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!)



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.

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.


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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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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Dominant and submissive 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 start to post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on dominant and submissive relationships after Fifty Shades of Grey was published. You might also find it useful to check out some more posts I did about the same topic – around the time the movie came out – here:

Why do people sometimes prefer Dom/sub relationships?

D/s is one aspect of the wider category of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism), sometimes also known as kink. Some people are into all of the things listed under BDSM, and some only some of them. D/s is generally distinguished from SM because it is more about power than about physical sensation (although some use these terms more interchangeably).

In D/s activities one person generally dominates the other, or has power over them, therefore people tend to prefer D/s if they find a power dynamic to be exciting in some way. Of course it is pretty common for sex and power to be mixed together in our culture. For example, a lot of romance fiction involves people being rescued from peril or being swept away by somebody more powerful, and a lot of people fantasise about having the power of being utterly desirable to their partner.

What is involved in a Dom/sub relationship?

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Fifty shades switched

As part of my writing on Fifty Shades of Grey I’m thinking about gender and other aspects of social identity in the novels. I thought it would be interesting to see what the book read like if these aspects of characters were changed. Here is what a gender switched version of the first meeting between the two main characters is like:

I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling headfirst into the office.
Double crap – me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Ms. Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me, helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow – she’s so young.
‘Mr. Kavanagh.’ She extends a long-fingered hand to me once I’m upright. ‘I’m Clarissa Grey. Are you all right? Would you like to sit?’
So young – and attractive, very attractive. She’s tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and black tie with unruly dark copper-coloured hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly. It takes a moment for me to find my voice.
‘Um. Actually – ‘ I mutter. If this woman is over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. In a daze, I place my hand in hers and we shake. As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hand hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.
‘Mr. Kavanah is indisposed, so he sent me. I hope you don’t mind Ms. Grey.’
‘And you are?’ Her voice is warm, possibly amused, but it’s difficult to tell from her impassive expression. She looks mildly interested but, above all, polite.
‘Andrew Steele. I’m studying English literature with Ken, um … Kenneth … um Mr. Kavanagh, at WSU Vancouver’
‘I see,’ she says simply. I think I see the ghost of a smile in her expression, but I’m not sure.
‘Would you like to sit?’ She waves me toward an L-shaped white leather couch.

Interesting questions, I think, include:

  • What is striking about this version which isn’t in the original, and vice versa, and what does that suggest about our common understandings of masculinity and femininity?
  • What kind of woman and man do we imagine Clarissa and Andrew to be (compared with Christian and Ana)?
  • What impact would other changes have on our reading of the text? (e.g. making it a ‘same-gender’ relationship, having the student as the dominant person and the rich CEO as the submissive, switching the backgrounds such that Ana has the history of abuse and adoption rather than Christian, or altering other dimensions such as age, class, race, body-type, etc.)?

Thirsty for more? Try reading:

Consent and abuse of power in kink and other sexual communities

My latest project is to write a paper about the conversations about consent that happen in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and comparing these to recent conversations about consent that have been happening in kink and other sexual communities.

One main point of this is that Fifty Shades of Grey represents quite a conventional understanding of how consent happens. Generally Christian suggests something and if Ana doesn’t explicitly say ‘no’ they end up doing it. Additionally to this, outside of their sex life, he often does things that Ana has explicitly asked him not to. It seems that consent is only seen as applying to sex, not to the relationship more broadly.

Several bloggers in kink communities have recently pointed out that such simplistic understandings of consent, along with stigma around kink itself, have conspired to mean that many people have experienced rape and abuse in these settings and have felt unable to speak out about it. This has lead to an ongoing conversation about consent, power and abuse on the internet and at community events which is much more sophisticated and productive than some of those that preceded it.

It seems to me that there is a lot to be learnt from such conversations for those who – perhaps having read Fifty Shades of Grey –  are beginning to engage in kink, but also for people more widely: in a sexual context and in general.

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Sex Critical?

There’s a great new blog up by a colleague of mine called Sex Critical.

