Sex & Relationships

How One Psychologist Upended Everything We Know About Women, Sex, & Monogamy

Psychology had an explanation for why women are "naturally" monogamous. Terri Conley blew that up.

Originally Published: 
Psychology had an explanation for why women are "naturally" monogamous. Terri Conley blew that up.
Studio Firma, Liliya Rodnikova/Stocksy
New Beginnings Issue

When she was still in grad school, social psychologist Terri Conley, Ph.D., collected some data indicating that single people practice safer sex than those in relationships. Her methodology wasn’t perfect, and the sample was small. There was every reason to forget it. Conley couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What would be the problem with relationships, she wondered, such that people with partners were at higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases? It occurred to her that it might have something to do with the monogamy agreement — the implicit understanding, often undiscussed, that the partners in a two-person couple will only have sex with each other. She designed a study comparing safe sex practice among consensually non-monogamous people to that between people who claimed to be monogamous but were cheating. She found "a whole host of better outcomes” among the people in open relationships — more effective and frequent condom use and lower likelihood of an encounter taking place under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She submitted the paper for publication in the late aughts.

“It was like I shot the reviewers’ dog,” Conley recalls. Their responses ranged from “this paper is irresponsible” to "Oh, this must be a master's thesis” — in other words, amateur.

Suspecting that the stigma surrounding open relationships was at work, Conley took a different tack. She had been positioning the paper as a study of a sexual minority group that turned out to have safer sex than people in traditional relationships. Now, "I took exactly the same table — I did not change one data point — [and] I changed the framing to say, ‘Oh my gosh, people who commit infidelity are the worst. They're even worse than this other group [consensually non-monogamous people] that you thought was so awful.’” The paper was accepted.

It was the first of many times Conley would encounter outsized resistance to the work that has made her one of the most influential sexuality researchers of her era. As head of the University of Michigan’s Stigmatized Sexualities Lab, Conley observes sexual dynamics that won’t shock anyone who is on Tinder in the year 2020 but that nonetheless upend decades of received wisdom in the social sciences. Through rigorously designed studies, Conley, who is only 49, has empirically undermined the idea that women are too “relationship-y” to enjoy sex for its own sake and that having sex exclusively with one chosen mate is the only stable, satisfactory relationship structure. Given that everything from Christian morality to the intergenerational transfer of wealth to the wedding industrial complex is heavily invested in monogamy — "sometimes you have ideologies that control everyone,” Conley reflects — the implications of this research are vast. Colleagues across multiple subfields of psychology describe her as brilliant, fearless, and most impressively, convincing them to change their minds. Conley claims she just provided the data to support what everyone already knew: Monogamy actually isn’t great for everyone, and that really freaks some people out.

If you inch[ed] towards suggesting that people who do something other than monogamy might not be miserable or that they might have some advantages, they were just so hostile to that. I found that really fascinating.

In 2011, she published a paper that methodically dismantled a textbook social psychology experiment, one that had propped up our most guarded assumptions about sex for a generation. In a study published in 1989, researchers Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield sent undergraduate assistants out on the campus of Florida State University to propose casual sex to random male and female students of the opposite sex. Between half and three-quarters of the men approached said yes. No women did. The study was widely accepted as evidence supporting Sexual Strategies Theory, the idea that both men and women have evolved to pass on their genetic material as efficiently as possible. For women that means being extremely selective about sexual partners, investing in those who will lend a hand to help their offspring survive. For men it means having sex with as many women as possible to have the most children possible. Thus, the reasoning goes, men are biologically more interested in casual sex than women.

Conley’s studies demonstrated a host of other reasons a woman might say no to such a proposal, starting with the fact that the proposer was a dude she had never met. Conley submitted a paper summarizing her findings to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the most prestigious journal in the field. Laura King, a personality psychologist at the University of Missouri who was an editor of that journal at the time, remembers when the paper came in and considers it one of the most important she’s ever read. “First of all, why didn’t anyone notice anything wrong with that [1989] study?” King says. “Of course the gender of the approacher might impact perceived risk. It’s the approacher that matters. Once she pointed it out, jaws drop[ped].”

Conley’s great skill is calling bullsh*t on ideology by following the rules of scientific inquiry. “Many people might have recognized that issue with this old study and tweeted about it,” King reflects. “They might have written some feminist think piece nobody read. Terri did the science. Not only did she do that, she submitted it to the top journal in the field, knowing that it would have trouble getting accepted. She has intellectual courage that’s just not that common.” Conley puts it differently: “I like to blow things up.”

