The 21st century ushered in a “quiet revolution” in the diversity of intimate relationships. With the scale and pace of this social transformation, what is needed is a “reboot” of relationship studies.
This is according to Phillip Hammack, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz; and lead author of “Queer Intimacies: A New Paradigm for the Study of Relationship Diversity,” an article that appeared in the online edition of The Journal of Sex Research. Hammack’s co-authors include David Frost, associate professor of social psychology at University College London, and Sam Hughes, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.
For the authors, social media and the internet empowered individuals with diverse identities and relationship practices to find each other, raising awareness of connections that challenge traditional ideas about the meaning of intimacy.
“I’ve been calling it a quiet revolution, because it’s very different than the sexual revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s, which were so visible,” said Hammack.
Particularly in countries like the US, Hammack said that marriage equality (same-sex marriage was legalized in the US in 2015) is the backdrop for the explosion of relationship diversity that has occurred since the early 2000s.
“Marriage equality opens up the lens to think about diversity beyond just the gender of the people in a relationship,” said Hammack, noting that asexuality, polyamory, and kink/fetish all challenge dominant notions of intimacy.
These people are thriving in intimate relationships far from the cultural norms of monogamy and heterosexuality, including asexual, polyamorous, transgender and gender nonbinary, pansexual, and kink/fetish relationships.
He also said that “it’s a myth that asexual people aren’t in relationships just because they experience little or no sexual desire,” said Hammack. “The assumption is that they are suffering, lonely, and without partners, but that’s not true. They do have intimate relationships, but we don’t know much about them.”
People who identify as asexual “violate the fundamental assumption that intimate relationships are inherently characterized by sex,” said Hammack. They started to organize in the early 2000s, thanks to the internet.
Asexuality was removed from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013.
In a similar challenge to cultural norms, those who choose polyamorous relationships violate conventions of monogamy by allowing partners to love more than one person. Although gay men have a long tradition of open relationships, and ‘swinging’ was favored by some straight couples in the 1970s, polyamory now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, following what Hammack referred to as a “simmering movement that challenged heteronormative conventions about what an ideal relationship is supposed to look like.”
Mainstream representations are also affecting concepts and/or relationship practices. For instance, the success of the 2011 novel Fifty Shades of Grey is said to have helped propel mainstream discussion of kink/fetish relationships, which highlight consensual asymmetrical power dynamics in intimate relationships.
Hammack, nonetheless, admitted that even if it made people curious, “the novel was problematic because it didn’t accurately represent the consensual way relationships are configured in the kink community… Kink relationships have been stigmatized because the expectation is that relationships are supposed to be ‘equal’.”
Unfortunately, Hammack said that researchers still know little about what happens within kink/fetish relationships. “To what extent is the power asymmetry just during sex? We don’t know,” said Hammack. “Most of this science doesn’t talk about the relationships. It just talks about specific kinky practices… There’s almost no recognition of relationships – it’s all about sexual gratification, which is only part of the picture.”
Yet other concepts that have emerged are: “queer heterosexuality”, as well as changes in ideas about “chosen families.”
“Heterosexuality is opening up like never before,” said Hammack. “More people who identify as straight will have some same-sex experience – they even refer to ‘heteroflexibility.’ They are not opposed to same-sex encounters.”
This trend is long-established among women, but it’s new among men – and it’s distinct from bisexuality because these men don’t feel equally attracted to men and women. “It’s fascinating to see masculinity opening up this way,” he said.
Hammack noted that still “very, very little” is known about the phenomenon of chosen families as distinct from biological families. This is a phenomenon that has been historically associated with gays and lesbians who “create their own families” after being rejected by biological relatives; however, its prevalence remains a mystery.
This is why Hammack said that more research initiatives should be done to focus on diversity in intimate relationships to “document the diversity of what’s happening out there,” Hammack ended.