Two-person relationships are the default in our culture, but why? Red Chidgey reviews a book which lays open the potential for different kinds of relationships
Tristan Taormino has a solid background in promoting radical, provocative feminist sex education. An award-winning author, editor and adult film producer, this busy lady is responsible for gems as The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women and True Lust: Adventures in Sex, Porn and Perversion. Smart and outspoken, Taormino delivers her latest book, Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, as “a study and a road map, a guidebook and a manifesto” for people who want to abandon monogamy. In a well-researched relationship self-help manual, Taormino drops the latex gloves, dons a scholar’s hat, and takes us into the heartland of her beloved research community: the erotic and intellectual lives of creative, ambitious, polyamorous lovers. Taormino provides history, rationale, challenges and suggestions in her commendable, holistic treatment of open relationships – and demonstrates that nonmonogamy can be a healthy, sustainable partnership style.
A hunk of people who love and live in nonmonogamous relationships have contributed their stories to this book (from the US; not everything translates to over here). Two underlying mottos, however, seem to emerge from these snapshot case studies: More Love is worthwhile, and Unfulfilling Situations can be changed into Something Better. Whereas sneaks and cheats give lovin’ a bad name, the purpose of nonmonogamy, it emerges, is to practice ethical, compassionate connections outside of a ‘closed’ one-to-one amour – whether that’s Lena (54) and Gavin (43) who are members of the Unitarian Universalist church and consider sharing a lover together, or Lewis (50), Turner (37) and Ivan (37) who are part of a loving, live-in, gay triad.
The possibilities are of course endless – consent, above-board negotiation and time management pending. Nonmonogamous lovers often wax lyrical about love, sex, emotional needs, spiritual connections, flirting and romance – whatever turns you on and helps you get satisfied; but why do people pursue open relationships? Really, isn’t one person enough? Does Taormino and her cohorts convince in this book about the perks of this taboo relationship style?
Open relationships, or ‘free love’ to court the sentiments of polyamorous Russian anarcha-feminist Emma Goldman, are also a feminist issue. We are raised in a fairy-tale society that keeps us dependent on our lovers for worth, validation and security (and then there’s the compulsory heterosexuality). Despite massive historical shifts which have destabilised marriage in favour of co-habitation, taken the stigma out of the single girl, and opened up the possibility of queer romance, we’re programmed from diapers to false teeth to believe in The One: the person out there who will be smart, sexy, kind and, most importantly, totally into us. It is a romantic gimmick – one that keeps us/women from exploring and expressing ourselves; and guarantees folks remain hooked into the co-dependency model of relationship trauma (really, I am not cynical).
Of course, some people choose monogamy and it suits them down to the ground. That’s cool. What Taormino’s book sets out to provide is some relationship blueprints for creating exactly the kind of relationship that you want, outside or in the status quo. As she points out: “Nonmonogamous folks are constantly engaged in their relationships: they negotiate and establish boundaries, respect them, test them and, yes, even violate them. But the limits are not assumed or set by society; they are consciously chosen.” What she delivers is sound advice – for folks in any kind of relationship or not – about communication, realising needs and building commitments with each other.
I should admit: I have been in open relationships for years, with different partners, different agreements and different successes. Open relationships may seem counter-intuitive – why would you want to send your girlfriend out to snog / whip / fuck / date other folks? When it goes well, as Taormino aptly demonstrates, it affords you greater security, peace of mind and a well-tended emotional life. Above all, you can be confident that you base and receive your relationships on genuine love and respect; the relationships that you have rather than the one you fantasise about having. You can create more heart connections, sexy flings or friend dates, and it can nourish rather than devastate. Well, that’s the goal. Actually getting there is a lot of hard work, hence the need for more books like Opening Up.
