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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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.

Sex offenders and lads’ mags

Other research presented at the Institute of Education Sexualisation of Culture conference (see my last post) found that people struggled to tell the difference between statements of convicted sex offenders and statements taken from mens’ magazines. This raises many interesting questions (see post about this on The Sociological Imagination).

 

One broader concern I have which relates to this is that magazines aimed at men and women both perpetuate an idea that the ‘other gender’ is mysterious and requires figuring out and playing in order for readers to get what they want from them. It seems that it will be difficult for people to form mutual relationships if they are so encouraged to see potential partners as things rather than as full human beings, not to mention the restricted ideas of ‘opposite genders’ that come across in such magazines.

Need for better sex and relationship education

An interesting article in The Telegraph today calls for better PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) education to cover sex and relationships.

Research presented at the Institute of Education Sexualisation of Culture conference – which I co-organised – by Maree Crabbe and David Corlett found that young people turn to pornography for sex education because schools don’t cover the positive aspects of sex and intimacy.

Like Alan McKee, whose work I have discussed here before, Crabbe and Corlett conclude that what is needed is better PSHE on aspects of sex and relationships which recognise that young people will be viewing pornography, rather than the abstinence models that have recently been suggested. They are also in favour of teaching critical thinking so that young people can better evaluate the representations that they see of sex in porn, given that they are likely to be accessing it.

Personally, I’d like to see sex and relationship education that covers the following:

  • The diversity of sexual identities and practices, rather than putting one forward as the norm (including teaching critical readings of the kinds of sex which are most available in mainstream media and porn).
  • How to tune in to your own desires and lack of desires.
  • How to communicate these and the importance of consent.

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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Sexualisation and Gender stereotyping? One response to the Bailey review

On 6th June the UK government published ‘Letting Children be Children‘, an ‘independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood’ put together by Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Christian charity, the Mother’s Union. The review aimed to bring together previous reports on this topic (notably: Buckingham et al., 2009Papadopolous, 2010 and Byron, 2008 and 2010) to come up with a set of recommendations. These recommendations include, for example, making sure that magazine covers with sexualised images are not easily seen by children, bringing in an age rating for music videos, and making it easier for parents to block internet material.

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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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Making sense of the sexualisation debates

Also appears on the Onscenity website.

I’ve been getting involved with events and projects about sexualisation for some time now. I thought it was important for someone, like me, who writes about sexuality and who works with clients who are struggling with issues around sex, to be informed about what seems to be the big story about sex at the moment.

I’ve read lots of book chapters and papers, and watched many presentations, on the topic, and what is most striking to me are the complexities of the debate, and the feelings which run so high whenever we are talking about it. This is my attempt to give a simple overview of how I understand it, and to say where I’ve got to with it at this point.

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