Got news? Monogamy and gay unions

A few months ago, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to affirm gay clergy in “monogamous” relationships, tmatt noted that the word has different definitions among gay theologians.

Some take the traditional definition, arguing that gay unions are forever and that those taking vows must remain sexually faithful to one another. “Twin rocking chairs forever,” as tmatt put it. Others say it means serial monogamy, much like the definition used by most heterosexuals today who engage in sexual relations prior to marriage and who divorce easily. This definition requires sexual fidelity for each relationship, so long as it lasts “Twin rocking chairs for right now.” And then there’s the definition that says that gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians must be “emotionally” faithful to a partner but can have secondary sexual relationships that don’t threaten the primary “monogamy.” You can read more about these ideas here.

When the ELCA had its vote, there was very little discussion in the media of what the new requirement for gay clergy meant. What did the “monogamy” definition mean? The gay press has done a great job of covering this discussion over the years. This view of sexual monogamy is not a point of shame for the gay community and the gay press has discussed, debated and codified the feature that is present in many gay relationships.

But for some reason, the mainstream media has steadfastly avoided the topic. And they still do, by and large. But there was this rather surprising column or blog post in the New York Times last week that dealt with the issue head on. Judged as an objective news article, it would not hold up too well.

However, this was a classic Got news? piece for this here blog. While fully endorsing a view of marriage without fidelity, “Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret ” broke some news that has been hidden from most readers.

The article appeared in The Bay Area Blog, which features coverage of public affairs, commerce, culture and lifestyles in the San Francisco region. It was penned by Scott James, who is described as “an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco.” He publishes his award-winning books, which are sexually explicit explorations of gay themes, under the name Kemble Scott. He is an open supporter of legalizing same-sex marriage. His most recent book challenges assumptions about sexual morality by having a protagonist who disseminates health across the planet via gay sex. Anyway, here’s the gist of his provocative and interesting piece:

As the trial phase of the constitutional battle to overturn the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage concludes in federal court, gay nuptials are portrayed by opponents as an effort to rewrite the traditional rules of matrimony. Quietly, outside of the news media and courtroom spotlight, many gay couples are doing just that, according to groundbreaking new research.

A study to be released next month is offering a rare glimpse inside gay relationships and reveals that monogamy is not a central feature for many. Some gay men and lesbians argue that, as a result, they have stronger, longer-lasting and more honest relationships. And while that may sound counterintuitive, some experts say boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage — one that might point the way for the survival of the institution.

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

That consent is key. “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.”

I’m not sure if the description of the study’s findings is written up as well as it could be. If 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their primary relationship with the knowledge and approval of their partners, that’s an utterly fascinating, and newsworthy statistic. Still, I’m curious about the remaining half. What percentage of those surveyed have sex outside of their primary relationship but don’t have the knowledge and/or the approval of their partners? It seems like a key piece of information.

The headline refers to such open relationships as “successful.” And note the adjectives in the excerpt above. Later we learn that such relationships are a mark of “evolution,” show “fresh perspective,” “insight,” and “innovation.” While it’s not exactly labeled as such, the article has a definite point of view. And while it does a fantastic job of interviewing actual gay people (something that is lacking in too many stories about gay issues), the article doesn’t include any critical perspectives at all. That’s not a strength.

Certainly there’s at least one person in the world who thinks that sex with multiple partners is not the key to a successful marriage, right? And I’m not just talking about advocates of traditional marriage vows, or advocates of spousal fidelity. We don’t even learn how this study will be responded to by people such as Andrew Sullivan (lately seen breaking even his own record for insanity) and others who have argued that same-sex marriage needs to be legalized as an important way of curbing promiscuity and encouraging monogamy in the gay community.

The bottom line, though, is that this study breaks news. Really interesting and important news.

It looks at one of the most fundamental institutions in society and what that institution means for various people who seek to take part in it. This affects religious institutions, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and others that require monogamy for gay clergy. This also could have far-reaching ramifications for religious freedom, as lesbian law professor Chai Feldblum argues. So why is this relegated to a regional blog posting?

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  • Julia

    I apologize for being off-topic, but the “Contact” link is turned off – I can’t figure out a different way to suggest a topic.

    Here’s why the US press should beware of articles on the Vatican picked up from the British press – whose men in Rome are using the unreliable Italian newspapers as sources.

    John Allen on the Italin press:
    http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/kasper-blasts-media-coverage-vatican-rumors

  • James

    I am that one person you are looking for. I believe in till death do us part. My partner and I have only been together for 5 years, but I plan on grow old with him. We both fully believe in monogamy, and that cheating is the worst thing you can do to another person because the level of trust that is required for sex. We are also fully committed to each other and would never want, nor allow another person to be in the mix.

