Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

February 16, 2008

"It's Better with Three"

The Pitch (Kansas City, MO)

In its February 14th "sex edition," amid some pretty gritty stuff, Kansas City's alternative newspaper interviews a local university professor about her research on polyamory and safer-sex practices. The article also profiles two local poly groupings at length.

If a UMKC researcher is right, bringing a third into your bedroom could make you healthier and happier.


...Chell's idea to bring a third person into her [BDSM-heavy] marital bedroom wasn't just about fun. The trio has formed a powerful emotional bond — which is not unusual among polyamorous lovers. "There are things Spawn needs that I can't give him sometimes," Chell says. "I'm a small girl. I understand I can't deal with his needs in every situation."

There's little research on how such relationships work. This is where Terri Conley comes in. A University of Missouri-Kansas City assistant professor of psychology, Conley has begun a yearlong study of about 300 people in polyamorous relationships. She's preparing a questionnaire that will measure risk behavior, satisfaction, emotion and other psychological factors.... Conley believes her research might show that people in polyamorous relationships are safer from STDs — and may know a secret about how to make relationships work.

...Conley has taught a class on human sexuality since she came to UMKC in 2006....

She became interested in polyamorous relationships in California when she saw a mathematical simulation showing it was safer [in terms of HIV] to have sex with 100 partners and use a condom every time than to have sex... with a partner of unknown health status and not use one.

Heads up! Read that again, please! (And for more on this, see Joreth's post in the comments.)

She started wondering about the way monogamy was sold as an answer during the early days of the AIDS crisis.

"There was a surgeon general warning going around about how you should know your partner, but how well you know your partners doesn't really have anything to do with whether they have an STD," Conley says. "And people in a close relationship try to get rid of condoms as early as possible, and they're actually leaving themselves wide-open for something to happen. So those things got me wondering to what extent monogamy really was a good approach to safer-sex issues."

Conley compares the monogamy-only message to adults with abstinence-only sex education for teenagers. The two ideas, she says, cause people who can't live in a monogamous relationship to suffer from guilt and a potentially dangerous habit of cheating. "If it's not serving its health purpose, then we need to scrap the monogamy-only message."

Conley saw that very little research had been done on polyamorous relationships and that most of what was available was years out of date. None of it seemed to focus on health factors.

So Conley, along with Amber Hinton, a graduate student in psychology, is preparing a detailed survey. She hopes the results will answer questions about whether it's safer to be involved with more than one person. The survey will also question whether a relationship is invigorated when one member seeks outside companionship, and if having multiple relationship roles can actually make a person happier.

If polyamorous relationships do tend to include people who are as safe and happy sexually, it'll open new questions about how we deal with complex emotions.

"I do feel somewhat outside of normal researchers," Conley says. "My grad adviser said, 'You don't want to go on the job market as a sexuality researcher. The projects can require an enormous amount of work and patience. It has to be something you really just want to find out.'"

There's the chance that reaction to her latest study could single her out in other ways, if it turns out that people might be healthier with more partners.

"I do sometimes worry what will happen if my hypothesis is supported," she says. "Someone could take it badly, as [if it's an attack on] some religious or moral argument. But it isn't about saying something is moral. It's about presenting the truth."

The article goes on to describe a young couple's difficult transition into open marriage many years ago:

First, [Owen and Louise] had to agree on rules. Neither was allowed to go on a date if the other did not have a date the same night at the same time. Each had veto power over the other's choice of date. Each had to be home by midnight.

Based on what Conley has seen, this is a common arrangement for polyamorous relationships. Establishing ground rules is important to sustain the primary relationship, Conley says. She expects the answers to her survey will help better understand how rules govern polyamorous relationships. It's one area — communication — where polyamorous couples might have monogamous couples beat, she says.

"Monogamy tends to have more general assumptions about what's supposed to happen," Conley says. "If you have to tell your partner what you want sexually, you burst the romantic bubble that they know exactly what you want. If you're in a polyamorous relationship, you're forced to deal with it."

...Louise was able to get a date almost immediately... Owen, meanwhile, decided to go to a swinger's club... Louise and Owen were both home by midnight, honoring their agreement. She didn't know what his reaction would be.

"So, did you have a good time?" Louise asked.

"Yeah. It was really different and really weird. Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah. Are you OK?"

"I am."

That was it.... Now, 27 years into their polyamorous relationship, Louise and Owen have dropped most of the rules. They still have veto power, but only Louise has used it, and only on rare occasions.... The tricky part is meeting people who understand their relationship. In case one of them isn't around to assure the potential date that neither of them is a cheater, they've drawn up what they call "hunting licenses."

