How many Americans have experienced nonmonogamy, or overlapping sexual relationships?

Serial monogamy—the practice of one sexual partner at a time—is still the norm in America, but the Relationships in America survey data documents a sizeable group of Americans (34 percent of men and 28 percent of women) who report having had concurrent sexual relationships at least once in their lifetimes. Besides the risk such actions pose to one or both of the relationships in question, public health officials have long worried that having overlapping sexual partners dramatically exacerbates the risk of passing sexually transmitted infections. Research on HIV transmission concludes the same—that overlapping sexual relationships pose a key hazard to public health by increasing the efficient spread of HIV/AIDS.40 Those who engage in concurrent sexual relationships often endanger their sexual partners without their knowledge. One study found that sexually-active adolescents often do not know when their partner has had other sexual partners over the course of their relationship. As such, many adolescents—in what they believed to be exclusive relationships—did not use condoms and heightened their exposure to transmission risk.41

Figure 9.1Timing of most recent overlapping sexual relationships, by gender

So how much more likely are those who’ve reported overlapping sexual partners to also report experience with a sexually transmitted infection? We find that among those American adults who reported no history of overlapping sexual partners, 11 percent had ever been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection, compared to 28 percent among those who report having had more than one partner at a time (at some point).

How common is it to have multiple simultaneous sex partners? It depends on how you count it. Thirty-one (31) percent of adults below the age of 60 report having had overlapping sexual relationships at some point in their lives. But most of those relationships are not current. Only three (3) percent of adults report overlapping sexual relationships within the past year, while 10 percent report overlapping relationships within the past five years. Thus while having overlapping sexual relationships is not remarkably uncommon within a lifetime, few Americans report overlapping sexual partners at present.

Figure 9.2Percentage of population who have had overlapping sexual relationships, by family structure of origin
THIRTY-ONE (31) PERCENT OF ADULTS BELOW THE AGE OF 60 REPORT HAVING HAD OVERLAPPING SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS AT SOME POINT IN THEIR LIVES.

While most groups are not at substantial risk for the health consequences of overlapping sexual relationships, those in sexual networks with black men, or gay or bisexual men are at increased risk. In the Relationships in America survey, seven (7) percent of African American men and 10 percent of gay or bisexual men report simultaneous sexual partners within the past year, and about half of both groups report overlapping partners at some point in their lives.

Men are more likely than women to report having ever had multiple concurrent sexual partners (34 percent vs. 28 percent), a difference that is neither trivial nor large. In light of the fact that men and women tend to report their sexual behaviors quite differently, the difference may be due to underreporting by women.42 The gender distinction is most pronounced among African Americans, among whom 54 percent of men and 34 percent of women say they’ve had overlapping sexual relationships. Some attribute this gap to skewed gender ratios in black populations due to higher mortality and incarceration rates among black males, a structural reality that positions African American men more favorably in their local mating markets, and hence to be more selective about the terms of their romantic relationships.43

High numbers of sexual partners, as well as concurrent sexual partners, are not only a public health concern because of the risk of spreading sexually transmitted infections, but have also been linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In the RIAsurvey data, those who’ve ever reported concurrent sexual partners were also more apt to report taking medication for depression or anxiety than those who haven’t (18 percent vs. 12 percent), and reported significantly less overall happiness. It isn’t clear if concurrent sexual relationships cause psychological harm, detrimentally affecting happiness, or if depression or dissatisfaction with life causes people to “self-medicate” by seeking out multiple sexual partners (or both). But accounting for education, gender, household income, and whether the person had ever experienced a divorce, sexually transmitted infection, or abortion did not erase the association (results not shown). “Religious guilt” does not seem to explain the association either, meaning that those who have had overlapping sexual relationships are less satisfied with life even after accounting for the importance of religion in their lives. It isn’t clear what factors drive this association, but it is clear that the kind of Americans who report concurrent sexual partners are the kind of Americans who tend to be less satisfied with life in general, and are more prone to depression than those whose sexual relationships have not overlapped.

As a public health risk some are interested in reducing the number of people in concurrent sexual relationships. What’s the best way to do this? Our data suggests that one way may be upstream—by helping families stay together. People who came from families where their parents were married, and stayed married until the present day (or who stayed married until the death of one of the parents) were far less likely to have ever report being in overlapping sexual relationships (26 percent of those raised by parents who stayed married so report compared to 39 percent whose parents did not.) Age, education, gender, race, depression, household income, and importance of religion did not account for the differences we observe in prevalence of concurrent sexual partnerships between those who grew up in families with married parents who stayed married and all others. In other words, it’s not just about selectivity—family structure matters.


40Overlapping Relationships: How important is Long-Term Concurrency?” Aidsmap. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

41 Swartzendruber, Andrea et al. “Perceptions About Sexual Concurrency and Factors Related to Inaccurate Perceptions Among Pregnant Adolescents and Their Partners.Sexually Transmitted Diseases 39, no. 8 (2012): 577-582.

42 Clark, Shelley et al. “Do Men and Women Report Their Sexual Partnerships Differently? Evidence from Kisumu, Kenya.International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37, no. 4 (2011).

43 Banks, Ralph. Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone. New York: Dutton, 2011.

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