A large survey conducted through gay dating sites and Facebook in Australia has found that previous surveys may have overestimated the proportion of gay men who are in emotionally committed relationships, and in monogamous ones. Furthermore it found that these categories were not at all the same thing: a large proportion of men describing themselves as ‘being in a relationship’ also had partners outside the relationship, and a lot of men with only one regular partner did not see themselves as being in a relationship.
The authors of the ‘Monopoly’ study comment that previous surveys have failed to capture the complexity of gay men’s relationships. In particular, they have tended to classify partnerships as either ‘primary’ or ‘casual’, but this misses out a large proportion of men who had regular and sometimes longstanding, but less emotionally-committed relationships. When asked what words they would use to describe their relationships, those in emotionally-committed relationships used terms like ‘partner’ and ‘boyfriend’, but for those in more purely physical relationships the overwhelmingly most popular choice was ‘fuckbuddy’.
The survey – relationship patterns
In total, 4215 participants took the survey: their average age was 37, 47% were graduates, 81% described themselves as gay and 16% bisexual (6% had a regular female partner), and 5% said they had HIV. Three-quarters had ever tested for HIV and half in the last year.
Seventy per cent described themselves as having a regular partner. But only a minority – 44% – said they had just one regular partner; the other 26% said they had two or more regular partners (though over half of these said ‘one of them is primary’).
Fifty-three per cent of all the men said they were ‘in a relationship’. But of these, only 63% – a third of all men – said they had just one regular partner; 37% of men ‘in a relationship’ had other regular partners. Nearly three-quarters of those in a relationship had an open relationship; only 27% of them – 14% of the entire sample – had a committed, strictly monogamous relationship.
Nearly half of the men who said they had a primary partner did not consider it to be a relationship: despite this, about half of them only had that one regular partner.
Of the whole sample, 12% had not had sex in the last year and 36% had had it with just one partner, but 38% had had eight or more partners.
To illustrate the complexity of the findings fully:
- 36% of the men said they had a ‘boyfriend’ – but just under half of them also had casual partners and/or ‘fuckbuddies’
- 42% had ‘fuckbuddies’ – but of these nearly a quarter also had a boyfriend
- 40% had casual sex – but of these, over a third had a boyfriend and another third had more regular 'fuckbuddies'
- 19% only had a boyfriend
- 19% only had 'fuckbuddies'
- 12% only had casual sex.
Men who said they were not in a relationship and men who had no regular partners were much more likely to agree that gay relationships ‘do not last’ but interestingly, men who had no regular partners actually had higher expectations of monogamy should they have a relationship; 47% of men with no regular partners said that if they were dating, “we should stop having sex with the men” compared with 38% with one regular partner.
Young men aged under 26 were more likely to have one regular partner rather than multiple partners, but were less likely to consider themselves ‘in a relationship’. Conversely, men aged over 36 were more likely to have multiple partners, but also more likely to consider they were in a relationship. The authors comment that this may be partly because young men are more likely to be influenced by heterosexual behaviour norms whereas older men take a more relaxed attitude to monogamy. HIV-positive men were more likely to have multiple partners than one partner, but were also more likely to be in a relationship: untested men were the most likely to say they only had one regular partner – but were also less likely to say they were in a committed relationship.
The majority of men had met partners online or through a phone app; 50% of men who said they were in a relationship had met their partner online or through an app and 72% of men who said they had regular partners but were not in a relationship. Only 14% of men in a relationship had met at a gay venue and 16% through friends or family. More younger than older men had met online or through an app, but even in older men, online was by far the most common way of meeting partners.
Not surprisingly, men who considered themselves in a relationship had had longer relationships, on average, than men who had regular partners but were not in a relationship: 24% of relationships were more than 10 years old and over 64% over three years old. However the length of the relationship had no bearing on whether men in that relationship had one or multiple partners.
Commitment, domesticity and conflict
Over eighty per cent of men in relationships described their partnership with words such as ‘committed’, ‘companions’ and ‘romantic’, whereas 62% of those with regular partners but not in a relationship descried it as ‘strictly physical’; nonetheless, a quarter of men not in relationships described their most regular partner as a ‘companion’ and the partnership as ‘romantic’.
