Look around–consensual nonmonogamy (CNM), having multiple sexual and/or romantic partners with the consent of everyone involved, is having a moment and even the mainstream media is paying attention. Some examples include: The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. A lot of this newfound interest has been inspired by More: A Memoir of an Open Marriage, the latest first-person account of an open/polyamorous marriage, written by Brooklynite Molly Roden Winter.

In response to this media coverage, The Atlantic jumped into the fray, recently publishing an article criticizing consensual nonmonogamy as “a fad for the ruling class”. The author, Tyler Austin Harper, a self-described “happily monogamously married” professor of environmental studies at Bates College, claims his “issue with the new open-marriage discourse is not ethical but political,” seeing it “is little more than yet another way for the ruling class to have their cake and eat it too”.

While some of Harper’s critiques of Molly’s story that others writing about it missed are spot on (keep reading for that), his argument that CNM is a fad for the ruling class is neither accurate nor fair. 

Let’s unpack it.

Dr Zhana H 2023

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Is Consensual Non-Monogamy a Privilege of the Privileged?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of great data comparing consensually nonmonogamous to monogamous folks on measures of privilege, but the data we do have doesn’t support the narrative that CNM is the playground of the privileged.

A nationally representative study of currently single people found that those who had ever been in a CNM relationship—20% of the sample—did not significantly differ from those without a CNM experience in income, education, race, region, political ideology, or religious affiliation. The only demographic differences were seen in gender and sexual orientation, with a higher incidence of CNM among men and nonheterosexual folks (Haupert et al., 2017)

Another large study involving almost 2,500 polyamorous individuals revealed that they were slightly less educated, less wealthy, and less white than the monogamous people in the sample (Balzarini et al., 2018). While both the polyamorous and the monogamous participants in this nonrepresentative sample were more educated than the general U.S. population, the polyamorous folks were less likely to earn over $100k and more likely to earn under $20k annually compared to the general population. (It’s worth noting that polyamorous folksthose engaged in multiple committed romantic relationships, make up only a subset of the total CNM population, and it’s possible that they are demographically different from other CNM folks, like those who maintain one committed romantic relationship with multiple sexual partners.)

More data from nationally representative samples of partnered people are needed to reach any final conclusions, but for now, there is no evidence that those attempting consensual nonmonogamy are more socially advantaged than their monogamous counterparts. Of course, a white, wealthy, heterosexual Brooklynite might be more likely to write a memoir about CNM, especially one that gets featured in The New York Times, than say a Black, poor lesbian from a small town in Georgia, but she is not necessarily more likely to be doing CNM.

The Privilege of Going Ethical 

But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that consensual nonmonogamy is to some extent a privilege. After all, it certainly requires a significant amount of time, energy, emotional bandwidth, and maturity to deal with the complexity of openly navigating multiple sexual and/or romantic partners, not to mention the potential social stigma of doing it in a sex-negative world.

Ok, but humans and our hominid ancestors have been doing nonmonogamy for as long as we have existed (and for much, much, much longer than the modern contract of marriage has existed). They’ve just been doing it, and continue to do it, primarily in its nonconsensual (AKA cheating) form–without the knowledge and consent of all partners involved.

 And the cheating form of nonmonogamy cuts across all social classes. Research shows that infidelity rates do not vary by income, and are actually lower among whites and those with higher education (Dew, 2020; Knopp et al., 2017). In other words, the wealthy are no more (or less) likely to cheat than the poor, and the white and the more educated are less likely to cheat than non-white (especially Black and Latino) and less educated folks.

So, it is simply ridiculous to criticize the more privileged for attempting to do more ethically something that’s always been done mostly unethically by everyone. Unless one wants to argue that nonconsensual nonmonogamy (AKA cheating) is somehow better than consensual nonmonogamy?

The Challenges of Getting Consensual Nonmonogamy Right  

There is one aspect of Harper’s critique of Molly’s story I do agree with (and I wish was picked up by more of those reviewing this book!) – that Molly’s open marriage is often not a source of happiness or pleasure for her. 

Having taught and consulted thousands of people about their nonmonogamy journeys and having lived through several of my own, there is no doubt that Molly and her husband Stew did not do their version of CNM particularly well, especially early on. As Harper astutely pointed out, it was unclear that Molly actually wanted an open marriage or that it was the right thing for her at the time. It was pretty clear that she and Stew did not have many of the skills necessary to do nonmonogamy well (eg., assertiveness, empathy, or communication), and it did often seem like a distraction from some of Molly’s bigger issues that are not solved by opening up the marriage (such as “an asshole husband”, a highly unbalanced division of labor, or serious people-pleasing issues).

