I've always been a little uncomfortable with the way that social scientists talk about sexual activity and sexual risk. I understand that when you are trying to make change at the level of a population making generalizations and grouping people is a necessity. And I suppose it's a lot to ask people to be constantly qualifying what they are saying in order to make it more precise, but the alternative is talking in a way that may be statistically accurate, but fails to reflect the lives we live.
For example, when most people in sexual health talk about sexual risk and STDs they will talk about activities which put you at a higher risk for giving or getting a sexually transmitted disease. Sometimes these activities are specific, and accurate, like unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse, unprotected oral sex, or sharing needles. And sometimes they aren't, like having multiple partners or using sex toys.
While it's true that having multiple sexual partners exposes you to more potential risk simply by exposing you to more bodies, what isn't true is that the fact of having multiple partners in and of itself exposes any given individual to greater risk of contracting an STD when compared to someone who only has one partner. If the person who has multiple partners is practices safer sex more often and more conscientiously, if they take better overall care of their health, and if they have more direct and honest communication with partners and health care providers than someone who only has one sexual partner, then the person with more partners may actually be at less risk. Especially since we know that people who are monogamous aren't actually always monogamous. They just don't talk about it.
Which brings me to a recent, and very preliminary study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, "Unfaithful Individuals are Less Likely to Practice Safer Sex Than Openly Nonmonogamous Individuals." As the title suggests, the study, which was conducted entirely online and surveyed 308 people in monogamous relationships (where nonetheless one partner had sex with someone outside the relationship) and 493 people who identified themselves as being in openly non-monogamous relationships, compared those who went outside the relationship for sex dishonestly with those who do so honestly, to see how the two groups compared on things like condom and other contraception use, getting screened for STIs, and communicating with a partner about the sex that was happening outside of the primary relationship.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that those in open non-monogamous relationships scored higher across the board. They use condoms more, they get tested for STIs more, they clean and/or use condoms on the sex toys they use with partners, AND they are more open with their partners when they have in fact had sex outside the relationship.
All behaviors that lead to reduced risk of STI transmission, to say nothing of reduced risk of feeling lied to and ripped off.
The research has lots of limitations. The sample was self-selected, almost entirely white, and the only thing really measured here is what people reported they did. But it's an interesting start, and a useful piece of research to have to remind all of us that behaviors that some of us might find socially or morally objectionable (like non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging, etc...) are not in and of themselves always bad for us. And some of the ways we describe ourselves which are meant to make us sound like good people (i.e. monogamous) don't always mean that we're behaving in ways that are good for us or the people we have sex with.
Conley, T.D., Moors, A.C., Ziegler, A., Karathanasis, C. "Unfaithful Individuals are Less Likely to Practice Safer Sex Than Openly Nonmonogamous Individuals" Journal of Sexual Medicine 2012 Mar 29. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02712.x. [Epub ahead of print]
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