Sleeping Around

August 7, 2009

Lovers embraceMany guys think it’s OK have numerous sexual relationships at the same time. Most girls don’t. Recently in the Washington Post, advice columnist Carolyn Hax weighed in on this question:

Anonymous: Hi Carolyn,

I am having sex with three people right now. (Not literally right now, but you get the idea.) Two of them have no idea there is anyone else and the third one might or might not. My friends say I’m being deceptive but I say it’s fair game as long as I don’t pretend I’m being exclusive and we always use protection. Who’s right?

Carolyn Hax: My evil twin hopes you fall hard for someone who treats you the same way you’re treating these three people.

The answer to your specific question is that you’re telling a lie of omission. Certainly if your sex partners are telling themselves they’re in an exclusive relationship, then they need to take better care of themselves. However, I equate their mistake to letting an insurance policy lapse. That makes you the natural disaster for which they failed to prepare.

It gnaws at me, the whole attitude of regarding something as okay because of some imagined technicality. What that really means in translation is that you are going out of your way to justify treating other people like crap.

No, it’s not okay — especially not with something so trust-dependent as sex, but also not even with something petty, like zooming up the breakdown lane to get farther ahead in a traffic jam. Stop seeing your needs as special and others’ needs as mere obstacles to getting what you want. It doesn’t get you ahead, it makes you a jerk.

In the London Evening Standard, a pair of sexperts tackles the same issue: Is it OK to sleep with several people at once without telling them?

I’m single and dating. Is it OK to sleep with several people at once without telling them? I can’t see I’m doing any harm but my monogamous friends say otherwise?

Nirpal, the guy expert, offered this advice:

  • There’s nothing immoral about sleeping with several people at once, provided none of them has been given the impression they’re in a monogamous situation.
  • You don’t have to tell them that you’re handing it out like candy, either. In fact, you shouldn’t, because it will only make the people you’re dating feel worthless – especially if they’re not getting as much action as you are.
  • The unspoken rule of modern dating is that until you’ve had that conversation in which you’ve both explicitly agreed to be exclusive, you are perfectly free to date and sleep with other people. It is a strictly don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.
  • Sleeping around gives you added confidence in your dating life: you know that you’re desirable and that there are plenty of fish in the sea


He does acknowledge that being promiscuous can make you jaded:

  • No one has a palate for gourmet cuisine if they’ve been gorging on junk beforehand.


Not surprisingly, Esther sees it differently:

  • Of course it’s not OK. These are people with feelings, they’re not shoes.
  • I’d say something about chlamydia and angry ex-lovers, but I can only assume you’ve already got an STD clinic and a solicitor on speed dial.
  • If you think you’re going to come out of this mess with a meaningful relationship, then you are wrong. So wrong.
  • If you end up with one of these people, you’ll spend your life breaking out into cold sweats whenever they come close to discovering what a dog you were.
  • Anyway, you know what you’re doing is wrong. The very fact that you want to keep it all a secret shows that you know perfectly well that if you were honest, your blissful circle of ignorant lovers would disappear in disgust.


BHE (Before Hookup Era), having sex with more than one person at the same time was called cheating. Couples generally “went steady” before they had sex. During the Swinging 60s, there was the Summer of Love, Woodstock and all the rest, with lots of rampant casual sex. That didn’t become the norm, though, until much later. In the 70s and 80s, it was fine to have consecutive one-night stands, but no one really thought it was legit to have ongoing sexual involvements with more than one person at a time. An ongoing sexual involvement meant de facto that you were involved in a relationship.

In the HE, people who are attracted to one another often have sex before they are in a relationship. They may have sex before even discussing being exclusive, though I advise women against it. Sexual relationships can thrive for a very long time with no commitment. That creates a dilemma: if there’s no commitment, you’re both free agents. And yet. Few people can remain entirely emotionally detached in a sexual relationship, especially if they’re female. So what are the appropriate groundrules?

I think everyone knows the difference between banging and making love. It’s everything in-between that gets tricky.

