Sex Educator Interview #5: Cooper S Beckett

You may have heard of this little project started by Jenny Guerin and myself, the Sexy Summer Book Club. It’s an online read-along where we share questions, invite discussion and encourage people to use the books as jumping off points for their own writings.

August’s book is Approaching The Swingularity by Cooper S Beckett, which I actually reviewed a while back. Very fittingly, therefore, today’s interview is with Cooper himself. Without further ado, let’s hear what the sexy-voiced podcaster, author and progressive swinger extraordinaire had to tell us.

Tell us a little bit about you and the work you do?

I write sexy books, and books about sex, which are sometimes the same thing, sometimes not. I’m also a coach and educator about sex positivity, safer sex, and focus on non-monogamy. I’ve been host of Life on the Swingset, The Swinging & Polyamory Podcast for the last 7 years, and we’re about to record our 300th episode! My goal is always to get people to think about their conceptions of their sexuality and how that relates to their partner(s) and the world, and take the opportunity to color outside the lines a bit, and learn about themselves.

What first made you want to write and podcast about sex and non-monogamy?

Hubris. I’d been swinging for a grand total of like 10 months and I thought, “You know what, I understand this pretty well, I should teach other people about it!” I corralled Dylan Thomas into co-hosting and the podcast was born. The writing has a little more sense behind it, but still not much. Before opening up I was a writer and indie filmmaker, so once I opened up and found the time to get back into it, writing about this all was a natural progression.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a podcaster, sex educator and published author? How does one “make it” in this field? 

If anyone tells you they’re “making it” in podcasting they’re the incredibly rare and lucky breed. Honestly, podcasters don’t really make it. It’s all about reach, isn’t it? So podcasting is a vehicle for reach. The more I podcast, the larger my audience, the more opportunity to share my speaking gigs and educating and books with the world. But podcasting itself…it’s nice if it pays for itself. I guess that’s when you know you’ve made it, when the podcast isn’t as valuable as a drain in your bank account.

What does “a day in the life of You” look like? 

I sleep way later than I should before I go to my (still unfortunately necessary) day job. In my free time I try to focus on projects and writing, while balancing with time with my lovely partner & binary star Ophilia Tesla, and still finding time to keep up on current media (like Doctor Who and Legend of Zelda!)

What’s the best thing about being a sex educator, in your opinion? The worst?

The best thing about being a sex educator is the same as the best thing about being any type of educator, that moment when you see the person you’re talking to “gets it” and something changes in them. Since sex is such a major part of people’s lives, and the things I teach have the possibility of changing them fundamentally, it can be a really amazing moment. The downside is that sex is really really looked down upon as something worth educating yourself about. So there’s tremendous stigma surrounding it.

Which of your 3 books is your favourite, and why? Also what’s your favourite episode of the podcast, and why?

Approaching the Swingularity is my favorite, maybe because it’s the newest, but I also think it’s my best work. It allowed me to go deepest into my passions and take characters to new and unexpected places. Also to be really mean to them, cuz that’s kinda my thing. My favorite episode of the podcast was our 200th episode where we were lucky enough to get Dan Savage on as our guest. That was a real feeling of having “made it” – so I guess that also answers a bit of the question above!

 

Will there be a third book in the “Swingularity” series? 

There will, and at the moment it’s a shorter book like A Life Less Monogamous and will follow Jenn and Ryan’s early issues with true polyamory. The working title is Polywogs. But, for the moment, I’ve become distracted with a supernatural series featuring a pansexual poly woman named Osgood as the lead.

Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

Depends on the day. All my characters are ultimately me, even if their personality isn’t. I split up my traits among them and give them my hangups. Ryan is probably the most ME, but in Swingularity, I’d have to say between Crista and Raymond for the most intense identification.

Who inspires you, professionally and personally?

Tristan Taoramino and Dan Savage are my two big favorite sex educators. I love his acerbic wit, and I aspire to the variety and depth of the work Tristan produces. For fiction my big inspiration is Stephen King, because nobody does character as well as him. I also adore the work of Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. 

If you were stuck on a desert island (sorry, sorry, I HAD to do a ‘desert island’ question) and could take three toys and one sexy book, what would you pick and why? 

