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The Lost Year: Non-monogamy, Zoom sex, and the agonizing wait to kiss your partner

“As soon as I started taking non-monogamy seriously, it was like any other coming out.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

Jo (not their real name) lives in a large city in the US Southwest, where they work as a writer. When they reached out to talk, it was to tell me how surreal it had been for them to explore non-monogamy for the first time in the middle of a pandemic, requiring them to connect with potential new romantic partners mostly online, without much hope for in-person hookups.

What struck me during our conversation was just how much the pandemic has pushed so many of us to rethink the ways we define our lives. Jo has been out and vocal about their bisexual and nonbinary identities for some time now, but non-monogamy was something they could only really consider when they were forced inside with their thoughts — and a husband who gently asked whether they wanted to explore other options for romantic and sexual fulfillment.

There is a temptation in queer spaces, I think, to define so much about our identities on a granular level. But Jo has found a liberation not just from practicing non-monogamy but also from practicing it in a way that feels true to who they and their husband are as people. “The way that I’m going about non-monogamy has nothing to do with how people think non-monogamy should be done. The way that I’m doing it is what feels right to me, and what feels right to my partner and everyone else involved,” they told me.

To hear more from Jo, read on.

My husband and I have been together for 10 years. We’ve been married for four. Even before either of us were out to ourselves or each other as queer in any way, we both proposed to each other. It was very important to us to not fall into specific gender roles. But one thing we had always talked about, more as a philosophical discussion than practicality, was non-monogamy. I was always, like, “Props to people who choose to explore that. Not for me. I would be really bad at it. I think it would be really bad for me.”

My husband came out to himself and to me as asexual well before we got married. I am not asexual, and it’s been totally fine. Many people hearing about this have flippantly said, “Well, why not just do non-monogamy,” which is a wild thing to casually suggest someone try!

We have been quarantined pretty intensely since March. I am a very, very social person, and the only person I have around, really, is him. I feel very needy of his attention. And the sexual mismatch between us was heightened, given us being around each other all the time. So he said, “I know we’ve talked about this, and I know you’ve said no. But have you considered seeing other people? I think it might be really good for you.”

Being confronted daily with such a horrifying ordeal [as the pandemic] makes you remember that, hey, if you can change your life in a good and nice way, you should try that. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t go my whole life without trying something. And as soon as I started taking non-monogamy seriously, it was like any other coming out, where I was like, “Duh. Yeah. Obviously.”

When I started getting on dating apps, I didn’t really know what I wanted, so I didn’t take it as seriously as I probably should have. I tried Bumble. I tried OkCupid. I tried Tinder. I tried a few other random ones. And none of them are good. Everyone [on dating apps] is boring! Maybe it’s because I’m too online, or because I hang out with a bunch of artists and writers, but oh my god, everyone’s so boring!

I currently have just one other partner. I found them on OkCupid, and I’ve been talking to them since August. What drew me to them initially was their dating profile was really silly. They’re just a goofball. But what kept me around is that they’re honest in a way that is kind and empathetic. That’s something I knew I was going to need. I knew open conversation among everybody involved was going to be really important.

There was immediate chemistry with them, but in a really specific brain way — on top of, yeah, I could smooch this person. And even if this relationship changes in different ways, we still have every intention of being friends. Having somebody around who I know I can trust to be open and honest and whom I just want to hang out with regardless, has been deeply important to me and has filled that need for attention. My new partner and I are both huge extroverts, and we have spouses who are huge introverts. So it’s much easier for us to not shut up at each other instead of continually bothering our spouses.

My marriage has never felt stronger. When my husband came out as asexual, he was terrified that he wasn’t what I needed and that he shouldn’t be in a relationship with someone who wasn’t ace. He always felt guilty about being ace. I could understand that on a logical level, but I didn’t understand the gravity of how that felt.

Realizing that non-monogamy isn’t just an experiment for me but is definitely part of who I am comes with a lot of baggage, especially for an assigned-female-at-birth person. There was a period where I was, like, “Oh, you’re just a bloody homewrecker.” And having my husband be consistently supportive and really happy for me made me totally understand his fear [about being asexual].

I also understood how important it is to have a partner who supports you and tells you you don’t have to have that fear. He’ll tell me all the time how grateful he is for my partner and how happy he is that my quality of life has increased so dramatically. And now I go to my husband for much more specific things that I know are the ways he likes to be loved and give love. I appreciate those things about him so much more, because I don’t have the other needs detracting from those things.

I am out-ish about being non-monogamous. I will speak on it every now and then in a tweet, but it’s not something I do frequently. I keep this quieter, for a lot of reasons but also for my partner’s sake. I keep information about them very, very quiet, which sucks sometimes. Sometimes, I want to be like, “Listen to this really cute thing they just said to me!” I have friends I can do that with, but as someone who’s very online, it sucks that it’s not part of my presence. There is a feeling of almost dishonesty.

But I’ve gained so much. I’ve found someone I’m deeply close with. My marriage is stronger than ever. And one of the things I didn’t expect is how much body confidence it has given me. Being flirted with in a way that is very early relationship flirtation is something I have not experienced for 10 years. That’s been delightful. And also I get to tell them my old stories again. Those stories are interesting to them!

A big part of queer liberation for me has been, first off, not trying to fit a cis-het standard of life. But then also not trying to be “a good queer.” The way that I’m going about non-monogamy has nothing to do with how people think non-monogamy should be done. The way I’m doing it is what feels right to me and what feels right to my partner and everyone else involved. It’s been about trying to do what feels right for me in this precise moment, without feeling the expectations of others on me and without feeling the expectation of my future on me.

My partner and I have seen each other in person once for a hangout. Both of our spouses were there. We were distanced the entire time and had masks on and everything. That is the closest I have gotten, and I am dying. We have date nights every week, and those range from just hanging out and shooting the shit to some form of sex via Zoom, which is more fulfilling than I expected it to be but is still very frustrating and obnoxious.

It’s really good to have these lights at the end of the tunnel. When there is a vaccine and we’re both vaccinated and we’ve waited the six weeks or whatever it’s going to turn out to be, that’s very nice to think about. But for now? It’s frustrating.

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