  • If you’re banging someone, even on a regular basis, you MUST explicitly state your expectations around the question of monogamy. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your partner.
  • If you’re having sex with someone that feels special, and intimate, and emotionally powerful, you will probably not want to have sex with someone else. But you can’t be sure of what the other person wants unless you discuss it openly.
  • If you really like someone, and you’re having sex, and you feel like things are going really well, and you don’t want to rock the boat, you will hesitate to initiate THE TALK. You must get past that.


You gotta have THE TALK. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown Relationship Discussion. You can simply ask, “Are you doing this with anyone else?” Because you’re essentially having sex with everyone your partner is having sex with. Even if you use condoms, there are still real risks for contracting an STD. Unless you’re that one woman giving a BJ with a condom, or slapping a dental dam between your vajayjay and your guy’s tongue.

You deserve to know. You need to know. Your physical and emotional health depend on it.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell sucks. It sucks in the military, and it sucks in relationships. Don’t be a party to it.

  • Decoybetty

    Stop being right Susan. Why can't they MAN UP and do it? Jesus hell.

  • angharad

    The insurance policy metaphor is a good one. Just because people make the mistake of trusting that their feelings won't be hurt doesn't give anyone license to hurt their feelings. I agree that people *shouldn't* assume exclusivity until the have The Talk, but people in relationships — even non-exclusive ones — assume things all the time. And they ought to be able to: that's the foundation of trust.

    Nirpal's caveat — “provided none of them has been given the impression they’re in a monogamous situation” — seems to come with the unspoken assumption that the only way they could have been given that impression is if they're being explicitly lied to. I don't know if that's what Nirpal intended, but it's certainly Anonymous's operating assumption. Lying by omission gives people the wrong impression, too.

    So if you're sleeping with three people and “two of them have no idea there is anyone else,” then they clearly feel safe enough with you that they haven't bothered to ask. And they shouldn't feel safe with you, because you're being reckless with their emotions and their health. “But you never asked” isn't an acceptable response when one of those parties finally finds out and gets hurt.

  • susanawalsh

    Haha, your frustration is well placed!

  • susanawalsh

    Angharad, I agree 100%. Lying by omission is perhaps just one tiny step ahead of lying by commission. If ANY effort is being made (and it always is) to keep the other relationships a secret, that is dishonest. Of course that person is lying. Obviously, they didn't fess up when asked, “What did you do this weekend?” or “Who's texting you at 3 am?”

    I also agree that people who are close do make assumptions in relationships as trust is established. None of us wants to have to ask for reassurance constantly. We trust someone else to treat us with integrity.

    Though I encourage women to ask explicitly for their own safety and sanity, I resent the fact that it falls to women 90% of the time. Don't Ask Don't Tell is for cowards. Decoybetty said it right: Just MAN UP!

  • http://ft.com/ VJ

    Ok this is funny. And the sin of lying by omission? Geez, if we were to prosecute it even in every loving, long & decent marriage? The jails would be too full to hold any of the real criminals. All the way from 'Honey do I look fat in this?' To the reassuring, 'I'm not crazy here, right?'

    But let's get back to DADT in relationships. I agree it's a lousy, sneaky policy, but it comes standard with many relationships. Why? We (Both sides) evidently like it that way. It also comes with the territory. Sex is valued, and so it will be lied about & over. Call it our proud biological heritage if you will. And yes, it goes way back this 'deception' in mating strategies. (Google it: deceptive mating strategies).

    You just know that uber hot guy you've hooked up with has 'other pans/gals in the fire', so you 'just don't want to know' and don't ask directly. And him, being a guy, and wanting not to 'rock the boat' at all costs (and it would cost plenty mind you), so he's not offering up that info readily. This is part of the infamous PUA profile BTW, too. It's what they recommend to 'get some more action', and of course it has the added tragic feature of being quite effective short term. Which is about all that's desired or required for many. All too many of all persuasions.

    So again we're back to the basic question. It's not DADT, it's the eternal question of why 'smart women/men, foolish choices'. If fidelity is important to you in a relationship, Make it So. Demand it. Require it straight up front. Don't just ask 'Mr. Studly' to 'man up'! He Did, you were not pleased with the results! (Not Surprised mind you, just PO'd at the 'truth') Do you want real honesty from a bloke? Really? Are you Sure about that? How much honesty can you take, BTW? Colbert truthiness levels or like real he man/boy scout/choir boy/innocent babe in the woods truth? I thought so.

