Stacy and Robert are in love. She’s a sophomore in the College studying English; her boyfriend, Robert, studies at a nearby liberal arts college. They write poetry together, compose music together and they thrift shop around Philly together.
They’re a perfectly normal couple. So are Robert and his other girlfriend, Alina. Stacy and Robert are in an open relationship—Alina is Robert’s second girlfriend.
Hookup culture. It’s a tired cliché, thrown around to describe Penn’s collective sex life.
It epitomizes the Smokes’ DFMOs, late–night texts, the dating–app frenzy. We speak with a collective jargon: you’re together, you’re hooking up, you’re not hooking up, you’re a “thing.” There’s no space in mainstream conversations for alternative forms of relationships. Instead, dialogue seems to center around the black and white spectrum of casual encounters and serious monogamous commitments—in reality, many relationships fall into a spectrum of grayscale choices. It’s never a monochromatic scheme.
Open relationships take many forms, but they all share one common denominator: two or more parties consents to being in a non–monogamous relationship. Essentially, either party is allowed to have physical or romantic relationships (or both) with other partners.
“Relationships take different forms and they’re as valid as people want them to be,” Stacy explains. And despite their validity, open relationships still seem to carry a certain stigma, an ambiguous nature that confuses most.
Jason, a senior studying PPE, sits calmly at HubBub. He talks almost resignedly, retrospectively reminiscing on his open relationship. He notes that, “I wouldn’t tell people because others in my freshman hall were either hooking up or in serious relationships. There were so many ‘weird’ factors in my relationship—she was a senior in high school and a year younger. On top of that, we weren’t exclusive.”
Jason and his girlfriend’s relationship status played a large role in his silence. “It would’ve been too much [to explain].” Jason’s hesitance to disclose details about himself and his girlfriend demonstrates the paradoxical nature of open relationships: they carry a stigma in popular discourse, but require a deeper emotional commitment than a casual hook up dynamic.
Penn students choose to have open relationships for various reasons, but the end goal is typically the same: to maintain an intimate, romantic relationship with one person, while still keeping physical options open. For Ricky, a sophomore in a long distance, on–and–off open relationship with a high school senior, open relationships aren’t about the need to have more sex.
“I don’t think that anyone is in an open relationship solely because they want to hook up with other people,” he says. “They are in open relationships because they want to maintain close and romantically involved with their significant others.”
An open relationship doesn’t exist solely as an excuse to be physical with other people—sometimes, it’s simply the best way to keep a relationship alive.
Stacy’s relationship started off as casual, since Robert had just come out of a long–term, monogamous relationship. The couple met on Tinder, although they knew about each other through mutual friends, and hit it off after Robert visited her at Penn. Shortly after, he met Alina—his other girlfriend, who had experience with non–monogamous relationships—and another male partner. It was then that he talked to Stacy about polyamory.
“It was definitely hard,” she says. “I read up about polyamory to become more informed. Overall it worked well because I didn’t know the other girl, but that also made it more challenging.” Another challenge was that Robert’s other girlfriend went to the same college as he did, and so the pair spent more time together.
For Maria, a junior in Wharton, her open relationship sprung from a stream of hookups. They cared about each other, but her boyfriend wasn’t fully ready to commit. She details her relationship matter of factly, wryly noting that, “it definitely manifested as a result of lack of commitment from the guy I was seeing.” Maria explains that Penn’s casual hookup culture led her to, “[justify] his ambiguity with my ‘need for sexual liberation.’ In retrospect, I probably didn’t want to hook up with others, but I did it almost to compensate for the fact that he did not want to commit.”
And while Stacy transitioned into an open relationship at her boyfriend’s behest, others jump in willingly. Most of the students interviewed entered an open relationship to stay with their high school partners without missing out on Penn’s hookup scene.
James, a sophomore studying Mathematical Economics, hadn’t considered the possibility of being in an open relationship until he arrived to Penn. He dated his girlfriend exclusively throughout his senior year of high school, but when he graduated and she had another year of high school left, the couple had “a long conversation about what we wanted.”
“People really like having no–strings–attached relationships, and that’s a really common thing at Penn, any college campus, really;” it’s a staple of the “full college experience—which I wanted to have.”
“She was so far away and I was so far away,” he says. “We decided that we would try to be open in the efforts to make our long distance relationship work. In the end, it did.” His girlfriend is now a freshman at Penn. They’re now exclusive.
Similarly, Ricky, a sophomore studying PPE, had dated his girlfriend exclusively before they decided to open their relationship when he arrived to Penn as a freshman. He had wanted to maintain their relationship, but he also desired “the college experience.” But while James told the other girls he hooked up with that he was in a relationship, Ricky kept that secret.
“It would have been weird,” he says. Besides, “I didn’t hook up with them more than a few times...it was just casual.”
Open relationships, unlike the constant search for casual sex, allow people to be emotionally and physically fulfilled. However, that doesn’t mean they come without strains.
“Hooking up with other people can create a huge rift,” Ricky says. “Being with other people can create emotional distance if you do not put as much effort and communication as you should in the relationship.”
Jason’s trust vanished when he found a post about booty calls on his girlfriend’s Tumblr and realized that she was hooking up with other guys. Though he had known they were open, they had just spent an entire summer together back home, and she was now an hour away. It seemed, in his eyes, that the reason to be in an open relationship did not exist anymore.
Open relationships are often seen as superficial, based on the need for many sexual partners, rather than a strong emotional basis. But relationships aren’t limited to just monogamy, they can exist in many different forms—sometimes, they can exist with many different partners. Some of these relationships worked, and others didn’t. In the end, they were, however, just that: relationships.
*All names have been changed to protect anonymity.