July 1999

Who's in a Long Term Relationship?


Green flick The survey was about anal sex, but one of the questions asked about the number of exclusive sexual partners. Unexpectedly, the results were quite interesting by themselves.

Specifically, the question asked: how many exclusive sexual partners did you have during the last two years? Here is the breakdown for responses received up to 14 July 1999:

  All respondents Living in S'pore Living in USA
  Nbr Pct Nbr Pct Nbr Pct
None 99 31.8 25 31.3 30 36.1
One 96 30.9 26 32.5 26 31.3
Two 49 15.8 15 18.8 8 9.6
Three or more 67 21.5 14 17.5 19 22.9
Total* 311 100.0 80 100.0 83 100.0

* excluding one respondent who didn't answer this question

About one third of the respondents (31.8% of the global sample) did not have any exclusive sexual partner during the previous two years. Two thirds had at least one partner.

Of these, the majority had two, three or more exclusive sexual partners during a two-year period. What to make of them? One can hardly call those relationships "long-term".

In fact, those in a long-term relationship would very likely be found only among the 30.9% of the global sample who had ONE exclusive sexual partner over the two-year period. I say "among", because while they had one partner, the survey didn't ask them how long they had been with this partner. Some of them, no doubt, would be for a long time, but others might have had a partner for perhaps 6 weeks out of the whole two years. So, not all of those (the 30.9%) who had one partner had a LONG-TERM partner.

Hence, what we can see from this question is that the percentage of gay men who are NOT in a long term relationship at any given time is above 70%, perhaps 80-90%.

Another interesting thing is that the data for those living in Singapore were quite similar to those living in the US, (the sample size from other countries were too small for comparison). This suggests that being culturally American or culturally Singaporean makes little difference to the pattern of long term relationships.

This is hardly news to us. The low rates of life-long coupling are obvious just by looking around our circles of friends. However, I thought I'd share the data with you anyway.

An important question is how reliable is the data? I'd be the first not to put too much reliance on them. Personally, I treat the data as suggestive only. The survey was anonymous, and there was no way I could control the sampling. There was some bias towards the younger age groups, since it was internet-based. However I do not think the bias was very serious, because in the other surveys running parallel to the anal sex survey, I asked the respondents for their age. The results suggested that about half of the participants were in their twenties, about a third were in their thirties, with a small minority in their forties or older.

This then begs the question: given that there was bias towards those in their twenties, would that have overstated or understated the percentage with a long-term exclusive sexual partner? In other words, are gay men more likely to be in a permanent relationship when younger, or when older? Frankly, I don't know, and I'd like to hear your views.

I hope my readers don't take the data as just some more bad news, as proof that gay relationships don't last and that the majority of us as "doomed" to singlehood. Such an interpretation comes about only when we reference our situation to that of heterosexual marriages. Legal marriages. It's wrong to make such a comparison. Gay relationships and heterosexual marriages (not relationships) are driven by totally different forces, and it is as pointless as comparing apples with oranges. I wrote about this in the essay The Tyranny of Loving Marriage.

Look at it this way: if I were doing a survey among straight males, I'd probably need just one question with two possible answers: are you married? Yes or No.

In contrast, in surveys among gay men, we find ourselves flailing in a quagmire of definitions, offering multiple choice questions, and still getting strange answers. I mean, how do we ask people whether they are in a  relationship when no two persons use the same definition of "relationship"? For my survey, I had to resort to the term, "sexually-exclusive partner". And even then, I was surprised by the answers I got. Some respondents said that in a two-year period, they had more than five -- a few said 10, 12 or 15. This is life in a revolving door!

Among my friends, I know of some who have been in single relationships for well over two years, but are not sexually exclusive. Even this comes in flavours. Some are not sexually exclusive, EXCEPT when it comes to anal sex, when they ARE sexually exclusive. Yet other couples are sexually exclusive except that once in a while, they arrange a threesome or foursome, to spice things up. But they do it together, so it's not quite an "open relationship", and they are certainly not cheating on each other, but it's not quite exclusive either.

I think it's just wonderful that there is so much variety and fluidity. It's the liberty we enjoy when there is no norm imposed on us. We each live the way we want to, circumstances permitting. We don't have to live up to anybody's notion of "proper". The freedom of the outlaw?


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