    So be it resolved. If you seek and desire an Exclusive relationship with your sexual partners, you really Should ask for it. (Here in Ga. this does necessitate getting the farmers/owners permission before canoodling with your fav livestock. No, I'm sorry, I'm not kidding & I won't provide the link to the story of the recent arrest!)

    But, err, that's the simplest way of going about it. People will lie for sex, and have been actually known to do this, for say a few 1000 years. It's also been demonstrably & clinically proven as well. Men probably worse than women in some ways, but it's an equal opportunity offense actually. And No, this was happening Way before the modern 'hook up era'. Need we provide citations from the 1700's of randy lasses & laddies sprinting & trysting around the European woodlands like errant nymphs & satyrs? Romans were certainly very active here too. Where the hell do you think all that lovely romantic poetry sprung from? Nature loving? Geesh.

    So again. A basic clash between our basic carnal impulses & desires and our more formalized preferences and thoughts on preferably having a more loyal & steadfast partner. Again one is more likely perhaps to lead to a LTR & marriage, and one is oh, just some fun. One seems to be more common than the other. Why is that do we suppose? Just asking. Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'

  • susanawalsh

    Women understand that some guys are liars, players, etc. And yes, the uber hot guy is more likely to have options and less likely to want to be exclusive. But it's not always easy to tell the douchebags from the decent men. Players can very effectively impersonate sweet, affectionate guys in the short-term. They can seem trustworthy, sincere, and make you feel very special. You're getting that kind of attention, and you think, “What kind of a person would be doing this with more than one girl?” Very, very few women play the field in that incredibly manipulative and selfish way. So they trust, they get burned, and they move on as best they can.

    I'm making the point here that women do owe it to themselves to ask outright. I agree that women should demand exclusivity if that's what they want. The problem is, there's not that much of it to go around. It's the old supply and demand question.

  • http://ft.com/ VJ

    Yes, there's probably fewer guys & gals who are willing right away (or sooner?) to commit to 'exclusivity'. And there's plenty of both that would then need to have those terms spell out specifically for them. But this is pretty silly:

    “Very, very few women play the field in that incredibly manipulative and selfish way. So they trust, they get burned, and they move on as best they can.”

    It's an equal opportunity offense. There are plenty of women who are 'date stackers' and who go on a fair amount of dates most weekends, and have several guys 'waiting' on the fire. Some on the 'front burners', and some waiting on the 'rear burners' if they can do so. And plenty can. So count me as incredulous that women especially are affected or afflicted by being manipulated in this way. Yes, perhaps the consequences are much more serious as ever & predictably. But when it comes to sex? Everyone really should be pretty naturally skeptical. And most are & should be with any real natural experience with the opposite sex.

    But I'll call & raise you, oh say about 100 years of classic Blues & country tunes about two timin' women & men to indicate that yes, both sexes can and sometimes are that manipulative, cruel & selfish in exactly the same way. Hell, even 'classic rock n' roll had these themes too. Ditto for literature. Where was all this coming from? Reality as the authors lived, suffered & experienced it.

    So again, Bottom Line? Trust but verify (to a point). You've got to trust & be worth of trust to love. It's essential. If you don't have that basic foundation, it's not too hard to see how you'll get played often. But even inside of loving & trusting relationships, people can often stray too. But that's another story for another day. Yes, DADT is silly, counter productive, but still a pretty common & even 'normative' assumption by & for many. So let the 'buyer' beware.

    (I really feel like I should be selling batteries here too I guess…) Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-iovine/girlfriends-guide-three-b_b_253157.html VJ

    This perspective from the Huffington Post is what I'm talking about.

