Interview by Amy Reardon
From the first pages, Rachel Krantz’s Open, An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy grabs the reader by the throat. This is an unsettling romance, with urgency and tension that work to form the story’s central question: will she save herself?
It’s 2015, and Krantz has met a new lover, Adam. She embarks on the most exciting sexual awakening of her life, and also, she begins to lose herself, her sense of reality, and agency over her life. Because she is a professional journalist, Krantz begins documenting the experience, researching, and consulting experts. The result is this, her debut memoir.
To read Open is to fall in deep and lose one’s bearings. I heard warning bells, felt titillated, then sick to my stomach, but mostly, I kept reading, curious to follow this journey, to learn what Krantz was learning about love, anxiety, and the ideas she had internalized from American culture. ‘That’s very common,’ Krantz tells me. ‘People message me, saying they experienced a wide range of emotions. They were crying and laughing and feeling turned on and disturbed, and I’m glad it is that immediate.’ Our dualistic culture likes to tell us it has to be one or the other, she says. ‘Either you’re having this liberating experience or you’re increasingly mired and abused, but often, or at least in my story, what’s so confusing is that both things are happening in truth at the same time.’
I spoke with Krantz via Zoom at her home in California. We talked about the compulsion to “settle down,” the seductiveness of rom-coms, and starving women. We were careful to avoid spoilers.
Amy Reardon: So what is the book about?
Rachel Krantz: It’s the story of my first open relationship. It’s part cautionary tale, exploring what happens when you enter into a relationship that has an extreme power dynamic, where in this case, the man is dominant, and the woman is submissive. It was also my first relationship mired with gaslighting and other abusive and unhealthy patterns. At the same time, I’m coming into my queerness. So it’s my attempt to untangle in real time: what is the liberation?
AR: Why did you have to write it?
RK: I wanted to pay forward what so many books had given me, broadening my circle of empathy and understanding of the world, expanding the possibilities for my own life. Also, I think to prove to myself that I was capable. It was an attempt to come back to really my own mind, to a sense of trust in my own discernment.
AR: Ok, you meet Adam. You fall in love, but also, you’re falling into your own internalized misogyny, all the stuff we absorb as we grow up. We’re watching you as the narrator working to unwind all of that, is that correct?
RK: Right. I view the story as a fable about what is so seductive about patriarchy and how the bill eventually comes due, no matter what. Complicated by the fact that I was aroused by a Dom/sub dynamic, as a feminist, and as many have been before me. How can we untangle that?
AR: Did you untangle it?
RK: I think it’ll be a lifetime of untangling it. [chuckle] It’s very dependent on how you communicate about these things. I learned that if you’re in a dynamic where talking about power and how it plays out in your relationship is killing the magic, or killing the charge, that’s a big warning sign. And if it’s killing it for you, then maybe you’re not that attracted to begin with.
AR: There’s a line in the first chapter that reads, ‘I mean, I’m 27, who knows how much longer I have before my stocks/tits begin rapidly begin to plummet.’ That question is doing a lot of work.
RK: I just think it’s wild how much at that age, I had internalized the message that I was rapidly running out of time to find the one. I’d taken women’s studies classes and didn’t want to have internalized that sense of rush about my own life’s unfolding, yet I had. So there was that tension between, on the one hand, still having no desire to settle down, and on the other, this feeling that if I didn’t grow out of this soon, I was going to end up with bad options or alone, God forbid. I think I’m farther along now, in some ways. I’m 34 now, but I still notice how my boobs are lower. It’s very hard to escape that conditioning. I’ll just keep naming it and examining it in my work moving forward, because it’s one of the ways women especially have been trapped in an alternate timeline as it’s explained away by evolutionary biology. Oh, you’re fertile for less time, and that’s why men remain attractive for longer, and women not as long. It’s just complete bullshit. It’s a symptom of patriarchy and also white supremacy culture, this idea that progress means you have to keep moving forward at a faster pace. Part of the way women are kept in line with that narrative is that you’re running out of time sooner.
AR: Another line that’s doing a lot of work is one of your journal entries from early in the relationship. You write,‘I believe in being rescued.’