Domestic arrangements were far more strongly related to whether men considered themselves to be in a relationship than monogamy. Two-thirds of men in a relationship lived together full-time and three-quarters at least part time. In contrast three-quarters of men with regular partners but not in a relationship did not live with their partner.
The strongest indicator of a ‘relationship’ was the existence of shared domestic arrangements such as joint bank accounts, future plans, joint pensions and mortgages, or having their partner named in their will. Almost no-one with a regular partner ‘not in a relationship’ had such arrangements. Nonetheless, only a minority of men in a relationship had such arrangements. When asked about marriage, 15% had had some kind of commitment ceremony but only 3% had a formal marriage and only a third indicated they would definitely be interested in marrying their partner; another third were unsure.
Men in relationships were much more likely to say they had occasional conflict with their partner, which is not surprising if being in a relationship implies more emotional commitment; but these were much more likely to be about domestic arrangements such as finances and chores than sexual issues like jealousy. Only one in five men who said they had some conflict named sexual issues, and ‘fuckbuddies’ were just as likely to argue about sexual matters as boyfriends. Over five per cent of respondents in a relationship said they had had a physical altercation in the last year.
HIV status and condom use
Eighty per cent of men in a relationship and 56% with a primary ‘fuckbuddy’ said they knew their partner’s HIV status. Seven per cent in a relationship had an HIV-positive partner (compared with 5% of all respondents). One in five men in a relationship and 44% with a ‘fuckbuddy’, however, did not know their partner’s HIV status.
Only 37% of men in a relationship had discussed rules for having sex outside their relationship, but 63% of men with more than one regular partner had. However only a minority of ‘fuckbuddies’ had discussed HIV transmission risk. Twenty-eight per cent of men in a relationship had an agreement that condoms would always be used outside the relationship, and a similar proportion were monogamous, but half had not discussed condom use outside the relationship.
Condomless sex was the rule rather than the exception with partners in a relationship: 63% never used them with their regular partner and even 46% who had other regular partners did not use them with their primary partner. Only 12% always used them. Forty per cent of ‘fuckbuddies’ always used condoms with their regular partners but 30% never used them. In the case of men in a relationship who had stopped using condoms, two-thirds said they had tested and had the same HIV status, 60% said they trusted their partner, 38% said they wanted to feel closer and 34% said they disliked condoms (men could choose more than one reason).
In the case of ‘fuckbuddies’ the most common reason for stopping using condoms was simply “we had sex without one and never used them again.” Dislike of condoms was cited by a third of them too, and a third had tested for HIV and knew they had the same status. For men in a relationship, 58.5% said they had ever had sex outside the relationship, which compares with 46% who knew their partner had.
Comments and conclusions
This survey shows that gay men’s relationships are considerably more complex than have hitherto been described, and the researchers comment that some of the findings show why men who acquire HIV are more likely to have been infected by a friend or 'fuckbuddy' rather than a boyfriend. A high proportion of gay men have regular sexual relationships with friends they do not regard as boyfriends, and these relationships are less likely to include secure knowledge of HIV status and of disclosure; 30% never feature condom use.
The researchers comment: “The current use of a simple binary that counterposes ‘regular’ against ‘casual’ partner…is problematic if it is simplistically represented as ‘regular=safe’ and ‘casual=risky’.”
“Most importantly,” they add, “The assumption that monogamy is the foundation to a successful relationship is far from universal among gay and bisexual man, and may in fact be a minority opinion…..[it] appears to be less significant than being able to entrust each other with a mutual, emotional commitment into the future.”
They add that “risk reduction strategies that are applicable to a range of partner types/scenarios or that act at the level of the individual (such as PrEP) may be most effective in this population.”
Prestage G et al. Monopoly: a study of gay men’s relationships, report 2014.The Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales. ISBN-10: 0-7334-3604-8. 2014. For full report, click here.