    Vicki Lovine
    Author of the Girlfriends' Guides
    “Girlfriends' Guide: Three Boys For Every Girl”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-iovine/girl

    “”I've been married three times,” anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “and each time I married the right person.” I get it completely. I don't know if I would recognize the bride I was thirty years ago if she were to throw her bouquet at my face… although I do remember her as pretty and with a firm round ass that no longer exists. I feel certain, however, that she and I would be looking for very different things in a relationship, plus I'm a lot wiser than she is…”

    Hookups are all about the instant attraction, running of the hormones & the basic biology of yes, mating. It's really hard to reconcile this with all the things that mates, partners & spouses mean and may become for each other in the distant future. For many folks, this is too difficult to contemplate, plan for or even imagine. What they see is what they've got in front of them. If it's looking like a tasty meal, they'll want to partake. Regardless of the consequences. Again relating to the feeling of the well known but apocryphal story of King Canute of England commanding the tides to cease. It can not be done. Biology will typically win out especially with the younger set. And mostly, this can be seen as beneficial for many biological purposes of propagation. If it's not happening then, at & in our most attractive packages, it'll probably never happen! Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'

  • angharad

    I can see your point, but I'm with Susan in that the player is *always* going to some effort, no matter how small, to conceal his playing ways. I don't think it's at all true that most women (or men for that matter, since you're right, there are women who do this too) just don't want to know. If I wanted to just hook up, I'd be OK with knowing that a guy was seeing other people. And if I were looking for a relationship, I'd sure as hell want to know. Of course it's always best to ask, but I'm going to stick by my original contention that most of the time, if a play-ee doesn't ask after she's been seeing a guy for a while, it's because she (wrongly) trusts that she's not being played, not because she knows-but-doesn't-want-to-know.

    And I don't believe that lying is *always* immoral regardless of context. I think that the occasional well-placed white lie greases the wheels of social interaction. But if somebody is greasing the wheels because he knows that if he doesn't, he's not going to get laid, then to hell with the false pretense — “man up” is exactly what he should do. I don't care about biological imperatives or randy lads and lassies from the 1700s. It's like the argument that short skirts are responsible for rape. You can't discount human autonomy, and it doesn't take superhuman self-control, either. We are in control of and responsible for our actions, hookup culture notwithstanding. If you can't have sex without lying for it, you don't deserve it.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-iovine/girlfriends-guide-three-b_b_253157.html VJ

    I somehow missed angharad's thoughts here:

    “But if somebody is greasing the wheels because he knows that if he doesn't, he's not going to get laid, then to hell with the false pretense — “man up” is exactly what he should do. I don't care about biological imperatives or randy lads and lassies from the 1700s. It's like the argument that short skirts are responsible for rape. You can't discount human autonomy, and it doesn't take superhuman self-control, either. We are in control of and responsible for our actions, hookup culture notwithstanding. If you can't have sex without lying for it, you don't deserve it.”

    Again, we seem to be misunderstanding each other. It's not a question of 'rape' or 'short skirts' being somehow responsible for same. Rape is a crime of violence. It's reprehensible no matter what the perp claims was his/her ostensible motive, cause or motivation. Period.

    But various degrees, shadings & kinds of 'softer' coercion? Well that's an entirely different story, and a wide variety of research, historical, social & clinical has shown this. Repeatedly. To be fairly common in the context of 'dating & mating'. And again. Really. This has been going on for as long as we've got written history. Which is a few 1000 years. At least. Classic Greek & Roman Poems & treatises written about 'seduction' & the necessary coercion & yes even strategies to achieve same. Start with Ovid's 'The Art of Love', written in 2BC:

    http://www.neo-techsociety.com/myaccount/librar

    ” The first known sex manual was written about 2 B.C. by a Roman named Ovid. His manual stressed seduction techniques for casual sex. In addition, the manual aggressively promoted the Don Juan and “Playboy” fun views of sex while teaching various role-playing games and manipulative techniques for the seduction of women.

    The Don Juan and “Playboy” approaches to sex use hypnosis,[ 23 ] manipulations of sex partners, and pragmatic dishonesty of professing “sincerity”, “seriousness”, and “love” when strategically advantageous for conquest. But most modern-day Don Juans can only feign lust while actually being terrified of their own sexual inadequacies. In fact, most macho Don Juans have never experienced psychological orgasms and remain psychosexual virgins all their lives — they never develop a capacity for delivering or receiving psychuous pleasures. More simply, macho men are males who have never sexually matured or grown up. [Re: concept 45, Neo-Tech Reference Encyclopedia]”

    So again. Sex & lying about same for personal or possible mutual gratification? Probably as old as humanity itself. Certainly as old as written history. So, very old. Well founded in our basic history & yes, biology. And again, YES we can and perhaps should work harder to 'overcome' some of these more 'baser instincts' (this is where organized religion stepped in long ago). We are always in at least partial control of our actions. Depending on the context.

