This past spring, for the second time in six years, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story introducing its readers to the virtues of open marriage, or, as its practitioners sometimes call it to distinguish it from mere adultery, “ethical non-monogamy.” Both stories went about this introduction in much the same way: They took their reluctant, prudish reader by the hand and assured him that they appreciated his squeamishness about infidelity, but if he would just open his mind a bit, he might soon find himself opening up his marriage as well.
The great problem with monogamous marriage, as divorce statistics illustrate, is that it is difficult to sustain one. Some or even most of us are not naturally content with just one lifelong sexual partner—cue the disquisitions on evolutionary biology and the practices of exotic tribes in the Amazon or Micronesia—and that arrangement is unjustifiably patriarchal and sexually repressive in any case. But according to both stories, we can rescue the floundering American family and liberate ourselves from artificial social constraints in one stroke by making marriage a more flexible arrangement, one that is capacious enough to allow for a lot more sex with a lot more people. That way, fewer married people will be condemned to suffer unfulfilled desires or to break up their families in efforts to fulfill themselves. Open marriage is, as Mark Oppenheimer cleverly concluded in his 2011 New York Times Magazine essay on the subject, an essentially conservative proposition, just one that also happens to be enticingly new and radical.
Only it is not quite so new and perhaps not so radical as some of its proponents might hope. Experiments in free love and sexual communism, and indeed communism of all other kinds, have been occurring in America’s nooks and crannies since the early nineteenth century. Any impartial observer of American history must admit that eccentric, separatist communities devoted to violating nearly every social taboo are just as traditionally American as monogamous marriage itself. But just as often as they have cropped up, these open-marriage intentional communities have failed.