America runs on Dunkin’, but according to new research, it also runs on finding new and different ways to have sex with people outside of monogamy. Google searches for “polyamory” and “open relationships” have skyrocketed over the past 15 years, and today, roughly 20 percent of Americans say they’ve engaged in some form of a consensually non-monogamous relationship such as polyamory, swinging or opening up.
These types of relationships have existed since the dawn of humankind and continue to flourish in many cultures around the world, but ever since the book The Ethical Slut brought them to the Western mainstream in the early 1990s, we’ve been fed the line that there’s a certain “type” of person who practices them. If TV and pop culture are to be believed, that person looks like this: educated, liberal, metropolitan, well-off and gainfully employed, a combination of privileges that affords them both the time and energy to embroil themselves in the sort of whimsical, mysterious non-monogamous situations we tune in to shows like Big Love or House of Cards to watch. Most often — though not always — they’re white, and frequently, they’re not entirely heterosexual. In other words, they’re Tilda Swinton.
Actually, most well-known non-monogamous characters and role models are cloned from the same petri dish. Take actress Maria Bello. In 2013, the New York Times published an op-ed she wrote about her “unconventional family structure” in which she talks about the difficulty of distinguishing primary partners from secondary and tertiary ones, and makes the assertion that “love is love.” Bello is “artsy,” ostensibly loaded and well-connected enough to use the New York Times as a platform to speak about her atypical relationship, qualities that perfectly exemplify the type of person we hear about as being non-monogamous. Same goes for sex advice columnist Dan Savage (another outspoken supporter of non-monogamy), Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, T-Pain and a slew of other household names who have been very out about their rejection of monogamy as the end-all-be-all option.
These people are rich, creative and highly educated, if not through schooling than by extensive professional experience that makes them a leader in their field.
Meanwhile, on TV, we’ve got more of the same. Shows like Broad City, Insecure, Unicornland, Wanderlust, Big Love and No Tomorrow do a pretty bang-up job showcasing the juicy, occasionally messy realities of non-monogamy, but they do so from an almost exclusively middle-to-upper class point-of-view. Hell, in House of Cards, even the POTUS himself has a bisexual, consensually non-monogamous relationship with his FLOTUS. The messaging behind these shows is clear: There’s a certain privileged echelon non-monogamous people exist in, and it’s on the same untouchable wavelength as airport VIP clubs and UberBlack.
What we don’t hear about are stories of consensually non-monogamous people on Medicaid who split their time between double shifts at Boost Mobile and McDonald’s. We don’t see uneducated, rural couples trying to “open things up” or conservative Bible thumpers taking things down to the swinger’s club (though this story is an absorbing exception). Instead, all you get from poor, rural, under-educated and underemployed people are affirmations of monogamy and traditional relationships.
But how accurate are these stories, really? Given that sexual orientation and preferences are rarely related to class and that both these things frequently transcend income, race, politics and religion, is it really correct to portray consensually open relationships as an airport lounge-member’s game and monogamy as something the rest of us are stuck doing as we watch the icy, automated glass doors to American Airline’s Admirals Club close resolutely on our dreams?
To get at this question in depth, it’s helpful to look at a measure called “socioeconomic status” (SES), which refers to a combination of income, education level and occupation (you can also think about it as “class”). In most countries, SES is intrinsically linked to other demographic factors like race, religion, gender and political affiliation, but recently, researchers have also begun to examine its relationship to sexuality. In particular, they’re interested in whether someone’s SES makes them more or less interested in giving something like consensual non-monogamy a shot. In other words, does being Tilda Swinton really make it easier for you to negotiate and maintain something like an open marriage or an extradyadic romp at a sex cult?
Much to the chagrin of anyone who likes easy answers, this one depends entirely on who you ask. In the research world, there’s no definitive consensus about who practices non-monogamy, and there have been some conflicting findings about whether SES and non-monogamous practices are actually related at all. One 2013 study by Christian Klesse of Manchester Metropolitan University, however, found that they are — the higher “class” someone is, he discovered, the more likely they are to have practiced polyamory (though his study didn’t mention other types of consensual non-monogamy, aka CNM).
