A new study, by Dr. Colleen Hoff and her colleagues, has found that – perhaps not surprisingly – gay male couples tend to report less frequent sex after becoming parents. The authors of the study, which was published in a new American Psychological Association (APA) journal, Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.
Hoff and her colleagues interviewed 48 gay male couples who were raising children in Salt Lake City or San Francisco. Their findings may not surprise researchers who have studied heterosexual couples: There is a large body of research on heterosexual couples’ transition to parenthood that shows that sexual activity tends to decline when couples become parents, because of the many demands of parenting children, particularly early on. My own research, which focused on intimate relationship quality more generally (e.g., love, affection), found that lesbian, gay and heterosexual couples who adopted experienced declines in relationship quality across the transition. A large body of research on heterosexual couples having biological children has also documented this trend. Couples in general tend to report that when they become parents, they experience a decline in time alone and as a couple. They also experience increased fatigue, and must learn to juggle their work and partner roles with that of being a parent. Such demands may ultimately result in less time, energy, and/or desire for sex with one’s partner.
Yet at the same time that sexual activity and general feelings of affection for one’s partner may decline somewhat across the transition to parenthood, commitment to one’s partner often increases. In this sense, children may be a “stabilizing influence” on gay—or straight—relationships. It represents one major deterrent to breaking up.
One surprising finding of the study by Hoff and her colleagues was that becoming parents did not affect the gay men’s sexual agreements for “open” or “closed” relationships. As Hoff told LiveScience, "There wasn't the shift that we thought we might find. For the most part, those who were monogamous before becoming parents said they stayed with that arrangement. Those who had open relationships before having children reported that they kept to that agreement."
And yet, becoming parents did change the frequency of gay men’s outside sexual hookups, which the authors argue could ultimately reduce the men’s risk for HIV. This decrease in outside sexual activity may stem from the men’s sense of responsibility toward their children, which motivates them to avoid risky sexual behavior. Additionally, they may simply be less focused on (and have less time for) sex in general now that they are parents. As one man in the study said: "We've connected with people a couple times since we’ve been parents, but probably a lot less. I have a certain bandwidth—whereas when I was a single guy, 95 percent of that was sex; then as a coupled guy, 50 percent of it was sex; and then as you get older and now as a parent, it's like 3 percent of my life is sex. So it's not … my first priority.”
Importantly, not all men in open relationships felt comfortable talking to their doctors about their open relationships. They were aware of the potential stigma of maintaining outside sexual relationships while parenting children. Hoff told LiveScience, "Some men felt that there is this assumption that if you are a gay parent, you are monogamous. This kind of stigma around gay parents' sexuality could be a concern if gay fathers are reluctant to talk to their physician about their sexual agreement and get tested for HIV." Indeed, some men in the study noted that their primary care physicians knew that they were fathers, and the men were therefore reluctant to get an HIV test from them, because they feared judgment: “I think being a parent, it’s like I shouldn’t have this risk [for HIV]…as a dad I should never be doing anything risky, right?”
Indeed, gay men may be reluctant to share their open relationships with doctors – or friends, or family members, for that matter – because they are fearful of that their open relationships could be seen as confirming or upholding negative gay stereotypes – such as the notion that gay men are “self-centered, shallow, perverted, [and] sex-crazed.” Concerns about upholding these stereotypes, or having one’s motives or lifestyle questioned, may be enhanced when children enter the picture, and men feel greater pressure to conform to some idealistic portrait of the “very traditional, normal [family.” They may also feel that the stakes are higher: That is, if they are perceived as sex-crazed and irresponsible, this reflects badly on them, their parenting abilities, and their children.
Of course, it is important to remember that some heterosexual – and lesbian – couples (including those with children) also have open relationships.
They experience similar concerns about talking to outsiders about their open relationships, as well as worrying about sexual safety and introducing outside partners to their children. Thus, a broader perspective may be needed on this topic: Couples in general have a variety of relationship patterns and configurations, with some choosing to be monogamous, and others choosing not to be. Greater acknowledgment of this relationship diversity is necessary, with special attention to how relationship patterns change across the transition to parenthood.