There's a lot of talk right now about a new study of college students in the latest issue of the journal Personality and Individual Difference, where students were asked to imagine themselves in a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex, and then imagine that that person cheated on them with either a man or a woman. The results show that men who have sex with women (MSW) are more comfortable dating women who cheat on them with other women than women who cheat on them with other men. See articles here, here, and here for details.
But what about the other side? The study, which also surveyed women, shows that women who have sex with men (WSM) are more comfortable dating men who cheat on them with other women than men who cheat on them with other men.
The articles about the research all talk about cheating - thus assuming that monogamy is the norm. Since I haven't read the original study, I don't know how much attention the researchers paid to consensual polyamory. But my concern in this piece isn't so much with the original research as with the reporting about it.
The articles I've seen talk much more about the men who took the survey, and have titles like "Men Are OK with Lesbian (sic) Cheating". There's very little discussion of the women who took the survey, and I haven't found a headline about them at all. In addition, the articles focus a ton on the "fact" that this study "proves" that men like the idea of two women together so much that they don't mind dating bi girls who are unfaithful - as long as the infidelity is with another woman.
If this view of the study was right, that would be pretty sexist and biphobic on the part of these men, because their survey responses would imply that women's (bi)sexuality is for male pleasure and is somehow about them (the men). Their survey responses would also imply that a woman cheating with another woman "doesn't count" as cheating, because women's (bi)sexuality with one another has less value and less meaning (compared to women's sexuality with men). And it's entirely possible that this interpretation of the study is right, and that these men are sexist and biphobic.
But it's also possible that this is not what the men were trying to say at all.
At least some may have been answering the way they did because they feel the opposite: They know that their female partners' sex life with other women is definitely not about them, and they respect female-only space, including sexual space between women. These men may have been trying, within the narrow confines of a survey method, to give a nod toward negotiated poly agreements. These men may be feminists, they may be queer, they may be poly; they may be any combination of all three. And they may have found themselves participating in a study that talked about "cheating" bi women in a way that inspired them to intervene in dominant discourses about monogamy and female (bi)sexuality.
I'm not trying to defend the men who participated in this study, if they are sexist and biphobic. I recognize that that's a distinct possibility. What I'm interested in doing is suggesting another view of the survey results, one that I haven't seen in the reporting about the survey. Because some men are feminists, are queer, are poly - and fill out surveys. And as long as the possibility exists, I think we need to explore it.
Which brings me back to the women who participated in the survey. Although the men were more okay with same-sex cheating (compared to different-sex cheating), the women were less okay with same-sex cheating. Does this mean the ladies don't like the idea of man-on-man action?
A couple of the articles include this statement from the lead author of the study:
:A robust jealousy mechanism is activated in men and women by different types of cues - those that threaten paternity in men and those that threaten abandonment in women," said Jaime C. Confer, the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate in evolutionary psychology.
Even if that were true - and that's a big if - what does that have to do with the fact that the women in the study didn't like it when their hypothetical male partners were bi and cheated on them with other men? Is being a bi male cheater who steps out with a man more of a threat of abandonment than being a male cheater who sleeps with another woman? If the women taking the survey think that, are they being biphobic?
It's important to state that bisexuals are no more likely to cheat than monosexuals; I've never seen any scientific proof otherwise. Also, bisexuals are no more likely to abandon their partners than monosexuals. So maybe what Ms. Confer really found was that women's jealousy mechanisms were cued not by a threat of abandonment but by any hint of bisexuality in a male partner. Maybe she found that women are biphobic.
Or maybe not. It seems that Ms. Confer found something else altogether. It's possible that her survey isn't about bisexuality at all, and that none of the research participants are biphobic. Because maybe these results - and the reporting on them - aren't about sexuality, but about gender. After all, look at what the two groups have in common: They don't mind so much when their partners sleep with women. But they both hate it when their partners sleep with men!
I haven't seen any press bring up this point, but we should, because it raises an important question. When someone's partner cheats with a woman, no big deal. But what is it about a lover cheating with a man that makes men and women so upset?