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Michael Shelton: Gay Therapist's Provocative Book on Relationships

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008 at 11:43 AM (619) 688-1886 P. O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

Michael Shelton, Gay therapist and author from Philadelphia, recently published the book "Boy Crazy: Why Monogamy Is So Hard for Gay Men and What You Can Do About It." But what makes him different from almost everyone else who's written about this is he doesn't claim to have all the answers; instead, he says each couple has to work out their own way of making their relationship work, which may or may not include sexual exclusivity.

Michael Shelton: Gay...
shelton.a.jpg, image/jpeg, 600x639


“Boy Crazy” Author Asks Whether Men Can Stay Sexually Exclusive


It’s hardly the first — or, quite likely, the last — book to be written on the topic of whether Gay men in couple relationships can stay sexually exclusive and keep a commitment to monogamy (or “monandry” — the love of one man rather than the love of one woman — as my own husband Charles calls it) for a lifetime. But Michael Shelton’s Boy Crazy: Why Monogamy Is So Hard for Gay Men and What You Can Do About It, published in November by Alyson Press, is distinguished by its author’s refusal to say he has all the answers to the questions he’s raised.

“Therapists Take Sides on Monogamy,” one of the subheadings in his book reads — but though Shelton is himself a therapist, and much of the information in Boy Crazy comes directly from his experiences counseling male couples, if there’s anything about his book that leaps out at you, it’s his refusal to take sides. The book’s title makes it seem as if Shelton believes that Gay men in relationships should be mutually faithful, and he’s offering a recipe to help them do so — but the back cover calls him “a clear proponent of open relationships,” which he isn’t and he resented seeing in print on the packaging of his book.

Though written in a breezy, easily readable style (perhaps a bit too breezy and readable; Shelton’s first draft was denser, more academic and possibly deeper and more interesting), Boy Crazy is the work of an author who admits he doesn’t know everything about the topic. He tells his readers what he tells his therapy clients: there is no one path to make your relationship work; there is just what you and your partner work out to be as happy with each other as you can. At times the book seems to contradict itself; Shelton cites the extensive research that men are “hard-wired” to have more sex partners, and a more casual attitude towards sex, than women. But he also includes chapters on the psychological costs of “cheating” on a monogamous commitment and the sheer difficulty of pursuing an open relationship even if you and your partner decide intellectually that that’s what you want.

Shelton is a Gay man in his mid-40’s (yes, he’s in a relationship himself) and a licensed “CAC” — which used to mean “Certified Addictions Counselor” but whose range of practice has branched out to include gambling, food and sex addictions as well as alcohol and drugs. He works at the Fairmount Behavioral Health System in Philadelphia and is also affiliated with the Joseph J. Peters Institute. Shelton is currently working on a doctorate in human sexuality at Philadelphia’s Widener University — the only school in the country that offers one — and he’s also interested in writing a second book on gentrification, immigration and their effects on white Gay men, particularly in making them more open to seeing people of color as potential sex partners.

Zenger’s: First off, could you tell me about your background and how you came to be interested in the topic of Gay relationships?

Michael Shelton: I would guess I became interested in the topic of Gay relationships from being a Gay male. I don’t have a better answer to that question. Clinically, when I was in graduate school, my internship practicum closed down right in the middle and I had to find a replacement very quickly. There’s a facility here in Philadelphia called the Peters Institute, which was one of the first places in the country for treating sexual disorders. So I managed to get in there, and I just fell in love with the treatment of sexual disorders and sexual problems. The two of them seemed to combine very well.

Zenger’s: How long have you been in practice, and how did that affect the book? Because I have the impression that a lot of the information in it came from people that you’ve actually treated.

Shelton: I just heard so many, so many Gay men vent about their frustrations about monogamy: how difficult it was to find a relationship where the other person would stay committed. They just eventually came together in my head. Part of the book was my own exploration, because I really wanted to have a better understanding of why is this happening. We seem to have so many urban myths about it, but what’s the reality?

Zenger’s: From the front cover, particularly the subtitle, it looked as if it were going to be one of those manuals that, “If you’re in a relationship, of course you should be monogamous, and I the expert therapist will tell you how.”

