Study Says a Specific Subset of Couples Unable to Agree on Monogamy (Blogosphere Loses Its Mind In Response)
I've gotten used to seeing summaries of sex research on popular news sites and blogs that grossly misrepresent the results of the studies in question, but this one is probably the most appalling I've seen yet. Researchers from the University of Oregon and Purdue University looked at the prevalence of monogamy agreements in 434 young heterosexual couples (subjects were between the ages of 18 and 25). They found that in only 52% of couples did both partners agree that they had an explicit agreement to be monogamous, while in 40% of couples only one partner claimed there was an agreement to be monogamous, indicating a substantial communication problem. Worse, of those couples who did have an agreement in place, only 71% actually managed to stay monogamous. Those are some pretty dismal statistics on the state of faithfulness and sustained communication in heterosexual couples, even accounting for the typical immaturity of people in their teens and early twenties. Jezebel trumpeted the news earlier this week under the title "Everyone is cheating on everyone," and Nerve similarly declared that the study shows that cheating is depressingly prevalent, never mind that the article they both got their information on didn't quite say that. Dan Savage even presented it as proof that monogamy really isn't all that natural on his blog (debatable, but fishy reporting never helps one's case). Many commenters on these websites have rightfully pointed out that you can't extrapolate much from the behavior of people as young as those in the study, but it gets even murkier when you look at the actual research.
You see, this was not some survey of typical college students, as most of the studies I report on here are. The researchers were actually trying to study HIV prevention strategies among heterosexual couples, and so they specifically chose couples who they deemed to be "at risk," for HIV transmission. They looked at couples from the PARTNERS Project, which is a couples-based program aimed at increasing protective practices among heterosexuals at risk for HIV and STI infection. They started by recruiting women from this program in East Los Angeles and Oklahoma City and if they met the recruitment criteria they interviewed the women and their partners. In order for couples to be eligible for the study, the women had to be between 18 and 25 years old and had to meet one of three criteria: they had to have engaged in risky behavior such as intravenous drug use or sex with another male partner in the last year, suspected their partner of engaging in such risky behavior, or expected that either they or their partner would have sex with someone else in the next year (while they were still a couple). In other words, the researchers selected for people whose relationships were likely to be on shaky ground with respect to monogamy to begin with. (The participants in LA also had to identify as Hispanic or Latina, which is based on the high prevalence of HIV among Hispanic heterosexuals in that area. In all honesty I am not perfectly comfortable with that choice, although I do understand the reasoning.) The selection makes sense in the context of the paper. The researchers aren't concerned about behaviors of the general population, they're concerned with behaviors that lead people to be at risk for HIV, and not having a clear commitment to monogamy fits that description. The problem is that websites are picking up on and spreading the results while completely ignoring the context.
Now about those results. Couples were interviewed separately and asked whether they had a clear agreement about whether or not they were allowed to have other sexual partners. They were also asked if they had been tested for HIV and whether they had shared their test results with their partners. Only one member reported an agreement to be monogamous in 40.1% of the couples surveyed. There was also a discrepancy with respect to HIV tests - 37% of couples disagreed about whether the man had been tested for HIV and shared his results and 43% disagreed about whether the woman had done so. Of those who agreed to be monogamous a substantial portion did not honor that agreement. Ironically, couples with children were less likely to have explicit monogamy agreements, although they were more likely to have been tested for HIV. Cohabitating and married couples were no more likely to have an explicit monogamy agreement than non-cohabitating couples (although one could argue that in our culture such arrangements involve an implicit agreement). The only factor that strongly correlated with monogamy agreements was relationship strength - the more committed to each other couples considered themselves, the more likely they were to agree to and sustain monogamy.
So what can we learn about monogamy agreements from this study? The paper indicates that communication is important if you want to use monogamy as a way to mitigate the risks of contracting STIs (or, really, just if you want to be in a monogamous relationship period). The researchers conclude, however, that monogamy agreements are more often used by couples as a way to establish intimacy than as disease-prevention. These are common-sense sort of things - everybody knows that a healthy relationship involves both trust and open communication. The most important conclusion of the study is that in order to prevent the spread of HIV in the heterosexual community, it's necessary to target couples as well as single people. It also, unfortunately, highlights the fact that reporters and bloggers should actually read the studies they report on. Sex news is always good for page views and it takes way less effort to chew up and spit out someone else's summary than it does to dig up the original work, but it's irresponsible to spread information without checking the source. Of all the articles about this research that I've seen, not one has presented the data fully and honestly. Instead they've all parroted the sensational notion that most young people are cheaters. The researchers themselves note that the participants of this study are not a representative population, not even a representative population of young people. And yet every news organization and blog that's picked it up has treated the study as if it must apply universally. Some of this may be misrepresentation on the part of the researchers, who are quoted in a couple of the articles, but anyone who actually read the paper would know that this research was limited to a very specific, at-risk population. It doesn't say jack shit about how the majority of couples behave.