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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Non-monogamous 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 non-monogamous relationships.

I understand that there has been a couple of recent books ( yours and Catherine Hakim´s ) discussing the attitudes about infidelity  in the UK? Do you think that is just a coincidence or is it a sign of the times?

It definitely feels like a current topic with many books and movies raising questions about the challenges of being in long term relationships and about how we deal with infidelity when it occurs.

Catherine Hakim’s book looks at the recent trend of dating websites for people who are looking for lovers outside their marriage. My book explores all of the many ways in which people at the moment are rewriting the rules of their relationships.

I think that the ‘rules’ about infidelity are being questioned right now for a combination of reasons. First, as people live longer what is meant by a ‘long term’ relationship becomes potentially much longer than it was in previously. Secondly, people are now looking for a lot more from a partner or spouse than they might have done in the past. It is common for people to expect such relationships to remain romantic and sexual throughout as well as providing a close friendship, a sense of belonging and security, and personal validation. This can be a great deal of pressure to put on one person, and that is a big part of the reason why people often end up looking elsewhere and having infidelities.

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Bisexuality interview on Biscuit Magazine

I did an interview with Biscuit magazine this week about bisexuality:

“There is a vicious cycle of bi invisibility”: An interview with Meg Barker

Meg Barker is a writer, psychology lecturer and sex and relationships counsellor specialising in bisexuality. Biscuit asked her for a few crumbs of thought on bi portrayal in the media, the tricky task of labelling, and the state of bi activism worldwide…

What first drew you to focus on academic research into bisexuality?

A combination of things really. From a research point of view I was always interested in people whose identities were outside the mainstream in some way and what that experience was like. I was engaged with bisexual communities myself so that seemed an obvious place to study.

As I got more involved with bisexual activism I realised how invisible bisexuality was, and how research was needed to increase awareness of the issues faced by bisexual people. That was the thinking behind setting up BiUK (an organisation for bringing together bisexual research and activism), the BiReCon conference, and the Bisexuality Report.

Finally, as I’ve studied these areas, I’ve become particularly intrigued how wider culture often sees things in binary ways (e.g. women and men, gay and straight) so my research around sexuality, gender and relationships has focused more on how these things can challenge such binaries.

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How do you feel about current bi visibility/portrayal in media?

Read more…

BDSM: What do we know?

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 a longer one on BDSM following the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and your past research into BDSM practices?

I’m a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and I’ve been studying BDSM and other sexualities for around ten years now. In 2007 Darren Langdridge and I published a book called Safe, Sane and Consensual (Palgrave, 2007) which brought together many of the main people researching BDSM at the time.

What drew you to study this subject?

I’m generally interested in sexualities and relationships that fall outside the mainstream and what people in general might be able to learn from those who do things differently.

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Open democracy blog on trigger warnings

Thanks so much for the folk over at Open Democracy Magazine for re-publishing my trigger warnings blog post (edited down a bit!) It’s part of their transformation section ‘where love meets social justice’ which definitely fits with my approach!

You can read the article on Open Democracy here.

Collaborative approaches to conflict

Yesterday I ran some training on relationship therapy for counsellors which involved exploring various different approaches and techniques. I was reminded of a chapter that I’ve found particularly helpful in this area, which I gave out to the students. Re-reading the chapter I realised that it says something a lot more profound than I originally realised. I thought it would be useful to summarise it here and draw out some implications: both for intimate relationship difficulties and more for conflict more widely.

Collaborative relationship therapy

The approach is the ‘collaborative couple therapy’ of Daniel B. Wile, a US therapist. You can read all about it on Dan’s website here. Personally I prefer the term ‘relationship therapy’ to ‘couple therapy’ as it recognises that not all relationships are couple relationships.

Dan’s first idea is that the aim, in relationship therapy, should be to ‘solve the moment, not the problem’. This takes the pressure off trying to fix the whole – often seemingly overwhelming – difficulty that people are having. Instead, the emphasis is placed on addressing each interaction that comes up as something that can be ‘solved’, or engaged with more helpfully. Dan shares my view that conflict isn’t a problem in relationships: it is inevitable, and it can be helpful depending on how we engage with it.

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Trigger warning: Trigger warnings (towards a different approach)

There has been a great deal of discussion lately on the topic of trigger warnings. First a spate of articles appeared in the press describing situations in which students had asked teachers to provide warnings about the content of materials on their courses. These warnings aimed to provide people with information about any topics that they might find personally difficult, due to connections with events that had occurred in their own lives. Many of the newspaper articles ridiculed the idea of putting warnings on great literature, for example, and portrayed such requests as entitled and over-sensitive, and as a form of censorship. Following this, a number of online authors wrote defences of trigger warnings, portraying them instead as a means for people to have some control over what they are exposed to, often in the context of wider discriminations.

I’ve been struck that most of the articles and blog posts that I have seen on this topic have taken a stance for or against trigger warnings, often presenting an impassioned argument in favour of providing trigger warnings or virulent opposition to the practice.

As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been attempting to take a different kind of approach in my thinking about this kind of thing, despite the ongoing magnetic pull towards binaries of right and wrong, good and bad. I’m trying to avoid polarisation, but instead to ask the following questions (for example, in relation to pornography, sex advice media, monogamy, or mental health diagnoses).

  1. One thing or many?

What are we really talking about here? Is it one unitary thing, or might it be many things collapsed together, meaning that the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ people are often referring to slightly – or totally – different things (we see this, for example, when anti porn feminists focus on the most aggressive examples of mainstream porn, and sex positive feminists focus on alternative and/or ethical porn)

  1. Opening up and closing down

Given that whatever we are talking about is probably an umbrella term covering many things rather than a singular thing, and given that people seem to have such strong feelings about it in both directions, it seems unlikely that it can be determined to be either entirely positive or entirely negative. So instead it is helpful to ask ourselves what it has the potential to open up, and what it risks closing down. We might helpfully consider this question on multiple levels, i.e. what it opens up and closes down for the individuals concerned, for communities in which they are embedded, for achieving their aims, and for wider culture.

  1. Moving from what to how

Working through these questions often leads to different kind of conclusions. Instead of focusing on what to do (e.g. whether to use trigger warnings or not, whether to censor porn or not), we might focus instead on how we engage with whatever-it-is.

For the rest of this blog I’ll work through these points providing some of my own thoughts on trigger warnings. You might well have ideas to add in each place from your own reflections and from the other writing that already exists on the topic. Hopefully this will also provide a wider model for the way in which other topics might be engaged with from the ‘opening up/closing down’ perspective.

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New talk: Love, sex and gender

All this week the Open University Social Sciences Faculty is running its Student Connections Conference: A range of online talks and discussions on a wide range of topics, accompanied by discussions on facebook, twitter and the OU website.

Yesterday night I did a talk on the ambitious topic of love, sex and gender (in 20 minutes!) which you can watch here.

I was very fortunate to follow a fascinating presentation by OU sociologist, Peter Redman, about one of my great heroes: Alfred Kinsey (who – I recently found out – was born exactly 80 years to the day before me!) You might well want to listen to that as well, as there are some very interesting points indeed about how people study sex and sexuality, and the ways in which assumptions can impact on research, as well as some fascinating historical context. Peter’s talk is available here.

You can also view the student connections conference podmag here.

Today the conference features two talks about the results of the major OU study on long term relationships, Enduring Love. Jacqui Gabb and Janet Fink presented the major findings of the research, and Danielle Pearson talked about specific research on same-sex couples in long term relationships.

Do follow the conference this week as there are many treats still in store.

 

 

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