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Meg-John Barker

New year, new blogs

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Happy new year to readers of my blog.

For new year I've decided to split my blog onto various topic-based websites.

I won't be blogging on here any more, but you can continue to read my contributions:

In general on Society Matters, the excellent OU blog about all things societal,

About relationships on Rewriting the Rules, my new blog to accompany my forthcoming book,

About mindfulness on Social mindfulness, another new blog on meditative and other practices and how they relate to therapy and to wider social issues,

About mental health and existential philosophy on the Northern Existential Group,


About sexuality and LGBT issues on BiUK.

Please sign up to follow any of these that you are interested in and you'll be sent reminders when a new page or post is up. You can also follow me on twitter at megbarkerpsych, where I tweet updates of new posts.




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Authenticity at the Northern Existential Group

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 5 Dec 2011, 11:02

24th November 2011 saw the third meeting of the Northern Existential Group (NEG). This month our reading was a paper called 'A Road Less Travelled' by M. Guy Thompson. Based on the author's own relationship with R.D. Laing, the paper wove together biography of the famous 'anti-psychiatrist' with an account of his understanding of the concept of 'authenticity'. What did authenticity mean to Laing, and how well did he embody it within his own life?

This paper was a perfect one for the NEG as our discussions tend to focus on the personal and pragmatic issues of the concepts under consideration. Are these existential ideas something that we want to strive for in our own lives and, if so, how might we go about that?

Here we will briefly introduce R. D. Laing for those who are unfamiliar with him. We will outline the concept of authenticity as it is presented in M. Guy Thompson's paper, and then give a flavour of the NEG discussion on the topic.

R. D. Laing

R. D. Laing (1927-1989) grew up in Glasgow. He studied medicine there and became a psychiatrist in the British army. Later he trained and worked at the Tavistock clinic alongside the likes of Bowlby and Winnicott. Laing formed the Philadelphia Association in 1965 and set up a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall and later other locations. At PA houses patients with diagnoses of psychosis lived together in communities with therapists and other patients, and there was minimal use of the restraints or drug treatments which were commonplace in mental health systems.

Although Laing did not embrace the term 'anti-psychiatrist', his views about mental illness were – and continue to be – radically challenging to conventional views. Influenced by existential philosophy he questioned the idea of mental illnesses which could be diagnosed according to symptoms (although his opinion on whether there were real mental illnesses or not altered over time). Instead he saw the feelings and behaviours of people with 'mental illness' as expressions of their lived experience and valid attempts to communicate their distress.

Instead of locating mental illness in biology, he saw it as a response to, often contradictory, messages within the family and wider society. Indeed, at times he suggested that 'madness' may be a saner response than 'sanity' to the impossible double binds in which people are placed when their experiences are not allowed to be articulated. These ideas are covered in Laing's famous book The Divided Self.


Laing's ideas about authenticity are explicitly related to his theories of mental illness because he suggests that people erect false versions of themselves in order to conform to society, and that this is why they frequently become confused about who they are. For this reason, part of the ethos of Kingsley Hall, and the other Philadelphia Association houses, was to communicate without falsity. People were encourage to speak in all conversations as honestly and openly as they would in a therapy session, with no small talk. Laing's own style was frequently confrontational in attempt to break through falsity in communication.

Thompson distinguishes Laing's version of authenticity from the kind of 'pop' authenticity of US talk-shows and self-help books. This latter form of authenticity is rooted in the humanistic view that there is some core inner self that we can get in touch with, often through our feelings rather than our thoughts, and that this authentic self will be a nicer, more loving, person. Such an idea is based on both a dualistic splitting of emotions and thoughts, an optimistic vision of what human beings are 'naturally' like, and a theory of selfhood that is problematic from an existential perspective.

Laing's authenticity was based more on Nietzsche and Heideggers' versions of authenticity which did not link authenticity and ethics and which dispute the idea of any core self beneath what we construct. This existential form of authenticity involves a courageous facing of the inevitable anxieties of life. This includes going against societal norms when they conflict with this. Heidegger's position was that humans were inauthentic the majority of the time (seeking approval, validation, recognition and so on). We get our sense of identity and – along with it – inauthenticity from the crowd we (seek to) belong to, but it is possible sometimes to transcend this. This is not about getting at any genuine self (because the self is always constructed) but rather being aware of our general inauthenticity and acting in a way that does not attempt to fit in or to court favour.

Laing's authenticity, however, was intrinsically related to ethics because he saw human suffering as resulting from inauthenticity (particularly the double-binds it places people in). Therefore authenticity was a superior way of relating which involved loving another person without 'trespassing' on them or doing them violence by using them for our own narcissistic ends. This requires both the courage to open up to another person, and the awareness to see when you are in danger of trespassing (for example, by demanding that they conform in some way rather than being authentic themselves). This is the awareness that Laing saw as frequently absent in the mental health profession: those who think they are being helpful deny the thoughtless way in which they treat the vulnerable people they are caring for, and the demands they place on them to act in inauthentic ways.

From Thompson's summary it seems that Laing's authenticity includes the following elements:

  • Honestly owning up to our inauthenticity

  • Acting without regard for what others will think of us (rather than being a 'phoney' and adhering to social niceties)

  • Having the courage to stick to our principles rather than being hypocritical

  • Being brave enough to open up, authentically, to others

  • Being aware enough not to trespass on others, doing violence to them by denying their authenticity



The rest of Thompson's paper – and much of our discussion – focused on whether Laing, himself, embodied the form of authenticity that he espoused. This is part of a wider question of whether such thinkers need to 'walk the walk as well as talk the talk' in order to be convincing, or for us to take up their ideas. We could see both positions on this. On the one hand, when the personal is political as it so clearly is in Laing's work perhaps his personal behaviour should be under scrutiny. On the other hand, all thinkers are likely to have feet of clay and we can question whether it is acceptable to use this to pathologise them and to dismiss their ideas, as has been done with Laing, Neitzsche and Heidegger.

Thompson points out that Laing's writing became increasingly pretentious and inaccessible over time, that he courted fame despite this surely being a form of inauthenticity, and that his behaviour became bullying and cruel in ways that alienated most of those he was close to. Again, this latter seems far from Laing's ideals of open-hearted communication and not trespassing on others, although it could be argued that he was deliberately trying to confront people with their own inauthenticity.

