Just how many people are there who are having polyamorous relationships in the U.S.? That is one of the most common questions I get about polyamory, and it is quite difficult to answer. Not only is it difficult to determine whom to count, but polys can be hard to find because they are often closeted, and there is no mechanism to count them (yet). Still, there are a number of estimates and I provide the most well-researched one here.
The most reasoned estimate of the number of poly people in the U.S. comes from Kelly Cookson, an independent academic who looked at a lot of research and then compared the percent of bisexuals in poly research to the percent of bisexuals in a national survey to inform his estimate. In an email interaction, Kelly Cookson summarized his results for me: “It appears that sexually non-monogamous couples in the United States number in the millions. Estimates based on actually trying sexual non-monogamy are around 1.2 to 2.4 million. An estimate based solely on the agreement to allow satellite lovers is around 9.8 million. These millions include poly couples, swinging couples, gay male couples, and other sexually non-monogamous couples.”
Personal identities are complex for many people today, especially when it comes to sexuality.
Who to count?
One of the difficulties of determining how many people in the U.S. are polyamorous is deciding where to draw the line when determining who counts as poly. Even polyamorous communities do not agree on a single definition of polyamory, though they do share a common emphasis on honesty, communication, and allowing women to have multiple partners too. Beyond the difficulty of defining polyamory lies the challenge of determining who is authorized to enforce the definition. Does a researcher have the right to determine that someone is poly because they meet the criteria, even if that person does not self-identify as a polyamorist? What about a couple who thinks of themselves as swingers, but swings with the same friends for years and years, falling in love with each other and raising children together? They fit many polyamorous ideals, but should they count as poly even though they identify as swingers? Who gets to decide?
Even once researchers decide whom to count, it is a challenge to find them. Like other sexual minorities, polyamorists have good reason to hide their relationships from the general public because being exposed as sexually or relationally unconventional can mean loss of employment, housing, relationships with friends and families of origin, or custody of children. With so much to lose, it is no surprise that polys and other sexual or relational non-conformists sometimes hide their relationships.
Many polys can easily pass as monogamous people with friends, so being closeted is not that hard for some of them.
No Poly Census
There is no reliable way to count polyamorous people at this point. A lot of poly research relies on the Internet or word of mouth to recruit participants—neither of which provide a random sample or access the full range of people who are polyamorous. Even though the Internet is much more widely accessible than it was even 10 years ago, collecting data from folks online will still slant it toward white middle class people who have access to high speed Internet services and the privacy to visit sites that might be blocked by the online filters on public library servers. While reseachers can provide glimpses into poly life, they have not yet been able to ask a representative sample of people in the US about their non-monogamous relationships.
General Social Survey
Social scientists attempt to measure attitudes and beliefs among a random sample of the U.S. population, calling this ongoing research the General Social Survey (GSS) . Usually it takes a significant grant to fund a question on the GSS, but this year the GSS put out a call for submissions of free (unfunded) questions. A team from the Yahoo group PolyResearchers constructed both a single question and an entire module measuring the prevalence of and attitudes toward non-monogamy and submitted it to the committee. Unfortunately, the committee declined to include the module on the GSS because they were concerned that the sample of people who identified as non-monogamous would be too small to allow for meaningful analysis. Additionally, the module has not been extensively tested to make sure that it consistently measures the same thing (reliability) and accurately measures what it is trying to measure (validity). In order to test that module, I have posted it on my website and am seeking feedback from anyone who is willing to answer the questions and help me to verify if the questions are reliable and valid. If you have a taste for science or identify as non-monogamous in any way, please check out the module on my website at elisabethsheff.com and leave me your comments.