This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Last week, several LGBTQ-focused publications reported on a study that claims an overwhelming majority of younger gay men desire monogamy in their relationships, with some 86 percent of couples surveyed claiming to be monogamous and 90 percent of single men “seeking monogamy.” Though the study was published in 2016—an important detail seemingly lost in all the blog aggregation calling it “new”—its headline results have nonetheless generated much discussion. Many in the gay community have raised an eyebrow at the findings, given that they contrast sharply with personal experience and anecdotal knowledge in a sexual culture where open relationships and nonmonogamy of one sort or another are quite common. As it turns out, these doubts are justified: The study, titled “Choices: Perspectives of Younger Gay Men on Monogamy, Non-monogamy, and Marriage,” is riddled with methodological problems to such an extent that it’s essentially worthless—in 2016 and now. And when discussing gay relationships, what is at stake is not only a question of scientific accuracy but of the accurate communication of community norms and values both externally and among ourselves.
Some basic features of the study, conducted by couple Blake Spears and Lanz Lowen, raise serious questions about the validity of any findings. For one thing, it was not published in a peer-reviewed academic journal nor was it conducted by investigators with advanced research training (i.e., a doctoral degree). Further, the authors do not mention any review process in which procedures were approved by an accredited private institution or federal agency prior to data collection. This means that unlike with most studies, in this case, procedures such as recruiting respondents, selecting and phrasing study questions, and statistical and analytical techniques for interpreting these responses need not be justified or rigorously grounded in previous research. Without being held to these basic standards, the authors were free to make whatever claims they saw fit about the significance of the survey responses they collected.
While the potential problems with this unprofessional approach are too numerous to discuss here, one of the most troubling aspects of the study is the fact that the authors claim to have discovered a marked and surprising shift in attitudes toward monogamy among gay men, even though it is totally unclear whether their respondents were representative of the gay male population at large. Most research studies must address issues of representativeness with detailed eligibility criteria, carefully considered recruitment strategies, and in some cases, predetermined demographic ratios. By contrast, respondents in this study were simply anyone between the ages of 18 and 40 who responded to an ad placed on Facebook. It is unclear whether participants were even compensated for their responses, which poses a further problem: Without financial incentive, the composition of the respondents becomes heavily weighted toward those who feel personally invested in weighing in on the topic of investigation. In the case of a study looking at relationships, monogamy, and marriage, it is not difficult to imagine that those with a particular investment in these institutions would be overrepresented.
While the authors did supplement these responses with additional data collected from users of the mobile sexual networking app Grindr, their selective use of this data only makes things worse. While admitting that Grindr users were more likely to tend toward nonmonogamy, they only included Grindr users who identified as being in nonmonogamous couples in their statistical analysis and chose to ignore those that identified as single or monogamously partnered. Thus, while their claims about the inclination of younger gay men toward monogamy hinge largely on their headline statistic that 90 percent of singles in the study expressed a desire for a monogamous relationship, this figure was derived by intentionally excluding a whole segment of singles who appear, based on their app choice, likely to be less invested in monogamy.
Ignoring the subset of respondents recruited on Grindr who identified as monogamously partnered raises further suspicions. The apparent contradiction between identifying as monogamous and using an app usually associated with seeking casual sex partners calls into question how accurately these responses represent the underlying attitudes and behavior of the participants themselves, let alone the larger population they are supposed to be representing. In fact, the authors present findings elsewhere in the study that suggest one-quarter of these “monogamous” participants admitted to engaging in sex with others while in a monogamous partnership. In light of the lack of accountability to basic methodological standards in the study overall, it becomes increasingly uncertain what identifying as “monogamous” on the survey actually indicates. Indeed, it seems just as likely that these results may reveal a prevalence of conflicted attitudes toward monogamy among younger gays as they do a strong inclination toward it.
Study design aside, what’s really troubling here is the political significance of the authors’ interpreting these findings as revealing a novel or previously obscure shift in gay male attitudes toward love and sex. They do this, of course, by contrasting their findings with previous studies, not mentioning the major difference that these were published in peer-reviewed journals and thus held to different standards of methodological rigor. Instead, they attribute the contrast to a profound shift in attitudes, citing comments from an open-ended response portion of the study as evidence of larger forces that underlie this shift. First, they claim that “younger gay men have the option of adopting to the norms of the heterosexual majority and becoming integrated into the mainstream” and second, that coming out younger has meant that gay men are no longer relying on an underground culture of anonymous sex, nor are they experiencing “prolonged periods of sexual adolescence.”
While an apparent lack of any established methods of analysis of qualitative data (i.e., the open-ended responses) further undermines conclusions already based on unreliable statistics, their reasoning shows just how dangerous a little bad data can be. In essence, the authors have constructed a flimsy argument for the inevitable triumph of assimilation to traditional relationship values as a product of improved civil rights for gay people, in the drag of objectivity offered by citing numbers. Beyond just adding noise to the larger set of findings from better studies on monogamy trends among gay men, the study lends itself, whether intentionally or not, to supporting an agenda of respectability politics—and the same goes for the sloppy reporting on it. Ultimately, this situation illustrates the importance of good research underlying larger political and social conversations: How are we to discuss sweeping, nuanced issues important to our community if our understanding of what’s happening on the ground is obscured by false statistical conclusions? In the age of marriage equality, gay men’s relationships to monogamy and relationship models may indeed be evolving, and that’s worth studying. But it’s worth doing so properly, regardless of what we think the results might say.