"I can just open up my wallet and say, 'See? My wife's cool with it,'" Owen says.

The relationship has become so successful that they have decided to start teaching other people. Louise gives talks on polyamorous relationships at wicca fairs. A year ago, they began offering a class through Communiversity. (They teach the class under the pseudonyms Louise and Shaggy Man.) They'll start their third class in March. Most of the students are younger, and the classes are split about evenly between men and women. Last semester, Louise made a guest appearance in Conley's classroom to talk about polyamorous relationships. "Condoms, condoms, condoms," Louise said. "That's what I tell everyone who asks about it."

The entire lengthy article (Feb. 14, 2008) is partway through a very long file of several articles chained together. To find it, scroll about a third of the way down.

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Blogger Alan said...

Added 10/14/2008: About that statement that unsafe sex with 1 unknown partner is more risky, HIV-wise, than sex with 100 partners using condoms: Joreth went looking for more information, and found the following (reprinted here with her permission):


Terri Conley did indeed write a paper including the statement that it was safer to have sex with a hundred people and use a condom than to have sex with just one person and not use one. She is now a professor at the University of Michigan, and she wrote to me to tell me how she came to her conclusion. She got this formula from a book called With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality by Paul R. Abramson & Steven D. Pinkerton (SBN 0195146093, 9780195146097). This book is available on Amazon, and Amazon actually let me search the book to find the exact passage she is referencing.

The premise of this math formula is that each person's HIV status is unknown and the partners are randomly selected from the population at large.

According to the calculations (which use math symbols that I can't enter here because I write in plain text editors), "the risk resulting from 100 protected [sexual] contacts is about the same as that arising from only 10 unprotected [sexual] contacts". They go on to say "For sexually active individuals with more than one partner, the situation is slightly more complicated. Although the probability of becoming infected as a result of sexual contact with any one of these partners can be calculated using [this equation], the rules of probability calculus prevent us from simply adding them together to arrive at the overall risk of infection. ...

As might be expected, the probability of infection arising from N one-night stands is greater than the risk from N contacts with a single partner (monogamy). However, the difference is not nearly as great as one might suppose. ... The relative risk reduction achieved by engaging in N sexual contacts with a single partner rather than N one-night stands is greater in the high infectivity condition (a=0.01) and increases as the number of one-night stands gets large, but is less than 40% in any case. In contrast, the relative risk reduction due to the consistant use of condoms is about 90% regardless of the infectivity or number of partners.

In other words, in this situation even the most dramatic change in the number of sexual partners -- from 100 to 1 -- provides LESS protection than does the simple expedient of always wearing a condom.

These results highlight the inadequacy of educational programs that focus on getting people to limit the number of sexual partners as a means of reducing HIV risk. Although there are conditions for which this is sound advice (such as populations with a high prevalance of HIV and other STDs), the simple strategy of always using condoms is usually a superior means of reducing risk. ...

Finally, to return to the question posed at the beginning of this discussion: is everyone at risk? Obviously that depends on her sexual behaviour, including who she has sex with, what kind of sex, and whether or not her partners wear condoms for penetrative activities.

For the sake of argument, suppose the infectivity rate is 1 in 1,000 and she selects 10 male partners at random from a population in which 1 out of every 200 men is infected with HIV. If she has intercourse 100 times with each of these men and never uses condoms, she faces an infection risk of 0.0047 (in other words, out of 211 such women, we would expect one to become infected with HIV as a consequence of her sexual behaviour). If, instead, she and her partners used condoms for every act of intercourse, her risk would be reduced by about 90%, to 0.0005 (1 out of 2010)."

The part that really impacts the poly community is that all of these scenarios and formulas are done choosing a partner at random from the entire population without knowing his or her HIV status. With regular condom use, regular testing, and open and honest communication about status, the probability of becoming infected with HIV drops to a very small number close to zero. With a known status of HIV-negative, and no exposure to HIV since testing, the probability drops to a small number close to zero even without
the condoms.

This, of course, only affects those STDs that are fluid-borne, like HIV. The incidence of contact-borne STDs like herpes is only partially reduced by condom use, not the 90% quoted above. And for the untestable or hard-to-test STDs like HPV, I assume we cannot significantly lower the incidence rate by changing the variable from "unknown status" to "known status", but none of that was

Anyway, this book sounds pretty fascinating and I plan to pick up a copy sometime soon. Here's the link to read what I quoted above, and you can follow the links from there to purchase it:


Joreth has posted more about this on her LiveJournal.

October 14, 2008 9:42 PM  

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