It is difficult to directly compare a stereotypical straight couple’s sex life with the sex-life of a same-sex couple, a queer-couple or a gender diverse couple. Some things just don’t translate culturally, physically, socially, psychologically or emotionally.
The practice of non-monogamy is arguably more prevalent in our communities than it is in the wider community (desires and practice being two different things). There are no collected figures for the numbers of heterosexual people in Australia practicing non-monogamy in any of its various forms (see definitions below), however there is data collected in NSW looking at this in relationships between men and relationships between women in our communities.
Typical breakdown of partnership types
Chart 1: Gay men’s sexual relationships.
Based on a sample of 4215 gay identifying men
(GCPS data, Hull et al., 2015).
Chart 2: LBQ Women’s sexual relationships
Based on a sample of 1,100 (3.2% identified as trans and 0.8% identified as intersex)
(SWASH, Mooney-Somers et al., 2014).
What are the implications of abuse in non-monogamous relationships?
Mainstream messaging around domestic violence mostly features either husband and wife or male and female ex-partners. There isn’t a mainstream discussion of domestic violence which talks about abuse in polyamorous relationships. Of course polyamory does exist in heterosexual relationships, but it seems to be far more openly discussed in LGBTIQ communities.
Abuse can occur in all of the various forms of relationships, people can be abused by their primary partner but not their secondary partners or lovers or vice versa. It is even possible that people can be abused by more than one partner at once or even that those partners are abusing together as a team and in collusion with each other.
Apart from the added risks involved when having more than one partner abusing you, another concern is that relationships that sit outside of the monogamous norm may not be taken as seriously by formal and informal supports. Someone may say or think: ‘well, it’s not a real relationship if you sleep with other people’ or ‘if they are not your primary partner than you can just leave them or stand up to the abuse and fight back’. It is not easy to leave an abusive relationship and it is not easy to leave whether or not the abuser is a primary partner, a casual partner, an ex-partner and so on. Abuse is abuse. Regardless of how different that relationship looks, the person experiencing the abuse needs support and the person using abuse needs an intervention.
On the plus side though, if you have more than one intimate partner, and one partner is abusing you, then you may feel close enough and secure enough with the safe partner to confide in them and get the help you need. The more support a victim of abuse gets, the more chance they have of breaking free from the cycle of abuse.
Casual relationships – Relationships where the people involved see each other regularly or semi-regularly but there are few expectations on the people involved.
Fuck Buddy – A friend or acquaintance that a person sees regularly or semi-regularly for sex without the expectation of anything more.
Monogamy – A relationship involving two people, with no other negotiated lovers or partners at the same time.
Non-monogamy – The opposite to monogamy, having agreed upon multiple sexual or romantic bonds which can take many different forms.
Open relationship – A relationship between two people who agree to not be entirely monogamous – the boundaries vary greatly.
Polyamory – More than one ongoing romantic partner.
Polygamy – Marriage with multiple partners.
Primary Partner – An individual’s main partner, implying they have other partners however their main commitment is to their primary partner.
Swinging – Similar to open relationships, but commonly an organised activity (e.g. a ‘swingers party’ and usually implying bisexuality)
Adultery/cheating – Different to all of the above, as this is sex or romance out of a relationships between two people which has not been agreed upon.
Panti Bliss explained it perfectly in her TED X Talk titled ‘All the Little Things’:
“I am 45 years old, and I have never once unselfconsciously held hands with a lover in public…Because gay people do not get to hold hands in public without first considering the risk… We look around to see where are we? Who’s around? Is it late at night? What kind of area is it? Are there bored teenagers hanging around looking for amusement? Are there bunches of lads standing outside a pub? And if we decided ‘okay, maybe it is okay’, well then we do hold hands, but the thing is that now, those hands are not casual and thoughtless; they are now considered and weighed.
And even if you are somewhere where you think ‘it’s perfectly fine here, nobody here is going to react badly to our tiny gesture… Even then, people will notice. Now, they may only notice because they’re thinking ‘oh, isn’t it nice to see two gays holding hands in public?’, but they still notice; and I don’t want them to notice. Because then our small, private, intimate, human gesture has been turned into a statement and I don’t want it to be turned into a statement. Our little private gesture, like Schrodinger’s cat, is altered simply by being observed”. Watch the full clip HERE.
Discrimination against same-sex couples as well as people whose gender or lifestyle is regularly questioned or read as ‘different’ can have a great effect on individuals and couples. Even simply being observed has an effect on us and our relationships.
