This article by Laim Murphy @liamwaterloo first appeared in the UK’s FS magazine here.
Admit it. We all want it. The ‘happy ever after’, to meet ‘the one’, to settle down in the country with our lover and an army of pugs. The pursuit of love is human nature and the exhilaration you feel when you finally find a boyfriend is intoxicating. Unfortunately, it’s also human nature to have our cake and have sex with it too. This isn’t an exclusively gay trait – heterosexuals are just as guilty of thrusting their genitals at the nearest package of flesh – however it’s a reality we have to consider in this tricky world of dating.
Why do people cheat?
Maybe you were unhappy, drunk, horny, drunk and horny, drunk and horny and bored, or maybe you’re just a bit of a git. Whatever the reason, however justified, cheating does happen. It could just be a quick blowjob or it could be a full-blown ten-man gangbang. The reasons and the act in question don’t matter as such – it’s the betrayal that counts.
That’s not to vilify the ‘cheater’ completely; many circumstances can lead to someone going astray. You could be arguing with your boyfriend a lot, it could be a retaliation for how you’ve been treated by your significant other, or maybe there’s been such a communication breakdown that you’ve gone elsewhere for comfort. Or it could be that you really are just a bit of a git.
“I really didn’t see myself as the bad guy at the time,” 25-year-old Jesse tells FS. “I’d been in a relationship for about two years and I just felt it wasn’t going anywhere. He didn’t want to move in with me but he didn’t want to break up with me either. I did love him but I felt trapped and we were obviously drifting apart. I was going out with my friend without him a lot and it seemed like he couldn’t be arsed to make the effort to interact with us – he never really did to be honest. One night I went out and got absolutely trashed – drink, drugs – you name it, I did it. I ended up going back to someone’s house with a group of guys for a ‘chill out’ and before you knew it, nakedness happened.”
Jesse had planned to keep it to himself but he decided honesty was the best policy. “When I saw my boyfriend next he was asking me about my night out. Something snapped in me and I thought ‘he probably doesn’t even fucking care anyway’, so I told him what happened. He was devastated and it left him kind of broken. I cried, he cried and it was all very messy. I realised how much I loved him but it was all too late. He didn’t trust me anymore and I was left feeling like a bit of a scumbag.”
Cheating doesn’t always lead to the destruction of a relationship however, as Michael can attest to. “I’d been with Drew (my partner) for about five years and things weren’t great. I’d started to use the net to cruise guys, and one day I arranged a ‘meet’ and went and hooked up with someone. Because I’m a bit stupid and forgot Drew and I share a laptop, he looked through the history and found what sites I’d been using. I braced myself for the shouting and crying and throwing of vases but he was really calm. He just looked at me and basically told me he was doing the same thing. We had a massive talk, which actually lasted about two days, and we realised we really loved each other and we’d let the relationship fall apart without even really wanting to.
There was a minor wobble when we found out we’d brought crabs into our bed – we never really figured out who it was – but now we’re stronger than ever, with a strict ‘no cheating’ agreement.”
The open relationshippers
Open relationships are fairly common in the gay community and while they’re not for everybody, some loving, committed couples are comfortable in exploring their sexuality outside their partnership.
“My boyfriend Jason decided to go abroad to study and because of the distance, I resigned myself to the relationship not lasting,” explaines 28-year-old Martin. “However, we loved each other and decided to give the long-distance thing a go, but open it up to defuse some of the tensions a long-distance relationship can bring.” When it comes to their sexual health, Martin and his boyfriend take no chances. “Obviously we play apart and we have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in place when it comes to sex partners. The strictest of the rules is ‘safe sex always’ but if an accident did happen – a condom breaking or anything else particularly risky – we would tell each other. We both go for a check-up every eight months just in case, because we’d rather be safe than sorry.”
They also think communication is the key to their relationship’s success, “You can solve a lot of problems before they happen just by talking through your feelings about them. The openness in our relationship wouldn’t work without being open with each other, and because we talk regularly about it, we can alter the rules as we go to make sure they work.”
When it comes to open relationships, it’s not just boyfriends who need to be aware of their sexual health, it’s the ‘guest stars’ too. Thom told us about his hook-ups with a couple that led to a trip to the GUM clinic. “I used to fool around with a guy a few years back and then lost touch. We reconnected again a little while ago and he told me he now had a boyfriend and they enjoyed inviting people into their ‘love making’. The boyfriend liked the look of me, so I jumped at the chance. I used to go round to their house about once a week for fun and I did that for a good few months. I knew they shagged about a lot with other people, as well as going to saunas and sex parties, but they always used condoms when fucking other guys, and I went for an ‘MOT’ every four to six months, so I wasn’t too worried.
