For one thing, swingers report more exciting and satisfying lives than the general population.
Consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships, where committed partners mutually agree not to be sexually and/or romantically exclusive to one another, are slowly gaining visibility in the media. Yet, a few anecdotes aside, they are still shrouded in stereotype and mystery.
Here are 12 things that recent research reveals about these relationships and the people involved in them. (Some of this research is so brand new that it hasn’t yet been published, only presented at professional conferences, so you’re getting a sneak preview.)
1. People in CNM relationships may be more prevalent than gay people. Up to 2% of U.S. women identify as lesbian, and up to 4% of men identify as gay. We don’t have nationally representative data on CNM, but in large online samples, 4-5% of respondents say they’re currently in a CNM relationship. Broken down by sexual orientation among Vermont couples, a CNM agreement was had by 3.5% hetero couples, 5% lesbian couples, and up to 50% gay male couples. Yes, gay men are waaay more likely to practice CNM than everyone else.
2. Up to 40% of men and up to 25% of women might consider CNM. That is how many of 600 participants in a monogamous relationship said they would switch to nonmonogamy if they lived in a world where everyone had open relationships. These data are yet to be published, but some already published research suggests similar openness among many people to try CNM if their partner suggested or OK’d it.
3. Desire for (non)monogamy exists on a continuum. In his bestseller Sex at Dawn, Chris Ryan argued that humans as a species are nonmonogamous. However, new data from Lisa Dawn Hamilton’s lab suggests it may be more accurate to think of the tendency toward (non)monogamy as a personality characteristic that ranges on a spectrum from very low to very high (just like, say, extraversion and introversion). In other words, some people are completely monogamous, others are completely nonmonogamous, and many more are somewhere in between.
4. Stigma against CNM is strong, robust, and incredibly pervasive. CNM and the people engaged in it are considered worse than monogamists on virtually every personal or relationship characteristic you could think of, including sexual health, commitment, trust, romance, kindness, loneliness, jealousy, generosity, life satisfaction, education, and success, to name a few. In a psychological phenomenon called the “halo effect,” this negativity extends to traits and behaviors that have nothing to do with relationships. People think that non-monogamists are worse at paying taxes, dog walking, taking multivitamins, and teeth flossing.
5. This stigma is so pervasive, that even people who are themselves in a CNM relationship think that CNM is inferior to monogamy on almost all of the above characteristics. This is kind of like internalized homophobia experienced by gay people—living in a world that strongly stigmatizes your sexual orientation or lifestyle, you can’t help but internalize those prejudices.
6. Not all CNM types are perceived as equally bad. Swingers (who typically have purely casual sex with others, together with their partners, often in group sex situations) are perceived as dirtier, less moral, less responsible, and less mature than polyamorists (who typically have multiple, long-term sexual and romantic relationships). Those in open relationships (who typically have casual sex with others, but one-on-one, separately from their main partners) were perceived somewhere in between.
7. When having sex with other people, CNM folks are more responsible regarding health than supposedly monogamous people who are cheating. CNM people are less likely to drink or do drugs beforehand, and more likely to use condoms for vaginal and anal sex, discuss prior partner and STI testing history, cover or sterilize sex toys, and, of course, tell their primary partner about it. What’s more, when they do use condoms, CNM people are more likely than cheaters to use them properly, like check for damage or pinch the tip before putting on the condom, and less likely to make mistakes, like put it on the wrong way then just flip it over, or put it on after intercourse started.
8. As a result, CNM people donot report more sexually transmitted infections than monogamous folks. As I reported in a recent Playboy article, unpublished data presented at by Justin Lehmiller suggests that people in CNM relationships report virtually identical rates of STIs as those in monogamous relationships—about 20%.
9. Swingers report more exciting and satisfying lives—sexually and otherwise—than the general population. In the general U.S. population, 32% say they are “very happy” with their lives and 46% think their life is exciting; by comparison, in a large sample of over 1,000 swingers, these numbers were 59% and 76%, respectively. Moreover, 25% of women and 9% of men in the general U.S. population have not had a single orgasm in the past year. Compare that to another large sample of over 1,200 swingers, where less than 5% of women and 1% of men reported never reaching orgasm during swinging (and they may still reach orgasm when not swinging).
10. People in CNM relationships experience less jealousy than those in monogamous relationships. This is certainly true of gay couples. New, yet-to-be-published data from Terri Conley’s lab suggest it is also true of hetero couples, with polyamorists being particularly low on jealousy. This shouldn’t be surprising really—people who would consider a nonexclusive arrangement are probably pretty non-jealous to begin with.
11. Finally, CNM couples usually report similar (and sometimes higher) relationship quality than monogamous couples, including things like relationship satisfaction, intimacy, trust, commitment, or communication between those in monogamous versus CNM relationships. Together with some of Conley’s new research, it looks like this may depend on the type of CNM, with polyamorists showing greater relationship quality than monogamists, those in open relationships showing lower quality, and swingers showing no differences either way.
12. Perhaps more critically, it may be the lying and hiding that’s linked to worse relationships. In two studies of gay couples, those who were really monogamous and those in CNM relationships had similar relationship quality; it was the cheaters that showed lower relationship quality than both non-cheating groups.
There is so much more to be learned about CNM and the people involved in it, but science is finally starting to ask these questions.
Zhana Vrangalova, PhD, is a NYC-based sex researcher who studies casual sex, nonmonogamy, and sexual orientation, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at New York University where she teaches Human Sexuality.
This originally appeared on Alternet. Republished here with permission.