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Two new books argue that monogamy isn't for everyone. Or, perhaps, for anyone. At one time a band of gold was the fashion choice for monogamists everywhere, but for a growing number of people, that ring has gone out of style: For them, polyamory is the new monogamy.
Increasingly, it seems, people in committed relationships are choosing to let the neighbors in on their richer, their poorer, their sickness and their health. The new CBS series "Swingtown" and HBO's "Big Love" present alternate bedroom realities. And now two smart, unsmarmy books about polyamory are on the shelves, all of which begs the question: Why is this stuff so hot right now?
Jenny Block looks like the mom next door. The mother of 9-year-old Emily, she marked her 11th wedding anniversary in May. Because she was traveling, her husband missed it. So did her girlfriend.
A one-time Virginia Commonwealth University professor and former contributor to Style Weekly, Block has always been open about her open marriage, but not until the release of her book "Open: Life, Love and Sex in an Open Marriage" has she found so many ardent supporters -- or the need to defend so fiercely the choices she's made.
"I think we've gotten sex and love really tangled up," Block says. "We've gotten really possessive; marriage has become all about sexual ownership, but there's not necessarily emotional support. That's not to say I have a problem with monogamy. If it's a conscious choice, hey, more power to you."
Block's marriage has been open for five years, but for the last year and a half, she's been exclusively seeing one other woman, whom she calls Jemma. Since she and her husband, Christopher, had a three-way with a mutual friend five years ago, Christopher has chosen not to see or sleep with anyone other than his wife.
"Open" is a memoir, but at times it reads like a critical analysis of evolving lifestyle choices. (It even has footnotes.) "I started out writing more pure memoir, but my editor thought it would be too indulgent and racy," Block says. So she approached her writing in a more intellectual way, supporting her thesis with the details of her life.
Considering the more vehement comments she's received, Block wonders if people have such strong reactions because of something going on in their own lives. "It would be easy to be mad at me if your husband was cheating on you, for example," she says. "It's a funny dichotomy between the preconceptions. In my house, there's no swinging wild parties or swinging from the chandeliers. I would bet big money there's no difference with my girlfriend and your best friend."
But while Block's marriage, with all of its quirks and triangles, seems to be working for Block and her husband, what about their daughter?
"When she's 14, she's going to hate me regardless," Block says. "But that's also a byproduct of being a writer's daughter. Think of all the memoirists out there. She knows I have a book out about marriage and grown-up stuff. For kids, everything is TMI; they don't want to think of us as people. If people say, A®Your mommy is a bad person,' I'll tell her what I've told her all along, and that's that people can be very mean and hate other people unnecessarily."
"We haven't seen a good book about non-monogamy since A®The Ethical Slut' in 1997," says Tristan Taormino, a Village Voice columnist and author of the newly released "Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships."
"The more I look around, the more I see two things," she says. "People seem to be struggling with traditional monogamy -- in the news every day, there's a sports figure or politician struggling with monogamy. Some of the most successful relationships I know in my community are not monogamous. People seem to be willing to go off the beaten path to create relationships that work for them."
Taormino, 37, has been in an open relationship with her partner, Colten (a transgender person, born a woman, who has not undergone any type of surgery but who prefers male pronouns), for eight years. "Like any relationship, it's been very dynamic," Taormino says. "It started as polyamorous, and now it's partnered non-monogomy [meaning a central committed couple who have casual sex with other people]. Marriage is a point of negotiation. The landscape is constantly shifting in terms of what's legal and what's not."
For her travel guide of open relationships, Taormino interviewed 126 people and says it's their stories that power the book. "You can hear really diverse voices of real people who are creating relationships that are alternative and somehow outside of monogamy," Taormino says.
But is there any demographic more likely than another to be open? Can you look for an "O" crocheted to the lapels of nontraditionally partnered Americans?
"Oh God, no, not at all," Taormino says. "In terms of age, race, gender, class and geography, it's all over the board. I interviewed an enlisted member of the Army, a pastor in a mainline Christian church, phone sex operators, elementary school teachers, lawyers, doctors. And a whole bunch were from Virginia."
But if non-monogamy is happening successfully in so many ZIP codes, why do so many people find the arrangement threatening?
"I think it's because we have collectively been told this fairy tale about our one true love, our Prince Charming, our soulmate -- and it's been reinforced in the media and every part of society. And whenever you challenge such a prominent institution, it's terrifying," she says. "But on the flip side, it's courageous to say, A®You know what? This isn't working for me.'" S
Jenny Block will read from her memoir and speak at the Writer House at 508 Dale Ave. in Charlottesville Friday, July 18, at 7 p.m. Call (434) 296-1922 or visit www.writerhouse.org for more information. You can visit Block on the Web at www.jennyonthepage.com, and Tristan Taormino at www.openingup.net.