A classic example of this was in his exchange with the American humanistic therapist, Carl Rogers. Thompson tells the tale of the night before the organised debate between Rogers and Laing. Laing and his group invited Rogers and his group round to his home and then out to a restaurant. Laing told Rogers that his 'California nice-guy' act would make an authentic exchange impossible. Laing proceeded to get drunk and to shout out (about Rogers) 'he's not a man, he's a perrrrson!' (a sarcastic reference to Roger's book On Becoming a Person). Later he spat in the drink of one of Rogers' colleagues.

The NEG group spent much time considering Laing's idea that anger is the Royal Road to authenticity. Is niceness always inauthentic? Is it always authentic to strip away artificial niceness however much trespassing is required to do so? We found ourselves questioning why the so-called 'negative emotions' would be considered more authentic than the 'positive' ones. Is this another problematic dualism? Also, we noted the contradictions between two aspect of Laing's authenticity (in order to be authentic in this way one has to trespass on others, demanding that they be authentic according to his definition).

We wondered if Laing would have the same impact if he had not acted the 'trickster' in these ways: punching holes through inauthenticity. Then again, might he potentially have had more impact if he could have expressed his ideas in a way that was more palatable to people. Related to all of this there is the question of whether one person can ever really judge the authenticity of another.

In response to this latter, we reached the conclusion that we certainly can't judge the authenticity of another (there can be no objective measure of authenticity), but that equally that we cannot really trust our subjective sense of whether we are being authentic or not because we are likely to be a poor judge of whether or not we are in a form of 'false consciousness' (believing we are being authentic when actually we are simply saying or doing what is expected of us). There is also the question of whether it is always authentic to go against the norms and conventions around us. We considered Sartre's example of wearing a moustache when everyone else was doing so: Would it be authentic to sport such a moustache nowadays (as long as we weren't doing it for 'movember' – the charitable event where people grow moustaches for the month of November)? Even in going against convention are we still in relation to this and potentially even reinforcing it?

As often in our discussions we related Laing's ideas to gender. We considered how somebody with Laing's ideas and behaviours might have been treated if they were a woman, and this led us to consider whether it was possible for women to be seen as authentic in the same way that men could be, given the way that men are regarded as 'normal' humanity (according to Sartre, de Beuavoir and others), and the potentially harsher sanctions (internal and external) against women behaving authentically.

Another question we explored was whether authenticity may only be possible when all ways of being were open to us. For example, some of us felt that kind of anger that Laing displayed simply wasn't an option in our behavioural repertoire. Did that condemn us to 'inauthentic niceness'? We decided that there would always be limits and constraints on what was possible, but that authenticity was possible so long as there was some degree of choice over how we acted.

In the group there was a sense that it was valuable to hold both a Laingian and a Rogerian way of being. The question which we kept returning to was 'how far do you go?': How much do you flout convention and how much do you police yourself? These are important, and emotionally loaded, questions. 'Too far' in one direction can leave us alienated and alienating, 'too far' in the other and we can loose ourselves completely in the (contradictory) demands of others.

In a way the contradictory nature of Laing's version of authenticity can provide a helpful constant corrective: be honest and courageous, but in open-hearted ways that does not trespass on others. Of course it is impossible to know how our actions will be experienced by others, but if we hold these tensions when engaging with the world perhaps we will occasionally experience moments which at least feel authentic.


Questions to Consider

  • Do you agree with the components of authenticity that Laing identified?

  • Is inauthenticity implicated in human suffering?

  • Is anger the royal road to authenticity? Can we be nice and authentic?

  • If we are being authentic is it our task to point out the inauthenticity around us, and in others' behaviours?

  • Is authenticity equally open to everyone?

  • How can we know if we, or others, are being authentic?

  • Is authentic something to aspire to?

  • Does authenticity lie in our actions or in the reasons behind them?

  • How far do you go?


Find Our More

You can download M. Guy Thompson's paper here.

The international R. D. Laing institute is here.

The Philadelphia Association is here and has plenty of downloadable pdfs on existential topics.

The BBC documentary, The Trap, covers R. D. Laing's ideas in some depth, as does the documentary Just Another Sinner.

The website of the Northern Existential Group is coming soon!



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Six short posts about mental health 1: Biopsychosocial perspectives

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Saturday, 29 Oct 2011, 16:54

A short while ago I was asked to take part in an Open University day about mental health for tutors. It was a good chance to give a workshop about self care and why that might be useful for both students and staff. But I was also given a lecture slot in the day. I decided to share some of my thoughts on mental health more broadly. I was nervous because this was the first time I had spoken on this topic specifically and I know that my ideas on it can be challenging to hear. However, the talk seemed to go well and led to some great discussions, so I've decided to share it here too.

The talk preceding mine set the scene very well as Saroj Datta gave us an update on the latest evidence regarding the interactions between genes and the environment in relation to mental health. Saroj was involved in the OU science course on mental health which takes a 'biopsychosocial' approach to the issue, and her talk demonstrated just how impossible it is to tease apart those elements: bio, psycho, and social (which is why they are combined into one word).

I already knew about 'neuroplasticity': the fact that the way our brains connect up changes over the course of our lives depending on the experiences we have (this is the way that we learn, of course, but we often forget this and regard brains as static and unchanging). Saroj presented evidence that there is also flexibility on a genetic level. Whilst the set of genes in every cell in our body remains fixed, whether they are 'switched on' or 'express themselves' is not. Animal studies have shown, for example, that a glucocorticoid receptor gene tends to remain switched off, leading the animal to be fearful and anxious, unless the mother displays nurturing behaviours (due to not being anxious herself) in which case it is switched on, leading to pups who are calmer and less stressed. This research is in its early stages, and needs to be treated with caution when applied to humans of course.

Human research supports the genetic-envionmental interaction, finding that, for example, rates of depression are high when a particular allele of a gene is present and someone has experienced three or more stressful life events, but lower if just that allele, or just the life events, are present. It is the interaction between genes and environment that is vital. There have been similar findings in relation to childhood maltreatment. However, it is important to remember that some people were still depressed without those particular elements in the place (either that gene allele, those life events, or the two together): so this is not the whole picture. Also there is unlikely to be any one single gene involved in any element of human behaviour, but rather many.

