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Recognition of sexual and gender diversity in the 21st century challenges normative assumptions of intimacy that privilege heterosexual monogamy and the biological family unit, presume binary cisgender identities, essentialize binary sexual identities, and view sexual or romantic desire as necessary. We propose a queer paradigm to study relationship diversity grounded in seven axioms: intimacy may occur (1) within relationships featuring any combination of cisgender, transgender, or nonbinary identities; (2) with people of multiple gender identities across the life course; (3) in multiple relationships simultaneously with consent; (4) within relationships characterized by consensual asymmetry, power exchange, or role-play; (5) in the absence or limited experience of sexual or romantic desire; (6) in the context of a chosen rather than biological family; and (7) in other possible forms yet unknown. We review research on queer relational forms, including same-sex relationships; relationships in which one or more partners identify as transgender, gender nonbinary, bisexual, pansexual, sexually fluid, “mostly” straight, asexual, or aromantic; polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy; kink/fetish relationships; and chosen families. We argue that a queer paradigm shifts the dominant scientific conception of relationships away from the confines of normativity toward an embrace of diversity, fluidity, and possibility.
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The Journal of Sex Research
ISSN: 0022-4499 (Print) 1559-8519 (Online) Journal homepage:
Queer Intimacies: A New Paradigm for the Study of
Relationship Diversity
Phillip L. Hammack, David M. Frost & Sam D. Hughes
To cite this article: Phillip L. Hammack, David M. Frost & Sam D. Hughes (2019) Queer
Intimacies: A New Paradigm for the Study of Relationship Diversity, The Journal of Sex Research,
56:4-5, 556-592, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2018.1531281
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Published online: 26 Oct 2018.
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Queer Intimacies: A New Paradigm for the Study of Relationship
Phillip L. Hammack
Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz
David M. Frost
Department of Social Science, University College London
Sam D. Hughes
Department of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz
Recognition of sexual and gender diversity in the 21st century challenges normative assump-
tions of intimacy that privilege heterosexual monogamy and the biological family unit, presume
binary cisgender identities, essentialize binary sexual identities, and view sexual or romantic
desire as necessary. We propose a queer paradigm to study relationship diversity grounded in
seven axioms: intimacy may occur (1) within relationships featuring any combination of
cisgender, transgender, or nonbinary identities; (2) with people of multiple gender identities
across the life course; (3) in multiple relationships simultaneously with consent; (4) within
relationships characterized by consensual asymmetry, power exchange, or role-play; (5) in the
absence or limited experience of sexual or romantic desire; (6) in the context of a chosen rather
than biological family; and (7) in other possible forms yet unknown. We review research on
queer relational forms, including same-sex relationships; relationships in which one or more
partners identify as transgender, gender nonbinary, bisexual, pansexual, sexually uid,
mostlystraight, asexual, or aromantic; polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmo-
nogamy; kink/fetish relationships; and chosen families. We argue that a queer paradigm shifts
the dominant scientic conception of relationships away from the connes of normativity
toward an embrace of diversity, uidity, and possibility.
As in manufacture, so in scienceretooling is an extra-
vagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it.
Kuhn (1996, p. 76)
In the late 19th century in Europe and North America, as the
scientic study of sexuality commenced, the ideal form of
human intimacy was conceptualized as occurring between
individuals of different binary genders (i.e., a man and a
woman; Katz, 2007), whose gender identities were presumed
to correspond to their sex assigned at birth (i.e., cisgender
individuals). Same-sex
attraction was viewed as a form of
gender inversion”—an intimate interest that violated a gen-
der binary imagined as central to human nature (e.g., Ellis,
1925). A new type or speciesof person was inventedthe
homosexual”—whose diversion from presumed notions of
the ideal, codied in the cultural and scientic concept of
Correspondence should be addressed to Phillip L. Hammack,
Department of Psychology, University of California, 1156 High Street,
Santa Cruz, CA 95064. E-mail:
Consistent with current use in cultural and scientic discourse, we
use the term same-sex to refer to attraction or intimate relationships
between binary cisgender individuals (i.e., individuals whose current bin-
ary gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) who share the same
sex. We recognize that some transgender binary individuals may under-
stand and label their relationships as same-sex, but we discuss these
relationships separately in the article because research suggests that
these relationships are distinct from those in which both partners identify
as cisgender (e.g., Pfeffer, 2017).
THE JOURNAL OF SEX RESEARCH,56(4-5), 556592, 2019
© 2018 The Society for the Scientic Study of Sexuality
ISSN: 0022-4499 print/1559-8519 online
normativity, resulted in the derogatory label queer(e.g.,
Butler, 1990; Foucault, 1978; Sedgwick, 1990).
Late-19th-century conceptions of heterosexuality and
homosexuality reveal the way in which early scientic
paradigms in Europe and North America were tainted by
cultural ideologies that maintained hierarchies based on
factors such as sex, gender, and race (e.g., Gould, 1996;
Ordover, 2003). By creating a concept of normativity that
not only described but also prescribed ideals of human
development, some scienticelds such as psychology
and biology supported existing cultural ideologies that pri-
vileged particular forms of intimacy (e.g., asymmetric het-
erosexual relations; Mohr, 2010). Scientists have since
worked to challenge these underlying ideologies with
respect to gender and sexuality (e.g., van Anders, 2015),
and our aim is to offer a novel contribution to such efforts
by proposing a queer paradigm that challenges normative
assumptions of human intimacy.
In the 21st century, normative conceptions of human
intimacy have been challenged by the liberty and creativity
revealed not just in same-sex relationships but also in other
diverse and increasingly visible forms, such as polyamory
(e.g., Hardy & Easton, 2017), kink/fetish relationships
(e.g., Ortmann & Sprott, 2013), and relationships in
which one or more individuals identify as transgender
(e.g., Pfeffer, 2017). Yet the study of relationships has
typically continued to depict the nature of intimacy in
universalistic terms often concerned with charting and doc-
umenting (and thus reifying and reinscribing) (hetero)nor-
mative standards (e.g., Finkel, Simpson, & Eastwick,
2017). As individuals increasingly challenge or reject
received taxonomies of sexual and gender identity and
dominant standards of normativity in relationships, we
suggest the present is an occasion that demands the retool-
ingphilosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (1996) described
in his canonical treatise on the nature of scientic
The purpose of this article is to outline a queer paradigm
for the study of relationship diversity in the 21st century
that challenges underlying assumptions about the nature
and meaning of human intimacy. Our aim is to produce a
paradigmatic statement to orient future empirical work and
an initial attempt to synthesize knowledge of diverse rela-
tional forms that defy normative congurations of intimacy.
We begin by outlining seven axioms of a queer paradigm
that challenge normative assumptions. We then review and
synthesize existing knowledge on the queer relational
forms these axioms recognize. We argue that a queer para-
digm better captures the diversity, uidity, and possibility
of human intimacy than the normative paradigm that has
historically guided relationship science. A queer paradigm
thus elucidates vital new knowledge that was once
obscured through the lens of the normative paradigm, and
it challenges us to rethink the meaning of intimacy more
A Queer Paradigm
Following Kuhn (1996), we view a scientic paradigm
as the framework or worldview from which scientists oper-
ate as they produce knowledge. In contrast to the dominant
scientic paradigm of the 20th century, which denigrated
diverse forms of intimacy (see Herek, 2010), a queer para-
digm takes as its mission the documentation of how indi-
viduals defy normative notions of intimacy as they express
diversity and creativity in relationships. By normative,
we mean notions conceived as broadly common or standard
across a population and framed as prescriptive or ideal
(Normative, 2018). By queer,we mean notions that chal-
lenge or deviate enough from the normative to historically
warrant social or legal condemnation and/or political oppo-
sition. Here we honor the history of the term queer, which
emerged in the late 19th century to describe same-sex
intimacy that violated law and social prescription (e.g.,
Chauncey, 1994; Foldy, 1997). A century later, the term
was reclaimed with an afrmative usage that views notions
of normativity and the naturalnessof gender and sexual
categories as suspect and recognizes the value of queer
identities and practices to critique the status quo (e.g., de
Lauretis, 1991; Hostetler & Herdt, 1998; Seidman, 1996;
Warner, 1999).
A queer paradigm challenges the historic hegemony of
normativity in the study of human relationships. The
establishment of norms that not only describe but also
historically prescribe relational forms denigrates diver-
sity by delegitimizing that which is nonnormative and
establishing hierarchies among forms of intimacy (Rubin,
2011c;Warner,1999). Rubin (2011c) described a
charmed circleof privileged forms of intimacy that
includes heterosexual, married, monogamous, and pro-
creative sex among individuals of the same generation.
Forms of intimacy that fall outside of this circle create
hierarchies of shame and include homosexual, unmarried,
nonprocreative, cross-generational, and kinky sex
(Warner, 1999). The social value placed on particular
forms of intimacy creates a context of social and psy-
chological injustice, whereby particular forms are
unsanctioned, unrecognized, denigrated, or devalued
(Evans, 2007; Plummer, 2003).Totheextentthatindivi-
duals internalize dominant narratives that privilege some
forms of intimacy over others, they place themselves at
risk for social and psychological challenges and health
inequities (Frost & Meyer, 2009; Hatzenbuehler, 2009,
2014; Meyer, 2003; Szymanski & Mikorski, 2016).
A queer paradigm is anchored in seven axioms that
challenge key assumptions prescribed by normative con-
ceptions of human intimacy (see Table 1). These axioms
represent postulates intended to guide new empirical
inquiry on relationship diversity. First, a queer paradigm
challenges the normative privileging of different binary
cisgender attraction in intimacy. Since the late 19th century,
the binary cisgender malefemale (i.e., heterosexual)
conguration has been idealized as the ultimate relational
form in terms of cultural meaning and value (Blank, 2012;
Katz, 2007). A queer paradigm challenges this idealization
and recognizes that intimate relations may occur between
individuals of the same binary cisgender identity (e.g.,
malemale, femalefemale), as well as between individuals
who do not conform to a binary cisgender identity. In
addition, a queer paradigm recognizes that forms of inti-
macy may occur in the context of a relationship in which
one or more individuals identify as transgender. A queer
paradigm recognizes that unique experiences may exist for
these distinct types of congurations. In this article, we
refer to these queer relational forms as same-sex intimacies
to describe the former (i.e., two individuals of the same
binary cisgender identity) and transgender intimacies to
describe the latter (i.e., two individuals, one or both of
whom may identify as transgender or gender nonbinary).
Second, a queer paradigm challenges the normative
notion of static and singular desire across the life course.
The normative assumption is that intimacy is most com-
monly directed toward a singular binary gender and that
this form of desire, increasingly called monosexual (e.g.,
Galupo, Mitchell, & Davis, 2015), remains static across the
life course. For example, individuals are presumed to be
either same-sex or different-sex attracted (e.g., gay, lesbian,
straight) and to maintain a commitment to these types of
relational forms across the life course (see DeLamater &
Hyde, 1998; Hammack, 2005). A queer paradigm rejects
this essentialist, categorical view of sexual orientation and
recognizes that many individuals have the capacity for
sexual desire to both binary genders (i.e., individuals who
identify as bisexual; e.g., Rust, 2002; Weinberg, Williams,
& Pryor, 1994) or desire that views gender beyond binaries
(i.e., individuals who identify as pansexual; e.g., Callis,
2014). Such individuals are increasingly referred to as
plurisexual (e.g., Galupo et al., 2015). A queer paradigm
also acknowledges that individuals who identify totally,
primarily, or mostly with a binary sexual identity label
(e.g., straight, gay) may pursue intimacy that dees the
normative meaning associated with a categorical sexual
identity. For example, the growing number of individuals
who identify as mostly straightengage in relational forms
we argue are queerin the sense of defying normative
prescriptions about the singularity of sexual desire (e.g.,
Carrillo & Hoffman, 2018). A queer paradigm rejects a
static view of intimate desire, recognizing that uidity in
sexual and/or romantic desire is possible across the life
course (e.g., Diamond, 2008; Katz-Wise, 2015; Savin-
Williams, 2017).
