I teach an introductory college-level literature course and dedicate at least half of the first day of every new class explaining why it’s important to study fiction, poetry, creative essays, and the like. The spiel typically ends with my admission that I’ve made a good number of important life decisions based on what happens in The Great Gatsby. Indeed, if I had a WWJD bracelet, the J wouldn’t be referring to the higher power most people associate it with. Instead, mine would consider, “What would Jay (Gatsby) do?”
Anyway, the point is that literature isn’t only about entertainment. It also opens our minds to what’s going on in the world and, hopefully, starts conversations about the things that need discussing. Such is the case with two new Cleis Press publications: Playing With Fire, and Best Sex Writing 2010. In Janine Ashbless’ “Scorched” from Playing With Fire, readers meet Emerald, a woman engaged three-way affair that isn’t what it seems (even to her). Sure, it’s evocative, but after the climactic tremors subside, the words and ideas may linger, and the next time we’re faced with some sort of relationship dilemma, we might just wonder—for better or worse—What would Emerald do?
What Emerald does is challenge the sanctity of plain ol’ monogamy. She’s in a committed relationship with Max. Max and Greg are best friends, and Max essentially initiates the entire thing, telling Greg “to make a pass and see how” Emerald responds. She does, and so begins a sordid triangle of quasi-infidelity: Emerald believes she’s cheating, but Max knows the entire time, so we can’t really claim that she’s betraying him. In fact, if anybody is being betrayed, it’s Emerald.
And here’s where the discussion portion of today’s literature lesson begins.
On the surface, it’s easy to denounce the characters in “Scorched.” Even Ashbless won’t be offended if you’re not totally sold on their likeability. “I deliberately wrote a filthy, dirty story about people who behave in ways I don’t approve of,” she says. “All three characters are selfish and duplicitous, in different ways. I don’t find any of them particularly sympathetic.”
But that’s just on the surface. What about beneath the surface? What do we really know of Emerald’s particular situation? Who are we to judge her very non-traditional relationship triangle if it really does make her happy, even if for just a short time?
Then again, it’s just fiction, right? Except that these are the same sorts of questions that will come up while reading the essay “The Anatomy of an Affair” from Best Sex Writing 2010. It’s authored by Kerry Cohen, writing as Michelle Perrot, and details her real-life yearning for an extramarital affair—and not just a simple fling, but “Dirty, spit-in-his mouth sex. Wet, disgusting, nasty talk about pussies and cum and fuck-me sex.”
Cohen’s sexual description of herself is Emerald-esque, yet Cohen is not a fictional character. She’s a real woman with real responsibilities and real desires—and in the midst of a very real experience with needing more carnality than her husband can offer. So while it’s easy to dismiss Emerald and her boy toys as merely fantasy, Cohen wants to make “people think outside the box when it comes to the idea of adultery. I guess I’m hoping people will consider the ways we limit ourselves in our marriages,” she says.
The Case For Monogamy
Monogamy, of course, is one of those limitations. It’s the generally accepted way to conduct a relationship, and, for the majority of society at least, it makes some sense. “Monogamy of some sort—even if serial monogamy—is perfectly realistic for most people,” says Ashbless. “Sure, being monogamous means you have to give up some forms of sexual pleasure, though not so many—if you have porn and fiction to make up the gap when you crave novelty—but in return, you get stability in your life. That’s worth a lot.”
Best Sex Writing 2010’s editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel, recognizes the possible benefits of dedicating oneself to a single partner, too. “On the outside, monogamy seems to make everything easier; it’s a way to simplify things,” she says. “I think many people crave monogamy because they want to be their lover’s one and only, and vice versa. There is nothing wrong with that, and for plenty of people, it works.”
Except that “plenty of people” isn’t everybody, and so there are women and men out there for whom it doesn’t work—or it becomes a never-ending struggle that ultimately negates all the positive aspects that make it worthwhile in the first place.
“I think we’re sold a myth that monogamy is the ‘natural order’ and that it should always be easy, and that if you find yourself lusting after someone else, or even checking someone else out, then you’ve somehow committed a major relationship faux pas,” Bussel says. “The problem is not with monogamy, per se, but that it’s thought of and taught as the ‘One True Way,’ and anyone who can’t fit into that model is seen as a disgrace…Every couple needs to work out how they deal with their own sexuality and fantasy life.”
In literature class terms, that’s the theme of “Scorched” and “The Anatomy of an Affair.” Both feature people who are working out the definition of their own version of a rewarding, fulfilling—and fair—love life. Just because they haven’t fully embraced monogamy, doesn’t mean that successful couplings are out of reach. As Bussel says, “We don’t teach young adults—or adults in general—that there are other ways of having relationships, and that’s a shame.”
Polyamory and open marriages have garnered a certain amount of attention recently, but they’re still treated as more of a fringe phenomenon than a serious way to manage a household. Which, in all probability, does more harm to families in the long run than simply accepting a new form of domestic dynamic. As Cohen says, “Often we just divorce rather than try things that are socially unacceptable.
“It seems crazy, right?” she continues. “Why not support people in finding ways to make their relationships work, even if it includes extramarital sex? Perhaps people are just frightened of change, the whole slippery slope thing—like, first this, next we’ll think it’s okay to have sex with dogs! It’s so silly because whenever you tell a society, ‘You must do this or you are bad!’ people use that thing to hurt one another, or they use it to hurt themselves.”
The goal is for as few people as possible to be hurt, so the $10,000-question is can these sorts of multiple partner relationships actually work. “Of course,” says Ashbless. “An open or polyamorous relationship might not last forever (more variables equal more possibilities for things to break down), but there’s no guarantee that any particular monogamous relationship will last forever either.”
Alison Tyler, editor of Playing With Fire, agrees: “I’m close with a couple who have had an open relationship for the past 40-plus years. They are one of the most rock-solid couples I’ve ever met. But there is a mammoth difference between being with another partner in an open relationship and cheating on a partner in a monogamous relationship.”
Which means you can’t just go out and sleep around and then claim your conquests in the name of polyamory. “Living in a dedicated-but-open relationship requires maturity, compromise, tolerance, and empathy,” says Ashbless. “Seriously, unless you are a profoundly shallow person, monogamy is easy in comparison.”
And, for those of us who do decide to stick with the more traditional relationship model, but still hunger for a dose of “strange” every so often, there’s always the entertainment side of literature.
“Cheating is always hot to me—on paper,” continues Tyler. “I think a good writer can take two lovers who should not be together and give them the freedom to fuck every which way. But because you enjoy infidelity in your fiction doesn’t mean you’re apt to cheat in real life. There are a lot of things I do in my head that I’d never do in my bed.”
Yes, without question, sometimes the things we think we want to do most are actually best left to the likes of folks such as Emerald and Jay Gatsby.
To purchase the Naked Reader Book Club selections, visit the Naked Reader Book Club Store.
|The Naked Reader Book Club||Selections for April 2010|
|Best Sex Writing 2010 Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel||Best Fetish Erotica Edited by Cara Bruce|