With that said, criticizing the more privileged (or any other “relationship pioneers” trying to do CNM at this early stage) for not mastering this lifestyle perfectly from the get-go is simply unfair. 

While CNM is not a passing fad, it is a relatively new lifestyle, at least the way it’s now practiced in the gender-egalitarian West (traditional polygyny has been practiced for centuries across many indigenous and non-Western cultures). Those attempting it are doing so against a very hostile background, with very little support, guidance, or positive role models for how to do it well. On the contrary, society tells us that there is NO ethical way to do nonmonogamy, and that there is something wrong with us for even wanting it, let alone doing it.

So yes, the early pioneers of this lifestyle are going to get many things wrong, like Molly and her husband did. But the more public Mollys and Stews there are, the more we’ll all be able to learn from their mistakes and increase our chances of success in the future.  

Personal Fulfillment VS AND Societal Change 

Harper’s final criticism of CNM is that it distracts people from the big societal problems that need serious action: the climate, wars, threats to democracy… I agree that pleasure-seeking in the form of nonmonogamy can distract from more important issues. But the same can be said of every other pleasure-seeking behavior Americans do in abundance–binge eating, drinking, doing drugs, shopping, watching TV, playing video games, scrolling on social media, gambling, the list goes on.

But CNM has some major advantages over these other “emptier” pleasure-seeking behaviors– done the right way, it has a very real chance of bringing greater and long-lasting happiness and fulfillment to those who are either truly not built for long-term monogamy, or who find themselves in relationships that fail to meet some of their sexual and/or romantic needs, but are otherwise worth preserving. 

And personal happiness is a cornerstone for societal wellbeing. You can’t attend to the bigger issues if you’re fighting a civil war within yourself. Fulfilling personal relationships can liberate emotional and mental resources, empowering individuals to tackle larger societal issues more effectively. 

Personal fulfillment and societal change are not an either-or kinda thing. It’s a yes, and. We can and should strive for both.

Embracing Progress 

So, the next time you want to criticize the “more privileged” for spending some of our time and resources exploring consensual nonmonogamy, you might want to check your biases first. Those of us committed to navigating these complex relationship dynamics ethically are not just making nonmonogamy a more socially acceptable choice; we’re laying the groundwork for future generations who will learn how to do it better and more seamlessly from us. They will learn from our successes and our failures and live happier lives. 

Instead of passing judgment, maybe you should thank us instead for investing all that time, energy, and emotional bandwidth into figuring out how to do CNM better. So when the less privileged want to do it, they will already have the knowledge and tools we didn’t have and had to discover–sometimes painfully–for ourselves.

You’re welcome.


Alter, A. (2024, January 13). How a Polyamorous Mom Had ‘a Big Sexual Adventure’ and Found Herself. The New York Times.

Balzarini, R. N., Dharma, C., Kohut, T., Holmes, B. M., Campbell, L., Lehmiller, J. J., & Harman, J. J. (2018). Demographic comparison of American individuals in polyamorous and monogamous relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 56:6, 681-694, 1–14. 

Bernstein, E. (2024, January 22). Polyamory: Lots of Sex, Even More Scheduling. The Wall Street Journal.

Davis, A. (2024, January 16). Polycule: What It Means and How It Works in Polyamorous Relationships. The Cut.

Dew, J. (2020, September 21). Predicting Infidelity: An Updated Look at Who Is Most Likely to Cheat in America. Institute for Family Studies.

Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.

Foroohar, R. (2024, January 11). More: A Memoir of Open Marriage — the joy of extramarital sex. Financial Times.

Haupert, M., Gesselman, A., Moors, A., Fisher, H., & Garcia, J. (2016). Prevalence of experiences with consensual non-monogamous relationships: Findings from two nationally representative samples of single Americans. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

Harper, T. A. (2024, February). Polyamory: Ruling Class Fad or New Monogamy? The Atlantic. 

Harrington, K. (2024, January 14). This book about open marriage is going to blow up your group chat. The Washington Post

Knopp, K., Scott, S., Ritchie, L., Rhoades, G. K., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2017). Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater? Serial Infidelity Across Subsequent Relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Wang, W. (2018, January 10). Who cheats more? The demographics of infidelity in America. Institute for Family Studies.

Wilson, J. (2023, December 25). How Did Polyamory Become So Popular. The New Yorker.