Taormino devotes the first 50 pages in her book to introducing open relationships: charting the history, myths, rationales and character requirements of nonmonogamy relationship styles (there’s even a handy self-evaluation form for you to contemplate. If anything, open relationships mean that you need to know yourself and your limits very well). The tone is more scholarly than pop-journo, but the book is easy to read and well researched. It has a whiff of self-help manual to it – including the slightly icky image of two (white) hands clasped across the front cover – which gave me an involuntary memory of the pictures in my old A-Level psychology textbooks of ‘couples’ and ‘heterosexuals’. That is to say, the book is packaged, and written, in quite a tame, clinical way – perhaps to counter the usual sex-focused or salacious assumptions about fucking outside of your partnerships.
Arguing that nonmonogamy suits all kinds of sexualities – straight, queer, gay – BDSM or vanilla – Taormino sees the hook of open relationships as being able to pursue ‘desire without deception’. Via declining marriage statistics and sketches of lesbian-communes and swinging military bases, Taormino gives six focused chapters in section two on the different ‘styles of open relationships’. The choice of Partnered Nonmonogamy, Swinging, Polyamory, Polyfidelity, Mono/Poly Combos and even Solo Polyamory, just as a starter, shows that it’s not just fuck-a-thons but also a host of committed, loyal partnership styles that people take up. (Not forgetting non-sexual primary partners; make-out buddies; causal masturbation encounters; five-way poly-fidelity marriages; autonomous loving (with yourself as your primary partner and other dates and relationships as lovers); and many other conceivable options and arrangements.) It’s mind-blowing to think about all the relationships and encounters you could have, but what about the practicalities?
The third section of the book, and the largest chunk, deals with this in ‘Creating and Sustaining your Relationships’. These informative chapters cover the nuts-and-bolts: negotiating boundaries, dealing with jealousy, finding community, raising kids and dealing with problems, changes and the legal system. The resource guide in the appendices is also a welcome addition; it covers international groups and materials (try out tribes.tribe.net/polyeurope for a more continental hook-up).
Over all, Opening Up provides the novice and the maven alike with rationales, methods, advice and communication process pointers – all necessary stuff. Its downfall is that it is somewhat missing in emotional currency. Whilst I appreciated the mini-histories of nonmonogamy, the statistics of marriage decline and the in-depth stories recounted by many of Taormino’s sources, I still found myself wanting more juice; something hearty and creative to stoke up my erotic imagination and to give tips on acts of pleasure giving and romancing to partners, friends and lovers.
Once past the salacious opening of Taormino admitting she enjoyed public sex parties, the writing style and presentation of this book is textbook detached. The romantics amongst us might prefer the more poly-as-gift approach of Wendy-O Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships, which speaks to the creative, focused-attention side of open relationships and anarcha-dating styles. Or there’s the juicily imaginative Pagan Polyamory: Becoming a Tribe of Hearts, by Raven Kaldera – a witch’s look at building a community of lovers which deals with the obstacles and challenges of polyamory from an astrological/Pagan approach: from communication processes of Mercury to the transformations of Pluto.
This said, Opening Up is a much-welcome addition to the polyamory fray and deals expertly with the philosophical and manifold reasons for giving up on the ghost of monogamy (for those of us who always felt a little cheated by the myth of having a ‘one and only’ who completes you entirely, this book might change your life). In terms of breadth, it rivals other books on the market for providing working models for all kinds of non-exclusive permeations and for being transparent about the demographics of its research informants, (the appendices include a breakdown of age, occupation and so on for the hundred or so people who contributed their stories to the book). For open relationship beginners, it is an excellent first port of call; for those who greedily snap up anything on poly-loving that they can find, it might not offer anything new, but it will refresh your memory about stuff that is worth revisiting.
Yep, Opening Up may skimp on lurid details of play mates and sex adventures, or fall short on suggestive ideas about the erotic/cute things you can do for the lovers in your life (take a look at the poly bible The Ethical Slut for that); but it does provide a comprehensive journey for relationship self-starters. Demonstrating that non-exclusive relationships aren’t just for the queers and self-confessed perverts, Taormino weaves interviews, analysis and in-depth profiles of poly practitioners to represent and eulogize how everyday “people make room in their beds, lives, and hearts for other people”. Count me in.