No, the SF study did NOT illustrate that half of gay marriages are “open”
February 10th, 2010
One of the primary purposes of Box Turtle Bulletin is analysis and fact-checking of anti-gay rhetoric. And perhaps the largest component of that is to review “studies” that relay astonishing “facts” about gay people and to determine whether they have any basis in fact.
Sometimes these are efforts conducted by anti-gay activists seeking to support their presumptions, but more often it is misrepresentation of legitimate work. One such misrepresentation has been making the rounds purporting to show that gay couples reject monogamy.
For several years, Sean Beougher and Colleen Hoff of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University have been looking sexual agreements among gay men. This interest was generated by incidences of HIV transmission within relationships and a desire to understand how sexual agreements relate to this phenomenon.
But analysis of investment of couples into agreements and how that correlates with adherence (which impacts transmission within relationships) doesn’t make sexy headlines. So when the New York Times’ Scott James reported on this study, he decided to talk about something else entirely:
Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret
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.
The sensational (but as I’ll illustrate, flatly untrue) statement that monogamy is not a central feature for many gay relationships is exciting and sure to elicit conversation. But it just wasn’t defamatory enough for those who wish to portray gay people as sex-crazed and incapable of commitment.
Conservative NewsMax reported:
Study: Gay Marriage Involves More Outside Relationships
A federally-funded study by San Francisco State University that followed 556 local male couples for three years found that half “have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners,” according to The New York Times.
On its website, the Center describes the importance in conducting the study as revolving around the fact that “gay and bisexual men in relationships engage in substantially higher rates of unprotected” homosexual activity than do “single men with their casual partners.”
A commentary on GetReligion.org took the opportunity to say
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.
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.
The bottom line, though, is that this study breaks news. Really interesting and important news.
And even gay sites got on board with this notion with Edge Magazine running the headline, Surprise! Lots of Gay Marriages Are ’Open’, and Dan Savage declaring Half of All Gay Couples Non-Monogamous (though Edge did note some caveats).
But those who delight in denouncing the hedonistic sex-driven homosexuals and their non-monogamous marriages share a problem with those gays who may champion the abandonment of the heteronormative demands of conformity and spearhead the evolution of marriage: this study tells us nothing whatsoever about gay marriage and little about monogamy within gay relationships as a whole.
In order for a study to report on the characteristics of a population, it must be representative of that population. If a study selects a convenience sample rather than a statistically valid sample, the non-representative demographics of the sample cannot be presented as a “finding”.
For example, if I went to Dodger Stadium, i might find a sample which was useful to tell me whether Dodger fans think Dodger Dogs taste better than garlic fries, but I could not claim that my sample proves that 80% of all baseball fans support the Dodgers. That is simply a non-representative demographic of my sample, not a finding of my study.
So to see if this study supported the claim that half of gay marriages are open (non-monogamous), I contacted the study authors and obtained previously published information that reveals the sample methodology. I do not have all of the data on which the final study is to be reported, but the sampling methodology was consistent.
Let’s look at how the sample for this study was constructed and how that differs from the population as a whole.
Definition of relationship:
To be eligible participants had to have been at least 18 years old, have been in a their current relationship for at least 3 months, have knowledge of their own and their partner’s HIV status, be fluent in English, and be residents of the San Francisco Bay Area.
All were men. Contrary to James’ breathless reporting (and the example with which he started his article) the researchers said nothing about lesbian relationships. They were excluded.
The study was conducted in several phases and the details of each is not available, but the sampling methods were consistent. The breakout for Study 2 found that only 13% of participants identified as being married (perhaps the 2004 San Francisco variety) and only a third had made any sort of public commitment.
It is ludicrous to suggest that a study which includes three month long relationships without any public commitment is informative about marriage. The average length of the relationships was 7 years (more or less) but the median length was about three years earlier (half of the relationships were less than 4 years in length), suggesting that there were a few very long relationships and many much shorter ones.
The way this study has been reported, it has been suggested that gay relationships are more likely to be open than straight relationships, but no comparison was made and I’m not aware of any study that looked at the level of fidelity in three-month-old heterosexual relationship and pretended that they were representative of straights as a whole.
As the research was not applied separately by relationship structure or length, this study says nothing about gay marriage or even domestic partnerships. And any use of the results which makes (or even implies) a comparison to straight relationships is bogus and irresponsible.