Third, a queer paradigm challenges the normative privi-
leging of monoamory and dyadic monogamy in intimacy
(e.g., Manley, Diamond, & van Anders, 2015). The norma-
tive assumption is that intimacy occurs between two indi-
viduals who restrict their sexual and romantic lives to each
other (Emens, 2004; Hidalgo, Barber, & Hunter, 2008). The
idealization of this conguration and its codication
through social institutions such as marriage has an exten-
sive history (e.g., Barash & Lipton, 2001; Coontz, 2005;
Seidman, 2015). A queer paradigm challenges the notion
that monoamory and dyadic monogamy represent a single
Table 1. Normative Assumptions versus Queer Axioms of Intimacy
Assumption Description
Axiom Description
1 Different binary
Intimacy occurs among individuals of different binary
cisgender identities (i.e., male/female)
Same binary
nonbinary, and
Intimacy may occur among individuals of any gender
identity (i.e., male/female, male/male, female/
female), including transgender binary and nonbinary
identities (e.g., cis man/trans man; nonbinary/cis
2 Singularity and
across the life
Intimacy is directed in a manner that is singular (i.e.,
monosexual) and static across the life course (e.g.,
attraction to a different binary gender endures and
reects a static heterosexual identity)
Plurality and
uidity across
the life course
Individuals may pursue intimacy with different, same,
or no binary gender identities (e.g., plurisexual,
bisexual, or pansexual; heteroexible or mostly
straight); intimacy may change across the life course,
with changes in sexual identity labels, desires, and
3 Monoamory and
Intimacy occurs between two individuals only Polyamory and
Intimacy occurs among multiple partners with consent
4 Role symmetry/
Intimacy is characterized by equality and symmetry of
role and status
Intimacy is characterized by consensual asymmetry
based on power exchange
5 Sexual and
Intimacy is characterized by romance and sexual
Intimacy may occur in the absence or limited
experience of sexual or romantic desire
6 Biological
Family structure consisting of biological offspring Chosen family Family structure dened by identity and community
7 Essential
Essential, timeless forms of intimacy can be known and
Open possibility Forms of intimacy are always historically and culturally
situated and in states of constant contestation and
creative emergence
ideal form of intimacy and posits that meaningful forms of
intimacy may occur among more than two individuals. In
this article, we refer to these queer relational forms as
falling within various congurations of consensual nonmo-
nogamy, including swinging, open relationships, and
Fourth, a queer paradigm challenges the normative privile-
ging of intimacy framed by power symmetry and the absence
of role or other forms of power play. The normative notion of
role symmetry within intimate relations is actually relatively
new and not as universally accepted as other norms, given the
historic and contemporary subordination of women in hetero-
sexual relations (Botkin, Weeks, & Morris, 2000;Coontz,
2005). A queer paradigm recognizes consensual forms of
asymmetric relations and forms of intimacy in which role
play and power exchange are central (e.g., Ortmann &
Sprott, 2013; Weinberg, 2006). We refer to these queer rela-
tional forms as kink/fetish/BDSM
and inclusive of many
explicitly dened role-based asymmetric relations.
Fifth, a queer paradigm challenges the normative
assumption that intimacy is predicated on sexual and/or
romantic attraction. We recognize that meaningful forms
of intimacy occur among individuals who identify as asex-
ual, aromantic, or with some label associated with the
asexual or aromantic spectrum (e.g., demisexual, graysex-
ual; see Bogaert, 2012). A queer paradigm recognizes that
these forms of intimacy are likely unique and merit both
cultural recognition and empirical study.
Sixth, a queer paradigm challenges the normative con-
ception of the biological nuclear family as the primary social
unit in the lives of individuals. The normative assumption of
the family concept is that it is rooted in biological relations,
typically headed by two individuals (historically of different
binary gender identities), and composed of biological off-
spring (Weston, 1991). A queer paradigm recognizes the
concept of the chosen family as an alternative social unit
that warrants recognition and empirical study.
Finally, a queer paradigm challenges the normative
assumption that human intimacy is characterized by essential
intelligibilitythat essential, timeless forms of intimacy can
be known or cataloged. A queer paradigm posits an axiom of
open possibilitythat forms of intimacy are always histori-
cally and culturally situated and in states of constant contesta-
tion and creative emergence (e.g., Foucault, 1978). Thus, a
queer paradigm remains constantly open to creativity and
innovation in human intimacy, balancing the need for repre-
sentation of diversity with resistance to reication. In other
words, a queer paradigm calls for the documentation of rela-
tional diversity in historical and cultural context but simulta-
neously rejects any attempt to normalizerelational forms, as
a queer stance necessarily entails a rejection of normativity in
any form (e.g., Warner, 1999).
In sum, a queer paradigm challenges normative cong-
urations of intimacy as restricted to two individuals of sym-
metrical roles but different binary gender identities that
coincide with sex assigned at birth, experiencing desire in a
categorical and static manner across the life course, intrinsi-
cally characterized by sexual and romantic desire, resulting
in a family unit dened by biological relation, and subject to
essential intelligibility through taxonomic specicity. Queer
relational forms deviate from this normative conguration,
and to our knowledge ours is the rst attempt to synthesize
scientic knowledge across such forms. Similar to chal-
lenges of the normative conception of sexual orientation as
a unidimensional construct (e.g., van Anders, 2015), our
queer intimacies paradigm seeks to expand understandings
of diversity in intimacy beyond the gender or sex of attrac-
tion. By upending normative assumptions of intimacy, a
queer paradigm goes beyond description of diverse rela-
tional forms. With a radically divergent set of axioms that
counters the normative assumptions that have historically
(mis)guided our understanding of relationships, a queer
paradigm provides an entirely new lens through which to
consider the meaning and diversity of human connection.
We recognize that many queer relational forms existed
prior to the 21st century. For example, there is historical
evidence to suggest that individuals of the same binary
gender identity have long formed intimate bonds (e.g.,
Boswell, 1994) and that monogamy is not a timeless stan-
dard for relationships (e.g., Barash & Lipton, 2001). We
suggest, however, that new vocabularies and taxonomies
have emerged that now give these relational forms a con-
temporary meaning. Thus, we focus in our review on con-
temporary manifestations of queer intimacy, recognizing the
open possibilities of the emergence of new, unknown queer
relational forms. We suggest that scholars embrace a para-
digm of queer intimacies that recognizes diversity, creativity,
and expansion of existing meanings and structures.
Focus and Parameters
Our selection of particular queer relational forms on which
to focus was guided by our identication of the key normative
assumptions about sex, gender, and the family just outlined.
While we recognize that other relational forms exist that chal-
lenge aspects of normative intimacy beyond sex, gender, and
the family (e.g., interracial relationships, interfaith relation-
ships, intergenerational relationships), these other diverse rela-
tional forms are beyond the scope of our paradigm. As both
scholars and practitioners of various queer relational forms
ourselves (e.g., same-sex, polyamorous, kink/fetish/BDSM,
chosen families), we recognized the need for a paradigmatic
statement and a narrative review of existing literature in this
area. We employed the method of a narrative review because
our intent was to identify and synthesize a broad, emerging
concept (queer relational forms that challenge normative
BDSM is a compound acronym derived from the terms bondage and
discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism
(Ortmann & Sprott, 2013).
assumptions about intimate relationships), rather than answer a
narrowly dened research question, which would call for a
systematic protocol (e.g., Bettany-Saltikov, 2010).
Guided by the seven axioms of a queer paradigm outlined,
we identied seven categories of queer relational forms: (1)
same-sex intimacies; (2) transgender and gender-nonbinary
intimacies; (3) plurisexual (i.e., bisexual, pansexual, and sexu-
ally uid) intimacies; (4) polyamory and other consensual
nonmonogamies; (5) kink/fetish/BDSM intimacies; (6) asexual
and aromantic intimacies; and (7) chosen families. Consistent
with our seventh axiom of open possibility, we do not claim that
these seven forms are exhaustive of contemporary expressions
of queer intimacy. Rather, we highlight these forms to reveal
the necessity and vitality of a queer paradigm that challenges
normative assumptions of intimacy. We collected published,
peer-reviewed, English-language research using three major
databases (i.e., PsycINFO, EBSCOhost Academic Search
Complete, and Google Scholar) and also scanned the reference
lists of these research reports for relevant studies that warranted
inclusion in our review, using these seven queer relational
forms as a guide to determine inclusion. Importantly, articles
that focused on queer individuals, instead of queer relation-
ships, were not included in this review.
A queer paradigm has universal relevance in its interroga-
tion of normative assumptions of intimacy. Any application,
however, occurs in a particular cultural context, and we
recognize the considerable variability in the meaning of gen-
der, sexuality, and relationships across cultures (e.g.,
Blackwood, 2000;Parker,2009). For example, normative
assumptions of monoamory and dyadic monogamy may not
extend to many societies that value plural relationships within
communities (see Barash & Lipton, 2001). Hence, the axioms
of a queer paradigm are historically and culturally contingent.
Ours is thus not intended as an exhaustive review of relation-
ship diversity across cultures. Instead, the nature and signi-
cance of queer intimacies we explore here are generally
limited to North American and European societies in which
the normative assumptions we outlined have been constructed
and deployed. The application of a queer paradigm to other
cultural contexts would be extraordinarily benecial to the
identication of patterns of commonality and difference
across contexts. Because our aim was to identify the nature
of queer relational forms as currently documented and under-
stood within the scientic community, we chose to review
only published, peer-reviewed work, which itself tends to be
narrowly focused on North American and European contexts.
The inclusion of unpublished work in future reviews is recom-
mended, especially for meta-analyses of quantitative studies.
Same-Sex Intimacies
The rst axiom of a queer paradigm for the study of
relationship diversity is that intimacy need not be conned
to individuals of a different binary cisgender identity.
Rather, intimacy may be experienced in the context of a
relationship between individuals of any gender identity,
including individuals of the same binary cisgender identity,
a binary transgender identity, or a gender-nonbinary iden-
tity. In this section, we review empirical research on rela-
tionships between individuals of the same cisgender
Empirical work on same-sex relationships began to
emerge as the American Psychiatric Association removed
homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973 (American Psychiatric
Association, 1973). After this momentous decision, empiri-
cal attention gradually shifted away from a focus on same-
sex attraction as a form of psychopathology and more on
the unique psychological experience of same-sex-attracted
individuals as sexual minorities in a cultural context of
heterosexism and sexual prejudice (Herek, 1990). In the
scientic literature, same-sex attraction thus came to be
seen as a trait associated with diversity in intimate desire
rather than an indicator of pathology (Hammack, Mayers,
& Windell, 2013; Herek, 2010).
