Robin Rinaldi's marriage was not a sexless one. "When I polled my married friends," she writes, "I realized how exceptional was the fact that after sixteen years we still had regular sex once or twice a week -- sex that lasted forty-five minutes and often ended in joyful tears." Despite this exceptional sex life, though, she felt at the age of 44 that something was missing -- maybe it was a lack of passion, maybe it was that she had slept with only a few men before marriage or maybe it was that her husband had squashed her hopes of having a child by getting a vasectomy. In her new book, "The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost," she writes, "I refuse to go to my grave with no children and only four lovers. If I can’t have one, I must have the other."
Perhaps this seems an odd rationale, in which case, read on, but this is what inspires her year-long experiment with an open marriage. Rinaldi, at the time an editor at San Francisco's 7x7 magazine, is so committed to the project that she rents a bachelorette pad to stay in during the week, returning to her husband on the weekends. Eventually, she takes things even further, moving into the now-infamous One Taste commune devoted to orgasmic meditation. Along the way, she encounters a series of male caricatures who embody nearly every Bay Area cliché imaginable -- including a Silicon Valley lawyer and a tattooed vegan healer. There's dirty talk, Craigslist hookups, a threesome and her first time with a woman.
Exciting stuff! And yet, let's be honest, I was not terribly excited at the prospect of this book. It seemed terrain already well covered in Jenny Block’s 2009 “Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage” and the more recent swinging chronicle ”A Modern Marriage: A Memoir.” What ground was there left to unearth here, said I, the boring monogamist. There was a tinge of resentment, too: We get it, you’re super-evolved about sex and everything, but must you flaunt it before us mere mortals? The truth, of course, is that these feelings were unreasonable. I had in mind only two past books about non-monogamy, when there have been how many books published about the experience of monogamous heterosexual marriage?
More important, Rinaldi's book isn't a self-congratulatory catalog of sexual escapades. It wrestles with bigger themes of motherhood, feminism, self-fulfillment and the body. That sounds woo-woo, and in its execution it sometimes is -- she frequents a woman’s circle that does energy exercises, for example -- but the book also engages intellectually with that familiar problem of, as she puts it, “competing desires for security and newness, domesticity and passion.” It isn’t that the men she sleeps with outside of her marriage are all that different from her husband, it’s that they aren’t her husband. She writes, “Of course, it was so much easier to accept men who’d never seen me at my worst, and on whom I never let myself depend, than to accept the one who knew and loved me best.”
It’s insights like those -- similar to those found in Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” -- that makes the book relevant beyond those either seeking vicarious thrills or contemplating an open marriage. And for the latter group, the book ultimately functions more as a cautionary tale than a guidebook, because -- spoiler alert -- she and her husband divorce. You see, there is good reason for the book's subtitle, which bears the words "passion at any cost." Toward the end, she writes, "One final interpretation of the Wild Oats Project: an elaborate attempt to dismantle the chains of love and loyalty holding me so fast to my husband that all else was rendered impossible. They had to be loosened first. It takes time -- several years, really -- to wreck a marriage.”
I spoke with Rinaldi about the strictures of monogamy, learning to talk dirty and why her memoir is also part manifesto.
This project was kicked off by your husband getting a vasectomy. Can you explain that?
It was like the perfect storm: early 40s, a maternal urge that came on late in life, a burgeoning sexual confidence and desire -- which I've always heard happens to women in their late 30s and early 40s -- and this stalemate with my husband about whether to have kids. I'd always been a good worker and a good student and very appropriate -- well-behaved, I guess. I could feel this rumbling underneath all of that. I could feel middle age coming and there was this urge that I really wanted to deeply experience my womanhood, what it is to be a female. I felt like motherhood and sexuality were the two most instinctual routes to this, and when the motherhood door closed, it was like a dam burst. All my fears of behaving badly went out the window and I just decided to listen to my body and go wherever it led me.
So many women experience that to some degree, but few take the leap to do what you did. What do you think allowed you to say, screw it, I'm going for it?
That's a good question. I think it's the fact that I'm kind of a stubborn-headed person to begin with -- and that's not always a good thing, it's a real weakness of mine -- and the fact that we were living in San Francisco and I had seen people having open relationships, a lot of our gay friends had them. So it wasn't completely out of the realm as if we were living in Omaha.