    I know there are others out there like us, and while there are straight people that choose to be promiscuous, there are obviously gays that are like that too.

    Please don’t judge us all.

  • Martha

    Sorry, I can’t leave any kind of intelligent comment, because I did waaaay too much snorting and eye-rolling all through those choice extracts.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I think you missed the most obvious clunkers in that story.

    First, as you’ve never tired of pointing out the Bay Area is not like the rest of the US.

    Second, we have no idea if the study is a good one until the results are released and reviewed. How many surveys have been terrible because of how questions were asked?

    Third, are there differences between gays and lesbians?

    Fourth, how does the results compare to heterosexual couples not what they say but what they do? There is a LOT of junk out there about this question so I’m not sure if there’s anything reliable or not. One site I found was http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090522180426AAOoUVK

  • dalea

    Why is this even considered to be news? The topic has been discussed in the GLBT press for over 30 years. Gay men make a distinction between sexual and emotional commitments which is no secret. The topic recurs over and over in our literature, our art and our discussions. During the high tide of AIDS, this was front and center in talking about the plague.

    To my mind the issue here is not are Gay men more ‘promiscuous’ than straight men; it is are Gay men more honest.

  • Chip Smith

    We don’t even learn how this study will be responded to by people such as Andrew Sullivan (lately seen breaking even his own record for insanity)

    So commenters are supposed to refrain from ad hominem arguments, but this is appropriate?

  • dalea

    One of the reasons, I suspect, that the MSM ignores this topic is that it opens up a very convoluted subject that requires lots of explanation. IMHE Gay men tend to distinguish between all sorts of activities that Straight people consider to be sex. Which means that the simple word sex has a meaning very different from what is ordinarily attached to it. On the GRBlog, I counted up over 70 distinctive Gay concepts on the topic. So, what sex means for each grouping is somewhat different.

    This is where the MSM gets lost. The situation is not that Gay men are monogomous or not monogomous; it is that the relationship reserves some sexual practices for the couple only and others are out of the relationship. I am having trouble finding words that I can use on GR to explain this. So, let me just say that activities that could be called intercourse are generally kept within the relationship while activities that are more like masturbation are outside the relationship. Does this make any sense to you GR commentators?

    Added to this is the way the MSM portrays the GLBT world. For most, the visual image of the Gay male is someone from the world of discos etc, like Glambert or John Barrowman. Most of the political and spiritual leaders of the Gay male movement come from the circles that can be loosely described as Leather/ Levi/ Bear. Just explaining this to the reader takes up an enoromous amount of time. And probably can not be done very well. The situation is much more complicated, and much more graphic,

  • dalea

    One last bit of comment on the article. What is being tiptoed around here is the differences between men and women when it comes to sex. When you do a study that includes both Gay men and Lesbians and come up with a monogamy rate of 50%, my suspicion is that the 50% are mainly women. There is an old aphorism that runs like this: Gay men have sex the way Straight men would if women were more available; Lesbians look the way all women would if they were not trying to attact men.

    Classic joke:

    What do Lesbians do on the second date?
    Rent a moving van.

    What do Gay men do on the second date?
    What second date?

    Then there is the classic Sylvia comic stip:

    What would a world without men be like?
    Filled with happy fat women.

  • http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com Timothy Kincaid

    This article is based on a premise so flawed that it is irresponsible and bordering on bigotry.

    Irrespective of the sensational headlines, the Gay Couples Study does not speak to the monogamy of fidelity of gay Christians. It was not intended to, it was not designed to, and it is not capable of making such a claim.

    And (pay close attention here) it had nothing to do with MARRIED couples. Only 13% of the sample was married and the study made no effort to segregate and report their monogamy data.

    The sample of couples inspected all live within the San Francisco bay area, were recruited by means of fliers handed out or posted in highly gay density locations and in gay bars, hookup sites, and HIV clinics. All couples were male. Couples were defined to include those who had “been in their relationship for at least 3 months”; less than a third had made any formal commitment to each other (marriage, domestic partners, or other ceremony).

    Considering the truth about the study, the question that those with integrity ask is: taking urban heterosexual couples that were recruited at a bar and who had dated for at least three months and two-thirds of whom had made no formal commitment, what percentage is monogamous?

    If you tell yourself that it’s so much more than 50%, then I think you’ve never met any heterosexuals.

    But, of course, this article wasn’t written to report “exciting news”, no, it was written to condemn gay people and to portray them in a negative light. So honesty, integrity, and research were of no consideration.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com/2010/01/poor-media-coverage-is-pro-life-leaders.html Kevin J Jones

    Speaking of Andrew Sullivan, didn’t he get in hot water in the 1990s for saying straight married couples could learn a thing or two about monogamy from gay men in open relationships?