Hmmm. If I’m by myself, a Tenga Egg, the nJoy Pure Wand, and… can I bring a bottle of lube instead of a third toy? I feel like the heat would make lube essential. If I’m with someone else, definitely the nJoy Eleven. A sexy book….so many options.

What’s something you used to believe about sex/relationships but are glad you don’t believe any more?

That sex equals PIV/PIA (Penis in Vagina/Penis in Anus) penetration. And if I didn’t have that I wasn’t having sex. It’s tremendously pressuring, especially in group sex situations. Making everything sexual, including heavy making out, sex means that I no longer feel pressure to take things to an obvious conclusion, and can simply enjoy the smorgasbord of sexy in front of me.

What’s the best sex advice you ever got? 

 It’s okay for sex to be silly. It always looks so dramatic and intense in movies. My best sex involves conversations, mistakes, and laughter.

What do you think is the most toxic myth that our society perpetuates about sex/relationships?

 That there’s a right way to do it. That gives us all complexes that we’re not doing it right, and we stress out and make foolish decisions because of it.

What’s one question that you wish people would stop asking you? 

“You REALLY use condoms for blowjobs?” Yes I do. I’m happy to keep talking about it, though, until oral barriers are a thing.

And just for fun, because it is “Coffee and Kink,” do you like coffee and, if so, how do you take it?

Oh god. My Starbucks coffee order is insane and will make people throw up from sweetness. I do a Venti double shot with 5 total shots of espresso and vanilla and caramel syrup. Otherwise, I don’t much go in for coffee.

 
Thanks, Cooper, for your time and always-fabulous insights, as well as the sexy books.


Words and “Swingularity” book cover copyright Cooper S Beckett 2017.

Sex Educator Interview #3: Dawn Serra

The latest interview in this series comes from Dawn Serra, sex educator extraordinaire and host of the amazing Sex Gets Real podcast. I’ve reached out to Dawn for advice before, as have many other people, and I’ve always found her to be one of the most open-minded, affirming and compassionate educators around. I’m absolutely thrilled she agreed to take part and give us a little peek into her world.

Tell us a little bit about you and the work you do?

Officially, I’m a sex educator, sex podcaster, and a sex & relationship coach. But what those titles actually mean is I’ve dedicated myself to shame reduction, resilience building, emotional & sexual intelligence development, and helping people find words for things that feel scary or awkward. I’ve learned that what people really need is permission – permission to ask questions, permission to explore, permission to let go of stories that hurt them, and I try to do that every day by connecting the dots between the cultural stories and systems of oppression that keep us all trapped in pain and disconnection, and then giving people new tools and skills for moving in the direction they’d like to move.

What first made you want to be a sex educator and run a sex podcast?

I’ve always been the person my friends came to with sex questions and confessions, even in middle school and high school. Then, in my early 20’s, I started selling sex toys with one of those in-home party companies. While the company & products were problematic, it gave me a chance to talk with hundreds of women, one-on-one, about their deepest fears and shame.

It cracked me open in ways that surprised me, and I knew it was work I wanted to keep doing. It was fascinating to watch groups of women socially interacting with each other around sex. Many of them were loud and laughing, telling these wild stories about their sex life, very Sex and the City, but then behind closed doors with me would admit they’d never had an orgasm or didn’t know they were allowed to use a sex toy with a partner. Others would be quiet and shy during the group portion of the party, and then break down crying in private with me over their deep sense of shame, of being a disappointment to their partners. I started realizing just how many of us are performing what we think sex is supposed to be and look like without actually experiencing it in a way that made sense for us.

That was the beginning.

My podcast, Sex Gets Real, got started was because my friend, Dylan, and I heard some terrible advice about strap-on sex from a shock-jock Playboy type of podcast. We just could not let it go. We were angry at how wrong it was, and that people were actually listening. So, on a whim, we decided our voices were needed. A few days later, we recorded our first episode and now I’m nearing 200 episodes and 3 million downloads. Whoa.

How did you break into the industry and how does one ‘make it’ as a sex educator?

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I still don’t have it all figured out.

