Having read about Robin Rinaldi’s year of sexual experimentation outside marriage, Suzanne Harrington reckons the central thing to remember is that honesty and kindness will always stand to you.
Here’s a conundrum. Robin Rinaldi wants a baby, but only with her husband Scott.
Scott doesn’t want a baby, but only wants a relationship with his wife Robin. Do they (a) continue with their 18 year marriage (b) divorce when he has a vasectomy or (c) do something else entirely, providing Rinaldi with enough material to write a book entitled The Wild Oats Project?
The answer is (c), obviously. When Scott tells Robin – in a therapy session – that he is going ahead with his vasectomy, she is already 44 and has just had a false positive pregnancy test.
“When a flower reproduces, it dies,” Scott tells his wife. “I don’t want to die. I want my own life.”
So does Robin. “I refuse to go to my grave with no children and only four lovers,” she decides. “If I can’t have one, I must have the other.”
So Robin takes an apartment a few blocks from the marital home, where, after her day job at a magazine, she is free midweek to have sexual adventures. At weekends she returns home to Scott, who is also sexually free midweek, but not entirely overjoyed at the idea. They put three boundaries in place – safe sex, no more than three dates with any individual, and not with any friends or acquaintances. They both break these rules almost immediately.
All of this happens in liberal, liberated San Francisco, and so Robin’s sexual self-exploration is on rather a different altitude than just a series of random hook-ups.
She is on a mission to find herself via her vagina, and embarks on a thorough and comprehensive journey which sees her taking a dozen lovers in the year that follows.
She attends orgasmic meditation sessions at 6am every morning – basically, yoga for the clitoris – and explores threesomes and same-sex encounters, before moving into a sex commune, and going to talks by David Deida, whose books include Finding God Through Sex. She really is determined to explore herself sexually, within a quasi-spiritual framework.
Meanwhile Scott threatens divorce, and her friends wonder how having lots of sex with other people is going to make her feel better about not having children with her husband.
“It’s not going to make me feel better about kids,” she replies. “Sleeping with a lot of guys is going to make me feel better on my deathbed.”
And there it is, the crux of her mission.
Robin Rinaldi’s book has already been parodied in the Guardian and dismissed as self-absorbed by the Washington Post – both times by male journalists, although the term ‘self-indulgent’ was used after her BBC Woman’s Hour interview.
But, Californian levels of navel gazing aside, this is as much about self-knowledge and self-discovery as it is about shagging.
Yes, sexual exploration is the chosen medium, but really Robin wants two things – to heal the wounds left by her childhood (her father was an abusive alcoholic), and to die without still wondering what it was like to have lived briefly outside of social expectation.
“It’s not revenge, it’s rebellion,” she says. She had been with Scott since her 20s, albeit a bit co-dependently after her “underparented” childhood (“I was a crash test dummy and he was a wall”), in a marriage that sounded solid and loving. And childless.
Prior to her wild oats project, Robin has done lots of things within her “perfectly decent” marriage to heat it up – taking stripper classes, installing a stripper pole at home, introducing self-help stuff around tantric sex.
Their sex life remained solid and regular, but unadventurous. The more time passed, the more restless she became, wondering what it would be like to explore her sexuality with others, but conflicted by these desires.
“There was no way I was going to give up a man like Scott just to get a few lovers under my belt….I would sacrifice breadth for depth. I clung to hope.”
The hope vanished after his vasectomy. And – spoiler alert – after their year of having sex with other people, they realised their marriage was over.
Scott broke his emotional reticence by telling her that when she first left he used to cry every night; she dedicated the book to ‘Ruby’, the name of the child she never had.
Yet they do not end badly, as you might think, but with kindness and love. Both are now in stable relationships with other people whom they met during their year of polyamory. Scott gets an acknowledgement in the book “for encouraging me to write this story” and for his “unfailing kindness”. What is remarkable about this story is that Rinaldi did not first end the marriage, and then explore. Nor was there any subterfuge or deceit involved.
A less emotionally-evolved couple may have just had a string of affairs, but these two tried hard to make things work. It just didn’t in the end.
So when does relationship compromise end, and losing your sense of self begin?
Once you are married, are you supposed to put up and shut up, balancing on the eternal trade off? When do you rethink the parameters of monogamy? Does it always endanger the relationship? Can open relationships ever really work?
A quick straw poll amongst acquaintances points, like Rinaldi’s wild oats project, to the importance of honesty and openness.
“Depends on how far in your are,” says Nicole, 46.
“When we had been married almost 20 years, we were very secure with each other emotionally but to be honest a bit bored with each other sexually, yet didn’t want to dismantle the marriage because we love each other.
“So we made a decision to try new things, involving other people. The boundary was that we would not do it alone, but always together. It’s been great.
“We always go home together, and it has heated things up between us. It’s very exciting. But I would only recommend involving other people if you are very secure and really trust each other.”
Secrecy wrecks relationships, as Peter, 51, discovered.
“My long term partner and I decided that as we both seemed to be having a bit of a simultaneous mid-life crisis, we would shrug off convention and give each other permission to play away – sex only, no emotional involvement.
“It didn’t work – it turned out she had already been having an affair. We broke up over the fact that she had been lying.”
What would you do if your partner suggested an open relationship, or a so-called ‘weekend pass’?
Do you involve sex therapists, or relationship counsellors? Or do you bite your tongue and accept the situation as it is, only to regret it later when you are too old to do much about it?
There are no answers. I know that if my current partner of 18 months suggested an open relationship I would shoot him – happily, he says the idea horrifies him too – but will we still feel like this in the future?
Or are we all so desperate to fulfil our own needs that we sometimes lose sight of the needs of others? It’s complicated.
Hats off to Robin Rinaldi for putting her own exploration under a microscope, and sharing it with the world.
It still doesn’t offer up any solutions, though. Other then to always be both kind and honest, no matter what.
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