    I believe he had to apologize for or clarify the statement, but I can’t find the relevant primary sources on the controversy besides his _Virtually Normal_. Are there any handy links on this old story, or must I do my own homework?

  • Stephen

    I think another thing missing from that article was the obvious point that, not actually being in marriages most of the time because they’re not legal yet, most gay men don’t feel bound by the rules of marriage even when they are in committed relationships. I know I don’t. Until there’s a ring, I don’t particularly feel required to be monogamous.

    On the flip side, I am monogamous. And so are many others. This article also misses the point that, if the research were done the same about heterosexuals, they would probably find that similar percentages of heterosexual couples engage in extramarital affairs.

    What’s the difference between straight couples and gay couples? The straight couples lie about it.

  • Peter

    Instead of citing anti-SSM activists, you can actually read what Feldblum says, which isn’t really close to Mollie’s summation. Gay right, not SSM, burdens religious liberty like civil rights have in the past. She doesn’t say far-reaching or talk about SSM specifically.

    http://www.becketfund.org/files/4bce5.pdf

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks!

    Again, you are missing the point.

    Why is this a NYTs BLOG POST and not a news story? You know, with experts on both sides discussing the contents?

    You know, JOURNALISM.

    Come on people.

  • Peter

    Why is this a NYTs BLOG POST and not a news story? You know, with experts on both sides discussing the contents?

    Because the study hasn’t been released. Thus, the commentary is all speculative without seeing the actual data. So, it’s not news yet.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Peter,

    It is a common thing to see stories in NEWS pages that pre-date a study’s official release. That doesn’t mean discussion is speculative. The academic process includes many pre-releases of data. Researchers might make a presentation at an academic conference, or release a portion of a report or publish a portion of the larger report.

    It’s just as much news as any other academic study. You can click on the link above to read more.

  • Peter

    Is there an evidence that there has been a pre-release of the data or is there just what’s on the website? Because if it’s just on the website, that doesn’t seem to provide much fodder for informed discussion. The website said the data is expected out this month.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Don’t know. I wrote about an as-yet-unpublished study a couple of weeks ago. The gist of it had broken into the news after the researcher made a presentation at an academic conference. When I wrote about it, I asked her for the paper directly.

    But I’m not sure in this case . . .

  • Martha

    Guys, stop whining.

    One of the reasons put forward for opposing same-sex marriage is that it redefines the very nature of marriage. One of the defences put forward for supporting same-sex marriage is that this just ain’t so.

    Well, for some gay people, it looks like it is so. dalea, when you’re trying to make distinctions about what is and is not sex, it sounds like Bill Clinton saying “that depends what the definition of ‘is’ is”.

    Yes, straight people commit adultery. Yes, there are centuries when it was taken for granted that marriage was for alliance/property/bloodlines and that (usually) the husband would have a mistress on the side. Yes, there are open marriages and swingers and all the rest of it. Yes, there are cultures where polygamy, concubinage and all the rest of it are the norm, not couples.

    Except that, you know, it’s still called adultery and not “an evolution in marriage that might point the way for the survival of the institution” when straight people do it.

    If same-sex marriage is going to be just the same as opposite-sex marriage, then the same terms apply.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Martha:

    Now, stand back and tell us what your comment has to do with the journalism angle of this post?

  • dalea

    From the study’s website:

    The UCSF Gay Couples Study seeks to identify and examine relationship dynamics in gay and bisexual male couples and explore how those dynamics may affect sexual risk behaviors with both primary and non-primary partners. Relationship dynamics include issues such as communication, power dynamics, and agreements around sex inside and outside of the relationship. Other objectives include exploring factors associated with how, why, and when couples make agreements around sex, examining the various types and styles of those agreements, and describing how they differ in relation to couple serostatus.

    Once again we see the press’ difficulty in dealing with statistical information. Like most studies, this one had an objective. Which is to understand how couples who are not monogamous handle the situation so as to reduce their risks of acquiring AIDS. Given the objective stated, it is not surprising that so many subjects are not monogamous. Since these are the people the study is seeking to understand, it may be that there are more non-monogamous couples in the study than is typical for Gay men. Or it may not. The study did not set out to find out what percentage of Gay couples are monogamous. And to use the data as a guide to that is simply not indicated by the data.

    The plain fact is that this is not a random sample study, from which we could draw conclusions about GL’s in general. The stories do not explain this adaquately. In fact they do not seem to comprehend the limited scope and nature of this study.

