Oct 192015

206px-Polytat.svgIf you were to ask 10 strangers the #1 way to prevent a sexually transmitted infection, what do you think they might answer? Very likely one of their answers will be “monogamy.” And they wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be wrong. The fewer numbers of people you have sexual contact with, the less likely it is you’ll have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease. This concept gets drilled into high schoolers lucky enough to have a sexual education class: Be abstinent. If you’re not abstinent, at least be monogamous.

But monogamy isn’t for everyone. Some chafe at the practice, strongly preferring to share their love and sexuality with more than one individual. Monogamy is not for them. Instead of relying on monogamy to protect them from disease, they use barriers such as condoms and test themselves and their partners for disease. And they communicate.

Here’s a question though: Does the use of barriers protect as well as monogamy does? I’ve felt it probably does, but haven’t seen any data to say one way or another.

And then this study was published!

This week’s study polled monogamous and (consensual) non-monogamous people and asked them about their sex life, their use of barriers, their STI testing, and so on. They recruited around 550 participants, 70% female, 63% monogamous, 77% heterosexual.

What did they find?

Among the nonmonogamous participants, 72% had sex with a partner other than their primary partner. 37% reported that their primary did not know about this sexual encounter.

Among the monogamous participants, 24% had sex with a partner other than their primary partner. 75% reported that their primary did not know about this sexual encounter.

In other words: both monogamous and nonmonogamous participants, as groups, had sexual encounters with people other than their primary partner. Nonmonogamous people were more likely to have that sex and to tell their partners about it. When monogamous people had sex outside their partnership they were far less likely to tell their partner.

And what about safe sex? Both monogamous and nonmonogamous participants were equally likely to use barriers with their primary partner. However, nonmonogamous participants used barriers with others more often than monogamous participants.

When it came to STIs, there was no difference in actual diagnoses of STIs. But nonmonogamous people were more likely to get tested.

Now — let’s translate all that.

What this ultimately means is that people who practice consensual nonmonogamy are no more likely to get a sexually transmitted infection than are monogamous people. This is very likely because nonmonogamous people use barriers/condoms with other partners and get tested more often.

As the paper stated: “Persons who have made monogamy agreements often break them, and when they do, they are less likely to take safety precautions, get tested for STIs, and disclose those extradyadic encounters to their partners than persons who agree to some form of negotiated nonmonogamy.” Absolutely.

Monogamy is one way to try to prevent the spread of STIs…and it is equally as effective as clear communication and relationship negotiation with the use of barriers and STI testing in non-monogamous relationships.

The study was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, and its abstract is publicly available.

Apr 112014

A symbol for polyamory: Heart with infinity symbolMonogamy is the practice of having only one sexual, romantic, or intimate partner in one’s life. Non-monogamy, is any practice where more than two people are sexual, romantic, or intimate with each other. Though non-monogamy is an ancient practice which continues to be traditional in many societies and cultures worldwide, in the West it’s a minority behavior. Since the 1970s a particular form of non-monogamy has been emerging: polyamory (lit: “many loves”). Polyamory (“Poly”) is the practice of more than two people involved in a loving, emotionally intimate relationship where sex may or may not be involved.

Outside of that basic definition, polyamory varies widely. Polyamory can involve any number of people in any configuration. Everybody does not have to be involved with everybody else. For example, three people in a polyamorous relationship could be in a V style (i.e., persons A and B are involved, and B and C are involved, but A is not involved with C) or in a triangle relationship (i.e., persons A and B, B and C, and A and C are all in relationships). Polyamory relationships can be “open”, where new partners and relationships are welcomed, or “closed” where they are not. New relationships may be restricted to being only sexual, or not at all sexual. And polyamory relationships may be deemed more or less serious through tags like “primary” and “secondary” relationships.

But how does all this relate to health? Well, it sorta does and it sorta doesn’t.

The factor that likely pops into most minds first is sexually transmitted diseases/infections. How many times have we all been counseled to be monogamous to reduce our risk? I see that message everywhere. But it’s an incomplete message. Research is scarce on poly health, but I’m of the believe that a closed poly relationship is no more risky than a monogamous relationship. Whether a poly relationship is open or closed, safer sex techniques (including the use of barriers and regular STI testing) reduce the risk of STI spread.

More insidious are effects on mental health… but not because of polyamory alone. Polyamory itself, while taking more emotional energy than monogamy, can be incredibly fulfilling and provide abundant psychosocial support. Being poly in a non-accepting environment, however, can be very stressful. And we all know what happens when there’s additional stress. High levels of psychosocial stress are associated with: a) higher levels of depression, anxiety, self-medication via substance use, obesity, eating disorders, non-suicidal self injury, PTSD, and b) lower levels of exercise and healthy eating.

Adding an extra wrinkle: it can be very difficulty for poly-identified people to get mental health support. Finding a poly-friendly therapist (especially one covered by insurance) can be an exercise in frustration. Many mental health care professionals simply don’t understand. Others are downright discriminatory. As one poly person expressed: “I’ve had a mental health ‘professional’ refuse to even try to understand the poly nature of our family and insist that I needed to get out of the relationship before he would ‘treat’ me.” (Source)

So what’s a poly person to do? Take care of yourself. If you’re in an open relationship, be familiar with the various STDs and how they are spread, and practice good safe sex. Do what you can to take care of your mental health — exercise, eat well, get some stress relief in there too. Consider getting in touch with a local poly organization or sex-positive group. They can be invaluable for social support and finding resources when you need them.

And as always…  Stay healthy, stay safe, and have fun!