5 April 13 // Open Relationships

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My grandfather, in addition to working as a pastor, painted houses. And did electrical work. And worked in a coal mine. He was a man who worked hard most of his life with his hands, narrowly escaping the Black Lung Disease which killed his uncles, brothers, and many of his friends – men he had grown up with and knew well.

He was a simple man, proud of the intelligence I exhibited at an early age, and persistent to my aunts and cousins that they “go to college and get [their] teaching certificate.” He was proud of us for getting the education he could have never afforded, and having worked hard his entire life, wanted something more for us. It wasn’t enough to go to college. We needed to become doctors. It wasn’t enough to have children, we had to teach other people’s children. He wanted the world for us.

Of his various odd jobs, he enjoyed painting the most. My childhood memories of him consist of white overalls speckled with paint and blotches of color, streaked where he had wiped his hands here or there. If he wasn’t behind a pulpit, he was on a ladder painting. In fact, he painted two of my childhood homes. When I would stay with him and my grandmother during the summer, he would sometimes take me with him to help fetch buckets and rollers, and even, yes, occasionally “swing the brush.”

One time, sitting on the tailgate of his white and yellow ’72 Chevrolet over lunch, he began to tell me about two women who had offered to pay him… with sex. It was a shock to hear my grandfather – a pastor – tell me this story, and it felt secretive and exciting, something shared between us “guys” and so I listened with rapt attention. After all, this was the man who “had a girl in every port” when he was in the Navy. My second-grade mind was eager to hear any pointers on how I could impress girls, since my Reebok Pumps weren’t doing it.

The two stories were pretty much the same – a lonely housewife oversaw the painting of the house while my grandfather got hotter and sweatier, eventually disrobing down to his overalls and using his shirt as a sweat-rag. She came out to offer him a glass of something – lemonade or water, whatever it was – and he gladly took it. With her husband is away at work, she began to chat with my grand. They laughed, he finished his glass, and got back to work. In both instances, the wife and her husband attended my grandfather’s church, so they “hired the pastor” as an act of charity or inflated religiosity… Or maybe something else. Maybe curiosity. And then, both women, when the job was finished, came out again with the paycheck in a state of undress – one in a night dress, the other in a bathrobe – and propositioned my grandfather. Did he want the full amount? Or did he want something else in return?

In both instances, he firmly declined, averted his eyes, and said they “Mustn’t speak of this anymore.”

In both instances, the husband-and-wife stopped attending the church shortly after the house was painted.

These stories, together with how open my parents were with their own sexuality, created a broad attitude towards sex in my mind. Sex was good and healthy, but it was also something that needed to be respected.

You couldn’t have sex with another man’s wife, for instance.

Or could you?

Something about those stories left a question mark in my mind.

Did my grandfather decline their offer out of poverty – needing the money more than the sex? After all, he had four children to feed (that we know of – those wild Navy days may have expanded our family tree more than we know!). Or did he decline out of moral and religious conviction (i.e. Ex. 20:14; Lev. 18:20; Deut. 5:18; Matt. 5:27-28; 1 Cor. 7:2, ad. infin.)? I never asked him. Perhaps too afraid to know the truth, to hear him say the words, ” I needed the money… but man, I woulda loved to have sex with her.” Still, the stories came up a few more times over the years – once in high school, then a few times when I was in college. I came to understand, without asking, that his choices were out of devotion to my grandmother more than anything else. Even on his deathbed, he said he wanted to die because he “missed Betty… she was always my best friend, and I just want to see her again and talk to her because I miss her.” I always took that as the answer to my question – he was wholeheartedly devoted to one person.

But what about other couples? Is there a security in some relationships which allows for… “outside” relations?