    It also is an HIV study, which fact seems to be absent from the articles. The subject is how relationship dynamics shape the behaviors that might or might not make one more vulnerable to transmission. As someone who has been an activist more years than I care to remember, monogamy tends to have a very bad reputation within the activist community. We have seen it blow up in enough faces to be somewhat hostile to the idea.

    The press has once again not comprehended statistics.

  • Martha

    tmatt, you are correct and I apologise.

    Regarding the journalism angle – so was this an online article only or was it in the print edition?

    And yes, why has no-one else seemed to pick up on this study, seeing as how sex’n’politics are one mainstay of reporting?

  • Martha

    dalea, then the purpose of the study had nothing to do with the columnist’s conclusions?

    He extrapolated from a specific group to apply it to a universal or just used it as a springboard for his column which went on a completely different track than the intention of the study?

    Has anyone commented on this?

  • Suzanne

    It’s really problematic to write about a study without having the chance to read it. Reading it would have explained exactly who the target population was and how they were recruited. Most studies have a section toward the end that detail limitations that could affect the generalizability of the results.

    Even if you talk with the person who authors the study, reading it gives you a chance to probe its potential weaknesses more thoroughly.

    Now maybe these people who have written about the study were given some version of the data beforehand, but based on what I’ve read so far, I doubt it.

  • Dave

    Two questions:

    1) Does the identified gay behavior actually differ from straight behavior below the radar?

    2) Is this news? I’ve been reading hints to the contrary for decades.

  • Chris

    I agree with Suzanne. One of the biggest problems with general mainstream journalism describing scientific studies is that the reporters do not read the study. (This is not the case with journalists who work for general scientific journals–such as Nature or Science.) Mainstream journalists, I suspect, use the press release from the institution that sponsored the research, or interview the researcher. The results of this study are not yet published, according to the blog post, and the Gay Couples Study website indicates that the 3 articles reporting the results are in press. It is impossible to comment on the methods or results of the study, without reading the research articles.

  • dalea

    Martha asks:

    dalea, then the purpose of the study had nothing to do with the columnist’s conclusions?

    Yes, the columnist picked one random fact, used it out of context and then drew conclusions that have nothing to do with the study. She dressed it up with anecdotes unrelated to the study to make her point. The whole column is a smear piece that references but does not use a scientific study. This is not readily clear from the column.

    Has anyone commented on this?

    Well, I have. Why an accountant living in Los Angeles can see this while professional journalists do not is an interesting question.

  • Jerry

    One of the biggest problems with general mainstream journalism describing scientific studies is that the reporters do not read the study.

    Chris, it’s worse than that. Not reading the study is one thing. Understanding statistics is another. I think that most reporters are more ignorant of statistics and interpreting surveys than they are about religion. It’s not about religion but one example of how to look at numbers is here: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/01/in-depth-look-at-fourth-quarter-gdp.html

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    There is no excuse for reporters not understanding statistics. They only have to talk to the advertising people on the other side of the building to be educated.

  • Richard Werner

    Well, in the U.S., heterosexuals have a 50% divorce rate. That implies they are very dissatisfied with their spouses and are moving on to someone else. I guess you could say that at least half of the heteros almost qualify as swingers — i.e. multiple sex parterners both in and out of marriage. Plus, 40% of the new borns are born to unwed mothers. Are the fathers of these children someone elses spouse? I think the religous followers need to look into their own camp before trying to judge and rule someone else’s camp. Maybe we should totally outlaw DIVORCE to make sure that everyone understands the sanctity of marriage.

  • Matt
  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Matt,

    I am a bit busy right now so I just skimmed it.

    I think that people should be careful when reading a study to understand its limitations. And so I think that it’s great that people are understanding what the study (allegedly) says and doesn’t say. For instance, it spoke about relationships, not marriages. That’s an important distinction that seemed lost in a lot of coverage.

    Still, the backlash to this study’s results also seems very interesting.

  • Chip Smith

    We don’t even learn how this study will be responded to by people such as Andrew Sullivan (lately seen breaking even his own record for insanity)

    I don’t know if this was an honest statement or just as excuse to take a cheap shot at Sullivan by linking to your husband’s potshot at him, but Sullivan has responded to the shoddy journalism.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    I don’t think an open or a polyamorous relationship would suit me, personally. But I wouldn’t want to end up in a closed monogamous relationship merely because it had never occurred to me to consider the alternatives. I’m glad these relationships exist and are becoming more accepted. I’m glad the “defaults” are now becoming conscious choices. It means more people are likely to actively decide what works best for them, and to end up in a relationship that actually suits them.

    That’s a good thing.

    TRiG.


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