Dating & Relationships, LGBTQIA+

Rates of Consensual and Nonconsensual Nonmonogamy Among Heterosexual, Gay, and Bisexual Adults

May 1, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller

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I was recently invited to write a book chapter on nonmonogamy in LGBTQ+ relationships, and one of the things I wanted to do in it was compare the prevalence of both consensual nonmonogamy (polyamory, open relationships, swinging) and nonconsensual nonmonogamy (cheating/infidelity). Further, I wanted to look at whether rates of these practices were similar or different for LGBTQ+ persons compared to heterosexual persons. However, I found it surprisingly difficult to locate reliable data points.

The problem I kept running into is that study after study conflated consensual nonmonogamy with nonconsensual nonmonogamy. In other words, researchers were putting all of these folks into the same category without attempting to distinguish whether they were permitted under the rules of the relationship or not.

This approach is obviously problematic. For example, if one were to lump all of these things under the banner of “cheating” (which many studies I came across did), the result will be an artificially inflated estimate.

I only came across one study that really seemed to take the right approach and that was also based on a nationally representative US sample: the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior [1]. Here’s a look at what they found:

  • Overall prevalence of infidelity: about 8% of heterosexual participants, 14% of gay participants, 6% of lesbian participants, 18% of bisexual participants, and 6% of those who described “other” sexualities reported nonconsensual nonmonogamy (defined here as agreeing to be sexually exclusive with a partner, but one or both partners cheated or had an affair). 

  • Overall prevalence of open relationships: 2% of heterosexual participants, 32% of gay participants, 5% of lesbian participants, 22% of bisexual participants, and 14% of those who reported “other” sexualities. 

In looking at these overall numbers, a few things pop out. One is that, for heterosexuals, rates of infidelity are four times higher than the rate of open relationships. By contrast, for sexual minorities (with the exception of lesbians), rates of open relationships are higher than the rate of infidelity.

Also, in addition to gay and bisexual participants being more likely to report having open relationships than heterosexuals, they’re also more likely to report having cheated.

When the numbers are broken down by gender, here’s what they found:

  • Among male-identified participants only, about 8% of heterosexual men, 14% of gay men, 34% of bisexual men, and 6% of “other” men reported nonconsensual nonmonogamy. By contrast, 3% of heterosexual men, 33% of gay men, 23% of bisexual men, and 24% of “other” men reported open relationships.

  • Among female-identified participants only, about 7% of heterosexual women, 6% of lesbians, 12% of bisexual women, and 6% of “other” women reported nonconsensual nonmonogamy. By contrast, 2% of heterosexual women, 5% of lesbians, 22% of bisexual women, and 8% of “other” women reported open relationships.

In looking at these numbers, we see that rates of infidelity and open relationships are pretty similar for heterosexual men and women, although both are more likely to report cheating than open relationships. By contrast, lesbians report pretty similar rates of open relationships and cheating, gay men and bisexual women report more open relationships than cheating, while bisexual men report more cheating than open relationships.

While these results come from a large nationally representative sample of adult Americans (2,270 participants), it is important to note that LGBTQ+ participants represented just 5% of the sample. Also, reported rates of infidelity in this study among heterosexuals are quite a bit lower than I’ve seen in other research, and the measurement of infidelity here was a little unusual in that it asked whether either partner had cheated (not whether you personally have done so). I would therefore be cautious in generalizing the findings broadly until they are replicated in other national studies.

That said, these findings do provide an important datapoint by helping to offer insight into the prevalence of infidelity and open relationships separately and, further, breaking them down by both gender and sexual orientation. Going forward, I hope we see more research that takes this approach, rather than the more common and problematic approach of conflating all forms of nonmonogamy.

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[1] Levine, E. C., Herbenick, D., Martinez, O., Fu, T. C., & Dodge, B. (2018). Open relationships, nonconsensual nonmonogamy, and monogamy among US adults: Findings from the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Archives of sexual behavior, 47(5), 1439-1450.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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