FOCUS: Understanding Consensual Non-Monogamy

FOCUS: Understanding Consensual Non-Monogamy

Ryan Scoats

Consensual non-monogamy has a long history, and in recent years has received increasing media exposure. However, many myths and stereotypes still persist around consensually non-monogamous relationships and those who engage in them. There are assumptions about the superiority of monogamy, questions regarding the moral fortitude of consensual non-monogamy practitioners, and vivid caricatures of those who would dare to venture outside of the monogamous relationship template. Many of these stereotypes, unfortunately, are based in prejudice and misinformation. Thus, this mini-special edition of Discover Society draws together contemporary research in order to interrogate some of these myths and shed light on the lives of those who engage in consensual non-monogamy.

Consensual Non-Monogamy in the Public Eye
Consensual non-monogamy is far from a recent phenomenon. During the mid-1900s, a multitude of factors came together and helped alter the Western sexual landscape. Increased disillusion with traditional gender roles, increased activity in men and women’s social movements, and advancement in birth control technology created a platform from which sexual activity and relationships could be disentangled from procreation.

Often referred to as the Sexual Revolution, the 1960s and 70s had a particularly profound effect on women’s position in western society and acknowledged their capacities for sexual desire. Rubin (2001) suggests that:

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of intense re-examination of interpersonal relationships, marriages, and family life. The social turmoil of the Vietnam war and movements demanding civil rights, Black power, women’s liberation, and gay recognition served as catalysts for the public emergence of what popularly became known as alternative lifestyles. (p. 711).

These alternative lifestyles—including activities such as communal living, swinging, and group sex— gained greater exposure to the wider Western population and were seen as pregnant with possibility for social change. Some even hoped group sex could be used as a political tool, disrupting the relationship status quo and dismantling what was viewed as the establishment.

Even before this epoch, we can find examples of consensual non-monogamy spanning different cultures and time periods. A large variety of religions and cultures have at some point in history endorsed forms of polygamy. As far back as 1929, Malinowski was documenting Melanesian indigenous rituals where husbands and wives would engage in group-sex away from their spouse. Predating western knowledge of these rituals, the mid 1800s in America saw communities such as Brook Farm and the Oneida Community adopting communally polyamorous lifestyles (although not using the term polyamorous).

In recent years, increased media visibility and academic research into consensual non-monogamy has steadily grown and expanded into a variety of different areas. The general public are now exposed to consensual non-monogamy through a multitude of sources, including popular entertainment, celebrity gossip, friends (and friends of friends), dating websites, and the internet in general. American televisions shows such as Polyamory: Married and Dating or Sister Wives put a human face to less conventional relationships and allow viewers the opportunity to observe the ways that others live their lives. Well-known celebrities, such as Tilda Swinton, Will Smith, Ashton Kutcher, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and many others are all alleged to have practiced assorted forms of consensual non-monogamy. The internet has been of vital importance in allowing people to connect, engage, and learn about different relationship styles. Dating sites like OK Cupid now allow for open relationship and polyamorous statuses, and Facebook allows one to identify as being in an open relationship (although not polyamorous).

But why does exposure matter?

To answer this, we should turn to the work of psychologist Gordon W. Allport (1954). Intergroup contact theory suggests that interactions with an out-group under the right circumstances can enhance one’s understanding of them, and thus help facilitate reduced prejudice towards them. Essentially, having a good experience with those whom you hold negative preconceptions towards can encourage you to reconfigure your attitudes of them. This reduction in prejudice is something that we have seen for both those from sexual minorities, and to a lesser extent, those in consensually non-monogamous relationships. In an extension of Allport’s theory, it has also been suggested that indirect exposure to other groups can enhance people’s acceptance of them, and this acceptance may also extend to other unconnected, but similarly stigmatised groups. Accordingly, when people are exposed to consensual non-monogamy; be that threesomes, swinging, polyamory etc., it has the potential to help foster greater understanding, and greater acceptance, even if the contact hasn’t been in person.

Myths around Consensual Non-Monogamy
Unfortunately, although exposure has likely had a positive impact in fostering better attitudes and knowledge around consensual non-monogamy, there are still some persistent myths. Often these myths, and the accompanying stigma, aim to foreground the presumed problems with consensually non-monogamous relationships. This serves a dual purpose. Firstly it helps to cast consensual non-monogamous relationships as a “lesser” relationship, one which might work, but certainly not as well as a monogamous relationship. Simultaneously, it helps to reconfirm the “superiority” of monogamy, often at the same time justifying monogamous individuals’ own relationship and sex choices.

