Polyamory and the Kinsey Scale

A friend of mine sent me a link today to a story on XOJane.com about being in a happy polyamorous relationship. (Or, rather, in multiple happy relationships simultaneously; the author clarifies that it’s not all one big relationship in which all her partners sleep with her together.) First off, I just want to say that I found this story heartwarming, in a down-to-Earth sort of way. I would recommend it to anyone who is confused about what Polyamory is, what makes it different from open relationships or swinging or spouse-swapping, and what it looks like from the perspective of someone who is actually living that life. It’s a great little example of how there isn’t really anything weird about Polyamory, and how Polyamorous folks are pretty much just like regular folks; in fact, we are regular folks. (To be fair, some of us are also extraordinary folks, but you’d be surprised how many “regular folks” are.) Anyway, to return to the point, my friend didn’t just send me the story, she sent me a question. (The best gift you can give someone as long-winded as I am!) She wanted to hear my opinion on this quotation:

“I don’t think that everyone is polyamorous or non monogamous. I think it probably works much like the Kinsey Scale in that there are different definitions of monogamy and non-monogamy.”

Specifically, she asked whether I think that Polyamory is on a scale like homosexuality.

The short answer? Yes, mostly. Some people are happier with fewer simultaneous romantic (meaning both emotional and sexual) partners, while others are happier with more. For that matter, some people aren’t even interested in having any romantic partners! The ideal number of simultaneous partners for a person can be zero (asexuality). It can be one (monogamy). It can be more than one (Polyamory). Obviously, some numbers are farther from one than others—someone whose ideal number would be ten could understandably be called “more Polyamorous” than someone whose ideal number would be two. Furthermore, some people might be emotionally monogamous but sexually promiscuous, or sexually monogamous but emotionally promiscuous, placing them somewhere in between monogamy and Polyamory. There might be folks who are Polyamorous in principle but happen to only be in one relationship at a time. There is a broad spectrum of behavior in between monogamy and Polyamory. Obviously, this is reminiscent of the Kinsey Scale, in which people are classified not merely as “straight” or “gay,” but mostly somewhere along a spectrum between the two.

However, (there’s always a “however”) there is a problem with comparing Polyamory to homosexuality, especially in terms of the spectrum of behavior. See, as it turns out, most Americans drastically overestimate what percentage of the population is gay. In 2011, about half the country believed that over 20% of the American population was gay. If that were true, an average American city would be at least 33% “more gay” than San Francisco. Most of those folks (a third of  the country) believed that over 25% of the American population was gay, which would make the average American city 67% more gay than San Francisco (give or take a couple percent, if you know what I mean). However, the actual number of folks on the “exclusively homosexual” end of the spectrum is probably closer to 2 or 3%, and no higher than 10%. In other words, homosexual folks are a very small minority. Even if we expand the definition of “homosexual” to mean “anyone not exclusively heterosexual,” the number would only rise to about 35%, according to more recent revisions of Kinsey’s own reports. That would be more in line with what Americans perceive, but would still be a minority so small that it couldn’t maintain a filibuster in the US Senate. In other words, although homosexuality is on a spectrum, conventional wisdom seems to be right about this, at least: Most people are mostly straight.

And here’s the critical part: conventional wisdom would also have us believe that most people are mostly monogamous. Monogamy is normative. It is considered the “default” setting, and anything else is considered “unusual” or “abnormal” or even “deviant.” But here, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. According to the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (I would link to this, but it’s not available to the public, at least not that I’ve found) in a 2007 report entitled “Infidelity in Committed Relationships: A Substantive Review,” 57% of men and 54% of women admit to sexual infidelity in one or more of their “monogamous” relationships. But that’s just the ones who went through with it, despite the social stigma and, often, drastic economic consequences (only 31% of marriages can survive the discovery of an affair) of breaking the rules that society imposes on how we are allowed to love each other.  When men and women were asked if they would engage in a secret second relationship on the side (in other words, have an affair) if they knew they would never get caught, the numbers get even more stark. Two-thirds of women and three-quarters of men said they would. That is not a minority. That is just as much of a majority as being exclusively straight.

