Dan Savage had an interesting article the other day about monogamy, speaking out against it, actually, saying (to paraphrase) that insisting on monogamy is basically dooming people to an impossible, unnatural, and not really pleasurable state. Jenny Block has done more than talk the talk, she’s walked the walk, and in this memoir, she talks about why she is in an open marriage, how she came to decide that that was the best path to take, and what it’s done for her relationship with her husband.
I have to say, I admire her frank honesty. She manages to make having lovers on the side seem about as freaky as having a side business of selling kitchenware through hostess parties. Block, like many (some could say all) spouses, has a sex drive different from her spouse. In this case, Block wants (needs) to have sex much more often than her husband wants to. She also wants to have sex with women on occasion. She, like Savage, believes that being open and honest about your sexual needs is far superior to the adultery-getting caught-getting divorced cycle that most people go through.
Coming from a feminist angle, Block’s arguments really hit home. She decries the antifeminist surrender-to-your-man and submit-to-your-slave-like-lot-in-life that was popular in the 1950s and even today in some creepy right-wing circles. There’s a lot of restrictive gender-specific baggage that comes with marriage, and most people* would agree that it’s not fair that the one with the uterus does all the work and the one with the penis makes all the decisions.
I called this a memoir, but in a way, it’s more of an argument as to why she opened her marriage, and why an open marriage is not as weird as you think, and why it might be right for a lot more marriages if people just thought about it. If you took out the “have sex with people other than her spouse” idea and substituted “watch monster truck rallys” or “eat ice cream” or any other leisure-time activitiy, it would make complete sense. Why should a woman not go to monster truck rally’s just because women aren’t supposed to do it? Why follow narrow gender roles? Why shouldn’t a woman eat ice cream now and again? What’s so awful about having a little dairy-pleasure?
Block also talks about our culture’s uneasy relationship with women’s sexuality. She touches on the weird madonna-whore complex of the whole bride thing. A virgin before she’s married, and then a sex kitten afterwards, but not too much, and only at the right times. How’s a girl to cope? No matter how much or how little of a sex drive she has, it’s wrong. For example, she talked about a man who married a girl from the “marrying” sorority (as opposed to the “dating” sorority), who was very virginal and not terribly passionate. After he married her, he complained that she wasn’t very interested in sex. Block’s attitude was on the lines of “what did you expect?”
Since Block is also bisexual, she also briefly touches about gender politics, and what it means to identify as straight or queer. She talks a little about what she wants in a female lover (as opposed to a male lover) and how the gender of her lovers affect the dynamics of her marriage. Maybe I’m a bit liberal, because I found very little of this weird or fringe.
Block also presents the argument that having a second (or third, or fourth) lover does not detract from her love for her husband, but enhances it. She says that jealousy stems from insecurity, from a desire to own another human being, and is a pure cultural construct. I suppose it’s a similar argument I present to my kids, that just because I love one kid doesn’t mean I don’t love the other, and that my love for them is infinite and without measure. Loving one doesn’t mean not-loving another. I can understand the logic behind the argument, but this was the point at which it felt like protesting too much.
Here’s where my own gender bias comes in. Because if this book had been written by a man, I would have rolled my eyes and thought “what a douche bag,” figuring he just wanted to have the benefits of marriage without paying the price. He wants to take what he wants, and who cares how his wife feels about it. If it had been written from the point of view of a woman whose husband was the one who wanted to have affairs (and she was the one who wasn’t as interested in sex) I would look askance at her arguing in favor of this relationship, because I’d wonder if she wasn’t one of those creepy right-wing “God wants a wife to submit to her husband” people. Because Block is female, and taking the “male” (desiring more sex than her partner) stereotype, it made me think about it in a different way.
When Block talks about how much happier and more fulfilled she’s been since she and her husband opened her marriage, she made a great sales pitch, as if she was talking about how much fun it is to go to monster truck rallys or eat ice cream or do something else pleasurable that you’ve been denied because of silly societal mores. Because she’s coming from a feminist viewpoint, where women aren’t allowed to do so many things (have needs, have desires, have feelings, want power and autonomy, etc.) I wanted to be on board with her. And yet…and yet, she glosses over what is really the giant elephant in the room. Going to monster truck rallys and eating ice cream doesn’t stick an ice pick in the heart of the one you promised to love and honor and respect until death. That’s a pretty big oversight. She says that jealousy is a social construct, and stems from insecurity, yada yada, but anyone who’s been cheated on knows IT HURTS. Not just a little, like being passed over for the school play, or having a stranger flip you off, it hurts A LOT. It hurts like a dagger in the back. She claims that the lying and cheating hurts worse than the philandering. Does it? She said she was hurt when a woman she brought home wanted to sleep with her husband and not her (and mentioned that the woman in question wasn’t in their life anymore) but she mentioned it so briefly, it was like she was trying to hide something.
What I really wanted was her husband’s point of view, or another spouse in his position. How does he cope with knowing that his wife is in the arms of another? He has a brief afterward in the back, where he says that he loves his wife, and that he’s happy with his marriage, but I wanted to know more about how his feelings. Was he bullied into this? Was this a regretful compromise that he accepted to avoid divorce, or does he really feel that this was a better decision? Does he feel off the hook that he’s not expected to provide all the emotional support his wife wants, or does he feel a hole that he isn’t her first, best friend? Didn’t he feel belittled, or slighted, and if not, why not? Does it take a zen-like stoicism, or just a little getting used to? Either she’s hit upon a better way of making a marriage work, or she’s browbeaten some poor guy into putting up with her infidelities.
Marriage is an ancient institution, and if it’s been tweaked once, it can be tweaked again. Clearly, many people find monogamy an intolerable burden, and if this is a viable alternative for normal people, it might prevent a lot of divorces. (Nobody is a big fan of divorce). If Block really has a better way here, I feel like it behooves her to help the rest of us out. If she were in a farming community and found an ingenious way to harvest soybeans, shouldn’t she be obliged to share her great technique? And yet we only have half the story. Is it really a great alternative, or is it a delusion? We have the sales pitch without the instruction manual. There’s not enough information here. I found the concept interesting, but with so much of the other side of the story (her husband’s) lacking, I felt as though I’d read only half a book. I think she would have had a stronger story, and a better story, if she had spent less time defending herself and more time talking about how they overcame the difficulties.
*The people who don’t agree that traditional gender roles are unfair are not really people I want to be friends with.