Although I might complain about how my experiment with polyamory blew up in my face, and in the lovely visages of some of my friends, I can’t deny that there are open relationships out there that have worked for a long time. My friends Trevor and Vanessa,* for example, have been together for almost 20 years and have been open, in theory or in practice, for the majority of that time. But, like many couples in open relationships, they’ve encountered some difficult roadblocks along the way. Though Vanessa says she appreciates the lessons they learned from it and how these lessons helped them navigate other tricky forks in the road.
Vanessa is pregnant with a baby that’s due this winter and while the couple had decided earlier in life not to have kids, they recently re-negotiated on that agreement and changed their minds. Namely, Vanessa found that she actually wants a child and convinced Trevor to do it. And Vanessa says that learning, earlier in their relationship, to negotiate around poly-related issues where the two of them wanted different things, in a way, gave them the tools necessary to work through other such things.
Their open relationship negotiations got particularly cumbersome a few years ago when Vanessa was in an intense entanglement with another man that involved heavy D/s play and caused problems between Trevor and Vanessa, as well as between the other guy and his then girlfriend. Vanessa’s involvement with him eventually ended (she says the situation “blew up” several times) and the episode caused the couple to take their involvements with other people down a few notches. They say they only see other people once or twice a month now and don’t develop romantic attachments to them. Instead, they’ll often just date and have sex with friends that they’ve known for years and are more cautious around any new people that may want to get involved with them.
They live in a beautiful two-floor space in Brooklyn that they bought a few years ago. Vanessa is a doctor, while Trevor works in media. They are close to becoming parents of a boy, while they’ve been parents to a poodle for quite some time. They pick up their vegetables at a local CSA share, travel together every so often, host monthly play parties, as well as frequent vanilla (for people that want to keep their clothes on) BBQ parties in their spacious backyard in the summer and work on occasional artistic projects with friends. Their lives seem to be the perfect blend of contented domesticity, wacky creativity and occasional debauchery, so I decided to pick their brain on how they do it.
The duo first met when they were both in college in California, lived in the same dorm and commiserated over their respective annoying roommates. Vanessa was Trevor’s first girlfriend and the first person he had sex with. Soon after meeting her, he crossed the pond with her to Europe, where she went to study medicine. “The sex was so good he had to follow me there,” Vanessa says. “I thought she might be the only person that does this kind of thing!” Trevor quips, adding that they later got married in Europe.
Vanessa, 39, is bisexual and says she was even more into women back then, so the open relationship arrangement originally grew out of that, as it often does. She recalls them talking about threesomes or other partners early on, in theory, and Trevor saying he wouldn’t mind her hooking up with another guy, as only allowing her to be with other women was kind of sexist. (Which is impressive, by the way, most men I know in relationships with bi women will use it to their advantage—to have threesomes and the like—but wouldn’t dream of letting their girlfriends do anything with other men. Competition with another cock? No, we can’t have that!). Though it was years before Vanessa actually took advantage of the open relationship deal and some more years until Trevor, who is 38 now, had sex with another woman.
The first time Vanessa took Trevor up on the open relationship allowance was when she started fooling around with a (male) co-worker at the hospital she was working at in Europe. “It kind of became a regular thing that we clumsily navigated,” she says. Though that relationship had its own time arc and petered out eventually without needing more maintenance from the couple.
When they moved to San Francisco, they started going to more play parties and meeting people there, though the real fun began in New York. “Things really spring boarded when we moved to New York in 2002,” Trevor says. Vanessa had the option of choosing any place in the country for her residency and Trevor, who is an actor on the side of his day job was interested in more theater opportunities.
At the time, there was a community based around the alternative pin-up website Suicide Girls that would meet every Saturday. They liked the look of the girls and found the message board for New York fans there. That scene led to Trevor’s first sexual experience with someone other than Vanessa. He met a girl he liked at one of the Suicide Girls parties and the next time they met up, she brought her boyfriend, so the two couples wound up having a foursome.
“I was amazed by Chemistry because it was a party with sex. It wasn’t like everyone was there just to get laid. And that kind of blew my mind.” –Trevor on the first time they went to a play party in New York
Trevor later dated a woman who he had some trouble with. “That was a bit tricky, because she didn’t have any concept of open relationships” he says. “We were attracted to each other, but she didn’t like it when I talked about Vanessa,” he says. Vanessa recalls one time when the woman texted Trevor in the middle of the night asking him if he could “sneak out.”
“I was like, ‘no, he can’t sneak out!’” Vanessa says. “We’ll can have a conversation about it and he can come and meet you, but that mentality didn’t sit well with me.” That’s the thing, though, true polyamory is supposed to be based around honesty and trust, as Trevor and Vanessa’s relationship is, while people that are prone to cheating, playing games and “being the other woman,” actually get off on lies and deceit. When there are no stakes involved, it’s not fun anymore, boo hoo.