“Research in the U.S. and many European countries draws a picture of polyamorous communities as predominantly white and middle class,” he writes via email. “Many research participants report a relatively high educational background and often find themselves in high income groups.” This finding has been mirrored by researcher Elisabeth Sheff and documented in research from polyamory communities themselves, such as the surveys conducted by Loving More Magazine in the early 2000s.
There are a couple of reasons why that might be. According to Debby Herbenick, professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health and author of Because It Feels Good, higher SES people may be more represented in polyamorous communities simply because their wealth gives them more free time and resources to explore their connections and desires. Some ethically non-monogamous people have noticed this effect themselves. Miles Klee, a MEL writer who used to be poly but “doesn’t have the energy for it anymore,” tells me he’s definitely noticed a connection between higher SES, free time and polyamory (which again, differs from other types of CNM). “Poly folks are more likely to have more disposable income and more free time,” he says. “Take whatever a monogamous person’s monthly dating budget is and triple it. They also tend not to have kids as a drain on their resources (though there are plenty of poly parents out there).”
Throwing down money for events, parties, retreats and education that supports CNM communities isn’t a requirement for participating in alternative relationships, but as sex therapist and non-monogamy expert Gina Senarighi explains, many people do cough up the funds because it supports their desires and lifestyle. “Many of my higher SES clients frequent sex parties and/or clubs that require private membership for entry,” she says. “The membership costs $150 to $550 per night for a couple for certain events. Other higher SES clients I support frequent international events, spas, cruises, festivals and resorts catering to specific kinds of sex play, kink and/or swinging. These events are far outside the range of possibility for other clients of mine who cannot take time off work, let alone afford that kind of travel.” Even her local Sex Positive Portland meetup group is difficult to access for clients who are single parents working multiple jobs, she says.
Klee says that you also need a flexible schedule if you’re trying to get romantic with several people, something most people who are stuck in the washing machine of survival or gig economies don’t always have the luxury of. “At the risk of ‘diminishing the lifestyle,’ you have to devote as much time to it as you would a passionate hobby (which is why the really extreme people end up making spreadsheets for their sex appointments),” he says.
Another possibility, Herbenick theorizes, is that the power and privilege that comes with having a better education and more money give you the moxie (or the gumption, to use another antiquated word) to take a risk and go after the kinds of sex and relationships you want as opposed to staying in a relationship structure that doesn’t fit you. There’s no research that directly backs this up, but several studies have found a connection between higher SES and greater risk-taking behavior.
Maybe higher SES people feel more comfortable engaging in CNM because when they have a lot, they have less to lose? After all, as Klee explains, being openly non-monogamous triggers many hostilities and exclusions. “A secure socio-economic status certainly provides a certain buffer of protection for warding off the threat of exclusion,” he says. “Basic economic security is vital in order to face potential conflicts at the workplace, within families or wider social networks.”
Or maybe, as Medium writer Vivienne Chen suggests in a much-cited article called “Polyamory is for Rich, Pretty People,” it’s because CNM — particularly polyamory — often stokes the ego of people whose egos are already inflated from their privileged SES position in society. “Frankly, I sometimes feel the ‘face of poly’ in certain circles reeks of an elitist superiority complex, which projects itself as an ‘exclusive, special’ place for the ‘intellectually enlightened,’ ‘sexually liberated,’ neo-free lovin’ decadents,” she writes. “It disregards the cost of sexual health, pregnancy, money and time that affect people without a built-in safety net. Thus, a polyamorous party can be starkly alienating for a working class, non-urban individual, especially if they’re also the only person of color in the room.”
For that reason, it’s common for lower SES people and people of color to take their non-monogamy elsewhere, into spheres mainstream media often overlooks. As sex therapist and alternative relationships expert Jamila Dawson explains, that doesn’t mean CNM isn’t happening — it is and it always has — it’s just not necessarily called the same thing as it is in whiter, higher SES communities. For example, she recently had one black, lower-income client who was part of a triad-style relationship — she was a woman, who was seeing a man, who was also seeing another woman. Both women knew about each other and were totally cool with sharing. They even split up child-rearing duties for the man’s daughter.
However, none of them labeled themselves as “poly” or even as members of an “open relationship.” They didn’t call it anything, for that matter — they were just three people in a relationship that looked a bit different. “Those kinds of relationship have always existed amongst people of color and those of lower education and income, but they often don’t identify with the terms that whiter, more well-off people use to describe them,” Dawson explains.