Well, one day I got a call from my friend who informed me that his boyfriend had some nasty symptoms and that I should go for a check-up, as I was the only regular casual partner they had. It turned out his boyfriend had the LGV strain of Chlamydia, so I had two weeks of precautionary antibiotics and celibacy. I know they had no sex, with each other or other guys for around a month and when I asked them how they got it, it turned out they both had shagged someone separately without protection, so they couldn’t be sure who caught it first. I think the trust was gone for them after that and they broke up a short time later.”
Carlos has been with his partner for just over a year and they have a completely committed, monogamous relationship. “We made the decision to not use condoms when we have sex. The main reason was that I tend to lose sensation during sex if I wear one, even when I use the extra thin condoms.”
The decision to not use protection is something he discussed at great length with his partner. “We did use them at first but as we’re in a 100% committed relationship, we decided that the trust was high enough to not wear condoms. Cheating is not an option for us and if we ever get interested by someone else, we’ve agreed that it’s probably time to move on.”
Carlos and his boyfriend did take precautions before deciding to ditch the condoms however. “We went to a GUM clinic to get a full barrage of tests done and only when the results came back with the ‘all clear’, did we decide to keep the condoms locked up in the bed-side cabinet. Once you stop using condoms, I believe monogamy is a mandatory rule. After all, it’s about commitment, trust and loving and protecting each other.”
Adam, on the other hand, has been in a monogamous relationship for the past two years but still uses condoms with his boyfriend. “For me, it’s not a trust issue at all. I think using condoms is a good habit to get into and it’s one I always practise. It doesn’t seem to affect me sensation-wise, so I always just whack one on when getting down to business. It’s like an automatic process for me.” He explains that there are several other factors that led him to keep using protection. “To be perfectly honest, I do use condoms for hygiene reasons too. We all know that anal sex can be… messy… for lack of a better word, no matter how many precautions we take. I’m pretty squeamish with that stuff, so a condom for me acts as a handy glove for your penis! It’s probably not the most important reason to use a condom, but it works for me!”
The I think we’re monogamisers
It’s understandable, when you’re in a relationship, that at some point you may want to do away with condoms and indulge in some bareback bumming with your once and future love. However, as much as you trust them, would you quite literally put your health in their hands?
The decision to go bareback with your boyfriend can have some repercussions, especially if you find out that your partner hasn’t been entirely faithful. “I was so in love with my boyfriend of the time that I didn’t even question not using condoms,” explains 32-year-old Chris. “We were together for a year or so and very happy. Except one day I noticed a discharge from my penis and a mild burning sensation when I went to the toilet. I’d never had an STI before, so I didn’t even consider a GUM clinic and I went straight to my GP (which was a little bit embarrassing) who then referred me to a clinic. I confronted my boyfriend about it, and he confessed to Grindr-ing his way through most of London. He couldn’t tell me whether he’d been completely safe or not.
It’s a shame because it’s made it very hard for me to trust guys who are interested in me now. I did learn one thing though: I will always use a bloody condom!”
The HIV issue
Lei was dating his boyfriend for around six months before a revelation changed things forever. “Things were going really well. We had loads of fun together, we were getting closer emotionally and the sex was fantastic. We used condoms most of the time, but there were occasions when the excitement got a bit too much and we didn’t quite manage it. I’m a bottom and I’ll be honest, sex without condoms feels so much better.
I get tested regularly at the clinic but he never really had, so we decided a quick check-up was needed. He came round to my flat that night and I could see he was pale and visibly shaken. He’d been diagnosed as HIV-positive.”
After the bombshell, Lei made a difficult decision that he thought was ultimately for the best. “A few weeks later I decided to break up with him. I know he didn’t cheat on me and he got it through previous encounters, but after I got tested and it came back negative, I made the decision that being in a relationship with someone who was HIV-positive was more than I could handle. I know it seems selfish, but I prioritised my health first and I knew that if we tried to give it a go, the pressure would eventually break us up. I stayed friends with him and I’m still there to support him. Many a night we’ve met up and talked through how he’s feeling and how he’s getting on. I admit that it’s not my finest moment and I know many couples can make it work but, at the time, it wasn’t for me. The one thing I did take away from the whole experience is that condoms are pretty essential, especially at the beginning of relationships. I feel like I really dodged a bullet.”
However, as Lei says, mixed HIV status couples can make it work. Ross and his partner had been together a number of years when he discovered that he was HIV-positive. “It was a definite life-changer but we both approached it in a very sensible, organised way. My doctor told me, I told my boyfriend, and we worked out a plan. He coped so well with it. I mean, of course he was worried, but now that I’ve been undetectable for a few years, that helps somewhat.”
As Ross and his partner have an open relationship, honesty has always been key to their partnership’s success. “When we first got together, he told me that we couldn’t have a long-term relationship unless it was open. This required serious thought and a lot of growing up on my part, I think. The key was honest communication and and we didn’t quite manage it. I’m a bottom and I’ll be honest, sex without condoms feels so much better."
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight, once you’re in a relationship you’re much less likely to use condoms,” says Matthew Hodson, Head of Programmes at gay men’s health charity GMFA. “Sometimes couples talk about this first, ensure that they both have the same HIV status and work out what they would do if one of them, for whatever reason, put themselves at risk outside of the relationship. All too often though that discussion doesn’t take place, or people find that they’re unable to keep to the agreements that they have made.” Matthew unfortunately hears a similar story a lot through his work at GMFA. “If you talk to a group of men with HIV about how they got it, you will inevitably hear stories of people who became infected because they believed that they were in a monogamous relationship - and found out, too late, this wasn’t the case. About a third of men with HIV believe that they got the virus from sex within a relationship. Of course that doesn’t mean that there are no monogamous relationships, just that sometimes it’s hard to know whether your relationship truly is monogamous.”
When asked why he thinks open relationships are more common in the gay community, Matthew believes it’s down to unrestrictive relationship models, “Perhaps because we don’t see our lives reflected in the fairy tales we hear as children, gay men seem to be happier to explore a range of relationship models. I know couples in relationships that are completely open, where either partner can have sex with anyone at any time, others who do threesomes (or more-somes) but ban any sexual activity when the other partner isn’t present, some couples who are happy to talk about their playing around and others who allow it but only on condition that they never talk about it. For a lot of gay couples though, the traditional, monogamous model is the one that they prefer. While gay men may be more accepting of alternatives to monogamy, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that a hefty proportion of heterosexual couples aren’t actually monogamous either. Most successful relationships are built on a solid foundation of good communication. People change, and so change within a relationship is inevitable — but if you keep on talking to each other then you’re well placed to avoid the hazards that relationships can run into.”
Communication is the key
Whether you’re monogamous, in an open relationship, cheating or cheated on, it’s clear that when it to comes down to you and your boyfriend’s sexual well-being, honest communication with your partner is vital. If you decide to no longer use protection, then try and make a trip to the clinic part of your routine. It doesn’t mean you don’t trust each other. Just consider it as normal as going to the dentist.
Sona Barbosa, Counselling Team Leader at the GMI Partnership, thinks that the decision to stop using condoms with a partner, no matter how long the relationship, should not be taken lightly. “Health and emotional factors are at risk here. The key issues are communication and trust. Being able to communicate with and to trust a partner is essential. Lack of trust can seriously damage a relationship and one’s self esteem and self-confidence. Living in doubt can take away a person’s ability to believe in themselves. I know clients who have told me that they became paranoid and extremely controlling, making their partners feel suffocated and trapped in the relationship.
It’s very important that partners communicate with each other, listen to each other and respect each other’s views and feelings. This is the only way they’ll be able to reach a decision about what type of relationship they want to be in. If they do agree to an open relationship, I suggest they go back to using condoms and make sure they get tested frequently. However, agreeing to an open relationship and being able to deal with one and accept it is a different story. At some point this will need to be an individual decision depending on what each person wants and feels comfortable with.”
We know that not everyone cheats and there are some fine upstanding monogamous men on this dirt rock, but for our own sexual health, we need to at least squint through the rose-tinted glasses (designer, of course) and be aware that a slip of the penis can happen.
We know that using a condom every time you have sex isn’t always realistic but honest communication with your partner is. Tell them what you want from your sex life and maybe you can work something out that gets you both off, whether that’s an open relationship or not. Become more oral... you know you want to.
FS SAYS: what we have learnt
We all know relationships are a tricky thing. Everyone is different and we all act differently in different situations. If relationships were easy then you would never need any advice, would you? But from looking at our survey results it’s clear that better communication is needed. Whatever you want from your relationship, whether that’s an open relationship or 100% monogamy then you need to be clear with your partner. And here’s why:
If you are having sex with someone else without your partner’s consent then you need to know the risks.
| In 2011 about 3000 gay men were diagnosed with HIV.
| About 80% of all new HIV infections came from people who didn’t know they were HIV-positive.
| Around one-in-five positive men still don’t know they are HIV-positive.
So if you are having sex with someone who is not your partner and you are not using condoms then you need to test for HIV regularly. And if you fuck up? PEP is available.
What is PEP?
PEP is a course of HIV medication which you can take if you have been at risk of infection. The course of HIV medication lasts 28 days and, if you start taking it within 72 hours of putting yourself at risk, it may be able to prevent you from becoming infected with HIV. PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis – in other words it’s a form of protection (against HIV) that you can take after you have taken a risk or had a condom break on you.