RK: That desire was partially my unexplored submissive side, the desire to feel taken care of, because I had a childhood and a young adulthood where I often felt like the emotional guardians of my parents. I had this deep-seated desire to trust that someone else could take care of me. Also, I was expressing the narrative that I had been sold over and over again through Disney movies, through rom-coms, even if it wasn’t explicitly a princess being rescued. The man is the adventure. The finding of true love is the adventure. The woman starts out saying, I’m looking for something, I don’t know what it is.And in the end, it’s the man, right?
AR: The classic rom-com story. I mean, I know what they’re doing, but still, they’re irresistible. How come?
RK: It’s very chicken and egg. I was always obsessed with Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. It’s impossible to say, considering I started watching them before I could even talk. I think there’s a way to enjoy these things, but it’s very important to be conscious that what you’re enjoying is a story, a construct. It isn’t real life. To watch the ways it’s impacting your lived experience, when inevitability, real relationships can’t live up to the fairy tale or the rom-com tropes which so often end at just the moment when you come together. We’re not given many fairy tales about what comes after that initial novelty wears off.
AR: Really important. I’m so glad you did this investigation and sent me a galley. Thank you for doing this work. Okay, here’s another journal entry I wanted to ask about, ‘And why do I love to be made smaller when I’m already so small?’
RK: I am a small woman, and that formed a lot of my identity or was often a reason I received attention growing up. Oh, she’s so cute, she’s so little, right? That was part of what I believed made me lovable. I think when it expresses itself in this less healthier conscious dynamic of therefore I’m lesser in my judgments or ability to direct my own life or in the relationship, that’s where it starts getting really problematic. There are ways to enjoy feeling taken care of that don’t dilute your actual power or autonomy in the relationship. It just has to be navigated more consciously.
AR: The first time Adam tells you he’s into open relationships, he says it in a backwards sort of way. It’s incredibly significant, and also, it sets up the tension of the story.
RK: Yeah, he frames it as a philosophy, the way he wants to be toward someone he loves. He believes love should never restrict. But as the relationship goes on, it becomes very clear that it’s not just about my freedom. We see how on the one hand, he is allowing me a lot of sexual freedom, but it’s motivated by how he wants me to express it, or as we see later on, how he undermines my freedom. So part of it was him trying to not scare me away, or maybe that’s what he wanted to believe that he felt. But, yeah, he consciously and interestingly later admitted to framing it as, “this is about you,” as a way to ease me into the lifestyle. To the point that he said, “For the first year, it’s just going to be non-monogamous for you, and I’ll be monogamous until you allow otherwise.” He was pretty forthcoming about easing me in, so that he could have those same freedoms.
AR: I was surprised to read in your book that American cultural ideas about monogamy come from the Agricultural Revolution, as recently as the 1800s.
RK: I learned about that when I read Sex at Dawn, a few years before I met Adam. I had been introduced to this standard evolutionary narrative that explains how men want to spread their seed, and women want to lock it down so they protect us. The men who devised these theories also had their own inherent biases and were working backwards to explain the culture that had very Victorian ideas about what female sexuality could look like, or what our inherent desires were, or our inherent inclinations to be kept in the home.
If you have a theory that says we’re built that way because it’s a higher cost for us to have a child, of course we’re going be more family-oriented or monogamy-oriented because we have more of a vested interest. Whereas it costs the man less to spread his seed, so of course he’s going to want to have extramarital affairs or have a higher sex drive.
There might be grains of truth to all these theories, but when you start looking at when did these systems actually arise, they are so entwined with capitalism and the ideas of women as property. If a woman is property, you need systems in place to help protect it from being stolen. Paternity itself becomes a commodity. Whereas Sex At Dawn argues that evidence points to earlier communities being more communal. Maybe you didn’t know who was whose dad. When you have systems like that, ideas around the common good are going to be very different because you don’t know if your neighbor’s son is actually yours. That’s a very different social system and not one that’s going to reinforce capitalism.
“There might be grains of truth to all these theories, but when you start looking at when did these systems actually arise, they are so entwined with capitalism and the ideas of women as property.” — Rachel Krantz
AR: These theories of monogamy conveniently dismiss any idea of women having desire themselves?
