An unexpected pattern brings clarity

These stats have informed my stance on same-sex marriage


When persons in the church speak of affirming and blessing non-celibate gays, given our faith-based context, we naturally assume that "we are referring to same-sex, committed, monogamous relationships" (Carolyn Schrock-Shenk).

Should we make that assumption? The Couples Study (www.thecouplesstudy.com), a website about male couples by two researchers who are themselves a male couple, asserts that most research shows that two-thirds of long-term male couples agree to outside sexual liaisons.

This article shows why I lean toward accepting such an unexpected pattern. I see much apparent confirmation.

One comment before beginning: searching my heart before God I believe that this document is not motivated by animosity in any way. I present these thoughts out of a sense that they move us (a bit) toward clarity in our consideration of same-sex partnerships, as this document will (hopefully) illustrate.

Studies and stats
Two studies with large samples indicate that about 50% of long-term male couples choose an "open" (rather than sexually exclusive or monogamous) marriage.

The first is a national study on same-sex couples that appeared in the journal Family Process (September 2011). In July 2000 Vermont became the first U.S. state to offer a civil union to same-sex couples. Researchers contacted all the same-sex couples who got a civil union during the first year Vermont was doing this; 41% agreed to participate in a study. They were asked for the name of a friend who was in a long-term lesbian or gay relationship and the name of a sibling in a heterosexual marriage. That was the pool that the study drew from. (This was a national study — couples from all over the U.S. came to Vermont — only one-fifth were from Vermont.)

The study showed that the percentage of Gay men who say they as a couple are "open" was 49.5%. [This is the sum of two figures: "Prevalence (%) of Participants Who Have Discussed Sex Outside the Relationship and Decided That Under Some Circumstances it is All Right" and "Prevalence (%) of Participants Who Have Not Discussed Sex Outside the Relationship but Feel We Would Agree That Under Some Circumstances it is All Right".]

Note this stat for the heterosexual males in the study: the percentage who say they as a couple are "open" was 6%. And the percentage of heterosexual males who cheated on their wives was 10.1% ["Prevalence (%) of Participants That Have Had Sex With Someone Else Since They Have Been a Couple"]. This study's stat for unfaithfulness during heterosexual marriage is significantly lower than the national average (which is 20-25%, according to studies that use nationally representative samples). That fact indicates that the pool of persons in the study tended toward relational stability — something one would expect in the relational circles of those committed enough to make the trek to Vermont to make a commitment "official" in some way (and to agree to the survey). Perhaps the survey's stat for Gay men who say they as a couple are "open" was similarly affected, ie. significantly lower than the national average.

A second study, reported in The New York Times (Jan. 28, 2010), followed 556 male couples in the San Francisco bay area for three years. The Times article, "Many Successful Gay Marriages Share an Open Secret," stated that "about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners." Again, this figure is lower than the two-thirds stat. How much is that due to almost 40 percent of the couples reporting being in a relationship for only two years or less? (In a 2014 Daily Beast article, after citing this survey's stat that half of male couples are non-monogamous, a gay activist observed that "[t]his fact is well-known in the gay community—indeed, we assume it's more like three-quarters.")

What gays say
Two other studies yield quotes that are even more disturbing than their stats.

Barry Adam, a Canadian prof at the University of Windsor who is himself gay, conducted a limited study of gay men in relationships lasting longer than one year. The Washington Blade (August 22, 2003) reported the results (75% disclosed being non-monogamous) and gave quotes from the prof: "Those who were monogamous were more likely to be younger, more likely to be in newer, shorter relationships..." Most troubling was this quote: "I think younger men tend to start with the vision of monogamy ... because they are coming with a heterosexual script in their head.... What they don't see is that the gay community has their own order and own ways that seem to work better."

Two researchers, McWhirter and Mattison, studied gays in long-term relationships in the early 1980's (before the AIDS scare). They were a psychiatrist and a psychologist, themselves a gay couple. In their book, The Male Couple, they say that sexual exclusivity is a general expectation for male couples early in the relationship but that, with time, virtually all make "an arrangement whereby the partners may have sexual activity with others" (p.253). The authors conclude: "As a result of this study, we believe that the single most important factor that keeps couples together past the ten-year mark is the lack of possessiveness they feel. ...[O]wnership of each other sexually can become the greatest internal threat to their staying together." (p.256)

A typical response by straight supporters of same-sex marriage is that while such non-monogamous relationships may be common, their committed gay friends would never agree to such an arrangement. But a couple would understandably find it difficult to talk about choosing a sexually open relationship. A gay in San Francisco said that he and his partner felt like they went "in the closet" again when they became open because they're not letting their friends and family know. "Family and friends expect that we're monogamous, and we don't tell them we're not" (cited here, here, and in San Francisco Bay Times, March 4, 2010).

