Michele O'Mara

Monogamy: Gender vs. Sexual Orientation

Filed By Michele O'Mara | February 04, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Dan Savage, Joy Behar, lesbian, LGBT, love, monogamy, relationships, sex

After studying 566 gay male couples over a three year period, Colleen Hoff of San Francisco State University discovered that roughly fifty percent of gay male couples choose to be non-monogamous. Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen are a great example of how this works. Spears and Lowen started dating in their mid-twenties with the agreement that they will keep their relationship open. Thirty-four years later the couple is still going strong. In fact, this duo credits their relationship success in part to their decision to keep their relationship open.

Lowen and Spears have taken their interest in non-monogomy a step further by studying 86 non-monogamous, long-term (8+ years) gay male couples. Their research reveals that forty percent of the 86 couples started out with agreements to be open and have maintained this status, while the remaining sixty percent of the couples took an average of 6.5 years to open their relationship. The average length of relationship for the 86 couples in this study is 16.2 years.

While I'm not interested in promoting or discouraging open relationships, I do find it fascinating to consider what makes this arrangement work for so many gay men. Of the 86 couples in the Spears/Lowen research, only one couple is raising young children. This does not surprise me. Raising children is a time and energy consuming experience that will unlikely leave much room for extra play. In an email exchange with Hoff, she explained to me that while they did collect data on parenthood for the couples in their study, they did not separate that data out to examine the relationship between monogamy and parenthood.

I also wonder, does the open option work better for men than for women? Is this really an issue that is rooted in sexual orientation, or one rooted in gender? Traditionally men are thought to be better at separating sex from emotion, which is helpful in an open arrangement. As Spears and Lowen point out on their website:

We found many couples had a somewhat compartmentalized perspective and approach to outside sex. "It's just sex" - a release without meaning, quite separate from the relationship.

The statistics on fidelity among men and women suggests that monogamy is a struggle for heterosexuals too. According to Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth, "Conservative estimates are that 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair." That's a whole lot of cheating. To clarify, infidelity is deceptive non-monogamy, but an open relationship is non-monogamy that occurs with the consent and knowledge of both partners.

Dan Savage, chimed in on the topic recently during a guest appearance on The Joy Behar show, saying:

I believe men can be monogamous. But I believe that it's a difficult struggle. You know, when you're in love with someone and you make a monogamous commitment, it's not that you don't want to sleep with other people; it's that you refrain from sleeping with other people.

The culture says if there is love there is no desire for others and that makes people--essentially puts them at war with their own instincts and leads to lies and deceit because you're lying and deceiving yourself.

In my own practice, having worked with more than 1,000 lesbians over the last decade, I would be very surprised to discover that lesbians choose non-monogomy at a rate of fifty-percent. While my sample of gay male couples is much smaller, it is large enough to support the notion that fifty percent of gay male couples open their relationship to outside "play" or sexual activity.

Some advocates of gay marriage are discouraged by findings such as Hoff's and Lowen/Spears's. I anticipate that norm-seeking gays and lesbians will post about this topic adamantly defending the fifty percent of us who choose monogamy. The inference is that monogamy is better. Seems to me that most people have their hands full just trying to figure out their own relationships. Maybe if we all focused a little more on how to make our own relationships work, and less about how other's are going about it, we would all end up with more meaningful and satisfying relationships.

As a partnered lesbian, in a long-term (10+), monogamous relationship I enjoy the simplicity, comfort, and predictability of our relationship. As co-parents, it is also important to us to prioritize time with our sons and time as a family. By the time I've gone to work, tended to our homestead, done homework with my sons, spent time with them, prepared dinner, taken a family walk, caught up with my partner and how her day has gone, read to and tucked the boys into bed, I can't imagine fitting in to my life an outside liaison or two. This is what works for us. That doesn't mean it will work for or be fulfilling for everyone. That doesn't mean that our way is the best way. Our way is simply the best way we've discovered for us.

What works best for you? At the end of the day that's all that matters.

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Nice post. I appreciated especially your reporting of couples in your own practice.

Maybe if we all focused a little more on how to make our own relationships work, and less about how other's[sic] are going about it, we would all end up with more meaningful and satisfying relationships.

Thank you for saying this. While I'm a gay man who personally prefers monogamy, I always get concerned when some of my fellow monogamists get overly critical of those who choose an honestly non-monogamous relationship. I may wonder how such relationships ultimately work and can't imagine I'd do well in one, but I'm willing to let those who wish to go that route work things out for themselves.

One wonders how the study would have turned out if not all the couples had been from San Francisco... or any large gay metropolis, for that natter. Further to the point, one wonders how heterosexual couples in, say, New York, would have fared.


