A Revolutionary Relationship

You can learn a lot from Betty Dodson's 30-plus years of non-monogamy

I'm a little nervous when I pick up the phone to call Betty Dodson. After all, I had sex with her live-in partner, Eric, only a few weeks ago. While I know they have a long-term open relationship, that doesn't mean she'll exactly welcome me with open arms, even though she's agreed to the interview.

But from the start she's warm and friendly, punctuating her words with laughter and the occasional "ew" of annoyance, mostly when she's talking about concepts like monogamy and jealousy, which are anathema to her. I listen with rapt attention, because at 75, Dodson has truly seen and done it all. Before she was the "Mother of Masturbation"—displaying her erotic art at feminist conferences, leading workshops where women examined and played with their pussies, and writing her classic tome Sex for One(originally entitled Liberating Masturbation)—she was married to a man she describes as not very sexual: "Sex was always a challenge for him." She cheated on him, and while he never found out, the experience haunted her. After her divorce, she delved into various scenes, participating fully in the sexual revolution with orgies, multiple partners, and later, the lesbian BDSM community.

Her attitude toward non-monogamy (she hates the word polyamory) is that it's freeing. Instead of hiding and cheating, people can partake of their desires for others while still returning to their primary partner. And while her relationship with Eric is "open," not every detail of their extracurricular affairs gets discussed. "He doesn't need to report in," she says. The rules she and Eric have customized, including seeing other partners only outside their home and him having sex with a given woman no more than once per month, were ones he brought to her. They've worked so far, but nothing is set in stone, and both are open to reconfiguring those arrangements.

Much of her current understanding and practice of non-monogamy stems from the intergenerational aspect of their relationship. Because he's younger and has yet to fully explore his sexuality, she doesn't want to hold him back from experiencing life's erotic thrills. Then she says something that blows me away: "The day that Eric comes home and says, 'I met the woman of my dreams; I'm gonna move out,' I will find the strength to wish him well, because I love him. His happiness comes first, not my happiness, and believe me, I'll find some adorable lesbian to take his place."

It's this kind of statement, expressed with grace, honesty, and purity of heart, that makes Dodson a person any woman (or man) can learn from. How many of us, even the most liberated and free-spirited, could have such an open attitude, yet one imbued by love at every turn? It's easy enough not to be jealous when the flings are casual and feelings are fleeting, but when you're in love, the stakes are higher—I'd imagine especially so for someone like Dodson, who had sworn off what she calls "partnersex" more than a decade ago in favor of masturbation, only to find herself falling for Eric in a major way in 1999.

Does the author of the book Orgasms for Two(Harmony, 2002) partake in the open aspect of their relationship? Occasionally, but it's not a high priority. She may have a night of hot sex with a female friend, and they've enjoyed the occasional threesome, but when Dodson's not with Eric, more often she's working, finishing various art and writing projects, and fielding sex advice questions on her website. She tells me that her role model is Granny D. (grannyd.com), a/k/a Doris Haddock, a 94-year-old woman who walked across the country in 1999 and just ran for U.S. Senate. How does this relate to non-monogamy? It's clear that Dodson is a woman on a mission, and while she's excised jealousy from her heart, she also simply doesn't have time to brood. She's too busy trying to improve other people's sex lives.

Dodson realizes that open relationships aren't for everyone, though she feels strongly that the cultural imperative concerning monogamy is dangerous and damaging. "I'm just talking about myself," she says. "There are all these different ways to go. America practices serial monogamy with cheating on the side. It's never acknowledged and it's lied about. Yes, there are people who are happy being monogamous, and if you're married and own a lot of things together and have children, there's more at stake"—but that's not a reason to succumb to monogamy if it's not right for you.

Dodson can make it sound so easy (if only!), but admits that she was plagued by jealousy in the first year of their relationship. She was worried he'd fall for someone younger and she'd be left in the dust, but over time has been reassured by Eric's constancy and love and has gotten over her jealousy. About the dreaded emotion, she says, "I hate it. I've never liked it in myself. I don't like it in other women and men; I don't like the way society accepts it as normal. I think it's a learned proposition. We're all a bunch of insecure wimps; we ought to have enough self-love and self-fullness that we don't have to be totally reliant on getting our self-worth from another person. It's my firm belief that jealousy turns into a cancerous growth."

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