By now, many of us have grinned and gossiped about singer-songwriter August Alsina revealing in a July 2020 interview with radio personality Angela Yee that he had a romantic relationship with Jada Pinkett-Smith. We’ve watched Pinkett-Smith and her famous husband, Will, painfully and awkwardly address their marital problems, their separation, and Pinkett-Smith’s choice to practice some form of nonmonogamy on her Facebook Watch show, Red Table Talk. Gabrielle Smith has already excellently laid out all the details of Alsina and Pinkett-Smith’s relationship and what it reveals about ethical nonmonogamy for Bitch, so I won’t speak too deeply about ethical monogamy in this piece. Instead, I’m most interested in the prevalent notion and narrative that women cannot or should not choose nonmonogamy as a relationship practice, or that women only choose to practice nonmonogamy because the men in their lives guide them toward it.
While it may be true that Pinkett-Smith chose to practice nonmonogamy because she felt rejected by her husband, there’s also a possibility that she chose to connect romantically with Alsina because she desired him emotionally, mentally, sexually or otherwise. In my conversations with my good girlfriends about Pinkett-Smith’s “entanglement,” I’ve supported her decision to take a new lover—as I believe that nonmonogamy can be an empowering and healthy choice for women—but I haven’t supported her decision to choose Alsina—who is 20 years younger than Pinkett-Smith and who she admitted was mentally, and emotionally unwell and struggling with addiction when they met. If Pinkett-Smith were a man, feminists, myself included, would consider her relationship with Alsina as inappropriate at best, and unethical and harmful at worst. Thankfully, there are other, healthier experiences that can help people better understand nonmonogamy as an option that women can choose—for themselves—enthusiastically and safely.
I began desiring nonmonogamy in my teens, though I didn’t have the language at the time to describe what I was feeling. I’ve always been attracted to all kinds of people—their quirks and stories—and choosing just one romantic interest has always seemed limiting to me. For years, I practiced serial monogamy as a way to follow societal standards. Women are supposed to be loyal, after all, even when others can’t figure out how to return that loyalty. In fact, women should have few desires—sexual or otherwise—and they certainly shouldn’t have desires beyond what one partner can satisfy. Throughout my 20s, though, I rebuked these ideas and enjoyed both being single and dating multiple people at the same time. I wasn’t interested in “dating with a purpose,” an idea that’s common among heternormative Christians who see marriage as the natural outcome to dating.
I don’t know that I ever wanted to tie myself to what I considered the monotony that surely came with marriage and family—even as I acquiesced to both. I kept trying to bend myself toward “normal,” to be monogamous, to quell my insatiable urge for varied experiences. Once I learned that I could negotiate and navigate the kind of relationship I desired, and that there were ways to be ethical and kind while choosing not to be monogamous, I was able to let go of all the shame and guilt I had felt over the years—the kind of guilt and shame that hurt people I loved and pushed me toward harmful decisions. For every story like mine, there are additional stories of how other women have come to embrace nonmonogamy. Bitch spoke with four people at various stages in their nonmonogamy journey about what drew them to nonmonogamy, how to practice it ethically, and where other people interested in nonmonogamy can find their start.
Tristan, 36, Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area
I was 23 the first time I intentionally practiced nonmonogamy. I had a sexual relationship with one man and I started dating another, which was pretty messy because they were in the same graduate cohort. I eventually told the second man that I was sleeping with someone else and if he still wanted us to continue our relationship, he would proceed with the knowledge that my initial friend with benefits was not going anywhere. Generally, he agreed and went along with it, and then he decided to end things because I was “too extra and out there” for him.
I am now 36. My husband and I started considering nonmonogamy seriously last year for two reasons: He and I were struggling with mismatched libido (mine is considerably higher). I’m queer and we’ve been having an ongoing conversation throughout our relationship about my desire to explore sexual and romantic/sensual relations with other queer, Black women. My husband is super supportive, and we know our boundaries and modes of exploration may change, shift, and evolve over time. To me, nonmonogamy is freeing because the idea that many hetero and hetero-presenting couples buy into this idea that you should have all your needs met by your spouse—and that is a very limiting idea for me.
Knowing I can tap into my capacity to give and receive love—in all of its forms—is liberating to me. While I had a few times in my younger, single days where I was intentionally nonmonogamous (and a few times where I didn’t consent to it), this is the first time where it’s an explicit choice within an already existing long-term relationship. We’re still figuring out which kind of nonmonogamy will work best for us. My advice to women looking to explore nonmonogamy is to give it a shot, but learn how to set boundaries and negotiate levels of intimacy. Learn how to find happiness within yourself before exploring this dynamic.
Jotina, 36, Texas
The practice of nonmonogamy has served me in so many ways. Intimately and sexually, I’m able to explore what feels good for me and my body—and to do so without bounds. At some points on my journey that has looked like having multiple sexual partners at once; it has also looked like frolicking around to swinger’s clubs and watching other folks have sex until we were stimulated and then heading home and enjoying each other. Other times it’s just been my partner and I engaging in sexual role play, fantasy-filled conversations that included other women, and making invitations of the essence and spirits of folks in our sexual experiences. I love women. I love being in my body fully. I love sex and sexual exchanges. I love exploring. And I am learning that there are so many options to explore.
