Stigma, Funding, and Getting Off the Fringe: An Interview with Dr. Terri Conley

a small green brain embroidered on a circular canvas, sitting on a wooden table
Image by Hey Paul Studios / CC BY

If you’re an ethically nonmonogamous person and haven’t heard of Terri Conley, PhD, you’re missing out. Dr. Conley is “a social psychologist, a feminist, and a sex researcher, but not necessarily in that order.”

And Conley has arguably done more than any other person for establishing a sound scientific basis that polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy are a viable way to conduct relationships.

Through her research at the University of Michigan’s Stigmatized Sexualities Lab, it’s been demonstrated that:

  • Polyamorous people tend to maintain more friendships and keep a wider social network. They are also less likely to cut off contact after a break-up.
  • Folks in monogamous relationships experience more jealousy than those in consensually nonmonogamous ones (including polyamory). This is in spite of the fact that the most common question poly people are asked is “But don’t you get jealous?”
  • Couples in open relationships practice safer sex than cheaters. And while perfect monogamy would be safest re: STI risk, according to her wonderful TEDx talk debunking some common sexual myths, about a third of participants in Dr. Conley’s studies who identify as being in a monogamous relationship have actually had sex with someone else since that relationship started. This of course means that a higher percentage of monogamous couples are affected by cheating.

See what I mean?

Recently Dr. Conley very graciously took the time to answer some questions about what it’s like to do cutting edge research on nonmonogamy.

Stigma, Funding, and Getting Off the Fringe

Studying nonmonogamy hasn’t been easy work. It was very difficult for Dr. Conley when she began.

“I had done research in other areas and seen my share of negative reviews, but all of a sudden I was getting rejected from every journal with really odd comments,” Conley says.

Reviewers would call the research “irresponsible.” Some would even speculate about her sexually.

Nevertheless, she persisted and broke through the stigma and prejudice. “The tide has turned in that regard,” Conley says, “and it has become a lot easier to get fair reviews.” And indeed, Dr. Conley has built up an impressive body of published work.

The big obstacle now? Is funding. “Most of the research that people really want to see done would require a big research grant,” Conley says. “Funding is pretty scarce right now.”

The overall lack of research funding isn’t helped by the fact that the topic is considered “fringe” by many. Conley disputes this idea. “Everybody in a relationship is either monogamous or not monogamous, and I’m fascinated by both ends of that spectrum.”

Still, she is frequently advised by others not to waste time applying. But luckily for us, Conley is determined to continue.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Conley’s favorite part of her work? Challenging people’s assumptions.

“A phrase came up in my tenure review process and it really stuck with me,” Conley says. “A member of my committee said that my research has an ’emperor-has-no clothes’ feel to it. That’s the most fun to me–that I get to approach a topic that people think they have all figured out and to be able to say ‘wait–not all is as it seems here; let’s look under the surface.’ It’s nice when intuitions can be supported by rigorous empirical tests.”

Of course, when you are in the business of challenging people’s assumptions in an unbiased way, no one is immune from those effects. Not even the polyamorous.

Some of the worst criticism of Conley has come from a very unlikely source: Polyamorists.

Indeed, the other difficulty Conley frequently faces comes from the participants themselves. Those who identify as polyamorous are particularly critical of her work (versus those who identify as swingers or in an open relationship).

“In responses on surveys, I am regularly lambasted for ‘never having met a poly person’ and for subscribing to monogamist ideologies simply because we ask a question about whether the participant has a primary partner,” Conley says and shares that she often gets comments that poly people as a group don’t believe in hierarchies. However, two-thirds of self-identifying poly participants do report having a primary partner.

“I also get negative emails in response to my articles, with people writing and telling me that I have misconceptions about poly that offend them,” Conley says.

This is in spite of the fact that her work has inspired countless articles that have served to expose irrational bias against nonmonogamous people (numerous, here’s just one recent example), and in doing so, Conley is giving polyamory, and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy, one thing that it desperately needs: Legitimacy. Public acceptance.

Conley says that she gets where participants are coming from. “It just gets very tiring.”

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While Dr. Conley’s research may be underappreciated for now, I personally look forward to the day when people look back at her work and say, “Well duh, we all know that. Why was someone studying that?”

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My book is out!

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory

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2 Comments

  1. I admit that I’m surprised at Dr. Conley’s response to polyamorous people’s pushback to her research studies. And that surprise indicates to me that perhaps she is not as acquainted with polyamorous people as she claims. Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but we tend to be very aware of how the outside world wishes to portray us and are very protective of being used to prove other people’s agendas. THe New York Times piece being an example of this phenomenon, in which people of Open Love NY and other polyamorous people put in a lot of effort to convey how polyamory works for them, and instead Susan Dominus used them to further her own point of view about non-monogamy.

    I admit to not having heard of Dr. Conley before this article, and I consider myself decently well read in the more academic sides of polyamory. She definitely is not as well known as Dr. Elizabeth Sheff, who has a body of research about polyamorous people that has proven to be fair and sympathetic to polyamorous people. Dr. Conley, as a person who does not have that trust has to earn it.

    I’m just surprised that she doesn’t know this already, having worked with people who have non-normative sexualities, that they might be really wary of outsiders wanting to study them for their own benefit. To give you an example: lots and lots of journalists and journalist students have contacted various kink organizations in New York, looking to get some kind of different “scoop” on the titillating topic of kink. The problem was when a journalism student showed up to our munch as a reporter, despite the moderators of the munch not giving her permission to do so. I was pissed, mostly at her professor for allowing her to do an assignment like this with vulnerable sexual minorities, without giving her the training to do so with any modicum of sensitivity.

    I also see this frequently with regards to people wanting to study trans people. We’re a very small minority of the US population, yet there are countless badly-designed student surveys out there aimed at us and demanding that we fill them out for the purpose of benefiting their own grade and not us. We’re being used by people in academia without having any control over the output or receiving any kind of benefit from the research, either in the form of monetary compensation for our time or more advocacy for our needs.

    I say all of this in the hopes that Dr. Conley will read this comment and better understand why we as polyamorous people might feel proprietary and defensive. Also by and large, polyamorous people tend to be a smart, headstrong, and mouthy bunch of people who have spent a lot of our time defending our lives from others who would paint us into corners. I do hope that Dr. Conley takes more steps in the future to better explain who she is and what she’s doing, and establishing trust with the people she would like to study. We’re vulnerable in a way that she isn’t.

    1. Thanks for commenting and taking the time to explain well and in nuanced terms. I do think Dr. Conley would understand and take it in the spirit that you offer it.

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