Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Opening Up the Conversation with Jenny Block

Written by Josie Schoel
In the wake of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word, there have been a ton of mainstream books, movies, and television shows that address alternative ways of expressing sexuality. But "alternative," in these cases, usually means gay or lesbian. Recently, the tide has shifted and bisexuality is finding a spot somewhere among the thicket. Within the first few episodes of the much-hyped Cashmere Mafia, for example, one of the main characters finds herself nervous and perspiring in the presence of a woman. The show, which shamelessly parrots the well-worn model of Sex in the City, continues to delve into this issue, as the character sleeps with the woman, wonders if she is gay, sleeps with a man, wonders if she is straight, and, finally, comes to the conclusion that, heaven forbid, she is bisexual. And never does she have that much expected, "Am I a lesbian?" breakdown.
In the wake of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word, there have been a ton of mainstream books, movies, and television shows that address alternative ways of expressing sexuality. But "alternative," in these cases, usually means gay or lesbian. Recently, the tide has shifted and bisexuality is finding a spot somewhere among the thicket. Within the first few episodes of the much-hyped Cashmere Mafia, for example, one of the main characters finds herself nervous and perspiring in the presence of a woman. The show, which shamelessly parrots the well-worn model of Sex in the City, continues to delve into this issue, as the character sleeps with the woman, wonders if she is gay, sleeps with a man, wonders if she is straight, and, finally, comes to the conclusion that, heaven forbid, she is bisexual. And never does she have that much expected, "Am I a lesbian?" breakdown.

In mainstream pop culture, bisexuality in women has been portrayed only as a way to excite the boys or as a gateway into the inevitable future of lesbianism. Over the past few years, we have started seeing some books that address and validate the sexual identity of the bisexual. Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage by Jenny Block does exactly that. She addresses the issues of monogamy and bisexuality through a detailed account of her own life and how she came to live in an open marriage. After she found herself cheating on her husband, she decided that the healthiest way for her to live would be to open the marriage. After both she and her husband settled into a pattern of having multiple partners, Jenny finally settled into having just two, her husband and her girlfriend.

The driving force behind the book is not to advocate open marriage as the best option, but to offer it as an option at all, to remind people that monogamous, heterosexual relationships are not the only way to live. It also is, as Jenny says, an "attempt to do some myth busting about women's sexuality in general." We tried to bust some myths together over chat the other day.

Jenny: Hello, Josie!

Josie: Hello Jenny! So, when did the idea for this book first come about?

Jenny: Well, I wrote a piece for Tango Magazine on the same topic and Seal Press contacted me and asked if I would be interested in writing a book. I had been messing around with the idea. So, I figured, why not? Meanwhile the Tango piece is still their number one read article with the most comments. So I figured there had to be an interest. But the biggest reason was to attempt to do some myth busting about women's sexuality in general, and open relationships more specifically.

Josie: Oh wow, they contacted you directly? That's great!

Jenny: I know. I thought it was an April Fool's joke out of season! I wanted to say, "Daddy? Is this email from you? If so, it's not funny." But it was real. I was doing some writing at the time. I was working on some memoir pieces that have appeared in literary journals and, then lots of arts and culture and travel writing for local and national publications. But memoir and commentary are where my heart lies.

Josie: And memoir is so hard right now! I have always had my eyes open for books about bisexuality and open relationships. It seems like the world doesn't have much to offer in that arena. Do you think that is changing?

Jenny: I know. I think the market got flooded with memoir or something. In fact, I spoke to a few agents who said they didn't think I had enough for a book. I also pitched a book called, The Rabbi's Daughter about growing up, obviously, as a Rabbi's kid. And you know what the agent said? "Honey, everyone's had an abortion and shacked up with a drug dealer. What else have you got for me?" Can you imagine?? So I told her about my marriage and that piqued her interest. She didn't want to represent me for that book either when I pitched her with it later, but I figured I must have been on to something if she had even shown a tiny bit of interest.

I feel the same way about books about bisexuality and I sure hope it's changing. I mean, I think it's changing. But it's still slow going. There's Jennifer Baumgardner's fabulous book, Look Both Ways and lots of articles popping up. But, still, there's not anywhere near enough. The thing is though, once you scratch the surface of the online universe, there are tons of people out there hungry for it. And not just anything on it. But "mainstream" kind of stuff like Jennifer's and mine. Jennifer tells a great story in the book about her mom saying the only bisexual she knew was Elton John. And I think the only open relationships people know are from HBO's Real Sex! But I'm the girl next door. And I am far from the only one living this way.

Josie: Baumgardner's, Look Book Ways felt like a revelation. Not because what she was saying was NEW per se, but because someone was finally saying something!

One thing about Look Both Ways that really stood out for me was Baumgardner’s belief that being with a man compromised her integrity and being with a woman gave her some of that integrity back.

Jenny Block: Exactly!!

Josie: She has a few scenes in the book about being out with a boyfriend and feeling the need to assert her sexuality all the time, especially because she was, at that time, seen as a straight woman. This really resonated with me. Do you ever feel like, when you are out with your husband, that you need the world to know and understand your sexuality?

