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In this commentary, I put forward some recommendations for a triangulating approach to the documentation of stigma marking consensually nonmonogamous (CNM) relationships. I also suggest what information policymakers need next: answers to the interrelated questions of where it comes from and what to do about it. Given the context-specific manifestations of social stigma, policy recommendations should be driven by both an account of the origins of this stigma and a consideration of the current atmosphere of intense social change relating to sexuality in the United States.
As motivation for their target article, Conley et al. (2012) argue that consensually nonmonogamous (CNM) relationships have been understudied. I agree: the time is ripe for work on perceptions of CNM relationships. The publication of this paper is an opportunity to step back and ask: what is the best way to document stigma? And what should we do with the information we uncover?
Goffman's (1963) original formulation of social stigma was a characteristic that “disqualifies an individual from full social acceptance.” More recently the field has come to understand stigma as a response (devaluation) rather than a characteristic intrinsic to an individual (or group). Since devaluing responses may make us vulnerable to social criticism, stigma should ideally be assessed via behavior (for an excellent example, see Hebl, Foster, Mannix, & Dovidio, 2002) to avoid the problems inherent in self-reports. Importantly, social stigma is context specific (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998): from the perspective of nearly half a century's remove, anyone reading Goffman's original text on stigma immediately sees, alongside the brilliance of his ideas, the datedness of his examples. Similarly, a type of relationship may be devalued in many settings, but not necessarily all, and not necessarily permanently. Because context is so central to the phenomenology of social stigma, we must be careful not to overessentialize evidence of stigma (and risk implying that it is inflexible and unchanging); ideally, stigma would be assessed in a variety of settings. I believe a more rigorous and multifaceted assessment is needed before we can conclude that stigma and halo effects characterize the assessment of different relationship types. Let me briefly highlight three problems with the data reported by Conley et al. (2012).
First, there is a serious problem with the traits used to assess stigma in these studies. The first study generates, and Studies 2 and 3 use as stimuli, a set of traits listed in response to the question “what are the benefits of monogamy?” In a kind of empirical tautology, this question stacks the deck against CNM relationships from the beginning. As the authors themselves acknowledge (Conley et al., 2012, p.26), this starting point is not the most neutral way to “gain a sense of the dimensions” with which relationships are evaluated. No wonder apparent evidence of “stigma” is the result! Although the authors protest that it would have been difficult to ask about the benefits of consensual nonmonogamy, they could certainly have leveled the playing field at least partially by asking about the drawbacks of monogamy.
Second, participants in these studies do seem to recognize benefits of CNM relationships (where they are able to do so, given the way the questions are framed). Evidence of this includes reversals involving several items in Studies 2 and 4; unfortunately, the way the MANOVAs are described obscures these reversals. And even though the balance of results seems to weigh more heavily on the side of stigma, I contend that it is premature to assume that participants consider monogamous relationships “superior” (wording used frequently in this paper). For example, though monogamous relationships are rated as substantially less sexually risky and substantially more socially acceptable than CNM relationships, it seems like a leap to assume that all participants are trying to express their belief that these are good and desirable qualities in a relationship. To best interpret this pattern and inform policy, we would need a richer understanding of the meaning of the assessments that participants are making, and their specific objections to these types of relationships.
Finally, the studies lack the necessary comparison and control conditions. With no stimuli described without reference to agreements about (non)monogamy, we cannot tell where the “action” is in the comparison: is the stigma the driving force, the halo, or both about equally? Even more important are supplemental comparison conditions, which would allow us to draw conclusions about the “active ingredient” in these divergent assessments of different types of relationships. Is it a belief that sexual exclusivity is morally superior? A more general contempt for those who are nonconventional? As the authors note, the public at large often equate nonmonogamy with infidelity. (Indeed, their own reference to Newt Gingrich's request for an open relationship illustrates the difficulty of keeping these concepts separate: Gingrich's request came after he cheated on his then-wife, rather than being an agreement that predated extramarital sex (Levy, 2012), so is perhaps best understood as an example of infidelity.) Given this conflation, orthogonal manipulations of relationship agreements versus behavior seem called for, as a way to assess whether participants are meaningfully distinguishing between infidelity and consensual nonmonogamy.
Despite these critiques, though, it does seem likely that in the current sociopolitical climate of the United States, some stigma attaches to nonmonogamy (consensual or not) relative to monogamy. To best demonstrate this, we should take a multimethod, multisample triangulating approach. I agree with the authors’ call for “representative samples” (Conley et al., 2012, p.31); mechanisms like Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS; Freese & Druckman, 2013) would be useful here, but ideally supplemented by assessments of behavior. It would be helpful to contrast the types of open (consensually nonexclusive) relationships focused on in this article with other subsets of polyamorous relationships, like multipartner relationships. If stigma is prevalent, we also need some information about its import/implications for public policy—a question that directly relates back to the origins and meaning of the stigma itself. In other words, where devaluation is robustly evident, are interventions warranted—and if so, what kind? Or will the changing mores and norms of the U.S. context soon make the current devaluation obsolete? If devaluation springs from merely lack of familiarity, our response should look quite different than if it springs from a felt threat of some kind.
The authors have done us a service by opening up the conversation about an important, understudied subset of relationship types. Inevitably given the newly broken ground, their paper raises a lot more questions than it is able to answer. This is pressing and timely work, and much remains to be done.