In marriage you are constantly negotiating and someone's gotten more of what they want and the other one is compromised. As soon as my husband got that quote-unquote "win" with the vasectomy, I felt that he owed me something to make up for that. I was willing to go to my deathbed having had children and just the four lovers, but without children or grandchildren, I wasn't willing. It wasn't intellectual where I said, "Now I'm putting my foot down." I literally dropped into my body. It was instinct. I went where it led me. Believe me, it was out of character, I was almost watching it happen.
San Francisco is kind of a character in this book. Can you talk about the city's influence?
I certainly don't think San Francisco made me do it, but I do think the environment helped influence me. Like I said, we were living right in the middle of the gay community; I have a lot of gay friends and a lot of them seemed to do OK with open relationships. We knew a few straight couples who were doing it.
And I was a journalist in San Francisco working at a lifestyle magazine. I was going into Kink.com for a week and reporting on the whole S&M porn films that they were filming there and I was going to cuddle parties and reporting on that movement. So, I was exposed as a journalist to lifestyles that were not conventional at all. I think that edged me toward "this is a possibility for me too," instead of going the traditional route of cheating when you hit your midlife crisis. I could feel that was about to happen. I already had slipped up and it almost happened. I knew it was coming. I felt an open marriage was better than ongoing adultery.
You knew you were going to do it so why not do it aboveboard.
Try to do it aboveboard, anyway. Of course, you make rules about it and they're like sandcastles at high-tide. Rules about sex are, you know --
Made to be broken?
They tend to go out the window. But both of us did try to abide by the rules. We didn't always succeed.
The first section of the book is titled "Death of the Good Girl." Can you explain that idea?
I grew up the firstborn, a valedictorian, a codependent in an alcoholic family, just very much trying to help everyone and take care of everyone, a very female thing. As it relates to sex, I do think I carried some of that into the bedroom. I did feel I had a pretty good sex life on average, but I definitely felt inhibited in bed. When I was in my 20s and even into my 30s, I liked quiet sex. I like the traditional, romantic model of how a woman enjoys sex, which is a lot of foreplay and talking and emotional safety and equality. As I started to mature sexually and gain more confidence, I felt this corresponding urge for sex to become more energetic and interactive, for there to be experiences of not just gentleness and love but also what I guess you could call very light BDSM, word play and a little bit of hair pulling. I wanted to experience a different kind of sex than I was having in my marriage.
I tried experiencing it in my marriage and I found it's hard to change the sexual dynamic of a long marriage. It tends to be easy to let out a whole new side of yourself with a new lover. It's a little hard to change something you've been doing with your partner for 17 or 18 years. It was challenging to experience this sexual growth within the marriage, because I was changing and my husband really wasn't. He enjoyed things as they always had been.
Did you set out with boxes that you wanted to check in terms of sexual experiences?
I didn't. It was more a general feeling that I wanted more lovers before I died. I did find that after I got toward the end of that year, as it was coming to a close, then that list came up in my mind, like, "OK, I have two months left, is there anything I haven't done yet." I had deprioritized sleeping with a woman, so that came up toward the end. Having a threesome was another one. It was a vague mental bucket list.
Can you tell me a little bit about the men that you met during this year?
Some reminded me of my husband in their looks. There was a great variety of men. I wasn't really going for one thing. It wasn't even that they were different from my husband, but our encounters were different than within my marriage because I could act differently with them. In general they were more forceful or aggressive or sexually experimenting than my husband, but so was I when I was with them. It made me wonder if my husband was also that way with a new lover. The way I saw it, it wasn't the people in my bedroom that were changing as much as it was me changing in response to the situation. I consider myself a smart woman and thinker, I've done years of therapy, but I was dumbfounded at the fact that I just wanted to say the most basic little slice of dirty talk to my husband in bed and my throat would literally close up. I would even tell him afterward, "I wanted to say this and I couldn't," and he would say, "Say it!" I couldn't. But put me in bed with a new man and it just flew out of my mouth. That times 10.
Why do you think?
