From Center for Gender and Sexuality Law Visiting Scholar Nathaniel Frank, originally published on Slate on June 27th:
On the very day the high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Slate’s Hanna Rosin penned this buzz kill: “The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous.”
There’s a lot to admire about this instinct to rain on the gay parade: I myself am constitutionally predisposed to look for what we haven’t achieved on days when others are popping champagne to celebrate what we have. (I grappled with this personality flawin a recent piece on what marriage means to me, where I committed myself to celebrating a potential DOMA victory “fully and without reservation”—and I proposed to my boyfriend in the same piece, so maybe I’m a little sore at Rosin for crashing the party.)
Then there’s the fact that her heart was in the right place. She wasn’t pointing out gay promiscuity to argue against our right to marry but to weigh a question many gay advocates who value the unique quality of queer culture have raised: How might gay marriage not simply succumb to the trappings of existing marriage but improve the hoary and besieged institution with fresh models of partnership and intimacy?
But whatever Rosin’s intentions, we need to set a few things, well, straight. Rosin asserts that “most gay couples aren’t monogamous.” For evidence, she cites a recent Atlanticarticle about what America can learn from gay couples, a controversial personal critique of monogamy by the sex columnist Dan Savage, and a Gawker story that cites a study finding that half of gay couples are not monogamous.
None of these sources show that “most gay couples aren’t monogamous.” The research cited in the Atlantic story is based on decades-old statistics from the counterculture, before AIDS and before the LGBT movement began to valorize committed relationships like marriage as a top priority. And before gays could marry anywhere in the world.
The Gawker story is no better. The study it cites draws on couples from a “convenience” sample found by posting flyers in AIDS clinics and gay bars in San Francisco. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using convenience samples. When they’re the best available, they can still provide worthwhile knowledge. (I have drawn on them helpfully in research on gay soldiering and parenting and defend their proper use here.) But lesson No. 1 in statistics is that if your sampling pool is not representative, you can’t generalize to the population. All this study shows is that about half of one very specific gay male population—not the entire gay population—is not monogamous. And what we know of this population from the study itself is that it’s highly skewed. They had far higher rates of HIV/AIDS than the general LGBT population, some of the relationships were as short as three months long, and most important they were all men.
This is key: As the Atlantic piece points out, lesbians were far less likely to report nonmonogamous relationships than straight women, a result consistent with longstanding theories that the greatest predictor of promiscuity is being male, not whether you are gay or straight. “Most gay couples” may be meant to refer to men, but to many, it encompasses all gay couples. This further undercuts Rosin’s headline since it’s wholly inapplicable to gay women.
Finally, Rosin provides no control group. Building a piece around the provocative argument that most gay couples aren’t monogamous (and on gay marriage decision day!) clearly implies a significant difference from what we assume about straight couples. And calling it a “dirty little secret,” if meant literally (which I’m guessing Rosin did not), sure makes it sound like a shameful difference.
But how different are gay and straight couples? Probably different but not that different. Data on straight monogamy are all over the map. One report suggests 70 percent of married men cheat. (OK, that was a Fox News report, but shouldn’t that skew toward idealizing heterosexuality?) A nationally representative survey of 884 men put the number at only 23 percent. A much bigger but unrepresentative MSNBC survey found that nearly half of adults cheat—exactly the same percentage as the San Francisco study found with gay men. Other reports have found the same—that 50 percent of married men cheat—and one also found that the vast majority will not admit to it, perhaps even on surveys. This is another critical point: The gay male culture of nonmonogamy, rooted in gay liberation (and again, not all gay men are part of it), is likely to encourage both nonmonogamy and honest reporting of it, a key difference from the norms and expectations of the heterosexual mainstream. How much stock, that is, should we even put in surveys of straight cheating?
Of course, legal gay marriage might provide the cultural and legal encouragement for monogamy that the gay community has been missing. This is another reason that looking at stats of gay couples before they could marry is an unfair comparison to straight couples who can: As Andrew Sullivan has long argued, if gay male couples are—or historically have been—somewhat more promiscuous, the missing societal support for monogamy could be an important reason why. As could the fact that they are men.
“In some far off ideal world,” Rosin allows with a raised eyebrow, the openness of gay culture may “infect the straight world” and help cure heterosexuals of “boring monogamous sex.” Maybe. Champions of gay liberation have principled reasons why they endorse sexual generosity. Not all gay people agree. But what many recognize, along with a growing number of appreciative straight people, is that the challenges that gay life has leveled at our culture’s stodgy and outdated norms can be healthy and positive for everyone. We don’t just have to conform to what exists in order to gain equal dignity, and in clamoring for a place at the table, the changes we prompt can be good ones.
Rosin suggests the gay movement is showcasing straight-acting gay couples to win marriage equality while “no one wants to talk about” the reality that “they don’t necessarily represent the norm.” Her own claims about what the norm is are off. But more to the point, one of the lasting contributions of the LGBT movement, I hope, is to question the role of norms, to reject those that don’t make sense, uphold ones that work, and help create new and even better ones for us all.