Sex Without Borders: the complicated couplings of Toronto’s pleasure-seeking polyamorists
Stephane and Samantha’s open marriage includes shared girlfriends, bacchanalian house parties and always asking permission before taking on a new lover. A portrait of Toronto’s new generation of polyamorists
Samantha Fraser and Stephane Goulet are the kind of married couple who have always talked openly about people they find attractive. She’d comment on the hot waiter at a restaurant, he’d admit that he was turned on by a woman on the street. When sex clubs were legalized in Toronto, they fantasized about going to one; they didn’t actually go, but talking about what the experience might be like became a regular part of their sex life. One night, a year into their marriage, they hosted a raucous house party. While Samantha flirted with other men, Stephane made out with another woman during a game of spin the bottle. “I remember thinking, this is fun,” Stephane says.
Samantha was working at a Starbucks at the time and knew many of her regular customers by their beverage of choice. Grande Red Eye Bold was a shy, 40-something York professor she found attractive. One afternoon, he handed her a note that read: “I know that you’re married and I respect that, but if you’re interested in exploring, let me know.” Most husbands would feel threatened or at least irked if a guy propositioned their wife, but Stephane says he was flattered.
The next day, Stephane and Samantha rented The Cabin Movie (a Canadian cult classic about three couples getting it on in the woods) and proceeded to have sex all weekend. A few days later, with her husband’s blessing, Samantha was naked on Grande Red Eye Bold’s couch. “Before I got there, I hadn’t known for sure that we would have sex,” she says. But, of course, they did. Afterward, she worried about how her husband would react to the reality of the situation—it’s one thing to talk dirty about other lovers, quite another to act out the fantasy. “I called Steph from the car right away just to see how he was feeling,” she says. He was feeling fine.
Seven years later, Stephane and Samantha are Toronto’s best-known advocates for polyamory, the term preferred by people who have turned their open relationships into a lifestyle. Samantha, who is 32, writes a blog about her sex life, offers polyamory life coaching and runs an annual sexuality and relationships conference called Playground (this past fall the three-day event filled a ballroom at the Holiday Inn on Carlton Street). Stephane is 36 and an art director at a video game studio. He is less actively involved with other polyamorists than his wife, though he doesn’t mind her rendering the personal aspects of his sex life (how many lovers they share, their preferred sex toys and so on) into teachable moments for her blog. Stephane and Samantha, in the poly vernacular, are known as a primary couple—a committed partnership in which both parties engage in sexual relationships with additional, lower-ranking lovers. This is the most common set-up, though some polyamorists live family-style in groups of three or more in the same house. Poly individuals are often bisexual (like Samantha), but not always (Stephane is hetero). Some relationships employ the “one penis per party” rule.
Polyamorists are often lumped in with swingers, though there is one key difference: the former believe in maintaining multiple emotional relationships along with all the sex. What distinguishes the modern poly movement from the free love ethos and orgies of the ’60s and ’70s is the absence of politics. Hippies rejected monogamy in the same way they rejected haircuts—as symbols of patriarchal society. Today’s polyamorists are more concerned with the pursuit of self-actualization through satisfying relationships and the honest exploration of sexuality. They don’t want to “drop out” any more than they want to grow hemp on a commune. Besides, their busy work lives and regular-person obligations probably wouldn’t allow it.
Toronto, it turns out, is one of the most poly-friendly places in North America. Poly people in other cities speak enviously of our city’s sexual progressiveness and live-and-let-live kind of liberalism. In this city, gay marriage is old hat, sex clubs like Oasis Aqualounge and Wicked operate legally, and rub ’n’ tugs set up shop in between yoga studios and shawarma shops. In addition to Samantha’s annual conference, a 350-member group called Polyamory Toronto meets monthly at a midtown pub to discuss such issues as coming out as poly to your family, coping with jealousy and explaining polyamory to your kids. Another group called Ethical Lovers convenes monthly at the U of T Centre for Women and Trans People, and monthly #CrushTO dance parties are a melting pot for the various, and often intermingling, “sex-positive” communities, a blanket term describing the open embrace of sex for its own sake without any of the morality hang-ups.
Polyamorists like Stephane and Samantha want to be accepted by mainstream society in the way that gays and lesbians have been accepted—and they’re making progress on that front. There have been some notable watershed moments. The Oxford English Dictionary first recognized the term in 2006, and last year The Movie Network broadcast a poly reality TV series. Polyamory: Married and Dating tracks two Californian households: one a threesome of 20-something grad students (two bisexual women and a hetero man), the other consisting of two couples living as one big sexy family. But there’s no better barometer of the mainstream than a Jennifer Aniston movie. In last year’s middling rom-com Wanderlust, Aniston and Paul Rudd play a monogamous couple who lose their Manhattan jobs and move into a poly commune.
Stephane and Samantha met through the website Quest Personals in January of 2001. They had dinner, went back to her place and had sex. Three months later, they moved in together. They decided to get married three years after that, when her dad was diagnosed with ALS (Samantha wanted him to be able to walk her down the aisle). The ceremony was at the Toronto Botanical Garden.
Samantha, with her black bangs and red pout, reminds me of a live-action Betty Boop. Her features are cherubic, which makes it even funnier when she describes X-rated sex scenes as though she were talking about the weather. Stephane is comparatively reserved, and admits he has a penchant for “fiery women.” He looks like the quintessential dude-who-works-in-a-modern-artistic-discipline—rock T-shirts, funky glasses. Neither self-identifies as a hipster (does anyone?), though they do enjoy shopping in Kensington, visiting tattoo parlours and playing video games.