But for me, it’s always been about relationship building in the industry and finding ways to promote and lift up other voices. I knew that if I helped everyone around me, they’d in turn want to help me win and celebrate. I started attending conferences like Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, promoting all the speakers, and stepping outside my comfort zone a bit by introducing myself to folks I’d long been a fan of.

The podcast also was a huge help. Even in the very very beginning of the show, I found that if I asked nicely, told someone why I thought they were super awesome, that they’d almost always say yes to an interview. Having them share the show helped me grow organically, which built some buzz, too.

Now I coach sex educators and therapists around building an online presence, creating online summits and courses, and my number one piece of advice for getting noticed is always be yourself. It’s SO tempting to want to emulate, copy, parrot, and follow in the footsteps of other educators. But then people don’t really know who you are. Be bold around stating your vision for a new world, your beliefs of what’s holding us back, your story and why it matters. Learn about social justice and oppression and then find ways to be unapologetic around your values and ethics in those spheres. Apologize when you’re wrong or hurt someone (because you will), and always always always take feedback graciously.

That more than anything has helped me to show up and be known for the sex educator I am today. The money stuff I’m still trying to figure out because the bottom line is people don’t want to pay for sex education unless it’s built on shiny promises and magic bullet solutions. To offer something more real and honest means a lot of swimming against the current. It’s possible, but it takes some grit and determination. And never, ever feel bad if sex education is your side hustle while you have a day job that pays the bills. Some of the biggest names in the industry do the same thing.

What does “a day in the life of a sex educator” look like for you?

For me, a typical day is a whole lot of admin work around the podcast, projects I’m working on, managing client updates and emails. One a good day, I’ll have a chance to do one or two podcast interviews with ridiculously amazing people. I may have a client session or two for personal or business coaching. Loads of social media writing and planning. Nurturing my Explore More group on Facebook. And then making big plans for future workshops, summits, webinars, etc.

What’s the best thing about being a sex educator, in your opinion? The worst?

The best thing is seeing people have massive shifts – seeing their relief, seeing their eyes light up at the possibilities they never knew could be theirs, hearing their vulnerable stories and knowing they trust me enough to hold them so gently and tenderly. That feeds my heart and soul.

The worst is how sex education is treated in the world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – they all ban ads and promoted posts from sex educators because they consider sex education the same as pornography. Google Ads won’t allow you to buy ad space for the same reason. Getting the word out can be so tough because so many people are so filled with shame and embarrassment they aren’t willing to share your posts, even if they love them, for fear of people seeing them consume the content and thinking something is wrong.

Also, people don’t realize just how badly they need support around sex, love, relationships, and their bodies, so they aren’t willing to pay for webinars and workshops unless they’ve reached a total place of crisis. I wish more people understood that the sooner we all start practicing and learning together, the less we ever have to be in crisis or deep shame. But the world isn’t quite ready for that shift. Until then, we hustle and we persist, even in the shadows.

What’s your favourite episode of the podcast and why?

You have no idea how much I agonized over this question. I decided to go with one of my more recent episodes, simply because I’m incredibly proud of it.

For episode 162, I interviewed law professor and author Carol Sanger. It was the first time I dedicated an entire episode (or more than a few moments) to the topic of abortion. Carol’s book is truly spectacular, and to honor the seven years she spent writing it, I asked listeners to send in their abortion stories. I received about a dozen submissions. Each and every one was raw, real, and deeply personal. I felt like I was holding some of the most precious stories on earth – stories many of these people had never told another living soul. I read some of them on that episode, and Carol and I held them together. It wasn’t a super popular episode because I think too many people are scared of or biased around abortion discussions, but I am so so proud of that work.

Tell us about a book that changed your life/perspective completely?

Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score.” As a trauma survivor with PTSD, it was the first time my body, my reactions to situations, my trauma actually made sense. I started understanding what was happening inside of my body, inside of my brain, and it felt like pure relief.

Until I read that book, I considered myself broken in a lot of ways, incapable of healing or moving beyond certain things. I carried tremendous shame around my triggers, especially as a sex educator since my PTSD tends to come up in sexualized situations with strangers.

