“WHO AM I IF I’M NOT THE ONLY PENIS FOR YOU?” This is how my primary partner responded when I asked how he felt after I’d been with another man—with our mutual consent and trust, of course. He was genuinely asking me the question, while perhaps asking himself, too.
Kyle and I have been together for three years. We’ve known each other a lot longer than that—eight years, give or take—but only began transitioning into a romantic relationship shortly after I decided to get a divorce from my ex-husband. He’s known me at the biggest chapters of my twenties: my ~Christian girl~ days; the repression of my sexuality; my marriage; when I finally came out as bisexual; beginning to explore openness in my marriage; my untimely divorce; and now, the embracing of all that I am without shame.
Throughout our friendship, Kyle saw me go through many big changes, including accepting my sexuality and relationship preferences. So when it came to dating, it was only natural that we fell into a slightly-open space, where there was room for me to honor my desire for women and for him to have that freedom, as well.
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Up until this year, it’s been just that: I’ve only slept with other women, and I’ve had no desire for other men. There was never a rule against being with other men—a.k.a. the “one-penis policy,” which dictates that a woman in a non-monogamous relationship with a man can only sleep with other women. I just simply hadn’t felt the urge. But over the course of the last six months, something ignited in me that made me notice men more and more, whether on the streets, in coffee shops, on Zoom calls, and even during my solo summer getaway. Kyle and I agreed it was okay for the both of us, so I went for it. Which led to the question, after the fact: “Who am I if I’m not the only penis for you?”
Apparently, we needed to contemplate what being open could truly look like for us.
Erika Davian, a men’s dating and intimacy coach, says that “the ‘one-penis policy’ isn’t in and of itself a problem. When two people come together to make an agreement they both truly want, there is no issue there.” However, if someone expresses to their partner a desire to be with other men and he prefers a one-penis policy, issues can arise within the relationship.
Kyle and I both agreed that the one-penis policy didn’t fit for us. So, as the very self-aware man that he is, he quickly unraveled what was behind the question he asked: a deeply-rooted, centuries-old societal programming that tells men they must be “the best” and “the only” penis in their partner’s life. He described it as some sort of contortion of a patriarchal power role—as if a female’s pleasure is only caused by a male, and the male who brings the most intense pleasure is the most valuable to her. By extension, as long as the male is the most valuable to her, then he is irreplaceable, and she will not need to seek other pleasure. Kyle explained to me that even asking the question felt like blurting out a “secret” that so many men face but don’t talk about.
Danny Greeves, a trauma and anger expert, often works with men who firmly see their value in this way. “Men often judge themselves based on their own ideas of what a man should be and how a man should behave,” Greeves says.
This dynamic doesn’t just exist for men, either. In a Slate article, one woman who is in an open relationship with a bisexual man shares, “I really only feel OK with him seeing other men for sex, not women.” Whether you practice monogamy or not, the narrative that society perpetuates is that something is wrong with you or your relationship if your partner wants to explore with the same sex and/or gender as you.
Unlearning the Insecurity
But if you’re a man who wants to have an open relationship dynamic, but feel hesitancy around your partner being with other men, how can you begin to truly explore both of your desires in a healthy way? “It’s important to ask the question: What is it that their partner wants from a man?” Greeves explains. “When looking at it from their partner’s perspective, men can see all of the many different roles they can fulfill and not get overly attached to just this one area.”
As Kyle began to unpack this, we had larger conversations about what the insecurity felt like for him. I listened as he described how it felt frustrating to recognize the misalignment between the feeling and his values as a whole. He disliked every molecule of it. It didn’t align with his worldview of sex, relationships, pleasure, equity, equality, kindness, understanding, and value. But even the most enlightened worldview can be influenced by deeply-rooted masculine ideals, and that’s what we had to push back against.
“The men I’ve known who wanted a one-penis policy have wanted it to relieve them of feelings of insecurity, jealousy, or a lack of control in an unpredictable situation,” Davian says. The key, for these men, is learning to generate feelings of security, ease, and authority from within—and without the need for their partner to change anything about their behavior.
So where did we go from there? As Kyle assured me, his issue was not mine to fix, but I have been there to support him where I can. In the past few months, he has been focused on unplugging that social programming so he can live according to what he actually values. He’s found meditation to be especially helpful when he feels “heightened” about his value. And I always try to remind him of his primary place in my life, how I feel about him, and the greatness I see in our relationship moving forward. Kyle has a helpful mantra that helps him center his thoughts: “My partner has expressed vividly their feelings about me and to live according to my values. I must trust that communication.”
We’ve found that defining our openness in all ways—aside from just sexual encounters—has been helpful in keeping us grounded in our true desires, individually and together. For example, we’ll point out someone we find attractive in a public place, and tell one another. Then we’ll remind each other that such a seemingly small moment counts toward being open, too. It makes our attractions to other people feel less huge. If either of us goes on a date, meets someone new, or flirts, we’ve found a stride in being able to check in with one another and ask if we want to hear about it or not.
Whether you get professional help, or challenge yourself and other men in your life to think about their value in this area differently, there isn’t a one-size fits all approach to overcoming the urge for a one-penis policy. However, Kyle has personally found that the key is to confront the anxiety and frustrations head-on.
As a woman in a partnership with a man, I feel incredibly lucky to have a partner that does the deep work within himself, for his own growth and for the growth of our relationship. I have always felt accepted by him, but as time has gone on, I feel more and more accepted and loved for all that I am—including my desires. He has looked far inside himself, and as he has, I’ve found unconditional love. I can see myself and our relationship for who we are and what we value—a daily reminder that nothing is wrong with wanting outside of the conventional.
Hayley Folk is a writer and editor based in New York City. She enjoys writing LGBTQ+, lifestyle, personal narratives and sex + wellness content. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, POPSUGAR, Elite Daily and more.