Gay men’s relationships and kinship

Gay men’s relationships and kinship

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 1 | March 2014

Dean Murphy

DEAN MURPHY presents an overview of research into gay men’s relationships, examining the way HIV has influenced these discussions.

Research on gay male relationships has been dominated by questions of HIV risk – both inside and outside the relationship.

What has been often overlooked are gay men’s aspirations in terms of sexual and romantic relationships, and how these have changed over time (both generationally and within individuals).

This article undertakes a brief overview of some of the research on gay men’s relationships. Also, I comment on the emerging body of work on gay male parenthood, which is evidence of a renewed research interest in gay male kinship, and has occurred in parallel with the demand for the recognition of same-sex relationships by the state.

Relationship styles

Research on gay men’s relationships conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, illustrates a great interest in relationship styles. This research identified a number of ‘regulatory mechanisms’ that structured gay men’s relationships.1

The manifest component of these rules refers to explicit agreements about for example, with whom sex is allowed, where it happens, what kinds of sex take place, where the other partner is, the number of times it can happen with the same person, and what is spoken about to the other partner.

The functional components of relationship agreements refer to the purpose of having such rules in the first place. For example, rules can be about maintaining the primacy of the relationship, thereby differentiating it from other encounters, or simply to avoid irritation or confrontation between partners in a relationship.2

The authors also refer to several other studies of gay relationships mostly undertaken prior to the HIV epidemic. These studies describe a number of different agreements, as well as changes in relationships over time.

Many of these agreements were related to stress reduction, jealousy, fears, anger and conflict associated with sex outside the relationship.

Other research on relationships explored longevity, satisfaction, commitment, security, and frequency of sex.3

Qualitative research by Worth et al. investigated democracy and openness in gay men’s relationships.4 Although published in 2002, this article returns to some of the research concerns of the 1970s and 1980s, exploring the issues of monogamy, trust and negotiation.

Although most men in the study prized monogamy they also recognised a certain inevitability of sex outside the relationship.

Traditional notions of masculinity were also identified in this study, particularly as they related to the ability to discuss emotional needs.

The authors caution against assuming that same-sex relationships constitute a radical transformation of intimacy or that they escape the values and norms of dominant heterosexual social institutions, such as those of romantic love and masculinity.

The exploratory nature of this research on gay men and relationships was lost somewhat as attention became concentrated on HIV transmission. Notable exceptions were Kath Weston’s study of gay men and lesbians in the San Francisco Bay Area5 and Judith Stacey’s6 7 8 9 research on gay male sexuality, intimacy and kinship in Los Angeles.

Stacey provided an extensive analysis of the myriad forms of gay male kinship possibilities that included (but were not limited to) gay men with children.

Of particular interest was the way that ‘cruising’ (the search for casual sex partners) and the ongoing relationships that sometimes developed out of these casual or commercial sexual encounters sometimes generated forms of kinship that crossed race, age, and class divisions.10

Relationships agreements

Not surprisingly perhaps, the era of the HIV epidemic saw a definite narrowing of research on gay men’s relationships to look at risk associated with HIV.

This focus included HIV risk both within the relationship and from outside partners. Some researchers have sought to explain HIV risk within relationships through explanatory theories such as relationship investment11, romantic ideation12 and intimacy.13

What disappeared was qualitative research and with it the focus on the diversity of relationships, and the ‘how’ and ‘why’ elements of relationship agreements.

What became obvious was that sex without condoms was much more likely with relationship partners than with casual partners.

Qualitative researchers in the UK found that unprotected sex was usually taking place in contexts where partners knew each other’s serostatus, and made agreements about sex with other men, and so was a risk reduction strategy.14

Quantitative research in Australia confirmed the existence of agreements between HIV-negative men in steady relationships not to use condoms and prevent HIV infection from other partners in the early 1990s and coined this ‘negotiated safety’.15

Agreements such as negotiated safety assume a certain level of rational decision-making and ability to communicate effectively. Also, the question of power remains unexplored, and as noted by Ridge much social research in the HIV era assumes equality in gay men’s relationships.16