The research, the techniques to move towards integrating and recovery gave me hope. That book also gave me new language that allowed me to not only create permission and space in my own trauma, but around the trauma of the people I work with.

It led me to Peter Levine’s work and Somatic Experiencing. It took me down a path of learning more about being trauma-informed. It made sense of so many of the things that seem to not make sense in the world.

I am forever grateful for that book and the shift it caused in me.

Who inspires you, professionally and personally?

Professionally, Meg John Barker. Their work is powerful. They turn a lot of cultural stories and myths upside down, and in a way that doesn’t feel super threatening. I’ve found that so much of what I thought to be true is actually not true at all thanks to them, so I keep a close eye on their work. It’s always radical and permission-granting. Kate McCombs, Karen BK Chan, and Megan Devine in their work on empathy and emotional intelligence. That has done wonders for my professional work, how I work with clients, and my personal relationships, as well.

Personally, I’m inspired by folks who are brave and fighting endlessly for justice. The more I learn about my own racism, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, classism, the more I grow and can lift others up. People like Ijeomo Oluo, Kelly Diels, Monica Raye Simpson, Jes Baker, Feminista Jones, Audre Lorde, Conner Habib… I feel rich with the people who offer me tough questions and who challenge me. It’s my favorite place to be, even when it feels terrible.

Also, as sappy as it sounds, my husband. He is so ridiculously smart. He reads endlessly, he listens to brain-growing podcasts all the time, and he knows more about all the things than anyone I know.

If you were stuck on a desert island (sorry, sorry, I HAD to do a ‘desert island’ question) and could take one sexy book, one sex toy and one kink item, which would you pick and why?

For my sex toy, I’d bring a rechargeable Magic wand. We’ll just pretend the island has a source of power for charging it. It’s deliciously diverse: I use on myself, I use it on my husband, and we use it together for sex in all sorts of configurations and positions.

For my kink item, it would have to be rope. I was tempted to say a flogger, but we could fashion a flogger from rope because it’s versatile like that. Then I’d have rope for both the kinky stuff (I’m imagining being tied to a palm tree and fanned with palm leaves) and practical island living stuff. Ha!

One sexy book… I have to go with Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy (it’s a box set, so I’m counting it as one). The first time I read those books I was probably 19 or 20 years old, had never heard of kink or BDSM, and they terrified me. Absolutely terrified me. I couldn’t understand why I kept feeling aroused by these very very unusual (to me) activities. In fact, I couldn’t finish the 3rd book because it was too much. A decade later, I picked them up and had to laugh. By then, I’d dabbled in all sorts of kink, had a chance to exploring shifting identities, and met people into all the things in the book. Now, they’re a fun escape that’s sexy and hot and full of delicious ideas.

What’s something you used to believe about sex/relationships but don’t believe any more, and what changed your mind?

I used to believe men wanted sex more than women. I used to believe there were only two genders. I used to believe monogamy was the only way to do relationship. I used to believe fat bodies were rarely, if ever, desirable. I used to believe that love was enough. I used to be in soul mates and true love and fairy tales. I used to believe if you loved someone enough that sex would be automatic and natural, with no need for words or explaining myself or awkward moments. I used to believe you couldn’t come back from betrayal.

I’m sure there are hundreds of other things I used to believe, having grown up on Cosmo magazine and Sex and the City. What really changed my mind was listening to peoples stories and realizing that it’s not that every single person is broken or inadequate in some way – it’s that the system, the stories, the culture are fundamentally flawed.

Reading powerful books on racial justice, reproductive justice, and sexual autonomy helped give me words and new questions which led me on a journey to overturn and question nearly everything we’re taught. I have a talk called Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong. It’s not because any individual is wrong, it’s that everything we’ve all been taught is wrong.

What’s the one thing that you wish everyone in the world could understand about sex/relationships?

I wish more people realized that we’d all be a lot better off if we normalized a lifetime of learning and professional support BEFORE crisis struck in both sex and love.

I wish people knew just how much pain, shame, uncertainty, hesitation, anger, resentment, confusion, and regret they could shed if they worked with folks like sex educators, sex coaches, sex therapists, relationship coaches, relationship therapists, trauma counselors, sex workers, body workers, etc.

