Jealousy

A couple of months back somebody was running a workshop on jealousy and was collecting together ideas from a few different people who’d written on the topic. Here’s what I wrote for them.

What is jealousy?

Actually jealousy means different things for different people. When I asked openly non-monogamous people what jealousy meant for them as part of a research project, people came up with the following answers:

comparing oneself unfavourably against others, longing for a certain kind of look from a partner, an internal confusion – feeling knotted up and tangled, an outward spikeyness and defensiveness, insecurity and vulnerabilty, terror of the loss of partner like falling into an abyss, a melodramatic sense of ‘oh no’ at the thought of being out of a partner’s mind , a feeling of left-outness and exclusion linked to feeling unattractive and ugly, feeling very small as if one might disappear, feeling uncomfortable in your skin, the hunger of seeing a banquet and being unable to get to it, feeling stretched and having to cram everything in in order to maintain relationships, feeling fearful that you will gradually be pushed out, painfully aware of your flaws, feeling shaky and nervous, bereft, murderous, or full of self-righteous rage.

Some common themes here are insecurity and fear about the potential loss of something important – usually a romantic relationship (although people said they felt it about other relationships too), and wanting to grab hold of it and protect it to avoid losing it, often by denying the person other relationships which are perceived as a potential threat, perhaps because you compare yourself unfavourably against the other people concerned.

What are some tips for managing it?

The painful paradox of jealousy is that the way we habitually respond to the feeling often contributes to the very loss that we fear will happen. If we respond to the tough angry, helpless, insecure emotions that we feel by grasping onto our partner (or other person) and trying to restrict their freedom then we are likely to lose them: either because they end up resenting us for this and leave, or because the person we keep hold of in this way is not the free person who we loved in the first place.

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Sexual ethics

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on sexual ethics.

Are sexual ethics changing? Are forms of behaviour that were frowned on in the past considered acceptable today?

Definitely. Some people have called it the ‘sexualization‘ of culture: the fact that there are changes in what forms of sexual behaviour are seen as acceptable, with a general trend towards more forms of behaivour being acceptable – or even desirable – and a lot more visible sexuality in the media, advertising, the music industry, and the like.

So sexual ethics are changing in the sense that there is more openness to people being sexual and to a variety of sexual practices. However, there is also a shift towards a pressure, or demand, on people to be sexual in certain ways. Now there is quite an expectation that people should want to be sexually desirable, and a sense that being ‘up for it’ is fun, pleasurable and empowering. The negative side of this is that many people are excluded who don’t fit the rather narrow definitions of what is sexually desirable, and others find it hard to tune in to what they want because they are under so much pressure or have picked up on fairly narrow ideas of what is pleasurable.

Changes in sexual attitudes may be considered a value-neutral development, but if they take on forms that are hurtful it’s different matter. Is that happening today?

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The future of gender

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here are my thoughts when asked about the future of gender.

I think we’re at a really complex time in relation to that question. The future I would like to see – and there is some evidence of movement towards it – is one where:

  • Gender isn’t such a defining feature (i.e. we’re only interested in it when it’s actually relevant rather than being the first thing we ask or notice about someone);
  • There is a lot more flexibility in what we regard as being male/masculine or female/feminine – as well as realising that many people don’t fit well into either box;
  • There is an understanding that gender is fluid and can be – and is – expressed differently throughout life (e.g. think about how femininity is expressed by a toddler, a teenager, a middle aged woman and and old woman);
  • We get that gender is complexly biopsychosocial – it has all those elements running through it and woven together – so we stop asking about nature vs. nurture and start respecting people’s experience of their own gender as well as acknowledging just what a major part our social rules about gender roles have on people’s bodies and brains.

However, there seem to be constant pushbacks to more rigid and limited ideas of gender, where women and men are seen as being from different planets, and where masculinity and femninity are narrowly defined in specific ways and there is no room for anything between or beyond these two.

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Consensual Relationships Revisited

Applying the concept of consent to all relationships in various ways.

Content warning: abusive relationships and abusive sex are touched on briefly in this post.

Recently I wrote a post here about open relationships. It explored how the concept of openness might be applied to relationships more widely than just open non-monogamy – which is what people usually mean when they talk about open relationships. Whilst my research with polyamorous communities started by focusing on non-monogamy, I think that openness is a useful concept to apply to all kinds of relationships, not just non-monogamous relationships or just partner relationships.

