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Monogamy technically refers to the marriage of one man and one woman but is also widely used to refer to the practice of restricting sexual behavior to a single partner. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, lifelong monogamy between a man and a woman within the bounds of marriage has been regarded as normative, with sexual infidelity described as sin and serving as sufficient rationale for the legal dissolution of the union. In other cultures, including Islamic cultures, polygamy, or the taking of more than one spouse, is acceptable.

In sexual terms, monogamy is typically used to mean that two individuals are sexually active only with each other, usually in a committed relationship that may or may not be marital. The term "serial monogamy" has been coined to refer to situations in which individuals have a series of consecutive sexual pairings of various duration, such that they have multiple partners over time but never more than one partner at any single point in time. Because HIV can be transmitted sexually, many people regard monogamous relationships with HIV-negative partners as a way to avoid infection.

The idea of monogamy as a preventive for HIV infection originated in the gay male community in the earliest months of the AIDS epidemic. At that time, all that was known about the cause of AIDS was that it seemed correlated with having had large numbers of sexual partners. As the medical community learned more about how HIV can be transmitted and as tests for HIV infection became widely available, safer-sex interventions began to stress barrier methods like condoms over partner-selection methods like monogamy. Many social conservatives also encourage monogamy, although they are concerned more often with morality than with public health.

Studies have revealed that the practice of monogamy is not as common as its societal idealization would suggest within heterosexual marriages as well as in gay and lesbian partnerships. Large-scale studies executed in the United States over the past 40 years have found that at least 37 percent of men and 29 percent of women have engaged in sex outside their marital relationship. Although studies of sexual exclusivity in lesbian relationships have yet to be executed on a large scale, applicable data show that the incidence of "extramarital" sexual behavior of homosexual women is closer to that of heterosexual women than that of homosexual men. In gay male relationships, a policy of sexual exclusivity is rarer than an agreement of "emotional monogamy" in which partners have sanction, sometimes with certain limitations, to have sex outside the relationship provided the extra-relational contact does not threaten the emotional integrity of the partnership.

Nevertheless, many couples, homosexual as well as heterosexual, value restricting their sexuality to the relationship. Designating a relationship as monogamous can be an expression of both partners' commitment to each other. Indeed, monogamy can have great appeal because many people find the security and stability of such a commitment essential to feeling comfortable in an emotionally charged relationship, and because many people have grown up seeing monogamy as a personal and social expression of the integrity of a pair-bond.

As a strategy for HIV prevention, however, monogamy can be highly problematic. Because the epidemiological value of monogamy is so intertwined with its emotional and interpersonal meanings, prevention educators believe that in some cases it can actually be a barrier to prevention rather than an aid. A partner in a monogamous relationship who slips and has a sexual contact outside the relationship, which may put him or her at risk for HIV infection, may be afraid to tell the primary partner about the contact for fear of the partner's response to this dual betrayal. In such situations, the offending partner may feel forced to conceal the marital breach from the other partner and may even deny to him- or herself that the event occurred, thereby increasing the likelihood of infecting the partner. This may be the case even when partners have adopted the strategy of "negotiated risk" -- in which partners agree to predetermine the level of sexual risk they feel comfortable with -- and have established a standing agreement acknowledging the reality that unsafe extramarital sexual encounters may occur and that the viability of the couple depends upon their ability to openly discuss such encounters.

Nonetheless, most people, gay and straight alike, value monogamy as an important aspect of a romantic relationship, and many current HIV-prevention campaigns regard monogamy as an ideal form for a relationship. Most heterosexuals, across racial and socioeconomic lines, regard monogamy as an adequate prevention strategy and do not use condoms for HIV prevention within the relationship. For gay men, the situation is quite different. Small studies have shown that even gay male couples who espouse and practice monogamy still regularly use condoms for anal sex. This suggests a tacit recognition of the difficulty and rarity of the maintenance of true monogamy, even within a committed and loving relationship.

Related Entries:

Abstinence; Couples; Families; Safer Sex

Key Words:

committed relationships, marriage, monogamy, negotiated risk, partnering, spouses

Further Reading

Bullough, V. L., and B. Bullough, eds., Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia, New York: Garland, 1994

Kalichman, S. C., Answering Your Questions About AIDS, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996

Kelly, Jeffrey A., Changing HIV Risk Behavior: Practical Strategies, New York: Guilford, 1995

The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, Raymond A. Smith, Editor. Copyright © 1998, Raymond A. Smith. Carried by permission of Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

Encyclopedia of AIDS $25 US/832 pp/Illustrated

For more about this book, or to order, click here.

It is a part of the publication The Encyclopedia of AIDS.
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