New study: How many Americans want poly relationships?
How many polyfolks are there? News media always ask, and no one really knows. My indirect method suggests it's roughly 3 million Americans, regardless of whether they use the word "polyamory." This is fairly consistent with surveys that ask people if they are in consensual open relationships.
For instance, writes New York University sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova, recent research "has found that, among the general heterosexual population [of US adults], about 4 to 5 percent are engaged in some form of consensual nonmonogamy." That would be about 10 to 12 million individuals.
Now Vrangalova reports (on her Psychology Today blogsite Strictly Casual) that a study has just been published that addresses a different question, an interesting one for the future of the polyamory movement:
"Is the desire for such an arrangement limited to these 4 to 5 percent, or are there many more out there who desire it, but don’t dare seek it out or don’t believe they could ever find it?"
Would You Have an Open Relationship?
A new study reveals people's interest in consensual non-monogamy.
By Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D.
...In a study just published online ahead of print in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Amy Moors and her colleagues at the University of Michigan explored attitudes toward, and willingness to engage in, consensual nonmonogamy among 1,280 heterosexuals. Unlike many other studies, participants were not college students [although their mean age was still only 23]. None had any first-hand experience with consensual nonmonogamy....
How many approve of it?
...Two questions in the study asked about such general attitudes toward consensual nonmonogamy. On a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), participants rated the following statements:
● Every couple should be monogamous.
● If people want to be in openly/consensually nonmonogamous relationship, they have every right to do so.
The ratings were averaged together such that the higher the score, the more positive the attitudes toward consensual nonmonogamy. Results are illustrated in the left portion of the graph below:
Overall, attitudes toward consensual nonmonogamy for both sexes were slightly above the neutral midpoint of the scale, indicating they found it fairly OK for others to engage in open relationships if they so choose. In fact, over 80 percent of participants chose at least a 4 on that 7-point scale for the second statement.
How many are interested in it?
...Four statements asked about people’s own interest in potentially having a consensual non-monogamous relationship, using the same scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):
● I would like to be in a non-monogamous relationship.
● I would consider being in an openly/consensually non-monogamous relationship.
● Monogamy is very important to me.
● If my partner wanted to be non-monogamous, I would be open to that.
As you can see from the right portion of the graph above, participants’ own interest in an open relationship was much lower than their approval of it for other people. Men (mean = 2.64) scored significantly higher than women (mean = 1.99), but neither sex even approached the neutral midpoint of the scale.
Such low means are not at all surprising. We are all socialized to view monogamy as the norm (with cheating as a dishonorable, but not unexpected option). Consensual non-monogamy, on the other hand, is not only stigmatized, it is also quite rare and very few people have had the opportunity to see, hear, or learn about this relationship arrangement as a possibility.
Given this, what is perhaps more surprising is the number of people in this sample who showed some, however slight, interest in a non-monogamous relationship: Across the four statements, between 23 and 40 percent of men, and between 11 and 22 percent of women [in this young sample] chose a 4 or higher on the 7-point scale. That is a lot more than the 4 to 5 percent of people who are currently engaged in consensual nonmonogamy.
How many are willing to try specific types of consensual nonmonogamy?
There are many different ways of being open, with each couple deciding on the specific rules that work and don’t work for them. In this study, participants were asked about their willingness to engage in six different types of non-monogamous arrangements, on a scale of 1 (very unwilling) to 7 (very willing)....
...Similar to the interest in consensual nonmonogamy in general, the willingness to engage in these specific non-monogamous behaviors was quite low for both men and women....
However, here again there was a substantial minority of people who were ambivalent at worst, very willing at best, to give these arrangements a try. As the graph below illustrates, across the six behaviors, up to 16 percent of women, and up to 31 percent of men chose 4 or higher on the 7-point willingness scale.
Of course, this was not a representative study of the U.S. population, and we cannot generalize too much beyond this fairly young, fairly liberal, Internet sample. However, these data tell a story of significantly more openness to and curiosity about consensual nonmonogamy than perhaps ever before in recent Western history. However slight or tentative it may be at the moment.
Some of these data are presented in the study; other are additional analyses that the study authors were kind enough to provide for this Psychology Today post.
Read Vrangalova's whole article, with the references (April 14, 2014).
Although the title of her article talks about "open relationships," the last graph breaks out poly-type relationships in particular. Bars 3, 5, and 6 are about situations that I'd call specifically polyamorous. Bars 1, 2 and 4 refer to other kinds of nonmonogamy in general.
Notice that the three poly questions got slightly higher positives than the other questions, especially among women.