As someone who identifies as poly, I've often experienced negativity from those who don't think outside of how their relationships function. At times, this judgment has come from those close to me. "You're just slutty" or "Your man is OK with that, really?" are words I've heard over and over, not to mention those who've tried to rat me out to my primary partner for what they construe as "cheating."
Because of these kinds of reactions to who I am, I've always kind of known that our society isn't built for people like me. And, according to newly released research, it turns out that the norm of monogamy is so pervasive it extends past the realm of our social interactions and into to the field of science.
"Oh, these people just want everyone to be polyamorous," is one of many negative sentiments researcher Terri Conley of University of Michigan heard when she submitted a study for review that presented positive findings about consensually non-monogamous relationships.
"When researchers present results that show that monogamous relationships are better than non-monogamous relationships, they are perceived as less biased and as better scientists than if you have the nerve to present data that shows that non-monogamous relationships are better," Conley, who studies gender and sexuality, told VICE. "If you do that, you are perceived as being biased and a worse scientist overall."
VICE reached out to Conley to talk about the resistance she has met in her research and about the strong roots of monogamy in Western culture.
VICE: Why did you decide to get involved in this kind of research?
Terri Conley: I was interested initially in how the prospect of being in a relationship could lead to negative health behaviours, sexual health behaviours (specifically not using condoms). As I got further into it, I didn't really get the sense that relationships were bad even though my research was showing that when you're in a relationship you're less likely to practice safer sex, so I thought I should dig a little deeper than that. As I thought about it more, I thought maybe it isn't relationships per se that are causing people to avoid condoms or not practice safer sex, but it's a monogamous agreement. Over time, I decided I should focus on how monogamy can have negative implications for sexual health.
I did a study initially where we said non-monogamous people were more likely to practice safer sex in their encounters outside their primary relationship (we were looking at people with primary relationships) and also with their primary partner than people who were cheating on their partners… We met a huge amount of resistance for those findings from reviewers. We had someone talk about how they thought it was "irresponsible" to "promote" this. We had someone talk about how we know gay male relationships "deteriorate" into non-monogamy. We're like, "deteriorate"? That's a really loaded word.
Because people had such a negative reaction to it, I thought we should study it more [laughs]. We continued to find a level of animosity in reviews that was unparalleled by other research I've done, even that on other sexuality topics. It occurred to me that we were tapping into something bigger than just your normal negative reviews you get. People were angry in a different way about this.
What sort of negative terms do you see coming up in scientific studies that show a bias against non-monogamy?
I don't think anyone was intentionally being hostile, it's just they were created with a monogamous frame. Even just the general structure of relationship scales is about your partner being singular. So if you are in a consensually non-monogamous relationship where you have more than one partner, you already are having to make a choice: What partner should I talk about? Or maybe they're responding to some questions with one partner and others with another partner… Even the term "cheating" is used academically and "infidelity" and all these words that are fairly loaded. We would say the term "non-consensual non-monogamy" as being a more neutral alternative.
There's also the "offended party" who would have been "cheated" on. I just felt like we're not approaching the topic of cheating very scientifically if those are the words we're using. Some relationship scales would talk about "I've considered looking for another partner," and that's seen as lower quality with the current partner. OK, if you're monogamous, that totally makes sense. But if you're consensually non-monogamous, you're often looking for another partner—it has nothing to do with if you are happy with whichever partner you're with at that time.
Sometimes I've felt like people think there is a finite amount of love that you can give. That's to say they think that if you are seeing or sleeping with someone else, that means you love a primary partner less.
I'm amazed that we're generally finding that non-monogamous people are doing a little better in relationships. These are small sects, so I'm not saying it's the way to go for everyone. But it's really kind of amazing given how much stress there is on any sort of non-traditional relationship: You've got stigma, you don't have a lot of norms to adhere to throughout the course of the relationship… They're still doing well in these relationships, and they're happy. If anything, it's a sign of resilience among those communities.
How do you think we can approach this bias in science surrounding these kinds of relationships?
I feel like it's changing really rapidly. I've been publishing for six years (and working in this field since 1991). A lot of what it will take on a social scale is people being willing to come out as polyamorous or non-monogamous to their friends so that people have a relationship to think of when they hear about these relationships. It's like, Oh, that's what so-and-so does.
We know that exposure to different groups promotes positive feelings towards those groups, and leads to the reduction of prejudice. That would be really important in this context because people who are non-monogamous are so invisible to people now. When I tell people about it, they're like, "Who would do this?" or "There must be such a small percentage of people who can never find each other." Actually no, we are finding that 4 to 5 percent of people are doing this… People are really shocked by it. For social change in general, and including the science context, the visibility issue is going to be huge.
Why do you think there is a visibility issue? For me, I just don't usually explain this part of myself to others because it feels private, and I feel like they won't get it.
That's totally fair. There are always going to need to be people who are willing to do that though. Unfortunately for social change to happen everywhere, there need to be people that come out and challenge stigmas, and it was really helpful in terms of the early gay and bisexual movements for people to come out even though it was stigmatized. I don't think that means everyone has to do it. I think there can be all reasons why you don't want to do it. A very practical reason is, in the US, I don't think there's even one law protecting anyone based on their relationship configuration. Anywhere in the US, an employer can say they're firing you because you're in a consensually non-monogamous relationship, and there's nothing you can do.
I think there's a wide variety of people who just don't like to share things about their relationships in general. Say you work with two people and you happen to find out they're married, like, "Oh, wow! I wasn't aware of that." That's totally within their rights.
This concept of monogamy being ingrained in Western culture, does that come from religion, or this idea of "paternity"?
I think it definitely comes from religion, but the interesting part is that it affects people who aren't religious. We as a culture are brought into the Judeo-Christian concern with paternity, and that has sort of fed into a culture of monogamy. But now people have a problem with extricating themselves from that culture of monogamy; it has become so pervasive that taking religion out of it by someone not being religious doesn't really take out the bias of monogamy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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