Jenny: Sometimes. But I try to remind myself that it should be enough just knowing that I'm happy and that we are doing what works for us; and it doesn't matter who knows or what they think. Still, I do find myself talking about my girlfriend sometimes or dropping other hints. One, because I want to be understood. But two, because I think that visibility is imperative if any of these things are ever to be accepted as reasonable, normal ways of being. I feel more compelled to prove that I belong in the queer or gay and lesbian crowd! I hate for people to think of me as a fence sitter!

Josie: I know! I really hate the idea that bisexuals are lesbians waiting to hatch or something, or that they are scared to come out of the closet. In your book, Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage, you talk about how clinical the word “bisexual” feels. Have you thought of another word to use? Do you think we are all, as humans, bisexual? Or that we are all more like, somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey scale? Or… do you think that some people are really just straight up straight?

Jenny: I think we all fit all along the scale. I'm sure there are some people who are straight, straight, straight. But I think the majority of people fall somewhere in between with most of us well in the middle. I hate that there has to be a name at all! I hate all the box checking. Bisexual sounds so alternative or greedy, like I want more than my share. Why can't we just be people who want who we want, and love who we love? Why does anyone else care who I love or how I love? By the way, I love the image of bisexuals waiting to hatch!

Josie: Ha ha! I know. But they do care. And I think, to some degree, they always will. You talk a lot about your husband in the book and his response to your choices. You also make it really clear that you believe that the two of you are happier in an open relationship. Did this change when you met Jemma, your girlfriend?

Jenny: I think we are even happier with Jemma around. He loves her. And he loves that he knows her and that she's my only other partner. It's easy and comfortable and safe. They're good friends. She often has dinner with us and goes out with us. In fact, just a few nights ago, he cooked and set the table for four and then was bummed that she wasn't coming. She is one of his biggest fans when it comes to his cooking and they both love wine!

He is happy when I'm happy, and I'm happy when he's happy, and she says she's never been happier in her life. Our relationship is the longest one she's ever been in. It makes me sad that people seem to have such a problem with our happiness. It feels like sour grapes, you know? "You are a bad person because I'm not happy and I'm following the rules and you're not!"

Josie: People do often feel threatened by the happiness of others.

Jenny: Indeed!

Josie: Did you identify as bisexual as a kid?

Jenny: Nope. I had no clue until I was twenty-five-ish. I mean, I think I was, but I didn't know that's what it was until much later. I don't know. I liked boys, so I figured, ”Okay, I must be straight.”

Josie: So, if you weren't initially attracted to women, there must have been something, or someone, that made you "open your eyes" to the possibility.

Jenny: My best friend Sophie Anne. I told her I wanted to kiss her. Right out of the blue! And she said, “Me too,” and the rest is well, you know...

I'm a little jealous of teenagers coming up now. I'd like to think they're more aware of all the options, and so have a better shot at being themselves.

Josie: That is true about teens now, in some places. It is more accepted to just be, to explore, especially if you are a girl! Your book prompted me to read a bit more about monogamy. It seems that there really aren't very many monogamous mammals out there in the wild. Do you think it is truly an unnatural state?

Jenny: Nope, there aren’t. I can't remember the exact number. But it's under ten. And even the ones that mate for life, like swans, are cheating!

Josie: Maybe because we shouldn't be expected to get everything emotionally from one person, we can't expect to get everything sexually from one person? But I think there is something to be said for sex being "sacred" because you share it with one person. Do you think that might really be about ownership? And speaking of ownership, what about the ugly beast of jealousy? In the early stages of open marriage, did you ever find yourself jealous?

Jenny: A little bit. But not in my rational mind. As soon as I really thought about why I'd be jealous about a man who loves me to the ends of the earth no matter how rotten I am (and I can be rotten), it just seemed silly. He's not going anywhere. And if he is, he'd be going regardless. And if he doesn't want to be there, why would I want him to be there? I'm not defined by my relationship with him and vice versa. That's the key. That, and getting rid of the ownership thing. Yuck. Sex can be sacred whenever it's the right person. I don't think it matters if it's one person-—not once you really know yourself and understand, at least somewhat, the way sex and relationships work. If you're looking for love, or approval, or validation through sex, it won't work. At all.

Josie: No, validation through sex is a sinkhole; it doesn't work, ever.

Jenny: And I fear that teenage girls fall into it because of all the media crap they're being fed about their virginity being their only worth.

Josie: Yes, they do, especially with all of the abstinence-only messages these days.

Jenny: Precisely. Don't even get me started!

Josie: How old is your daughter now?

Jenny: She turned nine at the end of April.

Josie: Awesome. One last question. Do you have a favorite famous bisexual?

Jenny: That is way too hard. But I'm going to have to go with Anais Nin. But honestly, my favorite is anyone fighting the good fight!

Josie: Good answer!
 
Check Jenny out in the media and in-person:

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