I was reared in a very religious home with parents who were Bible-thumpers. My father was a pastor and my mom worked closely alongside him in ministry. I remember being 14-years-old and having a girlfriend, and my mom cornered me in the laundry room and told me I was going to hell if I had a girlfriend. I heard her loud and clear. I didn’t want to be exiled by my family, so I went to school the next day and found a boyfriend. This guy became my boyfriend, best friend, nonmonogamous partner, and eventually the father of my daughter. He knew I was attracted to women and created space for my desires to be met. Nonmonogamy allowed me to safely show up in my family and still yield to my deepest desires.
Even as a lesbian woman, I’ve remained open to nonmonogamous relationships. I’ve explored and engaged in having sex with multiple partners. I’ve had monogamous relationships as well. I believe as the human spirit evolves, so do our desires. I am most committed to my happiness and all things concerning my vagina. My advice for other women who want to explore nonmonogamy is: It’s your body. It’s your world and you get to choose for yourself what feels good and right. Be safe, be responsible, and pursue your happiness—with and for yourself!
Nonmonogamy can be an empowering and healthy choice for women.
Anisa, 39, Nairobi, Kenya
I didn’t really make a choice to be nonmonogamous; it slowly just happened. I never thought I would be practicing nonmonogamy. I used to think I was strictly monogamous and spent a lot of time heartbroken because of cheating partners. Nonmonogamy felt like a cop-out that was allowed for men to avoid honest and faithful relationships. I was always single-minded when I was in a relationship. I tried to never think about exploring anything with anyone else, and any time I felt attracted to someone else, I would feel guilty. I couldn’t imagine having sex with someone I didn’t have feelings for, let alone multiple partners at the same time. When I entered my 30s, I had a sexual reawakening where I started questioning what I like and who I like it with, versus what I do just because I think I’m expected to. I’ve known for a while that monogamy doesn’t work for me, especially because most of the men I’ve engaged with are reluctant to have the kind of honesty that monogamy requires.
Nonmonogamy, therefore, allows me to practice connections that allow people to make the choices about what they want from me openly, and explore their options even when they’re involved with me. I’m a Muslim woman from a conservative Swahili family, so nonmonogamy won’t be accepted. Sometimes, I feel guilty, but I already had a lot of Muslim guilt about engaging in sex before marriage. I am at a point in my life where marriage isn’t really part of my big picture so it’s easier to practice nonmonogamy, but I worry what this would look like for me if I seek long-term partnership. How would I build a family in a nonmonogamous situation that I don’t have to hide? Whenever I imagine my most ideal romantic situation, I think of having a loving polyamorous relationship with both a man and woman. I feel like when the barrier to nonmonogamy was broken, I started thinking about what else is possible for me.
For women choosing nonmonogamy, the first step is understanding yourself, your needs, how you want them to be fulfilled and by whom. Nonmonogamy requires a level of honesty that will often feel uncomfortable because it goes against everything we’re taught. Nobody has to know except the partners you’re involved with. Your friends, family, or colleagues don’t need to know until you’re at a place where you feel comfortable to share. Your safety and freedom to explore without worrying about judgment is important.
ND, 45, Queer, Texas
I was about to turn 40 when I finally sat down to figure out why no relationship made me happy. It wasn’t about the person I was with; it was about me. I felt like I was suffocating for years under the guise of being a monogamous, queer woman; I am a free spirit and a naturally flirty person, but I’m not a cheater. I just didn’t know how to articulate my desire at that time without coming off as coldhearted. The issue in many of my relationships was my lack of honesty with myself. I didn’t have the heart to tell whomever I was with that I wanted an open relationship or that I wanted to explore being poly. So I suffered in silence. Though I have been in monogamous relationships for the majority of my adult life, I’ve always enjoyed dating multiple people. It has mainly worked for me because I love connecting with people across race, culture, and gender identities.
Before I started exploring, I had never been 100 percent all in with anyone I dated. But I started exploring nonmonogamy about five years ago, and for me, nonmonogamy has been about the freedom of choice, the freedom to navigate love any way I see fit, without the pressure to be with a single person. The first step in exploring nonmonogamy is getting to know yourself. Self-awareness is a huge part of a nonmonogamous lifestyle. Ask those tough questions: What do you like about your current relationship? What didn’t you like about your last? Why do you want to change dynamics now? Is it because you’re bi-curious and you want to explore your sexuality with another woman? Or is it because the idea was presented to you by your husband or boyfriend, and you want to please your man? Be honest, and then make an informed decision about your body, your wants, and your needs.
Figure out if you’re a jealous person and then unpack that. Are you cool with your partner seeing other people too? Figure out your own insecurities around commitment and monogamy. It took me years to unload my monogamous mindset. And just as there is no set time frame for figuring it all out, there are many ways to be nonmonogamous, whether it’s swinging, polyamory, polyandry, or an open relationship.