Saroj suggested that such 'epigenetic' changes are potentially reversible and it has been suggested that this, and neuroplasticity, may explain why there are multiple different routes to repair and recovery.

My own interest has been mainly about the social end of the biopsychosocial composite, but it is vital to remember that this is as impossible to tease apart from the rest of it as the bio end is. The ways in which the society in which we live understands, and treats, people, is vital to the way in which we understand and treat ourselves. And one of the main things our society currently does is to split apart the biopsychosocial in a deeply problematic way when understanding issues of distress or 'mental health'. This is something I will explore, in detail, in the next post.

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Six short posts about mental health 2: Why I don't like the 1 in 4 statistic

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 16 Oct 2011, 15:39

It is important to say, before I start, that here I am absolutely not doubting the existence of severe distress, or the toll that it can take on people who are struggling and those around them. Rather I am questioning the way that we currently categorise and work with such experiences, and the role of wider culture in them (which so often gets missed).

What sparked this line of thinking, for me, was a series of adverts a few years back under the Time to Change campaign about mental health, which was put together by the Institute of Psychiatry, Mind, and several other mental health organisations, with the aim of ending mental health discrimination. The adverts featured celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax speaking openly about their own experiences of distress, and many quoted the '1 in 4' statistic. For example, the poster with Stephen Fry on it said: '1 in 4 people, like me, have a mental health problem. Many more people have a problem with that.' Ruby Wax's said '1 in 5 people have dandruff. 1 in 4 people have a mental health problem. I’ve had both.'

Clearly the statistic was intended to raise awareness of the commonality of mental health problems and to decrease the stigma of those experiencing them. However, I feared that it was in danger of doing quite the opposite.

The 1 in 4 figure is problematic anyway as it is not clear where the figure actually comes from. Of the few studies which have found something like this figure, some have been measuring families rather than individuals, mental health has been measured in various different ways, and it is unclear whether we are talking about, for example, 1 in 4 people at some point during their life, or 1 in 4 people in the last year, or 1 in 4 people at any given point in time.

However, for me, the bigger problem is the potential impact of the figure. 1 in 4 suggests that 75% of the population do not experience mental health problems. That is a substantial majority. The danger is that this situates people with mental health problems as 'them' (compared to 'us' who don't have any such problems). As we know very well in psychology, the creation of any kind of 'us and them' situation increases, rather than decreases, likelihood of discrimination.

Most of us will experience some form of abuse in childhood (if we include 'bullying' by peers, which I think we definitely should); all of us will experience life events such as bereavement of a loved one in adulthood which tend to result in a period of high distress; not to mention the existential givens of life which we all struggle with. Given this, is 'ill or well' a useful model at all?

The common dichotomous understanding which I see amongst counselling clients, friends, and students alike when they are talking about their own – and other's - experiences of distress and suffering is as follows:



I'm ill – I need help – it's not my fault


I'm not ill – I don't get help – it is my fault


People commonly feel, deeply and certainly, that these are the only two possible places to be: ill or not ill, and that the other aspects presented here follow from that. Not only is this a splitting up of the unsplittable biopsychosocial which I mentioned in the previous post. It also suggests that there are only two options: biology or choice (social doesn't even come into it). Mental health problems are seen as an individual – frequently physiological - problem which requires treatment (commonly drugs, sometimes also therapy) to fix. However, if there is no evidence of such an individual problem (if no diagnostic label fits, for example, or if there is suspicion that they are not suffering enough) then the person cannot be ill and therefore any struggles must be their own fault.

This way of understandings things is problematic on all levels. It prevents many people with distress from admitting it because, if they do admit it, they will have to give up control, take on a victim/ill identity, and open themselves up to stigma and discrimination. Those who embrace diagnosis may be disempowered (due to the sense that they can't help themselves and must require expert help). They may feel that they have to take certain treatments (often drugs) because of the common idea that mental health problems are biologically caused and must be biologically treated, despite the question marks which still exist over whether, and how, such drugs work and whether they are the most appropriate way of addressing such issues in all cases (not to mention the vested interest of 'big pharma' in perpetuating this particular understanding). There is no room here for sociocultural explanations or for more complex involvement of personal agency.

Also, many people oscillate between the two positions as neither side really captures the complexities of human distress. This means that those who don't identify as having a mental health problem are haunted by the fear that perhaps there is something terribly wrong with them which needs fixing (and hiding this fear, and any signs that they might be struggling, puts them under immense pressure). Those who do embrace a label such as 'depression' are often haunted by a huge sense of guilt that maybe they are not really ill and maybe this is all their fault and they are totally to blame (which massively exacerbates any suffering they were already experiencing).

This puts people in a horrendous double-bind when it comes to speaking about their own, inevitable, distress and struggles in life. If we openly disclose as 'depressed', for example, (as many people did on the recent 'world mental health day') we run the risk of reinforcing this ill/well split such that those who do not embrace such an identity feel their struggles going unacknowledged and the pain of that invisibility. If we keep quiet about our distress, or resist such labels, then we can equally reinforce the ill/well split as we are read as 'well' by those around us.

We need to move to more biopsychosocial model of distress. We need to recognise that distress – in its various forms - happens for complex multiplicity of reasons, and that we can have a personal role in exacerbating and ameliorating it, but that acknowledging such a role does not mean that we are totally 'to blame' or 'at fault'. We need to understand that we can all access support rather than it being something only for a certain few, and that different things work for different people at different times. We need to challenge either/or illness/wellness dichotomies and to consider other possible models and metaphors for distress.

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Six short posts about mental health 3: Diagnosis

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 16 Oct 2011, 15:41

The common practice within the current mental health system when people are distressed is to diagnose them (to find the category in the DSM or ICD which best fits them) and to treat them accordingly.

In the previous post I said a lot about why people who are suffering might want to embrace a diagnosis of a mental health problem. In the next post I will say more about why practitioners may be wedded to this way of working with distress. Here I will outline some problems with diagnosis in general.

