Let’s talk about Newt Gingrich’s sex life. Everyone else is. When Gingrich’s ex-wife announced in an ABC interview that the former Speaker of the House and contender for the Republican Party presidential nomination had asked for an “open marriage,” Newt Gingrich suddenly became the unwitting poster-boy for polyamory. It’s a position that neither he nor anyone else ever imagined he’d be in. But if politics makes strange bedfellows, bedfellows also make for some strange politics, and Newt’s alleged request for an open marriage has placed him at the sweaty center of a hot debate.
(Nota Bene: it’s tough to write about Newt Gingrich and sex without lapsing into puns. One might whip out one’s Li’l Sigmund Home Analysis Kit and suggest that one does this because one doesn’t feel comfortable with the doughty concept (if not the doughy reality) of Newt Gingrich having sex. One would not be wrong. One does not like imagining Newt Gingrich, he of the multiple chins and infinite hypocritical views, making the two-backed beast with anyone. One might admit this prejudice were one writing this piece.)
Gingrich has a famously problematic marital history. Currently, he is wed to wife #3, Callista Bisek, for whom Gingrich both converted to Catholicism and left wife #2, Marianne Ginther, who had just been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when Gingrich left her. Gingrich has a pattern; he began sleeping with Ginther before he’d divorced wife #1, Jackie Battley, who was just beginning her battle with cancer when he announced to her that he wanted a divorce. It’s a whole big thing, really, and all this Newt and Callista and Marianne and Jackie history only serves to complicate any connection between Newt and polyamory.
Not that this complication doesn’t mean that advocates of open relationships haven’t tried.
Following the ABC interview with Marianne Gingrich nee Ginter, an orgy of pieces by relationship writers saturated the press. The New York Times ran a forum of eight writers spanning the spectrum of marriage philosophy—relationship views from free-range to cage-fed—writers like waspish perennial sex-positive favorite columnist Dan Savage to the equally snappish (if polemically opposed) W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project. London’s liberal Guardian ran a semi-salacious advice piece by a writer living a giddily open marriage; it was sort of the intellectual’s equivalent of the topless, doe-eyed “Page-3” girl of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids. HuffPo honed their cutting edge by taking the story to Twitter; the Tweets showed a soundly closed-minded attitude to open marriages. It was, in short, the kind of media frenzy that gave Polyamory Percolations, a blog about open relationships in the news, a tumescent happy.
But of all the coverage, perhaps the most interesting was that of Salon. Tracy Clark-Flory’s piece explaining how open relationship experts Jenny Block and Tristan Taormino agreed with and even supported Newt Gingrich. While Jenny Block gives credit to Newt for speaking his mind and asking for what he wanted, Taormino goes a little bit further. “The truth is,” she says, “plenty of the couples that I talked to for my book came to a place of non-monogamy from cheating. I think it would be a mistake to dismiss this as Newt wanting to have his cake and eat it too.”
Or, you know, not.
The crotch of the issue, which Dan Savage points out in his NY Times piece, is that Newt had been having an affair with then-staffer now-wife Callista for six years before coming clean to Marianne about it. It’s tough to spin that as a moral decision, and while Gingrich has used his time on the campaign trail to weave a narrative of guilt and Christian redemption, the sticking point remains for open relationship experts: dude cheated. A lot. Early and often. And that makes turning this happy moment of polyamory getting air time—any air time—problematic. No one likes being cheated on, and even if we can’t necessarily believe the facts of what Marianne Gingrich says, we can empathize with her.
(NB: I loathe the term “polyamory.” It is, like “television” and “homosexual,” a hybrid word. One may fuck whom one likes, but ought not to promiscuously mix Latin and Greek. Most cunning linguists suggest “multiamory” or “polyphilia.”)
At the end of the torrid, sweaty-slick and wadded-sheet night, the major point of interest remains and that is this: love it or hate it, embrace it or eschew it, wrestle it or shove it deep into a dark closet, marriage (and indeed relationships themselves) are undergoing an irrevocable transformation. When the mantle of polyamory poster child passes from androgynous glam object Tilda Swinton to the head of florid Newt Gingrich, we as a culture are in the midst of a revolution.
Plus, when both a liberal celluloid star and a family-values Republican have to roll back on the same issue, what you’ve got there is a major bedrock shift. The marriage times, they are a’changing. What they’re changing to, of course, is under debate—and given the last couple of weeks, it’s on debate in the media forums of people from multiple demographics. You may be talking about it, but so too are your parents, and if you’ve got kids who watch Comedy Central, so are your kids.
Bedfellows make strange politics. It’s difficult to tease out the raw strands of personal history, religious upbringing, cultural mores and ethics when looking at the ties that bind. It’s equally difficult not to take a moment like Marianne Gingrich’s interview and not overlay it with personal pains, hopes, fantasies and fears. Politicians are, like film stars or other celebrities, vehicles for our own projections—good, bad, hopeful or hideous—and thus when they tread on the delicate, fraught territory of our bedrooms, we convene like moths to a light, or like sharks to chum. Open relationships feel dangerous because they are, but then so too are all relationships. But, really, what’s the alternative.
Perhaps Groucho Marx was right: “Politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows, marriage does,” he said. Marriage can unquestionably make for strangeness, and that may be why marriage is changing, one mind at a time.
ABOUT CHELSEA G. SUMMERS: A recovering academic and a former stripper, chelsea g. summers has written for magazines like GQ, Penthouse, and Singularity in the US, and New Woman and Scarlet in the UK. Her work has been featured on naughty sexytime sites like Filthy Gorgeous Things as well totally safe for work sites like Yahoo Dating; her erotic writing has also appeared in multiple anthologies. chelsea blogs irregularly at pretty dumb things, but recompenses for that irregularity bytweeting far too much every day.
[Chelsea's portrait courtesy of artist Molly Crabapple]