The American Couples Study (Blumstein & Schwartz,
1983)was the rst large-scale national study of couples to
include a sizable and analyzable sample of same-sex cou-
ples, even though a focus on same-sex couples was not the
primary aim of the study. Additional empirical investiga-
tions into same-sex couples emerged within psychology
(for historical reviews, see Kurdek, 2005; Peplau &
Fingerhut, 2007). This research followed two primary
strands, which continue to characterize the current state of
the eld of research on same-sex couples: (a) comparative
studies examining the degree to which same-sex couples
are similar to and different from different-sex couples and
(b) within-group studies on the unique aspects of same-sex
couples that are not shared by different-sex couples, typi-
cally because of gender dynamics and/or social stigma.
Comparative research has been framed as problematic by
some operating within critical and queer perspectives
because such studies often frame different-sex couples as
the normto which same-sex relationships are compared
(e.g., Kitzinger & Wilkinson, 2004). While we acknowl-
edge the legitimacy of this perspective, we believe there is
value in reviewing this comparative work to inform an
emerging queer paradigm that considers the ways in
which contemporary same-sex relationships navigate
Similarities and Differences Between Same-Sex and
Different-Sex Relationships
Studies comparing same-sex and different-sex relation-
ships have found very few differences between the two using
a multitude of indicators of relationship quality, including
satisfaction, love, commitment, conict, and communication
(e.g., Balsam, Beauchaine, Rothblum, & Solomon, 2008;
Diamond, 2006;Kurdek,2005; Peplau & Fingerhut, 2007),
and some studies suggest that same-sex relationships evidence
more positive functionality than different-sex couples (e.g.,
Kurdek, 2004). Although early research found higher rates of
dissolution among same-sex couples (Blumstein & Schwartz,
1983), such comparisons were primarily made in relation to
different-sex married couples, which presents a confound for
comparison (i.e., availability of legal recognition) that has
plagued much of the comparative work on same-sex and
different-sex relationships. Indeed, when more appropriate
comparisons are made controlling for legal and parenting
statusboth major factors in relationship dissolutionsimi-
lar levels of relationship dissolution are observed between
same-sex and different-sex couples (for reviews, see
Diamond, 2006; van Eeden-Mooreeld, Martell, Williams,
& Preston, 2011). Even further, the processes that explain
relationship commitmentnamely investment, satisfaction,
and the perceived quality of alternatives to the relationship
appear to be similar across both same-sex and different-sex
relationships (Beals, Impett, & Peplau, 2002;Kurdek,2008).
These similarities between different-sex and same-sex rela-
tionships have led some close-relationships researchers to
conclude that relationship science should not move forward
as if its core principles would be qualitatively different in the
lives of same-sex couples (Finkel et al., 2017). However, there
are some important ways in which same-sex relationships are
uniquely experienced that warrant specic attention.
The ways in which same-sex and different-sex couples
structure and negotiate their relationships are often differ-
ent. For example, same-sex couples tend to report more
equitable distributions of nancial, household, and child-
rearing responsibilities than different-sex couples
(Diamond, 2006; Kurdek, 2005; Goldberg, 2013; Peplau
& Fingerhut, 2007; for an ethnographic study of family
life in same-sex-headed households, see Carrington,
1999). As some researchers have posited (e.g., Adam,
2006; Degges-White & Marszalek, 2007; Green &
Mitchell, 2002; Lannutti, 2008; Weston, 1991), due to the
historically stigmatized status and lack of structural recog-
nition for same-sex couples, same-sex relationships are
often structured in ways that meet their practical needs
through agreements that defy tradition(e.g., marriage)
within heteronormative societies. Studies have shown, for
example, that sexual minority individuals and same-sex
couples have more open views surrounding monogamy
and may be more likely to have open relationships than
heterosexuals (Moors, Rubin, Matsick, Ziegler, & Conley,
2014; van Eeden-Mooreeld, Malloy, & Benson, 2016). We
review research on consensual nonmonogamy among
same-sex couples later in this article.
Compared to understandings of how individuals struc-
ture their relationships and come to agreements surround-
ing issues like monogamy, very little attention has been
paid to the psychological experiences of intimacy in same-
sex and different-sex relationships. Studies that have com-
pared same-sex and different-sex couples on intimacy-
related constructs have primarily adopted behavioral indi-
cators of intimacy (e.g., amount of time spent with a
partner). The results of these studies indicate similar levels
of intimacy across couples and sometimes higher levels
among same-sex couples (Kurdek, 1998,2004). At the
subjective experiential and psychological levels, indivi-
duals in same-sex relationships seem to attribute the same
level of meaning and importance to their pursuits of inti-
macy and do not demonstrate differences when compared
to heterosexuals in regard to the prominence of intimacy in
dening the meanings of their relationship experiences
(Frost, 2011a,2011b).
Unique Experiences of Same-Sex Couples
Despite the overwhelming amount of research that indi-
cates same-sex relationships do not meaningfully differ
from different-sex relationships in most important out-
comes of relational health and functioning, differences do
exist in two key aspects (Diamond, 2006): gender and
stigma. The nature of interactions in same-sex and differ-
ent-sex relationships is unique because partners in same-
sex couples share the same cisgender identity. Early nd-
ings in the American Couples Study (Blumstein &
Schwartz, 1983) indicated that female couples demon-
strated the lowest frequency of sex relative to different-
sex couples and male couples, who reported the highest
levels. Several clinicians and researchers have offered
hypotheses for this nding, referencing evidence from
other research that women tend to demonstrate lower levels
of libido, sexual frequency, and sexual assertiveness rela-
tive to men, but such ndings have since been challenged
(for a review, see Nichols, 2004). Nevertheless, this nding
led to some theorizing of the potential existence of what
was called lesbian bed death,in which sexual desire and
frequency of sexual activity were thought to decline in
female couples rapidly over time due to unhealthy levels
of merger, for which there has been a tremendous amount
of clinical discussion but little empirical evidence to sup-
port (e.g., Frost & Eliason, 2014). Also, the gender simi-
larity in same-sex relationships has been cited for female
and male couples demonstrating more equitable levels of
distribution of housework and greater role equality in same-
sex relationships relative to different-sex relationships (for
a review, see Diamond, 2006).
Important questions remain unanswered regarding the
role of gender in shaping the unique experiences of same-
sex relationships. For example, female same-sex relation-
ships between partners who identify as butch(i.e., mas-
culine presenting) and femme(i.e., feminine presenting)
may manifest important relational gender dynamics even
though both partners may identify as cisgender women. In
fact, Balsam and Szymanski (2005) found a small but
signicant association between femme identication and
experiences of LGB-specic victimization in relationships.
In the only population-based study of female relationships
to address gender-role dynamics, Rothblum, Balsam, and
Wickham (2018) found that gender-role identities tend to
structure relationship pairings (with butchfemme and
androgynousandrogynous pairings being most common),
but gender-role pairings did not impact relationship quality.
They found that femme-identied women reported more
autonomy in their relationships, and that partners of
femme-identied women reported doing less housework,
further noting the complexities of gender dynamics in
same-sex couples. However, beyond these two studies,
relatively little research has examined the nuances of gen-
der expression and gender roles in cisgender womens
relationships despite the importance of gender role to gen-
der identity in general (Eves, 2004; Levitt & Horne, 2002).
These gender dynamics within same-sex relationships are
increasingly important to examine, given gender and sexual
uidity (e.g., Diamond, 2017). The changing nature of
sexual identity labelsaway from exclusive lesbian and
gay monosexual identities, toward plurisexual queer and
pansexual identitieshas shifted the foundations of gender
and sexuality in ways that may further differentiate female
and male same-sex couples from different-sex couples
(e.g., Galupo, Davis, Grynkiewicz, & Mitchell, 2014).
Another way in which the intimate relationships of
same-sex couples are unique concerns the consequences
of the continued stigmatized status of same-sex relation-
ships in most areas of the world. Given the global focus on
same-sex marriage over the past two decades, much of the
body of research on same-sex couples has focused on how
stigma as a contextual factor shapes their experiences and
well-being. Stigma exists at multiple levels, including
structural stigma in the form of unequal opportunities for
legal recognition (Hatzenbuehler, 2016), which stigmatizes
all intimate relationships that fall outside of the heterosex-
ual norm. Although many countries in Europe and North
America provide equal access to legal relationship recogni-
tion, most countries in the world do not provide equal legal
recognition to same-sex and different-sex couples, includ-
ing some developed Western countries (e.g., the United
Kingdom, Italy, Australia). This historically differential
legal treatment is one way in which the experiences of
same-sex couples are uniquely different from different-sex
Like different-sex couples, not all same-sex couples desire
to get married (Rothblum, 2005). In addition, some sexual
minority individuals may experience a high degree of uncer-
tainty regarding their own developmental trajectories and
expectations in regard to relationship formation and milestone
achievement (e.g., anniversaries) due to the historical lack of
social recognition and value of intimacy in same-sex relation-
ships (Kertzner, 2001). Indeed, there has been a considerable
amount of debate about whether access to legal marriage will
lead to positive outcomes for same-sex couples or whether it
could exert negative pressures on same-sex couples to con-
form to heteronormative standards (Diamond, 2017).
However, large proportions of sexual minority individuals
have been found to report a desire for long-term romantic
relationships and to marry their partners, should same-sex
marriage be an available legal option (Baiocco, Argalia, &
Laghi, 2014;DAugelli, Rendina, Sinclair, & Grossman,
2007;Herek,2006; Rostosky, Riggle, Rothblum, & Balsam,
Regardless of the research evidence on intimacy and
same-sex relationships, negative stereotypes regarding the
meaning of intimacy in sexual minority individualslives
and relationships create and reafrm heterosexist opportu-
nity structures, which privilege heterosexualsopportunities
to express and achieve intimacy while impeding the inti-
macy-related goals of sexual minority individuals (Frost &
LeBlanc, 2014;Herdt & Kertzner, 2006; Meyer & Dean,
1998). In addition, the lack of full public support for equal
relationship recognition, which remains the case even in
countries with legal equality, illustrates that society con-
structs same-sex relationships as lesser than different-sex
relationships not just on a political or legal level but on a
moral level as well (Frost & Gola, 2015). Exposure to this
social discourse of devaluation likely has an effect on
people in same-sex relationships above and beyond their
denial of equal legal recognition (Frost & Fingerhut, 2016;
Herdt & Kertzner, 2006; Herek, 2006). The denial of equal
rights associated with partnership establishes same-sex cou-
ples as second-class citizens in such contexts and likely
diminishes social and psychological well-being for people
in same-sex relationships (Hatzenbuehler, McLaughlin,
Keyes, & Hasin, 2010; Herdt & Kertzner, 2006; King &
Bartlett, 2006).