Last year, my friend Syd Shook addressed this topic with an article titled “How Other Men Saved My Marriage.” There, she discussed the importance of emotional relationships outside of marriage, realizing that your spouse can’t supply all your needs. Sometimes, you didn’t need a husband, you needed a friend other than your husband. It’s something we do all the time, whether married or dating. We love our “boo” but we need to get away from them, to invest in someone else, to have someone that we share our lives with, laugh with, cry with, and vacation with. We need people, not a person. Even now, I have married friends who call me just to vent about their spouses. They disclose all kinds of things to me. Funnily enough? Sometimes the other spouse will call me and do the same thing. I hear both sides of an argument! Sometimes, neither has any idea that the other called me! I’m the “vault” of my social circle, I suppose.

And few things surprise me.

Yes, Reader, if you knew some of my secrets, your opinion of me might change. As the saying goes, every saint was once a sinner.

Suffice to say, the list of things that would “surprise” me when it comes to sex is incredibly thin… and growing thinner. Few things are “out of bounds,” and where those parameters exist, there are deeply held convictions which have endured multiple challenges. So it is that when I see something like the recent headlines about Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith having an “open” relationship, it registers long enough for me to classify them and move on. I’m not surprised. I’m not sickened. I’m not shocked by the “loose morality of Hollywood” or any other kind of reaction. It just… is. It happens.

Like the women my grandfather painted for, some people are willing to take a risk when it comes to sex. They are willing to go against the grain. Why they do this doesn’t really matter – some do it because they want to “explore”, some out of a genuine fetish, others out of boredom, or even at the suggestion of a friend. I’ve known many girls who adamantly rejected the idea of a vibrator. Strongly. Like… Just could. Not. Ever. Conceive someone would using a mechanical tool to handle their business… And then they went to a party with their girlfriends… And suddenly a vibrator is the bees knees. It happens – and how it happens is different for each person. That’s okay. I mean, I’m not the type of person who would naturally gravitate towards dressing up as a panda and gettin’ it on with someone who was dressed up as a giraffe – but… ya know… given the right circumstances, I’ll allow that it could happen! We experiment, and sometimes we like it.

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As for the Smiths, here’s what Jada had to say:

Will and I are very relaxed with one another... I’ve always told Will,  ‘You can do whatever you want, as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be okay.’ Okay? Because at the end of the day, Will is how own man. I’m here as his partner, but he is how own man. He has to decide who he wants to be, and that’s not for me to do for him, or vice-versa… I think that comes from respecting that you are in a partnership, but you are also an individual.

The idea of “open relationships” isn’t exactly new. That is, it would be easy for me to point to Jenny Block’s Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage (2009) or to the swing parties of the seventies (note: “swinging” and “open relationship” are not the same thing – neither is “cuckoldry” or “cheating” even where these terms are used interchangeably sometimes with “adultery”). I might even be inclined to point to the polygamy of the early LDS movement under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, or as far back to multiple patriarchs in scripture like Abraham, Jacob, or David – all of whom had multiple wives and whose stories lead them ever closer to God, (note: polygamy is not the same thing as an “open” relationship either. see note in preceding paragraph), or even the research of Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha in their book Sex at Dawn(2011) which proposes humans are not biologically wired for monogamy. Monogamy, they put forward, is unnatural. It goes against our evolutionary biology, and our genetics prove that the earliest ancestors were anything but monogamous. They lived in small communities, sharing each other, and having sex with outsider to form new bonds of community.

No, while I could point you to any of these resources, I won’t. The point isn’t to prove that open relationships have always been a part of the human experience, to say what these revolutions looked like in the past. My point is to put forward the idea that we are in the midst of another relational revolution. That should be a given, I suppose, but sometimes we need to clearly say these things, to affirm them in the minds of others. Oh, you thought that too? Thank goodness, I thought I was the only one!

It is a revolution which seeks to redefine relationships, not sex.

