August 26, 2010

Cheating Or Non-Monogamy? The Difference May Matter For Health

A new study of gay relationships in SF finds that nearly half of the couples maintain “open relationships,” and nearly half are monogamous - few are discrepant.

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A new study on over 500 gay men’s relationships in San Francisco finds that nearly half of the couples maintain “open relationships,” nearly half are monogamous, and slightly less than 10% are discrepant between partners.

What Is An “Open” Relationship?

Polyamory can be broadly defined as consensual non-monogamy; it serves as an umbrella term, including:

  • “open” relationships (two partners are romantically exclusive, but agree that lovers are permitted)
  • polygamy (one husband with multiple wives)
  • polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands)
  • other relationship structures that are consensually defined to allow for multiple romantic and/or sexual partnerships.

Polyamory is fundamentally different than infidelity or “cheating,” which typically entails one or both partners of an otherwise monogamous relationship forming a relationship and/or having sex with a person who is not their partner.

The key difference is that polyamorous and open relationships are defined by all involved to have open boundaries, while infidelity is a matter of dishonesty.

Relationship Structure And Sexual Health

Dr. Colleen Hoff, a researcher at the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality recently released a study on over 500 gay male couples in San Francisco.

She asked the partners of these couples, independently, whether the couple was monogamous or “open,” and about the decisions they made regarding the relationship, sex, and health.

She found that nearly half had open relationships, and just slightly fewer maintained monogamous (“closed”) relationships; however, about 8% reported discrepant relationship structures, in which one partner said “open” and the other said “closed.”

No matter the relationship structure, she found that nearly every couple had some sort of sexual agreement – that is, the partners had come to an explicit, consensual agreement regarding the contours of their relationship (open vs. closed, primarily).

While this is a helpful strategy to promote safe-sex practices, including open communication between partners, the couples noted that this agreement was a matter of building trust and protecting the relationship and less so about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Dr. Hoff and other sex researchers have noted that these findings suggest that HIV and STI prevention efforts must take into consideration that, for some couples, the health of the relationship is the top prioritynot sexual health:

[Garrett Prestage, an HIV researcher in Australia] added: “Unfortunately, most HIV prevention seems to be predicated on a message that implies they (gay men) should not trust their partners and should always act out of self-interest. That runs contrary to most healthy relationships.”

  • This shouldn't be surprising to anyone. Because of the nature of gay relationships, having to hide from society for a long time, being shunned, and discriminated against, it probably makes it harder to maintain a firm, committed relationship. If you can't easily integrate a normal relationship with the rest of your daily routine and be accepted, it makes it easier to loosen the restrictions on that relationship.

    Also, I think that since there's been relatively little family structure amongst gay couples, that this tendency to deviate is more likely to occur. I guess I'm not sure what the point of this research was….to suggest that being open with your plans and expectations leads to trust?