Who has the more satisfying sex life: people in monogamous relationships, or people who practice consensual non-monogamy, such as swingers and polyamorists? According to surveys, there’s a widespread belief that monogamists are having more—and better—sex.
Why is that? The stereotype of people who are into consensual non-monogamy is that they have deficient relationships. It's presumed that the reason they have multiple partners is because they aren’t fulfilled or are no longer attracted to their primary partner.
Do these beliefs and stereotypes about consensual non-monogamy match up with reality, though? According to a new set of studies published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, not so much. In fact, if anything, monogamists are the ones who don’t seem to be quite as happy.
A research team from the University of Michigan, led by Terri Conley, conducted two studies in which they compared sexual satisfaction, orgasm frequency, recent sexual activity, and overall relationship satisfaction for people in monogamous and consensually non-monogamous relationships. In addition to comparing these two groups overall, the researchers compared three specific kinds of consensual non-monogamy—swinging, polyamory, and open relationships—to monogamy in order to determine whether the “style” of non-monogamy matters.
Both studies found very similar results, but participants were recruited differently in each case. In the first study, people in consensually non-monogamous relationships were recruited through online non-monogamy interest groups. In the second study, non-monogamists were not specifically targeted with the hope of obtaining a more diverse and representative sample. For this reason, I’ll focus primarily on describing the results of the second study.
In total, 1,177 people in monogamous relationships and 510 people in non-monogamous relationships participated, of whom 52 percent were polyamorous, 30 percent were in open relationships, and 18 percent were swingers. Participants were aged 35 on average and most were white.
In the overall group comparisons, monogamous and consensually non-monogamous partners reported being equally satisfied with their relationships; however, those in consensually non-monogamous relationships were more sexually satisfied. Consensually non-monogamous participants were more likely to have orgasmed during their most recent sexual encounter, too (84 percent versus 78 percent). In addition, they were more likely to report having had sex with their primary partner today or yesterday (52 percent versus 37 percent).
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In short, while consensual non-monogamists weren’t necessarily more content with their relationships overall, they did seem to be having more frequent and satisfying sex. However, it turned out that these findings differed somewhat based on the specific type of consensual non-monogamy being practiced.
Among polyamorists—those who agree to have multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships at the same time—they were more sexually satisfied and more satisfied with their relationships overall than monogamists were. Polyamorists were no more likely to have had an orgasm the last time they had sex than monogamists, but they were more likely to have had sex within the last two days (48 percent versus 37 percent).
Among swingers—people who have a primary partner but allow outside sexual activity, often in the form of swapping partners with other couples—they were more sexually satisfied, more likely to have orgasmed the last time they had sex (92 percent versus 78 percent), and more likely to have had sex yesterday or today compared to monogamists (79 percent versus 37 percent). Unlike polyamorists, however, swingers were not more satisfied with their relationships overall relative to monogamists.
Lastly, among people in open relationships—those who have a primary partner but also a set of rules permitting some type of outside sexual involvement—their sex lives were no different from those of monogamists. In other words, there were no differences in sexual satisfaction, orgasm frequency, or recent sex. The one difference that did emerge was that people in open relationships were less satisfied with their relationship overall.
So why did polyamorists and swingers seem to be having better sex lives than monogamists? We can’t say for sure and we should be cautious about drawing too many conclusions until the findings are replicated in a truly representative sample.
However, one possibility is that having multiple partners provides a certain level of excitement or arousal that carries over to the primary relationship. This makes sense in light of research showing that novelty and variety are some of the keys to igniting sexual passion. Alternatively, perhaps people who practice consensual non-monogamy are simply more sexually skilled or more inclined to ask for the things that bring them pleasure.
As for why the sexual benefits didn’t seem to extend to open relationships, one possibility is that swingers and polyamorists have more open sexual communication. Indeed, people in open relationships often have “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies in place. So perhaps it’s the combination of variety in partners and open communication that’s the key to understanding these findings.
As always, more research is needed, but these results are important because they challenge a popular stereotype about the sexual superiority of monogamy and, further, they suggest that not all forms of consensual non-monogamy are equally satisfying.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and creator of the blog Sex and Psychology. His forthcoming book is entitled Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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