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.

What have I been doing? All of the things

Many blog posts are brewing at the moment but none quite ready to bottle and serve. However I did spend this afternoon collating some of the things I’ve been working on recently into the resources space on my blog, so here’s some links to what’s going on at the moment by topic.

Bisexuality!

I spoke at the launch of the Purple Prose crowdfunder a few weeks back. This book is an awesome collection of British bisexual experiences, with excellent chapters on race, coming out, relationships, and many other topics. I co-curated the chapter on gender which includes a wonderfully diverse range of bi people’s voices. Please do considering supporting the project here.

Non-binary gender!

I was really privileged to be asked to join some other trans activists to go and talk to the Ministry of Justice about gender recognition policies recently. You can read CN Lester’s account of what happened here, and I’ve put up a page including the factsheet that we put together for the occasion: hopefully a really useful resource about non-binary experiences.

Non-monogamous relationships!

Recently I went to a great conference on non-monogamies and contemporary intimacies. It was wonderful to see what had changed a decade on from the first such conference back in 2005. You can see the keynote talk that I did there here, plus some other amazing talks on intersectionality, privilege and oppression, islamophobia, the refugee crisis and more.

Also I’m really proud of the guidelines for academic/activist spaces that I helped to develop for the conference, given how tricky past events have been when trying to be properly inclusive, so I’ve put up a page about them here.

Kink and consent!

I’ve been working with some colleagues to put together some guidelines for kink/BDSM party and event organisers and community members around consent. You can see what we came up with here.

LGBT+ mental health!

Last year I was part of a group writing good practice guidelines for health practitioners and services around LGBT+ people and mental health. These have recently been published, along with some guidelines for LGBT+ people seeking support – links here.

Also Pink Therapy’s Dominic Davies and I published a couple of articles aimed at improving therapist knowledge and skills around Gender and Sexual Diversity, included here. And we’re working with awesome people at Gendered Intelligence to bring young trans people together with clued up therapists. Please do consider supporting Dominic’s sponsored silence to raise money for GI here. One of the blogs I’m hoping to write is about gendered bullying and silence – in support of this campaign.

Books!

The book based on the Enduring Love project is with the publishers and due to be published in early February. My queer theory introduction is with the fabulous illustrator, Julia Scheele, being turned into comic form (do buy Julia’s collection of comics on identities in the meantime). And Justin Hancock and I are writing about sex together once a week for our sex advice book. Along with an edited collection on non-binary genders, both of these are due out in late 2016. Meanwhile check out Justin’s piece in the Guardian, and the amazing new sex and relationship eduction resources which he’s produced with Durex (which I had a small hand in).

Polyamory book reviews: Useful ideas for all relationships

(Also published over on Polyamory in the News)

I was excited to be asked by the excellent people at Thorntree Press to review two new books about polyamory: Franklin Veaux’s memoir – The Game Changer – and Elisabeth Sheff’s edited collection of poly lives – Stories from the Polycule. These books are particularly interesting given that the authors – Franklin and Elisabeth – have previously been responsible for two of the most important books on polyamory in recent years: One is probably the best self-help style book on polyamory currently available, and the other is the most in-depth academic study of polyamorous families to date. The former is More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert – the same title as Franklin’s successful blog. The latter is The Polyamorist Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff who writes the Psychology Today column of the same name.

So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read the latest outputs by these two authors. On reading them I found that they were just as interesting as the books that preceded them. To summarise briefly, The Game Changer is an in-depth exploration of one person’s experience of shifting from a fairly hierarchical to a more egalitarian version of polyamory. Stories from the Polycule is an accessible collection of all kinds of experiences of open non-monogamy.

Together these books provide both a rich description of one person’s lived experience of polyamory, as well as a sense of the diversity of experiences that are possible within open non-monogamy. This is important because many popular accounts of polyamory tend to focus on rather similar narratives. As with many marginalised groups, poly people generally tell a public story which challenges common prejudices against them. So, for example, we often hear poly stories that contradict the stereotypes that polyamory is all about sex (by focusing on love), that it’s doomed to failure (by focusing on long term relationships), and that it’s weird (by focusing on the kinds of poly that are closest to monogamy).

This is very understandable in a world where poly people are still stigmatised and afforded few legal rights. However it means that the accounts we hear can be rather shallow, sterile, and samey. It was very refreshing – therefore – to read Franklin’s story of both the pains and pleasures of polyamory and alternatives to more conventional forms of poly; and to read about the ups and downs of poly, the sexual side of relationships, and the multiplicity of possible constellations, in Elisabeth’s collection.

These books offer exciting alternatives to the ‘one true way’ versions of polyamory that can be found in some poly communities, and the search for a universal explanation for why people are poly that are often found in academic work on the subject.