A similar thing has happened with my research on kink, or BDSM, communities. Initially, like many of the researchers who have tried to learn from – rather than explain – kink, my focus was on the ways in which people ensured that their play was Safe, Sane and Consensual (SSC) or Risk Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). Those terms are the mantras of the kink communities. Whilst RACK recognises the problems with the idea that the things people do could ever be entirely safe, or completely sane (whatever that means), it retains the idea that consent is the vital cornerstone of BDSM sex.

However, my latest piece of research with kink communities was all about how common ideas about consent are currently being questioned, and reconsidered, by people in those communities. Online conversations over the last three or four years have radically challenged understandings of consent in ways that I think are useful for everyone, far beyond just kink communities.

consent

The Consent Culture movement has argued that the idea of consent needs to be expanded out in a number of ways.

Consent is about:

  • All sex, not just kinky sex
  • Enthusiastic mutual agreement, not just the ability to say ‘no’
  • The whole relationship, not just the sex parts
  • All relationships, not just sexual relationships (including the relationships that we have with ourselves)
  • The whole culture, not just the individuals within it

The idea is that unless we aim for consensual relationships beyond the bedroom, with all the people in our lives, and in our wider culture, it will be very hard – if not impossible – to ensure consent within sexual encounters, whether those are kinky or non-kinky. It isn’t possible to isolate just one aspect of human behaviour (sex) and ensure that it is conducted under a completely different set of rules than the ones that we use when managing the domestic chores,for example, or  inviting someone out to a social occasion, or putting structures in place for how our work projects will be conducted.

I’ll take each one of these expansions in turn now, and explore how we might encourage all of our relationships, networks and communities to become more consensual.

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Thank you: The psychology of gratitude and appreciation

My university, The Open University, has recently started a ‘thank you’ campaign (#OU_thanks) where students and alumni have been encouraged  to express their thanks to people who’ve helped them along their journeys of studying at the OU. I was interviewed about this for an article that appeared in The Metro yesterday.

Thankyou

The OU has always had a major commitment to opening up access to higher education beyond those who have conventionally engaged in it. They put on flexible courses so that people can study alongside working full-time, they encourage lifelong learning, and online courses mean that people can study from home, while travelling, or from prison.

This recent thank you campaign recognises that for every OU student there is generally an unacknowledged cluster of other people who have encouraged and helped them to study in this way. There are supportive friends and family members, people who’ve assisted financially with fees, flexible employers, and the OU tutors and peers who’ve helped them through the process. With this campaign, students are taking the opportunity to express their thanks to all these people who’ve helped them to do something which they are often extremely proud of, and which opens up their possibilities in all kinds of important ways.

Interestingly, at the same time as the campaign was happening, a bunch of OU psychologists were putting together a new psychology module called ‘Living psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary’. I’ve been writing two chapters for this module that have a bearing on gratitude: one on self-help and happiness, and one tackling relationship conflict. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on what we know about the psychology of gratitude, as well as giving some of my own thoughts on the matter.

Gratitude for mental health and well-being?

We probably assume that gratitude will be a positive thing for the person being thanked, but recent research in ‘positive psychology’ has found that it also has a very positive impact on the person doing the thanking.

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The LGBT manifesto: Important for everyone

Something I’m very proud of being part of recently was putting together this LGBT manifesto with the LGBT consortium. The idea is to have a manifesto that we can give to all of the main UK political parties to let them know where LGBT organisations think they should go next in terms of their policies around gender and sexuality.

Manifesto

You’ll see that the top priority on the manifesto is to ‘educate all children & young people, at all levels, on gender & sexual diversity’. That was really important to me because it would benefit so much the LGBTQ young people who currently struggle with high levels of bullying in school, and often a lack of support from teachers, parents, and friends who are unaware or anxious about these matters.

But also, I think that prioritising teaching on gender and sexual diversity at all levels of education will mean that all young people develop an understanding of things like: the impact of gender norms on everybody; the diversity of possible bodies, relationships and sexual practices that are possible; and the importance of consent (and how to negotiate it in practice).

You can download the full manifesto here: LGBT Manifesto v1.0

There are also websites for the LGBT manifesto and the trans manifesto.

