An Interview with Michaels & Johnson

A Q&A with Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson

1. You say we are in the midst of a new sexual revolution, can you talk about what that means?

A decade ago, it was almost inconceivable that marriage equality would be the law of the land. It also would have been hard to imagine that Time would feature a transgender television star on its cover and call the trans movement “America’s next civil rights frontier.”  A similar shift is taking place in cultural attitudes toward alternative relationship styles.

Since 2006, dozens of books on various forms of open relating have been published, and in the past two or three years, numerous articles on polyamory and other forms of open relating have appeared in mainstream media outlets.

As part of this wave of interest, we were interviewed as experts for a segment on Breakthru Radio/FoxDC in April 2014. The interviewer informed us that approximately 40 percent of her New York City “person on the street” subjects thought that open relationships were a valid and viable option, even if not for them personally. We doubt that she’d have had a similar rate of responses in 2005 or 2010.

2. What is a designer relationship?

There are countless variations. In a designer relationship, you are the designer, along with your partner or partners, and it’s up to you to create a relationship that works and to redesign it when and if appropriate.

3. How do you define monogamy?

There’s no simple answer, and that’s one of the problems that people face when they say they’re monogamous; it doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody.

In scientific terms, true monogamy is the formation of a sexually exclusive lifetime pair-bond.  This is very rare in nature, but it was the ideal throughout American society until the late 20th century, when it was largely replaced by serial monogamy.

We break monogamy into four components:

  1. Sexual
  2. Emotional
  3. Social
  4. Practical

Late-Modern Monogamy combines all four elements but only in the last 200–300 years did these become the exclusive province of marriage. Many cultures have provided structured outlets for extra-pair sexual activity. In most societies, marriages were primarily business arrangements; love was not a prerequisite, nor was the expectation that one’s spouse had to meet every emotional and social need. In practical terms, extended family and community provided considerably more support than is expected today.

4. Do people in alternative relationships suffer greater dissatisfaction?

Most of the available research actually points to higher levels of relationship satisfaction in consensually non-monogamous couples than in the general public. For example, in a study of swingers conducted in 2000, 78.5 percent described themselves as being “very happy” in their marriages, as opposed to 64 percent in the general population.

5. How does this differ from cheating?

This misconception is extremely difficult to combat. If you believe, as many people do, that there are only two options—exclusivity or deception—it’s hard to imagine that other possibilities exist. Being in a non-monogamous designer relationship requires mutuality and transparency. This is the antithesis of cheating, which is by its nature deceptive and covert. Cheating can happen in an open relationship too.

6. What about jealousy?

Jealousy can exist in monogamous relationships or non-monogamous ones. Some people open their relationships naturally and feel little or no jealousy. For others, jealousy can be an enormous issue. Whatever the relationship structure, jealousy is a real, legitimate, and understandable emotion. It’s a good idea to develop the skills to manage these feelings.

7. What kind of example does this set for children?

One recent study found that “monogamy and consensual non-monogamy provide similar outcomes for children in these types of families.”  The authors of the study also point out that the benefits and potential problems of non-monogamous relationships also exist for children in monogamous ones.

Parents’ emotional and relationship satisfaction has an impact on child development and well-being. As we’ve pointed out, there appears to be a correlation between consensual non-monogamy and higher levels of relationship satisfaction, so its not unreasonable to infer that many children from non-monogamous homes would feel more secure than their counterparts from monogamous ones. At worst, there is no evidence that non-monogamous family structures are in any way inferior to the monogamous nuclear family.

8. Aren’t you just advocating polygamy; won’t this oppress women?

It’s true that polygyny – one man having multiple wives – as practiced in patriarchal and usually religiously conservative cultures generally oppresses women. And of course, “traditional” monogamy oppressed women too – marital rape wasn’t even a crime anywhere in the U.S. until the 1970s and wasn’t universally criminal until 1993.  What we’re talking about is something entirely different – it’s based on egalitarianism, mutuality, and enthusiastic consent.

Swingers will tell you that women typically feel empowered and liberated, even when it was a male partner who first proposed exploring the lifestyle. The available studies support this impression. It’s a truism in the swinging community that women are in charge.

A recent study of over 500 polyamorous people age 55 and found that the polyamorous group reported better health, greater general happiness, and was far more likely to have had an HIV test than the general public. Among all married and among female married respondents, the polyamorous trended toward being happier in their marriages than those in the general population, but the differences fell short of statistical significance. However, married polyamorous men were slightly less happy in their marriages than the general public. The overall effect was an equalizing of marital happiness for both genders.

9. What about sexually transmitted infections? Doesn’t consensual non-monogamy increase the risk?

It might seem that way on the surface, but the reality is complex.

There is an element of risk in everything we do. Driving is probably the most dangerous activity that most of us do on a regular basis. It’s far riskier than sex; the vast majority of us take measures to manage the risk—from wearing seatbelts to using turn signals.

Clandestine behavior is often very risky; there is generally no discussion about safer sex and no conscious, informed decision-making regarding what precautions to take. Some studies suggest that cheaters are considerably more likely to have unprotected sex. According to one of these, cheaters used condoms for oral and anal sex at a rate 27–35 percent lower than did those in open relationships and had a 64 percent higher rate of using drugs and alcohol during their encounters.