This post is from ScIU’s archives. It was originally published in February 2018, and has been lightly edited to reflect current events.
When you do an image search for dating or relationships, the results almost entirely focus on two people, usually in an implied heterosexual relationship. Most popular TV shows and movies focus on the same types of couples as well. However, it’s important to recognize that other types of relationships exist too. Consensual non-monogamy is one type of relationship that is often overlooked in both popular culture and scientific research. New studies from IU are trying to fill that gap and shed light on a surprisingly common type of relationship.
Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute has always been at the forefront of research into gender, sexuality, relationships, and well-being. Now, new findings from Kinsey show that over 20% of people surveyed have had open sexual relationships in their lifetimes; that is, relationships with an agreed-upon, sexually non-exclusive component .
This survey data was based on two nationally-representative samples of over 8,500 people total that were drawn from the annual Singles in America survey gathered by Kinsey. Participants were recruited from a variety of methods like paper and electronic mailings and internet recruitment.
Building on previous research that was ambiguous about who was most likely to engage in consensual non-monogamy, researchers found that rates of ever engaging in a consensual non-monogamous relationship were the same for survey respondents across demographic categories like age, race, religion, political affiliation, and levels of education or income. This suggests that a much wider and more diverse segment of Americans have had consensual non-monogamous relationships than was previously known.
On the other hand, the researchers did find differences in having consensual non-monogamous relationships based on gender and sexual orientation. They found that men were more likely to have ever had a consensual non-monogamous relationship than women. Additionally, people identifying as gay, lesbian, and bisexual were also more likely to have ever engaged in a consensual non-monogamous relationship than those identifying as heterosexual.
This new work finds that open relationships, polyamory, and swinging, among other forms of consensual non-monogamy, are actually quite common for many Americans, and importantly–that these relationships may be underrepresented in both research efforts and mainstream culture. As most of the existing research and theory on gender, relationships, and sexuality does not discuss consensual non-monogamy, future work will focus on identifying people in these relationships and learning more about their experiences in order to better understand the full range of human relationships.
Clinicians across a variety of fields will also want to keep this in mind in their work. Demonstrating awareness about consensual non-monogamous relationships, by including it as an option on intake forms or avoiding statements that assume monogamous relationships, can help mental and physical health care providers make their patients more comfortable, vastly improving their quality of care.
 M. L. Haupert, Amanda N. Gesselman, Amy C. Moors, Helen E. Fisher & Justin R. Garcia (2017). Prevalence of Experiences With Consensual Nonmonogamous Relationships: Findings From Two National Samples of Single Americans, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Vol. 43, Iss. 5.
Edited by Taylor Nicholas and Lana Ruck