Negotiated safety agreements also depend on at least two contingent elements: the certainty of knowing a partner’s HIV status; and the feasibility of eliminating risks from outside the relationship.17

However, in practice these agreements do not necessarily follow the recommended steps of establishing seroconcordance, discussing sex with other partners and coming to an arrangement about eliminating risk with other partners. For example, Davidovich, et al. found that 55% of men who had unprotected anal intercourse with their steady partners in The Netherlands did so outside negotiated safety guidance.18

Similarly in the UK, nearly half the men reporting unprotected sex with only with their main partner were unaware of their own HIV status, their partner’s or both.19

In his US study Jason Mitchell found that only 58% of men concurred about explicitly discussing their agreement, 84% concurred about having the same type of agreement, and 54% had both men adhering to it.20

In terms of negotiating and maintaining agreements, Prestage et al. found that a substantial proportion of men experience discomfort discussing sex and HIV with their regular partner.21

This finding provides a challenge to some important assumptions on which negotiated safety is based – clear and unambiguous agreements, and the ability to communicate breaches of the agreement to the other partner if and when they occur.

However, the result is reminiscent of the earlier findings of Worth et al. who found that talking about non-monogamy was seen as threatening to the relationship, establishing trust was difficult, and making an agreement was not as step-wise, logical, equal or clear as presented in HIV education materials.22

Prestage et al. found that a lower efficacy in communicating with their primary partner about sex and HIV status was a predictor of future likelihood of breaking agreements, and also predicted a decreased likelihood of informing a partner after a breach of an agreement.23

Relationship ideals

The categorisation of relationships by gay men is not necessarily straightforward either. The term ‘monogamish’ 24 has been coined to describe couples who have threesomes, as it retains some elements of monogamy while also allowing the inclusion of outside sexual partners.

One recent Australian study that examined relationships among young gay men found that although communication was identified as a relationship ideal, relationships were often characterised by silence and the reluctance to acknowledge the possibility of sex with other partners.25

This lack of clarification sometimes served to protect both sexual autonomy and the romantic ideal. Even beyond young gay men it seems that being open about sex outside the relationships is not always easy or prioritised. For example, a study in the US of HIV serodiscordant male couples found that of those who had sex outside the relationship, only around one-third (36%) described their relationship as ‘open’.26

Another quarter (26%) reported that sex outside the relationship was suspected, and 26% reported that sex with other partners was kept secret or was unknown to the other partner.27 (Data for the other couples was incomplete or discrepant.)

Mitchell et al. also examined the degree of concordance between male partners on their relationship agreement.28 They found that men who adhered to their agreements were more likely to report being satisfied with their relationship and that they valued their agreement, as well as believing that their partner was more was more predictable and trustworthy.

Men who concurred that a relationship agreement was in place were more likely to be satisfied with their relationship. However, consensus between partners on the type of sexual agreement they actually had was not related to any relationship variable, or to unprotected sex or HIV testing.

The meaning of agreements

Hoff et al. examined relationship characteristics and motivations behind agreements among gay male couples with a particular focus on differences by agreement type and the concordance of partners’ serostatus.29

Honesty, trust, and a sense of protecting the relationship were cited as the most important reasons for agreements.30 Protecting from HIV or STIs did not rate highly among any of the three groups in the study – open, monogamous or discrepant. (Only 8% of couples were in the latter category.)

When analysed by serostatus of both partners, only concordant negative couples listed HIV and STI prevention among their top motivators for making an agreement.

In this study there was no difference in relationship satisfaction between couples with monogamous and open agreements.31However, couples with monogamous agreements had higher scores on other relationship characteristics, such as investment in the sexual agreement, intimacy, commitment, attachment and equality.

This finding of the similarity between couples with open and monogamous agreements echoes that of Wagner et al.’s study of male serodiscordant relationships in which they discovered that monogamous and ‘open’ couples were more likely to have greater consensus on relationship issues, as well as greater affection, and sexual satisfaction, than ‘partial knowledge’ or ‘secretive’ couples.32

This finding suggests that having an unambiguous agreement about sex outside the relationship, regardless of the nature of the agreement, is associated with greater relationship quality in general, than not having an explicit agreement.