To give some specific examples of the sorts of stereotypes consensual non-monogamy is subject to, I have drawn from some of my own research on threesomes (Scoats & Anderson, 2018). This research looked to explore men and women’s experiences of multi-sex threesomes (i.e. those involving both men and women). Being that there are so few qualitative enquiries into threesomes (see also: Scoats et al., 2018; Rupp et al., 2014), I elected to interview participants about their experiences in order to extend contemporary understandings of threesomes, and consensual non-monogamy.

Myth one: Jealousy.

One stereotype related to consensual non-monogamy is the issue of (romantic) jealousy; the notion that people in consensually non-monogamous relationships have to constantly deal with monstrous feelings of jealousy, or they are the sorts of people that just don’t feel jealous. Related to this, there is the assumption that monogamous relationships intrinsically result in less jealousy than consensually non-monogamous ones. Unfortunately, a life of monogamy does not protect against instances of jealousy. Nor do instances of jealousy necessarily have the same sort of impact when experienced in the context of a consensually non-monogamous relationships.

When some of my participants did experience jealousy (normally those who had their threesome whilst with a romantic partner), it usually stemmed from the feeling of being left out. To give some examples, Sarah argued that: ‘It can’t just be you fucking the other person and then I’m off to the side’. Similarly, Sue highlighted how the uneven distribution of attention had contributed to it being a negative experience: ‘I probably would have been ok with sharing if it had been real sharing, but seeing how much more interested he was in her was just horrible’. These instances of jealousy, one might argue, support the notion of higher levels of jealousy in consensual non-monogamy.

What often happened next, however, diminished (or sometimes completely negated) the impact of that jealousy. When participants experienced jealousy they would usually talk to their partner (and sometimes the third person) about it. Uncomfortable feelings could then be recognised, understood, and then lead to subsequent changes in behaviour. Rarely did instances of jealousy seemingly have long term impacts on relationships. One might then question, even if consensual non-monogamy might be more prone to create jealousy, if participants have methods and strategies to deal with that jealousy, does it matter? Furthermore, for some, those strategies might eventually reduce those instances of jealousy altogether.

Myth two: It’s a sexual free-for-all

For many, consensual non-monogamy is generally associated with, and stigmatised as, being for the promiscuous. Indeed, one of the core stereotypes is that consensual non-monogamy is purely about attaining more sex. Although some forms of consensual non-monogamy, such as swinging, may often have more sexual focus than other types (e.g. polyamory), rarely does this means the rules are thrown out the window. On the contrary, explicit, agreed upon rules are often what allow consensually non-monogamous relationships to function positively.

Returning to my threesome participants, many of those who had their threesome with a partner had determined rules to make them feel more comfortable. These acts of partial sexual exclusivity helped participants to mentally construct a difference between sex whilst in a threesome, and sex with just their romantic partner. Thus, sex with someone else was not inherently a problem, as long as it was a specific type of sex that had been agreed upon. Rules regarding how their partner orgasmed, where they orgasmed, whether penetrative sex was involved, or whether there were repeat visits to the same person all helped to define what a couple was happy to share, and what they wanted to keep just for them. As we can see, many felt that restrictions could actually be beneficial when venturing outside of a relationship, whereas a complete free-for-all was rarely on the cards.

Myth three: Risks to sexual health

Given the association of consensual non-monogamy with promiscuity, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is also often presumed to carry with it a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Typically those engaging in consensual non-monogamy will be engaging in sex with a wider variety of people than those in monogamous relationships. On the face of it, it might appear logical to assume that those people able to have a larger number of sexual partners will be at a higher risk of STIs. The research, however, does not suggest that this is necessarily the case. Those engaging in consensual non-monogamy are more likely to use safe sex strategies; use physical barriers such as condoms, discuss safe sex with new partners, and get tested for STIs.

But why would someone in a monogamous relationship need to consider these things? Infidelity. Depending on the study, rates of infidelity are difficult to pin down, but are far from insignificant. What is clearer, however, are that those who engage in infidelities are less likely to use protection during these instances. This may be because having the forethought to purchase condoms, or other precautions, suggests an element of premeditation to the infidelity; thus making it impossible to argue that it was caused by a momentary lapse of uncontrollable passion. Likewise, getting tested for STIs might leave an audit trail of your transgressions. Consequently, those in monogamous relationships might be subject to STIs without even knowing it.

Similar to other studies, my threesome sample suggested that on the whole participants were thoughtful about their protection strategies. Twenty-two out of twenty-eight actively remembered using some form of protection, although protection seemed to be geared around protecting against unwanted pregnancies rather than specifically targeting STIs. Reflecting this, fourteen of those twenty-two had used condoms, whereas the remaining eight used a combination of birth control methods (such as the pill, or implants) in combination with STI testing. While this strategy might help guard against pregnancy, testing after having contracted an incurable STI is a much less effective strategy, although still an important aspect of safe sex. Although there were a few gaps in knowledge in relation to the transmission of fluids between people who might not interact (e.g. a man not swapping condoms in between penetrative sex with two women), by in large the sample were concerned about having safe sex, rather than throwing caution to the wind and pursuing sex at all costs.