'We Need To Rethink Casual Sex': Terri Conley during her April 2016 TED talk

Conley was raised by an atheist, closeted lesbian single mom in a small town in Indiana where “if a boy liked you, they'd smack your books up against your breasts to flirt.” Because her mother was going back to school and couldn’t afford child care, Conley started attending undergraduate classes at age 5. She loved being in college, sitting quietly next to her mom, taking “notes,” and that’s when she decided to become a professor. She homed in on social psychology at age 13 while devouring one of her mother’s textbooks. By that time, she had officially become a vegetarian and decided, as she recorded in a fifth-grade autobiography, “I don’t think I’ll get married, but I’ll probably be a foster parent or adopt a child.”

Conley remembers being appalled to learn via a passed note that her classmates in high school were sexually active. “I remember this feeling of revulsion. Like, ‘I'm going to vomit. People my age that I know are having sex. This is terrible.’" Despite being so viscerally offended — or perhaps because of it — she became fascinated with the sexual dynamics around her. When girls had sex outside of relationships, the gossip mill quickly punished them, while the boys’ social capital skyrocketed. As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, she observed more of the same. “It didn't seem like there was a particularly fruitful avenue for young women to experience sexuality, with men anyway.”

She went straight into doctoral work at UCLA, then eked out a study here and there while teaching at California State and then the University of Missouri, caring for the baby she and her spouse had adopted from Kazakhstan, and arranging to adopt a second child from Ethiopia. When she applied for a psychology of sexuality position at the University of Michigan, a major research institution, Conley knew she had not published nearly enough research to qualify. They hired her. “I guess they thought that I had interesting ideas,” she says.

Conley decided to make non-monogamy a central focus of her work before she’d secured tenure at Michigan. “It was professional suicide,” says Paul Abramson, a long-tenured professor of psychology at UCLA who participated in Conley’s tenure review. “Looking at monogamy is really outside the box.”

But, for Conley, the opposition was part of the appeal. “If you inch[ed] towards suggesting that people who do something other than monogamy might not be miserable or that they might have some advantages, they were just so hostile to that. I found that really fascinating."

Like many people who study sex, Conley was accused of activist research (setting up experiments with a specific outcome in mind to further an ideological agenda) and personal bias (in her case, presenting findings in language favorable to non-monogamy because, critics assume, she is non-monogamous). But even within the realm of sex research, the response seemed disproportionate. “People don't ask me what my sexual orientation is when I'm writing a paper on lesbian/gay issues. They don't ask me if I have casual sex. It was so odd that they felt that they could use that as leverage, especially against the research, knowing absolutely nothing about me.”

I was pretty darn sure we were going to find people who are in consensually non-monogamous relationships are doing just fine. I think that comes from being raised with a lesbian mom. Everyone said that wasn't fine.

Lest she give credence to the theory that she is using her research to ensorcell others into adopting her lifestyle, Conley won’t discuss her own sexual identity publicly. She will only go so far as to acknowledge the existence of her husband (they only got married because international adoption required it; “It’s actually been useful a few times”) and admit that her mother, who officially came out when Conley was in college, considers it a moral failing that Conley is not a lesbian.

Offended especially by the accusations of bias, Conley started asking her undergraduate assistants to test every word in her non-monogamy papers for implicit bias against monogamy. When submitting a non-monogamy study for publication, she would pad the introduction with two totally tangential pages describing the benefits of monogamy, “to signal to the reviewers that we can be trusted.” Still, the rejections kept coming, which is how she knew: “It's not how I'm saying it. It's the fact that you don't like what I'm saying.”

“They would say things like, 'Oh no, we already did research on this, and we showed that non-monogamous relationships don't work.’” The research didn’t exist. “I'd write back, 'Oh, can you direct me towards those papers that show non-monogamy doesn't work?' And they couldn't come up with the papers,” she recalls. “There was this bizarre sense that this has been thoroughly researched, and the alternative to monogamy has been ruled out.”

In late 2012, Conley published her own review of the existing research, or rather, its nonexistence. “Evidence for the benefits of monogamy relative to other relationship styles is currently lacking,” it stated. Therefore, “for those who choose it, consensual non-monogamy may be a viable alternative to monogamy.” Then, in 2017, she filled in the glaring void with data of her own. She published what colleagues call a “landmark,” “powerhouse” paper packed with new research she had conducted demonstrating that monogamy mostly doesn’t affect the quality of one’s primary relationship.

