What Open Marriage Taught Me
As I write this, my children are asleep in their room, Loretta Lynn is on the stereo, and my wife is out on a date with a man named Paulo. It’s her second date this week; her fourth this month so far. If it goes like the others, she’ll come home in the middle of the night, crawl into bed beside me, and tell me all about how she and Paulo had sex. I won’t explode with anger or seethe with resentment. I’ll tell her it’s a hot story and I’m glad she had fun. It’s hot because she’s excited, and I’m glad because I’m a feminist.
Before my wife started sleeping with other men, I certainly considered myself a feminist, but I really only understood it in the abstract. When I quit working to stay at home with the kids, I began to understand it on a whole new level. I am an economically dependent househusband coping with the withering drudgery of child-rearing. Now that I understand the reality of that situation, I don’t blame women for demanding more for themselves than the life of the housewife.
Still, as a man, I could, if I wanted to, portray what I’m doing as “work,” and thus claim for myself the prestige men traditionally derive from “work.” Whenever I tell someone I stay home with the kids, they invariably say, “Hardest work in the world.” They say this because the only way to account for a man at home with the kids is to say what he’s doing is hard work. But there’s a subtext in the compliment that makes it backhanded: We both know no one ever says it to a woman. Mothers care; fathers provide care. The difference is crucial. Despite my total withdrawal from the economy and the traditional sources of masculine identity, I can still argue I am a provider. I provide care.
In this way, my masculine self-image was stretched but not broken. Diaper bag notwithstanding, I was still a Man. It wasn’t until my wife mentioned one evening that she’d kissed another man and liked it and wanted to do more than kiss next time that I realized how my status as a Man depended on a single fact: that my wife fucked only me.
When people ask how it started, I say this: We married young. She’d had sex before me, but only with a handful of people a handful of times. She never had a boyfriend, never had a lover. I was the first man she ever had the chance to get to know intimately. By her mid-30s, having already had our children and entering her sexual prime, she felt keenly her lack of sexual experience. Happily for me, she was willing to talk about it, willing to ask if I’d be open to exploring other options. We opened a bottle of wine and started talking, and talking, and talking.
She didn’t present it as an issue of feminism to me, but after much soul-searching about why the idea of my wife having sex with other men bothered me I came to a few conclusions: Monogamy meant I controlled her sexual expression, and, not to get all women’s-studies major about it, patriarchal oppression essentially boils down to a man’s fear that a woman with sexual agency is a woman he can’t control. We aren’t afraid of their intellect or their spirit or their ability to bear children. We are afraid that when it comes time for sex, they won’t choose us. This petty fear has led us as a culture to place judgments on the entire spectrum of female sexual expression: If a woman likes sex, she’s a whore and a slut; if she only likes sex with her husband or boyfriend, she’s boring and lame; if she doesn’t like sex at all, she’s frigid and unfeeling. Every option is a trap.
Feminism always comes back to sex, even when we’re talking about everything else. The point isn’t that all women should be sexual adventurers. Celibacy is as valid an expression of sexuality as profligacy. The point is that it should be women who choose, not men — even the men they’re married to. For my wife, the choice between honoring our vows and fulfilling her desires was a false choice, another trap. She knew how deep our love was, and knew that her wanting a variety of sexual experiences as we traveled through life together would not diminish or disrupt that love. It took me about six months — many long, intense conversations, and an ocean of red wine — before I knew it, too.
When my wife told me she wanted to open our marriage and take other lovers, she wasn’t rejecting me, she was embracing herself. When I understood that, I finally became a feminist.
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