Forty pages into her new memoir, The Wild Oats Project, Robin Rinaldi has mined every modern female anxiety: fear of being alone; boredom in monogamy; a ticking biological clock; a husband who doesn’t want children; a marriage devoid of passion.
Rinaldi loves her husband, Scott, and has been with him for 17 years. He never wanted children, and when Rinaldi begs him to reconsider, he responds by getting a vasectomy.
With no hope of having a family and desperate to feel passion that had long ago flickered out in her relationship, Rinaldi—then 44—negotiates an open marriage that permits both to see other people for a year.
They jokingly refer to it as the “Wild Oats project.” She lays out ground rules—“no serious involvements, no unsafe sex, no sleeping with mutual friends”—and proceeds to break them all within a few months.
What follows is occasionally as hackneyed as the book’s subtitle, “One woman’s midlife quest for passion at any cost.” Rinaldi seeks out seduction and self-pleasure techniques from Regena Thomashauer, known as Mama Gena, at her School of Womanly Arts in New York, where “high-powered career women flocked to learn the ways of flirtation, sensuality, and abundance.”
She advertises for hookups on Craigslist and Nerve.com (Tinder didn’t exist yet) and sleeps with men half her age, one of whom gives her “blow-job advice.” Rinaldi doesn’t mind; in fact, she appreciates it. She writes about how much she enjoys fellatio and thinks penises are “beautiful… I took pleasure in mastering them from up close, watching them expand and harden, tracing the ridges of their warm architecture against the roof of my mouth.”
Living in San Francisco, Rinaldi finds plenty of company in the city’s polyamorous circles like OneTaste, an “urban commune” that offers hands-on orgasm meditation (OM) workshops for men and women, which involves “quietly stroking a woman’s clitoris for fifteen minutes.” She meets Jude, a vegan, tattooed “spiritual healer” in his early 30s who is working on a “fable-like novella about a gifted boy on a mythical journey.”
He is straight out of Central Casting, but Rinaldi still sleeps with him and is pleasantly surprised when he is skilled at dirty talk. This is what she craves most, what her marriage lacks: a man who takes control in the bedroom, sex that is crude, raw, and animalistic. She also has a threesome with another woman and a man, and explores with role-playing in a lesbian relationship—what the girls of Broad City have dubbed “pegging.”
Rinaldi’s husband is, for the most part, a saint. He frequently entreats her to quit the project and work on their marriage. He is patient and loving when she refuses, and reneges on his threats to leave her when she collapses in tears at his feet.
As they struggle to rekindle desire and trust a year later, he finally breaks down in one of the book’s most emotionally searing scenes. “Do you know how many nights I cried myself to sleep when you moved out!?” he screams, holding her up by the lapels of her jacket. “Do you care about anyone’s feelings but your own!?”
It’s a fair question. That she can’t fathom why he hadn’t confessed sooner about his nightly weeping speaks to her absolute self-absorption. He was clinging to a shred of his tattered dignity, he says, and we cheer him for doing so.
In reading The Wild Oats Project, you have to wonder how Scott felt about his ex-wife writing in explicit detail about their marriage and sex life, not to mention every groan and thrust of her numerous love affairs.
Somewhat unbelievably, he was relatively cool about it, says Rinaldi. “His response was, ‘You have to write it. If you write it well, it won’t really be about us, it will be about lots of marriages.’”
He’s right about that. It’s not that theirs is a sexless marriage. And the sex, as Rinaldi describes it, isn’t hopelessly bad or even notably infrequent.
“His erection was solid and dependable, just like him,” she writes. “I could go as slow as I wanted without worrying that it would flag.”
But she can’t help but fixate on everything their sex life lacks: in 12 years of marriage, they’d never once made love in the middle of the night. He doesn’t talk dirty. He doesn’t tear her clothes off. He never looks her in the eye during sex. “Instead, we silently kept pace, faces buried in each other’s shoulders, both saying I love you,” she writes.
Surely other married women will think Rinaldi has it pretty good with Scott. Indeed, Rinaldi and Scott echo couples in Esther Perel’s landmark 2006 book, Mating in Captivity, about how to keep the flame burning in long-term, emotionally intimate relationships.
Rinaldi was drawn to Scott as a stabilizing force when she met him in her 20s, still recovering from a traumatic upbringing featuring an alcoholic father. “We were always temperamentally different, but it worked really well,” she tells me. “It was kind of perfect for him to steady me and me to inject some passion in him.”
Scott’s “solid and dependable” erection was enough for a while—until it wasn’t.
“They have outgrown their respective roles, and they are in a crisis,” Perel, a noted psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy, writes of a husband and wife in Mating in Captivity whose collapsing marriage mirrors Rinaldi and Scott’s.
It’s a well-worn narrative that has inspired many books on emotional and sexual engineering in monogamous relationships, from Perel’s practical and prescriptive guide to bridging the sexual distance (which, of course, involves creating distance) to Christina Nehring’s messy polemic, A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century.
Indeed, we have a seemingly insatiable appetite for stories about the trappings of monogamy, the limitations of passion in long-term relationships, and the lack of sexual tension in egalitarian domestic relationships. There’s even a growing field of research behind “love drugs” that alter couples’ brains and transport them back to the honeymoon stage.
For years we heard mostly of men straying in monogamous relationships and women rebuffing their advances (“Not tonight, honey, I have a headache.”) But recently, research has shown that women are not necessarily the more faithful sex.
Daniel Bergner laid out this argument in his 2013 book, What Do Women Want?, writing that “women’s desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force,” and one that is “not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety.”
Rinaldi’s memoir is anecdotal proof of Bergner’s argument. And while her memoir is, at times, grossly self-involved, she doesn’t leave out the darker moments, the loneliness and despair that both she and Scott suffered.
The Wild Oats Project isn’t just a self-indulgent cataloguing of her affairs. It’s brutally honest and real, enough to reinforce this reader’s neuroses about the inevitable decline of passion in relationships, and the tricky business of knowing yourself well enough to determine what you need in a partner.
In the end, Rinaldi needed passion, and she found it in one of the men she met through OneTouch. They reunited shortly after she ended her marriage, roughly five years ago, and are still together. They share a more potent sexual chemistry than she had with Scott, and are monogamous. Rinaldi and Scott remain friendly (and he is now in another relationship himself).
Rinaldi’s memoir is refreshing because it ends counter-intuitively to the traditional narrative of couples who return to each other after straying—and of women who return to stability.
“I think one of the most powerful things we can do as women now is take charge of our own sexuality, explore it, tell the truth about it,” she says. “Rather than just let it be portrayed by pornographers and the advertising industry, it’s time for women to tell their own stories about sexuality. And I think my book can be a humble little step in that direction.”