How Common Is Consensual Non-Monogamy?

Consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships are those in which all of the partners involved agree that having sexual and/or romantic relationships with other persons is acceptable. CNM relationships can take many different forms, including polyamory, swinging, and open relationships, and it is important to note that people may negotiate the rules and boundaries of these relationship structures very differently. One of the most common questions people have about these relationships is how common they are and who enters them. Let's take a look at what the research says.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of great data out there on this topic. One of the main reasons for this is because, until recently, many researchers failed to make a distinction between consensual and non-consensual non-monogamy. These are not the same thing. Non-consensual non-monogamy occurs when an individual commits infidelity or cheats on a partner with whom they have agreed to be monogamous--this is very different from consensual non-monogamy, in which everyone is aware of and has agreed to permit outside sexual and/or romantic involvements. 

We lack current, nationally representative datasets that can give us an accurate picture of the overall prevalence of CNM relationships. The best available data we have comes from a large online survey published in 2014 [1]. In total, data from 2,395 participants who were currently involved in relationships were analyzed. All participants were recruited through Craigslist or Facebook for a study of "attitudes toward relationships." This study was not specifically advertised as focusing on CNM so as not to bias the sample in that direction. As part of this survey, participants were asked whether they identified as being consensually non-monogamous and (separately) whether they were currently participating in CNM behavior.

Overall, 5.3% of participants identified that their relationship was CNM. Results for the behavioral measure were almost identical. Thus, both forms of measurement tended to yield similar numbers.

Compared to participants who said they were monogamous, those who reported engaging in consensual non-monogamy were significantly more likely to be male and to be non-heterosexual. There were no differences between the two groups in terms of race and age. 

Do these results mean that men and non-heterosexuals are inherently more interested in CNM relationships compared to women and heterosexuals? Not necessarily. With regard to the gender difference, it could just be that women are less likely than men to pursue CNM and/or report involvement in such relationships due to the sexual double standard, or the idea that women tend to be judged more harshly than men for engaging in the same sexual behaviors. In addition, because CNM is considered to be more acceptable in the gay community than it is in the heterosexual community, this may account for why non-heterosexuals are statistically more inclined to pursue it. 

Of course, these data are limited. Participants were recruited online through two websites, so we're not dealing with a nationally representative sample here. That said, these results do at least give us some sense of what the prevalence of CNM might be among U.S. internet users; however, research with larger and more diverse samples is warranted in order to give us an even better view of just how common CNM tends to be and why certain demographic groups appear more likely to report involvement in these relationships than others.

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[1] Rubin, J. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., & Conley, T. D. (2014). On the margins: Considering diversity among consensually non-monogamous relationships. Journal für Psychologie, 22(1).

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