Open or Closed Sexual Relationships?

Using US Census data from 2013 and 2014, researchers from the Kinsey Institute asked participants if they had ever had an open sexual relationship, defined as “an agreed-upon, sexually non-exclusive relationship.” Just over 20% of single adults (mean age around 40) responded that they had engaged in a “consensual nonmonogamous relationship” at some time in their life. These are sexual relationships in which both partners agree they can have sex with other partners.

Not unexpectedly, men were more likely than women to have had such open relationships and gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals were more likely than heterosexuals to have had an open sexual relationship. Not anticipated, however, was that gay men were not the driving force for either the gender or sexual orientation numbers. Bisexual men and women were most likely to negotiate these open relationships with their partners.

Perhaps counter to our expectations, these open relationships were not based on the age of the individuals, their religion, their race, or their political affiliation. Also not predictive were their educational level, income status, and geographical region.

It should be noted that these proportions could alter (likely increase) as these individuals age and as Millennials come of age. Also, the question only taps into consensual non-monogamous relationships and thus do not include individuals who agree to be monogamous but have secretive or non-reported sex outside their relationships

As intriguing as these findings are, I am also interested at the individual level.

1) What are the personal characteristics of those who do and do not have non-monogamous relationships? Is it a matter of opportunity, physical appearance, sexual libido, attitudes, values, or friends?

2) What are the rules and agreements these individuals developed (perhaps together or perhaps dictated by only one)?

3) What are the motivations to be non-monogamous rather than monogamous?

4) Who knew and were they supportive?

5) How did it work out? Regrets or exhilarations? 

The authors recognize that their data do not answer these questions but simply “reveal that CNM relationships are rather common, occurring with similar frequency among an extraordinarily diverse range of people.” Nevertheless, this is an excellent first level of knowledge to have.

To expand on some of these unanswered questions, in my next post I’ll examine a qualitative interview study among gay male couples that inquired as to their sexual agreements to be open or not. I’ll also share some of my recent findings based on interviews with young men of various sexualities and I’ll share several of my clinical observations regarding couples therapy with gay men as they negotiate this aspect of their lives together.

Until then, I’ll close with Dion, a young man I interviewed for my growing up gay book. His perspective might well reflect a common one among millennial young men:

“I want a monogamous relationship but I don’t feel like it needs to be. I feel like if you have a relationship, I feel like it needs to start that way… There needs to be a firm base and if time goes on and if someone were to have sexual interactions or encounters with other people, I would be okay with that as long as our relationship remained healthy…”