Don’t ask, don’t tell

passionate.jpgI’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of "open relationships." The emotional turmoil of caring for someone and watching them be interested in someone else is too much for most people. In some parts of the world, the social technology of "don’t ask, don’t tell" policies protect members of open relationships from knowledge that might make them jealous or insecure. Swingers have employed a similar technique in separating sexual relationships from emotional ones.

In STD literature, these relationships are called "concurrent partnerships." Pamina Gorbach, professor of behavioral epidemiology at UCLA has created a taxonomy of concurrent partnerships in order to calculate the risk of contracting STDs for various motivating reasons. In 260 interviews with STD clinic attendees, she identified six main forms of concurrency:

  • Experimental: Players. Working the scene, these peeps are looking for action not emotion.
  • Separational: Baby’s gone. Jail, college, the military.. and they’re not going to let on that they’re having sex with other people to pass the time.
  • Transitional: Testing the waters. Going in or coming out of a long term relationship, some people look outside to make their decision.
  • Reactive: Tit for tat. One person makes a point of the fact that they’re sleeping with other people. What is the other person to do but go out and get laid as quickly as possible?
  • Reciprocal: Your standard "open relationship." Mutual nonmonogamy. Consentual sleeping around. This pattern was only reported by white respondents.
  • Compensatory: Baby’s not putting out. People not sexually satisfied by their main partner may look outside to find what they’re looking for.

Of course these categories reflect standard relationships; group sex and prostitution are also forms of concurrent partnerships that can lead to STD transmission. In the cases where concurrency is secretive (separational, transitional, compensatory), most subjects didn’t use condoms with their main partner (otherwise they’d be caught out!) and thus greatly increased the chance for STD transmission to their unsuspecting lovers.

Source: Pamina Gorbach, Bradly Stoner, Sevgi Aral, William Whittington and King Holmes, 2002. It takes a Village: Understanding Concurrent Relationships in Seattle, Washington, Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 29(8) pages 453-62

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