New book out today! The Secrets of Enduring Love

My new book – with Prof Jacqui Gabb – is out today! The Secrets of Enduring Love was published by Penguin RandomHouse and is available now in paperback and ebook formats.

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Jacqui and I are also producing some short YouTube vids with our wonderful colleagues the Open University pulling out some of the main themes from the book. I’ll be posting those up here as they become available, starting on Valentine’s Day of course.

Meanwhile here’s a Q&A with me about the book. Read more of this post

Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

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Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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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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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.

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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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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.

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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 taken 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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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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Only Connect: Some personal thoughts on the importance of connection

This is more of a personal post than most that I write but I’m including it here rather than in the offline journal where I write more self-focused reflections. This is because I thought that it might contain some useful ideas for other people too – either about the topic of connection or about reflecting on our values and what we have to offer. However it is very much a work in progress and I hope that any readers will take it as such.

Yesterday I attended a retreat day run by my friend and great writer-activist-teacher-academic Jamie Heckert. It felt good to take some time out for yoga, meditation and relaxation with a bunch of other people who work in similar areas.

In true Jamie style at one point in the day he invited us to ponder the question ‘if you were a cell in the cosmic body, what would your role or function be?’ The word that quickly occurred to me was ‘connection’. To put it in bodily terms I guess the metaphor would be the kind of cell that connects other cells together, and hopefully in a way that is beneficial to them and to the wider system.

Reflecting on it today I came up with several ways in which this connection theme is important to me. They might resonate with other people too, or it might be more that this process – on reflecting on the roles that we can fulfil – is a helpful one for other people to ponder.

I’m reminded of ideas in existential psychotherapy that we might regard a ‘good life’ as one in which we recognise our particular capabilities and find ways to fit them to the word around us. Unlike some existential philosophers I don’t believe that we are given a particular meaning or purpose to our life in some mystical way, but I do believe that we develop certain meanings and values for ourselves in conversation with the world and people around us. And it can be useful to reflect on how much the ways in which we live our lives are aligned with those meanings and values.

Of course such alignment is something that is far more possible for some people than for others, and I am extremely fortunate that I’m able to align my life with my values in both my paid work and my personal life. This is a point that I’ll return to towards the end.

Anyway, back to connection. These were my thoughts:

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Compassion all round? A little story about Elan & Diane

When I woke up this morning a lot of people had shared a link on facebook to the story of a conflict between two people on a plane, ironically on a flight that was taking many people home to celebrate thanksgiving. The story got me thinking a lot about compassion – and the limits that we place on it.

For anybody who hasn’t read it, the story goes that the plane was delayed and one woman – Diane – made a big fuss about needing to get home for Thanksgiving, causing the cabin crew some stress. Another passenger – Elan – livetweeted the exchanges. During the flight he continued to tweet as he sent Diane messages about her lack of compassion. She responded defensively, his messages became increasingly offensive, and when they landed she slapped him in the face. People following Elan on twitter retweeted his story and many deemed him a hero for calling Diane out on her lack of compassion.

You can read Elan’s whole livetweet commentary here.

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TED talk: Rewriting the Rules of Relationships

Last Friday I was very privileged to be part of the TEDx Brighton 2013 event where I gave a talk which tried to summarise my Rewriting the Rules book into ten minutes! Hopefully it’s a good taster of the main ideas in the book, as well as applying a couple of my favourite metaphors for relationships: the crab bucket, and holding the precious object.

You can see the clip here (second talk in the afternoon) and I’ve also included the text and images from the talk below. The StoryStream of the talk is here. It’s well worth checking out the whole event because there were some amazing talks from digital feudalism, the flawed education system and sustainable housing, to endometriosis, hip-hop, and Indian dance-meets-climatology.