Many LGBTIQ people do face violence, verbal attacks and harassment, we get rejected from family, churches, communities and other peer groups, we sometimes miss out on employment or promotions and we get lectures about who we ‘should’ be and what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do, our relationships and our rights are open to public debate and public scrutiny, we face people protesting and picketing against our very identities, we watch attacks on our communities in Australia and overseas and know that it is also an attack on us.
But although many of us here in Australia generally feel ‘safe’ to be ‘out’ about who we are, we all still face lots of ‘little’ things every day, that other people don’t have to put up with. Add these ‘little’ things together and they become not so ‘little’ after all. These ‘little’ and ‘big’ things may be a side-ways glare from a passer-by, looking around us before we touch our lover in public, hearing people say things like ‘that’s so gay’, missing our friend’s wedding because they had to fly overseas to get married because they can’t do it at home, being told we are in the wrong bathroom, getting ushered out of the women’s or men’s section at a clothes shop or repeatedly being asked why we do or don’t wear make-up or why we do or don’t have long hair. We carry the weight of uncomfortable silence or conversation when someone meets us and assumes we have a husband or wife and we have to weigh up in our heads whether or not this is a safe time to correct that person about our’s or our partner’s pronoun. We have to put up with all of this on a daily basis in order to be safe, or not to be the object of confusion, ridicule, scorn and stares.
All of these ‘big’ and ‘little’ things we constantly face can have a serious effect on our self and on our relationships. These additional stressors are sometimes called ‘minority stress’. Firstly it can affect all of our general wellbeing, our self-esteem, our self-worth, our freedom to do the things we enjoy, earn money and participate fully in society. It affects our mental health; it can cause anxiety, stress, depression and the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs. All of this affects our relationships and puts pressure on our relationships. It may create feelings of shame, shame to be in a relationship that isn’t the norm. It can create feelings of isolation – like all we have is our partner. It means it is harder for us to talk about our relationships and ask for help and advice.
There is also a thing called ‘internalized homophobia/transphobia’ which is a person taking on negative social attitudes and directing that negativity onto themselves. This can lead to someone rejecting their own identity, regardless of their inner most feelings, in order to ‘be’ cisgender or heterosexual. It can affect people who are both ‘in the closet’ or ‘out of the closet’.
But despite all of this negativity, there is a plus side to facing all of this. For one, we don’t take it for granted on all of those occasions when we do feel accepted for who we are, or that feeling of acceptance is a cause for celebration. We tend to form tighter friendship circles and tighter communities with people who we feel accept our gender and/or sexuality. We even have a name for these people that mean the world to us: our ‘chosen family’. Those special, un-interrupted moments we do get with our partner is even more special when we can love each other in public and feel safe. For LGBTIQ people, forging safe spaces, creating bonds of trust, empathy, vulnerability, resilience and courage become a part of our everyday actions and we love our friends more for their ongoing strength. Because of all of these reasons some of our relationships are actually better despite of and because of all of those ongoing ‘little’ and ‘big’ negative things.
Most research shows that gay and lesbian relationships have the same level of satisfaction and happiness as heterosexual relationships. This of course isn’t saying that gay and lesbian relationships are problem free, only that they have conflict at rates similar to heterosexual couples. Research into the levels of relationship satisfaction in couples where at least one of the people involved is either transgender or intersex is too scarce to comment on, however there is no rational reason to suggest that these relationships would be any better, or any worse, than any other relationship.
Research literature shows that gay men and lesbian couples report a rejection of the traditional division of labour often found in heterosexual couples, neither partner is the exclusive breadwinner and both have some form of economic independence, division of labour is more flexible and is either shared, or comes down to personal preference for household responsibilities. Although the majority of today’s heterosexual couples are also dual-income relationships, it is more common for the female partner to do the bulk of household responsibilities, despite how ‘modern’ that couple may claim to be.
Contrary to popular belief and stereotypes, the traditional gender roles of the man and the woman are relatively non-existent in same-sex couples. This means that there is no ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a same-sex couple, even if one of the pair presents as more masculine or more feminine than the other. Interestingly, research also shows that a lack of conformity to traditional gender roles within a relationship increases relationship satisfaction for everyone involved.
Despite the fact that the majority of LGBTIQ people reject traditional gender roles, when it comes to abuse in relationships, other people’s perceptions of gender roles can still impact that couple. For example, many people still consciously or subconsciously assume that the more masculine person in the relationship is more likely to be the abuser and the more feminine one the victim, when we know this simply isn’t true. Many people also believe that size equates to the amount of harm you can do to someone, but we also know that even smaller people can cause a lot of harm.