Most countries continue to discriminate against same-
sex couples in providing access to legal recognition, and
same-sex couples are often reminded of this fact by the
news media, social media, and in conversations with their
neighbors, family, and coworkers in daily interactions
(Frost & Fingerhut, 2016). This experience constitutes
minority stress (i.e., stress specic to the experience of
occupying a sexual minority status in the context of hetero-
sexism; see Brooks, 1981; Frost et al., 2017; LeBlanc,
Frost, & Wight, 2015; Meyer, 2003; Russell & Richards,
2003; Riggle, Thomas, & Rostosky, 2005; for a broader
historical discussion of minority stress, including ethnic
minority stress, see Meyer, 1995) that likely has additional
negative effects on well-being and relationship quality in
same-sex relationships (Frost & Fingerhut, 2016). Because
these devaluing discourses call into question the general
value of intimacy and relationships in sexual minority
individualslives, their negative impact is likely to be felt
by many people pursuing same-sex relationships, regard-
less of their desire to be legally married or publicly com-
mitted. Indeed, barriers to the achievement of intimacy-
related goals stemming from interpersonal (e.g., friends,
family) and structural (e.g., laws, religious institutions)
sources have been shown to partially explain health dispa-
rities between sexual minorities and heterosexuals (Frost &
LeBlanc, 2014).
The effects of negative political and societal discourses
surrounding same-sex intimacy may further impact
couplesexperiences in relationships. Sexual minorities in
same-sex relationships experience stigmatization specicto
their relationships on an interpersonal level (Diamond,
2006; Frost & Meyer, 2009; Green & Mitchell, 2002;
Peplau & Fingerhut, 2007). People in same-sex relation-
ships experience greater stress related to not being accepted
and being misunderstood by other people in their lives,
especially by their families, compared to single sexual
minorities (Lewis, Derlega, Grifn, & Krowinski, 2003).
These interpersonal stressors, along with other forms of
discrimination and victimization, are associated with
decreased intimacy and relationship quality (see Doyle &
Molix, 2015; Rostosky & Riggle, 2017b).
Coleman, Rosser, and Strapko (1992) pointed out that the
anxiety, shame, and devaluation of sexual minority people and
oneself as a sexual minority person are likely to be most overtly
manifested in interpersonal relationships with other sexual
minority individuals. Studies have empirically demonstrated
that similar stigma-related processes interfere with same-sex
relationships in numerous ways, such as decreasing relational
functioning, increasing conict among partners, and decreasing
overall relationship satisfaction (for a review, see Rostosky &
Riggle, 2017b). Although these studies have established a
general connection between stigma-related processes and rela-
tional functioning and well-being, none have yet fully investi-
gated what factors may mediate the associations between
stigma and relational functioning and well-being.
In truth, many same-sex couples are in happy, healthy,
and rewarding relationships despite continuing stigma at
the societal level (for a review, see Rostosky & Riggle,
2017a). Some couples may see the stigma that society
continues to attach to their relationships as a challenge
rather than a threat, which ultimately benets their relation-
ship through complicated mechanisms of resistance and
adaptation (Rostosky, Riggle, Gray, & Hatton, 2007).
Specically, some couples utilize psychological meaning-
making strategies that frame experiences of prejudice and
discrimination as something initially negative that, in ght-
ing against and overcoming, reafrms their bond to each
other and brings them closer together as a couple (Frost,
2011b,2014). Additional research shows that same-sex
couples attribute many positive qualities of their relation-
ships to the fact that they are in a same-sex relationship.
For example, sexual minority individuals attribute the abil-
ity to enjoy egalitarian relationships and experience free-
dom from heteronormative gender roles as positive
qualities potentially resulting from being in a same-sex
relationship (Riggle, Whitman, Olson, Rostosky, &
Strong, 2008; Rostosky & Riggle, 2017a).
Queering the Study of Same-Sex Relationships
Same-sex relationships defy conventional notions of
normative relationships in their very denition. The norma-
tive standard that evolved over the course of human history
across cultures has been the ideal of two individuals of
different binary cisgender identities, namely male and
female (Rubin, 2011c). Same-sex relationships challenge
this regime of relational normativity, and as homosexuality
gradually shifted from the frame of pathology to that of
legitimate social identity (Hammack et al., 2013), the cul-
tural and legal recognition of these queer relational forms
assumed a central place in advocacy and empirical inquiry
on relationship diversity. Much of the research on same-sex
relationships has been guided by the political aim to des-
tigmatize such forms and, in the process, redress the psy-
chological injustice of structural and direct violence against
sexual minorities (e.g., Frost & Gola, 2015; Frost &
Ouellette, 2004; Herek, 2006)the source of health and
mental health disparities for sexual minorities (Meyer,
As we have suggested, there remains much to be done to
legitimize same-sex relationships on a global scale.
However, with legal recognition in an increasing number
of nations and waning cultural disapproval of same-sex
relationships and homosexuality more generally, new
research questions emerge in the study of same-sex rela-
tionships that go beyond matters of comparison to differ-
ent-sex relationships and the documentation of stigma. For
example, we suggest that greater attention ought to be paid
to the study of how contemporary same-sex couples engage
with notions of relationship normativity and social main-
streaming now that, to some extent, their relational forms
are not legally disadvantaged in the same ways they were in
the past.
Although we consider same-sex relationships as queer
within the proposed paradigm (because they do not con-
form to heteronormativity), same-sex couples may increas-
ingly view themselves as tting within normative notions
of traditional relationships(e.g., monogamous and mar-
ried), as legal recognition may increase the cultural legiti-
macy of such relational forms. Once relegated to gay
ghettos”—as much out of a need for security as a desire
to reside within a minority community (Levine, 1979)
many same-sex couples may feel that they can now live
safely assimilatedinto predominantly heterosexual com-
munities, though this sentiment likely varies by numerous
intersecting factors such as race, ethnicity, class, gender
identity and expression, and region (see Ghaziani, 2014).
Future research ought to examine the decision-making
processes and experiences of same-sex couples as they
engage with normativity. Why do some same-sex couples
marry while others prefer alternative ways to recognize
their union? Why do some reside within sexual minority
communities while others do not? Why do some seek to
have children, and in what myriad ways? How do experi-
ences and social and psychological well-being differ for
same-sex couples who make different decisions about
such matters? What diverse forms do same-sex-headed
families assume? How do same-sex couplesexperiences
vary at the intersections of other identities, like race, class,
faith, and age? A queer paradigm upends the traditional
focus of research on same-sex relationships on matters of
equivalence with different-sex relationships toward interro-
gation of intimate diversity in all its forms. Such an
approach replaces concepts of normativity, a relic of 20th-
century thinking in gender and sexuality, with assumptions
of diversity, uidity, and possibility.
Same-sex relationships framed as passionate or intimate
friendships rather than romantic dyads also warrant
renewed study. Diamond (2000,2002) and Thompson
(2007) have documented these types of same-sex relation-
ships among sexual minority women, revealing the way in
which they merge traditional friendship scripts with roman-
tic scripts and some forms of physical intimacy. Such
relationships can assume a role in young womens experi-
ence of sexual uidity by providing a safe context for them
to explore same-sex intimacy (Thompson, 2007). What
other forms do such same-sex friendships take? To what
extent do men of diverse sexual orientations also experi-
ence such same-sex intimacy? There is some evidence to
suggest that, as homophobia declines and conceptions of
masculinity expand to allow for same-sex intimacy, even
men who identify as heterosexual experience passionate
friendship with other men (e.g., Anderson, Adams, &
Rivers, 2012; Anderson & McCormack, 2015).
These are just a sampling of new questions we believe ought
to be addressed in 21st-century inquiry on same-sex relation-
ships. Although there is greater diversity now in the extent to
which same-sex relationships are legally recognized and cultu-
rally supported, stigma and subordinate status endure in much
of the world, along with resulting health inequalities (e.g.,
Williams & Mann, 2017). Documentation of the impact of
this diversity on individuals and couples offers an important
new line of inquiry for the study of relationships, which is
needed to inform attempts to address these issues through
policy, public health, educational, and other community- and
individual-level interventions. The assumption of an explicitly
queer approach to the study of same-sex relationships in the 21st
century shifts our lens away from normativity toward recogni-
tion and interrogation of intimate diversity.
Transgender and Gender-Nonbinary Intimacies
The rst axiom of a queer paradigm recognizes that inti-
macy may occur among individuals of any gender identity. In
this section, we review research on relationships in which one
or more individuals identify as transgender or as gender non-
binary, genderqueer, or a similar label that dees binary con-
ceptions of gender. Although cisgender and transgender
individuals may share a process of personality development
in terms of self-categorization (Tate, Youssef, & Bettergarcia,
2014), the endurance of cissexism (i.e., the privileging of
cisgender identities and denigration of transgender or gen-
der-nonconforming individuals; Serano, 2007) and transpho-
bia suggest that the experiences of transgender and gender-
nonbinary individuals in relationships might diverge from
cisgender individuals in same-sex relationships.
As Pfeffer (2017) noted in her book on queer families,
Trans people, their partnerships, and families throw our
social identity taxonomic classication systems into won-
derfully perplexing disarray(p. 133). Such queer rela-
tional forms are rooted in a lived experience of resistance
to existing taxonomies of gender, sexuality, and identity
through an afrmative process predicated on authenticity.
They raise a host of new and compelling questions about
the diversity of human relationships in the 21st century.
It is important to note the extraordinary diversity of
possible queer relational forms that may fall within the
domain of trans intimacy. The term transgender encom-
passes a number of distinct identities and experiences, all of
which are united in their fundamental critique of the notion
that natal sex (or sex assigned at birth) is destiny with
regard to gender identity, gender presentation, or the lived
experience of gender. In spite of this commonality, trans-
gender individuals represent diverse groups, and caution
must be taken not to consider their experience in a uniform
way (Dargie, Blair, Pukall, & Coyle, 2014;Factor &
Rothblum, 2008).
We recognize that language within the umbrella cate-
gory of transgender identities is evolving, and so our
attempt here should not be considered exhaustive. Such
identities include individuals historically called transsex-
ual, or more recently trans binary, and typically referred
to as trans men (assigned female sex at birth and now
identifying as male) or trans women (assigned male sex at
birth and now identifying as female). Individuals who
identify as genderqueer, gender nonbinary, and/or gender
uid are all also often considered within the larger trans-
gender umbrella (Teich, 2012). These individuals tend to
reject the gender binary and do not identify as male or
female (see Richards et al., 2016). They experience trans-
phobic discrimination (Harrison, Grant, & Herman, 2012)
and report a strong sense of connection to the larger trans-
gender community (Factor & Rothblum, 2008), though
their experiences in relationships are likely distinct from
transgender binary individuals in ways that are beginning to
be empirically examined (Galupo, Pulice-Farrow,
Clements, & Morris, in press; Pulice-Farrow, Bravo, &
Galupo, in press).
Transgender and other diverse forms of gender identity
challenge normative notions of human relationships, which
have historically been predicated on a binary notion of
gender (Galupo, Henise, & Mercer, 2016). They also create
a seemingly endless number of congurations to consider
the plurality of potential queer relational forms. For exam-
ple, possible monoamorous congurations include a trans-
gender man and a cisgender woman, a transgender woman
and a cisgender man, a transgender man and a cisgender
man, a transgender woman and a cisgender woman, a
gender-nonbinary individual and a transgender man, a gen-
der-uid individual and a cisgender woman, and so on.
When one adds the layer of sexual orientation and the
history of a transgender persons sexual subjectivity, the
nature of these queer relational forms becomes even more
complex (e.g., Devor, 1993; Galupo et al., 2016,2015). A
trans man may have previously identied as a butch lesbian
and may have been in a relationship with a femme lesbian
prior to gender afrmation transition. As a woman, this
individual might have identied as a lesbian but may now
identify as heterosexual or queer. A trans woman may have
previously identied as a heterosexual man, may have been
masculine presenting, and may have been married to a
heterosexual woman prior to gender afrmation transition.