Shelton: Many of my fellow writers do push that point, but actually a lot less than I thought when I went into it. A lot of self-help books out there promote monogamy. Some don’t make it a rigid rule, but many of them do.

Zenger’s: Then on the back cover, you’re described as an advocate of open relationships.

Shelton: I did not write that! I’m not an advocate of open relationships. I’m an advocate of relationships that work, however that might be. When I was corresponding, mostly by e-mail, with other professionals who had reputations and had written about the topic, it seemed open relationships were the most controversial topic. I got the impression that we were not supposed to say that open relationships can be very fraught with difficulties: that this is our birthright, and we should promote this as much as possible. Open relationships can work, but I haven’t seen them work too often.

Zenger’s: Part of what struck me about the book is it seemed to be written by three different people, and you seemed to be having an argument. There’s one chapter that cites the clinical research on male sexuality in general to suggest that men are, as you put it, “hard-wired” to have multiple partners. Then there’s a chapter that comes down very hard on “cheating.” Then there’s your chapter on open relationships which, as you just pointed out, is much more emphatic about the difficulties of sustaining them than the benefits. So, between the contradictions on the cover and the different currents in the book, I got the impression that you’re as confused about this, and your thoughts go as off in as many different directions, as the rest of us.

Shelton: My point is that, my clinical experience, I encounter is a lot of men and a lot of couples who think that if they could get legally married, or they had some type of commitment, that’s going absolutely, positively, to bestow and confirm everlasting monogamy on the relationship. That’s just bull. I think that was the most important point I was trying to make in this book: no matter how we’re feeling now, no matter how much passion we have now, no matter how much love we have now, that doesn’t tell us how we’re going to be feeling six months or six years in the future. But a lot of men really think that if they get that absolute formal commitment, they will be in a monogamous relationship forever.

Zenger’s: I hear that point made, and my usual response is, “Well, it doesn’t seem to have worked all that well for heterosexuals.”

Shelton: No, it hasn’t! But I’m sure you’ve seen this in your friends, or in your own life. It’s just that belief, and I think it’s a killer for us. California is in the news now since Proposition 8, and so you’re at the forefront of the debate on same-sex marriage. But what I’m saying is that if Gay people want to get married because of equality, absolutely. If they want it for the other primary reasons, for mutual support or specific privileges, absolutely. But if we think it’s going to secure monogamy for us, we’re blinding ourselves.

Zenger’s: In fact, I’ve heard that as a counter-argument against same-sex marriage that runs that, since Gays have demonstrated that in most cases they cannot hold together a monogamous relationship, and marriage is based on monogamy, therefore Gays don’t really qualify.

Shelton: I’ve heard that also. But I think as a civil-rights issue, should we have the right to marry? Should we be able to get married? Absolutely, but let’s go in with a realistic appraisal of what benefits there are to it.

Zenger’s: Andrew Sullivan wrote in his book on same-sex marriage that one of the reasons he supported it was that he thought it would erode the expectation of monogamy, so that straight people who feel locked into the social expectation of a monogamous commitment wouldn’t feel as constrained in their relationships. Would you agree with that?

Shelton: I’d have to think about that a little bit. As an extemporaneous answer, I could say yes to that. But I’d want to ponder it a bit.

Zenger’s: Also, one thing that had struck me was that, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the AIDS prevention programs were telling Gay men, “Always use condoms. Even if you think you’re in a monogamous relationship, always use condoms; because even if you’re not seeing anybody else, he probably is.”

Shelton: Oh, we’re still teaching that!

Zenger’s: That always struck me as a teaching that was practically setting people up for failure. It was sending the message, “You can’t trust your partner. You can’t even trust your partner not to bring home a supposedly deadly disease, let alone any other part of the commitment.” It seemed a highly negative and relationship-discouraging message to me.