So many people spend months, years, or decades silently suffering, worrying, not sure what’s changing or why things are so tough, and if they only knew how much permission and relief they could find with the help of folks trained to do this. No one should have to wait until they’re in deep pain or betrayal to begin to do the work that could genuinely move things forward for them.

There are a lot of amazing people (and even more pretty terrible ones, so be particular, folks) doing incredible, affirming work in all of these rich areas. Even professionals need a safe space to process, to learn and grow, to grieve and mourn the things they’ve fucked up or gotten wrong, to gain a little perspective. So if professionals needs it (goodness knows I do), then everyone does.

If we could all celebrate asking for help and having places to turn to constantly ask new questions together, I suspect we’d have a world with a lot less shame and fear and so much more connection and pleasure.

What do you think is the most toxic myth that our society perpetuates about sex/relationships?

In my humble opinion, all myths that we have are built upon one myth that feeds them all. It’s the myth that tells us the answers we need are outside of ourselves.

We are a culture that teaches children to turn to others to tell them who they are. We are trained from the youngest of ages to accept labels from people who do not know us, from people who are not us, and we are a culture that thrives on conformity (while claiming to admire independence).

Because of that, we get trapped in stories that tell us to compare ourselves to others, to let outside forces dictate our identities and our worth, to tell us what a normal life or romance or happiness look like. It is a myth that says you are not the one with the answers. We don’t know how to trust our bodies, how to speak up for ourselves, how to advocate for our pleasure because we, our bodies, our lives, are foreign to us.

And yet…we are the only ones who live in our bodies, who think our thoughts, who feel these sensations, who experience these feelings. If we can begin learning how to listen to our bodies, how to trust those sensations and the wisdom we have about what’s best for us, how to sit in our feelings and ask ourselves questions about what we really want and feel, we’d find that we have tremendous power and sovereignty over our own lives.

Sex wouldn’t be about performing what we think sex should look like. It would be about intimately knowing our bodies and what brings us the most pleasure on our own terms without worrying if it looked like everyone else.

Love wouldn’t be about achieving a relationship status or adhering to external, superficial factors, but instead about connection and curiosity and knowing based on a deep trust of ourselves.

Entire industries would collapse, but wow what a world that would be.

What’s one question that you wish people would stop asking you?

I love that you asked this, and at the same time, it’s difficult to answer because my goal is always to create space to reduce shame so folks can ask the hard questions. By answering, do I, in turn, create an atmosphere where it’s no longer safe to ask this question? Possibly, yes.

To answer the question, though, I wish people would stop asking how to “make” their partner orgasm because they’ve decided, on their partner’s behalf, that their partner having an orgasm is somehow vital or a huge puzzle piece is missing from their partner’s pleasure experience.

Our cultural focus on orgasm is bananas, and it’s created tremendous pressure on everyone to be orgasming all the time in all the ways, and to feel terrible if they aren’t.

I love people getting curious about their own pleasure and their own bodies, finding new words and tools to advocate for their explorations, and demanding recognition of their pleasure especially if they’re in a marginalized body, so what I think causes a lot more harm than good is people who make their partner’s experiences a personal mission.

Too many people feel like their sexual success, or being good in bed, is tied up in “giving” their partners an orgasm. It’s not really about the partner (though many say that it is). It’s actually about their own stories and needing to feel successful in some way because their partner’s orgasm is tied to their own identity.

That’s not to vilify folks who ask this question, but to point out that the sexual stories we’re given tell us this is normal. That orgasm is the end-all-be-all, and so of course we should want to do whatever it takes to make someone we care about get there. But at what expense? Making them feel more broken or abnormal?

The bottom line is expectations suck when it comes to sex – whether the expectation is a hard penis or certain feelings or an orgasm. It’s the fastest way to turn off pleasure and create distance, because even if an expectation goes unspoken, it still gets communicated – loudly and clearly – to the person who isn’t orgasming that something about them isn’t good enough. And they are good enough.