An article in The Advocate (July 7, 2011) entitled "Monogamish" says that such couples

fear disclosing that their relationship is anything but one-on-one. Gary (not his real name) is out in every area of his life, and his family is completely supportive. 'But I don't tell my family, even my brother—who I'm incredibly close with—that I have sex outside of the relationship with Ben,' his partner of 14 years, he says. 'I have never said that to him.' Gary and Ben, who live in Los Angeles, won't reveal their real names because Ben has a high-profile career in television. 'We have too much to lose,' Gary says. 'But we also don't want people passing judgment on us.' Which is why they don't even tell most of their friends.


What gays in the church say
A typical response among people of faith is that surely the Christian gay community is different. At least that was my response, hoping that stats for male couples in the church are different than those outside the church — though I realized I could not assume that, for we evangelicals tend to mirror society around us in our sexual practices.

Over the years I have talked with many gay men who want to be fully included in my Anabaptist denomination and are frustrated that the church views their committed relationship as "sin." I have gingerly raised my uncertainty over whether a "committed relationship" means monogamy, hoping they will seize the opportunity to reassure me. It took many tries before I found one who welcomed the chance to affirm a commitment to sexual monogamy (not just emotional monogamy or social monogamy.) That may say more about me and my limited interactions than about Anabaptist gays.

A more telling observation is that the gay community in our church is strangely silent on whether sexual exclusivity is a moral obligation in same-sex partnerships. As I stated in a June 24, 2013 Mennonite World Review opinion piece,

I am unaware of any Anabaptist gay leaders who encourage their community toward the principle that genital sexual intimacy is intended to be expressed within a monogamous, life-long covenanted relationship and that a sexually open relationship is contrary to the integrity of that relationship. Rather, comments are made that keep space for non-monogamy.


One from that community responded:

[W]e see that the measure of success in a marriage or domestic partnership is not how sexually exclusive it is, but whether the partners/spouses care for one another, their children, and others with faithfulness, loyalty and commitment. Often this commitment leads to sexual exclusivity, but not always. I know couples (they happen to be gay men) who find greater relational security and stability when there is freedom for sexual interaction beyond the partnership.


For the church to be reassured that gay non-monogamy is less pervasive in the church than in the world, we would need to hear Anabaptist gay leaders or Anabaptist gay community advocacy groups (like Pink Mennos or BMC) speak against open marriage and for sexual monogamy. But I have never heard an Anabaptist gay leader or community lift up monogamy as their standard, as more than mere personal preference.

Instead I can cite examples of leaders saying the opposite. One instance occurred on a denominational e-mail discussion group (MennoLink) in October 1998. A hetero participant who is highly supportive of gay marriage assumed that this was a statement the whole church could agree on: "sexual intercourse is meant for two people in the context of a committed, covenanted, monogamous relationship." A gay leader who is active in our denomination responded:

I am unwilling to define this as God's universal purpose for sexual intercourse. Even the Bible tells of people (e.g., Elkanah, Samuel's father) who had more than one partner with integrity. While monogamous, committed, covenant relationships may reflect the dominant trajectory of biblical values, there is enough complexity there to prevent me from automatically judging negatively those who do not fit the pattern.

He went on to distance himself from promiscuity, but he had also distanced himself from monogamy.

Many gay leaders in the broader Christian church express similar sentiments. For instance,Terry Mattingly wrote in a Get Religion blog (Aug 22, 2009):

As a visiting gay theologian once told me during a conference at Iliff, very few gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians have what he called a "twin rocking chairs forever" definition of monogamy. That was just too restricting, he said. Most gays, he said, believe that it is possible to be "faithful" to one partner and, thus, "monogamous," while continuing to have sexual experiences with others.


The former moderator of the Metropolitan Community Church, a largely homosexual denomination, made the same point. Troy Perry told The Dallas Morning News (July 5, 2003):

Monogamy is not a word the gay community uses. We talk about fidelity. That means you live in a loving, caring, honest relationship with your partner. ... Some would say that committed couples could have multiple sexual partners as long as there's no deception.


Implications
Gay non-monogamy has had a huge impact on my stance on homosexuality. Without it, I would largely only have Romans 1:26-26 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 to guide me. Those passages would be enough to shape my stance, for I find them clear enough and I have confidence in the Bible. But with non-monogamy showing that something major is lacking (leading male couples to seek outside sexual partners at a rate wildly higher than straight couples) I see practical confirmation of the assessment by Scripture and tradition that same-sex behavior is wrong. This confirmation leaves me exponentially more sure of the wisdom of that biblical teaching.