She didn’t stop there: she had findings about how satisfied people are in different types of consensually non-monogamous relationships, from swinging to open relationships to polyamory, the visibility of which has expanded exponentially during Conley’s career. She found that women and men are equally satisfied in consensually non-monogamous relationships, undermining the notion that women are more naturally inclined toward monogamy. She even had data on how much we don’t want to see this data: In one experiment, she showed that people consider a researcher presenting findings favoring polyamory more biased than one presenting findings in favor of monogamy. The wording the researchers used was identical.

If it’s hard to imagine anyone being affected by papers in a psychology journal describing what many non-monogamists already know, consider the potential consequences of pathologizing non-monogamy, or claiming that open relationships caused psychological harm. Abramson, who spent a large swath of his career studying how to reduce HIV transmission rates, compares Conley’s work to research done in the late 1950s through the ‘60s that ultimately led psychology to stop treating homosexuality as a mental illness. “Terri was attempting to undermine the moral contempt for something other than normative marriage. [She] asked, ‘Well, what does the data say?’”

If you talk to Conley (or watch her inevitable TED talk), she does not read as a threat to Western morality. She and her husband, a fellow social psychologist, live in a 1950s ranch house in Ann Arbor. They are the type of people who would spend weekends combing estate sales for midcentury modern furniture to put in it if they hadn’t had kids, she says — kids being the natural enemy of antique furniture.

Conley as a child

She identifies as socially awkward and a misanthrope (her students describe her as gregarious and supportive). When she’s not working or supervising her tween’s Zooms, she is missing barre class and using phone calls as opportunities for brisk walks. A prolific and accomplished baker, she resented the flour shortage brought on by the arriviste breadmakers of the pandemic. She is a musical theater fan.

There is a lot of sex talk in the Conley household, but mostly in the context of work. When her daughters, now 11 and 14, were little, a typical overheard-in-the-high-chair spousal conversation might begin, “So, if I’m trying to control for orgasm in this analysis…” A high premium is placed on correct terminology — no one gets away with calling their vulva their vagina — and Conley is committed to making sure her children experience zero shame around sex, at least from their parents. “It was really easy to create little sex-positive feminists. That's who little girls are.”

Ripping off the veneer on who we really are, sexually, is something Conley has proven astoundingly good at. She’s done it so thoroughly with monogamy, in fact, that she’s decided she’s moving on. Much more research exists on non-monogamy than when she started — close relationship psychologists, in particular, have embraced it as a topic worth their attention. For Conley, that meant her work was done. “I was pretty darn sure we were going to find people who are in consensually non-monogamous relationships are doing just fine. I think that comes from being raised with a lesbian mom. Everyone said that wasn't fine,” and here she is. “All of this seems very intuitive.”

Now Conley is after the sacred cow that has been the backdrop of her entire career. You can’t dismantle the idea that women invariably suffer in nontraditional relationships without disproving the notion that women biologically want sex less than men, so that is Conley’s focus now. Building on her work around casual sex, she has found that gender differences in who wants sex evaporate in the presence of orgasm. If you’ve orgasmed before and expect to again, you’re more likely to say yes to sex, regardless of your identity. The explanation could be biological — maybe female bodies aren’t capable of orgasming quickly or easily outside of partnered sex — but Conley doesn’t buy it. “We know that women are capable of multiple orgasms in a short period of time. We know that women and men orgasm in the same amount of time when they're masturbating.”

Before the pandemic, she was working on a study that asked couples to go home and manually stimulate each other for the same period of time to first see whether it actually takes women longer to orgasm in partnered sex that isn’t intercourse and then, if so, look at all of the reasons that could be. One potential reason? The feeling that you burden someone else by asking them to pleasure you.

Conley is proud of her monogamy work because it was good science and because, rather than convincing people to become non-monogamous, it showed that monogamy isn’t compulsory. “I'd like to believe that I've been helpful in getting people to think, ‘Wow, so this is actually a choice. This is not something you have to do. This isn't a foregone conclusion when you start a relationship.’”

If Conley demonstrates that a social or cultural factor in the orgasm gap cannot be ruled out, not only will she challenge a lot of theory, she’ll give women evidence that there’s nothing wrong with them sexually. What would change if both men and women were raised to think of women as interested in good sex — sex that is pleasurable and safe — for its own sake? What if both men and women learned that when women don’t want sex, a number of factors might be in play — an unskilled partner, a reasonable fear of social ostracization or assault — but not their gender or physiology? What if your sexual self was not a foregone conclusion?

Post-pandemic, Conley says, “I would like to resolve that question to my satisfaction.”

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