This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
I don’t watch a lot of TV these days, but back when I did, there was a subplot on Friends when Rachel & Ross “took a break” in their relationship, during which Ross had sex with someone else. When they got back together, it turned into an ongoing source of drama. Rachel thought that he had cheated because, by her definition, they had still been in a relationship even if they were taking some time apart. Ross didn’t think so since they were “on a break,” which meant to him that the rules of being in their relationship didn’t apply.
Miscommunications of this sort are pretty common, as I’m sure most of you know from personal experience. Having different definitions for the same words leads to having different expectations, which leads to drama.
In that light, I’m not really surprised to see that One Love: Explicit Monogamy Agreements among Heterosexual Young Adult Couples at Increased Risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections, an upcoming article in the Journal of Sexual Health, documents that a lot of young (18-25) heterosexual couples can’t agree on whether they’re monogamous. In fact, in 40% of them, one partner said that there was an agreement to be sexually exclusive while the other partner didn’t. Since the article hasn’t been published yet (although here’s the link to the abstract), I’m curious to know what the breakdown is by gender- did one gender report more on the “yes we are” than they other?
Of the 52% of couples in which both people agreed that there was a monogamy agreement, 71% of them had “sustained the agreement”, which means that there’s a whole lotta cheating going on. Given that medical professionals often use the answer to “are you monogamous?” as a screening mechanism for STI counseling and testing, that’s clearly an inadequate tool.
The study looked at both married & non-married couples and found that couples with children were less likely to have a monogamy agreement. They also found that married couples were no more likely to have such an agreement than non-married couples. But monogamy was correlated with commitment, as measured by questions like “You view your relationship as permanent.” In fact, for every increase by one number on the commitment scale, the odds of the couple having a sustained monogamy agreement nearly tripled.
The researchers are concerned that “a lack of communication between heterosexual couples is leading to unintended risks.” That’s pretty common- if you don’t feel able to identify your needs and desires, or if you don’t feel empowered to talk about them, it’s easy to just assume things or hope for the best. The irony in all of this is that the research was conducted at Oregon State University, the same school that put the kibosh on Tristan Taormino’s speech, “Claiming Your Sexual Power”. After all, if it’s true that sexual empowerment leads to better communication (which is something that most sex educators will tell you) then information and advice to help people do that is exactly what we need. Just sayin’.