Sex therapy: Stop trying to be ‘normal’

Yesterday The Observer published its special issue on sex. Based on their survey of British sexual attitudes and practices, the issue contains several interesting articles about current understandings and expectations around sex. They interviewed me and a couple of other sex therapists about what we thought was going on in this area, from our work with clients. You can real those interviews here, and I’ve included the full version of mine below. I addressed a few points in greater depth than they could cover in the article.

BarkerObserver

Overall I was pleased with the interview they published, especially with the fact that they used my quote ‘stop trying to be “normal”‘ as the headline. However, in retrospect I think I might have added a caveat: ‘stop trying to be “normal”. But that is really really difficult to do in a culture that puts so much pressure on people to conform to a certain idea of “normality”, so go gently on yourself.’

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Open Relationships Revisited

Applying the concept of openness to all relationships in various ways.

Content warning: relationship conflict and abusive relationships are touched on briefly in this post.

A decade ago I started studying three topics that have pretty much defined my career: open non-monogamy, BDSM, and bisexuality. I just checked my CV and found that my first academic publication in these areas came out in 2004: an interview with the ever-fabulous Jen Yockney of Bi Community News for the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review (now appropriately renamed the Psychology of Sexualities Review). That was quickly followed by an interview, in the same publication, with the equally wonderful Dossie Easton, about her writing on kink and polyamory.

MegJenNo10

Me and Jen Yockney more recently

It’d taken me six years since finishing my PhD to start researching these topics. My first paper based on my PhD (on a different topic) had been rejected with cruel comments from one reviewer. So I decided that academic research wasn’t for me and to focus on teaching, which I really enjoyed. I still have major issues with that side of academia. But then I started to read about gender and sexuality for my teaching, and to attend more interdisciplinary conferences. I realised that it was possible – perhaps even beneficial – to research topics that were personally relevant.

Although I can’t say that this guiding principle has made for a completely easy ride (to say the least!), I have learnt a huge amount from researching polyamorous, BDSM, and bi communities. My work has always been led by the question of what we (i.e. everybody) can learn from such communities, rather than the more traditional psychological question of how they can be explained. The answers I’ve explored have focused on the benefits of more open approaches to relationships rules around monogamy, the consensual arrangements that kinky folk use in their sexual activities, and non-binary understandings of sexual attraction (i.e. not just attraction to either ‘the same’ or ‘the opposite’ gender).

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the directions that my thinking about relationships has been taking in the last few years. I realised that these themes of openness, consent, and non-binary are still very present, but in different forms. Previously I’d just thought of openness in the context of non-monogamy, consent in the context of (kinky) sex, and non-binary in the context of sexuality.

I thought I’d write a couple of blog posts to explain the ways in which my thinking has expanded out lately, considering the benefits of applying openness and consent to our relationships in a much broader way. Regarding non-binary I have a much longer piece of writing bubbling away about what happens when we apply this concept beyond sexuality and gender to our ways of relating, feeling, and thinking.

I’ll spend the rest of this post on openness.

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Love myths

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on love myths.

How do we, in general, conceive relationships today? How strong are the ‘love myths’?

Love myths do still seem to be strong. A range of relationship styles are practised across the world (many cultures being polygamous or having relationships based on things other than romantic love). Despite this, the western ideal tends to be finding ‘The One’ perfect partner and remaining with them for life with the expectation that the relationship will generally provide happiness and fulfill all of each persons’ needs. We know that this model is common because very few other models are ever considered in mainstream media (magazines, movies, TV programmes, etc.) and psychologists like Bjarne M. Holmes have found that many people to follow those love myths. Interestingly he has also found that believing strongly in such myths often means people having worse, rather than better, relationships.

Psychologist Terri Conley and her colleagues have found that people generally think that a life-long monogamous relationships is beneficial for a couple’s sex life, happiness and well-being, and for any children they have. However, there is evidence which challenges all of these beliefs and suggests that forms of consensual non-monogamy (such as polyamory and open relationships) can be just as beneficial. It seems from such research that around 4-5% of people in the US engage in some form of consensual non-monogamy.

What do we actually know about the reality of relationships today?

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Born this way? Thoughts on the gay gene for DIVA

In their August issue, DIVA magazine included a great article by Louise Carolin about recent questioning of the idea that being gay is ‘all in the genes’. This followed a debate on the matter that DIVA were involved with back in July. Louise interviewed me for the article but I thought I’d include the full interview here because it goes into a bit more depth.

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