Monogamy

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 I did on monogamy:

Are we hardwired to be monogamous or is it a social construct that is arguably unnatural?

Like most aspects of human experience our relationships styles are biopsychosocial. It’s not a matter of nature or nurture, hardwiring or social construct. Rather the way we form relationships is influenced by a complex web of biological, psychological and social aspects which would be impossible to disentangle.

Certainly the diversity of relationship styles across humans and other animals suggests that it is very unlikely that any one kind of style (monogamous or non-monogamous) is ‘hard-wired’ from the start. However, the processes of our bodies and brains certainly operate together with the experiences we have through life and the messages we receive from the culture around us to shape the ways in which we experience love, desire, and so on.

How hard or misleading do you think it is to live with the view that boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married, remain faithful and live happily ever after?

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Dealing with the tough stuff: The value of noticing

This blog post has been bubbling away for a while. I want to write about the process that I’ve found helpful when struggling with difficult feelings. This week it’s been so useful that I almost wanted to give this post a ridiculously bold title like ‘Noticing: The answer to everything!’ but I restrained myself because I’m aware that different things work for different people at different times and it might not be for everyone. I’m putting this out there now in the hope that it could be useful to some readers as something to weave into your life, or as a way of thinking through what you’re already doing.

I’ve come across different versions of this process in a number of places. It forms the basis of several therapeutic approaches (particularly many existential, humanistic and psychodynamic forms of therapy) and it’s also fundamental to the Buddhist mindful approach which I find so helpful, and to various other kinds of meditation. But I’ve also noticed that many friends and clients have developed something along these lines more spontaneously, without necessarily following a particular approach.

I would summarise the process something like this:

Noticing -> Understanding -> Engaging

The core idea is that before going on to attempt to understand a situation, or to engage with it, it is important to fully notice it. Another way of putting it is that any time you find yourself struggling, you just go back to noticing.

Why is noticing so important? One of my favourite authors, Pema Chödrön, uses the metaphor of a glass of dirty water. This one particularly connects with me because I often start my days watching the Thames, which is, as we know from The Kinks, a ‘dirty old river’! I imagine a glass of Thames water in front of me. It is murky and unclear because it’s all churned up with mud and silt and rubbish. We can’t see anything clearly when it’s like that, so what we have to do is to let it be still for a period of time. That allows the dirt to settle at the bottom of the glass and the water on top to become clear.

glasses

Pema suggests that part of why we often don’t want to allow this to happen is the fear that we have of what we might see once it all settles. I imagine that the bottom of the Thames is a pretty scary place with all the junk and slime and probably even skeletons that have accumulated there over the years. What might loom at you out of the murky gloom if you gave it the chance? But the point is that any kind of understanding of our own accumulated mess – and the things we’ve tried to bury in there – is only possible if we allow the water to settle.

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Sex in long term relationships

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 that I did on sex in long term relationships.

What are the signs that lust is dead?

I’d prefer not to use the word ‘dead’! Evidence suggests that our sexualities are much more fluid and flexible than many people think, so it is completely normal to go through periods of not feeling sexual. These might last or they might be temporary. Sexuality might bubble up again or take new forms.

What are the usual causes?

It can just be completely normal fluctuation with no specific cause. However it is also quite common to feel less sexual when we are tired or stressed (although some people respond in the opposite way and feel more sexual at such times). For many people relationships become less sexual over time and this can be absolutely fine. However if one person then has higher desires than the other it can be difficult for both if they don’t have other ways of meeting those desires.

What is the emotional fallout for individuals and couples of the death of lust?

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What can we learn from the history of sexology?

This morning I was very excited to be included on Radio 4’s Today Programme talking about the new Wellcome Collection exhibition: The Institute of Sexology. You can listen to the piece on their website (it aired around 12 minutes to 9).

sexology-book

The radio piece also meant that I got the chance to have a sneak preview of the exhibition before it opens tomorrow. I would definitely encourage people to go. It is fascinating to view all of the sexological objects and texts that Henry Wellcome collected over the years, and to check out the contemporary artwork which they have displayed next to the various sections. However, for me, the most interesting thing was to get such a strong sense of how sexology has shaped the ways in which we understand sex today.