Shelton: It’s discouraging message, but is it unrealistic? That’s an important question, also. Since the book came out, my partner and I were invited to the anniversary of a couple that had been together, oh my God, 20 years, maybe 25 years. Both of these men were saying verbally, “Yes, we’re committed. We’ve never cheated in our relationship together.” But I know that both of them have. Yet there they are, 20 years in the relationship, trying to keep this hidden from each other. This is amazing to me!

Please don’t make it seem like I’m saying anything against Gay relationships. They are essential for our mental, physical and emotional well-being. We just have to go into them knowing the challenges that come with it. Many of the challenges are the same that a straight couple or a Lesbian couple will have. But we have our own challenges, too.

When I originally sent this manuscript out to Alyson, it was really very academic. And They really wanted it to be a much more accessible book for a mainstream audience. So just tell me: it didn’t come across as really self-help, did it?

Zenger’s: Not really. As I said, it seemed more their packaging than your content. The book cover, and especially its subtitle, seemed to be saying, “Here’s what to do to make your relationship work.” And, if anything, the impression I got when I actually read it was that there isn’t one recipe to make your relationship work. That’s what you tell your clients, and that’s the message you’re trying to convey to the rest of us in your book.

Shelton: Right. And, based on your experience as a Gay male, do you find — would you believe that? Would you say, yes, that seems to be true?

Zenger’s: Oh, I think definitely. This conjured up a lot of not only my experiences in relationships, but other writers I’ve interviewed on the same topic and other things I’ve read. I mean, one of the things that had always puzzled me was that people like John Gray, the author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, didn’t seem interested in looking at Gay people.

Yet, if your thesis is that men and women have profoundly different responses to their sexuality, and it manifests itself in many different ways, and men are more hard-wired to multiple partners than women are, one would think that as a scientist you’d want to isolate the variables and say, “O.K., then what happens with men and women who don’t have to deal with the expectations of the other gender: men who are totally Gay, women who are totally Lesbian?”

So one of the things that made me interested in your book is maybe this is a Gay author looking at the “men are from Mars” idea and looking at how it plays out when Mars falls in love with Mars. The result does seem to bolster the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” theory, at least as far as Gay men are concerned. Maybe a Lesbian therapist has to do a book about Lesbian relationships. I’m not a Lesbian and I don’t know much about how Lesbians deal with these issues, especially since the Lesbians I know tend to be far more reticent than the Gay men I know in terms of talking about the dynamics of their relationships.

Shelton: Originally, there was a thought that the book should be divided in half: be a section on Gay men and a section on Lesbian women. And that’s the same argument I gave them. Let Alyson find a Lesbian woman who deals with Lesbian relationships and let her do that book, because it’s probably got some important information in it. You ought to suggest that to your readers. Maybe someone wants to do a book proposal on that one, because it won’t be coming from me. Because I’m in the same situation as you are.

Zenger’s: I remember in the 1980’s, when David McWhirter and Drew Mattison, who were a two-therapist Gay couple in San Diego, published The Male Couple, which was really the earliest one I know of about the topic, one of the things they said is that every Gay male couple seeks out alternate sex partners; that it happens between the second and fifth year of the relationship; and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just going to happen, learn to accept it, manage it. They even had a passage in their book where they said sit at the breakfast table the next morning and share your experiences of the night before.

Shelton: I just want you to know I am cringing as you say that!

Zenger’s: Your professional experience tells you that that would be a really bad idea?

Shelton: Well, again, for some couples that might work. But to give a blanket statement like that, that that’s just the way to approach it, absolutely not.

Zenger’s: The next major book I remember about this topic came out in the late 1980’s from Eric Marcus, and when I interviewed him, he told me that at his book signings people who’d read the McWhirter-Mattison book and had that same cringing reaction to that particular passage were coming up to him and saying, “Thank you for writing your book and giving us permission to be monogamous.”

Shelton: Most couples, when they enter a relationship, when they’re in that infatuation stage and their brain is flooded with all those neurochemicals, they’re not even contemplating the idea of cheating. But two or three years down the road — I think it takes about 17 months for the infatuation stage to pass — then we’ll see how they feel about monogamy. I have no doubt that there are couples out there that have been monogamous for decades. I have no doubt about it. I just have not encountered any myself.

