Why you should care
Pursuing non-monogamy is an ancient concept that might be resurfacing in the modern dialogue.
“Why are you being so honest with me?” Hardly the most common complaint one hears from people who meet via dating apps — but alas, Brianna Rader, a queer woman, 27, had decided to speak the truth. She had been on a few dates with Karly, a woman she’d met on Tinder, and she wanted Karly to know up front that she wasn’t monogamous. Karly just laughed and wondered why Rader was sharing this in the first place.
Later, months into the relationship, Rader again raised the fact that she pursues primary and secondary romantic relationships. “I wanted to pull out the disclaimers early and remind her,” Rader says with a laugh.
The approach apparently worked because they’re still together. Rader, founder and CEO of the sexual wellness company Juicebox, and Karly are among the 4 percent to 5 percent of Americans who researchers estimate practice polyamory, where partners agree to have sexual or romantic relationships with multiple partners. Classic assumptions about male sexual appetites would lead one to assume men are more likely to be in such arrangements. But there’s scarce research specifically on preferences within the poly community — and what’s out there challenges those notions. A recent study found that:
Women were significantly more comfortable with the idea of nonmonogamy than men.
That’s according to a 2018 working paper by a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. The study surveyed 509 people around the world who self-identified as either polyamorous, monoamorous or ambiamorous (those willing to be in either monogamous or polyamorous relationships) about their attitudes toward exclusivity. In the study, women scored higher than men for sexual and romantic openness scores — both for themselves and for their partners. Of the respondents, 55 percent identified as LGBTQ, 38 percent as straight and 7 percent were unsure.
While this finding goes against conventional wisdom, it’s not totally out of the blue. Attributes traditionally associated with women often prove to be essential assets in nonmonogamous situations. For one, there’s additional dialogue and negotiation happening in poly relationships — and communication historically has been characterized as a female strength, says Madison McCullough, a social worker and therapist who focuses on LGBTQ communities. More people involved in a relationship means more to balance, especially for those with children and growing families, McCullough says. Some tackle this right out of the gate — Rader and her partner, for example, proactively hired a queer poly couples therapist in anticipation of potential challenges.
Another contributor: jealousy. Though a 2013 study found that female respondents reported more sexual and romantic jealousy, several studies over the past two decades have found that men are more likely to be jealous of sexual infidelity than an emotional affair. Possessiveness over a romantic partner tends to be socially conditioned among heteronormative men, in Rader’s eyes. “A lot of men feel like they own their female partners,” she says. Women might suffer from less jealousy if both partners are having their needs met in a transparent and well-communicated way, she speculates, whereas some argue that social constructs encourage men to be competitive.
To be sure, this research is far from conclusive. For one, it oversampled LGBTQ participants: A 2017 Gallup survey estimated that about 4.5 percent of Americans don’t identify as straight, as opposed to 55 percent of survey respondents. There’s significant overlap between the queer and poly community, Rader notes. “Research has been woefully behind in looking at people who are queer or gender nonbinary,” McCullough says. Then again, there’s an inherent irony to assigning specific characteristics to participants by gender when talking about a community that values fluidity.
There is also data to suggest men do more commonly seek out multiple partners. A 2016 YouGov survey found that men were 13 percent less likely to be in a “completely monogamous” relationship than women and 25 percent less likely to say their ideal relationship was totally one-on-one.
But there’s a difference between polyamory and old-fashioned cheating. A study last year using data from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that while 12 percent of people were in nonmonogamous relationships, only a third of those were consensually open relationships. In the 2016 YouGov survey, a quarter of male respondents said they’d engaged in sex with someone else without their partner’s consent.