RK: Right, and I think that modern sex research is really starting to help question that standard narrative. When you look at the current research into female sexuality, our desire seems to be even more contingent on novelty and variety. One study I like to point to was out of 11,000 British people ages 18-65, I believe. They found that after 90 months, roughly that seven-year itch, women’s desire fell off a steep cliff in a partnership. And if they lived with their partner that effect was more pronounced.
For men, it declined as well, but remained more steady–it didn’t have that steep drop off. Women are initiating many of the divorces, and women have caught up to men’s rates of cheating. Younger women are cheating at a higher rate than young men. Young women are twice as likely to have gone to a sex party, just as likely to engage in a threesome.
When you look at all that, it doesn’t really match up with this narrative that women are inherently more monogamous or family-oriented or need stability because we have more to lose. It shows we might be more bored by that stability.
AR: Every woman I talk to wants more sex and passion in their lives. What’s going on here?
RK: Yeah. My counselor, Kathy Labriola, the polyamory expert in the book, says many women are starving. They’re being told they should be satiated, and they’re finding that, especially for relationships where women are in relationship with just one man, that their needs are not being met in some way, for novelty, for emotional connection, whatever it might be.
In the same way you can make some sort of biological argument that there’s an inherent reason women would want to have monogamy as a structure of protecting their children, you can also make the same argument that it makes a lot of evolutionary biological sense that we would want sperm competition to have the best, most healthy possible offspring, so we would invite as many suitors as possible to have potentially the best option.
We’re complex. We’re incredibly turned on by the psychological, we often have a more responsive desire as opposed to spontaneous desire. Spontaneous desire being, some people might wake up in the morning and feel a sense of wanting to have sex. Responsive being that many of us might not feel like having sex until there’s interesting foreplay, or a psychological situation that makes it interesting for us. You might have women in a situation where the partner is just not able to create interesting enough situations for responsive desire to occur.
AR: You investigated this personal experience as a journalist. I was wondering if that exercise changed you?
RK: Many things changed. One is I’m questioning of all these paradigms in general, seeing how sexuality and desire can be much more fluid in my own life. And I’m very agnostic about my future. I might find labels useful in the present, but I never think they’re permanent, or that because I’m non-monogamous now that means I always will be, or because I’m into a certain kink now, I always will be.
I feel a sense of comfort in being able to have a more open-ended curiosity about these things and to see it’s possible that I will continue to evolve and hopefully change even more. Also, there’s more of an openness in my relationships, to ask, What would be best for us at this time in our lives? And how can we make this an ongoing conversation? Rather than we’re trying to fit ourselves into any one box or style.
AR: I feel like I heard Esther Perel say something like that on her podcast, something along the lines of, it’s not our relationships that are problematic, but rather our expectations of them.
RK: Yeah, and I love what Esther Perel says, that it is unprecedented, in terms of generations before, the number of roles we expect one relationship to fulfill. Our best friend, our co-parent, our roommate, our adventurer and novel sexual source. These things are inherently in conflict. We’ve been set up to fail. So if we’re feeling upset with the relationship or ourselves, if we feel we are somehow broken, the problem is really the systems and our unreasonable expectations.
AR: Many of the mentors you quote in the book identify as women. Do I have that right, and is that by design?
RK: Besides Tashi, the monk at the end, yes. And even Tashi will say he doesn’t particularly identify with being a man or a woman, and excuse these binaries, but yes, the book leans much more on women and non-binary people. Partly because Adam gets so much screen time, and I had, for so many years, identified with this archetypal masculine and folks he deemed worth reading and my schooling had weighed on them more heavily.
So much of how I came back to myself was to give priority to female voices. I found they were the only ones I really wanted to read or listen to for several years because I had just swung so far the other way, I needed to even out the pendulum, and I needed to come back to valuing that side of myself and that wisdom.
AR: I’m reading mostly women and have been for the last few years.
RK: Yeah, I think that that’s perfectly valuable and okay. I never want to be at some point where I’m like, as a rule I don’t read men, because then it’s just discrimination, and I think unwise, but everything in our culture lifts up male voices. It makes sense we need to focus on other voices to correct that. Same with deliberately not reading as many white writers or anyone else who’s going be more readily heard from or part of your education.
AR: You write really graphically about sex, and I know that’s something that doesn’t just happen. It takes great thoughtfulness and intention and so many decisions. I wonder how you found your process?