Location and social perspective of the population sampled:
It must be emphasized that gay men living in the San Francisco Bay Area are not representative of gay men as a whole. In fact, it would be difficult to identify a group of gay men less representative of the US gay population.
Significant factors in the consideration of monogamy surely must include attitudes about sexuality and whether one’s general approach is more conservative or liberal overall. Additionally, the perspectives of the community in which one lives most certainly effect the values that one adopts.
While I cannot point to a study and state with certainty that those who view themselves as “conservative” are more likely or less likely to value monogamy, I can state that selecting only participants from the SF area sharply skews the sample towards those who identify as “liberal” and significantly under-represents a sizable segment of the gay community.
The means of reaching participants:
Active and passive recruitment strategies were implemented in community settings. Field research staff reached potential participants either by handing out study postcards or placing flyers and postcards in gay-identified social venues such as bars, clubs, and cafes, as well as in community health and HIV and AIDS service organizations and by placing advertisements in gay-oriented publications, Web sites, and listserves.
Recruitment materials contained text describing the study as “one which examines important relationship dynamics associated with HIV.” Recruitment strategies were designed to produce a diverse sample in terms of race or ethnicity as well as serostatus.
Recruitment in bars and clubs and on listserves skews the sample towards those who are actively seeking sexual connections. While some gay people go to bars solely for social interaction, monogamous couples that do not regularly go to bars or look at Craigslist were far less likely to hear of this study.
Additionally, this study was more likely to attract those who were interested in how relationship dynamics impact HIV transmission. I think it is a reasonable assumption that, on average, couples committed to monogamy might not have the same interest level as those who have open relationships.
The demographics of the sample:
For two of the studies, 41% of the participants were HIV positive (Study 3 had 32%). While this may be advantageous to a study which seeks to look at sexual agreements, it is not representative of the population of San Francisco, and has almost no reflection of the gay male population at large. Only about 12% of gay men in the United States are infected with HIV.
While this is undoubtedly useful for looking at variances of agreement structure among sero-concordant and discordant couples, claiming a blended rate of monogamy as though it were reflective of the community would be bad science.
This study found that couples which were both HIV negative were far more likely to establish monogamy than those in which one or both parties were positive. So by significantly over-representing HIV positive participants, the percentage who embrace monogamy were skewed downward.
About half of the sample had a bachelors degree (more than 20% had a post-graduate degree). Yet only about 43% were employed full time, with another 10-12% employed part time and 9-12% self employed. I don’t know whether there is a correlation between employment and valuing monogamy, but I think that we can all agree that 35% unemployment is not reflective of gay men as a whole, especially in the mid 2000’s when the participants were questioned.
About half of the men made less than $30,000 per year, with only a quarter making over $60,000. The average salary for San Francisco Bay Area jobs is about $65,000 and it is absurd to assume that gay men make, on average, less than half of their heterosexual counterparts.
I do not have adequate research at hand to correlate gay male monogamy (or fidelity) with employment or economic position. However, I believe that social position can influence relationship structure so it is a reasonable assumption that a study which is skewed towards a lower economic status may not accurately reflect the extent to which gay male couples as a whole value monogamy.
The Gay Couples Study does reveal valuable information about the formation of sexual agreements among gay couples. For example, it reveals that gay men are almost universally talk about monogamy and fidelity and define the rules of their relationship. This seems true regardless of the structure, length, or investment into the relationship. And research into breached agreements and how it impacts HIV transmission is essential to targeting prevention efforts.
But in my opinion, Scott James’ statement that “New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area” may be among the most irresponsible reporting I’ve ever seen. The study says nothing whatsoever about lesbians and it tells us little about “just how common open relationships are” among anyone. It’s pure sensationalism and shoddy journalism.
But the real culprits are those who saw this study and decided that it says something about, for example, gay couples marrying in Iowa or New Hampshire. This was either lazy response or a deliberate attempt to fraudulently demonize gay couples for political gain.
In short, those reporting on this study got it wrong. If there is any story here, it would be that a study of San Francisco bay area gay male couples, a sample which was highly skewed to include many participants who are less likely to value monogamy and which defined “couples” to include those who have been dating as little as three months, still found that half of them set monogamy as the agreement for their relationship.