason that men having extra-marital relationships is because they can, and they will continue to, as long as the safety net/excuse of biological predisposition is still touted as inevitable. When actually, it’s a matter of evolving.

  15. 15

    You only have to log into an adult dating site like a friend of mine did about 3 years ago for a laugh and to see what was going on. She was surprised at the amount of married/partnered men who were only looking to spice up their life and nothing more. She received hundreds of emails that I must admit made us roll on the floor laughing at times along with the accompanying photo’s of a certain part of the male anatomy, also extremely funny from a womans point of view. Most of the emails sounded like a fantasy of what these men wanted and weren’t getting at home for one reason or another and there were lots of reasons!
    There were also women on the site but a lot of them turned out to be men in disguise, something to do with not having to pay  the membership  fee if you receive x amount of emails per month. I guess it’s hard to bury a credit card entry on your statement when there are other eyes who also check.
    Most of the men were very upfront about not wanting to leave their wives/partners, some of them were downright weird and into some heavy stuff.
    At first it was easy to call them dirty dogs and they should be kicked to the curb. But a very wise man once told me you never know what moves people in their minds.
    Is it right or wrong? I don’t know. Having been married for over  20 years I can only say that I was tempted on several occasions when I met someone that gave me that “wow” feeling. It happens, but the question is whether you do anything about it or not and that is between you and your conscience and your core  beliefs. I’d like to say that I didn’t and kept to the high moral ground but I did cheat on my then husband with one man. The electricity was unbelievable and where is he now? Read some of Evans posts in regards to chemistry  for the answer.
    My husband and I split up for other reasons that didn’t have anything to do with infidelity on either side.

  16. 16

    This article reeks of immorality. So does this post and the responses to it. If a man says to his wife  that he would forgive  her for  hooking up with a man on a business trip, most would assume he would expect her to forgive him for the same transgression.

    Therefore, if my husband/bf said this to me, I would think he was setting the stage for cheating…

  17. 17

    The thing is, for me, love and sex are intertwined. Sex introduces feelings, longings, desires for someone who may be a complete ass. The type of longings that make me stare at the ceiling desperately trying to go to sleep. Not to mention I love sex, I usually easily have a larger sex drive then my partners.  

    So having sex with someone who wasn’t my partner? I imagine I would fall in love with them. Dating for me = emotional rollercoaster. I would be obsessed with longing and that might be enough for me to forget that my rock, my stability, my life isn’t as good as a fling.

    I have no doubt that that’s one massive risk for me to take. I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable letting my partner take that either. Not seeing my boyfriend for days because he’s currently in lust with a new flavour of the month. No, no that’s not okay.    

    I have also tended to date conservative guys as well. For them to cheat would be a violation of a lot of their own morals, so I’d think something was wrong, big time.

  18. 18

    There is an assumption in this article that a solid, emotional relationship won’t be damaged by the occasional (sanctioned) sexual fling. Most cases of people seeking sex outside their relationship aren’t the result of drunken one-nighters while out of town – they involve acting on an attraction with someone they get to know. The grass starts to look greener over there. In many, many cases the person in a commited relationship leaves it  for the “other woman” or “other man”.

    Both monogamy and infidelity are choices. If one chooses to be “flexible” when it comes to monogamy, then they better also be aware that a “little fling” could result in the demise of their relationship anyway, now matter how “cool” they were about such things.

  19. 19

    I’m not a scientist of any kind, but I found the book Sex At Dawn to be very easy to understand, funny, warm and provocative.     In the book two researchers review the science behind the argument for and against human being being naturally monogamous.       This book was fascinating and it will make you think.
    I’ve been reading Dan Savages column for years and I can’t recommend it enough.     Savage can often be offensive, but MORE often he is *funny*, warm, informative and he doesn’t give pat advice that you can predict.
    In a nutshell his philosophy about relationships is that not all people are cut out for monogamy,     people can be happier by working to accept that and speaking honestly with their partners about that.

  20. 20

    PD, it seems to me that a lot of people today want to live in “fantasy” lalala land over establishing and growing their real life relationships. Hence so many men on websites trying to live pornstar sex lives. Which would also account for the wacky stuff they might be into. Seems to me no one told these men that porn was fantasy, It use to be that porn was a “once in awhile thing”. Now guys look at it 24.7 and then wonder why real women don’t want to have sex with them. A combination of their unrealistic ideals and the fact that they stopped putting the work into treating their own partner a certain way that might get her to engage with him more instead of just using women to masterbate to.  

    Margo, I agree with people say things like “well if my partner did this, I would forgive them..” that they are a little bit setting it up for putting themselves in that same position and wanting to be forgiving. It’s like sometimes how someone in a relationship will accuse someone else of cheating and sometimes the one accusing the other person is actually the one cheating.

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