I wondered the same thing myself. I actually emailed the research lead, Colleen Hoff and this is how she replied to my question of whether or not she believed the sample was representative of all gay men, or just Bay Area gay men:

"Most of the studies of gay men report about 50% are monogamous—they have been Bay Area studies and studies that were done all over the US and Australia and Western Europe."

I am very curious, too, to see how childless heterosexuals fare on a study like this...and maybe even throw in, unmarried, childless heterosexual couples. So many variables, so little research. :)

What struck me was how similar this was to the study released a few days ago in which Republicans came across as utterly dimwitted about issues regarding gays. They didnt ask Democrats the same questions, so there was no comparison. To my mind, one-sided polls like this really have no real weight.

I don't agree that the study has no weight. It is still valuable information. However, its generalizability is limited.

This is a common feature and challenge of behavioral and social research. Larger metropolitan areas tend to be favored because the resources are there to conduct such a huge study and a potential subject pool is readily available.

It costs LOTS of money and labor time to try to do the same in smaller metro or rural areas particularly because potential subjects are either less willing or are less available to participate.

I agree with Sean. There's a problem with making your sample from the Bay area; it's inane to take it as a representative sample on a national level.

Gay ghettos have cultures themselves, and in SF it's a long history of non-monogamy. It's what's been practiced and maintained, and logically it's what works if you're used to those expectations.

With little energy being put into child-rearing, I can see a lot more unspent time to be lusting about random men. Humans are prone to boredom, and we like to play ;).

I'd be greatly interested in child-rearing gay male couples. Having children is a process that takes the focus off personal seeking of frivolity and tests a person's capability to put someone else's interests ahead of theirs.

Good point about parenting making extra-marital sex unlikely, but I think the same could be said for a couple who, say, run a business together or even couples who spend a lot of time together because of a common interest.

I think the salient issue in an open relationship is often less about what couples actually do and more about what they give each other permission to do, what they are willing to understand and forgive in each other. So you might not have time for outside fun because you're helping the kids with homework, but the fact that you have permission and that you give your partner permission makes a difference in the quality of the relationship.

Golikewater -

Good point. I think the whole notion behind an open relationship is less about what you end up doing and more about the option to do it... it's important to note too, that open relationships tend to involve a lot of well-considered guidelines and it's not typically a free-for-all (of course some may indeed set their agreements up that way).

I have worked with couples (heterosexual and gay) that have an open agreement yet may rarely, if ever, opt to exercise this freedom built-in freedom. Having the option may just be enough for some...

I'm interested in why this post seems to view non-monogamous relationships entirely in terms of (quoting from the above post) "extra play" and "separating sex from emotion", taking "couples" for granted.

I think this is a shame, since the possibilities of non-monogamous relationship models other than this idea of 'one primary partner and random, emotionless sex on the side' are rarely considered. Definitely not in the mainstream media but also in LBTQ media.

This conceptualizing of non-monogamy as "extra play", as less serious than monogamy (especially if there are children in the picture) is, I think, very problematic from a queer and feminist perspective, and I'm also wondering how this is affecting how studies like these are conducted and read.

In my (anecdotal and limited) experience, many lesbian/bi/queer women are perhaps more interested in non-monogamy than many men are (although many men are as well), but often in ways that are very different from this idea of "extra play/emotionless sex".

Rather, it is seen in very consciously political terms as a method of breaking with patriarchal, heteronormative ways of structuring relationships. For example, having many partners without imposing a strict hierarchy upon them (just as one does not love one child less when another is born), seeking in your partner(s) not the ideal of the 'one perfect partner' but instead valuing each relationship in it's uniquity, not making a strict distinction between friends and partners, and so on.

This is not to say that non-monogamy is necessarily superior in any way to monogamy, but that there is much more to it than couples indulging in "extra play" and "outside liason[s]", and that how non-monogamy is framed in studies like these as well as in general very possibly affects these kinds of studies, as well as how people actually shape their relationships.

Anyway, thank you for an interesting post!

Probably because for men (well, most of the men I know anyway), sex *is* play when it's outside the relationship. It's an activity like going to the gym or taking a run. That's not to say that it's emotionless, but it's not done with the emotional depth one would have with one's partner. Yes, it helps if you at least *like* your sexual partner of the moment, but I imagine that for most, it's just play.

Just my hunch, I know. But I've been the extra wheel in a few of these kind of relationships, and as long as everyone understands the purpose of what's going on, there's rarely been that much angst over it.

Itne - your comment:

In my (anecdotal and limited) experience, many lesbian/bi/queer women are perhaps more interested in non-monogamy than many men are (although many men are as well), but often in ways that are very different from this idea of "extra play/emotionless sex".

has me wondering if we are talking about two separate things. Non-monogamy obviously covers a wide range of behaviors/interests - starting with the most common form of infidelity, moving into areas of "outside play" as recreation, then encompassing outside interactions with emotion/significance, to the inclusion of additional whole relationships.