As I mentioned, for people who are struggling, diagnosis is often seen as the only option other than seeing themselves as totally 'to blame' for their own distress. Also, it may be the only way to access support and community, and to be taken seriously by employers and others whose understanding they may need as they are struggling. Given that this is the world we currently live in, it is important for those who are critical of diagnosis not to impose that on others. Rather we might explore, with them, the potential losses and gains of taking on a diagnostic label (something explored in the Open University counselling module). Common losses which people express are that no label fits them perfectly, that – if they do embrace a label - they feel trapped by it (that this is all that they are are all that they'll ever be), and that they are treated differently by other people.

Irving Yalom points out this problem with diagnosis, that it easily fixes people (the way that a kiln fixes a pot) and can prevent us from treating people as whole, complex human beings. Rather, it is easy for professionals to see people as a 'bipolar' for example, or as a 'borderline personality disorder' (assuming that that category is all that they are, and that this person will be the same as other people in that category). Actually there can be multiple diverse meanings for people who fall into the same category which it is vital to explore. Take agoraphobia, for example, which involves fear of being outside the home. This could be about a fear of social contact, a sense of shame about oneself, an oversensitivity to noise, a genuine concern around violent attack (racist or homophobic, for example), an inflated concern over the risk of crime, superstitious fear of an accident happening, worry over one's own capacity for anger and violence with others, or many other things (and combinations of things).

The point about fixing people is supported by the famous Rosenhan study 'on being sane in insane places' which was conducted in the 1970s. He got a group of people to present to psychiatrists. They didn't wash for three days and said that they heard the word 'thud'. All were admitted to hospital and all were diagnosed with schizophrenia (except one who presented to a private clinic who was diagnosed as manic depressive, which is telling about class and diagnosis). Once admitted, the people said that they were fine and didn't report any further symptoms. Nonetheless they were kept in for weeks at least and their behaviours were still read as ill or disordered. For example, queuing up for lunch early because they were bored was labelled 'oral acquisitive syndrome' and making notes was labelled 'compulsive writing behaviour'. Science writer, Lauren Slater, repeated the study in the early 2000s herself. She didn't get admitted, but was diagnosed and medicated by everyone she presented to, reflecting shifts in understanding and treating mental health problems.

Clinical psychologist, Richard Bentall, has pointed out the incoherence of many diagnostic categories: It is possible for two people, categorised in the same way, to have completely different clusters of symptoms. Some symptoms which are generally seen as signs of mental illness, such as hearing voices, are experienced by many people and are not always viewed as problematic.

Also, there are issues with the cultural and historical specificity of diagnosis. The classic example of this is the fact that homosexuality was included as a disorder in the DSM until 1973 and in the ICD until 1992. Other consensual sexual behaviours which are considered 'outside the norm' (such as fetishes, sadomasochism and transvestism) are still listed despite lack of evidence linking them to distress and calls for them to be removed.

This raises the question of to what extent diagnosis of disorder represents individuals being in conflict with the norms of society rather than a genuine pathology. There are many other examples of this. For example, the 'sexual dysfunctions' are categories for people who don't have the amount, or type, of sex that they are expected to have by wider society. Categories of 'premature ejaculation' and 'vaginismus' suggest that 'proper sex' involves penile-vaginal penetration.

We might also think about what things are classified as addictions and what are not (in relation to what is socially acceptable), or what forms of self-harming are pathologised (cutting and burning oneself, but generally not smoking, drinking to excess, risky sports or driving, or cosmetic surgery).

Many have argued that the high levels of diagnosis of depression in women (and the greater likelihood that distressed men will be criminalised as 'bad' whilst women will be pathologised as 'mad') are related to cultural expectations around femininity and masculinity. Also, black and minority ethnic people are more likely than white people to be diagnosed with 'severe' mental health problems and to be hospitalised and treated with drugs, arguably due to the western norms inherent in the diagnostic categories, as well as experiences of racism and social injustice.

Going back to Rosenhan's study we may regard the world that we currently live in as rather an 'insane place' (particularly given the current economic and ecological situation) and question what it means to respond 'sanely' to this. Winnicott famously said, of depression: 'The capacity to become depressed, to have reactive depression, to mourn loss, is something that is not inborn nor is it an illness; it comes as an achievement of healthy emotional growth...the fact is that life itself is difficult...probably the greatest suffering in the human world is the suffering of normal or health or mature persons...this is not generally recognised.' In recent goals for everybody to be 'happy' there is a danger that we pathologise, even more, quite reasonable forms of distress.

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Six short posts about mental health 4: 'Us and them' in mental health

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 16 Oct 2011, 15:42

Given the problems with diagnosis covered in the previous post, we might ask why practitioners continue to employ these, often without critical consideration, and to maintain a split between the ill and the well.

In her book, Users and Abusers of Psychiatry, Lucy Johnstone suggests that it is very tempting for mental health practitioners to treat clients or patients in an 'us and them' way because of how invested they are in the current system. There is the danger that, without such clear splits, their job security would be in danger. Also they would lose the sense of expertise and professional power that they have if, for example, there was a de-medicalising of distress or a de-professionalisation of support for people who were struggling. There is a danger, more widely, that those who have an investment in being seen as sane, in control, and professional require a comparison group of those who aren't (and this may play out in mental health systems, in families and other groups, and in society at large).

Christina Richards presents a further reason why it may be difficult for practitioners to shift away from an 'us and them' approach to distress. She argues that underlying a resistance to change might be a sense of: '“I have been doing things this way for years and will continue to do so as this way must be right (because if I have been doing it wrong for all these years look at all the pain I’ve caused/ time I’ve wasted/ good I could have done)”. It boils down to: “I can’t act in the future, because that proves I could have done so in the past”.'

This way of thinking can keep people very stuck on both sides of the 'us and them'. For practitioners it prevents critical exploration of their current ways of understanding and practising, and substantial revision of diagnostic manuals, etc. which have been used for so long. For clients or patients it makes it difficult to change in ways that might alleviate suffering because changing is seen as acknowledging that one could have changed previously (this is especially difficult because taking personal agency is seen as putting a person on the 'not ill' and 'all my fault' side of the dichotomy explored in my second post). The more time passes, the harder it can be to step away from the way you have been doing and seeing things. There is a kind of tyranny of consistency which would be helpfully addressed by a model which embraced the fact that people change over time and that it is okay to revise and adapt the way we used to see things or admit that we were wrong in the past.

