What you need to know:
Multi-partner relationships are gaining popularity among Kenya’s young and sneaking into the mainstream. What’s fueling the choice, and how will it impact sex and families?
Our first glimpse of Kenyan brewed full-on consensual non-monogamy is a TikTok video. In it, a man coming home from work is met at the door by what looks like his wife or girlfriend with a hug and a kiss. When he gets to the living room, there is yet another woman waiting for him, arms open. The video ends with a clip of the three, the morning after, brushing their teeth together in a bathroom all smiles. If the comments accompanying this video are anything to go by, this situation is a fantasy for a lot of Kenyan men.
Our attempts to reach the throuple in the TikTok video are futile.
When it comes to our romantic relationships dynamics, we have come a long way. In pre-colonial Kenya, polygamy was commonplace. Unlike today, where liaisons are mostly about pleasure, then they were about wealth, status, and procreation. Because women and children were the ones that worked the land, the more a man had, the wealthier he was deemed.
The missionaries who arrived in the 1860s and 70s condemned this practice as it did not conform with Christian doctrine, setting the scene for monogamy.
Then as the first wave of feminism hit in the 70s and 80s it ushered in the era of sexual liberation for the Kenyan woman. Subsequently, casual sex and then sex work quietly crept into the nights. The 90s and early 2000s, saw the woman experimenting with different relationship dynamics. She became a willing participant in polygamy while enjoying more sexual freedom in casual relationships with the diminishing significance of preserving virginity till marriage.
Today, ethical non-monogamy has been growing in popularity, especially among the urban young. Ethical non-monogamy (ENM) is the practice of taking part in romantic relationships that are not completely exclusive between two people. Though couples in ENM make their own rules about what is and isn't acceptable for their individual relationship, and follow them, the most common forms are polyamory, open relationships, polygamy, relationship anarchy, swingers, and monogamish.
Though the majority of couples are monogamous and prefer it, studies show that about 1 in 5 people engage in non-monogamous relationships at some point in their lives.
We are able to sit down with a couple who for the purpose of this article we will refer to as Irene and Oliver. Both are 25. They met three years ago and after a two-month-long whirlwind romance, they moved in together. As happens with any romantic relationship, once the thrill of the newness faded and the challenges that come with the everyday life of a couple shacking up, set in, the sparks dwindled.
“We were monogamous at first. The non-monogamy happened by chance,” says Irene.
They went out to a club in Lang’ata area of Nairobi one Saturday night where Oliver met a woman he felt an intense physical connection. He could have taken her number so he could sneak around with her later but he asked Irene for permission to pursue this woman. In the thrill of the moment, she nodded yes and he went for it.
“A few days after, we sat down and had a long conversation on how we were going to do this. You know, setting up the structures,” she chuckles.
If this was going to work, they agreed that they were going to have total honesty about their side relations. In the past two years, there have been about half a dozen other people in the relationship one of whom Oliver has an emotional connection with.
“Monogamy is so restrictive. Sometimes there is something I like that my girlfriend doesn’t. I do not need to break up with her to get it. As long as everyone involved is aware, I do not see the reason why intimacy should not be shared,” he says.
According to him, non-monogamy should be a relationship orientation in itself, not just a status.
“Humans are evolving,” he says.
Pursuers of non-monogamous relationships could do so for any number of reasons, the most common ones being; the need to explore one’s sexuality without the guilt of cheating; getting different partners for a spectrum of growing needs without putting pressure on one partner to be all-in-one, or ‘the only one’; and lastly for those who feel their heart is too big for only one partner, they may argue open unions makes them more satisfied with life.
How many people are questioning monogamy?
Its common knowledge that marriage rates in the world are dipping as divorce soars. According to research by YouGov an online-based research firm, marriage isn’t the only place where the young like Irene and Oliver are deviating. In addition to not wanting to have babies, they are exploring non-monogamy more. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Sex Research while the older generation reported a preference for monogamy, up to half of the millennials and generation Z around the world are open to open relationships.
Closer home, there are no black and white statistics on open relationships as people are not open about their sex lives especially when they are different from the norm. To get a feel of how many Kenyans are shunning monogamy, we conducted a dipstick study involving 30 individuals between the ages of 24 and 40.
What was immediately clear is that the topic of non-monogamy is one that the under the 30s are excited to talk about. Of those polled, 30 percent were happy with open relationships, while the majority who preferred total monogamy cited three-way situations as being too stressful.