The exhibition gives us a clear sense that the way we currently view sex came from somewhere: that this history had a huge impact on the ways in which we now experience sex and sexuality.

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The Internet and relationships

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 the internet and relationships.

Are people being more public about our relationships because of the internet/ social media?

Yes definitely.

In what ways?

Social media encourages us to be more public about our relationships in both explicit and implicit ways. Social networking sites like facebook ask users to say whether they are in a relationship and lists that as part of their profile – suggesting our relationship status is a major part of who we are. Such sites also encourage people to list who they are in relationships with and to mark occasions like weddings, so it becomes public when people get together and if they break up.

There are also a proliferation of dating and hook-up websites like grindr, tinder, OKCupid and match.com. Those mean that the internet becomes part of how we get together with people as well as how we signal our relationship publicly.

How is this affecting relationships?

It’s not as simple as the internet being either a good thing, or a bad thing, for relationships. Instead it opens up some possibilities whilst closing others down.

On the up side, perhaps, internet dating moves away from previous ideas about falling in love at first site on the basis of physical appearance, and enables people to meet folk who they have things in common with and who share their values. Hook-up sites also remind us that long term monogamous relationships aren’t the only way to have an enjoyable sex/love life. Being open about our relationships on social media might help people to realise that most of us struggle in this area some of the time, as we see our friends getting together, breaking up, and finding that ‘it’s complicated’.

At the same time, social networking can encourage people to present an entirely positive side of themselves which other people can then evaluate themselves against unfavourably. If all you see on your facebook wall is pictures of happy couples celebrating anniversaries and going on picnics then it’s pretty easy to feel bad about being single, or about having tough times in your own relationship. Also break-ups can be particularly painful if you’re constantly drawn to checking how an ex partner is doing through their blog or twitter feed. Ads for internet dating sites can exacerbate the sense that everybody should be searching for a partner, and that anything less than a perfect match won’t do.

For myself I’d like to see a wider range of relationships being presented online: different ways of being single, and having different kinds of relationships, including friendships being valued as highly as romantic relationships. I’d also like to see people being more open about the difficult stuff of relationships as well as the good parts. Social media has the potential for such diversity and openness if we’re up for taking the risk and using it in that way.

Self-help

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 I did on self-help.

When did self-help books became bestsellers in the US? Why? What were the first self-help authors who made their way to the top?

The term ‘self-help’ was first used by Samuel Smiles in Scotland in 1859, but it was in the US that the idea of self-help books really took off in the twentieth century. Perhaps the first major self-help authors were Dale Carnegie in the 1940s (How to Make Friends and Influence People), Norman Vincent Peale in the 1950s (The Power of Positive Thinking) and and Thomas A. Harris in the 1960s (I’m OK, You’re OK).

What have been the preferred topics of self-help books?

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Sex blogging superhero!

I’m stoked that I was voted in the top 100 sex blogger superheroes this year by the kinkly website. So great to hear that people are enjoying my posts on sex and sexuality (as well as all the other things I blog about on here!)

Superhero

 

Thanks to everyone who voted for me, and to all of you who read my blog. It feels so great to be able to put these ideas out and know that they connect with people.

I haven’t been blogging much this past few weeks due to work deadlines, but I’ve been using the chance to post up some of the interviews I did over the summer so there’s not been a gap. I’m mulling over some more blog posts to come soon though. I’m still thinking about consent (what actually happens when we bring ideas of sexual consent into other aspects of relationships?) and BDSM (with the upcoming 50 shades movie what advice would be useful to people wanting to bring kink into their sex lives?)

Also I’ve been working on a great project with a couple of friends for Asylum magazine. The whole of next year we are contributing features to the magazine about mental health and comics. We put out a call for submissions and were completely overwhelmed by the response: loads of fabulous comics, and writing about how people had found comics helpful in thinking about their own experiences, as well as reflections on specific comics. It has inspired me to start making more comics myself (something I haven’t done for a few years), so I might well be sharing some of those here as well.

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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