The cost of free love

After Helen's libertine days turned sour, she began to wonder: Was it about desire or just another way to conform?

Published July 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Monogamy's role in patriarchal oppression has inspired generations of horny
leftists to fuck as many comrades as they can. This method of smashing the
state has not been embraced by all: Many otherwise committed leftists might
have preferred, say, that their boyfriend didn't get with every sister in the
collective. Such women may have gone along just to avoid wearing the scarlet
B -- for bourgeois.

My friend Helen says now that her 15-year, open, bisexual marriage
reflected her ideology far more than her desire. Five years after her
divorce, Helen says of the arrangement, "We thought it
was revolutionary. It was something our parents wouldn't do, something
Henry Kissinger wouldn't do."

At 40, Helen still wants to fight the military-industrial complex, but she
pays the bills as a middle manager at a medical consulting firm. The office
eccentric, she wears no makeup, has inch-long hair and bounces through
the halls like a Labrador retriever kept in a too-small apartment. She
fights the system after 5 p.m. through the "voluntary simplicity movement,
which encourages people to drop
out from the consumerist treadmill and reexamine their lives," she
explains breathlessly. Thrift-store asceticism has replaced her "materialistic bohemianism," which she now considers just as bad, just as greedy as "the
materialistic conservatism of the '50s." In other words, she now advocates
wanting less, which helps save the planet even as it wards off disappointment.

Helen met Joel in the late 1970s, when "everyone was gender-transgressive
... I was 20 and I wasn't bi yet, but I knew I should be because that's
what people in Greenwich Village do." Helen was drawn to Joel because "I
was a Catholic from the suburbs, and I liked that he was Jewish. His
parents were beatniks and his mom was a lesbian activist. This was my life
plan, to do these things. I was marrying into radicalism."

Joel didn't wait long to open the relationship up. A few weeks after they
began dating, he was working sound at a Jorma Kaukonen concert and took
some LSD. He ended up in bed with a couple he and Helen knew and raced
home the next morning to tell her all the juicy details. Helen remembers,
"I knew that was the cool thing to do, to drop acid with Jorma and then go
home and screw this couple, but we'd only been dating a few weeks, so it
kind of bummed me out."

"Don't ask, don't tell" guides some non-exclusive couples, but Helen says
telling became part of their sex life. "After the Jorma show, the pattern
was established; we'd come home and tell everything we did with someone
else sexually." She injects enthusiasm into her voice as she adds, "It
was usually a turn-on: You'd be talking about having sex with this other
person and then you'd both go, 'Oooh, that's exciting,' and then we'd have

Helen can't remember exactly why they opted for that squarest of all
rituals, but four months after they met, they got married. A year or so
later their daughter Emma was born. The only rules governing sex outside
the marriage were: "No emotional trips, no significant expenses and no
additional children." Helen made her first run at polyamory and
bisexuality when she was pregnant and she and Joel were living in a group
house in Virginia.

One of the housemates was Parabola, nee Sharon, from New Jersey. Helen
recalls her mistily: "She did Shiatsu massage and she was just beautiful.
I wanted to have her babies. She was teaching me how to cook, she was old,
sophisticated -- at least 25. She'd been an exotic dancer; she had these
lovely 7-year-old twin daughters." Helen still sounds disappointed about
the outcome. "I wrote her this pathetic note declaring my love. She had
this boyfriend who was a big threatening biker guy, and they came to my
room and said that they would both sleep with me but that she couldn't
sleep with me alone. The biker was putting this scene onto it!" The biker
also specified that Joel was not invited to the party (which didn't matter,
since Joel was pursuing a young man living on the second floor).

Helen said no to the scene, and things at the house went downhill after
that. Quaalude-gobbling teenagers moved in and, Helen recounts, "When the
whole plumbing system broke down, they were like, 'Let's dig a trench!'
That's when we moved out. I was eight months pregnant, I was going to have the
baby in that house. I had a midwife out there. But it was all too Bukowski,
so we moved back to my mother's basement and had Emma there, then moved
into another group house."