According to statics by Google, Google searches on open relationships have gone up in the last decade. This means that while still practicing it, people are questioning monogamy. Interestingly, when we asked our study subjects whether or not they have questioned the confines of monogamy and explored the idea of an open relationship in thought, 16 out of 30 shared they had. Only two of the sixteen, both of them urban, college-educated, and middle-class, have actually ventured out and tried opening up their hearts to other people.
Cases in the limelight
In the recent past, a number of Kenyans in the limelight have opened up about practicing non-monogamy. In 2021, musician Karen Lucas aka Kaz revealed that she was in love with a woman named Majic Dyke. Majic on the other hand disclosed that she was in a relationship and in love with both Kaz and another woman. Also in 2021, actor Mungai Mbaya’s girlfriend, Instagrammer Aisha revealed that they were in an open relationship and were both in fact dating another woman. Speaking on her Insta Stories about the details of the arrangement, Aisha revealed that they have set rules to govern the relationship, owning up to their being a possibility of him falling in love with the woman they choose to bring into their relationship.
“When that happens we will deal with it. It’s normal,” she wrote.
Kenyans reacting to Aisha’s news saw fault in this arrangement. For most, such an arrangement while a fun haven for the man is a disaster in waiting for the woman.
“It will end in tears, mama!” Kendi, an Instagrammer responded.
“This is just low self-esteem. No woman wants to share like this,” another calling himself Roberto wrote back.
Is this what the woman truly wants?
A few generations ago, for African women, relationships were a necessity. Seeing as a woman didn’t have direct access to money, she needed to couple up with someone who could financially run the home. With the shifting gender roles, this model of relationships is being challenged. The 21st century ushered in the hook-up culture where casual sex was en vogue and sometimes celebrated among the young. Those who grew up in the hook-up culture had tasted the freedom of no-frills liaisons and wanted the same liberties in their long-term relationships. Ethical non-monogamy was their answer.
But while the idea excites many men, non-monogamy seems rougher for the women. According to the book Don’t Put That In There which was written by a couple of doctors, women are naturally more interested in establishing an emotional connection than men meaning that open relationships are rougher on women. They also write that when in a monogamous relationship, a woman’s libido nose dives while a man’s remains constant. This mismatch might explain why a man in a monogamous relationship might be a little too eager to open it up.
Christine, a 26-year-old social media manager in a non-monogamous relationship arrangement agrees that she has a harder time with the relationship arrangement than her live-in boyfriend. Christine participated in our dipstick study.
“One person can’t be everything for another. And nothing is guaranteed,” she says about agreeing to open up her relationship to other men and women.
Their form of open relationship isn’t about the occasional threesome or the two of them occasionally going to the strip club. They are open to each of them not only having a physical relationship with others but also exploring emotional connections and possibly even falling in love.
“We are socialised to be monogamous. To own our significant others. Of course, I have instances of jealousy, but the goal is to attain compersion,” she says.
She describes compersion as the state in which she will be able to get excited about her partner’s new physical and emotional experiences with other people.
“It’s kind of like the way after healing and moving on, you are able to be happy with your ex when they get married or meet someone new. It’s been a lot of work trying to get there, I tell you,” she says.
The other thing she worries about is how the dynamics will change should her relationship with her boyfriend progress to the point of marriage or to where they have children.
“I am taking one day at a time. He is getting everything he needs even if not from me and that makes me happy,” she says.
Research by Dr. Marie Thouin, a Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies refers to compersion as a good example of human evolution. The natural reaction to non-monogamy has been jealousy. According to the research, that someone in non-monogamy can experience compersion is proof that it is possible to thrive in non-monogamy. The findings from this study conclude that for someone interested in non-monogamy, being able to experience compersion is a green light that this kind of relationship situation can work.
Could women be better at it?
Nicholas Nasombi a counselling Psychologist with the Nairobi-based Institute of Professional Counselors agrees that attitudes toward exclusivity are changing. He, however, is of the opinion that while men may be more excited at the prospect of dating many people, women may be better suited to non-monogamy than men.
“Women are better suited at this kind of arrangement because they naturally possess traits like better dialogue and negotiation skills,” he says.
Whether it’s open relationships where both partners are open to other usually casual romantic connections, polyamory where one has more than one serious relationship with different people, triads where three people are in a committed relationship with one another, or the V-relationship where two people are dating the same person but not each other, non-monogamy is gaining popularity.
It is also clear that there are relationship problems even when non-monogamy is consensual. On whether or not non-monogamy is happier or if it is just one more thing that women have to do to keep a man, the jury is still out.
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