Open marriage can teach its participants about a lot of things—trust, communication, attraction, the limits of our own possessive and jealous hearts—and now we’ve got one more to add to the list, with this one man who says that agreeing to sleep with other people has helped him finally get feminism. Readers, however, are not so sure they’re buying this inspirational journey.
Writing at New York magazine, self-described feminist and stay-at-home dad Michael Sonmore pens a heartfelt narrative about his journey toward an open marriage and the way it put feminism in a new light for him. Sonmore writes:
Before my wife started sleeping with other men, I certainly considered myself a feminist, but I really only understood it in the abstract. When I quit working to stay at home with the kids, I began to understand it on a whole new level.
Now facing the “withering drudgery” of taking care of kids, he doesn’t “blame women for demanding more for themselves than the life of the housewife.” That’s very generous, though I have to wonder if this means he did, in fact, blame them before. Was he the sort of guy who thought they had it pretty good, and wondered what all the griping was about?
Next, he checks his privilege, acknowledging that even as a man staying home with kids he can still be a Man because of sexist attitudes:
Mothers care; fathers provide care. The difference is crucial. Despite my total withdrawal from the economy and the traditional sources of masculine identity, I can still argue I am a provider. I provide care.
But that kind of care only keeps the home fires burning so hot. When his wife cheated on him, he understood what being a Man really meant:
It wasn’t until my wife mentioned one evening that she’d kissed another man and liked it and wanted to do more than kiss next time that I realized how my status as a Man depended on a single fact: that my wife fucked only me.
Well, the monogamous agreement he and his wife had agreed on also depended on that single fact, but OK, let’s keep going with this. Sonmore explains the decision to partake in an open marriage as one driven by his wife’s lack of sexual experience prior to marrying him. She’d only had sex with “a handful of people” but had no boyfriends, no lovers, he writes. He’s the only horse she’s ever really ridden, and kids and hitting her mid-thirties made all this painfully clear. She wanted to get out there and get some, and make up for lost time.
This sounds like the genesis for plenty of open marriage stories, in which one or both partners discover that life with only each other isn’t enough, yet life without each other at all is too much. Where it gets interesting is when Sonmore explains the feminist part:
Monogamy meant I controlled her sexual expression, and, not to get all women’s-studies major about it, patriarchal oppression essentially boils down to a man’s fear that a woman with sexual agency is a woman he can’t control. We aren’t afraid of their intellect or their spirit or their ability to bear children. We are afraid that when it comes time for sex, they won’t choose us. This petty fear has led us as a culture to place judgments on the entire spectrum of female sexual expression: If a woman likes sex, she’s a whore and a slut; if she only likes sex with her husband or boyfriend, she’s boring and lame; if she doesn’t like sex at all, she’s frigid and unfeeling. Every option is a trap.
While this is true in the broader, historical sense, it actually makes no sense whatsoever when it comes to an individual, or rather, two individuals negotiating their own marital status or notions of commitment. Yes, men have historically tried and often succeeded in controlling women and policing their sexual behavior. But asking a woman you marry to fuck only you is not inherently sexist or misogynistic if, crucially, it goes both ways.
More and more people are experimenting with that agreement, and more power to them. But it’s not necessarily a feminist or social-justice coup as it is a coup in our trajectory of understanding desire, sex, or some ineffable aspect of our basic nature: That many of us can love more than one person at a time. Or at least fuck them. And still stay anchored to a partner, perhaps for companionship, perhaps for childrearing, perhaps for kicks. And that two mature individuals who want to experiment with such arrangements ought to be able to explore that.
I think Sonmore is onto something in the sense that, without feminism, his and his wife’s situation would be much less likely to have happened. Feminism is the reason his wife is working and earning a wage that allows him to stay home. Feminism is the reason it’s acceptable for him to stay home. Feminism has no doubt given her and him both a language with which to regard both their sexual appetites as equal, but more importantly, for both of them to flip that script. Feminism is the reason she ever thought she had a right to those desires, that she was able to say them out loud, that he had any motivation to listen, to hear her, to understand. So I’m not dogging the guy—I think giving someone the space to talk freely about their desires, particularly when they don’t involve you, takes enormous openness, security and love.
He goes on:
Feminism always comes back to sex, even when we’re talking about everything else. The point isn’t that all women should be sexual adventurers. Celibacy is as valid an expression of sexuality as profligacy. The point is that it should be women who choose, not men — even the men they’re married to. For my wife, the choice between honoring our vows and fulfilling her desires was a false choice, another trap. She knew how deep our love was, and knew that her wanting a variety of sexual experiences as we traveled through life together would not diminish or disrupt that love. It took me about six months — many long, intense conversations, and an ocean of red wine — before I knew it, too.
That sounds nice, but feminism is not a zero-sum game. It doesn’t necessitate that women decide who they have sex with instead of their partners. Feminism preaches equality and egalitarianism; it leaves room for, and strongly suggests, a situation where partners decide together what their commitment means and what forms of individual sexual expression may take in the context of any relationship. Period.
For what it’s worth, commenters on the piece think he is lying. About all of it.
Your wife’s a tramp and you’re a wuss. No biggie, but no need to crow about it.
...Monogamy in marriage isn’t a man controlling a woman’s sexual expression. It’s a mutual contract to be faithful to each other. She took her marriage vows of her own free accord! This guy is just rationalizing being a cuckold.
This has nothing to do with feminism. This is her deciding she’s polyamorous after she married you and manipulating you into buying into it.
Who is to say whether Sonmore is truly at peace with what he’s written here or not—I wouldn’t bother speculating. But readers are wrong about one aspect of their complaint: It’s not that a woman deciding to participate in an open marriage has nothing whatsoever to do with feminism. Feminism has, after all, finally given us something pretty close to the potential for a marriage of true equals, discrepancies in earning power, time spent on domestic tasks and childcare notwithstanding.
When my wife told me she wanted to open our marriage and take other lovers, she wasn’t rejecting me, she was embracing herself. When I understood that, I finally became a feminist.
This revelation makes more sense. It’s clearer than the point he seems to have muddled through earlier in the piece: after all, feminism is not “agreeing to whatever terms a woman sets for a relationship on account of having been so historically fucked over.” But if a man can fully understand and accept his wife as a fully complex person with desires and needs all her own, and then sets out to negotiate those with her on equal footing? Yeah. That’s feminism. If that comes through a discussion about sleeping with other people, so be it. We all find our own path to the light. The question is no longer whether marriage can withstand all this feminism, but rather, all this equality.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Columbia Pictures/Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice