Ditch The U-Haul: Queer Women & The Future Of Non-Monogamy

“It’s like, if you’re going to buck society’s expectations to date the gender you really want to, why not go all out and create the exact relationship you want?”

What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul!

You know the cliché: two queer women lock eyes, lock lips, and lock it down for life.  But as lived experience and “The L Word” have taught us, it’s complicated. Sure, sometimes women who get together really do rev at warp speed to the altar and monogamously ever after. And yet, many forms of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) are coming out of the closet of late on shows like “Unicornland,” a popular web series in which a bisexual female protagonist seeks sex and connection with straight couples. On dating apps, queer and straight users alike say they seek no strings attached (NSA), polyamorous (POLY), non-monogamous (NM), and ethical non-monogamy (ENM).

“Through pop culture narratives, we start to think about redefining our own relationships,” USC sociologist of gender and sexuality Victor Corona, Ph.D. tells GO over email. “Queer women arguably have more options than ever when it comes to sexual and romantic exclusivity.”

But freedom can be confusing. There are so many ways to be with another woman now. What does she want? What do you want? Will asking for monogamy scare her away? Could you both handle non-monogamy? Basically, now what?

Stereotypes: The Struggle is Real

Part of the issue with charting your own path to sex and commitment is the amount of sheer bullshit out there about who women are and what we desire. Exhibit A is the nearly unshakable belief in our culture that men are “naturally more sexual and promiscuous” than clit-havers who “naturally” want to nest and nurture (an odd presumption, given the fact that the clit evolved for pure pleasure while penises are for pleasure and function…) Yet new research, including longitudinal studies from Finland, Germany, the US, the UK, and Canada, suggests that it’s women who struggle with monogamy more than men do. Indeed, according to these studies, it’s normal for women to become bored with cohabiting-partnered sex within years one to four. Male desire seems to ebb much more slowly; experts like Marta Meana and Esther Perel tell us men are better at wanting what they already have than women are. While these studies have primarily been done on straight women, they suggest that women most certainly are not “wired for monogamy.”

A 2018 study on commitment timing in relationships showed that “contrary to popular conceptions of lesbians as eager to commit .. .after controlling for couple age there are no significant differences in … rates of cohabitation among couples types.” As for that “lesbian bed death” stereotype? Not so much. A 2012 study found lesbians were roughly four times more likely to have sex for two hours at a time than straight women and reported more orgasms as well. So there’s that.

Age And Socialization to “Intimacy”

So, why does the notion that queer women can’t wait to sleep together every night, move in together, put a ring on it, and stop having sex persist? Likely because settling down together quickly “is definitely true of older cohorts [of queer women]. … For example, those who filled out surveys between the 1990s and the 2010s or so,” according to University of Utah professor of psychology (and coiner of the term “female sexual fluidity”) Dr. Lisa Diamond. Ronete Cohen, a London psychotherapist with an online practice called The Rainbow Couch, agrees.

“I see clear divisions along age-lines in my practice,” she tells GO.

Suzannah, an artist in her late forties, has mostly dated and had relationships with women. She describes having found herself in “immediate commitment” relationships. One was eventually non-monogamous, though on her end only.

“My partner [only] accepted it not to lose me,” Suzannah tells GO.

Suzannah defines “true non-monogamy” as “two people completely on the same page and fully able to communicate ANYTHING that would come up.” She enjoys being exclusive with her current partner but told me she is old enough to know that things change over time and that, for her, “Monogamy can sometimes be a disguise for codependency.”

Dr. Diamond noted an important caveat: Even among these more mature women, committing quickly “appears to be a gender phenomenon rather than a queer phenomenon.” That is, wanting to sleep together every night and forsaking all others after just a few weeks is more about being female more than it is about being non-straight. For one thing, women are expected to seek out commitment more than men are, and they tend to prioritize intimacy over sex. Two times the women means two times the social pressure to settle down.

Men, on the other hand, have been socialized “to resist and deprioritize emotional and relational commitment, [meaning] hetero couples and gay male couples would have a greater hesitation about hitting these milestones,” notes Dr. Liz Powell, psychologist and author of “Building Open Relationships.” 

