Monogamy Versus Non-monogamy: Who Is More Sexually Satisfied
Guest Authored by Annelise Murphy at the University of Utah
We chuckle when Madeline Kahn, as Mrs. White in the movie Clue, says, “Life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage” (Lyn, 1985), but then we nod in agreement upon hearing that Warren Beatty said, “The highest level of sexual excitement is in a monogamous relationship” (Finstad, 2006). Perhaps these seemingly polarizing attitudes exist because we have been told that monogamous relationships are the only path to everlasting happiness, but not everyone’s experiences align with that ideal.
Surveys of the general public found that monogamous relationships are rated more positively than consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships (Burris, 2014). In addition, monogamous individuals are thought to be better people overall and are thought to be more trustworthy (Ritchie & Barker, 2007), and have higher commitment (Barker, 2005), sexual health(Hutzler, Giuliano, Herselman, & Johnson, 2016), and passion (Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Ziegler, 2013). Further, many people believe that monogamous couples have better sex, more frequent sex, and more satisfying sex than those involved with CNM (Conley et al., 2013). Swingers are thought to swing because they are no longer attracted to their partners, and open relationships are a result of not being fulfilled by their primary partner (Easton, 2009). Ultimately, people believe that CNM relationships are just not as good as monogamous relationships, but what does the research say? Do monogamous couples really have higher sexual satisfaction, more frequent sex, and better orgasms?
Conley and her colleagues (2018) were curious as to whether the layperson’s assumptions about the sexual quality of CNM relationships are accurate. Past work has shown that both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships report high relationship quality (Rubel & Bogaert, 2015). However, differences emerged when looking at the specific type of non-monogamy being practiced. Polyamorous individuals reported higher levels of relationship quality, swingers reported levels similar to monogamists, and people in open relationships reported lower levels of relationship quality. Would these findings translate to similar levels of sexual satisfaction?
In the first study, both monogamists and non-monogamists were asked questions to assess their sexual satisfaction. This study surveyed 1,507 individuals who identified as monogamous and 617 individuals who identified as non-monogamous (N = 2124). About 63 percent of participants identified as female, and 83 percent identified as White/European American, with an average age of 39. Among the CNM participants, 51 percent were polyamorous, 25 percent were in swinging relationships, and 25 percent were in open relationships. Participants had been in their relationships for an average of about 10 years.
The participants were asked about their experiences with their only partner (monogamous) or their primary partner (non-monogamous) in order to have an appropriate comparison. They assessed their overall sexual satisfaction with their partner, their satisfaction with their most recent sexual encounter with their partner, if they had an orgasm during their most recent sexual encounter, and how often they had sex with their primary partner.
The results indicated that non-monogamous individuals had higher levels of sexual satisfaction overall, as well as the most recent satisfaction and orgasms. Non-monogamists did not report higher levels of sexual frequency.
Next, the researchers wanted to know if the type of non-monogamy made a difference in sexual satisfaction when compared to monogamous individuals. It was found that polyamorists had significantly higher sexual satisfaction, higher rates of orgasms, and similar levels of sex frequency. People in open relationships reported equal levels of both sexual satisfaction and frequency, but reported higher rates of orgasm. Swingers reported greater sexual satisfaction, higher rates of orgasm, and more frequent sex.
The researchers conducted a second study to replicate their findings. To address concerns about social desirability — CNM individuals recruited specifically for a study on non-monogamy may be cautious about how their responses will reflect on their lifestyle choice — the researchers recruited from general sources and did not indicate that there was a CNM component to the study. The participants in Study 2 (N = 1,270) included 62 percent women and 38 percent men. They were 70 percent monogamous and 30 percent CNM. Among the CNM participants, 52 percent were polyamorous, 30 percent were in open relationships, and 18 percent were swingers. The participants were 72 percent White, with the remainder of participants about equally distributed among African American, Asian American, Latinx, and multiracial categories. The mean age was 35. The average relationship length was about five years.
The participants in Study 2 were asked the same questions as in Study 1, with the addition of a clarification to sexual frequency, in order to more correctly assess sexual frequency, and a clarification about sexual satisfaction. The results from Study 2 found that, overall, CNM individuals experienced higher sexual satisfaction, were more likely to have orgasmed on their last encounter, and had more frequent sex when compared to the monogamous individuals. Because the findings from Study 2 were consistent to the findings in Study 1, they determined that the self-selection of CNM in Study 1 did not have an effect on the outcome.
Regarding the specific types of CNM in relation to monogamy, it was found that polyamorists had significantly higher relationship and sexual satisfaction, similar rates of orgasms, and higher levels of sexual frequency. People in open relationships reported lower levels of relationship quality, and equal levels of sexual satisfaction, orgasms, and sexual frequency. Swingers reported similar levels of relational satisfaction, greater sexual satisfaction, higher rates of orgasm, and more frequent sex.
These findings do not support the idea that monogamous individuals have better sex lives. However, the type of CNM that people practice does seem to be related to their satisfaction. Some types of CNM were positively associated with sexual satisfaction compared to monogamy, while others were not. It is important to note that monogamous individuals were not dissatisfied with their sexual relationships, but were lower in satisfaction than those in CNM relationships.
So, why did CNM individuals report higher sexual satisfaction that those in monogamous relationships? Conley and her associates (2018) speculate that perhaps those who engage in CNM don’t fall into the rut of becoming habituated to their primary relationship, and additional partners provide enough variety that their primary relationship is affected positively.
Another interesting possibility put forth by the researchers is that CNM individuals don’t have as much psychological reactance. Reactance occurs when people believe their free will is threatened (Brehm, 1981). The researchers posit that because monogamous individuals have committed to their one partner, they may sometimes feel pressured to restrict themselves to one partner (by that partner, or society, or the institution of monogamy). In other words, the knowledge of an exclusive commitment makes alternatives to that commitment more appealing.
Finally, Conley and associates (2018) considered that it is possible that CNM individuals may devote more effort into sexual skills or be more persistent in seeking sexual pleasure, on average, than monogamous people. This could be especially true for swingers and may account for their higher scores on the sexual satisfaction-type questions.
This study, when aligned with previous research, suggests that CNM relationships are similar with monogamous relationships in terms of relationship quality, and this study demonstrates that sexual satisfaction is not only on par with monogamy, but, in some instances, has a higher level of sexual satisfaction, orgasm, and frequency.