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by Peter J. Benson
(392 pages, AuthorHouse, March 2008)
Pete Benson has been living poly and devoting serious thought to it for decades, and he's a regular at Loving More gatherings. He has compiled a big, well-organized, workmanlike guide to every Poly 101 and 201 issue you can think of and then some. On nearly every topic he stays close to the conventional community wisdom, and to me this is a good thing. The community wisdom is the hard-won distillation of countless people's trials and errors. Benson certainly has his own opinions, but he doesn't let them get in the way. Like a medical handbook, this is more for browsing than reading cover to cover. Pick an issue and here it's dealt with, in 122 subsections of 10 chapters.
The chapter categories are: Is Polyamory for You?, Varieties of Polyamory, Ethical Considerations, Sexual Hygiene, The Relationship Agreement, Relationship Skills, Resolving Issues, Day-to-Day Living, Multi-Adult Families, Legalities, and an appendix of resources. It's heavily cross-referenced and has a good index. At last February's Poly Living conference, longtime activist C. T. Butler observed that the poly handbooks up to then, perhaps trying to stay "respectable," hadn't said much about managing the dynamics of group sex (polysexuality), even though this skill can be crucial for a tightly interbonded poly group and is not exactly taught in school. Butler suggested that this be a criterion for rating future poly guides.
Benson devotes just a couple pages to polysexuality, mostly to warn about the "who's getting left out" syndrome but not saying much about the ways to prevent it. On the other hand, he devotes 38 informative, explicit pages to safer sex an essential part of any poly guide. Although most of the book is very matter-of-fact, in the introduction Benson shows his mystical side:
In Chapter 6, talking about human interconnections in twosomes and larger groups, I use a metaphor from chemistry, refering to individuals as "atoms" and couples and larger committed groups as "molecules." The metaphor is actually quite close. In any chemical molecule (containing two atoms, three, or thousands), each atom exchanges energy with the others in such a way as to create the chemical bonds that hold them together.... Our dominant western culture has repressed the formation of human "molecules" larger than two "atoms" the equivalent of carbon monoxide or table salt. Now many people are rejecting those limitations and exploring the possibilities of combining three people, or four, or more. What are we in the process of evolving here? We cannot know, any more than a molecule of water or methane can anticipate a DNA molecule or a human body or human mind. But something big is stirring and we're all part of it.
Benson says that he intends the book to be an asset not only for polys themselves but for "professionals in all areas of counseling and psychotherapy, who must be able to respond effectively to clients and parishioners who come to them for advice with polyamory-related issues." I'm going to give a copy to my Unitarian-Universalist minister for him to keep with the other counseling guides in his office partly to tweak him a little on his antsyness about the subject, but partly because the book really belongs there. If you're reading this blog, it belongs on your shelf too. Benson self-published the book through AuthorHouse, which means it won't get any real marketing, publicity, or bookstore placement. It will have to find its audience by word of mouth. Benson seeks feedback for additions and improvements to the future editions that he hopes to produce; The Polyamory Handbook could thus become a living, growing document. Hopefully a serious publisher will spot its potential before then. Read the table of contents and first few pages.
by Jenny Block
(276 pages, Seal Press, May 2008)
This book, by contrast, is an intimate, read-in-a-day personal memoir. Jenny Block tells how she grew up in suburban Dallas confused and conflicted about society's messages regarding sex and marriage, then found her way through college relationship romps, a period of Stepford Wife misery in a housing development, rocky affairs, a marriage crisis and then a wonderfully successful open marriage. It's now a tight polyfi vee with her husband and her girlfriend. Whenever you begin to think the story is too much about her, she veers into cogent, insightful essays on love, marriage, expectations, and feminist independence, drawing on a wide variety of interesting sources. Block projects confidence, authority, warmth, and zest. She's gotten knockout pieces into the Huffington Post, Tango magazine (where she just began a regular column), and other smart outlets. She has just set out on a readings-and-media tour. A literary agent has contacted her about movie rights. A subtext that she is deliberately projecting is that you don't have to be born weird to blaze new societal trails. Through pluck and hard work, you too can achieve happy weirditude even if you dress sharp and come from Dallas. This certainly makes her book a welcome addition to the poly canon. She'll be an especially good role model for women who haven't quite yet grasped that feminism is good for them. A useful bit from her college days:
Having partnerships in which the parameters of both partners' expectations were clear from the get-go, with no question about what each person wanted, made for very fulfilling sex, regardless of emotional connection.... Hilda Hutchinson, an ob-gyn in New York City and a clinical professor at Columbia University, writes, "Sex is always better and more deeply satisfying when your motivation for doing so is simple and healthy."... The message I got growing up had been that sex is only good when it happens in a relationship between two people who love each other. But what I discovered instead was that love, sex, and relationships or any combination thereof could be good or happy or successful when the participants' expectations were shared and understood.
You can read Chapter 1 online. Here are her book blog and tour schedule.
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