But What do You Want?

It’s important to note that, while we have data on how male-female and male-male relationships tend to behave, we don’t know what people actually want.

“It’s…possible that women in heterosexual couples would accelerate just as quickly as female-female couples toward monogamy, commitment, and spending every night together,” Diamond tells GO over email. “But they might expect that this would “scare off’ a male partner (because the male stereotype of avoiding intimacy is so prevalent). Similarly, men in gay male couples might also want a faster movement toward commitment, but … worry that their partner wouldn’t want the same thing.” 

Hannah, a 30-something New Yorker who works in corporate finance and identifies as bisexual, told me she still notices a rush to commitment among queer women her age, though maybe not a rush all the way to a bridal registry.

It feels like there’s a hurry to spend lots of time together immediately,” Hannah tells GO. “Heterosexual dates [tend to be] more spread out — once or twice a week — but for queer women, once they sleep together, they move toward constant time together.”

One Sunday she found herself on a brunch date with a woman who told her, “I have to wait until WEDNESDAY to see you again?” Hannah, recently accustomed to the pace of dating men felt “flattered — and a little stalked.”

Realities: Money, Being a Minority, And Personality

Beyond gendered socialization pressures, moving in together quickly may make financial sense for queer women considering that, on the whole, women earn less than their male counterparts do.

“You could see how some relationships between queer women might move toward … sharing finances and expenses more quickly,” Dr. Powell tells GO.

There’s also the fact that women are a demographic minority.

“Because of the smallness of the dating pool, some queer women may feel uncomfortable with non-monogamy, as overlap would necessarily be common,” says Mischa Lin, co-founder and past president of the polyamory support group Open Love New York.

Lin also noted that, given the numbers, “It’s [relatively] rare to find someone you connect with,” a fact that could make “holding back” seem like shooting yourself in the foot. Finally, experts believe that personality and attachment style play a big role when it comes to settling in together quickly, but we’ve been conditioned to see these as male/female gay/straight issues.

Changes

Unlike their queer foremothers, Diamond believes “the youngest generation of queer women is beginning to chart a different course.”

“They are more likely than previous cohorts to know about polyamory and to consider it a possible life path, and also to consciously resist their own gender-based socialization,” she tells GO.

This was the case for Misha Lin. After transitioning from male to female, she became interested in being involved with more than one person at a time. Stigma is no easy thing to buck, and it’s effective at keeping us in line, yet queer women seem to be thriving along different points of what sexologist Dr. Tammy Nelson calls The Monogamy Continuum. This is everything from locking it down on one end of the continuum to “you can see others, but we are primary” on the other. 

So what’s next for queer women in the monogamish landscape?

“I think non-monogamy is very much the new black and will reach saturation levels at some point,” psychologist and psychotherapist Ronete Cohen tells GO.

Notably, women might better suited to non-monogamy than men are.

“There’s evidence in survey data that women are more likely to be open to polyamory than men are,” Dr. Timaree Schmit, a sex educator and host of the podcast “Sex with Timaree,” tells GO. “Perhaps it’s because women are more apt to already be sharing emotionally close relationships with a number of people while men may only turn to their romantic partner for emotional support.”

Hannah has noticed the same.

“Even the most open-minded guy I’ve seen is not fully cool with non-monogamy. Or if they’re OK with it, you can’t do it without them.”

Insert eye roll here.

Add queer people’s general comfort with resisting norms, and you get a future where monogamy isn’t going away, but instead, one where anything can happen.

“I actually believe that once you’re out as queer, trans, non-binary or other non-mainstream identity, it becomes much easier to consider [non-monogamy] as an option,” Lin tells GO. “Once one of society’s unspoken rules is broken, it’s easier to break others.”

“It’s like, if you’re going to buck society’s expectations to date the gender you really want to, why not go all out and create the exact relationship you want?” Dr. Schmidt agrees.

Wednesday Martin’s book “UNTRUE: Why Nearly Everything We Believe about Women, Lust, and Infidelity is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free” is now available in paperback.

* With reporting by Jane-Claire Quigley.


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