As a woman, this individual might now identify as a
lesbian. The point is that the relational experiences of
transgender individuals are characterized by a uid and
historical consideration of both gender and sexual identity.
Personal and relational narratives may not assume a simple
linear form for these individuals and their partners, and
researchers must be especially sensitive to the diverse pos-
sibilities of lived experience for transgender individuals
and their partners.
Research on queer relational forms in which one or more
individuals identify as transgender or gender nonbinary is
in its relative infancy but has increased substantially in
recent years. A number of recent studies have examined
the experience of friendship for transgender individuals,
studying such issues as friendship experience across
diverse gender identities and sexual orientations (Galupo
et al., 2014), disclosure of transgender identity and status
(Galupo, Krum, Hagen, Gonzalez, & Bauerband, 2014),
and experience of microaggressions (Galupo, Henise, &
Davis, 2014). Here, we limit our review to relationships
that involve sexual and/or romantic intimacy. We highlight
three primary areas of research that are dominant in the
existing literature: (1) identity and sexual subjectivity, (2)
minority stress experiences and processes, and (3) navigat-
ing normativity.
Identity and Sexual Subjectivity
One of the most signicant and unique features of trans
intimacies is that at least one partner in the relationship has
undertaken a gender identity shift away from the sex
assigned at birth. The identity development process of
transgender individuals fundamentally involves a shift not
only in gender identity and presentation but also in sexual
and romantic subjectivity, which often results in a shift in
sexual identity label (Galupo et al., 2016; Katz-Wise,
Reisner, Hughto, & Keo-Meier, 2016; Sanger, 2010).
Because a dichotomized notion of gender underlies the
primary way in which sexual and romantic attraction has
been historically conceived (Galupo et al., 2016), a trans-
formation in gender identity may reorient romantic and
sexual subjectivity.
Trans individuals typically report signicant stress asso-
ciated with changes in sexual orientation or attraction as
they transition to afrm gender (Mizock & Hopwood,
2016). For example, the shift in being readas a lesbian
to being read as a heterosexual man might be confusing and
challenging, as it may involve misrecognition. Trans indi-
viduals often report discomfort with traditional sexual
orientation labels because of the static and binary concep-
tion of gender underlying such labels, often preferring the
label queer, which explicitly challenges all forms of nor-
mative identity categorization (Katz-Wise et al., 2016;
Kuper, Nussbaum, & Mustanski, 2012;Mizock &
Hopwood, 2016). Studies suggest that both transgender
men and transgender women are more likely to report
sexual attraction to women, though notable numbers report
attraction to gay men (Devor, 1993; Factor & Rothblum,
2008). One study suggests that transgender men may
experience more sexual uidity compared to transgender
women (Katz-Wise et al., 2016).
Challenges to identity or self-understanding in trans
intimacies have often been studied from the perspective
of the cisgender partners of trans individuals. In a quali-
tative study of 16 cisgender females whose partners tran-
sitioned from male to female (i.e., they are now partnered
to trans women), feelings of uncertainty and confusion in
sexual orientation and maintenance of a heterosexual
identity emerged (Alegría, 2013). Most of these cis
women maintained a heterosexual identity and explained
ongoing attraction to their partners as an exception (e.g.,
situationallesbianism). Some (n= 3, 19%) reported no
longer engaging in sexual activity with their partners.
Most (81%) reported an evolvingperspective on phy-
sical intimacy, actively attempting to maintain sexual
relations. A more recent qualitative study with 21 part-
ners (who identied as both cisgender and transgender) of
transgender individuals found similar themes, including
issues around physical and emotional intimacy, changing
sexual orientation labels, safety concerns, feelings of
isolation, and new appreciation of the gender spectrum
(Platt & Bolland, 2018).
Probably the most studied conguration of trans inti-
macy has been relationships between trans men who pre-
viously identied as butch lesbians and cis women who
identify as femme lesbians. The construction and mainte-
nance of gender identity is critical in these relationships,
particularly as trans men undergo the process of gender
afrmation transition. Ward (2010) highlighted the gender
laborthat femme women do in their relationships with
trans men to validate and celebrate their partnersmascu-
linity and to suppress the complexity of their own gender
and sexual subjectivity in the service of this goal(p. 237).
Trans men reported a desire for their femme partners to
behave in ways that support their masculinity (e.g., being
the girlin the relationship, forgettingtheir partners
past identity as female, and denying the status of their
relationship as transgender; Ward, 2010). Femme part-
ners in Wards(2010) study reported confusion, resentment,
and hard work in these relationships, with challenges to
their own sense of gender and sexual identity. By contrast,
Pfeffer (2010,2017) found that cis partners of trans men
engaged in disproportionate labor but justied it as an
intentional act of personal agency consistent with third-
wave feminist ideology. It is important to note that some
in these types of relational congurations may not view
themselves or their relationships as necessarily queer
(Platt & Bolland, 2018). For example, trans men who
identify as heterosexual and are partnered with a hetero-
sexual-identied cisgender woman may view their relation-
ship as straightor heterosexual.
In her research with the cisgender women partners of
trans men, Pfeffer (2012,2014,2017) revealed the way in
which trans intimacies necessarily involve challenges to
identity and self-understanding. Most notable is the issue
of whether cis partners continue to identify as lesbian once
the notion of being in a same-sex relationship is no longer
relevant or appropriate, given their partnersmale gender
identity. The notion that they might identify as straight or
heterosexual is not appealing to such women, as their sex-
ual and romantic orientation is generally directed toward
masculine women. Pfeffer (2012,2014,2017) found that
these women increasingly (and especially among younger
cohorts) prefer the label queer to signify their nonnorma-
tive sexual identities, as well as the term queer to refer to
the nonnormative nature of their relationship. More
research is needed to understand the distinctions between
those relationships dened by partners as queer versus
those intentionally dened in traditional binary terms such
as straight, gay, or lesbian.
Minority Stress Experiences and Processes
Although transgender individuals have unique experi-
ences related to identity, stress, and health compared with
their cisgender LGB peers (Dargie et al., 2014), studies
suggest that transgender individuals are just as impacted
by minority stress as cisgender LGB people (e.g., Timmins,
Rimes, & Rahman, 2017). The minority stress framework
can be applied not just to individuals but also to relation-
ships; in other words, individuals of diverse sexual or
gender identities experience structural violence, but rela-
tionships as social units do as well. Much of the limited
research conducted on trans intimacies has revealed the
experience of minority stress on account of the nonnorma-
tive nature of the relationship.
In a survey of couples consisting of trans women and
their cisgender male partners, Gamarel, Reisner,
Laurenceau, Nemoto, and Operario (2014) discovered
high reports of relationship stigma. They found that higher
reports of discrimination were associated with lower levels
of relationship quality, suggesting a possible impact of
explicit stigma on the relationship. They noted that minor-
ity stress impacts not only individuals but also dyads as
relational units.
The nature of structural violence and explicit prejudice
for trans individuals often represents a form of homophobic
transphobia in which gender and sexuality are conated
(i.e., trans individuals are read as gay and harassed for
their gender nonconformity). In their study of 45 indivi-
duals who identied as transgender or gender nonconform-
ing, Mizock and Hopwood (2016) discovered the common
experience of homophobic transphobia, as well as the
experience of heteronormative gender-role pressure, which
placed stress on the relationships of trans individuals.
The larger ideological context of cissexism, which denies
the legitimacy of transgender identity and is embodied in such
transphobic policies as bathroom bills(see Wernick,
Kulick, & Chin, 2017), creates a pervasive situation of explicit
prejudice for trans individuals and their partners. The minority
stress processes that are activated include internalized stress
about body image and gender presentation; stress related to
concealment, disclosure, and misrecognition; internalized
stigma; stigma/rejection expectations; stigma or exclusion
from the sexual minority community; and social support. We
review the limited literature on each of these processes in turn.
As transgender individuals undergo a process of afrma-
tion in which their gender presentation comes to align with
their internal experience of gender identity, they experience
both psychological benets and challenges. Issues of body
image, objectication, and minority stress intersect for trans
individuals and their partners (Velez, Breslow, Brewster,
Cox, & Foster, 2016). Pfeffer (2008) revealed the way in
which many trans men experience signicant body dys-
phoria, and she proposed the concept of relational body
image to highlight the way in which cisgender female part-
ners of trans men may actually internalize negative senti-
ments about their own female bodies through the course of
their relationships. Body modication, especially during the
period of gender afrmative transition, can create consider-
able stress for trans individuals and their partners, as they
must negotiate criticism and reaction from those who may
not be supportive (Pfeffer, 2017). Gender presentation more
broadly has been identied as a source of stress for trans
individuals, who must constantly navigate issues of (mis)
recognition and transphobic reactions (e.g., Levitt &
Ippolito, 2014). However, research also reveals the benets
of the experience of gender afrmation transition for trans-
gender individuals, as their sense of gender identity becomes
more consistent with their experiences of their own bodies
(e.g., Prunas et al., 2017; Schimmel-Bristow et al., 2018).
The ability to manifest ones gender with greater authenticity
is associated with numerous social and psychological bene-
ts for transgender people (e.g., Martinez, Sawyer,
Thoroughgood, Ruggs, & Smith, 2017).
In a larger cultural context of cissexism and transphobia,
trans relationships involve heightened stress around con-
cealment and disclosure. Members of a relationship are
regularly in heightened states of information control around
self-presentation (Goffman, 1959,1963), as the disclosure
of their status as a trans relationship could be not only
discrediting but also dangerous. Nuttbrock et al. (2009)
reported on a survey of two cohorts of 571 trans women
in New York City, nding a higher likelihood of disclosure
in their younger cohort (under age 40) and among
achieved(e.g., friends or chosen family) rather than
ascribed(e.g., family of origin) relationships. In their
survey of more than 1,200 trans people in the United
States, Iantafand Bockting (2011) found that trans men
were more likely to have disclosed their trans identity to
primary partners than were trans women.
While studies focus on experiences of concealment
and disclosure among trans individuals, no studies of
which we are aware have systematically examined con-
cealment or disclosure stress at the dyadic or relational
level. Studies have, however, examined issues of misre-
cognition among trans relationships. In her research with
cisgender women partners of trans men, Pfeffer (2012,
2014,2017) discovered the common phenomenon of
these couples being misrecognized as straight or hetero-
normative because the gender presentation of the two
partners conformed to binary femininity and masculinity.
The cisgender women in these couples especially experi-
enced this misrecognition as a source of stress because
they did not identify with heterosexuality. Pfeffer (2017)
described the way in which these couples intentionally
identied as queer to avoid this misrecognition.
A particularly challenging minority stress process
occurs when trans individuals or their relationship part-
ners internalize the dominant discourse of cissexism and
transphobia, which privileges cisgender identities and
denigrates gender nonconformity. Studies reveal that
internalized transphobia is associated with lower self-
esteem (Austin & Goodman, 2017;Iantaf& Bockting,
2011) and more rigid stereotypic gender beliefs (sug-
gesting a more rigid internalization of the gender bin-
ary; Iantaf& Bockting, 2011). No studies to our
knowledge have examined internalized stigma in the
context of a relationship in which one or more partners
identify as transgender. It seems likely, however, that
internalized stigma would be associated with relation-
ship dissatisfaction and possibly higher likelihood of
relationship dissolution, as well as other negative rela-
tional outcomes.
