It's been four years since the last polyamory guidebook came out: Anthony Ravenscroft's Polyamory: Roadmaps for the Clueless & Hopeful
, which I find rich in ideas but overwritten, over-opinionated, and poorly edited. And there were only a few poly books before that.
Now all of a sudden we've got three new ones. What are they like?
Each is very different from the others, and each is very good in its own way.
1. The Polyamory Handbook: A User's Guide
by Peter J. Benson (392 pages, AuthorHouse, March 2008).
Pete Benson has been living poly and devoting serious thought to it for decades, and he's a regular at Loving More gatherings. He has compiled a big, well-organized, workmanlike guide to every Poly 101 and 201 issue you can think of and then some. On nearly every topic he stays close to the conventional community wisdom, and to me this is a good thing. The community wisdom is the hard-won distillation of countless people's trials and errors. Benson certainly has his own opinions, but he doesn't let them get in the way.
Like a medical handbook, this is more for browsing than reading cover to cover. Pick an issue and here it's dealt with, in 122 subsections of 10 chapters. The chapter categories are: Is Polyamory for You?, Varieties of Polyamory, Ethical Considerations, Sexual Hygiene, The Relationship Agreement, Relationship Skills, Resolving Issues, Day-to-Day Living, Multi-Adult Families, Legalities, and an appendix of resources. It's heavily cross-referenced and has a good index.
At last February's Poly Living conference, longtime activist C. T. Butler observed that the poly handbooks up to then, perhaps trying to stay "respectable," hadn't said much about managing the dynamics of group sex (polysexuality), even though this skill can be crucial for a tightly interbonded poly group and is not exactly taught in school. Butler suggested that this be a criterion for rating future poly guides. Benson devotes just a couple pages to polysexuality, mostly to warn about the "who's getting left out" syndrome but not saying much about the ways to prevent it. On the other hand, he devotes 38 informative, explicit pages to safer sex an essential part of any poly guide.
Although most of the book is very matter-of-fact, in the introduction Benson shows his mystical side:
In Chapter 6, talking about human interconnections in twosomes and larger groups, I use a metaphor from chemistry, refering to individuals as "atoms" and couples and larger committed groups as "molecules." The metaphor is actually quite close. In any chemical molecule (containing two atoms, three, or thousands), each atom exchanges energy with the others in such a way as to create the chemical bonds that hold them together....
Our dominant western culture has repressed the formation of human "molecules" larger than two "atoms" the equivalent of carbon monoxide or table salt. Now many people are rejecting those limitations and exploring the possibilities of combining three people, or four, or more. What are we in the process of evolving here? We cannot know, any more than a molecule of water or methane can anticipate a DNA molecule or a human body or human mind.
But something big is stirring and we're all part of it.
Benson says that he intends the book to be an asset not only for polys themselves but for "professionals in all areas of counseling and psychotherapy, who must be able to respond effectively to clients and parishioners who come to them for advice with polyamory-related issues." I'm going to give a copy to my Unitarian-Universalist minister for him to keep with the other counseling guides in his office partly to tweak him a little on his antsyness about the subject, but partly because the book really belongs there. If you're reading this blog, it belongs on your shelf too.
Benson self-published the book through AuthorHouse, which means it won't get any real marketing, publicity, or bookstore placement. It will have to find its audience by word of mouth. Benson seeks feedback for additions and improvements to the future editions that he hopes to produce; The Polyamory Handbook
could thus become a living, growing document. Hopefully a serious publisher will spot its potential before then.
Read the table of contents and first few pages
Here is Benson's press release
and more about the book
2. Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage
by Jenny Block (276 pages, Seal Press, May 2008).
This book, by contrast, is an intimate, read-in-a-day personal memoir. Jenny Block tells how she grew up in suburban Dallas confused and conflicted about society's messages regarding sex and marriage, then found her way through college relationship romps, a period of Stepford Wife misery in a gated community, rocky affairs, a marriage crisis and then a wonderfully successful open marriage. It's now a tight polyfi vee with her husband and her girlfriend. Whenever you begin to think the story is too much about her, she veers into cogent, insightful essays on love, marriage, expectations, and feminist independence, drawing on a wide variety of interesting sources.