Some time later, Trevor and Vanessa started attending the Chemistry parties in New York. “That’s really where everything changed. It was quite the conduit,” Trevor says. “I was amazed by Chemistry because it was a party with sex. It wasn’t like everyone was there just to get laid. And that kind of blew my mind.” The party, which I’ve been to a few times, once even at a synagogue, usually involves dancing and DJs, burlesque performances, food and drink and other amenities as well as separate rooms/spaces for sexual play.
“The people were way cooler than any of the sex parties we’ve been to before that,” Vanessa says. Chemistry was how they met the couple that they would later get involved with for years. “That was like the closest thing to poly we had ever done. We did a lot of things together, both sexual and non-sexual. We also played in different configurations. There was an extended family of people that surrounded that group,” Vanessa explains.
The couple introduced them to Burning Man and the related scene in NYC, so Trevor and Vanessa wound up going to the festival two years in a row, but haven’t been back since 2008. “It’s so wonderful, yet so unpleasant. And It’s so much work,” Trevor says. (I feel ya, man! It’s also why I’ve only gone twice, largely because of my then girlfriend’s persistent insistence at the time, and haven’t gone back since 2011). Though he appreciates the creative drive and spirit that Burning Man fosters, he’s more keen on pursuing it locally, now that he’s tapped into the community in New York, rather than going to a desert to make it happen. “I think it’s more important to make weird magical things happen in your daily life,” he says. Trevor himself has a penchant for drawing comics and had recently started a series where he’d have friends (that don’t usually draw, and some that do) submit comics to him on a theme that he’d compile into a monthly collection.
Trevor and Vanessa wound up dating the couple they met at Chemistry for years, though the arrangement started going south later when Vanessa became extremely involved with the guy. “It became very physically intense. We got into more Dom/sub stuff than either of us had ever done before,” she explains. “And it just didn’t sit well with the group dynamic in general. Our involvement in each others’ relationships just got more and more turbulent until things inevitably fell apart.” Vanessa’s involvement with this man played a big part in the other couple’s break up, and although Vanessa continued to date him after that, it didn’t work out for long, and continued to strain Vanessa and Trevor’s relationship.
But Vanessa now says that they definitely learned a lot from the experience. For one thing, they learned how to navigate situations where they wanted different things. It also made them think more intentionally about the types of relationships they would pursue from now on. Having that other man in her life felt close to a secondary partner, but Vanessa says she doesn’t want to get that deeply involved with someone else from now on. “Ideally, at least at this point in our lives, we’re each other’s main person and then we have close friends that we have sex with to varying degrees, but we’re keeping it more casual emotionally,” she says. “Yes, monogamish,” Trevor adds (as Dan Savage would call it).
“I think it’s more important to make weird magical things happen in your daily life.” – on pursuing creative projects locally rather than going to Burning Man every year.
For Trevor, the quest for other partners used to be more about insecurities. With Vanessa being his first sexual partner and girlfriend, he initially wasn’t sure if other women were even attracted to him, so he sought them out for validation. He says he’s gotten over that now. “Now, everyone thinks he’s hot!” Vanessa exclaims. With his shaggy hair, occasional beard, and penchant for alternative t-shirts and irony, he could pass for your average self-deprecating Williamsburg-dwelling hipster, but little do most people know that he has quite the fun life and gets laid plenty at sex parties and with other partners.
I once visited Vanessa and Trevor in the hospital when he had undergone treatment for a lung condition. Another friend of ours had come by to keep them company and, to entertain Trevor, she took off her dress and put on a furry hat. Trevor was in a four-bed room, where his bed was separated from others by just a curtain. A nurse walked in a few minutes later to grab something, while our friend was still topless and the curtain was partly open. We all stared at each other, wondering if the nurse would notice. But she went about her business without flinching and walked out of the room soon after, at which point we all burst into laughter.
In addition to Chemistry, the couple had also enjoyed going to the Bushwick sex parties, which is where I met them and more recently, they began hosting their own weekend brunch parties at their home in Brooklyn. Another couple, that are friends of ours, had an idea for this party, as they wanted to do something different than the usual all-night drugs-induced sexcapades that had become common on the sex-party scene, so they started their own day-time brunch party and tapped Trevor and Vanessa for the space. Vanessa now says she really enjoys hosting her own party. “It was increasingly fun to actually be involved. It’s been such a nice way to get to know [the other hosts] as well,” Vanessa says. The troopers that they are, they’ve continued to have parties on most months while Vanessa’s been pregnant and also some time after Trevor’s hospitalization, when he couldn’t drink alcohol.
The parties were partly inspired by the 2006 Shortbus movie where a bunch of young creative types in New York converge at underground salons that mix art, music, politics and sex. (I saw the movie after I had gotten into the scene, and said to my girlfriend at the time, “this looks like our lives!” Life is always imitating art that’s imitating life, ain’t it?)