Likewise, many indigenous cultures around the world practice varying forms of CNM with great success but they lack the Ivy League education and fat bank account we associate with non-monogamy in this country. In Eastern China, for example, the Masuo practice something called a “walking marriage,” a relationship in which there are no lifelong commitments and based solely on mutual affection. It’s both common and encouraged for Masuo women to have multiple men visit them in their bedrooms at night, but by morning, they’re expected to leave.
Anecdotes like that go a long way in supporting the other, less visible side to this story — that the relationship between high SES and CNM may be a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, some experts and researchers feel the two aren’t actually related at all. For example, Herbenick’s own analysis found that there was no correlation between socioeconomic status or income on non-monogamous practices, and another study published in the Journal of Marital and Sex Therapy concluded that the only predictors of past experience with non-monogamy were someone’s gender and sexual orientation, not their SES, race or political affiliation (men were slightly more about it than women, and gay, bi and queer participants had more experience with some form of open relationships than straights).
Another paper from Rhonda Balzarini of University of Western Ontario supports those findings, but adds another confounding variable as well — of the 2,428 participants she and her team surveyed, the polyamorous couples actually tended to make less money per year than the monogamous ones, and only slightly more poly people were educated beyond the Bachelor’s level and identified as a Democrat.
Meanwhile, though Senarighi says her high-income, high-education clients do tend to spend more on being non-monogamous, they hardly represent the full spectrum of people who come to see her. In the 12 years she’s been working with CNM populations, she says she’s seen clients from all levels of income, class and privilege. “I’ve seen CEOs, politicians, celebrities, judges, lawyers, sex workers and entrepreneurs making six and seven figure incomes, and I’ve worked with baristas, students, social workers and many others living on minimum wage and/or benefits,” she explains. “It’s a total myth that CNM folks are white from a higher SES.” Often, she says, that myth is informed by the stereotypes we hold about what non-monogamy looks like and our ignorance of how low SES people and POC might express non-monogamy in ways we’re not used to hearing about.
Likewise, Dawson tells me she sees clients from all backgrounds, and that she’d be extremely hesitant to correlate a person’s sexual practices to their demographic factors. In her opinion, it’s more a factor of who is being polled than who is actually practicing non-monogamy. “If you’re surveying mostly white college students — which is what the vast majority of researchers do — you’re going to get a different response than you would if you went around knocking on doors in, say, a largely black community,” she says. “Same story if you go to a poly conference to collect your data — the people there are likely to have enough time and money to go to conferences like that, so when you crunch the numbers, it looks like it’s mostly them who are having these types of relationships.”
Actually, Kleese tells me, those sampling biases are exactly what’s to blame for the conflicting narratives and the assumption that higher SES people are less monogamy oriented. “In spite of all intentions at being accurate and objective, academic researchers may find it difficult to sample participants of certain groups or identities,” he says. “Academic professions tend to foster pronounced class cultures and often reproduce barriers of access based on race and ethnicity. Because of the common experience of certain groups with being misrepresented in research, even careful attempts at proactively creating diverse research samples may prove to be futile. This means that research often doesn’t reflect the diversity of lived experience within certain communities and may play a role in reinforcing the invisibility of certain identities and way of life.”
Strangely, Match.com’s 2014 Singles in America Survey gives a pretty bang-up final word on all this. There isn’t really a “type” of person who practices CNM, the survey’s researchers conclude. “Despite previous speculation that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships tend to be homogeneous in terms of education, socioeconomic status and ethnicity, this proportion remained roughly constant across age, education level, income status, religion, region, political affiliation and race.”
In other words, it’s not just the limelight-loving Dan Savage, illuminati couples like Will and Jada Pinkett Smith or swirling, nebulous clouds of glitter like Tilda Swinton who are spearheading this movement — it’s pretty much everyone. That said, consensually non-monogamous communities could still do a better of addressing the problems of racism, sexism and socioeconomic inequalities. “We all benefit when we have healthier communities and better support,” says Dawson. “Given that CNM still isn’t completely socially accepted, we need our communities to be as healthy, vibrant and truly inclusive as possible so we can create situations that are best for all of us.”