    So I'm sorry to say, but this sentiment, while noble & perhaps even necessarily protectively self serving?
    “If you can't have sex without lying for it, you don't deserve it.” Is largely irrelevant for many.

    Again my apologies for the length. And for all the boring & egregious trips back to school. Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

  • susanawalsh

    OK, I don't think it's terribly productive to argue about who does this stuff more, women or men, but since you called me out for being silly, I'll respond to that one point. I would agree that both sexes are equally capable of deceit, manipulation, etc. in relationships. But I don't think that's true once those relationships are sexual. Yes, women may be going out with several guys at once, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I think it's the rare woman who wishes to be engaged in numerous sexual relationships at the same time. We're just not made that way. There are exceptions, e.g., prostitution, swinging, polyamory, but I'm talking within the bell curve here. And men? They are made that way. That's why we need openness and honesty, integrity in our relationships. Don't Ask Don't Tell is shady by its very nature, and I encourage women not to tolerate it.

  • susanawalsh

    Just want to say I love the Running of the Hormones metaphor. And just like in Pamplona, someone usually gets gored.

  • susanawalsh

    OK, I don't think it's terribly productive to argue about who does this stuff more, women or men, but since you called me out for being silly, I'll respond to that one point. I would agree that both sexes are equally capable of deceit, manipulation, etc. in relationships. But I don't think that's true once those relationships are sexual. Yes, women may be going out with several guys at once, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I think it's the rare woman who wishes to be engaged in numerous sexual relationships at the same time. We're just not made that way. There are exceptions, e.g., prostitution, swinging, polyamory, but I'm talking within the bell curve here. And men? They are made that way. That's why we need openness and honesty, integrity in our relationships. Don't Ask Don't Tell is shady by its very nature, and I encourage women not to tolerate it.

  • susanawalsh

    Just want to say I love the Running of the Hormones metaphor. And just like in Pamplona, someone usually gets gored.

  • valmont

    dont ask dont tell sucks so what advice do you have for the man who wants monogamy?

  • susanawalsh

    Well, most men wait for the woman to initiate the discussion. If you're having sex with a woman, there's a very good chance she wants to be exclusive. Some women may be going for the FWB arrangement, but they're in the minority. I think you should state that you aren't having sex with anyone else, and ask if she is. If she says no, then say you feel ready to be exclusive.

    Alternatively, you could take it slow in the beginning, but let her know that you are not interested in casually hooking up. Otherwise, she'll wonder why on earth you aren't making moves, and she'll think she's undesirable. When you feel sure that the two of you are both interested and ready to have sex, you can say up front that you want to be exclusive.

    Whatever you decide, speak forcefully and with confidence. Don't ask her what she wants. Tell her what you want, and see if she feels the same way. It's a risk, of course, but women like men to state their interest clearly, like they expect it to be reciprocated. Even if she doesn't feel as strongly, she will respect your having “manned up.”

  • valmont

    “dating is a game where each player tries to close his partner's options while keeping his open” ~ Roger F. Devlin

    “When a women wins a man's heart, she loses interest”~ a russian proverb

    Your advice Susana seems spot on however, I have to admit that from my personal experience (I'm in my mid 20s) this mostly works on women who are above 30 and are looking to settle down with someone and are at the point in their life where they want something serious and long-term such as moving in together, buying a house etc.

    “If you're having sex with a woman, there's a very good chance she wants to be exclusive”.

    You mean she wants ME to be exclusive, dunno about her…I can't force a young women in her prime to be exclusive before having sex, a lot of young women are commitment-phobic too for there is always a better catch around the corner and a man talking to them about exclusivity early on is like a man telling them to “settle” for him.

    I feel telling a young women (<30) early on before having sex or right after having sex that I want to be exclusive, sends her the message that I'm desperate or too needy and afraid that she might sleep with someone else.

    Furthermore, in this day and age, we usually have sex by the third date so if I postpone making a move on her by telling her that I'm interested in something serious, she might sleep with someone else during that time (because we are not a couple yet) and fall for him since sex CAN increase attachment. This has happened to me before, where I took my time and she slept with someone else and I had nothing in the end.