Minority stress is characterized by a persistent vigi-
lance about the possibility of stigma or rejection
(Meyer, 2003). Like internalized stigma, stigma expec-
tations have not been studied at the relational level but
have been studied at the individual level. For example,
research suggests that trans individuals experience fear
of rejection on an ongoing basis, particularly with sex-
ual or romantic partners (Iantaf& Bockting, 2011). It
is important to note that transgender individuals experi-
ence stigma and exclusion not only from a cissexist and
heterosexist society but also from the mainstream les-
bian, gay, and bisexual community (e.g., Pfeffer, 2017;
Weis s , 2003).
Within the minority stress framework, social support
functions to moderate the potential impact of minority
stress processes on negative health and mental health
outcomes (e.g., Frost, Meyer, & Schwartz, 2016;Meyer,
2003). The need for social support is especially strong
for those trans individuals who afrm their gender
through a transition process. In her study of trans peo-
ple in the United Kingdom, Hines (2006) highlighted
the importance of relationships in continuity and adjust-
ment during the transition period. In their study of
diverse trans people in the United States, Levitt and
Ippolito (2014) found that open communication about
sex and gender was key to the long-term success of
their intimate relationships. Pfeffer (2017) highlighted
the challenges that cis female partners of trans men
have in nding a sense of community and support, as
some are rejected from the lesbian community once
their partners decide to transition.
Navigating Normativity
While trans intimacies offer a clear challenge to norma-
tive relational forms, there are ways in which members of
trans relationships must uniquely navigate normativity. The
focus of research in this area has been on gender perfor-
mance and the extent to which trans relationships reproduce
a traditional gender binary. For example, in her study of
trans people and their partners in the United Kingdom,
Sanger (2010) discovered a normalization of binary gen-
der categoriesin which individuals seek to conform to
normative ideals of masculinity and femininity in both
self-presentation and behavior within the relationship. She
found that older participants in her study were especially
likely to appropriate or embrace heteronormative ideals of
To the extent that individuals in trans intimacies aspire to a
binary gender identity, these relationships might assume what
appears to be a normative form. As noted, cis women and
trans men in relationships must navigate the complexity of a
relationship once dened as explicitly queer (butch and
femme lesbian), now negotiating the trans mans desire to
embody masculinity and be identied as male with the cis
womans desire to maintain a lesbian or queer identity (e.g.,
Pfeffer, 2017;Ward,2010). Pfeffer (2012) proposed the con-
cepts of normative resistance and inventive pragmatism to
describe the strategies cis women in these relationships use to
navigate normativity. Normative resistance involves explicit
identication as queer and often polyamorous to intentionally
mark the relationship as nonnormative (e.g., Pfeffer, 2012).
Inventive pragmatism refers to strategies intended to access
legal marriage, parenthood, and reproductive technologies in
the context of being misrecognized or technically categorized
as a normative heterosexual couple.
Trans intimacies are diverse in their congurations, and
while some, such as those studied by Pfeffer (2017) and
Ward (2010), may be more likely to passas
heteronormative, others may be more likely to be immedi-
ately read as queer or transgressive with regard to gender
presentation. Regardless, individuals in trans forms of inti-
macy must make decisions about the way in which they
engage with normative notions of gender and sexuality.
Research is needed to examine the diverse ways in which
multiple congurations of trans intimacies respond to
It is important to note that research on individuals who
identify as genderqueer, gender nonbinary, or gender uid
is especially limited. There is evidence that these indivi-
duals constitute a distinct population with regard to the
experience of gender, sexuality, and mental health (see
Richards et al., 2016). Recent research has begun to address
the experience of individuals who identify as genderqueer,
gender nonbinary, or gender uid in intimate relationships,
highlighting the importance of partnersvalidation, afrma-
tion, and motivation to learn about the nonbinary experi-
ence (Galupo et al., in press; Pulice-Farrow et al., in press).
Plurisexual Intimacies and Sexual Fluidity
Normative assumptions about human intimacy presume
that romantic and sexual desire occur in a singular manner
(i.e., one is either attracted to the same or different sex) and
remain static across the life course (Diamond, 2008; Rust,
2002). These assumptions are rooted in a binary, monosex-
ual, essentialist conception of sexual orientation and sexual
identity (DeLamater & Hyde, 1998; Hammack, 2005). A
queer paradigm rejects these assumptions, instead positing
the possibility of plurality (i.e., attraction to multiple gen-
der identities simultaneously) and uidity (i.e., change in
desire and/or identity) across the life course. The queer
relational forms we review in this section are those that
embody this possibility and are mainly undertaken by indi-
viduals who may be classied as plurisexual (i.e., attracted
to multiple genders) rather than monosexual (i.e., attracted
to one gender) and identify as bisexual, pansexual, and
sexually uid, and straight, heteroexible,and mostly
straight, respectively (see Galupo, Ramirez, & Pulice-
Farrow, 2017).
Bisexual, Pansexual, and Sexually Fluid Intimacies
Although people who identify as bisexual (i.e., attracted
to both binary gender identities of male and female) or
pansexual (i.e., attracted to multiple gender identities,
including nonbinary identities) in their sexual identities
(see Callis, 2014), desires, and behaviors are present in
research on same-sex relationships, very few studies have
investigated the potentially unique experiences of intimacy
these individuals experience. This dearth of research is
especially troublesome given that research on the psychol-
ogy of sexual orientation generally tends to minimize,
ignore, or even deny the existence of the experiences of
bisexual and pansexual individuals (Flanders, 2017; Rust,
2002). Also, within sexual and gender minority commu-
nities, bisexual (and perhaps pansexual) individuals often
report experiences of discrimination from other community
members (Hayeld, Clarke, & Halliwell, 2014) and lower
levels of community connectedness potentially as a result
(Kertzner, Meyer, Frost, & Stirratt, 2009).
One explanation for this omission from research may be
that intimacy in bisexual and pansexual individualslives is
often dened from and compared to the point of view of
homosexuality and/or heterosexuality rather than as the
subject of study in its own right (Gustavson, 2009;
Pennington, 2009). Thus, external frames are imposed
upon their relational forms and lived experiences of inti-
macy, rather than building new understandings of the ways
that intimacy is experienced as unique to those who iden-
tify as bisexual or pansexual. These frames have also arisen
in bisexual individualsown identities in relation to their
partners. For example, bisexual women face stigmatization
and must negotiate negative stereotypes from straight male
and lesbian female partners (DeCapua, 2017; Hayeld
et al., 2014). Also, among bisexual men, the legitimacy
of being bisexual is more likely to be recognized by part-
ners of younger men; older men tend to conform to more
heteronormative ideals in relationships (Anderson, Scoats,
& McCormack, 2015). Perhaps because bisexual and pan-
sexual individuals have been stereotyped as hypersexual
and having multiple partners (or not existing at all except in
transition to a monosexual identity such as gay, lesbian, or
straight), their relationships have not been treated as deser-
ving of specic empirical attention (Gustavson, 2009; Rust,
The small amount of research that does exist has tended to
focus on bisexual individualsexperiences relative to hetero-
sexual and gay and lesbian individuals. These studies, often
with serious methodological challenges associated with den-
ing and sampling the bisexual population (e.g., response bias,
lack of accurate sampling frames, and inappropriate compar-
ison groups; Meyer & Wilson, 2009;Rothblum,2006), report
relatively few differences between bisexual and heterosexual
and gay and lesbian individuals on expectations and desire for
love preferences and ideals,as well as the desire to be in and
the prevalence of relationships (Engel & Saracino, 1986;
Rust, 2002). However, some ndings do indicate that bisexual
individuals tend to be less concerned with jealousy and de-
lityin their ideal close relationships than heterosexual and
lesbian and gay individuals (Engel & Saracino, 1986).
Bisexual individuals tend to report lower rates of monogamy
in their relationships, although studies tend to challenge pop-
ular stereotypes of bisexual individuals, noting that very few
tend to be in simultaneous relationships with male- and
female-identied individuals (for a review, see Rust, 2002).
Further, some research on the experiences of bisexual-identi-
ed women in different-sex relationships indicates that bisex-
relationship partners while still expressing aspects of their
bisexual identities via sexual relationships with other women
(Reinhardt, 2011).
Additional research suggests that bisexual women who
are in relationships with only a single male partner tend to
be less open about being bisexual and more exposed to
binegativity (i.e., stigma about bisexuality) compared to
bisexual women who are in relationships with male and
female partners or only a female partner (Molina et al.,
2015). These experiences of binegativity have been in turn
associated with poorer health in the form of depression and
substance use (Molina et al., 2015). Taken together, these
ndings highlight the potential constricting and deleterious
effect that the imposition of a heteronormative frame can
have for bisexual women: Not being able to fully express
bisexual identity and behaviorally engage with male and
female partners appears to be detrimental to bisexual
womens health. More research is needed to determine
whether similar effects exist for bisexual men.
It should be noted that some individuals who are
categorized as bisexual in the research literature often
identify as bisexual in combination with other sexual
identity labels (e.g., queer) or may consider themselves
to be pansexual (Callis, 2014; Elizabeth, 2013).
Pansexual and other plurisexual identities are increasingly
being used among younger generations as sexual identity
labels (Galupo et al., 2014,2017), with some studies
estimating a prevalence of the term among adolescents
and emerging adults of around 3% (Gamarel, Walker,
Rivera, & Golub, 2014; McInroy & Craig, 2012).
However, research has yet to focus specically on the
potentially unique experiences of pansexual and other
plurisexual individuals in intimate relationships. This is
important, given that queer-identied women report more
expansive and varied sexual behavior and desire patterns
and are more likely to experience uidity in their sexual
identities than bisexual-identied women (Mereish, Katz-
Wise, & Woulfe, 2017). Thus, future research concerned
with intimacy among individuals who have nonbinary
sexual identities should attempt to oversample pansexual
individuals and treat their experiences of intimacy as
worthy of study in their own right rather than combining
bisexual and pansexual individuals based on assumptions
of similarity (Flanders, 2017).
As more insight is gained into the phenomenon of
sexual uidity (Diamond, 2008; Katz-Wise, 2015;Katz-
Wise & Hyde, 2015), new questions emerge regarding the
ways in which shifting sexual identities, desires, and
behavior patterns orient individuals and their partners
within the context of intimate relationships (e.g., Better,
2014; Mereish et al., 2017). Indeed, research has shown
that sexual identities can shift in the context of or result-
ing from intimate relationship formation and dissolution.
For example, Diamonds(2008) longitudinal study of
sexual uidity in a cohort of sexual minority women
found that 67% experienced changes in the target of
their sexual attraction over a 10-year period. Further
cross-sectional survey research by Katz-Wise (2015)
replicated this nding (62% of women reported sexual
uidity in attraction) and extended it to men (52%
reported sexual uidity in attraction). Diamonds(2008)
longitudinal research documented instances in which
women changed their sexual identities in response to
falling in love with a particular individual. Such a phe-
nomenon may in part reect the experience of being
demisexual(i.e., individuals who do not experience
sexual attraction until they experience an emotional
bond with someone else; Galupo et al., 2014) and further
calls attention to unanswered questions surrounding the
intimate relationship experiences of individuals who are
not monosexual in their identities, behaviors, and desires.