Richards quotes the great sage, Esme Weatherwax, who said that 'Sin ... is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is.' Whilst, of course, we require some kind of language to describe, and make sense of, our experiences of distress, we need to be cautious of ways of understanding that function to trap people and to concretise things rather than enabling them to move. We also need to be alert to understandings which assume that the biopsycho can be disconnected from the social such that it is only the individual who is seen as disordered or malfunctioning, rather than wider systems, and only target treatment at the individual (rather than the family, the school, the organisation, the media, or wider culture, for example). The social aspect is something that I will explore further in the next post.

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Six short posts about mental health 5: Self-monitoring culture and distress

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A friend of mine recently posted a cartoon on Facebook which had Sigmund Freud saying 'before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, surrounded by assholes'. I responded that I thought this said something rather profound about mental health at the moment. Could it in fact be said that a key aspect of many experiences of suffering is the problem of being 'surrounded by assholes' or - to be more generous - being surrounded by damaging cultural messages perpetuated by those around us?

When I first started counselling I became very aware that virtually everybody I saw was convinced that there was something wrong with them that needed fixing, mostly based on the fact that - when they looked around themselves - nobody else seemed to be struggling the way they were. Conversations with close friends, and self-reflection, suggest that this is an extremely common feeling: that everybody else is managing fine so there must be something wrong with me. Of course, when I asked clients how they thought they appeared to other people they recognised that they generally put on a 'happy, managing everything fine mask' which probably gave off the impression that they weren't struggling either.

It strikes me that many experiences of depression, anxiety and other common mental health problems have a strong element of self-scrutiny and comparison to others in them (whilst, of course, I am wary of proposing any universal explanation because these experiences mean many different things to different people and at different times). Michel Foucault used Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon to explain how people self-police in contemporary society. In the Panopticon prison there is a tower in the middle and cells all around an outer circle, such that a guard in the centre could – at any time – be looking into your cell. Because of this, prisoners begin to monitor their own behaviour rather than having to have huge numbers of guards. This idea has been linked to the high degree of surveillance that we now have, meaning that we could – most of the time – be being watched or recorded.

Foucault suggested that contemporary culture worked in this way more broadly. People are encouraged to scrutinise and judge themselves at all times, with advocations to self-improve, to work on themselves, and to present a positive and successful self to the world. This is linked to consumerism which is all about seeing ourselves as lacking and needing something to fill that lack. Advertising, and many other forms of media, create fears (e.g. we might look bad, be out of date, or be a failure) and then offer products to allay those fears (e.g. beauty products, the latest fashion, recipes for success in various arenas).

Within such a culture it is no wonder that people would be particularly driven to constant self-scrutiny, comparison to others, and presentation of themselves as happy, satisfied and successful (even when they may not be any of these things). This shores up the 'us and them' that I wrote about in my second post. Rather than distress and suffering being an inevitable part of everyday life, it is seen as a problematic lack which must be addressed, and is probably outside of the power of the person who is suffering to address.

Perhaps the major challenge for mental health practitioners, counsellors and psychotherapists is the danger that our work can perpetuate this perception: creating new diagnoses and categories and offering an ever-increasing menu of products to fix these (at a price). Even the one-to-one therapy situation is at risk of exacerbating this sense that people are wrong and need fixing, given that one person (the client) is encouraged to express their distress to another person (the therapist) who is generally fairly quiet and certainly not expressing any of their own problems. This is not to say that therapists and counsellors should be inappropriately burdening clients with all their difficulties. But we need to find ways to challenge the idea that the client's struggles mean that there is something wrong with them, and the perception (which most clients have, even when they are therapists themselves) that the therapist has no struggles, or deals with them all perfectly.

Existential therapy includes the idea, not only that all people will inevitably suffer, but also that all responses to this suffering are sensible so long as we properly understand the person who is responding in this way. This, to me, is a very useful counter to the common assumption of something being 'wrong' and the person being flawed and lacking in some way if they do not respond in ways that are deemed culturally acceptable.

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Six short posts about mental health 6: Alternatives - self-care and compassion for all

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 16 Oct 2011, 15:40

In the preceding posts I have argued for a complex understanding of suffering and distress which is very cautious of applying diagnostic criteria and of dividing people into 'ill and well' 'us and them' boxes. Perhaps a better model of distress is of a continuum which we all go up and down during our lives, and where we are not fixed at any given point. I've also emphasised the importance of not splitting up the bio, psycho, and social in our understandings of distress, and suggested that we must not neglect the social aspect of the biopsychosocial because societal ways of understanding people (which we internalise and which, no doubt, are represented on a neurological level) are involved in our difficulties. This is particularly the case in the way in which we are encouraged into self-monitoring, and in the way in which individuals who are in conflict with societal norms tend to be pathologised as disordered individuals.

If we resist the temptation to 'us and them' thinking then perhaps we can make more of a connection with people when they are distressed (rather than attempting to distance ourselves from them in ways that maintain them as 'them' and protect us from any sense that we might experience similar things ourselves). Then we might be able to ask questions such as 'what works for me when I am distressed?' which may lead to more helpful responses when others are struggling (although, of course, we must be cautious of assuming that everybody works in the same way that we do – perhaps the question is more like 'given everything that I know about this person, what might they be needing right now?') We might reflect, for example, on times when we've been under chronic stress or when a crisis has occurred in our lives.

Broadly speaking, when we reflect on what is unhelpful when we are distressed we might come up with things like: taking away the aspects which makes the person what they are (things that they regard as central to their identity such as work or relationships), removing people's sense of personal freedom and choice, and regarding them as inexplicable or baffling, for example questioning why they can't just stop feeling, or responding, in the way that they are doing. On the other side, we might find that what helps when we're distressed is not being overloaded with anything else, being treated kindly and patiently and being around those we feel safest with, being reassured that we are still free (but perhaps we don't have to make lots of decisions right now), and feeling that we are understood and that our response is a perfectly explicable way of responding to this situation (which involves somebody taking the time to understand what it means to us).