    “Whatever you decide, speak forcefully and with confidence. Don't ask her what she wants. Tell her what you want, and see if she feels the same way. It's a risk, of course, but women like men to state their interest clearly, like they expect it to be reciprocated. Even if she doesn't feel as strongly, she will respect your having “manned up.””

    I agree 100% with that, though I don't know if that works with exclusivity…

    after reading “ModeOne: Let the women know what you're really thinking” by alan roger currie which deals with being firm and straightforwardly honest (btw check him out: http://www.modeone.net, he is no BS and no Hype) I have found out that I have a better chance of sleeping with a women if I let her know in an upfront and straightforward manner that I want something not too serious (because it sends a message that I have other options) than If I told her “I'M looking for a GF” which could be interpreted as “desperate”. In other words, it dawns to me that women want the challenge to make the guy exclusive and if the guy gives a women his exclusivity early on or too easily, she might perceive him as “not a catch”….

    great blog btw.

  • valmont

    Oh and btw several female friends have told me that they would prefer to sleep with a man first to “test drive the goods” before deciding whether to be exclusive or not.

  • susanawalsh

    Thanks, valmont! I always love to hear from the men. It's interesting, when I read your comments, I do feel that you are typically male, and that is quite different from typically female. Of course, you are worried about coming on too strong too soon, and driving the woman away. Meanwhile, women are fretting that they are not getting signals that the guy is even interested in them. Obviously, there's a middle ground, but it can be quite difficult to find it at times.

  • susanawalsh

    Hmmm, interesting. I think in the hookup era, sex is going to happen before the Relationship Talk. Sexual compatibility is a real and valid concern. Why would a man, or a woman, for that matter, commit to monogamy without knowing that the sex is going to be pretty spectacular? In a time when sexual expression is a key part of relationships, it makes sense that people would want to test that.

  • valmont

    “Sexual compatibility is a real and valid concern. Why would a man, or a woman, for that matter, commit to monogamy without knowing that the sex is going to be pretty spectacular?”

    I personally feel from my own experience that women are more concerned about sexual compatibility than men. The reason being that it is way more complicated for a women to have a fulfilling full body orgasm and feel sexually satisfied than to satisfy a man. the reason is that sex for women is not just “penetraion” but it's a whole emotional experience that starts way early while they shave their legs and prim themselves up in anticipation to the act.

    I personally find that a women's sexual preferences tend to dictate the type of men she is attracted to. If a women has certain masoschistic sexual tendencies i.e. she likes the man to take control in bed, to dominate her, to be aggressive and ravish her because he can't resist her and she broke his glass of indifferent aloofness. etc…

    a nice guy wont be able to fulfill these fantasies with credibility, and more often than not an experienced women can judge (sometimes accurately, sometimes not) how a man will be in bed by the way he dresses, walks, talks, and handles himself around her.

  • susanawalsh

    Yes, this is very true. Men vary a lot in terms of the effort they're willing to put in to bring a woman to orgasm. In particular, some will go down, some won't. A woman needs to know up front what she's dealing with in this regard, as her sexual satisfaction may depend on it!

  • Male

    Susan, why is it ok for people to sleep around as long as everyone knows about it?

  • susanawalsh

    Hi Male, thanks for your question. For me it would definitely not be ok if someone I was sleeping with was having sex with someone else. But at the very least, there should be full disclosure. Usually these concurrent relationships involve all of the women or men believing they're the only sexual partner. That's why I recommend asking for that information directly – if you know, you can make an informed decision.

    “Don't ask, don't tell” stinks because you're not disclosing what you're doing, you have no idea what your partner is doing, and everyone's just got their fingers crossed. It's not way to conduct a sexual relationship.

  • http://datingadvicecentral.com Johnny B

    Some guys just like to be ‘players’ because their favorite rappers are ‘or claim to be’.

  • leila m

    don’t ask, don’t tell sucks. making someone feels like crap is detrimental, the repercussions of going through std checks, attacks from the other person (exclusive or random) hurtss. and the guy just try to get rid of you. knew some ppl who do that, roger steele.