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Sex Without Borders: the complicated couplings of Toronto’s pleasure-seeking polyamorists

Stephane and Samantha’s open marriage includes shared girlfriends, bacchanalian house parties and always asking permission before taking on a new lover. A portrait of Toronto’s new generation of polyamorists

Sex Without Borders

Stephane Goulet (middle) and Samantha Fraser (right) at home with one of their girlfriends, Gayle

Samantha Fraser and Stephane Goulet are the kind of married couple who have always talked openly about people they find attractive. She’d comment on the hot waiter at a restaurant, he’d admit that he was turned on by a woman on the street. When sex clubs were legalized in Toronto, they fantasized about going to one; they didn’t actually go, but talking about what the experience might be like became a regular part of their sex life. One night, a year into their marriage, they hosted a raucous house party. While Samantha flirted with other men, Stephane made out with another woman during a game of spin the bottle. “I remember thinking, this is fun,” Stephane says.

Samantha was working at a Starbucks at the time and knew many of her regular customers by their beverage of choice. Grande Red Eye Bold was a shy, 40-something York professor she found attractive. One afternoon, he handed her a note that read: “I know that you’re married and I respect that, but if you’re interested in exploring, let me know.” Most husbands would feel threatened or at least irked if a guy propositioned their wife, but Stephane says he was flattered.

The next day, Stephane and Samantha rented The Cabin Movie (a Canadian cult classic about three couples getting it on in the woods) and proceeded to have sex all weekend. A few days later, with her husband’s blessing, Samantha was naked on Grande Red Eye Bold’s couch. “Before I got there, I hadn’t known for sure that we would have sex,” she says. But, of course, they did. Afterward, she worried about how her husband would react to the reality of the situation—it’s one thing to talk dirty about other lovers, quite another to act out the fantasy. “I called Steph from the car right away just to see how he was feeling,” she says. He was feeling fine.

Seven years later, Stephane and Samantha are Toronto’s best-known advocates for polyamory, the term preferred by people who have turned their open relationships into a lifestyle. Samantha, who is 32, writes a blog about her sex life, offers polyamory life coaching and runs an annual sexuality and relationships conference called Playground (this past fall the three-day event filled a ballroom at the Holiday Inn on Carlton Street). Stephane is 36 and an art director at a video game studio. He is less actively involved with other polyamorists than his wife, though he doesn’t mind her rendering the personal aspects of his sex life (how many lovers they share, their preferred sex toys and so on) into teachable moments for her blog. Stephane and Samantha, in the poly vernacular, are known as a primary couple—a committed partnership in which both parties engage in sexual relationships with additional, lower-ranking lovers. This is the most common set-up, though some polyamorists live family-style in groups of three or more in the same house. Poly individuals are often bisexual (like Samantha), but not always (Stephane is hetero). Some relationships employ the “one penis per party” rule.

Polyamorists are often lumped in with swingers, though there is one key difference: the former believe in maintaining multiple emotional relationships along with all the sex. What distinguishes the modern poly movement from the free love ethos and orgies of the ’60s and ’70s is the absence of politics. Hippies rejected monogamy in the same way they rejected haircuts—as symbols of patriarchal society. Today’s polyamorists are more concerned with the pursuit of self-actualization through satisfying relationships and the honest exploration of sexuality. They don’t want to “drop out” any more than they want to grow hemp on a commune. Besides, their busy work lives and regular-person obligations probably wouldn’t allow it.

Toronto, it turns out, is one of the most poly-friendly places in North America. Poly people in other cities speak enviously of our city’s sexual progressiveness and live-and-let-live kind of liberalism. In this city, gay marriage is old hat, sex clubs like Oasis Aqualounge and Wicked operate legally, and rub ’n’ tugs set up shop in between yoga studios and shawarma shops. In addition to Samantha’s annual conference, a 350-member group called Polyamory Toronto meets monthly at a midtown pub to discuss such issues as coming out as poly to your family, coping with jealousy and explaining polyamory to your kids. Another group called Ethical Lovers convenes monthly at the U of T Centre for Women and Trans People, and monthly #CrushTO dance parties are a melting pot for the various, and often intermingling, “sex-positive” communities, a blanket term describing the open embrace of sex for its own sake without any of the morality hang-ups.

Polyamorists like Stephane and Samantha want to be accepted by mainstream society in the way that gays and lesbians have been accepted—and they’re making progress on that front. There have been some notable watershed moments. The Oxford English Dictionary first recognized the term in 2006, and last year The Movie Network broadcast a poly reality TV series. Polyamory: Married and Dating tracks two Californian households: one a threesome of 20-something grad students (two bisexual women and a hetero man), the other consisting of two couples living as one big sexy family. But there’s no better barometer of the mainstream than a Jennifer Aniston movie. In last year’s middling rom-com Wanderlust, Aniston and Paul Rudd play a monogamous couple who lose their Manhattan jobs and move into a poly commune.

Stephane and Samantha met through the website Quest Personals in January of 2001. They had dinner, went back to her place and had sex. Three months later, they moved in together. They decided to get married three years after that, when her dad was diagnosed with ALS (Samantha wanted him to be able to walk her down the aisle). The ceremony was at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Samantha, with her black bangs and red pout, reminds me of a live-action Betty Boop. Her features are cherubic, which makes it even funnier when she describes X-rated sex scenes as though she were talking about the weather. Stephane is comparatively reserved, and admits he has a penchant for “fiery women.” He looks like the quintessential dude-who-works-in-a-modern-artistic-discipline—rock T-shirts, funky glasses. Neither self-identifies as a hipster (does anyone?), though they do enjoy shopping in Kensington, visiting tattoo parlours and playing video games.

One night last November, they invited me over to their Junction semi. The main floor looks a lot like a Modern Museum of Treasures Found at Garage Sales: a pink Jesus statue, two horse portraits, a Mexican wrestling mask and a vintage typewriter. We were joined by Gayle, one of their current girlfriends. Stephane and Samantha poured us some wine, and we listened to Pink Floyd. Aside from the fact that I was there to ask questions about their polyamorous practices, nothing about the gathering was even
remotely sexy.