Cuckold porn is the frontier of adult entertainment right now. Cuckoldry is where one of the partners in a previously monogamous relationship has the other partner’s consent to cheat on them and, upon returning to their partner, shame them for “letting” them cheat on them. While you might blanche at this kind of thing, again, it is the #1 form of porn right now – more than MILFs (Moms I’d Like to F***), teenagers, or lesbians. I believe that the reason for this is  because, whether the chicken or the egg, our attitudes towards relationships (not sex) are changing. We’re becoming less monogamous. It is a shift that people of faith will have to confront and come to terms with, to acknowledge and begin preparing for.

In my own life, I know of two “open” couples in my comparatively small social circle. More, a friend recently admitted to me that they had “accepted” that they loved more than one person at the same time. Having admitted this to themselves, they were nervous about what it meant for their current relationship – loving the person they were dating, while also loving others. Again, we all do this to different degrees. I am not “hung up” on any of my exes, but I openly admit that yes, I will always hold a special love for them. They meant something to me – they continue to mean something to me. And someone “new” in my life won’t erase that. It’s just a matter of whether I am willing (or able) to act on those loves at the same time.

In perspective, Jada Pinkett-Smith isn’t an A-list celebrity. For that matter, Will Smith’s career has been stagnating for a while – I mean, MIB3 isn’t exactly bringing home the Oscar, is it? Maybe his next project will change that. But the Smiths aren’t the only celebrities who are followed by these kind of rumors.

  • Tilda Swinton openly lives with her husband and another lover.
  • The Frisky reports that family-friendly cooking show star Rachel Ray and her partner are discreet about their sexual liaisons.
  • Highschool Musical stars Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron broke up when she suggested they try being open.
  • Justin Timberlake’s known dalliances with other women did not stop him from uniting-and-reuniting-and-reuniting again with (now)wife Jessica Biel. Now that they are married, rumors persist that he continues to see other women.
  • When asked about her relationship with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie told Ok! magazine in December of 2009 that

“I doubt that fidelity is absolutely essential for a relationship. It’s worse to leave your partner and talk badly about him afterward. Neither Brad nor I have ever claimed that living together means to be chained together. We make sure that we never restrict each other.”

  • Even super-Evangelical/Pentecostal Megan Fox is known to live in a relationship with Brian Austin Green that allows her to see other people while he remains exclusive to her.

Last year, two movies made people uncomfortable because they didn’t quite understand them. Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached played to this same theme – could you really love someone without being exclusive? Or was that kind of relationship just “hooking up”? Neither film went far enough – at least for the purposes of this article. Another article on “friends with benefits” would raise different questions. I bring it up as further proof that, married or dating, we are questioning how relationships are done these days. It’s not sock-hops and courting and station wagons any more than pregnancy scares. The questions we face as a culture are either unique or evolved versions of the same ones our parents and their parents weren’t able to answer – even as far back as our ancient ancestors. The interesting part wasn’t that people shook their heads in confusion with these films… It was that far more related to them. People like my friends and even a few family members.

How are we, as people of faith, going to respond to this?

Notice that there is no judgment of these celebrities, or even “regular” people who live in this kind of agreement with their partner. I only point to these celebrities for facial and cultural recognition – they are people we know, couples we know, at different ages and socio-economic standing. They are, along with our friends and neighbors, putting forward an alternative to the Standard Evangelical Narrative of early marriage and life-long exclusivity.

This presents a challenge, not just to Evangelicals but to many interest groups of a religious persuasion. It’s something all of God’s children must come to terms with and decide on for themselves… and their relationships.

Cont. in pt. II

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3 thoughts on “5 April 13 // Open Relationships

  1. I truly believe the concept of open relationships is simply a by-product of the many ‘options’ we allow ourselves in this day and age. Some of us cling to one thing, while others like to rotate their options. Tell me your preference when it comes to milk…skim, low fat, no fat, soy, or full fat? How about what time of the day you prefer to work out? Gyms used to be open from 6pm to 9pm…mine is open 24 hours so no matter what time of the day I feel like working out, it’s open.

    And the list goes on.

  2. Pingback: 9 April 13 // Open Relationships, pt. II | Theology & the City

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