Polyamory: Complicated New Identity or Primarily About Sex?

A study of consensual, overlapping sex partners unwittingly reveals the strengths of monogamy.

In an open access article in PLOS One published in mid-2017, a series of psychologists—drawing on a convenience, opt-in survey of 3,530 persons—describe what is known about the community of self-identified polyamorous individuals. Polyamory, for those who aren’t in the know, is actually a collection of practices, all of which revolve around the theme of not wanting to have sex with just one person at a time. The authors, unfortunately, label it as an identity—as if we need one more of those. Some even hold that polyamory may be innate. (Perhaps it should be a protected class.)

Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is something the PLOS One study authors hold characterizes about 4-5 percent of the population. I disagree. While just under 10 percent of American adults ages 18-60 in the population-based Relationships in America survey reported having experienced sexual relationships that overlapped by at least a month at some point in their lives, very few of those are still ongoing, and most of those overlapping relationships were covert, transactional, or transitional.

Oddly, only 37 percent of the original 3,530 respondents were included in in the PLOS One study. Why did the study’s authors include only a minority (of a minority)? Because they wished to limit their study of polyamory to a more “traditional” type—the one in which participants have a primary and a secondary sexual partner. I thought that that was what polyamory meant. But nearly two-thirds of self-identified polyamorists don’t fit into that box, courtesy of the “vast differences in relationship configuration” the authors report. So out they went, in favor of analyzing only those relationships that emphasize “commitments,” as distinct from swinging, “open” relationships, and all other combinations of concurrent partnerships.

The commitment, so far as I can tell, is to actually seeing the secondary partner for an extended period of time and expressing emotional and romantic feelings toward him or her—not just sexual feelings. Indeed, the PLOS One study authors inform the reader that people in CNM relationships are no different from those in monogamous relationships when it comes to satisfaction and commitment—provided, of course, that you understand commitment emotionally rather than in the more traditional ways humans might have historically understood it. Although the authors claim that CNM participants display neither more nor less jealousy than monogamous persons, the source they cite for this does not agree. “Jealousy is common in consensually nonmonogamous relationships” is what I saw printed. Other sources the authors cite claim no differences in relationship satisfaction, albeit with sample sizes of just seventy-six respondents—numbers too low to detect anything but large distinctions. (Here we go again.)

Even sexual frequency was said to be comparable in previous studies. That was the last straw. Polyamorists have no more sex than the average monogamist? Perhaps I have been missing the point of polyamory. Let’s take a closer look.

Sex and Polyamory

In their pool of 1,308 respondents with both a primary and secondary partner—a group that they did not compare to monogamists—the biggest difference between respondents’ primary and secondary relationships is in the share of time spent on sex. With primary partners, respondents estimated that 21 percent of their time with them was spent on sexual activities; with secondary partners, it was 37 percent. (The point of pursuing a secondary romantic relationship clearly has something to do with the sex.) However, if these figures are accurate, that is a great deal of time spent having sex. Even I suspect that these are overestimates. If one out of five minutes spent with your primary partner—72 percent of whom share a household with them—is spent in sexual activity, I’m left to conclude that either polyamorists don’t spend much time at home, spend a ton of time in the sack, or are prone to doing bad math in their heads when completing a survey. I’m a fan of the last explanation, because population-based surveys report, on average, that one in four cohabiting couples (and just over one in five married couples) has sex on any given day.

Since 2012, a nonstop litany of accusations has asserted that I am blinded by bias in what I have written about sex and sexual relationships, peer review be damned. You are welcome to believe what I have asserted, or think me wrong. What you cannot hold, at least not in good faith, is the supposition that peer-reviewed social science, like the PLOS One article and its authors, is not invested in legitimizing new styles of relationship. Description of a self-selected sample, couched in language depicting its “complexity,” ultimately lends legitimacy to a relationship form that falls well short of the dignity of the human person. Sexual objectification—the treatment of persons as objects—is both a root cause of our contemporary crisis over power and diminished consent, and unavoidable when relationships are largely about the sex.

As I wrote in Cheap Sex, people “need” multiple partners like they need three houses or five automobiles. These are post-materialist wishes, not requirements. Rejecting monogamy was made possible not because we figured out that we were at bottom evolved animals but because we figured out how to effectively prevent pregnancy or end it prematurely, freeing us up to pursue the art of sexuality—crafting the human body for consumption rather than production.

The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage

What if CNM becomes more popular? Private choices wouldn’t harm anyone else’s way of life, right? Wrong. Loosening sexual standards, like monogamy, simply does not mean that everyone remains free to do as he or she pleases. Groups and communities do not work like that. There will always be rules—with resulting winners and losers—in any sexual system. If poly becomes more popular, marriage retreats even more rapidly.

A monogamous system, however, allows for more winners than a poly system. That is, more men and women are in successful relationships. How so?

A team featuring an economist, an anthropologist, and an environmental scientist set out to solve what they called the “puzzle” of monogamous marriage. Monogamous arrangements make up a historical minority of the globe’s societies, but the vast majority of the more successful and flourishing ones—and these researchers wanted to find out why. Monogamous marriage, they painstakingly detail, fosters savings and economic output, and it reduces competition among men for women, thus reducing the pool of low-status, risk-oriented, unmarried men. And that, in turn, lowers multiple types of crime, abuse, and household conflict, enabling children to enjoy paternal attention and exhibit notably lower stress levels than in households displaying all manner of outsiders.

Monogamy also leads to greater equality. More men and women have the opportunity to meet, marry, save, and invest for the long term, instead of competing (and spending resources) for others’ available attention. This is why monogamous marriage systems preceded the emergence of democratic institutions and the rise of notions like human rights and equality between the sexes. This “package of norms and institutions that constitute modern monogamous marriage systems spread across Europe, and then the globe,” precisely because it competed well. Monogamy, after all, is disciplined—by definition.

Stability, Commitment, and Social Capital

What do we learn about the children of polyamorists in the PLOS One study? Nothing. That’s for a future study, the authors dismiss. “Tangible investments,” they write, including children, “are not easy to distribute equally across relationships.” Children, it seems, are assets whose time ideally ought to be distributed equally across the different sexual relationships poly parents have. Talk about an adult-centered perspective.

If the social scientific world seemed to agree on anything from the furor that erupted after my 2012 article on the adult children of parents who’ve been in same-sex relationships, it is that stability is a good thing for kids. But stability is not just a control variable. Stability is the point.

The PLOS One study notes secondary relationships have lasted, on average, a little under two and a half years, while primaries have so far lasted an average of just over eight years—and readers are supposed to be impressed with their durability. When these averages reach, say, twenty years, then I’ll be impressed. Then we can talk about “commitment.” At bottom, polyamory means a great deal of trust is constantly required of people who openly resist the idea of fidelity. It is pretty ironic, and it’s also why such relationships almost never last.

It is possible that the West is living off the social capital accrued by generations of monogamy—albeit imperfectly lived out—only to watch those it has benefited turn on it, oblivious to the social hazards that will accompany undermining a monogamous system. The New Polyamory masquerades as an egalitarian system. It can afford to, for the moment, because of the “free rider problem.” That is, polyamorists are a minority who flout (but still benefit from the fruits of) the trust, fidelity, and stability exhibited by the vast majority of couples. But it cannot become a majority system while retaining the benefits that only monogamy consistently delivers.

That social scientists seem to speak only about the personal and relational consequences of behavior patterns, and think nothing about the social consequences of relationship systems, is further evidence that more is afoot than the mere sharing of information.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.