Block projects confidence, authority, warmth, and zest. She's gotten knockout pieces into the Huffington Post, Tango
magazine (where she just began a regular column), and other smart outlets. She has just set out on a readings-and-media tour. A literary agent has contacted her about movie rights. A subtext that she is deliberately projecting is that you don't have to be born weird to blaze new societal trails. Through pluck and hard work, you too can achieve happy weirditude even if you dress sharp and come from Dallas. This certainly makes her book a welcome addition to the poly canon. She'll be an especially good role model for women who haven't quite yet grasped that feminism is good for them.
A useful bit from her college days:
Having partnerships in which the parameters of both partners' expectations were clear from the get-go, with no question about what each person wanted, made for very fulfilling sex, regardless of emotional connection.... Hilda Hutchinson, an ob-gyn in New York City and a clinical professor at Columbia University, writes, "Sex is always better and more deeply satisfying when your motivation for doing so is simple and healthy."...
The message I got growing up had been that sex is only good when it happens in a relationship between two people who love each other. But what I discovered instead was that love, sex, and relationships or any combination thereof could be good or happy or successful when the participants' expectations were shared and understood.
You can read Chapter 1 online
Here are her book blog
and tour schedule
. Watch how she handles a TV appearance
Here's a pair of reviews in Library Journal
Here's an interview
with her in Richmond Magazine
(she used to live in Richmond, Virginia.)
3. Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships
by Tristan Taormino (371 pages, Cleis Press, May 2008).
This third book combines the best elements of the first two.
Tristan Taormino is another compelling feminist character, but wilder. She's X-rated, brassy, and brilliant, a sex educator, writer, and porn director ("I believe I can change the world one feminist porn video at a time") and is probably best known as the leading how-to expert on anal sex for women. This is the 33rd book that she has authored or edited, by my count on Amazon. Most are annual collections of lesbian erotica and how-to guides to non-vanilla sex practices.
Lest anyone be frightened off by this, in Opening Up
Taormino carefully puts the raw stuff mostly aside to keep this a relationship
guidebook. (In a recent interview
, for instance, she directs people wanting polysexuality advice to The Threesome Handbook
by Vicki Vantoch instead.)
And this is no quickie book, either. It is the longest and most substantial of the three reviewed here. (In fact, Taormino says it was originally 675 pages long and the publisher made her condense it down.)
From the introduction:
The first time I saw someone have sex right in front of me, I was mesmerized, awestruck, turned on. It was really cool. The 400th time, it's still cool, but it's different. I found myself less interested in the surface of what I was seeing how he licks her, the noises she makes.... Instead, I was much more fascinated by who the people are. Are they a couple? How long have they been together? What made them decide to come to this sex event?... I want to know what the context is for what I am watching. I want to know about the inner workings of their relationship.
And no wonder. As I got to know these people, I discovered that their relationships were a lot more intriguing, complex, and transgressive than their sex lives.... In addition to sharp communication skills and a creative sense of identity, they all appeared to have one thing in common: they were all in nonmonogamous relationships. And they'd found a way to make those relationships work so well that they exuded an above-average level of sexual and emotional satisfaction.... So, I wondered, just how do they do it?
