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Once I was part of a discussion with a pair of female friends bemoaning the increasing number of polyamorous women these days who were "ruining it" for women looking to settle down with one man. It would come as no surprise to Jenny Block, the writer of Open that my friendship with said friends dissolved shortly after I admitted to them that I myself questioned the value of monogamy in my own relationships. Block, who had an open marriage for around 2 years before writing her book, notes that "I have had plenty of experience with people whose responses to my lifestyle have been anything but supportive. These include being aggressive, condescending, and just plain mean-spiritedness."
Open, is Block's attempt to get readers to "accept those of us whom finding love beyond our marriages is rewarding," frustrated as she is with people who make unfounded assumptions about her and the nature of her relationship when they learn she is polyamorous, or is involved in more than a single love relationship. In Block's case she pushed to open up her marriage after coming to terms with the fact that her own sexual appetites exceeded her husband's.
The first half of the book provides a lengthy description of Block's early dating life, including the loss of her virginity, experimentation with women, and her pursuit of the inevitable 'one,' with whom she would settle down. For many readers this section may be less than riveting containing, as it does, a description of a contemporary love life that is not all that out of the ordinary (not for anyone who 'experimented in college' that is). The pace does pick up, however, in the second half of the book when Block gets down to describing the negotiations that lead to opening up her marriage, the largely positive impact it has had on her relationship, responses to her and her husband's choice, and arguments against opponents of open marriages.
There are many eye-opening sections in this part of the book including descriptions of strangers' vehement opposition to Block's lifestyle. Block has also had to counter assumptions that being in an open marriage entails that she is abnormal, promiscuous or even addicted to sex, a bad mother, or downright selfish. "It's always frustrating when people make assumptions about you when they know nothing of your experience-but that goes for anything from sexuality to race to education" (218) notes Block, a statement that provides readers with a significant motivation for the writing this book. However, there are also touching descriptions of the relationship itself including Block telling readers that because she loves her husband, she was able to take pleasure in his happiness with another woman and how later, she sought to comfort him after the breakup. For over a year before writing, and after dating a few men, Block settled on a single female lover apart from her husband. "He is my rock, she is my sky" (249), writes Block of her relationships.
While an open-minded reader stands to be left with the impression that an open relationship can be both healthy and satisfying for all involved (Block's husband writes the afterword to the book as well), Block's critical analysis of the question of polyamory vs. monogamy is less than satisfactory due to various weak arguments put forth by the author. A more dubious argument she proffers involves something of a conspiracy theory to account for opposition to open marriages. She writes: "as long as authorities get to define my lifestyle choices as "slutty," and get to insist that I'm doomed, they're ensuring that other people worry more about avoiding these supposed "consequences" and protecting their "reputations," and less about their happiness or the state of society at large" (168). The claim that monogamy is endorsed to distract people from social issues strikes this reviewer as a largely dubious, and entirely indefensible claim at best.
Block also falls into various fallacious arguments, including an inappropriate appeal to authority when she argues "yet here's Einstein, someone whose genius nearly everyone could agree on making the brilliant point that we don't need religion enforcing behavioral guidelines for us" (199). To this, a student of critical thinking could rightly point out that genius is often context specific and Einstein's ingenuity in physics does not guarantee any level of expertise in the area of morality or ethics. Meanwhile, a reader gets the sense that Block is setting up a bit of a straw dog in her argumentation as she focuses on largely unfounded and irrational arguments against open relationships, made for instance, by anonymous commentators of an online story Block published about her marriage. Block goes as far to state unequivocally that "no rational argument against open marriage exists" (168). However, given the preponderance of pop-cultural sources (such as websites, Glamour, Newsweek and Ms.) in the 'works consulted' section one is left doubting that this claim has been adequately researched.
In all fairness, Block does bring in feminist literature regarding the oppressive nature of some traditional marriages and the suppression of women's sexuality, which provide her arguments some substance. Meanwhile, the reader unfamiliar or even hostile to the concept of open marriage may well be induced to examine their own biases and preconceptions regarding the nature of open relationships. The claim however, that there are no rational grounds for opposing open marriage makes for a book that will likely fail to engage more critically minded readers, especially those who are already sympathetic towards the idea of polyamory. Arguably, and as the former friends described earlier held, the acceptance of polyamory in certain social circles is creating an environment that is increasingly inhospitable for those bent on cultivating a monogamous relationship. This is because there is greater social pressure to accept polyamory. The impact of the acceptance sought by Block then, affects more than merely the interests of two consenting adults in a relationship and a thorough critical analysis of polyamory would include an examination of the broader social issues at play if and when such relationships become more mainstream.
© 2009 Marnina Norys
Marnina Norys is a PhD student in Social and Political Thought at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She does work is in the area of moral philosophy and relational ethics.