Instead of worrying about orgasm as a goal, I always invite people to simply focus on maximizing pleasure and being present for each other. Curiosity, space, time, and fun are much more likely to give everyone the peak pleasure experience they’re hoping for, anyways. And yet… no matter how many times I offer this answer, people still ask this question. So I’ll continue repeating myself until we have a cultural shift that takes this pressure off us all.

And just for fun, because it is “Coffee and Kink”: do you like coffee and how do you take it?

I love coffee. The floofy, fancy kind. A latte with caramel or an iced coffee with cream and lavender syrup. It’s a decadence that I treat myself to from time to time rather than a daily kick start.

Thanks again to Dawn for her time and amazing insights – and for being the amazing, fabulous educator she is.
 
Words and Sex Gets Real logo copyright Dawn Serra, 2017.

[Book Review] Approaching the Swingularity by Cooper S Beckett

★★★★★ – five stars

Yes, you read the title correctly. Swingularity. As not only a Cooper/Swingset fangirl but a devotee of all things puntastic, how could I resist?

This is actually Cooper’s second novel about swinging and follows directly on from his first, A Life Less Monogamous. I read them more or less back to back but, at the author’s request, I am reviewing the newer one first. Swingularity can also be read as a stand-alone, though I’m of the opinion you’ll get more from it if you read ALLM first. I’m going to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but a few plot/character points may need to be disclosed in order for it to make sense.

Approaching the Swingularity takes place during one week at Aphrodite’s Resort & Spa, a fictional swingers’ resort I’m informed carries “more than a passing resemblance” to Desire. It follows several couples, most notably newbie-ish swingers Ryan and Jen (the focus of A Life Less Monogamous) on their first trip. Joining them are scene veterans Bruce and Paige, and first-lesbian-couple-to-attend Alejandra and Crista. There’s also a storyline following the trip’s leader, Raymond, who struggles to play the jovial, sexy host while dealing with some intense personal pain.

The cover of Approaching the Swingularity by Cooper S Beckett
Swingularity
is definitely an erotic novel. It’s raunchy, it’s explicit and it’s hot as hell. Particular highlights, for me, were Ryan and Jen’s outdoor fuck in the middle of a summer storm, and Bruce and Paige’s very erotic “couple’s massage.” There’s more sexy fuckery (and some of it quite kinky!) than you can shake a flogger at. But it’s also a lot more than an erotic novel.

The author has thought the characters through and realised them beautifully. They all have foibles, flaws and the occasional fuck-up of epic proportions. I fancy the pants-he’s-probably-not-wearing off Bruce, but his actions when an old flame re-appears in his and Paige’s life had me shouting “you FUCKING IDIOT!”

The relationships, too, are beautiful and real – sometimes painfully so. The struggles within and between the couples are magnified in the intensity of the resort. Sometimes tensions stretch nearly to breaking point. But there’s also love and hope that shines off the page. I was genuinely rooting for the characters to work through their troubles and end up happier and healthier for them.

And crucially, more often than not, the sex serves the plot, not the other way around. Without giving too much away, there’s a scene where a hitherto-straight identified man explores his interest in sex with another man. The result is in turns sexy, uncomfortable and ultimately gut-wrenching.

It’s also deliciously inclusive. I mentioned to Cooper that this novel is – sadly, one could say – more inclusive than the real-life swinger communities I’ve encountered thus far. There are gay and lesbian characters and bi men,  not just the endless straight-men-and-bi-women-only trope that is all too common in the swinging world. Characters of colour feature, as well as at least one trans character. There are older characters, younger characters, fat and skinny, able bodied and disabled. And there are a huge variety of sexual proclivities, preferences and levels of experience. I wish, how I wish, that the real life swinging community where I live was more like this. I’d probably have more sex if it was.

I would be remiss, too, to not mention how funny this book is. There’s a particularly hilarious incident about half way through involving an obnoxious podcast host and a jellyfish. And, of course, the banter between the major characters kept me giggling throughout. I’ve long stood by this sentiment and Cooper seems to agree: sex is hilarious and we shouldn’t take it overly seriously most of the time.

In short: I laughed. I cried. I wanked. And now I’m telling you all to go out and buy this book so you can do the same.

