New zine – queer relationships

I just spent the whole weekend and two excellent events on relationships: Queer polyday in Leicester, and the Polyamory, Consensual Non-Monogamy and Relationship Anarchy day in Manchester.

For my bits of the days I put together a zine bringing together some of my thoughts on relationships from the last decade or so, and asking what I hope are a useful set of questions about our relationships – whether or not we see ourselves, or our relationships, as queer.

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The zine takes as a starting point the word queer, and the different possible meanings of that term. Then it applies these different meanings to relationships to ask the question ‘what does a queer relationship look like?’ Particular it explores the cultural acceptability of different kinds of relationships, different relationship labels, the idea of relationships being on multiple dimensions, and what it’s like to shift from the question of what relationships we have, to how we do them.

You can download the zine here. It prints out best in booklet form, but fine to read it as a pdf on an e-reader or computer also.

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.

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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.

Why be normal?

This Valentine’s day I’ll be taking a break from my usual topics of this time of year and I’ll be blogging about the Fifty Shades of Grey movie which is released for Valentine’s weekend.

Meanwhile here’s a link to a blog post which I did about normal sex for the Sick! Festival which I’ll be taking part in up in Manchester in March.

Why be normal?

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.

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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Enduring Love?

Monday 16th January saw the launch of a new Open University research project called Enduring Love? Here I will introduce the project and also summarise the talks at the launch about current thinking on relationships, and the pressures they are under.

There has been plenty of research on break-up, divorce and separation. The team behind this project decided that it was time that we knew more about what makes people stay together as well as what makes them split up.

The plan is to get as many people as possible to fill out the online questionnaire so that the researchers can get a good idea of the diversity of ways in which people are experiencing long-term relationships, as well as anything that people who stay together have in common. At the same time, there will be much more in-depth research on sixty couples who will keep a diary of their relationship, take part in interviews together and separately, and explore the way they live and how they feel in their relationship. The detailed research will consider various aspects of the couple relationship such as emotions, sex, commitment, and the way that their partnership fits with other important relationships in their lives. You can already get an idea of the kinds of things people are saying about their relationships from the video clips and podcasts that the team has put together.

The project is called Enduring Love? with a question mark to give the title a double meaning. The researchers are keen to explore what makes relationships work for those who stay together long term and who find that a fulfilling way to live. At the same time it is clear that some couples feel pressured to stay together even when they are very unhappy. It is useful to know what makes an enduring love, as well as what the experience is like when love itself becomes something to be endured. Of course many relationships include elements of both these things: when times are hard the relationship feels like something to be endured, and when things are going well the ‘enduring’ nature of the relationship is something that may be celebrated. Enduring hard times can build intimacy as well as sometimes breaking it.

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The gap that lovers must fill: What exactly is a ‘conventional’ relationship?

This post also appears over on OpenLearn

For the next three weeks, the Radio 4 show Thinking Allowed will be examining cultural shifts and changes in the home. With the help of OU academics, Laurie Taylor will be speaking with people whose living situations reflect the increasing diversity of home-lives of people in the UK. This seems a very timely exploration given the number of commentators who blamed the recent rioting and violence in British towns on changes in the family, and called for families to be punished by eviction for the behaviours of their members. Similarly, recent reviews have called for for society to become more ‘family friendly’ as a way of addressing the ‘sexualisation of culture‘.

In my own work, on romantic relationships, I have been struck by the fact that we have a clear idea of what a ‘proper’ relationship should look like, and often imagine that this is how relationships have always been and how they will always be. We even talk about it as the ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional’ form of relationships. However, what we are referring to is a relatively new invention, which clearly differs from relationships at other points in history, and in other cultures around the world. Also, there is much evidence of diversity in such relationships in our own culture today. I have always suspected that the same is true of ‘home’ and of ‘family’ and look forward to hearing more about this on the programme.

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Happily Ever After?

The London Natural History Museum has been putting on a series of events in connection with its Sexual Nature exhibition. On Friday I spoke at the last of these events which aimed to explore what makes a successful relationship, along with anthropologist Volker Sommer.

The first half of the event focused on the kinds of relationships that take place amongst animals other than humans, and across different historical periods and the various human cultures around the world today. It is interesting that, when trying to answer these kinds of questions, we often try to determine what is ‘natural’ (by looking to other animals) or what is ‘normal’ (by looking across time and culture). We often assume that what is natural or normal must be what is good. But that in itself is worth questioning. Behaviours like taking antibiotics or being kind to animals could be seen as ‘unnatural’, and high levels of self-sacrifice for others or the ability to sing beautifully are ‘abnormal’.

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Porn: Giving people ideas?

This month I attended the Sex, Health, Media event in London where a bunch of academics, health-workers, educators and activists met to discuss ways of improving education about sexual health, particularly in relation to media portrayals of sex.

There were many excellent presentations during the day, but here I will focus on one which particularly caught my imagination: Alan McKee‘s talk about the potentials of pornography.

Analysing the concerns that are frequently raised about the dangers of pornography, Alan reported that academics, politicians, parents and professionals frequently voice the anxiety that porn will ‘give people ideas’, particularly young people. His provocative question was whether this is necessarily such a bad thing.

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