Book Review: Jenny Block’s Open

In May, a polyamorous woman named Jenny Block released a new hardcover book, Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage. I bought it and gave it a read in June, and this is my take on it.

Jenny has done something new and interesting with this book: instead of being the usual how-to guide to nonmonogamy, it is primarily a memoir of her personal journey to polyamory. And, it is an incredibly frank and revealing take on her life, starting in childhood, detailing how she was cheated on and then how she cheated on her husband, and her subsequent journeys through various types of open relationship styles to her current husband-and-girlfriend V relationship. She lays out all her feelings and motivations, and puts the bad on the table with the good, which makes the book that much more real and powerful. It was an incredible act of bravery to publish this book – even as open as I am about my life, I don’t think I could pen something that bares my inner self to this extent.

Also, Jenny can write. The book goes down like tasty candy, and could probably be read in a single day. Her writing is so good that the words often fade to transparency, something that is hard to accomplish in a wide-ranging memoir of this sort.

In addition, she is very good at relating the larger cultural context to her personal story. She does not shy away from pointing out problematic cultural attitudes towards relationships, and she brings in a strong feminist analysis of the ways in which marriage and monogamy are tilted against women. Also, her bisexuality is a theme throughout the book, and she provides very concrete examples of how homophobia has directly harmed her. Overall, this book more strongly resembles Look Both ways than anything in the polyamory canon. What Look Both Ways does for bisexuality and feminism, this book does for bisexual women and nonmonogamy.

I recommend this book to everyone, even folks who are experienced in polyamory. It is refreshing to see one’s own life (partially, of course) mirrored in a life story. And even the most jaded polyamorist will find new pieces of understanding between the covers. For example, I ran across an illuminating couple of pages on how an early boyfriend cheated on her, and how that pushed her into an analysis of the problems with monogamy at a young age. The last couple of chapters she focuses on defending nonmonogamy, and a lot of the arguments there (“really, children are okay with it!”) will be review for poly readers.

In addition, this book is especially well-suited for folks who have no experience in nonmonogamy. You know how it is hard to find a piece of literature to hand your mother after coming out to her as poly? Certainly, The Ethical Slut is not a good idea. Open is that book. It is charming, engaging, and directed at a mainstream audience. It explains through the lens of one person’s actual experiences and life path, which ends up being a more powerful argument than any amount of theorizing or conceptual wrangling. Please, suggest this book to your monogamous friends and relatives.

For those of you wondering, she did use the P-word. She increasingly cites polyamory as the book progresses, and by the end it is clear that she has spent more than a little time bouncing around poly community. The fact that the book ends with her in a clearly polyamorous arrangement marks poly as a sort of endpoint, the opposite of monogamy if you will. The book was titled using open relationship language instead of poly language, but I think that is simply good marketing: more people recognize the phrase “open marriage” than “polyamory”.

Speaking of marketing, this book was marketed very well. Her book readings were not only at the local sex-positive haunt, but also extended into various high-end small bookstores. Her publisher managed to get it into wide distribution, and it was stocked at all the major book chains. At one point Jenny sent out an email saying that she had seen her book on the “new releases” table at Barnes and Noble, a feat of placement that I expect no other polyamory book can lay claim to. I have some hope that this book will have a widespread effect, much like the (oddly similarly-titled) book Open Marriage had in the 70’s, or like the potential that Swingtown has to normalize swinging.

I did have some minor quibbles with this book. Jenny spends a lot of time harping on the fact that you can be polyamorous and still be normal in pretty much every other way. Which makes sense given that she was targeting this book at a mainstream audience: it’s more good marketing. It also makes sense because she largely fits the profile of poly-and-normal, though I would say that her open bisexuality means that the mainstream will never accept her as fully normal, whatever her self-image. In any case, there is a little too much of the “poly people don’t have to be freaks!” in her text for my tastes. While I understand that the mainstream has trouble identifying with pagan hippy polys, or in my case pervy kinky polys, I think it is important to acknowledge that these sorts of counterculture communities are hotbeds of polyamory, and in many ways are leading the charge.

Also, Jenny falls into the trap of monogamy-bashing a little too much. She cites the cheating panic statistics that are out there, which tend to claim that over 50% of people in relationships have cheated. These statistics are all gathering in a biased way, leading to these inflated numbers. For example, Peggy Vaughan says that 60% of men and 40% of women cheat, failing to mention that these numbers come from a survey on her own “recover from cheating” website, which is clearly a self-selecting sample. Of course, she has a personal financial interest in inflating these numbers. Reliable statistics peg cheating rates in the 15%-35% range (for some of these, see the first footnote on my cheating paper), and it should be noted that the chance of a person cheating in any particular year is less than 5% (from Lust in Translation). Jenny talks a lot about how monogamy is failing based on these numbers, and I think she’s overstating the case. Monogamy is clearly working, probably for the majority of people practicing it. At the same time, it is clearly not working for huge numbers of people – even the lowest cheating numbers represents tens of millions of people in the USA. It does not help our cause when we try to discredit people who seem happy with monogamy, or when we jump on the “OMG Cheating!!” bandwagon.

All that said, this is an excellent book. I give it five stars, and I recommend it to all of you. In addition, I have met Jenny in person at a book reading: she is very cool, clearly part of our community, and she does not shy away from promoting nonmonogamy or taking hard stances. Her book holds a lot of promise for poly folks, and we should do everything in our power to get the word out.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this. Wow. You have been way to good to me all around and I just wanted to be sure to tell you how much I appreciate it.

    Wishing you all the best,
    Jenny Block
    Author of “Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage”

    http://www.jennyonthepage.com

  2. Thank you for writing such a wonderful memoir! It was a pleasure to read and it is going onto my very short list of books that I recommend for people new to nonmonogamy.

  3. Good thoughtful review, and I agree with all of it.

    Jenny is clearly a hoopy frood and a wonderful asset to our community. I hope she’ll be coming to NYC Poly Pride Oct 3-4. (Jenny, if you don’t know yet whether you want to come to this, I have a hunch you soon may. )

    Alan

    ————————————
    Keep up with Polyamory in the News!
    http://polyinthemedia.blogspot.com/
    ————————————


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