I’m not talking about having affairs or fuck buddies on the side. I’m talking that at least one of them had a little slip sometime during the relationship, and that may have just been oral sex in the sauna or the steam room one time. That has been my experience. We do have a lot of men that go out seeking additional sex partners, even in a relationship, but a lot of times, it just happens. They find themselves in a predicament. It’s there, it’s available, so they take advantage of it, and then it’s over and they go home again.

Zenger’s: One other thing that Eric Marcus said in his book on this topic was that he thought that a relationship in which both partners were committed to monogamy could work; a relationship in which both partners wanted it open could work; and that the problems arose when one partner wanted it monogamous and the other partner wanted it open.

Shelton: I agree with that statement. I might slightly disagree that if both men in a relationship want it open, that could still work, because open relationships are sometimes more difficult than monogamous relationships. Wanting it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be successful. But even men who are sincerely desirous of monogamous relationships, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be monogamous. Things happen in life that we don’t plan to.

I’ve also encountered — and I’m sorry for the language if it offends you — fuck buddies: somebody that they might have sex with on occasion, several times a year. We’re also starting to see how the uncharted world of the Internet is beginning to impact Gay men’s sex lives. We are coming across men who have paramours on line but have never met them in person. I bring that up in the book: is that actually cheating if they’ve never met each other? Most clinicians would say that’s cheating. If it’s a relationship where it has to be kept hidden from the primary partner, that’s cheating, infidelity.

Zenger’s: Even if there has been no physical contact?

Shelton: Yes, most definitely. There is no consensus, but most clinicians would say if it’s taking energy — whether it’s physical energy or emotional energy — out of the primary relationship, and it’s kept hidden, that’s infidelity.

Zenger’s: One thing that’s already apparent is that the Internet is hurting the bar scene. A lot of organizations where people got together, socially and for possible hook-ups, are dwindling in attendance because people can stay home and make those kinds of connections on line.

Shelton: But if you talk to some public officials who had to handle city parks, state parks, where a lot of Gay men hooked up, they’re delighted with this. The Internet has done a much better job of stopping men from meeting in clandestine spots for sex than any type of intervention by the authorities.

Zenger’s: Frankly, the whole idea of Internet cruising rather horrifies me, particularly since it seems to reduce the whole thing to complementary sex acts. You go on line saying, “I like to do X,” and someone responds saying, “Yeah, I like to have X done to me.” And that’s the whole basis of your connection. and I’ve had some pretty casual sexual experiences in my time, but somehow I like the idea of at least having met the person before.

Shelton: I agree, but I think the Internet is definitely very much an age thing. Gay men and below are much more comfortable with this, I think.

Zenger’s: One thing I wished you’d touched on more in the book —you did mention it briefly, but I’d have liked to have seen more of it — is the social basis of monogamy as a construct and the history of it. Why do we have this expectation that, once we commit to another person in a long-term relationship, that will be the only person we will ever have sex with, or want to have sex with, again?

Shelton: Originally, that was in the book. We had about 10 pages looking at cross-cultural studies about monogamy. But it just seemed a little too academic for folks, so we left it out. But it is a very interesting topic, especially how it really became so paramount here in the United States.

Zenger’s: In Friedrich Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, he said that, as men took over from women as the dominant force in society, and switched from matrilineal to patrilineal lines of inheritance, there had to be some way of making sure that the child that the woman was about to give birth to was the child of the man that she was socially assigned to as a partner.

Shelton: Absolutely. That’s the whole basis of socio-psychology right now. But yes, you’ve got that so far. I agree with you.

Zenger’s: And that was why historically monogamy has been far, far more stringently enforced on women than on men.

Shelton: Correct.

Zenger’s: One of the things that really amused me in the recent campaign on Proposition 8 was the supporters of the proposition to ban same-sex marriage were saying. “We need to return to the traditional Biblical definition of marriage as one man and one woman.” Well, the traditional Biblical definition of marriage is not one man and one woman. It’s one man and as many women as he could afford to support financially.

