Why be normal? Podcast goes live

Earlier this year I spoke at a panel at the SICK! Festival about normal sex: why people want so much to be normal, and why the struggle to be normal often makes people suffer more, rather than less.


I wrote an article for SICK! on this tpoic which you can read here (and which may soon be developed into a short book – you heard it here first!)

Also the festival have now published the podcast of our debate including some very interesting discussions about same-sex marriage and sexual ‘dysfunction’, amongst other topics.

Sex in long term 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 that I did on sex in long term relationships.

What are the signs that lust is dead?

I’d prefer not to use the word ‘dead’! Evidence suggests that our sexualities are much more fluid and flexible than many people think, so it is completely normal to go through periods of not feeling sexual. These might last or they might be temporary. Sexuality might bubble up again or take new forms.

What are the usual causes?

It can just be completely normal fluctuation with no specific cause. However it is also quite common to feel less sexual when we are tired or stressed (although some people respond in the opposite way and feel more sexual at such times). For many people relationships become less sexual over time and this can be absolutely fine. However if one person then has higher desires than the other it can be difficult for both if they don’t have other ways of meeting those desires.

What is the emotional fallout for individuals and couples of the death of lust?

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Valentine’s Day Video and Discussion

This year the Open University helped me to make a video about my thoughts on Valentine’s Day (a version of this blog post which I did last year). I talk about who is included in Valentine’s Day, who is excluded from it, and the impact that this can have on all of our relationships, as well as a few ideas for rewriting the rules of Valentine’s Day.


Do join us tomorrow at 1.30 pm on the OU Facebook Page for a discussion about these ideas.

Rewriting the rules of Valentine’s Day

There’s an interview with me about Valentine’s Day over on The Sorority.


What do you think about Valentines Day?

I think that the idea of having a day to celebrate love is a great one. What concerns me is the narrow range of love that is celebrated which both excludes those who don’t fit within it, and puts pressure on those who do. Single people can find Valentine’s Day very hard because it suggests that romantic love is so vitally important and reinforces the common view that those who don’t have it are lacking, or a failure. If you look at Valentine’s cards, gifts and movies you’ll also see an assumption that romantic love is heterosexual and married (with the bulk of cards ‘to my husband/wife’). Again this excludes those with same-sex relationships and those who are not married. Valentine’s restaurants are set up for couples, which means that people in openly non-monogamous relationships may struggle to feel accepted. Read more…

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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Rubin Revisited

This weekend I’m attending the Sexual Cultures conference at Brunel which I hope to write up here when I return.

For the conference I prepared a presentation about how we view sex in our culture, specifically focusing on the way it is understood in medicine and mainstream sex therapy, compared to the way that it is understood by people in various sexual communities. Mainly I’m making the point (which I also make in Rewriting the Rules) that the mainstream sexual categories we have give us a rather limited and fixed idea of what sex is. Straying outside this idea is seen as being abnormal or ‘dysfunctional’. In contrast, groups like bisexual, asexual, BDSM and slash communities, often have a more diverse and fluid understanding of what sex is and how it may differ between people and in the same person over time.

The idea in the presentation was to revisit Gayle Rubin‘s ‘sex hierarchy’ diagram (from her classic paper: Thinking Sex) where she illustrates how the dominant way of viewing sex in our culture is that we have to stay within a ‘charmed circle’ of good, natural, normal, acceptable sexuality, and that we will be seen as bad, mad, dangerous or wrong if we stray outside of this:

I started to wonder what the circles might look like if we placed the different understandings of sex, which have emerged from various sexual communities, in the centre. This is what I have come up with so far, but it’s definitely a work in progress:

What is (normal) sex?

I’ve been experimenting some more with prezi to create presentations online.  Here is a prezi I’ve put together for the Sexual Cultures conference later this month – follow this link to see the whole thing.

A unifying feature of virtually all clients attending sex therapy is the intense desire to be ‘normal’. Indeed, having ‘normal’ sex is frequently privileged – by such clients and by people more generally – over sex being pleasurable or fulfilling. What is considered to be normal is very much located within the current cultural context as perpetuated in mainstream media and popular discourse. As authors such as Rubin have pointed out, this is strongly rooted in psychiatric and psychological definitions of functional and dysfunctional, normal and abnormal, sex. This presentation begins a process of consideration of what alternative understandings of sex might look like, drawing on various groups and communities (continued by the other presenters in this panel). It is suggested that an expanded understanding of sex as multiple and in process may be more beneficial in terms of therapy and more widely.

‘Same-sex’ marriage

On March 11th a letter from two Archbishops was read out in 2,500 Catholic Churches in the UK arguing against proposed changes to make marriage available to people in ‘same-sex’ relationships.

According to the BBC, the letter states the following:

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Doing Valentine’s Day Differently

On Valentine’s day my youngest sister sends cards to seven of her friends, some of whom are single and some in relationships. She’s been doing it for years.

This simple gesture invites us to ask some profound questions. Why is it that days are set aside to celebrate one particular kind of love, but not others? Along with Valentine’s day we tend to recognise anniversaries of romantic commitments in a way that we don’t with other forms of relationship, with precious jewels and metals associated with reaching certain five and ten year points together.

Do such celebrations reflect (and reproduce) a kind of hierarchy of love that is present in our culture? And how might such hierarchies be problematic, both for those who are excluded from them and for those who are included?

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