I’ll now go on to say a bit more about each book in turn, with a particular focus on why I think they offer something to our understanding of all relationships, not just polyamorous ones.

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Non/monogamy

There’s a new talk by me up on the Pink Therapy YouTube channel. Plus a whole load more really interesting talks from their recent conference.

Monogamy

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 monogamy:

Are we hardwired to be monogamous or is it a social construct that is arguably unnatural?

Like most aspects of human experience our relationships styles are biopsychosocial. It’s not a matter of nature or nurture, hardwiring or social construct. Rather the way we form relationships is influenced by a complex web of biological, psychological and social aspects which would be impossible to disentangle.

Certainly the diversity of relationship styles across humans and other animals suggests that it is very unlikely that any one kind of style (monogamous or non-monogamous) is ‘hard-wired’ from the start. However, the processes of our bodies and brains certainly operate together with the experiences we have through life and the messages we receive from the culture around us to shape the ways in which we experience love, desire, and so on.

How hard or misleading do you think it is to live with the view that boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married, remain faithful and live happily ever after?

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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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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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Non-monogamous 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 non-monogamous relationships.

I understand that there has been a couple of recent books ( yours and Catherine Hakim´s ) discussing the attitudes about infidelity  in the UK? Do you think that is just a coincidence or is it a sign of the times?

It definitely feels like a current topic with many books and movies raising questions about the challenges of being in long term relationships and about how we deal with infidelity when it occurs.

Catherine Hakim’s book looks at the recent trend of dating websites for people who are looking for lovers outside their marriage. My book explores all of the many ways in which people at the moment are rewriting the rules of their relationships.

I think that the ‘rules’ about infidelity are being questioned right now for a combination of reasons. First, as people live longer what is meant by a ‘long term’ relationship becomes potentially much longer than it was in previously. Secondly, people are now looking for a lot more from a partner or spouse than they might have done in the past. It is common for people to expect such relationships to remain romantic and sexual throughout as well as providing a close friendship, a sense of belonging and security, and personal validation. This can be a great deal of pressure to put on one person, and that is a big part of the reason why people often end up looking elsewhere and having infidelities.

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Guardian article – Relationship FAQ

Yesterday The Guardian interviewed a bunch of sex and relationship bloggers to find out our answers to our most frequently asked questions. The article is here and you can read my answers below – hard to capture all the complexity in 130 words a piece!

Question 1: What kinds of relationship are most successful?

I write a lot about different possible ways of doing relationships: monogamous, monogamish and openly non-monogamous relationships; living apart together and long distance relationships; sexual and non-sexual relationships. Something I’m often asked is whether a certain form of relationships can be successful. My question back is always ‘what do you mean by successful?’ It generally turns out that people mean longevity. While studies have found that all these forms of relationships can last over time, I question whether that is the best measure of relationship ‘success’. Perhaps that is something else that is worth thinking about.

Question 2: Will things get easier if I change how I do relationships?

When people contemplate a different kind of relationship – such as an open relationship or polyamory – they often imagine that it will solve all of the problems they’re currently having. I’ve called this the ‘poly grail’ (although it happens with all kinds of relationships). Sadly the answer is that any different way of doing relationships has its own challenges. It’s tough to be in monogamous, it’s tough to be single, and it’s tough to be non-monogamous (whether you do that openly, or secretly in the form of affairs). It’s well worth finding a kind of relationship that works for you, but it’s far too much pressure to expect to find the ‘one true way’ of doing relationships, just as it’s too much pressure to expect to find ‘the one’ partner who’ll fulfil all your needs.

Question 3: How do I go about finding the kind of relationship that works for me?

Instead of searching for the perfect relationship, it’s helpful to figure out what’s important to us, and to communicate about that. For example, where do you stand between wanting just one very close person in your life and wanting lots of friends or partners who are equally close? What about between sexual exclusivity and having many sexual encounters (online or offline)? Is it important to have a clear agreed contract for how you do relationships or for everyone to be free to make their own decisions? Do you like to be private or are you keen to share everything with partners? Communication won’t resolve all the differences we have in relationships, but it definitely helps to be open about such things from the start and to accept that people can feel very differently about them.

 

Diverse love

This month I was asked to contribute to the series that Photoworks has been doing on Queer Representations. This is a series of commissioned texts marking LGBT History Month with explorations of the queer image in photography and culture.

Trupple

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For my contribution I got together with brilliant photographer Charlotte Barnes to produce a piece about relationship diversity, which also touches in some of the gender diversity issues that I explored in my last post for Rewriting the Rules. We had a great time on the photoshoot and hopefully the models will think that the final pictures and post do justice to them and their relationship.

You can read the Photoworks post here as well as seeing one of the other photographs that we took during the shoot.

You can also view a presentation on polyamory by the trupple here.

You can read more about the Queer Embassy Bar Wotever talks which the video was part of here.