I read a ton. Books on relationships, sexuality, polyamory, feminism, gender theory, all kinds of stuff. I want to share some of the books I liked, and I'm going to do that here. Some of them will have some info about RA in them, and some won't at all. If I only included books about relationship anarchy, my list would be zero books long. If there is a book you think I should include on here, send me the title and I'll give it a read.
Last year this book moved into the number one slot on the ‘books I recommend’ list. In a world where solid advice on ethical non-monogamous relationships is sparse, this book delivers in so many ways. It is comprehensive, clear, and full of practical information; my only wish is that it existed years ago. It would have saved me mountains of work and self-doubt!
Reading More Than Two was an intensely emotional experience for me. This was the first book I ever read that spoke in depth about non-primaries as real people, with feelings and desires and rights. As someone who spent years as a non-primary in a hierarchical relationship, it gave me validation and a language for all my difficult experiences. Although I had become a relationship anarchist long before reading this book, I had never fully acknowledged my experiences in a hierarchical relationship. This book made me feel less alone in my experiences, and it allowed me to work through a lot of residual feelings I didn’t even know I had. It also gave me new tools moving forward as a relationship anarchist. I cannot think of anyone who would not benefit from reading this book.
I just finished re-reading Polyamory in the 21st Century, and I had forgotten how much information is in this book. The author Deborah Anapol—who passed away in 2015—was involved in the polyamory movement since the 1980s and writing about polyamory since the early 1990s, so she had a lot of experience to draw from. As Anapol says herself, it’s not a how-to guide, rather it’s her attempt to convey three decades worth of personal understanding.
One thing I enjoyed about this book was that it provides an in-depth look at the history of polyamory in a very readable format. Anapol was a clinical psychologist who worked with thousands of people over the years, and she has woven many real life experiences in alongside research by biologists, anthropologists and many social scientists. To me the stories describing the processes of how people work issues out were extremely interesting, since non-monogamous role models are scarce. I also appreciated the worldwide perspective, with stories from America, China, Australia, and parts of Europe (not one nod to Canada though!).
Anapol seems as though she personally leans towards a more anarchist style of relationships, although RA is only mentioned briefly a few times in the book. She does write about one of her ‘earliest heroines’ Emma Goldman, who was a feminist anarchist who helped shape anarchist political philosophy in the early 1900s. She also contacted Andie Nordgren—who coined the term relationship anarchy—and included a two page interview with her in this book. I wish Anapol had dug into RA more deeply, as I’m sure she would have had some great insights.
There was one chapter near the end I mostly skipped over: Polyamory in Myths, Archetypes, and Human Evolution. I found that some of the spiritual overtones and mythology felt a bit scattered. I am interested in how the old paradigm of love is shifting and polyamory as a path of personal growth, but it got a little strange switching between the Holy Trinity and the biology of bonobos.
In the end I definitely thought it was worth reading (as evidenced by my reading it twice). This book is good for anyone interested in polyamory, whether they practice it or not. It could be read as a good introduction for people with no previous knowledge, but there is so much information in it that I’m also sure people who have been non-monogamous for a long time would find value in it.
Have you have ever read or heard explained how the differences in the sexes is due to biology, and wondered about the research behind that? This is a book that debunks—or maybe demolishes is a better word—the ‘science’ in books like Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus, or the less silly sounding, but equally damaging, The Female Brain.
If you’ve ever read a book like that, or watched a talk show with a fascinating headline like New Study Finds Men Really Can’t Pick Up Their Socks, The Science Will Shock You, you will be familiar with the story. Men and women are built differently as a result of brain structure. Male brains excel at math, science, engineering, banking. Pure coincidence that men are better at all the prestigious and well paying jobs. Female brains on the other hand are designed to be caring, soothing, empathetic; that is why they make such excellent primary-school teachers, nurses and stay-at-home mothers. You know, the most undervalued, underpaid jobs out there.
To the rescue, an academic psychologist who also happens to be an excellent writer and a bit of a humourist: Cordelia Fine. An incredible amount of time and effort went into writing this book, as evidenced by the sheer volume to research she uses to support her book (the notes and bibliography section spans more than 80 pages). She provides an in-depth look at how culture impacts people’s behaviour, not just biology, and she also gets into a lot of interesting information about how brain scans actually work.
The part I found most fascinating was learning about stereotype threat, described on the websitewww.reducingstereotypethreat.org like this:
Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one's group. This term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.