The vital role of compassion (from others and towards oneself) has been emphasised by many recently, and is part of the reason, perhaps, why various forms of mindfulness-based therapies are suddenly so popular (as they often encourage practices of self-care and compassion). Compassionate treatment of self and others is, perhaps, an opposite to the judging-comparing-monitoring mode which is so culturally encouraged at present. Rather than fearing that we are lacking, pretending that we aren't, and trying to prove that we are better than others, we accept that everyone is imperfect, are open about our struggles, and move away from a competitive way of relating with others.

Vitally, an alternative compassionate, or self-caring, form of working with distress does not present this as something that is necessary just for people who are struggling (reinforcing that 'us and them'). Rather it is seen as something everybody needs to engage in to counter those omnipresent self-monitoring messages (which affect us all) and to address the struggles and distress which we all experience.

Find Out More

  • Many of the ideas in these posts are explored, in more detail, in the textbook and module for D240.

  • A very accessible book that covers may of these areas is Richard Bentall's Doctoring the Mind.

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Why does bisexuality need celebrating?

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Why does bisexuality need celebrating?

23rd September every year is worldwide 'celebrate bisexuality day'. Why, you might ask, does bisexuality require a day for people to take notice of it? In this post I will attempt to provide some answers to this question.

The first reason for celebrating bisexuality relates to the notion of pride more broadly. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) pride events happen every year in many of the world's major cities. These often involve LGBT people, and their supporters, marching through town in a parade of different sections of the LGBT community, each with decorated floats and banners.

The thinking behind LGBT pride is that, for much of recent history, being LGBT has been associated with shame. Only in the 1970s was 'homosexuality' removed from the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) (which is used to assess 'mental disorders' in many countries), and it remained in the World Health Organisation International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a 'disorder' until the early 1990s. Being LGB or T has been criminalised in many countries in the past, and remains so in 80 member states of the United Nations, still being punishable by death in some. The statistics on hate crimes remain frightening for LGBT people, and trans people in particular are attacked, stigmatised and ridiculed, even in the mainstream media. The pride movement is about raising awareness of LGBT people and about fighting for right to equality.

Obviously bisexuality is included as the 'B' in LGBT, so you might ask why it needs its own day in addition to more general LGBT pride events, LGBT history month and the various other celebrations of LGBT lives and identities which take place.

The reason for this is what is known as bisexual invisibility. This refers to the fact that bisexuality is often excluded or neglected in all kinds of ways, both in the world in general and within many LGBT communities.

A big part of the reason for bisexual invisibility is that human sexuality is often assumed to be dichotomous: that is people are seen as either attracted to people of the 'same gender' or of a 'different gender'. Bisexual people are attracted to more than one gender (the 'bi' in 'bisexual' refers to them being attracted to both people of the 'same gender' and of a 'different gender'), so they do not fit into this dichotomy.

Bisexuality draws attention to the problem with this dichotomous view of sexuality because bisexual people do not fit it. Also, some bisexual people say that they are attracted to people 'regardless of gender', meaning that other things are more important to their attraction than gender is. That is challenging to those who think that sexuality is all about the gender of people we are attracted to, and not about other things such as the various aspects of people's appearance or personality which we find attractive, the sensations we enjoy experiencing, the sexual roles we like to take, the scenarios we find exciting, the fantasies we find pleasurable, and so on.

So how does bisexual invisibility manifest? Here are some common forms which you may well have come across:

  • Doubt being raised over the very existence of bisexuality, for example research studies which claim that certain forms of bisexuality (often bisexual men) don't exist, textbooks which only cover 'heterosexuality and homosexuality', and journalism. This is despite the clear existence of bisexual communities, and statistics on the extent of bisexuality.

  • Bisexuality being seen as 'just a phase', or a time of 'confusion' on the way to a heterosexual, or lesbian/gay identity. Of course some people do identify as bisexual, or have relationships with more than one gender, before coming to identify as lesbian, gay or heterosexual. However, longitudinal research suggests that bisexuality is more often a stable identity than one which is relinquished for a different one over time.

  • Figures in history who had relationships with people more than one gender being interpreted as lesbian or gay, and their other-gender relationships or sexual encounters being ignored, leaving bisexual people with a lack of available role models. Also, historical LGBT activism being reinterpreted as LG struggles despite key involvement of bisexual and trans people.

  • LGBT organisations, or equality and diversity initiatives, dropping the 'B' so that bisexuality is included in the title but the rest of their materials default to 'lesbian and gay' or even just 'gay' and refer to 'homophobia' rather than 'homophobia and biphobia' (bisexual people are often discriminated specifically for being bisexual, for example in the double discrimination they can experience from heterosexual and LG communities).

Bisexual invisibility is common in the mass media where bisexual people are very rarely represented. When a soap opera character is attracted to more than one gender they are nearly always shown as going from being straight to being lesbian/gay (like Syed Masood in Eastenders), or vice versa (as in Bob and Rose). The film Brokeback Mountain was described as a gay Western despite the characters also having close and/or sexual relationships with their wives. Newspaper articles about married male politicians who have been found to have male lovers almost invariably describe them as 'really gay', whereas celebrity women who have lovers of more than one gender are often presented as 'really straight' and having female lovers for the titillation of men.

Common everyday forms of bisexual invisibility include bisexual people being told to 'make their mind up', being assumed to be 'really' lesbian/gay or straight (perhaps on the basis of the gender of their partner), or being questioned about their experiences in order to 'prove' their bisexuality.

'Celebrate bisexuality day' is one means of increasing the visibility of bisexuality as a sexuality, and of developing awareness of bisexual invisibility and biphobia. Hopefully this will help in addressing biphobic hate crime, biphobic bullying in schools, and the distress experienced by many bisexual people due to discrimination and lack of acknowledgement of their identities.


Find Our More

  • The BiUK website contains lots more information and links about bisexuality in the UK, particularly in relation to research.

  • For more general information about bisexuality, check out The Bisexual Index.

  • The longest running magazine for bisexual people can be found at Bi Community News.

  • The Journal of Bisexuality has a great range of academic papers on this topic.

  • For information about the main UK events around bisexuality check out the national BiCon and the local BiFest days.