In other words, most people are not even close to “romantically monogamous” by nature; it is a straitjacket of slut-shaming and threats of economic and familial disaster that keep people’s actual emotional and sexual desires in check. Without these metaphorical guns to their heads, a super-majority of people in monogamous relationships would be Polyamorous. These metaphorical guns are disproportionately targeted at women, of course, so it comes as no surprise that  the reported percentages are lower among women than men. They have also been steadily increasing since the creation of the pill, and especially since women entered the workforce, rendering the economic threat of a divorce increasingly useless (though not useless enough, if you ask me, since women still do not receive equal pay for equal work). So, really, if there were a monogamy-Polyamory Kinsey scale, then in terms the statistics about how people actually act, not what they call themselves, Polyamory would be more like heterosexuality than homosexuality. Most people are mostly Polyamorous. Most people do not tend towards being emotionally or sexually exclusive—even the vast majority of the people in relationships with an expectation of monogamy! These people are Polyamorous at heart, but have trapped themselves in relationships in which monogamy is expected of them.

In a strangely roundabout way, this invites another comparison between homosexuality and Polyamory. It has become common knowledge that actively anti-gay people have a tendency to turn out to be closeted gay people. In other words, the “culture war” over homosexuality is mostly being fought not between gay people on one side and straight people on the other, but between openly gay people on one side and closeted gay people on the other. I believe it is the same with Polyamory. Sure, there are definitely some folks out there who are genuinely, truly monogamous. Congratulations to them! But the vast majority of people who say they are monogamous are being dishonest, either with us or with themselves or both. They are closeted Polyamorous people, working dutifully and miserably to reinforce the very societal norms that immiserate them, repressing who they are to seem normal. To me, that is one of the saddest things in the world.

So: yes, there is a spectrum to Polyamory, just as there is with homosexuality. But unlike the Kinsey scale, most people are not in the general area of the normative category. Not even close. Instead, most people are somewhere near the non-normative end of the spectrum: Polyamory. The problem is that while people’s desires are in line with Polyamory, they do not actually structure their relationships in accordance with this fact, which leads to a whole lot of misery and drama. Perhaps they don’t know what an alternative to cookie-cutter monogamy would look like. After all, it’s hard to come up with this stuff all by yourself, and hard to find a community to help you along when you don’t even know what you’re looking for! That’s why it’s so important for folks who are openly Polyamorous, who have embraced their capacity to love more than one person at once, to stand up and speak up. You never know who else in the room (or on the internet) is going through now what you had to go through to get here. You never know how much it could mean to them to just have a name for what they’re feeling, for what they’re reaching for: Polyamory.

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6 thoughts on “Polyamory and the Kinsey Scale

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  6. Stumbled here while researching two things, the first being the obvious question “is polyamory a scale” and the second being what I imagine is a common question “am I polyamorous?”

    I appreciate your argument that a majority is poly, based on your interpretation of a single study… but I think you put a little too much faith into one piece of evidence that doesn’t tell the entire story. Perhaps poly is the true majority, but your evidence doesn’t really support this position. I think this is one of those things that will take years to sort out and put together reliable information to argue one way or another.

    The problem with your evidence is that a desire to seek a relationship outside of marriage is 1. a hypothetical which doesn’t necessarily reflect the opportunity cost, the emotions involved, comfort, emotional-intelligence, etc. i.e. a tested model would be more convincing than a questionnaire… and 2. It’s a position possibly based on a “grass is greener” mentality; does the study evaluate the level of happiness in a relationship? Perhaps the answer is more a reflection of a desire to be out of the marriage (but bound by social construct) rather than a desire for multiple partners.

    Whatever the case, without actually placing oneself in a position to be in a polyamorous relationship, I’m not sure how relevant any polls are, even if directly asked “would you like to be polyamorous?” I think you are letting your opinion come before the evidence, in this article.

    That said, thanks for posting this. It’s solid food for thought and it’s helpful as I try to figure out where I stand in this whacky world of relationships.

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