.Taking Open Relationships Beyond Sex

Wendy-O Matik has made a second career of spreading the doctrine she calls "radical love."

After a lifetime of open relationships, people accuse her of being a commitment-phobe. Yet Wendy-O Matik’s supposed fear of commitment landed her in a thirteen-year nonmonogamous marriage, with a book about relationships now in its fifth printing, and an international speaking tour preaching the personal and political values of a more openly loving society.

Matik does not deliver speeches from a podium or resort to charts and bullet points. On a recent Saturday night, her stage was a leather sofa on which she curled up in a ball, gripping poems and notes in her lap. It had been raining hard all day, but inside this Sonoma County home, the air was heavy with sage and scented candles. Matik chirped a personal “Welcommmme” to everyone who entered the room. Her hostess, a fiftysomething lesbian, sat hand in hand with her lover in one corner. A married man and woman lounged on cushions across from them. The rest of the workshop participants — male, female, trans; singles, friends, dating — filled out the circle of couches.

The hostess had invited Matik and this motley group of strangers into her home to talk about “radical love,” Matik’s phrase for caring, considerate open relationships — a dating philosophy she has been developing since high school. She defines the term as “a radically different, redefined relationship outside the status quo, where partners encourage nonrestrictive paths of love while remaining seriously committed to their primary partner(s), friends, and lovers.”

Wait a minute — didn’t we once call that polyamory?

“I hate that word,” Matik says dismissively. “It’s so ’70s.” She tells workshop participants that such “free love hippie shit” didn’t work then because there were no guidelines or rules, and it was mostly women who got hurt. Those old-fashioned practices were “emotionally irresponsible.”

Matik has dealt and been dealt her fair share of heartache throughout her romantic life. “There was no Ethical Slut when I was twenty,” she laments, referring to a popular guidebook on open relationships. “I learned the hard way. I hurt a lot of people.” But even today, Matik is not satisfied with that book’s advice on how people in nonmonogamous relationships should negotiate dates and wash the sheets afterward.

Her complaint: it’s all about sex.

“I know how to take my pants off,” she says. “Sex is the easy part. When I was younger, I needed to know how to love responsibly.”

Matik left her Southern California home at age seventeen and eventually took up with the leather-clad Mohawked set of 1980s Oakland. Escaping the grip of an abusive father, she found herself in the embrace of an abusive boyfriend, who started referring to her by the nickname “Wendy-O Matik.” She later dropped the boyfriend, but kept the name and took it onstage. It has stayed with her ever since, through her years in a punk band and later as a spoken-word performer.

These days, the soon-to-be-forty-year-old no longer stomps and hisses in front of mosh pits. She has traded in her black leather pants and boots for canvas sneakers and pink blouses that hide the goddess tattoos covering her arms. Last New Year’s, she resolved to stop dyeing and straightening her dark curly hair. Now she spends most of her time studying nutrition and writing meditation books. But her stage name has remained the same through all the changes, and probably will until she’s ninety, she says. The moniker provides her a bit of brand recognition for her workshops, but also a certain measure of anonymity.

Matik confronted the limits of monogamy early on, knowing by age nine that she was bisexual. “I realized I never wanted to choose just one,” she says. “I like boys, I like girls; both satisfy different needs.” Back then, she didn’t know the terms or structures for alternative relationships. But she did know that the traditional model wasn’t going to work for her. “I don’t hoard my love for just one person. I will always love many people.”

She says she has learned to love responsibly through trial and error. And when her method worked — she and her partner maintained their open relationship for more than a decade — she decided she would write her own book, one that offers tools to navigate the emotional, not just sexual, terrain of open relationships.

A year and a half later, people were lining up to buy Redefining Our Relationships. Today, she has sold more than four thousand books. Workshop participants ask her to autograph their copies. College instructors assign chapters as required reading in their sexuality courses.

When Alfred Kinsey taught his first sex-ed class in the 1940s, hundreds of students parried for a spot. These days, when Matik gives periodic guest lectures at sexuality courses in the Bay Area, she’s met with a similar reception. At last year’s human sexuality lecture at SF State, more than four hundred students filled the auditorium — a notable achievement for an 8 a.m. class.

When it came time to write her book, Matik says she wanted to map out the gray area of intimacy. “There are a thousand or more ways to be loving with someone: cuddling, handholding, listening, writing a letter,” she says. When you define all these activities as making love, as Matik does, the threshold of what constitutes an open relationship is pushed way forward, putting friends, family, and daily acquaintances onto the same plane as lovers.

Matik talks about her body temperature rising over a good conversation, her heart racing during an intimate dinner: “It feels like I’ve made love to that person.” In any relationship, open or closed, such activities could spark jealousy. But what Matik emphasizes is that it is not betrayal. “Love exponentiates,” she is fond of saying. “The more you give, the more there is.” Jealousy is little more than a tool, she believes, “a signpost emotion” we can harness to learn about ourselves and learn how to be better communicators and lovers with everyone in our lives, from our parents to the person we buy coffee from in the morning.

But open relationships are not for everyone, she acknowledges. Some people may be “hard-wired” for monogamy, she believes. “The book is based on my personal experience,” she says. “People can take it or leave it.”

But she prefers they take it. What she wants is a relationship revolution. “I see radical love as a social movement,” she says. “We have to unravel ourselves from these unhealthy relationships that aren’t satisfying us and admit that we have deeper needs. When we do that, we change the world.”

Although few people still define themselves by their undergraduate majors by the time they reach middle age, Matik mentions her political science degree at each of her workshops. She frequently rants about poverty, racism, pollution. “We live in a time of war and violence; ours is really a sick society,” she says. “So the act of being kind to one another on a daily basis, of not taking people who are important to us for granted, is a revolutionary act.” Her eyes flash.

But ask for an example of such an act and she relaxes. When she tells of a phone call to a platonic friend one afternoon, her words come out in an arpeggio of giggles, curls bouncing around her face. “I want you to come over tonight and we can take a bubble bath together and feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries.”

That friend accepted the invitation and slept over, but they did not have sex. Matik is known for pushing the boundaries of her relationships and friendships, but sex is not always the culminating act.

In fact, she has practiced sexual monogamy with some of her partners, something she sees as necessary to build trust in new relationships and gradually set ground rules. But that doesn’t mean she won’t go out on dates with her friends, spoon with them, or feed them fruit. There are many different levels on which a relationship can be open. Why reserve romance just for sexual partners?


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