The heightened visibility of individuals who identify as
bisexual or pansexual or who report sexual uidity has
challenged categorical notions of sexual orientation as
both xed (in the case of sexual uidity) and focused on
the gender of a partner (in the case of bisexuality and
pansexuality). Yet research on relationships has not suf-
ciently interrogated the unique experiences of individuals
with these diverse identities and forms of desire. Because
bisexual, pansexual, and other plurisexual identities chal-
lenge the expectation that sexual and gender identities
neatly align with relationship congurations (e.g., hetero-
sexual individuals are in different-sex relationships and
sexual minorities are in same-sex relationships), a queer
paradigm is needed to dismantle this narrow and limiting
assumption underlying much of the previous research in
relationship science (Gonzalez, Ramirez, & Galupo, 2017).
We call on social scientists to engage with diverse rela-
tional forms, both to represent and amplify these unique
experiences and also to provide us with a more complete
picture of the diversity of human intimacy.
Queer Heterosexuality
At the core of notions of relational normativity is the
ideal of different-sex attraction, so much so that critiques of
same-sex attraction have long positioned it as in conict
with the naturaldesign of human bodies (Corvino, 2013).
Reective of a growing recognition of the complexity and
diversity of human intimacy, even individuals whose attrac-
tions are oriented toward the normative ideal of a different
sex are currently defying received notions of heterosexual-
ity. Several scholars have argued that the success of social
and political movements for sexual and gender diversity,
accompanied by declining homohysteria(Anderson,
2011; McCormack & Anderson, 2014) and heightened vis-
ibility of sexual minorities in an increasingly post-clo-
setedculture (Dean, 2014), has resulted in new
opportunities and a new level of intentionality in the con-
struction and expression of relations among heterosexuals
(e.g., Morgan, 2012; Silva, 2018).
A larger context of declining homophobia (McCormack,
2012; McCormack & Anderson, 2014) and support for
sexual and gender identity diversity (Keleher & Smith,
2012) has likely created new possibilities for intimate
expression among individuals who identify as heterosexual.
There is evidence that substantial numbers of heterosexuals
question their sexual orientation and undergo a process of
exploration prior to committing to a heterosexual identity.
For example, in samples of college students in the United
States, Morgan and colleagues found that 53% of men and
67% of women who identied as exclusively straight
reported questioning their sexual orientation (Morgan,
Steiner, & Thompson, 2010; Morgan & Thompson, 2011).
There is also evidence that a more inclusive version of
masculinity has emerged in the United States and the
United Kingdom in which physical intimacy between
men, including same-sex behavior, is no longer necessarily
considered in conict with masculinity or an indicator of
gay identity (Anderson, 2008,2011; Anderson et al., 2012;
Anderson & McCormack, 2015; Bridges, 2014; Dean,
2014; McCormack & Anderson, 2014).
We highlight two notable indicators of this queeringof
normative heterosexuality that have been recently docu-
mented by researchers: the emergence of individuals who
identify as mostly or primarily straight (sometimes termed
heteroexible) and the proliferation of straight-identied
men who have sex with men. We recognize that the notion
of queer heterosexualitymay be considered contentious,
as an investment in heterosexual identity over an explicit
plurisexual identity such as bisexual or pansexual would
seem to signal an afnity with normativity. Nonetheless, we
contend that a commitment to heterosexual identication
may better speak to the lived experience of individuals with
strong different-sex desire, and that their willingness to
challenge the binary notion of sexual orientation through
their intimate practices signals a unique critique of norma-
tivity. As Silva (2018) noted, Normativity can be chal-
lenged not just from the fringes of sexuality and gender
(e.g., LGBTQ+ individuals) but also unintentionally from
within the institution of heterosexuality itself(p. 85).
Multiple studies have conrmed the unique prole of
individuals who identify as mostly or primarily straight.
For example, Thompson and Morgan (2008) found signi-
cant differences between college women who identied as
mostly straight versus exclusively straight, bisexual, or
lesbian on such dimensions as sexual attraction, sexual
behavior, and sexual identity development. In their survey
of almost 1,800 individuals recruited online through social
media, Vrangalova and Savin-Williams (2012) found sup-
port for a ve-category classication of sexual identity
(heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly gay/
lesbian, and gay/lesbian), with men more likely to identify
with the exclusive ends of the continuum.
In a major review of research on individuals who iden-
tify as mostly straight, Savin-Williams and Vrangalova
(2013) argued that there is sufcient evidence to consider
this group a distinct sexual identity category because they
show a unique prole of sexual and romantic interests and
characteristics. These individuals report a small degree of
same-sex attraction and only occasional same-sex behavior.
They constitute a substantial prevalence in the population
and report a mostly straight identity as subjectively mean-
ingful. Consistent with the historical argument that move-
ments for sexual and gender diversity have created space
for the complication of heterosexuality (e.g., Dean, 2014),
Savin-Williams and Vrangalova (2013) found evidence of
both age and cohort effects, whereby younger people were
more likely to identify as mostly straight. Savin-Williams
(2018) has recently discovered evidence that an additional
category, called primarily straight, also exists and indexes
meaningful differences with individuals who identify as
exclusively or mostly straight.
Individuals who identify as mostly straight are to be
distinguished from those who identify as straight but
engage in sex with members of the same sex (Carrillo &
Hoffman, 2018). Most of the research in this area has been
conducted with straight-identied men (e.g., Carrillo &
Hoffman, 2018; Silva, 2017,2018; Ward, 2015), as
research on same-sex relations among straight-identied
women has typically been situated in the literature on
bisexuality and sexual uidity (reviewed previously; see
Diamond, 2008). Because same-sex behavior among
straight-identied men is less frequently associated with
changes in labeling or identication compared with
women (cf. Silva, 2018), we suggest that this queer rela-
tional form is better situated within a exible or evolving
understanding of heterosexuality (Carrillo & Hoffman,
Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin (1948) shocked the U.S.
public with their nding that 37% of men reported some
same-sex activity in adulthood. There is considerable evi-
dence that, similar to the era in which Kinsey et al. (1948)
conducted their research, a substantial number of hetero-
sexual-identied men engage in some form of same-sex
activity. For example, Andersons(2008) study of former
high school football players found that 40% acknowledged
same-sex sexual activity in college. We distinguish between
the rise in nonsexual, homosocialintimacy among
straight-identied men that has been increasingly documen-
ted in an age of declining homohysteria (Anderson et al.,
2012; Anderson & McCormack, 2015) and explicit sexual
behavior, although we acknowledge that both sexual and
nonsexual intimacy among men represent queer relational
practices in relation to compulsive or hegemonic masculi-
nity (see Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Pascoe, 2005;
cf. Ward, 2008).
In the early 2000s, the phenomenon of same-sex behavior
among straight-identied men was documented within a
racialized, pathologizing discourse of the down-lowin
which it was claimed that Black and Latino men were largely
rejecting sexual minority labels and placing their female part-
ners at risk for human immunodeciency virus (HIV) and
other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (e.g., Denizet-
Lewis, 2003; King, 2004). Two key assumptions about this
phenomenon have now been discredited. First, there is insuf-
cient evidence to suggest that straight-identied men who
seek sex with other men are actually gay.In fact, these men
appear to be heavily invested in heterosexuality as an identity
and an institution (e.g., Silva, 2018;Ward,2008,2015).
Second, there is now substantial evidence that straight White
men also seek sex with other men in signicant numbers, so
the phenomenon is by no means unique to men of a particular
race or ethnicity (e.g., Carrillo & Hoffman, 2016,2018;Ward,
2015). Even the discourse of the down-low has been appro-
priated by straight White men seeking sex with other men
(Robinson & Vidal-Ortiz, 2013).
Rather than viewing heterosexual-identifying men who seek
and have sex with other men as closeted gay men, it appears
more appropriate to view them in a manner consistent with
their own self-identication: primarily attracted to women
(Carrillo & Hoffman, 2016,2018) and heavily invested in
heterosexual culture and its institutions and rituals, such as
marriage and family (e.g., Persson et al., 2017; Reback &
Larkins, 2010). Many of these men are also heavily invested
in versions of masculinity that emphasize sex between men as
appropriate and as actually bolstering masculinity in some
contexts (e.g., Silva, 2017,2018;Ward,2008,2015). In fact,
Ward ( 2008) has argued that these men ought not to be viewed
as queerprecisely because of their explicit investment in a
heteropatriarchal form of normativity that denigrates women.
The motivations of straight men who seek sex with
other men are diverse, and their experience of intimacy
with other men also assumes a range of intensity. While
one study found economic necessity (i.e., gay for pay)
as a motivation (Reback & Larkins, 2010), others have
found that straight men seek sex with other men for
reasons such as stress relief (Carrillo & Hoffman,
2018), the desire to engage in more aggressive sex
thought to be undesirable to women (Carrillo &
Hoffman, 2018;Ward,2015), or casual sexual release
perceived to have no romantic attachment and thus less
threateningthan sex would be with female partners
(Reback & Larkins, 2010; Reynolds, 2015;Silva,2017,
ard,2008,2015). Many of these men also report
a desire for sex with other men as a form of male
bonding,revealing the way in which these men view
same-sex behavior as consistent with a form of hetero-
sexual masculinity (Reynolds, 2015; Silva, 2017,2018;
Ward, 2008,2015). These men explicitly reject a version
of mainstream gay male culture and its institutions that
they see as inconsistent with masculinity (e.g., Silva,
2018;Ward,2008,2015). It is precisely for this reason
that Ward (2008) challenged the notion that this form of
heterosexuality ought even to be considered queer,for
its investment in normative ideologies of masculinity and
heterosexuality seems central. We recognize the legiti-
macy of this contention, yet we view these intimate
practices as still queerin the sense of challenging a
cardinal principle of heteronormative masculinity: that
sexual behavior must be reserved for women.
The consideration of potentially queer forms of hetero-
sexuality is relatively new and continues to evolve as social
scientists document the ways in which individuals who
identify with heterosexuality as a relational form defy its
hegemonic construction. Central to the production of com-
pulsory heterosexuality has been a patriarchal ideology and
accompanying cultural institutions that have historically
subordinated women (Rich, 1980). In this sense, Wards
(2008) critique of male heteroexibilityin some forms
appears consistent with compulsory heterosexuality. Yet the
erosion of the one-time ruleof homosexuality that once
constrained same-sex intimacy among heterosexual men
seems to have opened up space for the complication of
male heterosexuality in ways that are potentially liberating,
especially if decoupled from patriarchal versions of mascu-
linity (e.g., Anderson, 2011; McCormack & Anderson,
2014). Further research is needed to interrogate the diverse
ways in which straight-identied individuals are engaging
with normative and nonnormative discourses and practices
related to gender, sexuality, and relationality. The number
of works recently published in this area suggests this vital
work is under way.
Polyamory and Consensual Nonmonogamies
In contrast to the normative assumption that restricts
intimacy to two individuals (i.e., monoamory, dyadic
monogamy), a queer paradigm posits that intimacy may
occur with multiple partners simultaneously with consent.