There have been many experiments conducted to test the ways in which cultural stereotypes influence performance. Take the belief that women simply are not as good at math as men. In a series of experiments, before giving a group of women a math test, the experimenters have them watch commercials with women acting like air-heads, have them circle gender (M / F) on their tests, or have instructors or peers in the room who hold sexist attitudes. The result: the women won’t score as highly as they would have without these subtle triggers reminding them that they are women (and all the stereotypes that entails).
Over 300 experiments on stereotype threat have been published in peer-reviewed journals, which tells us pretty conclusively that the difference in males and females is affected by much more than their biology.
Fine urges editors, journalists and schools to “develop far more skeptical attitudes towards claims made about sex differences and the brain”. I urge you to as well, and to read this book.
Opening Up has been on my shelf for years. I’ve read it cover to cover several times, I’ve read a few of the chapters a dozen times, and I’ve recommended it to everyone that I have spoken to who is curious about non-monogamy. It’s written by one of my idols, Tristan Taormino; she is an author, sex educator, feminist pornographer, and host of one of my favourite podcasts, Sex Out Loud. I could gush about her for ages, but I will get back to the book.
It wasn’t too long after this book came out in 2008 that I started thinking about moving from monogamy to polyamory. It took a few years after that for me to actually try it, and Opening Up played a big role in helping me navigate that transition. The book begins with a short history, questions to ask yourself when you’re starting out, and an overview of some of the different styles of polyamory: partnered non-monogamy, swinging, poly, solo poly, and so on. The chapters in my copy that have been thumbed through the most cover jealousy and compersion, challenges and problems, and safer sex and sexual health.
I hadn’t read through the whole book in a few years. In the process of rereading I noticed some things about the book that I never had before, specifically that there is a sense that it is written mostly for couples. It is after all called Opening Up, so much of the content addresses issues that will come up inside primary partnerships.
I would recommend this book to anyone curious about non-monogamy, starting out, or looking to review important foundational concepts. The author knows her stuff, and this book is comprehensive, well written and packed with real stories of how people have negotiated their own non-monogamy. I still pick it up to read about jealousy when that arises for me, or to remind myself about compersion. And of course I still have a huge fangirl crush on Tristan Taormino; I definitely advise you to check out some of the other awesome (and hot) projects she has worked on.
Designer Relationships is great for a quick introduction to different relationship structures, and how to create relationships that best suit you. It’s short—150 pages—and it covers relationship styles from monogamy to relationship anarchy (although RA is only mentioned briefly it does get its own page, which is a start!).
The first time I heard about Designer Relationships was when the authors Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson were interviewed for the Explore More Summit. I was especially intrigued about this book because ‘designing your own relationships’ sounded relevant to Relationship Anarchy. In the interview they discussed moving beyond the binary of monogamy / non-monogamy, and how they approach relationships as a process of co-creation. Some of the tenets of RA were featured, such as enthusiastic choice, openness to new ideas, and questioning default models.
After reading the book, I can say it wasn’t quite what I expected. The target audience is monogamous couples who are starting to discuss how they define monogamy, how to open up their relationship, or how to design their relationships more consciously. I think this is great; questioning why we do things means we are creating the life we want and not just falling into it. The book was just a little more basic than I expected (but to be fair,I have read a lot). This book would be helpful for people who are beginning to deconstruct widely held beliefs about monogamy, and are interested in learning what else is out there.
I suspect most people who are already involved in non-monogamous relationships have already spent a bit (or a ton) of time questioning heteronormative structures, and that is why they opted out of monogamy in the first place. There is less new information for the more experienced poly person, although they do quote some interesting recent scientific research. There are still some basics in here that are worth reviewing, especially the ‘Relationship Skills For Everyone’ chapter. Michaels and Johnson have a background in tantra and previously wrote a book for couples called Partners in Passion; that tantric lens also appears in this book, which might offer some fresh perspectives.
If you are a monogamous couple, and newly interested in learning about non-traditional relationships, this is a good starting point. If you’ve been poly for a while, you might find some new tidbits in an otherwise good review.
Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) isn’t about relationship anarchy, but it is about relationships and anarchy. It is also about feminist theory, gender, sex, love, geeks, activism, and jerks on the internet. It’s a difficult book to categorize. Penny herself writes that, “People wanted me to sum up this book, to tie it up neatly with a set of answers”, and she refuses to do it. It is more like reading a series of articles than a book. (Which is fine, I like reading articles, and I really liked reading this book.)
Laurie Penny has written a ton of stuff: five books, articles for the New York Times and The Guardian (to name just two), and she has maintained her blog for the past five years. Not only does she write a lot, she writes it well. If you like reading feminist theory, and getting amped up about important issues, Penny writes beautifully about a lot of ugly stuff.