In the first post the author defines what they mean by the term which is an attempt to move beyond the dichtomy of ‘sex positive’ and ‘sex negative’. New sex-related phenomena (such as the recent 50 Shades trilogy, or any new ‘sexualised‘ trend amongst young people) tend to be met by two responses: either criticism of the ways in which the phenomenon reproduces and reinforces problematic gender roles, and often coercive or violent sexual practices (sex negative), or defence of all sexual practices and erotic materials as liberatory, with an emphasis on people having freedom to choose what they do sexually (sex positive).

[Note: as Radtransfem, commenting on Sex Critical, points out, it is also often the case that the ‘sex’ in ‘sex negative’ and ‘sex positive’ actually means different things. For example, in ‘sex negative’ what is meant is often ‘objectifying-women-negative’ and in ‘sex positive’ what is meant is often ‘diverse-sexual-practices-positive’]

The author of Sex Critical argues for an alternative position to sex negativity/positivity – being sex critical – whereby all sexual representations and practices are considered equally critically. This is an important point because it tends to be non-normative sexualities (such as sadomasochistic sexual practices or lesbian, gay and bisexual sexualities) that are subject to scrutiny in wider society, whereas people rarely question the sexualities that are considered to be ‘normal’. It is also important because there is a tendency for some ‘sex positive’ writers to assume that all sexual representations and practices are inherently good and liberatory, when actually there might be reason to question the ways in which they operate, and problematic norms that may be present.

So being sex critical we wouldn’t assume that any sexual representation or practice was beyond question, or inherently  positive. Rather we would ask questions about it such as how it fits within wider culture, what ideologies it upholds, and whether it really offers any kind of truth about who we are (something that is often assumed about sexuality).

Sex Critical is written by a humanities scholar, so is perhaps more focused on representations of sexuality than on our own sexual practices. From a psychology/therapy perspective I am interested in how the idea of being sex critical might be useful in people’s daily lives. My chapter on sex in Rewriting the Rules certainly has a sex critical flavour as I question how people might be constrained by the cultural rules about what kinds of ‘good’, ‘normal’ or ‘great’ sex we should be aspiring to, and then look at the possibilities that are opened up, and closed down, by various sexual communities who understand and practice sex in different ways to this (e.g. bisexual, sadomasochistic, erotic fan fiction, and asexual communities).

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50 shades feminist?

I’m in The Independent blog today discussing the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. Follow the link for the full debate or read just my bit below:

It’s rare that any new phenomenon is a purely positive or negative thing, rather it’s more useful to ask what possibilities they open up and close down.

The popularity of the 50 Shades trilogy demonstrates how common enjoyment of sadomasochistic (SM) fantasies is. This is helpful because people often have narrow ideas about ‘normal’ sex, and anxiety if their desires stray outside of this. Sexual problems are linked to an inability to tune into, and communicate about, what we want sexually, so it is certainly useful to open up a diversity of erotic possibilities.

On the downside, the books perpetuate damaging myths about people who are into SM, including links to childhood abuse and dangerous behaviours, which are not supported by any evidence. Ana rarely talks about her desires but Christian telepathically knows how to turn her on. This takes the emphasis away from communication. Also she orgasms at the drop of a hat whilst most women cannot orgasm from penetration alone.

Some argue that the female submission in the books is inherently anti-feminist. It’s possible for submission or dominance to entirely focus on the other person (linked to norms of women putting others’ pleasure before their own), or to emphasise more mutual enjoyment. It’s worth being aware of how conventional gender power imbalances can play out in any form of sex, but that doesn’t mean that a specific dynamic or activity is necessarily problematic.

Much more troubling is the wider relationship between Christian and Ana which perpetuates some problematic myths about love: that stalking behaviour is romantic; that it’s okay for a man to control a woman’s work, eating, contraception and friendships; that a woman should change a man into what she wants him to be. All promote a kind of possessiveness that would make a mutual relationship very difficult.

Find out more:

My favourite article on the 50 Shades phenomenon is Laurie Penny’s piece in The New Statesman.

Another good piece was published in The Guardian by Suzanne Moore.

Pamela Stephenson-Connolly wrote wisely about the dangers of demonising BDSM in the books in The Guardian also.