Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Book Review: Opening Up by Tristan Taormino

Tristan Taormino is an over-achiever, a multifaceted woman with an impressive breadth of expertise and talent. She broke ground as an expert and author on anal sex for women, is a long-time editor of anthologies of lesbian erotica, and takes a unique reality approach as a porn director and producer. In her spare time she writes a regular sex column for the Village Voice called Pucker Up, and co-produces a twice yearly event, Dark Odyssey, where open minded people gather to explore tantra, polyamory, intimate communications, BDSM, and alternative lifestyles. To this already impressive list of accomplishments, Tristan now adds her latest book, Opening Up – a Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. At almost 350 pages, it leaves nothing out.

As a not especially kinky person who, as a service to the community, occasionally presents poly educational programs at BDSM events, I recognized quite some time ago a clear need for reliable, comprehensive, immediately available, contemporary polyamory resources written in terms to which kinky and queer people can relate. Tristan has written just such a resource.

I had the pleasure of consulting with Tristan and assisted with finding people to be interviewed. She already knew many from the kink and GLBT communities herself. The result is a book of amazing diversity. In fact, about the only people who may not quickly recognize themselves are mainstreamers. Even then, the information is appropriate and her advice is excellent no matter what your societal sphere.

I am also impressed with how thoroughly researched this book is. Tristan references sources well known to the polyamory community like Dossie Easton, Deborah Anapol, Ryam Nearing, Ron Mazur and Oberon Zell Ravenheart, as well as sociologists and anthropologists like Pepper Schwartz and Helen Fisher, researchers like David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton, Dorothy Tennov and the Constantines, to communications skills authors Brad Blanton and Marshall B. Rosenberg.

Section 1 includes chapters on the history of open relationships, including the roles played by pre-internet key parties, sex clubs, gay bathhouses and lesbian collectives, myths about nonmonogamy, how to determine if an open relationship is right for you, and what makes an open relationship work. In Section 2 Tristan deftly sorts out all of the various styles of open relationships from swinging to polyfidelity.

With these as a foundation, the chapters in Section 3 cover advice on designing your open relationship, jealousy, compersion, common challenges, and coping with change, followed by chapters on coming out, finding community, raising children in poly families, safer sex practices, and legal and practical issues.

This book is far from a dry technical manual. Throughout the book Tristan includes compelling quotes from and the personal stories of many of the 126 people she interviewed. These lend a valuable perspective by which the reader can identify and connect with the information and advice offered. She includes checklists and useful questions for negotiating relationship terms, as well as language and terms to help people who are new to open relationships get a handle on what kind of open relationship they want and are prepared to handle.

Several chapters particularly impressed me as especially thorough and accurate. These are the chapters on what makes an open relationship work, designing your relationship, compersion (which is the most comprehensive I’ve seen on that topic), coming out, raising children in open relationships, safer sex (also excellent!) and legal and practical matters.

On raising children in poly families, despite having none herself to my knowledge, Tristan really nails it. She wisely consulted and quotes attorney Valerie White who has considerable expertise and experience on this subject. Parents with children who are engaged in or thinking of engaging in an open relationship will find this chapter alone worth the purchase price. The same is true for anyone seeking clear and concise information on STIs and safer sex practices, and anyone seeking guidelines for dealing with the legal issues that arise for alternative relationships and families.

If all this weren’t already enough, this book is thoroughly annotated and includes statistics about the age, locale, gender, sexual orientation, relationship style, race and ethnicity, occupations, etc., of the interviewees. There is a comprehensive and up-to-date resource guide that includes a lengthy book list, (I have the impression that she’s read everyone of them!), a list of conferences and events, GLBT/queer resources, local, regional and national and international organizations, online groups, listservs and communities, professional directories, resources on research and activism, spirituality resources, and so on.

In addition to Tristan’s original website, Pucker Up, she has established a second website specifically on open relationships, aptly named Opening Up. This new website includes the resource list referenced above and a book excerpt, message boards, info on her book tour, and what she calls the Open List made up of professionals (therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, consultants, relationship and life coaches, doctors, lawyers, etc.) who are experienced and knowledgeable about alternative sexuality and lifestyles, open relationships, polyamory, nonmonogamy, swinging, etc.

Opening Up is going to take its place alongside The Ethical Slut and Polyamory: the New Love Without Limits as essential reading on the bookshelf of anyone practicing polyamory or engaging in other kinds of open relationships.

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