Our world loves simple, black-and-white categories, and life is not always easy for the people who don’t easily fit in the resulting dichotomies—gay or straight; male or female.
Consider bisexuals, often unwelcome in both straight and gay/lesbian communities. The list of stereotypes about bisexuals is long: confused; in transition; greedy; repressed homosexuals; attention mongers; group-sex proponents; traitors; promiscuous. One persistent stereotype—and an important one, since it may lead non-bisexuals to avoid relationships with bisexuals—is that bisexuals are incapable of monogamy or commitment to one person.
The line of thinking has been: If someone is attracted to both women and men, they must want to have both a male and a female partner at all times, and will therefore cheat on their present partner with someone of the other gender. This logic, of course, is ludicrous: Just because you’re attracted to, say, men, doesn’t mean you want to be in relationships, or have sex with, two or more men at the same time. The ability to be attracted to more than one gender is distinct from the desire to love, date, or sleep with more than one person—and both are distinct from the ability to stay loyal to whatever commitments you've made to a partner. As one bisexual woman once told Lisa Diamond , a leading researcher of female sexuality, “I can choose between a red car and a black car, but I’ve only got a one-car garage!”
Surprisingly little research has examined this question, but a new study just published in the inaugural volume of Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity suggests that they might be.
Psychologist Kristen Mark of the University of Kentucky and her colleagues recruited 6,000 people using social media and various other websites (65 percent male; aged 18 to 70+, with 51 percent falling within the 35-54 age range) and asked them to take an online survey about their views on monogamy. Specifically, using a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), participants responded to the 16 items comprising the Monogamy Attitudes Scale—half of which reflect attitudes of monogamy as natural and an enhancement to a relationship; half of which perceive monogamy as unnatural and a sacrifice .
Examples of the “monogamy as enhancement” subscale include:
- “Forming monogamous relationships is part of human nature.”
- “Relationships would be healthier if people valued monogamy more.”
- “Monogamy feels natural and healthy to me.”
- “Monogamy builds intimacy between two people.”
Examples of the “monogamy as sacrifice” subscale include:
- “I often think about what I am giving up by being in a monogamous relationship.”
- “Monogamy blocks natural drives.”
- “By being in a monogamous relationship, I am sacrificing my desires to have experiences with other people.”
Item ratings were summed up to form the two subscales ranging from 8 (strongly disagree with all eight items) to 56 (strongly agree with all eight items). So how did bisexuals fare on these two subscales compared to the other sexual orientation groups?
Bisexuals (65 percent of whom were women) rated monogamy as less of an enhancement and more of a sacrifice than did heterosexual or gay/lesbian people. They didn’t differ from those questioning their sexual orientation. This is not surprising, given that many questioning adults may be questioning their orientation precisely because they have attractions to more than one sex that they are trying to sort out; in other words, they are, to some extent, bisexual. Bisexuals were also the only group whose ratings of sacrifice and enhancement were pretty much the same—in all other groups, monogamy was perceived as much more as enhancing than as a sacrifice.
In this survey, men perceived monogamy as more of a sacrifice than did women; the difference in both the whole sample and the bisexual subsample was about 5 scale points. But there were no gender differences in the extent to which people (in the full sample or within the bisexual subsample) found monogamy as enhancing.
So bisexuals are, on average , less enamored with monogamy than those with exclusive attractions. Does that mean all bisexuals are non-monogamous? Of course not. The mean for the bisexual group on both enhancing and sacrifice attitudes is right in the middle of the scale. That pretty much guarantees that individual bisexuals are all over the spectrum in this regard, with there being as many monogamy-embracing as monogamy-avoiding individuals.
And these averages also don’t mean bisexuals are incapable of having a committed relationship. Just because you like bacon, doesn’t mean you’re incapable of not eating it for, say, health or moral reasons. Indeed, 78 percent of the bisexual men, and 67 percent of the bisexual women in this sample were either seriously dating one person, engaged, or married; the respective percentages for the full sample were 87 and 76. (The difference is likely due to the fact the bisexual sample was, on average, younger.) In fact, 79 percent of bisexuals indicated they had been with a partner whom they believed would be their partner for life.
What these findings do mean is that bisexuals as a group appear more willing to question monogamy and consider other alternatives. This is not surprising: The notion of monogamy as the only or best relationship arrangement is a culturally-imposed ideal, not unlike the notion that heterosexuality or monosexuality (attraction to only one sex) is the only or the best sexual orientation. These culturally-imposed ideals may or may not work for individual people, but it requires a certain amount of cognitive flexibility and interpersonal courage to question such deeply entrenched social conventions. It’s plausible that the same flexibility that allows bisexuals to defy societal constraints on who they can love also allows them to defy social constraints on how many they can love, and how. Their attraction to both sexes may be just an additional impetus for questioning the monogamy norm.
The bottom line is that if you seek a non-monogamous committed relationship, bisexuals might be more amenable bet than straights, gays, or lesbians. Indeed, studies show that about 65 percent of women, and 20-30 percent of men, in polyamorous and swinger communities identify as bisexual—much higher than the low single digits typical of the general population. If, on the other hand, you seek a monogamous relationship, there are many bisexuals who may be perfectly agreeable.
Follow me on Twitter @DrZhana for daily updates on the latest in sex research, check out my website or my Facebook page for more information about me, or sign up for my monthly newsletter to stay up to date with all my sex research-related activities.
Fernandes, E. M. (2009). The swinging paradigm: An evaluation of the marital and sexual satisfaction of swingers. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 12.
Mark, K., Rosenkrantz, D., Kerner, I. (2014). “Bi”ing into monogamy: Attitudes toward monogamy in a sample of bisexual-identified adults. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1, 263–269. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/sgd0000051
Mitchell, M. E., Bartholomew, K., & Cobb, R. J. (2014). Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 51, 329-339. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.742998