Susie interviews Tristan Taormino about her book, Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships.
SB: Were you always "open-minded: about relationships, so to speak, or did you go thru a sea change?
TT:I was schooled in lots of things by my first serious girlfriend in college—sex, porn, BDSM, and you in fact (she spearheaded the effort to bring you to speak at Wesleyan her senior year)—and the concept of open relationships is certainly something that registered on my radar once I came out, began reading On Our Backs and lots of sex-positive stuff.
After my GF graduated and I had two years of school left, we decided to open our relationship because she moved to LA. It ended up being disastrous. She started seeing someone out there who I was insanely jealous of.
I hooked up with a woman for a while but it wasn't very serious. I went to LA to spend the summer living with my girlfriend, and the deal was she had to end her thing with the other woman, which she did but it felt unresolved. Then our relationship unraveled big time. I cheated on her and it was a mess.
I have been in more than my fair share of long-distance relationships since then, and almost by necessity they were open because of geography. There was a time after I settled in NYC where I can remember having like 4 people, a fuck buddy, a girlfriend, a friend with benefits, and a pet—they all knew about each other and it was really fun.
It wasn't until I met a partner, let's call her Max, when I feel like I really needed to develop serious open relationship skills.
When we met, Max had a close friend/fuck buddy/partner in crime and I began seeing them as a team. She also had a long-term Daddy who lived on the West Coast. So I was walking into a major poly situation unlike any other I'd been in.
We were together for several years, during which we were in what I call "an accidental quad" with another couple for a while, and we each had other partners, some for sex, some for BDSM, some serious and ongoing. I met and began seeing my current partner during my relationship with Max.
TT: In some ways, queer people can have an easier time considering open relationships because they are already on the fringe, the margins. They have already questioned their sexuality and deviated from the norm, so deviating from the norm of relationships doesn't seem so scary.
Of course, that doesn't apply to all queers. Straight people have so many more expectations of monogamy, marriage, nuclear family, kids, etc. placed on them, I think. So, when straight people create relationships that are nonmonogamous, it can be harder for them.
Another obvious difference is the ways in which people of different sexual orientations incorporate what I will call public or social sex in their lives. I mean how many gay male couples do you know who are monogamous and sex at the bathhouse is acceptable or "doesn't count."
Gay men have a long history of public, semi-public, and social sex that many can easily incorporate into their relationships. Queer women are behind them, but have also developed spaces for meeting and playing with other queer women.
Straight people have few options if they do not identify as swingers to interact in social sex spaces, so if they want "just sex," it's harder to seek that out, I think.
SB: What's the worst jealous tantrum you ever had, if you've had one?
TT: Susie, I am embarrassed to say that I have had some major doozies.
Two incidents come to mind that were so intense that I can't even talk about them publicly, partly to protect other people's privacy and partly because they are still incredibly painful for me to even recall.
I will say this: when things have gone awry for me, in hindsight, I think it's often been avoidable. I am often too quick to say "YES" to my partner's request to do something with someone else. It's like I want to facilitate his pleasure and happiness and not be jealous, so I jump right to "Sure, that's great! Go for it!" without actually thinking it through.
So I have learned to actually thoughtfully consider something before responding. I also have not listened to my instincts/inner voice in the past. Something doesn't feel right or good or safe for me, but instead of speaking up, I suck it up.
That always has ended in disaster for me. I find that if I trust someone who my partner wants to hook up with, then I don't feel threatened, jealous, or worried at all. But when I have a bad feeling, it's usually right on.
SB: What do sex workers understand about open relationships that others don't?
TT: It's interesting that you ask that. I had to cut a lot from the original manuscript, including a chapter about open relationships in specific populations with a big section on sex workers. I think that sex workers know a lot about open relationships. Several of my interviewees were sex workers, including an escort, several professional dominatrixes and porn performers and two phone sex operators.
Here's a snip of what got cut from the book:
Sex workers have different styles of open relationships, here are some examples:
-- Partnered Non-Monogamy: One partner has sex for work as well as sex with other people, and the civilian partner has sex with other people.
-- Monogamy/Non-Monogamy Combo: Both partners agree that the sex worker partner can have sex with other people, however as part of work only. The civilian partner has no interest in having additional sexual partners.
-- Sex Worker Monogamy: While the behavior in this style is identical to the behavior in Monogamy/Non-Monogamy Combo, the way partners conceptualize the relationship is what differs. Both partners consider their relationship monogamous because they consider the one partner’s sex work “work,” and see it as something entirely different and separate from the sex they have with each other.
Sex workers’ attitudes about sex, monogamy, relationships, and sex work are as varied as the different kinds of sex workers there are. Some sex workers make a clear delineation between ‘work sex’ and ‘non-work sex’ and rigidly define both.
To them, work sex is a job, an economic exchange, a performance devoid of physical and emotional intimacy; non-work sex is about love, desire, commitment, physical and emotional intimacy—it’s "real."
Others draw a distinction between the two, but have a more complex view of work sex vs. non-work sex. They allow themselves to enjoy pleasure, experience intimacy, and express themselves authentically during their sex work when possible. Yet, they still distinguish their work from the sex they have outside work: while there may be friendship and fun at work, there isn’t romance, commitment, or deep intimacy.
For others, both the definitions and the lines between sex and work sex are much more nuanced. These folks may be swingers, sexually adventurous, and/or exhibitionists, and for them, their work is ideally (although not always) an extension of their sexuality.
Sex workers do not always have complete control when it comes to setting their work agenda; for example, a director tells a porn performer what to do or an escort fulfills a client’s fantasy to his specifications.
This is one way that they can separate their work sex from sex in their personal life, since what they do is not based on their own desire, so they see it differently.
However, sex workers do have choices, and often they or their partners will set limits as part of negotiating non-monogamy. Those limits may be about who a sex worker works with or what they do in a session.
A solid percentage of female porn performers who only have on-camera sex with other women do so as part of an agreement with their male civilian partners. I recognize that this is a problematic double standard: female performers can have sex with other women, but not other men. It reeks of misogyny and homophobia and reflects an idea that women having sex with other women “isn’t really sex” or isn’t considered the same thing as sex with men.
But whatever the values behind it, it’s a rule that seems to work for a lot of people in porn. Frequently, adult performers tell me that they won’t work with certain co-stars if their partner objects; one male performer said, “I let my wife know who I am going to work with. There are certain women she doesn’t like, and I won’t do scenes with them. It doesn’t matter to me. Gotta keep her happy.”
Photo: Carolinian Online