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The Sexual Hall Pass Is Still a Terrible Idea

Even in these ‘monogamish’ times

There comes a time in many a long-term relationship where the sex is stale and one person, frustrated and fed up with hardly ever doing it, requests permission to go find a secret lover and be done with it. But is this is a valid, workable option to sexual discontent? Or a Pandora’s box that will destroy your relationship? Let’s investigate.

The latest installment of “Can I really accept this sexual hall pass” comes via Dear Prudence, where a man writes in that his wife has told him he should take a lover on the side. The letter writer asks:

My wife of 20 years has informed me she’s not so interested in sex any more (maybe quarterly?) and that perhaps I should get a girlfriend on the side. Only this would have to be superdiscreet, no sleepovers, no hosting, and none of our friends or family or kids can ever find out. We live in a small town so it looks like any girlfriend will probably have to be long distance. Does that sound reasonable, or do you think I’m being given a freedom I can never really take advantage of but that lets my wife feel less guilty in the process? I don’t want her to feel guilty, but I also don’t want the conversation to be shut down with an offer I can’t reasonably use.

Some couples, it should be noted, actually grant each other the hall pass. At Reddit a few years ago, user cable_guys_wife asks:

My husband and I are considering doing this. Not because we have problems with each other, but just because we think it would be fun. Dont know anyone who’s done this, and would like some advice on the whole experience. By “hall pass” I mean letting each other have sex with another partner, with no consequences.

The Farrelly Brothers movie Hall Pass sets up precisely such a scenario, with two sexless couples agreeing to give each other weekend passes to fuck around. Hint: It is not the sexual utopia they dreamed of.

While this seems like it might be a perfect solution to marital boredom, it’s not without hiccups. Concerns that arise in the typical hall pass situation are as follows: jealousy, falling in love with the other person, the other person being married/involved/found out/falling in love with you, and the fact that the average woman can locate a free sex opportunity in under 10 seconds if she’s in any city with a population of three or more, leaving men struggling to lock down some outside strange.

Most importantly, willing parties must be found. As Prudence advises, it’s one thing to look for casual sex on occasion. It’s another to find a woman who is into “hooking up a few times a week or month, always at her place, never at yours, and who will never tell anyone about the two of you.”

A debate of the pros and cons of the hall pass by actual relationship experts — at AARP, no less — finds that it’s an even trickier proposition than that. One expert argues you’re playing with fire:

No matter how casual its immediate lustful attraction, sex often develops into an emotional bond — one that could threaten the original couple. I also believe that most people are way more territorial than they let on. They can easily imagine themselves handling a free night out, but it’s nearly impossible for them to visualize their partner in the throes of passion with someone else.

Yet the other expert argues that he’s counseled four couples who are happily non-monogamous and it works just great:

One couple is mostly monogamous, but the woman spends a long weekend each month with her “secondary man,” who lives an hour’s drive away. A second couple is usually monogamous, but every year the man arranges for another man (or two) to join them to celebrate the woman’s birthday — in bed. With a third couple, the two spouses are monogamous at home but grant each other hall passes when they travel solo for business. With a fourth, each spouse has a “secondary” (or two) who lives nearby. Each partner is allowed to visit his or her secondary about once a month or when the spouse is out of town.

“I’m in love only with my husband,” the woman in this fourth couple says. “And my husband is in love only with me. But we enjoy playing outside our marriage, usually with people we both know socially, sometimes with people one of us knows from work.”

What’s interesting about all four of these scenarios is that they involve actual mutual consent and knowledge of what’s going on, sometimes with both members of the couple participating. Compare this to the original letter writer, who is not even entirely sure it’s really okay in the first place—a huge red flag.

Most advice-givers these days acknowledge that an active sex life is a basic right — withholding intimacy but demanding loyalty for years is justification to a lot of people to go looking elsewhere. This is why Dan Savage popularized the whole idea of being monogamish, arguing that sexual fidelity and satisfaction over decades is rare, if not impossible, and an agreement to get some needs met elsewhere can be the glue that keeps an otherwise great relationship going.

But even Savage has advised against the cheat pass in some instances. A woman whose older husband with erectile dysfunction told her she could cheat “one time” wrote to him, and Savage lays out a cautionary tale: the story of a straight couple where the boyfriend wanted a threesome, and the girlfriend granted him permission to do it with others, so long as he was safe and honest. Savage writes:

The opportunity presented itself, the sex was safe, he was honest — and my friend spent a week ricocheting between devastated and furious before finally dumping her devastated and flummoxed boyfriend. During a drunken postmortem, my friend told me she wanted her boyfriend to be able to do it but didn’t want him to actually do it. She didn’t want to be the reason he couldn’t; she wanted to be the reason he didn’t. So her permission to have a threesome “one time” was a test (one he didn’t know he was taking) and a trap (one he couldn’t escape from).

Savage concludes, “Get clarity — crystal clarity — before proceeding.” A hall pass, then, is only a salve if it’s given in good faith. That means honesty, trust, clear rules, and a bulletproof confidence that you are capable of negotiating such complex relationships. That also means a lot more talking first. But that should not be a problem, since the fact that you’re not having any sex means you presumably have a lot of free time on your hands.