  • The San Francisco report on bisexual invisibility can be downloaded here, and will soon be joined by a UK-specific report dealing with similar issues.



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Privilege and Oppression, Conflict and Compassion

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There's a new online article by myself and my colleague, Jamie Heckert, over on The Sociological Imagination.

The piece deals with many of the issues around conflict, kindness, honesty and mindfulness which I've been writing about here, so please follow the link and let me know what you think.

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Mindfulness: Kindness & honesty

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 14 Sept 2011, 12:28

This blog follows the one posted here, where I reflect on tensions emerging from a weekend retreat about the possibilities of social mindfulness.

Kindness / honesty

The second tension which emerged, for me, over the weekend was perhaps less explicit than the other one, and harder to capture. It is about whether we prioritise kindness or honesty in our interactions with others (and with ourselves).

Of course, again, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed one understanding of mindfulness could be as a form of kind honesty, or honest kindness. It is not there in the early Buddhist definitions of mindfulness, which focus on lucid awareness (which could, perhaps, be viewed as a form of honesty with ourselves), but recent western mindful therapies - for example - often bring together concepts of awareness with those of compassion or acceptance. And the kind of awareness which is advocated in mindful meditation, more broadly, is a gentle or kind one. For example, when we meditate we are encouraged to be aware of the thoughts and feelings that bubble up, but not to become too attached to them. However, we are also not meant to squash them or try to eradicate them. Rather the aim is to be compassionately aware of them, and to gently bring our attention back to our breath or other focus of meditation. This kind of practice reminds us of the sorts of stories and habits that we can get easily become caught up in.

When it comes to our interactions with others it seems that a prioritising of kindness can take us away from being honest, and a prioritising of honesty can take us away from being kind. For example, a mindfulness activity which I brought to the weekend (based on some writing I've been doing with Jamie Heckert) was about two different common strategies for dealing with situations of conflict where one person or group has more power than the other because of their social status. One of these strategies focuses more on kindness, where we try to compassionately understand where ourselves, and the other people, are coming from in the conflict and focus on reaching an understanding, being gentler with each other, and perhaps forgiving and accepting. The other strategy focuses more on honesty, where we look at what is going on in the conflict (perhaps explicitly and implicitly) and we name it publicly, drawing attention to the power dynamics which are at play and the privileges which one person or group has which means that their voice may be more heard than the others.

As I see it now, the dangers are that kindness-focused strategies may fall into 'niceness', whilst honesty-focused strategies may fall into 'rudeness'.

When we are trying so hard to be kind that we prioritise compassion over honesty, we may find ourselves ignoring or avoiding tensions which are there in order that everybody gets along. We might fail to see the power dynamics and marginalisations that are happening because we do not want to have to face difficult conversations, or even irresolvable conflicts. We might lose our critical awareness of the complexities of the situation, and the differences between us, in a comforting sense of our shared humanity and connection which may well not be there for everybody. We might find ourselves accepting what we take for granted rather than questioning it in a critical way. In our attempts to be kind we might end up causing harm as we silence some voices and flatten the hierarchies that exist. If our aim is to increase kindness in the world, we may find ourselves doing the exact opposite as people feel even more hurt and raw and less inclined to engage with one another, or we ourselves behave passively-aggressively because we are suppressing any difficult feelings.

When we are trying so hard to be honest that we prioritise awareness over kindness, on a very practical level we may find that others are unable to hear what we have to say. The privileges, oppressions and power dynamics which we clearly see, and the problematic behaviours which we want to highlight, may well be so hard for others to own up to that they just respond defensively and shut down. This may particularly be the case if we communicate with them in an accusing or insistent way which doesn't include listening to their perspective at all. If our aim is to improve awareness and to encourage honest exchange, we may do the exact opposite as people feel far too unsafe to speak openly, and put up their defences such that it becomes even harder for them to see the problematic things that they are doing. It may be much easier for them just to dismiss us as rude people, or over-the-top activists, and walk away from the exchange. We may, ourselves, become so aggressive in our manner that others are scared or hurt by the exchange, meaning that we are perpetuating the very violence which we were trying to address.

There is a danger, in mindfulness, that we prioritise compassion to such an extent that we close down debate and difference and – unwittingly perhaps – prevent ourselves from seeing some of the problems that we are so keen to address. There is a danger, for those of us who are critically socially engaged, that we fall into judgement of others and shoring up our own sense of 'rightness'. Without compassion we may be unable to see our own potential for harming others (because it is too hard to face when we aren't being kind), or the personal and painful reasons which may lie behind other people's actions.

Perhaps this is social mindfulness: the attempt to be honestly kind, compassionately critical, and gently aware.


Where is the social?

I hope that these explorations may go some way to answering my colleague's question about 'where is the social' in mindfulness. To summarise, I think it is (or can be) in there in the following ways, and probably many more:

  • In recognising the inherent socialness even of our very internal experiences: the ways our interactions with other people throughout our lives have shaped who and how we are, and how much of our internal life is devoted to our interactions with others and the wider world.

  • In employing meditation, and other practices, to 'swim against the stream' – noticing how wider assumptions and accepted behaviours operate through us, and committing to do otherwise.

  • In mindfulness as a methodology – individually and in group processes – for understanding the complexities of how social aspects such as power and privilege operate through us.

  • In mindfulness practices which are explicitly social. One example would be writing about how we, ourselves, experience being on two sides of an opposition (for example when we feel marginalised, or when we marginalise others), in order to understand the other perspective better. Another would be mindful dialogue, when we have conversations with the explicit intention of listening, hearing the other, and being aware of what we bring to the situation. A further example is in ways of making people's stories available in ways which illuminate what their lives are like within the current social context (e.g. of healthcare systems, or global politics).

  • In 'retreating' in ways which leave us more able then to engage, rather than feeling too ragged ourselves to intervene in ways which may be useful to others.

  • In using mindfulness to bring an ethics to our work on social issues which might mean that we make more of a difference, because we understand better how to communicate what we are saying in ways which can be heard and acted upon by others.


Find out more:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh's community of interbeingrepresents one very social version of mindfulness.

  • Gregory Kramer's 'insight dialogue' is an example of a social mindfulness practice.

  • Steven and Martine Batchelor's website is another interesting way into mindfulness which considers many of these issues.

