July 10, 2008
“Sex is the easy part!” – Interview with Tristan Taormino, open relationships expert
Is sex the difference between a friend and a lover? Is anyone capable of an open relationship? Do people run to polyamory to avoid relationship problems?
Tristan Taormino – author, editor, sex educator and adult film director – took time out from the tour for her new book Opening Up: a Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships to answer some questions for Lesbilicious.
Is nonmonogamy more or less prevalent in the queer community?
I think it’s more prevalent, as queer people are already stepping outside bounds of mainstream culture. They’ve already come out, and some are a little more likely to try out relationships that defy societal expectations.
In that case, do you believe we should be fighting for gay marriage?
I support gay marriage being legalised in every state. I do however think it’s unfortunate that in some cases gay marriage opponents have used the issue against polyamory. The Religious Right, for example, using the argument that if we allow gay marriage then there’s a slippery slope to polyamory. It’s using gay marriage to throw poly people under the bus!
One of the strongest reasons for nonmonogamy in the book is that we shouldn’t expect one person to fulfil us in every way. Isn’t part of being in a relationship accepting the other person’s flaws and imperfections?
A factor of any good relationship is certainly having to compromise and sacrifice things, and to be open to changing your views. Some people have significant aspects like bisexuality, or specific desires, that are essential to their being, that they can’t fulfil with one person. It’s ok to move out from that, it’s not a cop-out in your relationship.
So many people are miserable in their relationships, and I think it’s about letting go of false expectations, that one person can do it all. Nonmonogamy is about exploring different parts of yourself.
Is it a coincidence that BDSM features prominently in the lives of your interviewees? Is this representative of the wider nonmonogamous community?
I run with the kinky crowd, so perhaps my call for interviewees attracted them. But I do think there is a huge overlap in BDSM and open relationships. Part of the BDSM culture is to be open. People are much more willing to step outside of monogamy when they’re kinky. You might find that you’re into flogging, but you partner doesn’t share that. So you find someone new to learn with, to play with, and that’s ok.
Polyamory in BDSM can sometimes be specific to a kink. You might be a top with your partner, but a bottom for someone else, or you might be a daddy but want to also be a slave. It’s about being able to move in and out of these roles.
You say that jealousy is a learnt reaction, rather than something innate. Do you think compersion [the opposite of jealousy – ‘positive feelings about your partner’s other intimacies’] is also learnt?
Erotic compersion is specifically sexual, and it’s generally easier for people to achieve. But it’s not just the erotic side, it’s more of a lifelong goal – it takes a lot of work, a tremendous amount of reprogramming of your brain. So when someone comes into your partner’s life, you don’t see them as a threat, you reverse all those negative feelings. It’s a heady thing to wrap your head around.
Compersion isn’t essential. You don’t have to experience joy, but what is essential is that people support their partners and their partner’s other relationship. It’s not about tolerance, it’s beyond tolerance, into respect and support.
Your background is very much in the sex industry. [Tristan has written several sex books and runs her own adult film production company] But sex isn’t actually a big part of the book. Was that deliberate?
The book was organic, the main ideas from it were driven by what I learnt from inteviewees. But yes, the overarching message from the people I spoke to was that sex was the least of their worries! Sex is the easy part. Communication and establishing boundaries and limits is what takes more work and skill. Personally it’s something of a departure for me, and maybe some people might be expecting more sex from the book.
Many people already feel deep love and emotional connection with others, but they call it friendships. Is it sex that makes it polyamory?
There are people who say that if you’re really really close and not having sex, you’re friends; if you’re really really close and you are having sex, you’re lovers. That gives sex a lot of significance that it doesn’t necessarily have!
Friendship isn’t always strong enough, it doesn’t convey that a person can be central to your life, that they are a part of important life decisions, that they are intimate with you on so many levels. Sex is just one form of intimacy.
The book creates the impression that being in an open relationship seems to involve a lot of discussions, checklists, meetings. Do people really do this?
There’s an assumption that people in open relationships have no boundaries, but it’s quite the opposite. The way they [open relationships] work and when they are satisfying is when people can recognise their limits and agree rules.
Everyone has at least one rule, I learnt. It’s important to have these foundations so people feel safe and respected, and loved.
So do you need a lot of self-discipline?
[Tristan laughs] I’d say you need self-awareness, not self-discipline! You need to be aware of who you are and what you want, what pushes your buttons.
What are the biggest barriers to having nonmonogamous relationships?
Society is the biggest barrier. Monogamy is reinforced and rewarded everywhere. It’s hard to challenge.
When I ask people what’s the hardest thing about nonmonogamy, jealousy doesn’t come up first, time does! Love is infinite, but time is limited to 24 hours a day. People have busy lives, and often part of the limits people set for their open relationships is the number of people they can be in relationships with.
Can anyone do it? Are society’s expectations really all that stop people, or are some people built for monogamy and others for nonmonogamy?
People differ in their opinions that I interviewed. Some people say they’re not wired, others are fluid, depends on factors in their lives. I think that we’re all pretty fluid in terms of our gender, sexual orientation and relationship styles.
There’s a spectrum and most people pretend they’re on the ends, but actually most of us are somewhere in the middle. Some people are naturally monogamous but under the right circumstances they could be nonmonogamous, and other people are naturally nonmonogamous but in the right circumstances could have a monogamous relationship.
Will nonmonogamy ever become mainstream?
I hope it will. As a minority movement it’s in its infancy, and there’s a long way to go to educate and raise awareness. But as it has more visibility it will have more acceptance. A lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about what polyamory is, there is a lot of ignorance around it.
Many thanks Tristan.
Read the Lesbilicious review of Opening Up: a Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.
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