What Google searches reveal about the rise of 'open relationships'

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From an early age we're taught that "happily ever after" means falling in love, getting married, and staying with that one person forever and ever. But thanks to modern medicine, 'til death do us part can mean shacking up with the same man or woman for five to seven decades. Sure, that might sound like heaven to some—but for others, this modern-day monogamy fairytale just isn't realistic.

And so, this second group has increasingly begun to seek out other arrangements. In fact, according to new research, more and more Americans are actively Googling information about alternatives to monogamy—and 1 in 5 Americans say they've engaged in consensual non-monogamous relationships IRL.

These revelations come courtesy of Amy Moors, a researcher at the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan. Moors recently conducted a study published in the Journal of Sex Research that looked into the prevalence of Google searches involving non-monogamous relationships. Her goal was to see if searches for terms like "polyamory" and "open relationships" were increasing over time, which, of course, might indicate a growing interest in consensual non-monogamous relationships.


For the study, Moors analyzed 10 years of Google trends data from January 2006 to December 2015 using sets of the keywords related to polyamory, open relationships, open marriages, and swingers. In order to make sure she was looking at searches in which users had genuine interest in the topic, she also created "negative" search words to exclude certain results. For example, Moors found that a term like "open marriage" yielded a lot of results about Newt Gingrich, who famously had an affair outside his marriage. Searching celebrity gossip doesn't really count as being interested in exploring the lifestyle, so she excluded all things Newt related (LOLz). Likewise, "open relationship" keywords also produced a plethora of Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith results—go figure!—so they were also used as exclusionary items.

After analyzing the data, Moors found that Google searches for terms related to polyamory and open relationships indeed rose steadily from 2006 to 2015. Interestingly, however, searches for "swingers"-related keywords fell over time. Moors hypothesizes that this is likely due to the fact that the term itself has become outdated, eliciting images of 1970s swingers parties and dropping keys in bowls. Likewise, the terms "polyamory" and "open relationship" or "open marriage" are being used more and more by media and in general discussion of the lifestyle, making them more popular contemporary terms.


Of course, Google doesn't tell us everything. As Moors points out in her study, the search data was merely a starting point to gauge broad trends.


"Although the present study cannot shed light on why people are searching for more information related to polyamory and open relationships, these results do show that there is increased visibility of these types of consensual non-monogamy and likewise an interest to learn more about them," explains Moors in the paper.

What can help us gauge interest is asking people if they've ever participated in a consensual non-monogamous relationship—which is exactly what Moors, along with researchers from Indiana University, did in another paper, recently published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.


Moors and her colleagues analyzed data collected in 2013 and 2014 by the Singles In America study, sponsored by Match.com. (Participants in the SIA study are not culled from Match.com—they are drawn from a nationally representative sample established by the firm Research Now.) In total, researchers looked at data on 8,718 participants in two different studies. The first consisted of 4,813 participants who were over the age of 21 and legally single, which means they could have been single, dating, or cohabiting but were not legally married to anyone. The second looked at an additional 3,905 participants who were over 18 and were functionally single at the time of the survey, meaning they were not seeing or dating anyone.

As part of the survey, all participants were asked if they "had ever had an open sexual relationship." In the questionnaire, this was defined as "an agreed upon, sexually non-exclusive relationship."


In the first study, 21.9% of participants answered yes. In the second, 21.2% of participants answered yes. Put simply? One in 5 Americans now says they have participated in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. Bazinga!

Overall, men and folks identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual were more likely to report engaging in an open relationship; the least likely group was straight women. However, the authors urge caution about making assumptions about what "type" of person enters into a consensually non-monogamous relationships: The differences between the rates were slight, and according to the data, the rise is happening across the board.


"Despite previous speculation that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships tend to be homogeneous in terms of education, socioeconomic status and ethnicity, this proportion remained roughly constant across age, education level, income status, religion, region, political affiliation and race," explain the researchers. It's not just one group that's spearheading the move toward open relationships—it's all groups.

The biggest takeaway of all? We may just be headed toward another sexual revolution. But rather than thinking of it as a zero-sum game in which the birth of polyamory means the death of monogamy, Moors suggests we think of these shifts as making as room for everyone. As she and her coauthors point out, this type of research is simply meant to show that more and more people are interested in non-monogamous arrangements, and researchers and clinicians should be mindful of this. It's all about inclusion—not exclusion.


"In contemporary American society 'the couple' is prioritized as one of the most important relationships in one’s life, and it is presumed that nearly everyone desires monogamy," write the researchers—which is a problem. "These presumptions have greatly influenced who is included and who is left out of social science research."

Not only that, but historically, participating in a lifestyle not accepted by society at large can even have health consequences.


"It is well documented that sexuality-based stigma and discrimination can create a hostile and stressful social environment, and ultimately, these negative experiences can manifest in mental health issues," explain the authors. "People engaged in consensual non-monogamy experience unjustified stigma, as empirical evidence does not support the belief that these individuals are fundamentally flawed citizens, poor relationship partners or inadequate parents."

After all, if you yourself are not in an open relationship, this research reveals that you probably know someone who is. Viva la revolution!


Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.