To get started, Taormino talked with about 120 people in all sorts of open-relationship configurations. She uses their stories and experiences to help illustrate numerous ways that hand-crafted setups among lovers succeed and fail. She covers a huge amount of ground in 20 chapters and 90 subsections: Poly history and myths, how to decide if it's for you, basics of what creates success, the many styles of open relationships, safer sex, the most common problems, jealousy, compersion, dealing with relationship changes and breakups, coming out, finding community, raising children in a poly family, legal issues, and thoughts on the future of relationships. There's a big, up-do-date appendix of poly websites, local poly groups nationally and worldwide, books, and other resources. The appendix is also available online
A message that comes through is that there's not even one set
of right ways to do this. Or of ways to screw up. As Taormina put it in a recent article
in the Village Voice
's Naked City blog:
Once you step out of the confines, expectations, and traditions of monogamy, it might as well be the Wild West. People are constructing relationships that are custom-built for them, and no two relationships are exactly the same. Even as I managed to name and define popular styles partnered non-monogamy, swinging, polyamory, solo polyamory, polyfidelity, and mono/poly combos within these categories is so much variation.
True, the poly community has evolved a lot of specific guidelines about what success usually requires. Most of these revolve around "CRT" (communication, trust, respect) and traits that earlier generations simply called "character": honesty, integrity, and a readiness to choose the difficult right over the easy wrong. But as Taormino's interviewees remind us, what's necessary
is not sufficient
and sometimes not even necessary. Setups doomed to fail by conventional wisdom occasionally work fine, what with their particular people's quirks, tolerances, and needs.
Here's Taormino's website for the book
Read David Hall's review
of it in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality
Violet Blue (sex writer, podcaster, and a Forbes
magazine "Web Celeb") interviewed
Taormino a few days ago for her San Francisco Chronicle
column, “Open Source Sex” (May 29, 2008).
Watch Taormino in a TV interview on Red Light District Chicago, an internet and public-access TV show by and for prostitutes; Part 1
, Part 2
MORE BOOKS COMING NEXT YEAR
Two additional, much-awaited polyamory guidebooks are in the pipeline to appear in 2009 or thereabouts.
The Ethical Slut, Second Edition,
is long past due. The current edition dates from 1997, and even though it's showing its age (the poly world is way
different and better organized now), it's reportedly selling better than it did when it first appeared. A year ago co-author Dossie Easton talked about the second edition on the Polyamory Weekly podcast, Episode #110
At the time we first wrote it, polyamory was like this brand new word; this was very, very new in public discussion.... Once Slut was out there, we started hearing from a lot of people who weren't part of our personal community, particularly me as a therapist. I started getting families, couples, relationships, triads, quads, what have you... coming to work with me on whatever they were struggling with. And that was fabulous for me, because I got a chance to learn how a lot of different people deal with polyamory.
Both of us have been hearing from people for 10 years now.... One of the places that will be expanded [in the book] will be a lot of exercises and things you can try.... Some about talking about emotions and communications techniques, some are about constructive ways to deal with conflict; we're going expand that greatly.... There's a lot information we're going to add.
Meanwhile, Franklin Veaux (aka Tacit) is finally getting publishers interested in his much-awaited Practical Guide to Polyamory
(tentative title). This'll be one to watch for. His huge polyamory website
is probably the most-recommended and most linked-to poly resource on the internet. Veaux recently talked about what he intends for the book on Polyamory Weekly Episode #156
I want to talk to a lot of people in the poly community, particularly people who have either made a lot of mistakes and figured out ways to solve those problems, or people who are in successful long-term poly relationships. [Interested? Email him at tacitr AT aol DOT com.]
The approach I want to take with this book is a lot more practical and a lot less theoretical than a lot of the other books I have seen... practical, hands-on advice, that is divorced from tantric sex or BDSM or any of the other subcultures. I want to talk for example about poly-mono relationships. We need a lot more about that.... Building polyfamilies, doing poly without primary-secondary hierarchies.... A lot of the books seem to be couple-centric, but a lot of poly relationships are not couple-centric.... There's very little about people who are coming into an existing relationship, or about creating an intentional family or a polyamorous tribe....
I'd really like to focus on practical problem-solving, practical day-to-day tools for dealing with communication for constructing relationships that are healthy and functional.
Lots to look forward to.
Labels: autobiographies, Book reviews by me, books, Ethical Slut, feminism, Jenny Block, open marriage, Poly 101, Tristan Taormino