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.


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.




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 infidelity.

Do you think there has been a rise in infidelity culture? 

It is very difficult to know exactly how much infidelity there is because, of course, people tend to keep it secret and may not even admit it on an anonymous survey. Evidence from research studies go from around 10% of married people having affairs at some point up to as many as 50-60%. Certainly quite a few research studies are reporting an increase (there’s a summary of some recent articles here ). Also there is now a market for dating sites specifically for people who are already married or in a monogamous relationship.

Why do you think it’s so easy/tempting/likely for people in relationships to seek excitement elsewhere?

I think that there are many reasons. People are living longer which makes a life-long monogamous relationship more of a commitment. Also, as I explore in my book, people are under a lot of pressure both to find The One perfect partner, and – at the same time – to reach their own goals and dreams in life. People might be tempted to have affairs if they start to worry that their partner is not The One and that they might be missing a better relationship elsewhere. Alternatively it might be that they begin to feel they’ve given up too much of their freedom in their relationship, and infidelity is a way of finding parts of themselves that they thought they’d lost. There are many different reasons for infidelity.

Do you think old(er) models of fidelity are becoming a bit outdated?

Older models are struggling to keep up with some of the changes that we’re seeing. For example, in relationship therapy, couples are struggling with issues like whether cybersex counts as cheating, or how to remain friends with an ex with whom they have children at the same time as having a new relationship. Some younger people are engaging in hook-up culture (having several, more casual, relationships) or forming monogamish couples which are somewhat open to other relationships.

What do you think are contributing factors to people ‘cheating’? Is social media a factor?

Certainly things like social media enable us to have many more relationships in lots of different ways, and it can be hard to determine where the lines are.

Research suggests that people often tend to draw their lines around monogamy in different ways. They don’t communicate about this up front, which means that it can be painful for everyone when the lines are unwittingly crossed.

What is the main angle that you’re setting out in your book? And can you relate it to the cheating culture?

In Rewriting the Rules the idea is that relationships have changed a lot in recent years so we need to look carefully at our rules and maybe change them accordingly. For example, with cheating, I suggest that people think about where their own lines are around monogamy. Do they want just one emotionally close person in their lives or many? Do they want complete sexual monogamy, or are the open to flirting, physical contact, or even sex, with more than one person? Once they know where they are, they can communicate about this with new partners and find people who are on the same page, rather than being pushed into situations of infidelity and dishonesty and the pain and suffering that can cause.

Will gay rights and feminist movements please return to your assumptions

Pride season is upon us and I’ve been struck by the tension that still exists across various Pride events around the B and T parts of the LGBT acronym (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans).


Two friends attended EuroPride to be on a panel about bisexuality. They reported back how they were faced with the usual stereotypes about ‘making your mind up’ and scepticism about the existence of bisexuality. Another friend attended a Pride London event where the words ‘gay’ and ‘homophobia’ were used throughout by speakers, despite Pride London claiming to be an LGBT+ event.

Other friends attended the London DykeMarch, the week before London Pride, and were met with a protest by a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) who shouted transphobic abuse at one of the speakers. The speaker in question has written about this here. Whilst we may well have reached a transgender tipping point – and media representation has certainly improved dramatically in the last few years – trans remains a serious point of contention in some feminist movements, and there is also a good deal of scepticism around non-binary genders now that these are receiving media attention.

I think that this trouble around bisexuality for gay/LGBT+ movements, and around trans and non-binary genders for feminist movements, stems from the same place. Recognising this provides a way forward that will not only be more inclusive for B and T people, but will be better for everybody, if we’re brave enough to do it.

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Openness and vulnerability: Did I hit forty or did it hit me?

I always planned to write a blog post here about turning forty, especially after sharing a wonderful 80s vs 90s themed party last month with my decade sibling who bravely posted her own reflections on turning thirty for all to see.

I imagined that I would post something terribly wise about how I held this ‘big birthday’ thing lightly: Questioning the arbitrary cultural meaning given to decades whilst finding my own way to mark the passing of time.

Reflecting back on how difficult I’d found my thirtieth birthday, I knew that this one would be different. Look at how much I’ve learnt since then. I sensibly spread out the celebrations so that I wouldn’t feel the weight of expectations on one day. I met up with different people, and spent time alone, instead of putting pressure on one person to be responsible for making it perfect for me. I reminded myself that any specific age is pretty meaningless given the impossibility of knowing what percentage it is of the whole of your life.

If I knew one thing clearly at one o’clock in the morning, as I entered the second hour of a two hour crying jag that took me from my birthday into the first day of my forties proper, it was this: I couldn’t write that blog post.

So I wrote this one instead.

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