According to recent poll by YouGov1, only one in four U.S. adults believe that polyamory2 is “morally acceptable.” The majority (56%) believe that polyamorous relationships are “morally wrong,” and 18% aren’t sure.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., people are just slightly less intolerant. There, YouGov found3 that just over one third (35%) of British adults find polyamory morally acceptable; while a slight minority (47%) consider it morally wrong, and 19% aren’t sure
A high level of public disapproval in both countries helps explain why nearly one third of respondents to my Off the Escalator survey4 on unconventional relationships said that dealing with social stigma is one of the biggest problems of unconventional intimate relationships.
…A very close second on their list of troubles was being closeted: concealing the nature or existence of some/all of your intimate relationships. Closeting is usually an attempt to guard against the consequences of social stigma, which can range from prejudice and loss of social status to serious harm ( loss of employment, housing, child custody, etc.).
Religion appears to strongly correlate with disapproval of polyamory in the U.S. According to YouGov, “Attitudes towards polyamory depend significantly on how religious someone is. 80% of [Americans] who say that religion is ‘very important’ in their lives say that polyamory is wrong. But among people for whom religion is ‘not at all important,’ 58% say that polyamory is morally acceptable.”5
That’s interesting: When you take religion out of the picture, a majority of YouGov survey respondents have no problem with polyamory — at least in the U.S., where religiosity currently tends to be more socially polarizing than in Western Europe.
YouGov’s religion finding echoes a theme that I noticed in responses to my own survey. When asked what might make the world a friendlier place for unconventional relationships, several people specifically cited religion as an obstacle.
For instance, respondent Tigerfish wrote in my survey, “We need actual separation of church and state, even with marriage. People should examine the impact of Judeo-Christian values on Western culture and discrimination.”
And Patti wrote, “I would like to live in a world where I don’t feel threatened with anger from society if I am publicly affectionate with my girlfriend, or if my husband and I are both publicly affectionate with her. Unfortunately, I don’t see that ending due to religious interference and their so-called morals.”
YouGov also asked about monogamy. Specifically, whether monogamy (“having only one sexual partner at a time”) is “natural” for human beings. These responses were deeply divided. In the U.S., a minority (42%) said that humans are monogamous by nature — compared to 35% who said that humans are not naturally monogamous, and 23% weren’t sure. (The U.K. numbers were similar.)
I was intrigued that YouGov then asked Americans whether “most men/women can successfully manage monogamous relationships, if they work at it hard enough.”6 This seems to beg the question: Why would something that comes “naturally” to people require hard work to maintain?
A significant majority of YouGov respondents in both countries came down strongly in favor of believing that maintaining sexual monogamy is possible with hard work. In the U.K, 72% of respondents believe that people can maintain monogamy with hard work — but they weren’t asked about gender.
In the U.S., 73% of respondents believe that women can remain monogamous with hard work, but only 64% believe that men can do it, too. This implies that Americans may think that monogamy is harder for men than women — perhaps reflecting gender stereotypes that have more to do with social sexism than human nature.
Significant intimate relationships often aren’t easy, regardless of structure. But one thing that can make any relationship harder is when the structure of a relationship conflicts with the needs or feelings of the people in that relationship. Monogamy is just one aspect of traditional relationships that can create such friction; personal needs for autonomy, sex, and continuity are some other hallmarks of the Relationship Escalator that can also generate stress.
Whether monogamy is “natural for humans” is rather beside the point. People make decisions that conflict with their desires all the time — including about how to conduct their intimate relationships, and whether to abide by agreements such as monogamy. Cheating, while widely considered unethical, remains a very common choice, and a very conventional one. And ill-fitting monogamy that’s maintained through suppression or coercion can prove equally problematic.
A more nuanced public discourse on monogamy — and on relationship norms in general — would probably yield more awareness of flexible approaches that allow relationships to adapt to suit people. However, in a climate of strong social stigma, it can be hard to get that conversation started.
More detail: See breakdowns for YouGov’s U.S. polyamory survey responses by gender, age, U.S. political party, race, family income, and region.
More about my forthcoming book on unconventional relationships, based on the Off the Escalator survey.
1. The YouGov U.S. polyamory survey was conducted in late July 2015. YouGov is a commercial market research company which conducts surveys as a paid service for clients. Their polyamory survey was most likely conducted on behalf of a paying client; if so, the identity of the client was not disclosed.
U.S. results were based on 1000 responses by a self-selected panel adult consumers who opt to take YouGov surveys on a variety of topics, in exchange for points that can be redeemed for rewards such as gift cards. Therefore, YouGov consumer panels may not be a statistically random sample.
2. Polyamory means being willing to engage in more than one significant intimate relationship at a time (that is, more than casually involved in a sexual, romantic or emotional sense), with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
However, the YouGov survey offered a somewhat inaccurate definition of polyamory: “The practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all people involved.” Technically, this only indicates ethical nonmonogamy, one of the most common ways that people step off the traditional Relationship Escalator. Polyamory is an increasingly popular approach to ethical nonmonogamy, but there are others (such as swinging).
4. My Off the Escalator survey was intended to gather stories of unconventional relationship experiences. It received nearly 1500 responses (an entirely self-selected sample, not representative of the general public) over two years, starting in January 2013. In all, 818 people answered my question about problems experienced in unconventional relationships. The percentages cited in this post are based on those 818 responses to that question.
5. Religion was not directly addressed in YouGov’s polyamory survey questions in either country; but presumably is its one of many criteria used to segment who opt to participate in YouGov U.S. consumer panels. The U.K. survey analysis did not mention religion at all.
6. The U.K. YouGov survey made no gender distinction on the question of maintaining monogamy. There, people were asked, “Do you think all people can successfully manage monogamous relationships if they work at it hard enough?” (Yes = 72%, No = 16%, Don’t know = 12%)