That's a lot to cover in a post about new research on open gay male relationships. Admittedly my focus when writing this was on outside play - the general loosening of boundaries within a committed relationship to include sexual interactions with others while maintaining the original relationship as primary and of greatest emotional significance.

This is absolutely not the only way to open a relationship. There are multitudes of ways to go about opening a relationship and I appreciate your adding your thoughts and experiences about that.

I'm also curious where all these women are that you know who are non-monogamous at rates greater than everyone else in your world? It's all so fascinating. :)

Michele O'Mara and Sean Martin: thank you both for replying! Sorry if my first comment was a bit strongly worded or something like that -- it's just a subject I've been discussing a lot lately!

Michele O'Mara, you are right that we are partly talking about different things, and in a way that was sort of what I was getting at. As you say, non-monogamy is a very broad subject, and of course it's many facets can't be brought up all at once in one post on a more specific sub-topic, like this one.

It's just that I see a pattern in how "non-monogamy" is often reduced to mean only "extra play" (that is "extra" to a given monogamous relationship); how, as with the subject of love in Diotima's dialogue with Socrates, a limited part of the concept of love (or non-monogamy) has been falsely given the name of the whole, with the consequence that many other kinds of love (or relationship models) get left out of discussions on and practice of love/relationships.

So, monogamy often remains the norm in discussions of non-monogamy, and I think this really limits the discourse. I suppose you could view traditional monogamy in two ways: either as just one of very many possible ways to organise relationships, or as something that is given and that other forms of relationships are only secondary variations of or additions to this fundamental relationship.

The latter (and in my opinion more limited) view is certainly more common, and is of course also based upon the way most relationships are organised today. But taking monogamy for granted in this way means that, among other things, studies and discussions on non-monogamy such as this one really risk being distorted, especially with regards to question of how it relates to sexuality and gender.

Maybe I want to rephrase Dan Savage's point that "The culture says if there is love there is no desire for others" to say that even more so, the general idea seems to be that "... if there is love there is no love for others" -- such a possibility often seems to be entirely excluded from the discussion, and it's not a minor exclusion.

(So, I can definitely relate to what you, Sean Martin, are saying, and perhaps it illustrates part of my point?)

These women (and people of other genders!) that I know or know of tend to live in European cities such as Berlin, Copenhagen or Stockholm (so perhaps there is also a European/American divide here?) and are definitely a radical minority within a minority, or something like that, but I'm glad you find it fascinating! I'd post some links but unfortunately I can't find much that's in English.

Sorry if I went a bit off-topic here -- I was planning on returning to the question of "Monogamy: Gender vs. Sexual Orientation" and to the study in question, but this is a really long comment already! (Maybe tomorrow!)

itne, I think your comment involves the difference between the fact of love and the structure of relationship and perhaps that can be explained with a question like "Ok, we love each other. Now how do we structure the relationship so that we do not lose awareness of our love for each other?"

Great post.

A lot of people are pointing to the urban/rural divide, but I want to point out that people who aren't from SF or NYC aren't shrinking violets when it comes to sex, either. Michele confirmed the results and her practice is in Indianapolis, hardly America's heathen capital. I knew several gay couples in open relationships in Walla Walla when I lived there. In fact, I only think I knew one gay couple that wasn't open.

Just to say that the coastal-urban areas of the US didn't invent life outside monogamy and the rest of the country is doing just fine. But there are lots of variables and it seems like a fascinating field to research.

Harley Ehrman | February 13, 2010 5:43 PM


Are you aware that your article was picked up by a website that "counters the homosexual activist agenda?" The link is here, if not.

He prattled on about how one can't expect gays to be monogamous because they are immoral and perverse - blah blah blah. His ineptitude of the subject did make me wonder about the study. Aside from geographical location, did Hoff ever ask the couples WHY they decided on having the open relationship and HOW they felt about the function of relationship? I do see studies where the person wants to find out how many people are involved in it, but there's never an answer of how it all got started.


Someone directed me to their site shorty after it ran. I tend to ignore that which does not concern me. To discuss or even acknowledge their opinions would suggest that: 1) I care, and 2) what they say matters to me. Neither of which is true.

Not sure about the WHY of the non-monogamy. Searching for WHY's is a lot like chasing one's tail, though - a lot of work, little reward. Sort of like, why are some people gay? Why are some people left handed? Instead of wondering why, I'm more inclined to think, "hmmmm, isn't it fascinating how different we all are?" I love it!

The researchers may or may not have inquired more deeply about the why's - I believe the full results will be out soon, so there should be somethings in greater detail to read about this research in the near future.