One night last November, they invited me over to their Junction semi. The main floor looks a lot like a Modern Museum of Treasures Found at Garage Sales: a pink Jesus statue, two horse portraits, a Mexican wrestling mask and a vintage typewriter. We were joined by Gayle, one of their current girlfriends. Stephane and Samantha poured us some wine, and we listened to Pink Floyd. Aside from the fact that I was there to ask questions about their polyamorous practices, nothing about the gathering was even
Gayle, who has the wholesome, friendly vibe of a girl you met at camp, told me the story of how she became involved with Stephane and Samantha. When she was in her early 20s, she came out to her parents as a lesbian. She later discovered she liked having sex with men, too, and wanted to give poly a try after getting involved with a non-monogamous partner. She met Samantha last April through a mutual lover, a 34-year-old named Robert with a shaved head and a job at city hall. Robert and Gayle had invited Samantha and a third woman to join them in a foursome. Samantha slept over, and Gayle met Stephane the next day, when he came to pick up Samantha. She thought Stephane was cute, but didn’t make the assumption that Samantha would share her husband. A few months later, after several drinks, Gayle approached Stephane at one of the couple’s bacchanalian house parties, and they ended up having sex. On that particular night, Samantha was preoccupied with Robert. Later, Samantha and Gayle swapped men.
These days, Gayle sees Stephane and Samantha together or separately about once a week. Sometimes things get sexy (a recent night ended in a five-person orgy on the main floor futon), while other times the trio behaves more like best friends. On the night of my visit they were headed out to karaoke. “I might be really horny, but maybe Sam has a headache or Steph has indigestion,” says Gayle. When they do get it on as a group, she says there’s no hierarchy. (“It’s nice that they don’t make me feel left out,” she says.) Stephane and Samantha aren’t Gayle’s only relationship: she’s involved with several others. Eventually, she hopes to settle into a primary relationship similar to Stephane and Samantha’s. “I look at them as being the ultimate poly couple.”
For all the talk of sexual freedom and liberal attitudes, polyamorous people are exceedingly preoccupied with maintaining rules and boundaries. It’s a delicate dance of seeking consent, managing feelings and not crossing certain lines. Stephane says that being poly has forced him to communicate more. Samantha says their relationship wouldn’t have remained healthy if they hadn’t decided to open up. She describes their pre-poly lives as caring, but boring (“A big weekend used to be a trip to IKEA”). Becoming non-monogamous forced them to look at what they had built together—where the partnership was strong and also where it was lacking. Compared with most monogamous couples I know, there’s a refreshing degree of honesty between Stephane and Samantha.
During the early days of their poly life, they followed a lot of rules—rules about sheet washing, always checking in by text when with a lover, and continuing to have sex with each other regularly. Initially, Samantha forbade Stephane from having anal sex with other women because that was something she couldn’t do with him (she finds it too painful). “Eventually, I realized that I was being ridiculous,” she says. Having different experiences with other partners, after all, is one of the main advantages of the polyamorous lifestyle. You can get from a lover what you’re not getting from your spouse. Samantha has two regular partners she goes to when she wants to be dominated. “That’s something that I realized I need, but Stephane’s not into it,” she says.
For Stephane, the benefits are less about filling any one specific void than the overall appeal of multiple sexual options. Soon after making the switch, he started a one-on-one secondary relationship with another woman, whom he dated for almost a year. He broke it off because both he and Samantha felt that the other woman was making too many demands and wanted a more serious commitment.
Twice they have dated another couple together. One of those times the relationship lasted for two years—they did holidays, met parents—but it eventually fell apart because the other couple was having problems. They say they’ve never considered becoming an official triad or quad (the terms poly people use to describe threesomes and foursomes who live together). Bringing another couple or person into their relationship in an official capacity is not off the table, though they both say it’s hard to imagine a new addition on equal footing given their shared history and bond. And, of course, there are the infinitely complicated logistics: who owns the home, do they all sleep together or have a schedule of couplings, and what happens if someone changes his or her mind?
At times, Stephane and Samantha have each experienced “new relationship energy,” a poly term that describes the sometimes all-consuming honeymoon period with a new love interest. An established, long-standing union can’t compete with the fresh passion and exhilaration of a new romance, a fact that successful polyamorists don’t try to deny. Instead, a couple like Stephane and Samantha expect the heat will subside and their primary relationship will remain. Polyamorists (who should probably just go ahead and start their own dictionary) believe in “compersion,” which refers to the vicarious joy they feel when the person they love experiences emotional fulfillment. This is the part of the poly lifestyle that I can’t get past. Yes, it makes a certain amount of intellectual sense, but isn’t an integral part of a romantic relationship the fact that the other person chose you and only you?
Today, as Stephane and Samantha have become more confident in the solidity of their main relationship, there are fewer explicit rules—most are just understood. Samantha still insists that Stephane not bring women she doesn’t know into their bedroom, which she views as her space, though he is fine with her bringing other people into their bed with or without him. Other situations are handled on a case-by-case basis, and, as with any relationship, there are miscommunications—like a recent night when Stephane ended up having sex with two other women during a house party. “I was like, you didn’t ask me about that,” Samantha says. “And he said that we had exchanged a look of approval. What look?”
They have some non-poly friends, people they jokingly refer to as “norms.” “We get together, talk about babies and that sort of thing,” says Samantha. They want to have children in a couple of years, which may force them to take a break from their sexual experimentation. They already go through the same sexual dry spells as any couple. “We were in Mexico for 11 days recently, and we only had sex twice,” Samantha admits. They always say “I love you” before they go to sleep, even if that’s all they do.
Part of the reason for that trip was to attend Stephane’s cousin’s wedding. During the beach ceremony, the officiant quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, who wrote that “love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.” Stephane and Samantha, sitting in the audience, agreed that they couldn’t have put it better.