from Books & Reviews
Reviewed by Christopher H. Rosik, Ph.D.
"In order to achieve both clinical and cultural competency in working with male couples, therapists need to challenge their cultural biases regarding monogamy" (p. 407). Thus concludes the abstract to a recent article published in the journal Family Process (Shernoff, 2006). In keeping with his thesis, the author cites data indicating that that a wide majority of male couples practice sexual non-exclusivity in their relationships. He cites Johnson and Karen's (1996) observations that, "The gay community's normative acceptance of casual sex, anonymous sex and non-monogamy in couple relationships represents a dramatic departure from heterocentric norms and values" (p. 408).
However, to questions this norm is a sign of heterosexism, Shernoff asserts, not to mention "...a lack of clinical sophistication and acumen." Therapists and clients need to be open to a range of sexual and romantic variations that are found in relationships of any sexual orientation. "I suggest," asserts Shernoff, "that honestly negotiated non-monogamy is not indicative of any characterological disorder, psychopathology or relational dysfunction" (p. 408).
Shernoff alludes to several different explanations for the high level of non-monogamy among male couples. He primarily relates this to gender, though he is noncommittal regarding the mechanism behind it. Possibilities include the socialization of women, genetically based sex differences, male couples being more realistic about the limitations of sexual exclusivity, and a desire to make a sociopolitical statement "...not to take on the patriarchical and capitalist notion of a partner as a possession" (p. 409).
To accommodate these realities of gay male couples, Shernoff suggests that the traditional terminology of family therapy needs to be reconsidered. Judgmental terms such as triangulation, difficulty with intimacy and male objectification may not apply to this population. The author contends, for example, that Bowen's understanding of triangulation is based on an unexamined acceptance of mainstream society's moral code and needs to be revised to reflect the experiences of gay male couples.
Shernoff acknowledges that non-monogamy challenges our basic assumptions about love and commitment and then provides a lengthy justification for his conclusion that non-monogamy need not be infidelity. Therapeutically, the author advises that issues of sex, power and monogamy must be explored in the context of treating gay partnerships.
He proceeds to give some guidelines for how clinicians can help male couples negotiate sexual non-exclusivity. Facilitating open communication and addressing jealousy are key components of adequate care. An intriguing therapeutic exercise Shernoff recommends to help those couples determine if they can handle a sexually open relationship and the jealousy it could evoke is to have each partner go to a gay bar or club and flirt with other men as a couple and separately, then discuss their reactions. Clinical material is scattered throughout the article to highlight Shernoff's main points. Because "...We live in a society that is full of sex-negative, erotophobic messages that become internalized," concludes Shernoff, "The task of the therapist is to engage couples in conversations that let them decide for themselves whether sexual exclusivity or non-exclusivity is functional or dysfunctional for the relationship" (p. 416).
Several aspects of this article are worthy of comment, in no particular order of importance.
My last lover and I had an open relationship, and I had sex about 10 times more often outside the relationship than my partner did. Yet on those infrequent occasions when he did trick, I'd go ballistic and become a crazy person, Martin told me, laughing at his own inconsistency during a couples session with his current partner when they were talking about whether to open up their monogamous relationship (p. 415).I certainly hope that these comments are not indicating that Shernoff was functioning as a therapist to his ex-lover, as the last sentence could be construed to imply. Regardless of that point, this glimpse into the author's personal life is illustrative of how the professional is often personal. Academicians and clinicians write about such topics because they have personal relevance to them and a personal stake in how these issues are viewed professionally and socially. It is understandable, therefore, for one to wonder how much of the scholarship in the area of sexuality (and gay studies in particular) constitutes and effort to rationalize or justify the author's sexual behaviors to a broader and generally affirming audience.
Shernoff's article provides another reminder of the extensive divergence between value frameworks applied to sexual relationships among gay men and heterosexual couples. As the visibility and normalization of gay coupling continues to grow, the recent expansion of scholarship aimed at mainstreaming non-monogamy is likely to continue. The degree to which mental health professionals and their associations are willing to question this effort (and be the recipients of the standard homophobia, heterosexism and/or fundamentalist slurs) will go a long way toward determining if Western society protects the stabilizing influence of sexual monogamy.
[Postscript: According to his web site, (http://www.gaypsychotherapy.com/), Michael Shernoff, MSW, LCSW, ACSW, is a Diplomate in Clinical Social Work who has been working with gay couples since 1975. He also noted on the web site that, "Unfortunately in March, 2006 I was diagnosed with a life threatening illness and had to retire from active practice, and am no longer seeing patients." No indication is given as to the specific nature of this illness. However, a January 17, 2006, interview with the author on Advocate.com reported that he has been HIV+ for 20 years.]
Johnson, T. W., & Keren, M. S. (1996). Creating and maintaining boundaries in male couples. In J. Laird & R. J. Green (Eds.), Lesbians and gays in couples and families: A handbook for therapists (pp. 231-250). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Martell, C. R., & Prince, S. E. (2005). Treating infidelity in same-sex couples. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61, 1429-1438.
Shernoff, M. (2006). Negotiated non-monogamy and male couples. Family Process, 45(4), 407-418. [As of this writing, the article in its entirety could be downloaded without cost from http://www.familyprocess.org/featured_articles_display.asp?id=65 ]