★★★★ – 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.
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.