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The Death of Monogamy, Greatly Exaggerated

A recent article in USA Today suggests that infidelity is rampant among young couples. 

USA Today posted an article on Saturday with the headline “Young Couples Often Disagree about Monogamy” in which they assert: 

Many young American couples can’t agree on whether they’ve decided to have sex only with each other, a new study shows. 

Oregon State University researchers analyzed data collected from 434 heterosexual married and non-married couples, aged 18 to 25. In 40% of those couples, one partner said the couple had agreed to be monogamous while the other partner said there was no such deal.

My response to this claim is simply “Sigh”. 

The Oregon State University study, which USA Today relied upon, does in fact find that the couples in their sample often were not in agreement as to whether or not they had established a monogamous relationship. That much is true. It is also true that among those who had explicitly agreed to monogamy, 30% had broken that agreement. Shocking, I am sure.

The problem with this coverage of the research is that it excludes the most important piece of information: The couples used in the study are in no way representative of the American population. 

The authors recruited female participants from STI testing clinics in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. From the women who visited the clinic, they then restricted their sample to women with the riskiest sexual behaviour. 

In order to be eligible to be included in the study, these women had to have an increased risk of HIV and other STIs. They had to be 18 to 25 years old and in a relationship with a man over the age of 18 years old. They had to have condomless sex at least once in the previous three months and, for all of them, at least one of the following statements had to be true: 

They had to have engaged in a risky behavior such as sex with another male partner in the past year, or by using intravenous drugs. 

They had to believe that their partner was engaged in risky behaviour, for example, if he had an STI in previous year, had ever been in prison, or had sex with men.

They had to believe that at least one person in their relationship would have sex with another person in the next year and while they were still together.

Are we shocked that this paper finds that couples are not very monogamous? No. Is this evidence that young American couples no longer agree on what it means to be in a relationship? No, it is not.

Maybe the authors could claim that the results of the study are representative of American couples who engage in risky sexual behavior. But even that wouldn’t be true. If their goal was to make broad claims about that group, they would have randomly selected participants in such a way that the sample represented that population as a whole. They haven’t done that, unless you believe the only people engaging in risky sexual behavior in Los Angeles are Hispanic. I’ve never been to LA but I am guessing that isn’t true.

So what the research tells us is this: If you find yourself in a clinic having contracted an STI because either you or your partner is having sex outside of the relationship then maybe it time to have an honest conversation about monogamy.

USA Today is not responsible for this error, they were just going by Oregon State University’s press release. Maybe the university press office is responsible, or maybe the authors. I personally think the problem is a system of dissemination of academic research that makes it impossible for anyone outside of big institutions to read original research. If you don’t believe me please feel free to access the original article here.


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