There is nothing you can say about Robin Rinaldi and her book The Wild Oats Project that she won’t admit herself. Call her a slut, and she’ll agree. Go to say she’s selfish, and she’ll have said it before you’ve even opened your mouth.
Last month the journalist and former lifestyle magazine editor published her memoir in which she describes her mid-Atlantic upbringing with her alcoholic father and her downtrodden mother, and the tentative, conventional relationships of her twenties from which she emerged with four notches on her bedpost.
But the part which has gotten under people’s skin is the experiment which gave the book its name. For a year aged 44, Rinaldi led two separate lives. On weekdays in the book she lives in rented apartments away from the husband she’d been with for 18 years, and enjoys the sexual perks and pitfalls of an open marriage. Each weekend she returns to be his monogamous wife. That’s 104 days of domesticity, and 261 of unbridled promiscuity.
There were only three rules: “no serious involvements, no unsafe sex, no sleeping with mutual friends”. Both she and her, now ex, husband Scott Mansfield broke at least one of them.
During this time, she uses online dating services to find potential lovers, but also joins a neo-tantric group in San Francisco called OneTaste to explore her sexuality and femininity.
At one session, she is introduced to a technique called orgasmic meditation (OM) by watching a man lightly stroke the left side of a woman’s clitoris, until she climaxes 15 minutes later.
In the final three months of the experiment, Rinaldi moves into the organisation’s mixed sex commune in the city, where she and other residents practise OMing and indulge in free love. And yes, the book includes a threesome.
Rinadli and her husband establish this arrangement when he chooses to have a vasectomy after she fails to persuade him to conceive their first child. They agree to let one another sow their wild oats, despite having a sex life their other married friends envy.
“I climaxed with Scott every time we made love, often through intercourse alone. I counted myself as one of the lucky ones,” she reveals in the book.
It was when Mansfield opted for the procedure, Rinaldi says, that her gut told her that she was entitled to indulge in the sexual exploration she had sacrificed in her youth for a motherhood that would never materialise.
She explains in her memoir how when she first married Mansfield, “she wasn’t built for casual sex”, even when he gives her permission to “fool around” on a weekend trip.
But by the time they establish an open marriage, she has changed. In one of the book’s earliest sex scenes, she visits Paul, a mutual friend of her and Mansfield at his home (and breaks rule number three).
Within a page, she goes from being “too shy to instantly obey” when he “ordered” her to kiss him, to becoming intoxicated by the moment, and agreeing when he asks: “Will you keep these boots on?”.
When he bluntly asks if she would swallow she writes: “I looked him in the eye and nodded more slowly…it was more than just his touch. It was all the pent up words I’d craved for years. Words my husband didn’t say, that I couldn’t make myself say to him.”
The Wild Oats Project is bravely detailed, and by the last page, women reading it are likely to know more about Rinaldi’s clitoris - which she describes as “moody” - than their own.
“What happened to me by the time I got to my forties and this vasectomy happened, I just thought ‘OK, now I'm giving up too much’,” Rinaldi explains.
“I felt I needed to balance that out with some wildness before it was too late, before I went to my grave.”
She explains that her midlife promiscuity was more fulfilling than it would have been in her youth, because of her upbringing.
“It’s simply because I came from a background that taught when sex happens it was something men took and women gave. After a sexual act a woman had lost something, and had given something, and the man had gained or taken something. It just wasn’t possible for me to enjoy any kind of sexual or even spontaneous sexual encounter as a youth.”
“It was so much better in my 40s because I'd grown up. Sex is just an act where two people share themselves. And it doesn’t disempower me as a woman and it doesn't take anything from me.”
Unprompted, she admits to me in a call from her New York hotel room that the project was “very selfish.”
“The year was probably the most selfish I’d ever been, obviously.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the reaction to the book has been starkly polar, and of course, the most puerile of internet trolls have given their two cents, too.
“There has been a lot of positive and negative reaction, and nothing really in the middle. I’m getting a lot of ‘this is so great, thank you so much, this is so brave and vulnerable, kudos to you’.
“And then on the other hand there are people saying ‘you should be ashamed of yourself you whore, I hope you get the clap. It’s a good thing you never reproduced’.”
“It isn't a self-help book, it’s just my own personal story. And I certainly didn’t write it to upset anyone. I think if people are drawn to it and they relate to it that’s great, and if not feel completely free to ignore it.”
A barrage of unconstructive negative opinion on your most intimate moments is hard for anyone to take, however much you might expect a reasonable amount of criticism for any work of writing.