Trevor also enjoys hosting the party and says he wanted to create a safe, welcoming space for his friends to play in, the way the parties he had gone to before had done. “It’s like when we first went to Chemistry, I was amazed that people were nice. That this was a nice thing to do. It wasn’t like a weird, aggressive, ugly, assuming thing,” he says. “And then when I first went to the Bushwick party, I felt that way, too. It was just lovely,” he says. “Yeah, it just fills you with a warm, fuzzy feeling afterwards,” Vanessa adds. They’ll probably take a break with the parties for some time after having the baby, or may have smaller parties in the future.
Trevor and Vanessa first started talking about having a baby a couple of years ago and even though they had decided around the time they were 30 that they didn’t want kids, Vanessa eventually realized she does actually want one and brought it up with Trevor.
“It was increasingly fun to actually be involved. It’s been such a nice way to get to know [the other hosts] as well.” – Vanessa on hosting her own play parties
Vanessa says that she didn’t think about these things earlier in life. “I didn’t think much about it at all, I just knew that I wanted to be with Trevor for the rest of my life or, however long it worked between us,” she says. “But then I kind of uncovered parts of myself that I hadn’t explored and, when I started to, I found that it was pretty important to me,” she adds. “I do think some of the lessons we learned through communicating about rough poly times, we definitely took to the table at navigating this decision.”
Trevor says it took a lot of soul searching and a long trail to get to where they are now. But “we came up with some criteria to make sure that it was a good path to be on for us,” Vanessa says. Though she admits it was scary at times. “Something like that is big enough to break people up. We realized the gravity of it,” she says.
In addition to learning a lot from their overwhelming experience with poly relationships. Vanessa and Trevor have also had a list of agreements that they go by that helps them navigate these murky waters: their Bill of Sexy Rights. They say it’s a dynamic list that they add to or subtract from when needed. It includes things like: spending the night together after a date with someone else, check in loads at parties where other partners are present (i.e. unless it’s a play party, don’t run off and make out with him/her for the rest of the night), condoms required for all contact with others, no engaging in activities with someone the other partner actively dislikes, etc. The list also says that, “If things have just gotten too crazy, either partner can pull the emergency cord and close the relationship.” Though they say this has never happened and probably wouldn’t, as deciding to suddenly be monogamous probably wouldn’t solve the underlying issues that led to that decision.
While Vanessa was trying to get pregnant, they added a few rules related to conception, which I found rather amusing. They went like this:
“While conception is being attempted, both partners will follow the Fuck Calendar:
No seed spillage 2-3 days before ovulation
Sex on the days preceding, following, and of ovulation
No coitus with others for any of these days, plus one day following
No seed spillage with others for any of these days, plus one day following.”
When they were telling me about the list, Trevor kept calling them “rules,” while Vanessa kept correcting him and calling them “rights.” There was a blog post on “poly normativity” by Andrea Zanin earlier this year that came down hard on any “rules” in polyamory, but personally I think rules are a necessarily evil if you want to try your hand at open relationships but still want to be honorable and respectful of your existing relationship and partner. I guess the trick is to not think of them as rules that you “inflict” on one another, but rather as standards that you hold yourself up to in order to stay true to your commitment. Vanessa and Trevor started writing this list in 2006 and say they consult it more frequently when they run into trouble.
“It’s less romance and more love,” – Trevor on dating friends vs. pursuing extramarital romantic relationships
These days they are seemingly content with casually seeing a few other friends once in a while without getting deeply involved with anyone. Vanessa says she usually looks for guys that are more sexually bossy/dominant, as that’s a dynamic she likes that they don’t really have between them, while Trevor says he’s mostly interested in playing with women with different body types.
Vanessa also says she’s been seeing other men more frequently lately, as she’s enjoyed taking their “sex with a pregnant woman” cherries. Last we talked, she was also working on scheduling a pregnant gangbang. If it’s true what they say about where dimples come from, this kid might wind up with a lot of them!
I asked them if they’ve found that the intimacy between them diminishes when they see other people. “It depends on how it happens. I think new relationship energy does have the capacity to sabotage a relationship to an extent,” Trevor says. “If one person is really into someone new and they’re not trying to bring some of that energy back to the relationship or they can’t because the other person feels jealous, then that can be pretty rough.”
Trevor says he’s dealt with this by becoming a lot more conservative with dating. “I only date people who are friends I have sex with. Not someone new where I’m like, ‘maybe I should buy them flowers,’” he says. (Take note, ladies: if you want to date Trevor, you won’t be getting flowers). “It’s less romance and more love,” Trevor explains. “I have more friends that I say, ‘I love you’ to now than I did when I was trying to have extramarital romantic relationships.”
* Names have been changed