Let’s Discuss: Sex Networks

Conversations can be healing. They keep us connected to others. They keep us connected, informed and reflective. They prompt us to consider questions we have yet to ask, and better prepare us for what may lie ahead. When conversations occur within communities of common experiences, they take on an additional level of meaning, allowing us to tap into the experiences of others to provide insights into our own lives and into specific challenges or struggles that we may be facing.

Unfortunately, at least in my observation, members of the rainbow community, especially those outside of large urban centres, may not have many opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations—those conversations that allow connection with individuals who have experiences relevant to our sexual orientations or gender identities. It is not every family, cultural, educational or faith community whose collective wisdom includes stories on how to navigate those first same-sex crushes, disclose our gender identity to a romantic interest, deal with discrimination and prejudice or determine the etiquette for a hookup.

For over 10 years, I have had the privilege of facilitating a weekly forum for individuals to get together to discuss issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. I have seen firsthand, through the stories told by hundreds of participants, the benefits of accessing a wider, cross-generational community of experience and some of the pitfalls of trying to navigate personal and relationship challenges on one’s own. I have benefitted immensely from hearing the stories. Having a venue to remain connected to the ever-changing face of our community has also been vital in working with colleagues and organizations throughout my community to identify the needs and opportunities associated with these changes. One prime example was a recent conversation that prompted some work with our local AIDS service organization (AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area, ACCKWA) to provide support to individuals who are part of “sex networks.”

What are “sex networks”? Well, I must admit to having been caught a bit off guard when this topic came up during our weekly discussions. The broad conversation themes were familiar: how does one handle a relationship in which individuals are emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and romantically compatible, but are not 100 per cent sexually compatible? Does this mean the relationship cannot work? Is it okay to get other people involved? How can this be done safely? Will people be judged negatively if they consider options other than a committed, monogamous relationship? What are some of the considerations to ensure such relationships are managed in a way that is healthy—mentally, physically and emotionally—for all parties?

These are hardly new questions; couples have been considering them for at least the decade or so that I have been facilitating discussion groups. However, what was new in this discussion was the way in which individuals were choosing to tackle these challenges. With many of their needs being met, some individuals are choosing to remain in relationships despite concerns about sexual incompatibility, in part by finding other couples with similar concerns (or single men) to create a network of individuals with whom their partners can play with. The intent is to create a safe, trusted, closed group of individuals with whom to engage in sexual activity—a sex network, if you will—so as to minimize the risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) amongst all parties involved. Again, open relationships are nothing new. But the degree of formalization and number of parties involved made this feel like something different, and it was clear that there was a real need to explore the topic further.

The conversation revolved around what happens when a member of a sex network does not honour the agreement, and how quickly a network that’s intended to provide safety and help strengthen relationships can create stress, fear and even tear relationships apart. Respecting the confidentiality of individuals involved, this is all I will say about the specifics of this particular conversation. But there were some major themes that arose from the discussions that are worth sharing:

  • Managing perceived minor sexual incompatibility within the context of a stronger relationship is a real concern for some couples, but a topic that is apparently taboo enough to make open discussion rare. As such, arrangements were made without necessarily consulting others with similar concerns and more experience in such matters, with too little consideration of some of the specific circumstances that might arise and how they would be addressed. For example, what if a couple broke up? How frequently should people be tested? Under what circumstances should protection be used? Who needed to be informed/consulted before changes were made? In the absence of a discussion around some of these key questions, assumptions can easily be made by all parties involved, leading to misunderstandings.
  • When attempting to find materials to support individuals participating in sex networks, local public health and AIDS service organizations (ASOs) did not have any such materials available. Materials distributed did not make reference to sex networks or prompt conversations about them. (In fact, my search for resources and the subsequent conversations with the ASO prompted the request for me to write this blog post.)
  • There is much work to be done to overcome shame and stigma surrounding heteronormative assumptions about sexual relationships. There are unique challenges and considerations in personal relationships within the rainbow community, which can cause distress and harm if individuals cannot seek the appropriate guidance for fear of being judged for their questions or answers.

In the end, I am happy to say that (to the best of my knowledge) the “crisis” spawning this topic of conversation ended well as a result of….conversation. The parties involved had the opportunity to talk, explore their concerns, assumptions, misunderstandings and so were able to open the lines of communication to find a path forward. While the conversations were challenging, and there are still many questions that likely need answering, sharing their experiences has helped others, including local organizations that have the mandate and resources to assist them.

I, for one, am looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Jeremy Steffler is the lead facilitator for the Wednesday Night Discussion Group, a weekly support and social group for the local rainbow community (see www.wndg.ca for more information), a role he has held for over 12 years. Jeremy is also a founding member and current chair of the Waterloo Region Rainbow Coalition (www.yourwrrc.ca). Jeremy was recognized in 2013 by the Waterloo Region Record as one of the Top 40 Under 40 primarily for his efforts in supporting the rainbow community.


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