Shelton: I think that came out in the book. I’m sure there’s a sentence in there about that. Strict 100-percent mutual monogamy is probably one of the rarest forms of relationship across the world. Polygamy is probably the most common.

Zenger’s: One of the strengths of the book is how much of it has come from your experiences as a therapist. Your sources are people that you have actually talked to, actually sat across an office from with the idea of helping them achieve a relationship that will satisfy them.

Shelton: And many of them come in and they want help in being monogamous. “Hey, our relationship isn’t working. We want to be monogamous, and we’re feeling urges not to be monogamous.” Or one person is cheating. So they want to be monogamous again. That is what I come across over and over again. “Help us, help us get back to monogamy.”

Zenger’s: And if there’s anything about the book, it’s that over and over again you were saying, “There are no rules. You need to find whatever works for you. If that means sexual exclusivity, and you can pull that off, fine. If that means an open relationship, and you can pull that off, fine.”

Shelton: It might be alternating periods of that. A couple years of this, a couple years of that. My experience is that the overwhelming majority of Gay men that I have worked with professionally, that I know as colleagues, that I know in the field, that I know just through friendships, have cheated. They’ve had moments of infidelity, experiences of infidelity, that they keep hidden.

The next question is, is that a model for a relationship? If two men are going to try to stick together, and monogamy seems increasingly improbable, is it O.K. to have a little fling on the side — not an affair, but an occasional sexual dalliance? is that acceptable? It happens, we don’t talk about it, and our life goes on.

But there is a counter-argument to that, and I mentioned it. Richard Isensee, whom I’m sure you’ve heard of, whom I like very much, made a point that I agree with completely. The more I find that men go out and have an occasional dalliance, the more that their relationship that they’re involved in, their primary relationship, seems bland. So how the hell do we make this all work? Sorry, no pithy answer.

Zenger’s: No pithy answer, which is going to disappoint the hell out of anybody who buys your book thinking you’re going to supply one.

Shelton: You take take it —I won’t say day by day —year by year, and you make it work to where both people are satisfied. But to give a pithy answer to such a complicated conundrum as this is unfair to readers. And my apologies to all those couples who have honestly stayed together for long periods of time without cheating. For those who have done it, congratulations. If they’re happy with that, good. I hope the relationship continues on that track. But I wholeheartedly believe that most Gay men will cheat — I’m sorry, “cheating” is such a loaded word — will commit infidelity.

Zenger’s: Even that is a rather loaded word. The expectation of monogamy is built so much into the culture that even the language to describe a non-exclusive relationship seems to be loaded with value judgments against it.

Shelton: Correct. We don’t really have a vocabulary to express this. But it doesn’t change the point that I do believe that this will happen for most Gay male relationships. It might be just one time the whole time they’re together. But lifelong Gay male relationships, or even Gay male relationships of a couple of years, where there is absolutely no involvement outside of that primary relationship, are, I find, very rare. I do believe that that urban myth that it happens within two to five years is true — and it’s probably closer to two years than five. It sounds so pessimistic, doesn’t it?

Zenger’s: It’s only pessimistic if you believe in monogamy as an ideal and you buy into the social condemnation of non-exclusive relationships.

Shelton: But this is the trend that we are seeing now in our field. Back during the height of the AIDS epidemic you got into a monogamous relationship for your health. Now it’s a sign of love. I’m not discounting all those men who absolutely, positively are against monogamy, wouldn’t think about it: if that works for them, fantastic. But I and my colleagues are seeing an increasing number of Gay men and couples coming in desiring monogamy. It’s a sign of love. It’s a sign of commitment. It’s romance.

Zenger’s: It’s what we’ve been told to expect. Also, as I said earlier, it’s what we’ve been told that we need to do to prove that we are worthy of marriage rights.

Shelton: I’m just thinking of all the young couples that I’ve seen lately coming in, looking — and the fact that they’re essentially coming in for pre-marital counseling, I think is incredible. That, to me, is fantastic. But I just keep hearing them say over and over again, “We want to have a monogamous relationship,” and they’re trying to predict six years, 10 years in the future. I keep thinking, “Gentlemen, you don’t know what you’re in store for.”

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