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Monogamy & HIV - Lovers Can't Agree on Whether They Agreed to Embrace Monogamy
By Bonnie Rochman Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Many young couples may be misunderstanding each other when it comes to an important method for avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.
Health experts often make this recommendation for preventing STDs: Be in a long-term relationship in which both partners are only sexually active with each other. This is known as a monogamous relationship.
However, a new study in the Journal of Sex Research finds that some couples may not be sure that they're in a monogamous relationship. Researchers included 434 heterosexual couples, and interviewed both partners separately. They asked participants whether they had made an agreement with their partner about monogamy.
About 40 percent of couples disagreed on whether they had decided together to be monogamous. More than one-third of couples disagreed on whether the man had taken an HIV test and shared the results, and even more disagreed on whether the woman had been tested and shared the results.
For protecting yourself from HIV, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges that people not only be monogamous, but to stick with a partner who has had a test for HIV and is known to not be infected.
It's pretty obvious that for monogamy to work, both parties have got to be on the same page - which is why it's useful to note that a new study found that's not always the case. Researchers at Oregon State University discovered that young couples don't agree on whether they agreed to be faithful to each other.
To make matters worse, some of the partners who agreed to monogamy didn't end up practicing it, according to the research published online in the Journal of Sex Research.
For sure, the study participants - heterosexual couples from Oklahoma City and Los Angeles who were between the ages of 18 and 25- may not be indicative of the general population. They qualified for the research in the first place only because they were already at risk of sexually transmitted diseases based on their answers to a questionnaire about sexual behavior. (More on Real-Life Romeos Don't Compare to Dream Lovers)
Among the 434 couples followed, 40% - or 156 couples - in which at least one partner said they'd discussed monogamy reported they had decided on sexual exclusivity. But the other partner begged to differ. "The other partner said we didn't even discuss it or we didn't agree to it," says lead author Jocelyn Warren, a post-doctoral fellow and research associate in public health at Oregon State University.
Only six couples said they'd discussed monogamy and decided against it. More than half the couples - 58%, or 227 pairs - in which at least one partner said they'd discussed monogamy reported they agreed to be faithful.
Unnervingly, couples who were married or those with children were no more likely to have sustained a monogamous relationship.
In fact, couples in which either party had kids were less likely to have settled on monogamy. (More on Mind Reading: Do Humans Prefer Free Love Over the Bonds of Nuclear Family?)
Why does this all matter? Well, monogamy - if practiced by the book - is pretty much a surefire way to ward off disease. Prevention messages regarding HIV often cite the ABCs of safe sex: Abstinence, Being Faithful and Condom Use.
For couples relying on an exclusive relationship as their main form of protection, learning that monogamy can be open to interpretation could cause some consternation.

The solution? Communication, starting at school, where sex-ed classes should cover how to talk about sex and monogamy. Physicians should bring up the subject with their patients, and couples should discuss it regularly.
"People need to keep having these discussions to make sure that your perception of what's going on with your partner is shared by your partner," says Warren. "Shared commitment is the ony important factor in whether couples are able to sustain a monogamy agreement."
The study did not ask whether couples were relying on monogamy to keep them safe. In reality, most people decide to be faithful to their partner as a sign of trust or increasing commitment; they're probably pledging to be exclusive without devoting much thought to the implications of monogamy as an HIV-prevention method. (More on HIV Drugs May Prevent Infection in Healthy Individuals)
Regardless of a person's motivation, it might be na•ve not to be a tad skeptical of your lover. "I wouldn't be so bold as to tell you about love and trust in your own relationship," says Warren. "But until you're in a relationship you are 110% sure about, use condoms."
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