Relationship Uncertainty
I want to start with a list of advice about relationships which I’ve found in various self-help books, problem pages and magazine articles:

  • Never waste an opportunity to say ‘I love you’: Don’t be the first to use the L word.
  • Take her at face value: Figure out the hidden reason why she’s upset.
  • Don’t use complete sentences during sex: Talk dirty, he’ll love it.
  • Work at your relationship: Be spontaneous.

Confusing right?

As a culture we’re currently in a state of relationship uncertainty. At the same time that we’ve opened up to same sex marriage, government insists that monogamous coupledom is the only good basis for a family. There has never been greater gender equality, but there’s a constant pull back to the view that men and women are from different planets. And, whilst some commentators argue that we should loosen our views around affairs and infidelity, others argue that we should tighten restrictions around people watching online porn – because this is seen as bad for relationships.

Why are we in such uncertainty? First of all, declining religion, unstable jobs, and the fact we all move around rather than staying in smaller communities have all meant that we look to romantic relationships to meet all of our needs in a way we never have before. Love has become the new religion.

At the same time we’re encouraged by the media, by advertisers, and by each other, to be independent individuals who fulfill our own goals in life and are true to ourselves no matter what.

This creates a tension as we long for belonging, togetherness and connection with a partner, at the same time that we strive for individual freedom, independence and personal fulfillment.

There are two main things that we tend do when faced with such uncertainty: Either we look back to the old rules that have been around before – and cling onto those for some sense of security, or we create new rules – but often we cling onto these just as tightly.

For the rest of the talk I’ll explore these two paths, and then consider an alternative: embracing the uncertainty that we find ourselves in in our relationships.

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Is taking care of ourselves a relationship responsibility?

Recently Diabetes UK have been running an advertising campaign that sits uneasily with me and with a lot of my friends. In their posters they show images of people hugging their loved ones and crying, with slogans such as ‘If not for you then for your family’ and ‘so you and your family don’t suffer‘. The idea seems to be that people in high-risk groups should get tested early for diabetes so that they can do something about it before amputation, blindness, heart problems or other health implications mean that they become a burden on their loved ones.

My immediate reaction was to feel angry that this – otherwise excellent – charity was using guilt tactics to frighten people into action. I also disliked the implication that other people might have so much power over what somebody chooses to do with their own body.

However, I had to reflect that – when it comes to mental rather than physical health – I have used a somewhat similar argument myself. I am a great believer that we all need to build some form of self-care into our lives in order to be in an okay place emotionally and psychologically. It is when I don’t have a moment to myself that I get overwhelmed when stressful things happen, respond badly to conflict, or make mistakes at work. Similarly, clients who I work with in therapy are often constantly engaged with work, family and friends. When I encourage them to build in time for a ‘daily kindness’ to themselves, or for quiet reflection, the major block that they frequently come up against is all their obligations to other people in their lives. They don’t want to let down their managers and colleagues, their partners and parents.

For many of us the argument that we will feel better if we look after ourselves doesn’t get very far because we see self-care as being self-centred or as spoiling ourselves. When we’re depressed we don’t feel that we deserve this. Or perhaps it doesn’t fit the self-sacrificing image that we want to have of ourselves.

However, the realisation that we will be better for the other people in our lives is often the thing that helps us to make that first small shift towards building in some time for self-care. For example, we might notice that a small amount of self-care can leave us less exhausted, more able to hear other people, and better able to manage extra pressures. We might also see that we are a better role-model for others in our lives if we demonstrate that we are able to say ‘no’ to things or to prioritise looking after ourselves.

So how is this different to the Diabetes UK argument that people should take steps towards better physical health in order to be in a better place for their loved ones? I think it comes down to the complex tension that we all face that we are, at the same time, independent individuals, and unavoidably involved in interdependent relationships with the other people in our lives. There are a few elements of this that I want to tease out here, but I don’t think there are any easy answers. Rather I hope that this blog post might be a starting point for people who want to talk about such matters, and that it will set out some of the territory in a way that is helpful.

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