Helen is vague about the specifics of her politics back
then. "It was an anarchy and cultural revolution thing that had nothing to
do with anything intellectual ... It's like when you're a kid and you
start shoplifting and you move up from Safeway to Sears to Garfinkel's: We
wanted to be more fucked up -- not just be open but be bisexual! Have

Helen's first swing outside the marriage required a push from Joel. She
became friends with her neighbor Sue soon after Emma was born, and a sexual
attraction grew. But Sue maintained that it was against her ethics to have
sex with someone who was married. "So what we did," says Helen, "was just sleep in
the same bed and not do anything. One night we were in bed in our little
nightgowns while Joel was out working a show." He came home and pounced on
the sleeping maidens, "and then we all had sex," Helen says. She adds that
Sue was eased out of her scruples because "we were all half asleep. There
wasn't any broaching, it just happened."

"At the time," Helen says, "I wasn't irritated at Joel, because I was
half-asleep and horny and thought, 'Oh good, I get to have sex.' But the
next day, I thought, 'This is bullshit.'" Still, there were a few more
threesomes before Helen and Sue made it their affair alone. "We started
spending more time together because we ended up being in a [witches] coven
together. We went to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and did a lot of things
together besides having sex. Emma adored her."

Helen now distances herself from both past lovers. "Sue was very clingy,"
Helen says slowly, "so on the one hand I was very attracted to her, but on
the other I didn't want her to be my partner. Joel and I were still having
tons of sex." To be "clingy" was to be hung up and Establishment -- but Helen
was also turned off to Joel by the feminist/lesbian literature she'd begun
reading. "I thought, oh no, I'm sleeping with the enemy." Confronted with
the bourgeois urge to choose one lover, she found things wrong with both of
them. "I thought maybe I'd break up with Sue and find another woman and go
to a lesbian commune. It was always going to end up on the commune," she
says wistfully.

After Sue, she says, "I just had the crushes; I never managed to sleep with
anyone else. I live in my head a lot, I think." Joel stopped sleeping around a
few years later, scared by the burgeoning AIDS crisis. The marriage lasted
10 more monogamous years until one of Helen's crushes finally broke its back.

When they didn't have real sex tales to swap, they'd discuss potential
partners -- so Joel heard plenty of Helen's mooning about the 23-year-old drummer who worked at her record store. (Over the years, Joel kept
listening to his old Hot Tuna and Grateful Dead records and watching more
TV, but Helen kept abreast of the post-punk, indie-rock fringes, read the
Baffler and got a tattoo.) When Helen told Joel that she was driving to
Mexico with this gorgeous boy, a mere eight years older than their
daughter, he exploded. Soon thereafter they separated, much to Helen's

"Joel said I broke the rule with the drummer: I expended too much energy on
it," Helen says. "So you can either say he got older and mature or you can
say this was never really the ideal, it was only cool when it wasn't
threatening, as long as it's a woman or an older guy. But the minute it's
this young hot guy, then it's threatening. I think each person has a
moment when they snap -- [when they say] this isn't right for me anymore."

Helen is now happily monogamous with Dan, a fellow aging punk rocker from
the middle class. "I'm into doing revolution via opposing consumerism, and
I really value having the unconditional support I get from a committed
relationship," she says earnestly. "Not-in-love sex feels like reading Anaïs Nin and beating off," she adds scornfully, "an athletic sort of amusement. I'm just not interested in it at all."

Although for years she built it into her marriage, it's clear she
prefers monogamy's rut to the slippery curves of polyamory. Helen, and
many other women, were as ill-used by the politics of free love as their
mothers were by male demands for chastity and obedience. The new direction
Helen's politics have taken seem in part a reaction to those years of
enforced sex-positivity. Monogamy -- like
homesteading, sustainable farming and the other tenets of the simplicity
movement -- offers her a respite from manufactured desire.

By Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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