https://www.smh.com.au-By Samantha Selinger-Morris
Natalie Medlock and Jan Oliver Lucks in There Is No ‘I’ In Threesome.Credit:HBO Max
Jan Oliver Lucks says that when he and his fiancee decided to “open” their relationship and invite other sexual partners in, they had numerous goals.
Lucks, a New Zealand-based filmmaker, would quell insecurities that he was a “sexual underachiever” who hadn’t had “enough” sexual partners in his 20s, and embrace being bisexual – a “lingering curiosity throughout my 20s, but never explored”. Together, the couple would reject the “monotony” of monogamy, he says, and “explore more versions of [ourselves] with different partners” and “make the most of our bodies, while they’re stretchy”.
The two were inspired by the 2010 book, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. “It makes a sort of argument for why polyamory and open relationships are actually the norm, and not monogamy; we just soaked it up hook, line and sinker,” says Lucks, over a Zoom call from Dunedin, New Zealand, on Wednesday, when his documentary about their experience, There Is No ‘I’ In Threesome, premiered on Foxtel.
Though the couple established ground rules in the year leading up to their planned wedding – prioritising the health and happiness of their relationship, warning each other before they slept with others, agreeing to only have same-sex encounters – it becomes clear early in the documentary that things soon moved off their planned track.
“I just f—ed a guy, so we’re way past that [rule],” Lucks’ fiancee* says in one scene, beaming, before the couple embark on other experiments. (Among them: Lucks gets a girlfriend and watches his fiancee have sex with another man over a video-conferencing call; they visit a private “sex party” in Auckland with a bondage play area, a “grope tent” and “multiple sex swings”.)
The couple’s experience is at the heart of what some are calling “the biggest sexual revolution since the ’60s”, namely, the rise of what is broadly called consensual non-monogamous relationships. It’s an umbrella term covering many different types of “open” arrangements, but the most common three are “monogamish” (partners allow each other, on rare occasions, to have a “leave pass” to have sex with someone else), swinging (a couple is non-monogamous, together, with other partners), and polyamory (one or both members of a relationship form other relationships with other lovers).
While there are no clear statistics on how many Australians are in CNM relationships – one 2014 study identified 1 per cent of 5323 people surveyed as being in an open relationship – interest in them is growing. One study showed that Google searches for words related to polyamory and open relationships (but not swinging) “significantly increased” between 2006 and 2015. And recently, they’ve become an increasingly popular topic in pop culture, most notably in television series like It’s A Sin, You Me Her, Sense8 and Three Wives One Husband.
Partly, says Jessica Ford, a University of Newcastle lecturer in film, media and cultural studies, this is because polyamorous relationships are now viewed differently to the way they were in the 1960s, when they first came to the forefront of popular culture in hippie communes and were seen as “a rejection of the suburban, domestic way of living” and part of the “free love movement”.
“Not that they’re no longer a part of alternative sex cultures, but it’s now actually more often than not framed as therapy culture, and this idea that in order to be polyamorous you have to be self-aware, you have to have good communication skills, good boundaries, a sophisticated understanding of consent,” says Ford. “It’s not situated as much in relationships like, ‘Oh well everyone’s just horny’.”
“For me, it was more down to the nitty gritty, sexual stuff, and growing up with porn, and not doing enough of that in my university years because I was too introverted,” says filmmaker Jan Oliver Lucks, left, pictured with Natalie Medlock, in There Is No ‘I’ In Threesome.Credit:HBO Max
This is partly, says Ford, because while our culture still “promotes monogamy, promotes individualism and the notion of romantic love”, there is more “rethinking about how we might structure our families and relationships” in light of various social realities – children staying home longer, the rising cost of childcare – that are making it increasingly difficult for families to have one stay-at-home parent.
So do open and polyamorous relationships work?
In Lucks’ case – spoiler alert – his relationship imploded.
“She slowly recast me as her main primary partner and she had, perhaps without her knowing it at first, lost interest in me, or the connection wasn’t as strong,” says Lucks, whose fiancee fell in love with her boyfriend. “For me, it stayed pretty much just on a sexual level, but for her it [having other lovers] filled a need for an emotional connection and, like, a loving partner that pays attention.”
A couple of years after the couple’s breakup, in 2018, Lucks was so low that he went on anti-depressants. (Partly, he has said, this was due to reliving the failure of his relationship while making the film.)
In large part, he says his film is a cautionary tale of how not to engage in an open or polyamorous relationship, as they did everything “wrong”: living apart for long periods, in addition to his hatred of conflict, and the fact that he would “go on a hike instead of openly talking to her”. Also, he now realises he was simply “intellectualising an emotional or physical urge”.
Sex therapist and relationship counsellor Jacqueline Hellyer, of Sydney’s The LoveLife Clinic, isn’t surprised.
“It’s the latest thing to be polyamorous and have consensual non-monogamous relationships, and all this sort of stuff, and too many people are engaging in it and thinking it’s just a rational thing; ‘Yes, I have my rights’. Sometimes people go, ‘to be with one person is like being possessed, and no one owns me, and my relationship is a cage’, and all this sort of bullshit, but what they’re omitting is the fact that sexuality and relationships are primarily an emotional thing,” Hellyer says, adding that jealousy breaks apart many polyamorous relationships she’s seen.
“When we look at human sexuality from an evolutionary lens, we are so sexual because it bonds us,” she says, meaning that it helps a couple stay together, which is helpful to humans – compared to other mammals – because our young are comparatively helpless for a lot longer and the presence of both parents helps them survive. (In comparison, she says, other mammals “only have sex when the female’s in heat” and their babies are independent far younger.)
This is why, says Hellyer, it is extraordinarily hard for polyamorous couples to prevent themselves from falling in love with new partners.
It’s not impossible – one female client she had, for instance, took a lover because “she was pretty bored in life, had younger kids, and the husband was not all that exciting a lover”. She’s much happier, says Hellyer, and her sex life with her husband – who accepted the arrangement as long as it didn’t involve dating or dinner, in addition to other boundaries – became much better as a result.
Swinging, too, says Hellyer, is often less problematic, because it’s an experience a couple goes through together. Numerous clients’ relationships, she says, have been enhanced by swinging as a result of sharing an exciting experience which created a stronger bond.
But of polyamory she says: “Often I find that to develop the ability to have a successful polyamorous relationship, [a couple discussing what they will get out of the experience that will make their relationship stronger, being self-aware and supporting each other to be happy], you kind of develop the skills to have a really successful monogamous relationship, so why would you [do it?]… I think we’re putting the cart before the horse. We [many of us] don’t even know how to have a relationship, let alone multiple relationships.”
That is also the conclusion that Lucks, 37, has come to.
“I think monogamy is the norm for a reason,” says Lucks, who has been single for five years and has just met a woman with whom he’s beginning a relationship.
“I’m glad I tried an alternative, because I would have always wondered,” he says. “[But] I would go into boring monotony [now] and embrace it. I’d get very excited about the missionary position.”
*Lucks’ fiancee is played in the film by actor Natalie Medlock, who recreates the events from Lucks’ relationship. Lucks’ ex-fiancee gave him permission to do this after she dropped out of the film a year into making it, when they broke up.
There Is No ‘I’ in Threesome is currently available on Foxtel.