Polyamory: New Laws, Good Data

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headshot from above, showing four people lying down with their foreheads facing each other: two women, two men, three White, one Black

Debbie says:

Laurie and I have both been polyamorous before the word was coined, back when it was called “nonmonogamy,” if it was called anything at all. If you’re not familiar with the concept, here’s the Oxford languages definition:

the practice of engaging in multiple romantic (and typically sexual) relationships, with the consent of all the people involved.

For me, in my early 20s, it seemed almost as natural as breathing. I don’t mean I was never jealous, because I was. I was much more likely to be afraid that I wouldn’t measure up somehow, that if someone I loved had other partners, they would become less interested in me. Nonetheless, I was brought up on the (not always cleanly true) story that parents love their children equally, that you can — and are better off if you do — have more than one friend, more than one writing buddy, more than one mentor. So even when I was afraid of losing a lover, I could never really understand why you “should” have only one lover. What was so special about sex that it had to be limited to one person at a time?

Over the decades, I’ve watched polyamory evolve: the word, the Usenet news group, the conventions that grew out of the Usenet news group, local gatherings for poly people. I’ve seen dozens of configurations, read some books and articles, talked about the subject on and off for many, many years. And suddenly, last month, I started seeing the topic come up in unexpected places.

My city — my city of Oakland, California, whose politics I watch quite carefully for other reasons — passed legislation in April forbidding discrimination in housing and the workplace for “diverse family structures.” And I didn’t hear about it, until Berkeley, the smaller and more politically famous city to the north, passed a similar ordinance in May. In Massachusetts, both Somerville and Cambridge have gone the same route.

Lesley McClurg, writing for KQED, reported on the Berkeley vote:

“This is a really exciting moment for the nonmonogamy movement because it helps validate and protect families and relationships that for a long time have existed in the shadows or at the margins of societies,” said Brett Chamberlin, founder and executive director of the Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Research shows that two-thirds of people engaged in consensual nonmonogamy report feeling stigmatized, which leads many to hide that they are polyamorous because they fear negative perceptions.

“Stigma and discrimination can show up in a range of domains: housing, employment, health care and immigration,” Chamberlin said. “Courts have revoked custody from parents who have multiple partners.”

I was already proud to live in a state that permits three-parent families (mostly to deal with situations like divorce and sperm donation, but also available to some polyamorous households). Combined with these local laws preventing discrimination on the basis of family structure, we’re starting to see some real protections fall into place–and it’s long past time.

While I was taking in the Oakland/Berkeley news, Tim Requarth published a detailed article in Slate on the current state of research in the area of nonmonogamy and polyamory. Requarth starts with some examples of polyamory in popular culture and the media, but his focus is on the data:

Consensual nonmonogamy is rather common—and has been for at least a decade. One of the most comprehensive sources of data in the U.S. is sponsored by Match.com, which, since 2010, has annually commissioned an independent survey company to query thousands of unmarried Americans across all demographics about their intimate relationships. (The surveys are focused not just on Match users; the company just has a vested interest in keeping tabs on the broader dating landscape.) Since 2013, these surveys have included questions about consensual nonmonogamy, such as whether respondents have ever participated in “an agreed-upon, sexually non-exclusive relationship.” When independent academics reviewed responses from approximately 9,000 demographically representative Americans in 2013 and 2014, their analysis revealed that 1 in 5 people had engaged in some form of consensual nonmonogamy. A 2019 Canadian study using a comparable approach (but including married Canadians as well) found the same rate of having ever been in a consensually nonmonogamous relationship: 1 in 5.

“That’s how many Americans have pets or speak another language other than English at home,” says Amy Moors, one of the authors of the study with the Match.com-sponsored survey and a professor at Chapman University. “You’re more likely to have been in a consensual nonmonogamous relationship than to be left-handed or redheaded.”

Requarth then goes on to discuss some other studies, the preponderance of white respondents to the match.com survey, and some more diverse surveys which show that the practice of consensual nonmonogamy is culturally, economically, and educationally diverse. He then turns his attention to studies of “how’s that working for you?”

As it turns out, Moors has been involved in this kind of research as well. In a study published in 2017, she and colleagues surveyed more than 2,100 individuals using established relationship metrics to compare monogamous with consensually nonmonogamous relationships. Contrary to conventional belief, they found no significant differences in the levels of love, commitment, and general satisfaction between the two groups. In fact, those in consensually nonmonogamous relationships reported higher trust and sexual satisfaction and experienced less jealousy compared with their monogamous counterparts.

Other studies are consistent with these findings, revealing that participants in nonmonogamous relationships tend to have better communication, more investment in their relationships, and less likelihood of showing anxious or avoidant attachment behaviors. Whether consensual nonmonogamous relationships encourage these traits or whether people more likely to exhibit these traits tend to be in nonmonogamous relationships isn’t clear.

Although these studies suggest that consensually nonmonogamous relationships can be just as healthy and satisfying as monogamous ones—and maybe even better—more rigorous comparisons paint a slightly less rosy picture. One nationally representative study from 2012 found that people in open relationships were a little less happy and sexually satisfied with their primary partners than were those in monogamous relationships, though the differences were small. What’s more, this study asked only about satisfaction with primary partners, not overall happiness, a metric that may be more relevant for nonmonogamous folks. (When it comes to sexual health, consensual nonmonogamy is clearly better than cheating: This same study found that people in open relationships were more likely to use condoms with their primary partners compared with those sneaking around behind their partners’ backs.)

Read the article; it reports on a surprising (to me, at least) number of serious studies, and some quite nuanced results. I also like Requarth’s conclusion:

The current media portrayals of polyamory capture only a fraction of the complex, widespread, and diverse social arrangements that exist beyond monogamy. When you look at the data, a bigger, richer, more robust picture comes into view of how sex and love actually unfold in our culture. Society’s view of monogamy as the ultimate romantic ideal has overshadowed other relationship structures, which have existed and will continue to exist regardless of monogamy’s dominance in social norms. In fact, if we want to talk about fads, it’s worth noting that the sexual exclusivity expected in modern American monogamy may itself be a relatively recent norm in human history.

It’s quite remarkably satisfying to see serious public attention paid to a facet of my life which is simultaneously extremely important to me and oddly obscure — except in the social circles I and people like me had to find so we could talk about how we were living.


Debbie occasionally posts on Mastodon.

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