RK: Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s just so absurd that so many people who consider themselves literary think it’s silly or can’t be written well. Or it becomes this joke about a “bad sex scene.”
In sex, there’s so much going on in any moment. It’s when we’re feeling, in some ways, most in touch with our animal selves and most attuned to someone else’s. It’s a physical and emotional experience, and at the same time, often almost like we’re floating outside of ourselves and seeing the ways that we’re disconnected from the animal or from the present moment or conditioned by what we think we should be doing in that moment.
I wanted the sex scenes to operate on multiple levels. I wanted them to be erotic because that’s what I was experiencing. Also, this is part of the political statement in my book: Why must it either be you’re intellectual or you’re writing about the corporal and the erotic? This is a false binary that silences people from talking about the true erotic nature of their lives and inner experiences. By forcing people to choose–you’re going to be erotic and associated with the body or you’re going to be someone whose mind is respected–we get to silence people’s true lived experiences that aren’t convenient to upholding patriarchy or other systems.
“By forcing people to choose–you’re going to be erotic and associated with the body or you’re going to be someone whose mind is respected–we get to silence people’s true lived experiences that aren’t convenient to upholding patriarchy or other systems.” — Rachel Krantz
So, part of it was an explicit political statement. You’re going to be turned on, and then the next moment, potentially as confused and disturbed as I was. Rarely are we allowed to own our pleasure as something we’re talking about in explicit detail, without apology. Then maybe you cross over into bragging or confessional erotica. That’s bullshit.
AR: What would you say to starving women?
RK: First of all, I would say that you’re not broken or crazy or weird if you’re not sexually excited all the time by being in the same situation over and over again. In fact, that’s quite normal. And if you’re fantasizing about other people, that’s also completely normal and not unhealthy or a sign of greediness or that something is wrong in your relationship.
Potentially, you can benefit from having conversations with your partner about ways to work more novelty or variety or sense of distance into your relationship. Non-monogamy is a good way to do that. There are lots of other ways to play with that sense of distance, so the desire can arise without total polyamory if you feel that you that’s not right for you, that’s exhausting, or too scary.
But a lot of what I found is people desiring or practicing non-monogamy much more on the spectrum towards monogamy. Maybe it’s just very occasionally having threesomes with their partner. Or they’re allowed to make out with other people and that’s it. Or don’t-ask-don’t-tell arrangements. Or only when you’re traveling. Or they’re swingers or whatever. There are lots of ways to experiment with these things that don’t necessarily threaten the foundation of your life.
I would say try to have more open conversations. I was shocked to learn that it’s a common fantasy for many men to see their female partner with another man. That’s an example of a way where if the woman is feeling really bored, and she wishes that she could have novel experiences, but she doesn’t want to deal with jealousy or the possibility of her husband with another woman, maybe he’d be down with seeing you with another man, and you don’t even know it. So just allowing for these conversations, with a framework of, This doesn’t mean we’re going to do this. Or, We are going to do it. Maybe even the talking about it ends up being exciting in itself.
AR: Last question. What haven’t you been asked that you wish someone would ask about Open?
RK: I guess it would be: how is the culture receiving the book in this era? The answer is I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. I was expecting to get a lot of hate mail, a lot of trolling, and I’ve definitely gotten some, but mostly I’ve gotten a lot of love from strangers. People are appreciating the nuance, appreciating seeing themselves represented or some version of their experience represented.
As much as there’s a lot of interest, I have noticed there’s also some hesitancy. This book can be very triggering for people. They don’t want to touch it. They know it’s going to bring up all this stuff, so they want to write it off as just another either sexual confession, or something I was doing for attention.
So while I’ve been heartened by people’s willingness to engage, I’m still coming up against some of that. I’ve had some recognition by the media elite establishment, and some have outright ignored the book. I will continue to push back against that. I also know those editors are inundated with lots of books to cover, and sometimes these decisions are maybe less personal than I take them. But I want these outlets to engage with this on a serious level because I know that readers are.
Open, An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy is out now with Harmony.
Rachel Krantz is the namer of Bustle, and one of its three founding editors. Her work has been featured on NPR, Vox, The Guardian, Vice, many other outlets. She’s the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors Radio Award, the Peabody Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for her work as an investigative reporter with YR Media. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.