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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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.

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