In this section, we review research on three forms of con-
sensual nonmonogamy: (1) swinging, (2) open relation-
ships, and (3) polyamory. We maintain this division to
reect the distinction between vocabularies used by parti-
cular communities at particular historical moments. For
example, swingercommunities emerged in the 1960s
and 1970s among heterosexual couples seeking to swap
partners for a brief period, often a single night (e.g.,
Denfeld & Gordon, 1970). By contrast, polycommu-
nities emerged in the 1990s, principally among heterosex-
ual and bisexual communities (e.g., Barker, 2005), to reect
an interest in more enduring connections with multiple
partners (e.g., Anapol, 1997). The discourse of open rela-
tionshipshas been most common in the gay male commu-
nity (e.g., Bonello & Cross, 2010). Our choice to maintain
a division within our review reects these distinctions, but
we recognize that all forms of consensual nonmonogamy
encounter potential stigma due to the pervasiveness of
mononormativitythe widely held conviction that mono-
gamy represents the most natural,moral, and benecial
form of human intimacy (Barker & Landridge, 2010;
Conley, Moors, Matsick, & Ziegler, 2013).
Similar to notions of compulsory heterosexuality (Rich,
1980), monogamy has been framed as a prescriptive cul-
tural ideal to the exclusion of other forms of intimacy
(Emens, 2004; Ritchie & Barker, 2006). Individuals appear
to internalize a hierarchy of value that positions monoga-
mous relationships as more favorable or superior to various
forms of nonmonogamy (Conley et al., 2013; Grunt-Mejer
& Campbell, 2016). Even many who practice consensual
nonmonogamy appear to privilege monogamy as an ideal,
likely internalizing stigma about their own nonnormative
practices (Conley et al., 2013). Over time, forms of con-
sensual nonmonogamy have grown from deviantprac-
tices (e.g., Denfeld & Gordon, 1970) into full-edged
identities and communities (e.g., Barker, 2005). Our review
considers each of the three common forms of consensual
nonmonogamy in the context of their historical emergence
in the literature.
Swinging emerged as a documented form of consensual
nonmonogamy among heterosexual couples in the 1970s,
as the cultural revolution of the time challenged received
notions of sexual exclusivity (Hunt, 1974; Smith & Smith,
1970). Denfeld and Gordon (1970) argued that the institu-
tionalization of swinging emerged over the 20th century
with shifting views on female sexuality (e.g., greater recog-
nition of womens sexual desire), premarital and marital
sex (e.g., greater recognition that sex could be for recrea-
tion and not just procreation), and technological develop-
ments related to contraception (e.g., the pill).
Swinging, or comarital sex(Jenks, 1998; Smith &
Smith, 1970), is a particular form of consensual nonmono-
gamy in which married, heterosexual couples agree to swap
partners (Buunk & van Driel, 1989). The limited research
on swinging has focused on the characteristics of indivi-
duals and couples who engage in this practice or who
explicitly identify as swingers. Swingers tends to be
White, politically conservative (except with regard to sexu-
ality), not religious, highly educated, middle or upper class,
and in professional or white-collar careers (e.g., Jenks,
1985; for a review, see Jenks, 1998). Jenks (1998) proposed
a social psychological process model to explain the devel-
opment of interest in swinging, emphasizing strong sexual
desire, signicant premarital sexual exploration, liberal sex-
ual predisposition, a low degree of jealousy, and contact
with a larger swinging community. Research suggests that
marital satisfaction and other indicators of relationship
quality are similar for swingers and nonswingers (see
Rubel & Bogaert, 2015).
Although swingers, like other practitioners of consen-
sual nonmonogamy, may be less likely to experience jea-
lousy (Jenks, 1998), the management of emotions among
swinging couples likely requires careful intention and com-
munication. In one of the few explicit studies on swinging
since Jenkss(1998) review, de Visser and McDonald
(2007) studied the management of jealousy among four
active heterosexual swinging couples in England. Through
in-depth couple and individual interviews, they discovered
specic strategies couples used to manage their emotions.
They emphasized the importance of a strong dyadic identity
(i.e., emotional commitment to each other and to the couple
as a unit) with explicit communication about feelings in the
context of negotiated rules regarding both sexual and emo-
tional connection with extradyadic partners.
Kimberly and Hans (2017)examined the process mar-
ried couples experience as they transition from monogamy
to swinging. They interviewed 32 individuals from 16
couples and analyzed their data using a grounded theory
approach, which resulted in a conceptual model of the path
from initial interest to fulllment of a swinger lifestyle.
They found that the maintenance of marital satisfaction
involved a commitment to long-term friendship, shared
activities, enhanced trust, and open communication. Their
analysis also revealed the importance of rules to construct
and maintain boundaries of consensual sexual activity out-
side the marriage.
Although swinging continues to exist as a specic form
of consensual nonmonogamy (see Bergstrand & Sinski,
2010; Kimberly & Hans, 2017), it is less well documented
than more recent forms, such as open relationships and
polyamory. We suspect that use of these newer vocabularies
and forms of consensual nonmonogamy are driven by his-
torical change in the meanings of intimacy, sex, and mar-
riage. Swinging emerged as a practice and an identiable
community at a particular historical moment. While it
retains some usage, other forms have become more com-
mon in the popular lexicon of relationships.
Open Relationships
While the concept of swinging and a swinger identity
and community seems to have developed in the context of
heterosexual marriage, the idea of open relationships has
ourished largely in sexual minority communities, espe-
cially among gay men. Open relationships are typically
characterized by exclusivity of emotional commitment to
one primary partner but sexual nonexclusivity (e.g.,
Bonello & Cross, 2010). Such relationships are distin-
guished from polyamory in their tendency to make a rm
distinction between sexual and emotional commitment and
to generally prohibit or discourage multiple emotional or
romantic attachments. Almost all research using the voca-
bulary of open relationshipshas occurred among gay
men, with studies of nonmonogamous different-sex or
same-sex female couples using the language of either
swinging or polyamory (e.g., Munson & Stelbaum, 1999;
Sheff, 2005,2006; cf. Bettinger, 2005).
Open relationships have long been a part of the gay male
community and have been well documented since the mid-
20th century (Adam, 2004; Bell & Weinberg, 1978;
Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Sadownick, 1996). Having
decreased somewhat with the acquired immunodeciency
syndrome (AIDS) epidemic when sexual exclusivity
emerged as a common HIV prevention mechanism (e.g.,
Berger, 1990; Davidson, 1991; cf. Hickson et al., 1992),
open relationships now thrive among gay men and appear
to constitute a common form of relational structure (e.g.,
Haupert, Gesselman, Moors, Fisher, & Garcia, 2017).
Shifts in the meaning of HIV and the availability of new
highly effective tools for prevention have likely created a
sexual culture that facilitates open relationships among gay
men (see Hammack, Frost, Meyer, & Pletta, 2018).
Research comparing gay men in open versus monoga-
mous relationships has consistently discovered no differ-
ences in relationship quality or satisfaction between types
of relationship (Blasband & Peplau, 1985; Bonello, 2009;
Bricker & Horne, 2007; Kurdek & Schmitt, 1985; LaSala,
2004a). Gay men commonly report a desire for sexual
variety and independence as motivating nonmonogamy in
their relationships (e.g., Blasband & Peplau, 1985; Bonello,
2009; LaSala, 2004b), and many gay men are either expli-
citly critical of monogamy or endorse the view that mono-
gamy represents an unsustainable ideal (e.g., Coelho, 2011;
Worth, Reid, & McMillan, 2002). Relationships between
gay men also change over time, with partners often begin-
ning with monogamy but the expectation that the relation-
ship will ultimately be open, given cultural norms and
expectations within the gay male community (Philpot
et al., 2018).
Research has examined strategiesgaymeninopenrelation-
ships use to manage their emotions and the overall health of
their relationships. Bonello and Cross (2010)identied three
common strategies: compartmentalization, boundary afrma-
tion, and secretiveness. Compartmentalization entails cognitive
separation of the type of intimacy experienced with onespri-
mary partner and that of other, purely sexual encounters (see
also LaSala, 2004b). That is, the couple engages in emotional
exclusivity with regard to intimacy, and sexual partners outside
of the primary relationship do not involve romantic or emo-
tional cognition. Boundary afrmation occurs when couples
engage in casual sex together and, through this act, afrm the
boundaries of their openness. Secretiveness entails a dontask,
donttellstrategy in which sexual activity outside the primary
relationship is not disclosed between partners.
Although early research suggested that sexual exclusivity
represents a continuum among gay male couples (Blasband &
Peplau, 1985), only recently have studies begun to move away
from a simple dichotomy of openversus closed.Hoff and
Beougher (2010) interviewed 39 gay male couples in San
Francisco about sexual agreements and relationship dynamics,
discovering that these agreements were best understood on a
continuum rather than in terms of discrete categories. Couples
reported agreements that ranged from explicit monogamy (i.e.,
no sexual or emotional intimacy outside of the relationship) to
varying levels of openness. For example, some couples
described agreements that allowed for threesomes under certain
conditions, while others allowed for sex outside of the primary
relationship without the knowledge of the partner. Couples were
largely motivated to have an agreement to provide structure or
build trust within the relationship. Couples were not generally
motivated to establish agreements for sexual health or HIV
prevention reasons, which may be related to the shifting cultural
meaning of HIV/AIDS among gay men (Hammack et al.,
In a larger study of HIV risk and relationship agreements
among 566 gay male couples in San Francisco, Hoff and
colleagues found about equal numbers of monogamous
(45%) versus nonmonogamous (47%) couples, and the
majority of couples (64%) reported explicit discussions
regarding relationship agreements (Hoff, Beougher,
Chakravarty, Darbes, & Neilands, 2010). Only seroconcor-
dant HIV-negative couples (who comprised 55% of the
sample) indicated HIV or STI prevention as a motivating
factor in their agreements. While monogamous couples
reported greater intimacy, trust, commitment, and attach-
ment to their partners (as well as equality in the relation-
ship), there were no differences between monogamous and
nonmonogamous couples in relationship satisfaction or
autonomy. Similar studies of gay men have not detected
differences between relationship types on indicators of
relationship quality (e.g., sexual satisfaction, communica-
tion, or frequency; Parsons, Starks, Gamarel, & Grov,
2012) and health and well-being (Parsons, Starks, DuBois,
Grov, & Golub, 2013). Taken together, research on gay
men in relationships suggests that consensual nonmono-
gamy is common, takes on many forms that are explicitly
negotiated, and is associated with positive indicators of
relationship quality.
An important future direction for research on open rela-
tionships is to expand to include other relationship cong-
urations beyond gay men. Our review of the published
literature revealed that studies of consensual nonmonogamy
among other types of relationships tend to classify them
within either swinging or polyamory. We suggest that the
vocabulary of open relationships is probably more common
among a diversity of couples than researchers may realize,
and thus we believe future research ought to expand
beyond its traditional focus on same-sex male couples.
Polyamory emerged as a concept in the 1990s with the
growth of an intentional community committed to a form of
nonmonogamy in which multiple emotional and sexual
attachments are supported and valued. Prior to systematic
empirical research, which commenced in earnest in the
2000s, several popular books were published that outlined
a set of principles to anchor the polyamorous community
(Anapol, 1997; Easton & Liszt, 1997). These works out-
lined guidelines for ethical nonmonogamy, including con-
sent, honesty, commitment, boundary setting, and
agreement negotiation (Anapol, 1997; Easton & Liszt,
Around the same time that empirical research on poly-
amory began to blossom, Emens (2004) presented a legal
analysis emphasizing the question of why the marriage