Drawing on equity theory, a recent study of Australian gay men in relationships with open agreements showed that men who perceived discrepancies in benefits between partners from the agreement –particularly those representing ‘under-benefit’ – were less satisfied with their agreement than were men perceiving equal benefit. 3334

The kinds of benefits that were included in the analysis were how often they think their relationship partner has casual sex compared with how often they do themselves, and how attractive they thought their relationship partner’s casual partners were compared with their own.

Recognition of relationships

There has also been research interest in the recognition, or otherwise, of same-sex relationships. Judith Butler, however, proposed that the legitimisation of same-sex relationship by the state comes at the expense of relationships that fall outside these couple-centred relationship forms.35

These other relationships subsequently remain unrecognised and illegitimate. Examples are ‘those who live non-monogamously, those who live alone, those who are in whatever arrangements they are in that are not in the marriage form’ (pp.115–116).

What Butler proposes is a resistance both to reducing kinship to the ‘family’ and to marriage defining ‘the parameters within which sexual life is thought’.

The burgeoning literature on gay men and parenthood has some strong links with the way relationships are increasingly conceived and idealised.

In Rabun and Oswald’s (2009) study of young gay men in the United States, all of the participants indicated a desire and an intention to be a parent; and these men imagined parenthood only in the context of a relationship.36

Parenthood may also be tied up with particular relationship ideals that may make it difficult for men to negotiate, or disclose, sex with other partners.

An interesting US study among gay male couples with children found that agreements regarding sex with outside partners closely resembled those documented in studies of gay couples who were not parents.37 However, men reported that parenthood typically decreased their opportunities to engage in sex with outside partners and also posed barriers to discussing these behaviours with their partners and health-care providers.


This brief overview of research on gay men’s relationships does not pretend to provide a comprehensive summary of the huge body of work on the area. Rather, it is intended to highlight some of the trends in this research over the last few decades.

Unsurprisingly, HIV became a dominant concern during this period and questions of HIV risk have dominated the agenda.

The findings from this research identified innovative strategies to minimise risk of HIV from regular and casual partners. However, since being promoted by health promotion agencies, research has shown that these strategies are not always implemented as intended.

A common theme across several of the studies included here is that communication is not always easy between partners, and that men do not always have a common understanding with their partner of the parameters of their agreement.

A small number of studies have investigated relationship ideals and aspirations, which may also be changing over time. There is greater need for further work on gay male kinship more broadly including forms that involve more than two people, and also perhaps on the sexual relationship possibilities that are enabled by new technologies that provide the opportunity for a blurring of the division between regular and casual partners.


1 Hickson, F., Davies, P., Hunt, A., Weatherburn,P., Mcmanus, T., Coxon, A. (1992). Maintenance of open gay relationships: some strategies for protection against HIV. AIDS Care, 4(4), 409–419.

2 ibid.

3 See: Wagner, G., Remien, R., Carballo-Diéguez, A. (2000). Prevalence of extradyadic sex in male couples of mixed HIV status and its relationship to psychological distress and relationship quality. Journal of Homosexuality, 39(2), 31–46.

4 Worth, H., Reid, A., McMillan, K. (2002). Somewhere over the rainbow: love, trust and monogamy in gay relationships. Journal of Sociology, 38(3), 237–253.

5 Weston, K. (1991). Families we choose: Lesbians, gays and kinship. Columbia University Press, Albany.

6 Stacey, J. (2004). Cruising to familyland: Gay hypergamy and rainbow kinship. Current Sociology, 52(2), 181–197.

7 Stacey, J. (2005). The families of man: Gay male intimacy and kinship in a global metropolis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3), 1911–1935.

8 Stacey, J. (2006). Gay parenthood and the decline of paternity as we knew it. Sexualities, 9(1), 27–55.

9 Stacey, J. (2011). Unhitched: Love, marriage, and family values from West Hollywood to Western China. NYU Press, New York.

10 Stacey, J., (2004), op. cit.

11 Hays, R., Kegeles, S., Coates, T. (1997). Unprotected sex and HIV risk taking among young gay men within boyfriend relationships. AIDS Education and Prevention, 9(4), 314–329.

