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 met on dating apps — but alas. Breanna Rader, a queer woman now age 26, had been on a few dates with someone she’d met on Tinder — and had just told the woman, Karly, that she wasn’t monogamous. They were far from serious at the time, so Karly just laughed and asked why Rader was sharing this in the first place.
Months later into the relationship, Rader again raised the fact that she pursues multiple relationships at a time. I wanted to pull out the disclaimers early and remind her, Rader says with a laugh.
Those disclaimers seemed to do the trick, as they’re still together. Rader and Karly are among the 4 to 5 percent of people in the U.S. that researchers estimate practice polyamory, where partners agree to have sexual or romantic experiences with primary and secondary partners. There’s scarce research focusing on poly preferences, but what’s out there has indicated — in line with classic assumptions about male sexual appetites — that men are more likely to want a non-monogamous relationship. 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 like to say their ideal relationship was totally one on one. But that may be changing. A recent study found that:
Female-identifying participants were significantly more comfortable with the idea of non-monogamy than male-identifying ones
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 worlds who self-identified as either polyamorous, monogamous 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 themselves 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 non-monogamous 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 clinical 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 everything is transparent and well-communicated, 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. ”Research has been woefully behind in looking at people who are queer or gender non-binary,” McCullough says. Then again, there’s inherent irony to assigning specific characteristics to participants by gender categorically when talking about a community that values fluidity.
The study may also be reflecting the fact that while men are more likely to seek multiple partners, it’s not always with the consent of their primary partner. 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 rather than good old fashioned cheating. In the 2016 YouGov survey, a quarter of male respondents said they’d engaged in sex with someone else without their partner’s consent.