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Who Really Practices Polyamory?

For years it’s been brushed off as a lifestyle for white liberals — but new research suggests ethical non-monogamists are much more diverse

A marcher hold a sign that reads "Love is Love is Love" on the National Mall during the Equality March for Unity and Pride in Washington, June 2017.

A marcher hold a sign that reads "Love is Love is Love" on the National Mall during the Equality March for Unity and Pride in Washington, June 2017.

AP/Shutterstock

When my boyfriend suggested I move in with him and his wife, I laughed directly in his face. It was one thing to date a married man, it was another thing for all of us to live together in a cramped apartment. It felt like a clumsy modern remake of Three’s Company. Still I gave him — and subsequently polyamory — a shot because I loved him, and he loved me… and her.

That’s really all polyamory is — being open to the idea of loving more than one person and having a serious relationship with multiple people at the same time. “Poly” comes from the Greek word meaning many, and “-amory” from the Latin for love. This differs from open relationships, where partners are okay with having sex with other people, but do not want them falling in love with someone else. Still, polyamory doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” — there’s been a growing notion that like gender and sexuality, polyamory can exist on a spectrum. And one doesn’t have to equally support their partner(s) when it comes to them being sexually and romantically involved with others.

It’s estimated that 4 to 5 percent of people living in the United States are polyamorous — or participating in other forms of open relationships — and 20 percent of people have at least attempted some kind of ethical non-monogamy at some point in their lives. Still, it’s remained unclear who exactly these people are and what drives them to forgo traditional relationship structures.

While there’s this notion, summed up by the title of an article written in Medium: “Polyamory is for Rich, Pretty People,” there’s been no hard evidence to prove this theory.

Now, however, thanks to the research of Dr. Rhonda Balzarini and her colleagues at the University of Western Ontario, we know who’s more likely to be polyamorous. In her paper, published in the Journal of Sex Research this past June, Balzarini compared the demographic backgrounds of 2,428 polyamorous individuals and 539 monogamous ones by asking participants to take an online survey. Her team found that polyamorous people tend to identify more as bisexual/pansexual, are more likely to report being divorced, and make less money yearly than monogamous couples.

Dr. Balzarini looked at all the usual demographics: age, race, education, sexuality, etc. — but one completely unexpected thing popped out from her research. Polyamorous people eschew the use of any and all labels — not just sexual identity labels — often choosing the “other” category and writing in their own option.

For example, when it came to political affiliation, polyamorous folks often chose “other,” writing in anarchist, progressive, democratic socialist and none.

“We speculate that this finding may reflect polyamorists’ preferences to reject or deviate from traditional group labels, similar to how trans people tend to reject traditional sexual orientation labels,” Balzarini tells Rolling Stone.

Balzarini was also able to draw three other major conclusions from the data.

For one, bisexual and pansexual participants were much more likely to report being in polyamorous relationships, whereas straight participants were more likely to report being in monogamous ones. Half of bi/pan people reported being polyamorous compared to only 36 percent of heterosexual individuals. When it came to monogamous relationships, 74 percent of straight respondents reported being monogamous compared to only 17 percent of bi/pan respondents. (The remaining percentage identified as gay/lesbian or other.)

Second, polyamorous folks were significantly more likely to report being divorced than monogamous respondents.

While the research couldn’t provide a direct explanation, Dr. Balzarini says that might be “because they divorce to make their relationships with secondary partners more inclusive or because they break up with mono partners in the process of pursuing polyamory, or simply because more relationships results in more turnover.”

She clarified that the results don’t indicate that “polyamorous relationships are less strong or stable in general, but rather a reflection of the fact that with more relationship experiences subsequently comes more breakups.”

Third, as she wrote in her paper, she wanted to test popular assumptions about people in polyamorous relationships, mainly, “the idea that polyamorists are more likely to be white, bisexual and politically liberal than the rest of the population.”

Whereas there was truth to the assumption that more polyamorous folks identify as bisexual, there were barely any differences between groups when it came to education, political affiliation and ethnicity.

Only slightly more people who were in a poly relationship reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher and identified as Democrat. There were no major differences between groups when it came to ethnicity, except that respondents in poly relationships were significantly more likely to identify as “multiethnic” and “native.”

Folks in polyamorous relationships actually reported being in a lower income bracket that those in monogamous relationships, opposing the idea that all polyamorous folks are bored, rich suburbanites. Participants in poly relationships were significantly more likely to make less than $20,000 a year, and those in monogamous relationships were more likely to make $100,000 per year.

Whereas Balzarini dichotomized relationship style to be either polyamorous or monogamous, more and more research is viewing polyamory to be on a spectrum with varying degrees.

In 2016, YouGov conducted a study, which found that only half of millennials (defined there as under 30-years-old) want a “completely monogamous” relationship. In September, Dr. Anne-Laure Le Cunff, a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, posted a working paper that surveyed 509 individuals who self-identified as polyamorous, monogamous, or ambiamorous (people happy to be in either a monogamous or polyamorous relationship.)

After identifying themselves as poly, mono, or ambi, respondents answered four questions on a seven-point scale (zero to six), to assess their attitudes when it comes to having additional sexual and/or romantic relationship for themselves and for their partners. A zero on this scale would be they were “completely monogamous” whereas a six would mean “completely polyamorous.”

Not surprisingly, regardless of preferred relationship-type label, respondents said they’d be more comfortable with themselves having other romantic and sexual partners than their partners. Every group was also more open to the idea of being sexually open than being romantically open.

In fact, the monogamous group scored surprisingly highly on the personal sexual openness scale, with an average of score of 1.96. Ambiamorous scored 4.63 on this scale and polyamorous folks scored 5.24.

The study also revealed that men and women differ when it comes to how comfortable they are having an ethically non-monogamous relationship.

“The most surprising finding was that women are overall more comfortable with the idea of non-monogamy than men,” said Le Cunff. “From a cultural standpoint, I did not expect those results.”

Le Cunff hypothesized, “Maybe consensual non-monogamy is appealing to women as an ethical way to pursue other relationships, as it’s so far been more culturally acceptable for men to cheat; maybe women desire novelty, too, in order to keep their desire from dropping one to four years into a monogamous relationship.”

With the increasing prevalence of ethical non-monogamy, Le Cunff hopes to conduct more research to better understand ethical non-monogamous relationships and to help destigmatize them. Currently, there are few legal protections to protect polyamorous people from discrimination. In 2013, an Australian woman was fired from her job at a Catholic organization for being polyamorous. And in most countries, there is no way for polyamorous people to formalize their relationship with each partner, and protect them in case of separation or death of a partner — not to mention issues with child custody.

“Poly [and] monogamy existing on a spectrum means people can start building more balanced relationships and have healthier conversations,” Le Cunff says. “Seeing polyamory and monogamy as two polar opposites that cannot co-exist has historically made these discussions more difficult than necessary.”

In This Article: LGBT

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