12 Bauermeister, J. (2012). Romantic ideation, partner-seeking, and HIV risk among young gay and bisexual men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(2), 431–440.

13 Blais, M. (2006). Vulnerability to HIV among regular male partners and the social coding of intimacy in modern societies. Culture Health & Sexuality, 8(1), 31–44.

14 Hickson, F., et al., (1992), op. cit.

15 Kippax, S, Crawford, J., Davis, M., Rodden, P., Dowsett, G. (1993). Sustaining safe sex: a longitudinal study of a sample of homosexual men. AIDS, 7, 257–263.

16 Ridge, D. (1996). Negotiated Safety: Not Negotiable or Safe? Venereology, 9(2), 98–100.

17 Kippax, S., Noble, J., Prestage, G., Crawford, J., Campbell, D., Baxter, D., et al. (1997). Sexual negotiation in the ‘AIDS era’: negotiated safety revisited, AIDS, 11(2), 191–197.

18 Davidovich, U., de Wit, J., Stroebe, W. (2004). Behavioral and cognitive barriers to safer sex between men in steady relationships: implications for prevention strategies. AIDS Education & Prevention, 16(4), 304–14.

19 Elford, J., Bolding, G., Maguire, M., Sherr, L. (1999). Sexual risk behaviour among gay men in a relationship. AIDS, 13(11), 1407–1411.

20 Mitchell, J. (2013). Characteristics and allowed behaviors of gay male couples’ sexual agreements. Journal of Sex Research. March 20 [Epub ahead of print].

21 Prestage, G., Mao, L., McGuigan, D., Crawford, J., Kippax, S., Kaldor, J., et al. (2006). HIV risk and communication between regular partners in a cohort of HIV-negative gay men. AIDS Care, 18(2), 166–172.

22 Worth, H., Reid, A., et al., (2002), op. cit.

23 Prestage, G., et al., (2006), op. cit.

24 Parsons, J., Starks, T., DuBois, S., Grov, C., Golub, S. (2013). Non-monogamy and sexual relationship quality among same-sex male couples. Arch Sex Behav, 42(2), 303–312.

25 Duncan, D., Prestage, G., Gierson, J. (2013, October). Young gay men, sex, relationships and HIV risk. Paper presented at the Australasian HIV/AIDS Conference, Darwin. Abstract no. 248.

26 See: Wagner, G., et al., (2000). op. cit.

27 ibid.

28 Mitchell, J., Harvey, S., Champeau, D., Moskowitz, D., Seal, D. (2012). Relationship factors associated with gay male couples’ concordance on aspects of their sexual agreements: establishment, type, and adherence. AIDS and Behaviour, 16(6), 1560–1569.

29 Hoff, C., Beougher, S., Chakravarty, D., Darbes, L., Neilands, T. (2010). Relationship characteristics and motivations behind agreements among gay male couples: differences by agreement type and couple serostatus. AIDS Care, 22(7), 827–835.

30 ibid.

31 ibid.

32 Wagner, G., et al., (2000), op. cit.

33 Hosking, W. (2013a). Agreements about extra-dyadic sex in gay men’s relationships: Exploring differences in relationship quality by agreement type and rule-breaking behavior. Journal of Homosexuality, 60(5), 711–33.

34 Hosking, W. (2013b). Satisfaction with Open Sexual Agreements in Australian Gay Men’s Relationships: The Role of Perceived Discrepancies in Benefit. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(7), 1309–1317.

35 Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. Routledge, New York (NY). 129–130.

36 Rabun, C., Oswald, R. (2009) Upholding and expanding the normal family: Future fatherhood through the eyes of gay male emerging adults. Fathering, 7(3), 269–285.

37 Huebner, D., Mandic, C., Mackaronis, J., Beougher, S., Hoff, C. (2012). The impact of parenting on gay male couples’ relationships, sexuality, and HIV risk. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 1(2), 106–119.

Dean Murphy works at AFAO in the areas of HIV health promotion and biomedical prevention. He recently completed a PhD on gay male kinship and parenthood.