May 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage by Jenny Block

Most people cheat in their supposedly monogamous relationships. It’s no surprise. The weird part, according to Jenny Block, is that it’s so socially acceptable to lie to our partners, to sneak around, to have a secret, extracurricular sex life. After unquestioningly moving into a traditional marriage and, like so many other married Americans, having an affair, Block realized that she wanted to see other people, without lying to her husband, and without losing him. Their marriage has been open for three years, and now she has only one partner outside of the marriage -- Jemma, her “sky” -- while her husband, her “rock,” appears to have no partners. They don’t discuss the openness of their marriage with their eight-year-old daughter, Emily, who presumably doesn’t yet use Google.

Open is a sort of half-personal story, half-manifesto about her journey into an honest, non-monogamous marriage, and the subject matter is fascinating. But I found myself wishing throughout that Open was either a bold, truthful memoir (I kept imagining the same story as written by Mary Karr or Kathryn Harrison or Terry Tempest Williams or Patricia Weaver Francisco) or a searing work of political philosophy (along the lines of Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract).

Instead, Jenny Block does a lot of telling rather than showing. The vignettes from her own life are the best part of the book, but she keeps them slim, without dialogue, and without that feeling of intimate intensity that the best memoirs or tell-alls can capture. Her descriptions of the people, settings and scenarios involved are bland. Her husband really does seem like a rock. What does it really feel like when your twenty-year-old lover comes to tell you that she doesn’t want to have sex with you anymore, only alone with your husband? What does the girl’s face look like during that discussion? What words does she use? What words do you use? What does your suburban living room look like and smell like? Where is your daughter at that moment? How does your chest feel? Why do your extramarital lovers tend to be girls (and the occasional boy) ten years younger than you? If you’re going to be so self-actualized as to try to create a loving, honest, authentic life, why would you do it in the suburbs? If you’re going to question traditional marriage, why not more deeply critique, or even refuse, the institution of marriage itself?

Block writes about how we aren’t biologically hard-wired for monogamy -- which is sort of a moot point, I think, as we aren’t biologically hard-wired to hold our pee throughout a cublicled workday so we can relieve ourselves in a porcelain machine instead of on the nearest patch of carpet. We aren’t biologically wired to eat processed, plastic-encased food from neon-lit supermarkets and to wait in a line to pay for food when we’re hungry. We’re programmed to poop, eat and get off when we feel like it. We’re probably programmed, even as we age, to have sex with nubile teenagers. And even “biologically,” sexual arrangements among social animals dictate power and status. So biology isn’t the point. The point is finding a way to live a happy, fulfilling life without hurting anyone. Life in any of the world’s diverse societies is a struggle between what feels “natural” and the compromises we make for group living.

Block overlooks the ways that “biological” arguments for restructuring society have often been employed in the service of sexism, racism, homophobia and slavery.

Open marriage isn’t about loose morals… Morality is a social construct, while the principles behind open marriage are based in biology. We are not all wired for one lifestyle, which is why I’m suggesting that open marriage should be no less of an option that serial monogamy or homosexuality or lifetime abstinence or staying single or having kids on one’s own. Excuse me for calling in the big guns, but isn’t that what our founding fathers had in mind in the first place? … If you can choose your religion, why would it make any less sense to choose your lifestyle in terms of who you live with, love with and sleep with?

The nuclear family, according to Block, is a recent innovation. Before the 1940s, “anything and everything” was acceptable, and, “It had nothing -- nothing -- to do with love… Economics dictated marriage and living arrangements. Nothing more and nothing less. So to stress the importance and history of a man and a woman falling in love and living together and having children they dote on and adore is nothing short of new-fangled.”

Jenny Block needs a U. S. history refresher course. What isn’t new-fangled is the oppression of women that continues to structure and shape most world societies. The “founding fathers” had no intention of giving women citizenship privileges or the privilege to choose their religion. And while I couldn’t agree more with Jenny Block that it makes sense to “choose your lifestyle,” any book on the subject needs to address marriage as a legal institution. Block doesn’t even mention it. She doesn’t discuss legal polygamy, age of consent laws, the gay marriage controversy or what should happen, legally, in our society today to allow us all to choose who we live with, love with and sleep with. She does not address the legal and financial and hardships -- custody troubles, tax hassles, health insurance sharing, immigration problems, and more -- faced by people who have family lives outside of state-sanctioned, heterosexual, “nuclear” marriage. She looks only at middle-class America. Her political, social, biological and moral arguments are irritatingly weak, and I say this as someone who couldn’t agree more with her main message -- that it’s time to seriously rethink the traditional, facially monogamous, heterosexual nuclear marriage based on lies, and to instead honestly create lives that work for us. To me, that means identifying the oppressive legal and political underpinnings of contemporary American society, deeply scrutinizing the social construction of sex and gender, and hoping for radical change, even futilely. I know I can get shrill, but I can’t help judging Jenny Block, maybe unfairly. It’s not for her open marriage. It’s because her book, on a deeply worthy topic, is self-congratulatory without getting at the real issues.  

“Don’t feel sorry for me or my husband,” writes Block. “Please. We don’t have a marriage that’s lacking. We have it all… My marriage and my relationship with Jemma are anything but mutually exclusive. They are perfect together. Perfect.” That’s lovely for her. She’s a suburban wife and mother with all of the legal and class privileges that entails, be they mindless plastic surgery, safe places to have extramarital sex without getting beaten up or arrested, tax breaks and a serene child custody arrangement. For many people in the world, violating gender or sexual norms has dangerous consequences. The problem could have been sidestepped by making the book about “open relationships” instead of “open marriage” -- at least then it would address the millions of Americans in same-sex relationships who lack the option to marry at all.

With all its flaws, Open proves just how deeply entrenched traditional ideas about marriage can be, even when we think we’re shaking things up a little. Jenny Block, like the people she feels are judging her, takes much for granted about sex, love, biology, ethics and society. This subject demands a radical new examination, either from a personal or political perspective. Open doesn’t quite get there, but at least it raises some of the right questions.

Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage by Jenny Block
Seal Press
ISBN: 158005241X
280 Pages