Book cover image provided by Cooper S Beckett and reproduced with permission.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. This does not impact my views in any way which are, and will always be, my own. If you enjoyed this post and want to see more of my work, please consider buying me a coffee.

[Book Review] The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory by Dedeker Winston

★★★★ – four stars

As a long-time listener of the Multiamory Podcast, I was seriously excited when Dedeker Winston (one third of the hosting team, along with her partner Jase and former partner Emily) announced she was writing a book. She and her co-hosts are funny, wise, insightful and down to Earth on the podcast, so I had high hopes for The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory: Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy and Alternative Love  – a fresh take on the polyamory advice book genre, with women and female experience front and centre.

Author Dedeker Winston, a smiling white woman with long straight brown hair

The book is grouped into chapters, which are clustered into four sections: Polyamory 101, Pre Reqs, Mastering Non-Monogamy, and Out of the Classroom, Into the World. I read it cover to cover, but you could just as easily dip in and out, picking and choosing the sections that feel most relevant to you.

Polyamory 101 covers what polyamory is (and what it isn’t,) some of the different forms that ethical non monogamy can take, and an absolutely fascinating chapter on the socio-cultural and anthropological history of non-monogamy. Dedeker also talks us through some of the common objections to polyamory, from family and friends or from society at large, and possible ways to counter them.

Pre-Reqs deals with self-knowledge, really interrogating who you are, what you want and what makes you tick, as well as the skills required to live a happy and healthy non-monogamous life (it goes beyond just “communicate,” y’all!)

Mastering Non-Monogamy was the real meat of this book, for me. There’s the expected chapter on jealousy, a whole chapter on sex and the various issues surrounding it, advice on crafting positive and healthy relationship rules/agreements, and more.

Finally, Out of the Classroom, Into the World attemtps to take the theories discussed in previous chapters and apply them in real-world situations. Dedeker discusses poly dating, finding community, coming out of (or choosing to stay in!) the closet and how polyamory can intersect with a range of marginalised identities and liberation movements.

This book is not easy reading at times. Dedeker approaches difficult topics with a light touch and a healthy dose of humour, but there are parts that are unavoidably difficult reading. Though she doesn’t actually use the A-word, she candidly describes behaviour by a former partner that can only be labelled as abusive. It’s not all sunshine and light – she gives us the bad, the scary and the unshiny parts of polyamory as unflinchingly as she gives us the love and the joy. And she challenges us repeatedly to be brave, to be unfalteringly honest with ourselves and our loved ones, to do the hard work required to be stronger and better and more compassionate versions of ourselves.

What sets this book apart from the others I’ve read is that women are centred throughout. Dedeker shares her experience on the unique struggles of a polyamorous, queer, sex-positive woman and tackles those challenges head on, and encourages other women to battle outdated gender stereotypes, sex-negativity, slut shaming, rape culture and the myriad other issues that disproportionately affect women and those read as women in trying to live a non-monogamous life. But despite this female focus, the book is consistently inclusive – it makes no assumptions about age, sexuality, gender identity or relationship style. For this reason, I really think anyone interested in polyamory or consensual non-monogamy can find value in it.

Dedeker’s tone is (mostly) compassionate and non-judgemental. She shares her experiences and wisdom about what tends to work well and what doesn’t, but seems to intuitively understand that everyone’s experience is different and that different relationship styles will work for each person, couple or group.

Sadly, this book’s major downside is that it is unreservedly and unnecessarily critical of those who practice a model of hierarchical polyamory, with primary and secondary partners and with established rules. There are, of course, people who abuse this model and do it badly – but there are also plenty of people who do it in a stable, loving and ethical fashion. Not to mention all those who do Relationship Anarchy or egalitarian polyamory badly! The problem isn’t the structure but the people who use the structure to justify poor behaviour, and I am getting pretty damn sick of seeing my relationship model positioned as inherently problematic.

But if you can get past or ignore these passages, I still want to recommend this book overall because it really does have a tonne of great information in it. The guiding principles of self knowledge, strong communication, compassion, honesty, good boundaries and integrity can be applied in making any style of relationship a success.

Book cover image and author headshot courtesy of Dedeker Winston and Skyhorse Publishing, reproduced with permission.