Further, the degree of acquiescence by gays in our church to this prevalent practice confirms to me that something is wrong in their underlying values and spirit. This is not practice falling short of ideals (all of us fall and need grace); this is the ideals themselves being dropped. If our Anabaptist gay community indeed does nod at non-monogamy, not upholding sexual exclusivity as a standard for long-term committed partnerships, I believe there will come a time when most Anabaptist church bodies will recognize that the group is precluding themselves from full recognition in our church bodies.

I must make clear that I am not focusing on individual same-sex relationships or saying that the rightness of a particular couple is determined by whether they are monogamous — on that basis, many same-sex couples are excellent examples of goodness. Rather, I'm drawing implications from the general tendency toward non-monogamy.

Tendencies and characteristic patterns matter. A community decides on the goodness of a category of relationship (eg., polygamous, gay, hetero) by whether the general pattern of that relationship is good, not by whether a specific instance is good. (For instance, we do not judge that heterosexual marriage is bad because of bad examples of it; nor do we judge that polygamy is good because of good examples.) And there are factors about male couples in general and female couples in general that diminish human flourishing.

Consider the following general patterns of lack in same-sex partnerships. Things can be said to discount each of them but not to totally remove them.
1) Lack of physical fit. Gay and lesbian sex often involves substitutes for the opposite-sex plumbing. Many of those practices commonly produce physical trauma; they also result in men who have sex with men being disproportionately impacted by sexually transmitted diseases. In contrast, the body is designed for heterosexual sex. In fact, with heterosexual intimacy the very action that can give one's partner pleasure can give oneself pleasure.
2) Lack of procreation. This is not as major in this age of over-population. But still important. It is generally an advantage for children to be raised by two parents with biological investment. Also having children grow up around both a man and a woman is a plus. Same-sex couples who adopt children can give much to their children but can never supply them with those two advantages.
3) Lack of complementarity. There seems to be a complementarity between a woman and a man that ups the odds that such households will cohere (not looking at individual instances but a general pattern). Stats in Norway and Sweden (where same-sex partnerships were legalized in 1993 and 1995) indicate that 100 gay or lesbian couples will yield significantly fewer stable households than 100 heterosexual couples (read article giving percentages by which these marriages are "more likely to end in divorce than heterosexual marriages"). Short-term stats from countries where gay marriage is more recent sometimes yields contrasting results. Will long-term patterns remain the same?
4) Some sort of lack leading to high incidence of gay non-monogamy as was detailed above.

There can be much that is good in same-sex partnerships. But that does not erase that these partnerships show inherent lacks (1 and 2 above) as well as dramatic patterns of lacks (3 and 4 above). Again, we decide whether to encourage — or deter — a behavior by looking at general intrinsic factors and overall patterns.

Are we really doing young persons a favor if we encourage them to embrace a life course with that much risk of dysfunction? Opposite-sex couples also have much brokenness. But the stats for same-sex couples are dramatically higher (eg., in contrast to the above stats for long-term male couples, perhaps only 4% of heterosexual married men had extramarital sex during the past year, according to one study using a nationally representative sample). Such patterns suggest that the Spirit of God might in compassion steer persons away from this form of sexuality that so often veers from what is healthy. And they lead one toward seeing biblical passages discouraging homosexuality as signs of the Bible's wisdom.

As good children of our culture, we tend to think that sex is necessary for human flourishing and that celibacy is a burden too hard to ask persons to bear. Out of that mindset, we set the threshold very high for when the above-mentioned lacks would matter enough that the Spirit of God would decide that same-sex relationships should be avoided. However, when we think that Jesus and many of his followers through the centuries bear witness that "lives of freedom, joy, and service are possible without sexual relations" [Richard B. Hays, Sojourners, July 1991], then we are more open to allowing the lacks in homosexual relationships to matter. Indeed, a hard road (like celibacy) which is walked for the good of all involved can be refining and rewarding as well as difficult, building deeper character and compassion and reliance on God and the church. There are higher joys than hedonism!

Closing comments
Far too many times when I talk about gay non-monogamy with straight persons who support blessing same-sex partnerships, they begin wondering out loud if monogamy is so important. But that will not fly in the church. Surely virtually all our church conferences would agree on the wrongfulness of "open" partnerships.

Same-sex marriage may be a right that our society should offer its citizens. I will not use gay non-monogamy to deny LGBT persons the right to marry (the men of The Couple's Study voice concern that persons may use their stats to try to do this). But not all choices that the church supports as civil rights are also choices that the church should bless (eg. being a Buddhist).

My prayer is that those who disagree with what I have written will nonetheless hear my heart and know that I'm sharing the best light I have at the moment. I invite dialogue in a search for truth spoken in love. May each of us gently share whatever light we think God has given us.