I'm sure you've read Esther Perel's "Mating in Captivity." She's the expert on the domestic versus the passionate and how when you are domestic with someone and somewhat enmeshed, there's some dependency there, which is a tendency of all long marriages; it becomes psychologically less and less easy to introduce risk, passion, uncertainty or your wilder side into that relationship. You have to create a little distance to ignite erotic energy. That's the best way I can explain it. Once the marriage opened up and we started having other lovers, our sex did change a little. It did go into the more passionate direction, at least at first. If you take away all that certainty and stability and introduce a little bit of risk and unknowingness you're able to see your partner in a new light again.
Did you learn anything from your time with those men about how people can bring that energy and excitement into their marriages? You touched on the importance of distance, but was there anything else?
I think I did. One thing I learned that could have helped my marriage was just becoming more independent in general, just becoming more emotionally independent. The less you depend on someone, the more you can want and desire them, instead of needing them.
Also, if I were more in touch with my own purpose, my own mission in life, what I was really deeply committed to, which for me is writing, I think I would have found some passion there and wouldn't have expected my poor husband to provide all of that for me. Passion is not only something that happens within a couple or a marriage but within a person. If you want passion, you have to find passion for living. The more passion and purpose I have for my own vocation and path in life, the less I expect someone to provide that for me.
I was telling you about this feeling of wanting to experience this deep womanhood. I really felt like I was on this mission to find my own feminine energy. I don't mean girly, pink, giggles and blond highlights. I mean deep, fierce, primal feminine energy. The shit the patriarchy was invented to stomp on. That is what I really was searching for, and sex is a very primal and powerful way to get in touch with that. I believe there's a lot more power for women in sex than we have been led to believe and maybe even have been willing to take and claim. So I was looking for this connection with my own feminine. The way I put it in the book was that the more maleness I had, the more female I could be. So I sought out a lot of macho male behaviors in men, but it wasn't so I could worship macho-ness or male-ness at all, it was so I could find in response to that the opposite, my femaleness.
What I found is that I didn't necessarily have to go through men to get that. I also thought a baby would be a route to that, because of course that's such a deep, primal, feminine experience to birth and nurse and care for a baby. I found that in community with other women. I stumbled onto a women's circle in San Francisco and the practices we did there, they were these embodiment practices specifically aimed at syncing into our own feminine energy -- they're not woo-woo at all, they're pretty basic -- those practices put me in direct access to this connected, fierce, purposeful, wonderful, loving feminine energy, which is the way you feel when you're in love with a man or maybe your baby, but we would just feel it together as women in a room. It changed my life.
If you're married and want to stay married and don't want to introduce a lot of drama in your life like I did, find your purpose, seek out other women and try to get in touch with your deep feminine energy. You don't necessarily have to upend your life.
You end up divorcing your husband in the end. Would that have happened without the year of oats-sowing?
It's a little hard to say. I think there would have been some infidelity. I don't think I would have had it in me to do that for very long. It would have created a crisis in the marriage, which is what I believe midlife infidelity is exactly meant to do, bring things to a head so you have to deal with them. Whether we would have gotten over that, I'm not sure.
You mention at the beginning of the book that it might be a bit of a manifesto. What is the intended call to arms?
It had to do with listening to your body. That doesn't necessarily mean go out and have a bunch of sex with strange men. That's what my body wanted to do. Your body might want to be celibate. Your body might want to divorce your husband or marry the guy you've been with and give him an ultimatum or your body might be sick of men and want to become a lesbian. Your body might want another kid or it might want to get its tubes tied. It might want to move to another city. I don't want to tell women what to do, I want them to do what they want to do. I want to live in a world where women are in touch with the fierce, unafraid, feminine core of themselves and where they talk about what it's like in their bodies, what it's like in their skin, truthfully, without fear of judgment from wherever -- from other men, from other women, from patriarchs, from feminists. I'm a die-hard feminist, but I don't even want the feminist in me to silence this more primal energy that I'm talking about.
I especially want to see women being the ones telling the stories about sex. I want us to talk about sex. I was just reading your interview with Emily Nagoski, who wrote "Come as You Are," and I saw her say that with a lot of other behaviors we get to see what other people are doing and the talk is much more open and trustworthy, but sex is so hidden. Sex is hidden, except it's not hidden in pornography and the male directors in Hollywood don't hide it and the advertisers don't hide it, but I want women talking about it. I want them to do whatever they want with their bodies and I want them to tell the truth about it.