image In my inbox this evening I saw a story that relates well to my post a couple of days ago on what marriage is for.  Mollie Ziegler Hemingway wrote an article for Christianity Today called, “Same Sex, Different Marriage” and in the subtitle it says, “Many of those who want marriage equality do not want fidelity.”

Her primary reference is a story written by Scott James in January for The New York Times called “Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret.”  James, a homosexual living in the Bay area, writes about a study done by the University of San Francisco that was about to be released at the time.

A study to be released next month is offering a rare glimpse inside gay relationships and reveals that monogamy is not a central feature for many. Some gay men and lesbians argue that, as a result, they have stronger, longer-lasting and more honest relationships. And while that may sound counterintuitive, some experts say boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage — one that might point the way for the survival of the institution.

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

That consent is key. “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.”

The study also found open gay couples just as happy in their relationships as pairs in sexually exclusive unions, Dr. Hoff said. A different study, published in 1985, concluded that open gay relationships actually lasted longer.

None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it. Of the dozen people in open relationships contacted for this column, no one would agree to use his or her full name, citing privacy concerns. They also worried that discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage.

Hemmingway points out that same-sex marriage advocates often ask, “How would gay marriage effect your marriage?”  She notes and I can concur from experience that this question is asked rhetorically as if “marriage is a private institution with no social consequences.”  One consequence she cites…

…that the prevalence of such relationships could "rewrite the traditional rules of matrimony" by showing straight couples that monogamy need not be a "central feature" of marriage and that sexually open relationships might "point the way for the survival of the institution."

She notes that some advocates want to transform the institution of marriage.  To “radically alter an archaic institution” as one activist claimed.  She does say that some hope that the norms within heterosexual marriages like monogamy and fidelity would be transferred to same-sex marriages.

I can attest to that as I’ve heard arguments made that encouraging same-sex marriage and monogamy would help in reducing STDs, in particular, AIDS among gay men.  Seeing a reduction in STDs and AIDS isn’t likely to happen if promiscuity is the norm within even “committed” homosexual relationships.  Hemmingway challenges that premise.

But since these norms are based on the ideal that marriage is the union of a man and woman making a permanent and exclusive commitment for the purpose of bearing and rearing children, it would be irrational to expect same-sex partners—whose sexual relations bear no risk of procreation—to share the same norms.

Whether or not marriage law should change, the fact is that changing it to include same-sex partnerships would teach people that marriage is fundamentally about the emotional union of adults and not primarily about the bodily union of man and wife (let alone the children who result from such a union). The norms of permanence, monogamy, and fidelity would make less sense under such a change.

She references the changes in our divorce law as evidence how such a drastic change could impact marriage:

The spread of no-fault divorce in the 1970s didn’t just make it easier for men and women to get out of troubled marriages. It also changed people’s ideas about the permanence of the institution and the responsibility parents have to their children.

It had other unintended consequences as well. Studies showed that after divorce laws were changed, spouses tended to invest less in their marriages. Economists found that spouses in states that had passed no-fault divorce laws were 10 percent less likely to put the spouse through college or graduate school and 6 percent less likely to have a child together.

Marriage rates fell and cohabitation rates increased as men and women lost confidence in the institution. Some 20 percent of children are now born to cohabiting couples, the majority of whom will see their parents split up by the time they reach adolescence.

Legal changes, Hemmingway writes, “do have consequences.”

Yes they do, and in this case not for the better.

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  1. Hmm…. i’m curious as to the method in which the study was done. I am a gay person, in a very committed relationship, i know countless gay couples, and not one in an open relationship. To be honest, i’ve never even met a couple in an open relationship.

    To go one step further… how would you even do research into how gays would act when married when we don’t have gay married couples to ask? When the research specifically references gay “relationships” as opposed to gay “marriages”… then the appropriates comparison would be straight couples dating and then cheating…

    1. Here’s a link to the study –

      Don’t know where you live, but that is anecdotal evidence. It may be true for your circle of friends, but not necessarily the case elsewhere. Also is that something that is really discussed, so would you know this for sure?

      You bring up a good point with the types of couples, and the best comparison would be with gay couples who have been married in Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont (or had obtained a civil union prior to their having gay marriage), etc. On the other hand, your suggestion for a comparison isn’t necessarily the best either since gay in CA can’t get married so the level of commitment would be higher in some instances than a heterosexual couple dating.

      I would say still that the instance of cheating or open relationships would likely be less compared to gay couples. 50%… I just don’t see that. Maybe this is just a San Francisco thing, they’ve always been pretty weird anyway.

    2. I married my husband in Massachusetts in 2004 ( At this point we’ve been together for 23 years. Most of the gay couples we know have been together for a long time as well, and most of them have a few dalliances.

      I believe that the whole ‘monogamy’ issue in straight couples derives from the progeny questions that arise, including claims to property from heirs. This isn’t an issue with gay couples… offspring are very deliberate and well-documented.

  2. I was in a same-sex relationship for almost 7 years. We agreed that we would be monogomous. I found numerous e-mail exchanges between my partner and dozens of gay men on my computer. I found out that he had never been monogomous rather he was having unprotected sex with strangers all over New England and then he would come home to me and have unprotected sex exchanging body fluids and proclaiming his love for me. He also admitted that he had been doing this for the first 5 years of our time together.

    The therapist said, “Have an open relationship. Once he knows he can – he won’t.”

    Open relationships work for some people but the you can’t ignore the possibilities of transmitting STD’s. It’s not for me.

  3. I see no difference between modern heterosexuals getting married, and gays getting married. Historically, like in the 19th century, marriage was solely for the purpose of pocreation. Once you allow divorce, and marriage after child bearing years, that rationale vanishes. We havent had married for kids in a hundred years. My husband I lived together for years in a committed relationship before we decided to get married and have children (who are now adults). I see absolutely no relevance between anyone else’s marriage and my own. I do believe that marriage should be encouraged for people who want to live in a comminted relationship. Society should support that commited relationship. It would reduce the dangers of STDs in those groups. Your statistics belie another truth, however, in that 50% of gays appear to have commited relationships. At times about half of US marriages (with children) end in divorce, so gays in CA are doing pretty good considering they are simply in committed relationsips.

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