And like many women who stick their head above the parapet by challenging norms, she has faced a markedly aggressive response from a vocal minority online, and Rinaldi is quick to call out the double standards between men and women.
“It’s basically slut shaming,” Rinaldi says.
“I think a man writing about an open marriage would get some disapproval as well. What I don't think he would get is women he does not know sending him violent, name calling tweets or emails.
“I think it takes a particular mentality of privilege or superiority to think that you’re allowed to be personally cruel to another person who you don't even know.
“It’s just not logical. You can’t actually slut shame a full grown woman who was consciously experimenting with being a slut. I did that, I claimed that, that was me. I established an open marriage with my husband, he went and did what he wanted to do, I went and did what I wanted to do, and I tried out acting slutty.”
Rinaldi sees the reaction against her as part of a wider, more worrying repression and reaction against women, which places many in real danger.
“I’m not the only woman by far that this has happened to. Women throughout history and even on the planet right now have suffered because of sexual expression, and they can actually suffer real violence that’s much more serious than a 140 character tweet.”
“It’s a reminder to all women that if you do step too far out of line, you’ll be knocked down. No matter how liberated you are. But I also think that behaviour comes from someone who has to be hurting. No one bullies someone else because they’re having a great day.”
And despite the trolls, Rinaldi certainly doesn’t shy away from a sensible debate on her book, and maintains that the project opened her eyes to her unreasonable expectations of marriage.
The memoir ends with Rinaldi declaring she wants a divorce. She then continues her relationship with Alden, a man she met during the project. Six years later, they are still together.
“It was only in retrospect after going through all this that I could see the mistakes I was making in my marriage.
“My body took me on a path that looked like perhaps it was wrong or unconventional, but in the end it led me into a situation with a new partner where I actually am becoming a better partner.
“I learned that I was looking to my marriage for security, whereas now my security is much more located within myself. I was looking to my marriage for all, or for most, of my passion, and I thought motherhood could bring a certain kind of passion. And now I’m not looking to any one relationship to provide passion or purpose. But I could not change that paradigm while within the marriage somehow. I was just stuck.”
But since I spoke with Rinaldi, a new voice has entered the debate.
Mansfield has come out to say that he didn’t agree to the open marriage. He told The Times: “If I didn't do it, I felt we were heading for divorce, so I thought why not take the chance and maybe we can come out the other side?"
While Rinaldi’s memoir is an account of her life which focuses on her sexual experiments away from her marital home, her relationship with her husband lingers heavily in the background. It is easy to root for the experiment when Rinaldi is recounting a steamy sex scene; but it is an uncomfortable read when Mansfield at one point explodes and asks her:
“Do you know how many nights I cried myself to sleep when you moved out!? Do you care about anyone’s feelings but your own!?”
But Rinaldi insists that Mansfield had already proven his independence by having a vasectomy.
“Let’s not forget that he agreed. My husband wasn’t a pushover, he just said no to having a baby. He obviously knew how to say no. He agreed, we were two consenting adults, no children in the vicinity and we agreed. We both had the power to say yes or no or to walk away.”
And in the face of the liberating open marriage, what is most surprising is that Rinaldi returns to monogamy.
During our chat, she revisits how it is her favourite type of relationship, but that, importantly, other relationships are just as valid.
“Marriage and fidelity and sex are very close to people’s hearts. Everyone’s got personal experience with this issue, and I think that reading about a spouse who wants an open marriage, or has a decent marriage but is hungry for more, triggers people’s own fears, or wounds of things they they’ve done and things that have been done to them. I just think it touches a very deep chord.”
Asked whether she thinks people are now under as much pressure to be promiscuous then they were to be monogamous, she agrees.
“There’s maybe as much pressure to have some sexual history and some sexual war stories, you know, wild times under your belt, so to speak, as there is in a more traditional culture to remain chaste.”
But she adds: “I don’t think that most of us are monogamous just because society and religion tell us to be. There’s something in the human heart that responds to that one beloved.
“At least for a certain long amount of time when we are in love we want to be exclusive. The trouble comes for most people when you carry it on for years and decades, that’s when things starts getting little complicated.”
And while it is easy to dismiss Rinaldi as a wishy-washy, privileged, San Fran hippy, it is likely her reasoning behind her project will hit a nerve with many of us, although we might not like to admit it.
“There is a thing that happens in long marriages where you might not be fulfilled or truly happy, but it’s not bad,” she says.
“And often, and the marriage itself, the domesticity, the routine, the institution, the history is so strong, it’s like an inertia, it holds you in places. And I think that some people, including me, create a huge ruckus of some kind to break down the walls of it to be able to step outside of it.”Reuse content