Understanding How Same-Sex Couples Approach Open Relationships


Around 38,000 people are newly infected with HIV in the U.S. each year, and queer men account for most of these cases. Within that group, one-third to two-thirds of infections happen between partners in ongoing sexual relationships. To help curtail the spread of HIV in this demographic, we need to understand how partners approach sex outside that primary relationship.

“There has been some disagreement about the ‘best way’ of assessing how couples handle sex with casual partners,” said Professor Tyrel Starks (Hunter College, The Graduate Center).

Now a new study shows that two of these assessment methods yield very similar results. The paper, published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, was authored by Starks as well as Professor Cheryl Carmichael (Brooklyn College, The Graduate Center) and Ph.D. student Trey Dellucci.

A lot of research has approached the question of non-monogamy by asking couples about agreements they’ve made, whether explicitly or implicitly decided. But other survey-based studies ask about “arrangements.” This term refers to what two partners are actually doing outside the primary partnership, and doesn’t consider whether they have an agreement or not.

If researchers look to survey results to figure out how to slow the spread of HIV, they need to know if there’s a substantial difference in the way people respond to these two methods. According to the new study, though, there isn’t. There was “substantial overlap between arrangements and agreements,” the authors said. Importantly, results about patterns of HIV risk behaviors were also consistent no matter which way the question was posed.

The study used baseline data from a survey of 70 same-sex cisgender male couples in the NYC area.

The survey also examined each couple’s communication style. Couples who had clearly agreed on an open relationship showed better communication skills than couples who had discrepancies in their responses about their agreement. This highlights how the success of an open relationship depends on communication, the authors say.

“Despite being common, non-monogamy remains highly stigmatized and many believe it is impossible to have a healthy open relationship,” Starks said. “It is important for us to demonstrate that these relationships are just as healthy as monogamous relationships.”