This Mini Special Issue
As I argued earlier in this article, exposure to consensual non-monogamy and developing a deeper understanding of the realities of those who practice it can go a long way in dispelling inaccurate myths and foster more inclusive attitudes. It was hoped that editing this mini-special issue for Discover Society could help people understand more about monogamy, consensual non-monogamy, and perhaps encourage the reader to interrogate some of their own relationship values and/or biases. With this in mind, I have brought together academics working in a variety of areas to share their knowledge, research and experiences related to monogamy and consensual non-monogamy.

In our first article, Amy C. Moors and Jes L. Matsick discuss rates of engagement in consensual non-monogamy as well as the specific benefits practitioners ascribe to these types of relationships. With a not insignificant number of people having at some point engaged in consensual non-monogamy, it begs the question: What do some people find so compelling about these types of relationships? Responses suggest a number of benefits such as not needing to have all one’s physical/emotional/mental needs fulfilled by just one person, or allowing for people to pursue a variety of different interests (interests that their primary partner may be ambivalent about). They conclude by suggesting that no matter how one organises their relationship, there are always things to be learnt from other ways of doing things.

This final suggestion is also supported in our next article, from Katherine Frank. Drawing from many years of research into consensual non-monogamy, and conversations with hundreds of people about their sex lives, Katherine makes some suggestions as to what others might be able learn from consensual non-monogamy. Even if you have little interest in venturing outside of monogamy there are still important ideas that can be taken from looking at consensual non-monogamy.

In our third article, Ashley Thompson explores how the media influences our perceptions of acceptable relationship scripts; scripts which encourage us to engage in relationships in particular ways. Broadly, she argues, relationship scripts are gendered, heteronormative, and mono-normative. Consequently, deviation from these endorsed scripts can result in stigma, and thus likely worse mental health outcomes for those individuals. Although some research suggests that attitudes towards consensual non-monogamy may be improving, Ashley and colleagues’ research into implicit bias suggests that breaking out of normative relationship scripts may still result in stigma.

Our next article, from Carol Shepherd, explores the intersection of bisexuality and consensual non-monogamy in what might seem like an unlikely place, the Western Christian Church. She explores differing attitudes towards consensual non-monogamy, as interpreted through religious scriptures, before discussing the results of her interviews with more than 80 supporters of bisexual people, Pastors, and bisexual Christians. Her research challenges the idea that bisexuals are inherently going to be involved in consensual non-monogamy, as well as highlighting the challenges of being bisexual and/or consensually non-monogamous whilst also being Christian.

In our final article, Nick Harding and Eric Anderson focus on the current dominant relationship culture and ask: Why is monogamy so difficult? Drawing from 120 interviews with young men, they discuss why it is that so many men cheat on their partners. They argue that infidelity is likely a result of a culture that values monogamy and rejects consensual non-monogamy. Thus, if we truly desire to reduce instances of cheating, we may need to explore other relationship models as realistic options.

This small collection of articles is intended to spark conversations and raise questions about the current norms of sexual and romantic relationships; reduce stigma for those that engage in consensual non-monogamy, and encourage others to look at different relationship styles more objectively. No matter how you organise your relationship(s), we hope that critical explorations like this can help foster healthier and happier relationships for all.

References:
Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Malinowski, B. C. (1929). The sexual life of savages in northwestern Melanesia: An ethnographic account of courtship, marriage, and family life among the natives of Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Rubin, R. (2001). Alternative lifestyles revisited, or whatever happened to swingers, group marriages, and communes? Journal of Family Issues, 22(6), 711–726.
Rupp, L. J., Taylor, V., Regev-Messalem, S., Fogarty, A., & England, P. (2014). Queer women in the hookup scene: Beyond the closet? Gender & Society, 28(2), 212–235.
Scoats, R., & Anderson, E. (2018). ‘My partner was just all over her: Jealousy, communication and rules in mixed-sex threesomes. Culture, Health & Sexuality. Advanced online publication.
Scoats, R., Joseph, L. J., & Anderson, E. (2017). ‘I don’t mind watching him cum’: Heterosexual men, threesomes, and the erosion of the one-time rule of homosexuality. Sexualities. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/1363460716678562

 

Ryan Scoats is a researcher at Birmingham City University in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences. Much of his work focuses on people’s experiences of multi-sex threesomes, consensual non-monogamy, sexual behaviour, and gender. He has been published in Journals such as Sexualities; Culture, Health & Sexuality, and the Journal of Adolescent Research. Access to this academic research as well as various interviews Dr Scoats has engaged in can be found here.

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