  • My papers written in collaboration with Steven Stanley and Jamie Heckert will both be appearing online and explore some of these ideas further. I will link to them when they are available.

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Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 14 Sept 2011, 12:29

Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

People who read my blogs and other writing will know that one of the things I'm heavily into is mindfulness. This is, broadly speaking, the practice of cultivating awareness, often through meditation where you gently focus on your breath going in and out, or on the sounds around you, or on your bodily sensations as you walk very slowly back and forth.

My excitement about mindfulness may seem a bit peculiar to those who know that the other areas which I'm passionately engaged in are all very social: issues around relationship structures, discrimination of marginalised groups in society, and power and conflict. Mindfulness seems such an internal, individual thing, how can it possibly be relevant to these matters. As somebody asked in an Open University seminar on the topic: 'where is the social?'

Such questions were the motivation behind a weekend workshop/retreat which I attended earlier this month. Steven Stanley and I put together the weekend with a group of colleagues to address the question of social mindfulness. The weekend consisted of a combination of periods of meditation and other mindful-type practices (such as Qigong), together with presentations and discussions linking mindfulness to various social issues including sustainability, interpersonal and intergroup conflict, prejudice and discrimination, mental health and communication.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the weekend was the way in which the kinds of challenges we were discussing were so live within the group itself. Perhaps - particularly as a relationship therapist - I should have expected that these psychosocial issues would come up in the process of our interactions as well as in the content of them. But I really didn't anticipate it, and I found it tough indeed to notice how much my thoughts, when meditating, kept returning to niggles about my exchanges with other people, and how many of our group discussions themselves became conflictual or manifested some of the very power dynamics which we were trying so hard to address.

Mindfulness retreats, in my experience, are often humbling experiences in this way: in the silence and stillness we are forced to confront the kinds of petty judging and competitiveness that we fall into a lot of the time, and it is not a comfortable experience. At times I found it frustrating. Perhaps on some level I wanted us to prove to everyone how socially beneficial mindfulness could be by having some wonderfully experience of perfect connection, simply because we were all being so mindful! But perhaps what really happened was a lot more useful because it reminded us that what we really were was just a group of human beings, with all the messiness that entails. The inevitable tensions, scratchiness, miscommunications and disengagements – if we are courageous enough to face them – provide a perfect arena for thinking about how all our mindful ideas and practices could usefully be brought to bear on other social situations.

In my next two blogs I want to focus on two tensions, which emerged for me, from the weekend, which I think are key to this question of how mindfulness ways of understanding the world, and living our lives, might be useful in terms of wider social issues. The first is about whether we focus inwards on ourselves or outwards on the world around us. The second is about a tension between kindness and honesty. In both cases, of course, these are not mutually exclusive things, and perhaps the important shift is from an either/or way of seeing them (either I can focus inwards or outwards, either I can be kind or I can be honest) to a both/and way of embracing each 'side', or perhaps bringing them into dialogue with each other, or seeing what it is like to oscillate between them like a pendulum rather than prioritising one 'side' over the other.


Focus inwards / focus outwards

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the weekend, for me, was one about internal or external focus.

Some of us found ourselves arguing for the social benefits of very internal mindfulness practices because – if we do not look into ourselves in this way – we may well find ourselves intervening with others in ways that are harmful to them. One way in which we are all social is that our exchanges and interactions over the years (with close friends, wider groups and society at large), leave us with painful feelings, fears about ourselves, and uncomfortable habits. For example, we may have grown up in a family where it was expected that everyone be tough, or we may have been bullied at school for being a misfit, or we may have taken on board a wider societal habit of judging people by their appearances. If we are not aware of these things we may find ourselves just acting on them when we interact with others (e.g. trying to be the tough guy all the time). Or we might try to suppress them and keep them hidden, but find that they blurt out, or that we project them onto other people (e.g. using an appearance word like 'fat' as an insult without meaning to, or viewing somebody else as a misfit because we're trying not to be one ourselves).

The extreme 'internal' position might be that putting our 'stuff' onto other people like this is so inevitable that the best thing we can do is to focus inwardly a lot, and just endeavour not to cause harm in these ways. Trying to intervene with others is just too dangerous and will likely involve us imposing ourselves, or our society, onto them in ways that are deeply problematic because we can't ever know enough about their situation.

Perhaps the opposite view to this is to see the social benefits only of external practices where we do actually go out into the world and intervene. This view might look at internal practices, such as meditation, and ask what good they are doing. In a world where there is so much suffering, meditation, therapy and the like seem like incredibly privileged activities, only available to a few who have the necessary time and resources. They can also appear like a kind of self-indulgent naval-gazing which encourage us to focus inwards on self-improvement or on beating ourselves up, instead of outwards on activities which might actually diminish suffering or help other people. Wouldn't it be better if all the time, energy and resources spent on such internal-focused practices was put into activism or directed towards those with greater needs?

The extreme 'external' position might be to focus entirely on intervention: to get out into the world and find out what the most pressing issues are (the threat to the environment perhaps, or poverty, or war), to develop our skills and knowledge in these areas, and to do something which might be of help. External mindfulness practices might take the form of encouraging people into mindful dialogue to resolve conflict (for example, by teaching listening practices), or they might be ways of increasing sustainability through encouraging awareness of 'conditioned arising' (e.g. where the pair of jeans we see in the supermarket came from, and what the impact is of buying them).

The well known mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, was presented with just this challenge of inner or outer focus. In the 1970s a monk asked him what the best response was to the crisis of refugees in Vietnam after the war: should the monks stay in their monastery and meditate, or should they get out there and try to feed and house the refugees. Thich Nhat Hanh responded that they should do both, and his book The Miracle of Mindfulness was written as a fuller response to this social issue. This is why the book focuses on bringing mindfulness into all our daily activities, rather than it just being something that we do sitting on a cushion.

Steven Batchelor, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, also emphasises a kind of oscillation between retreat and engagement. He says that our practice cannot be abstracted from the way in which we interact with the world, which needs to be with integrity, but perhaps we cannot know what the ethical way to act is if we do not take time to tune into ourselves and to consider others with empathy. However, we can never reach a certainty of the impact our actions will have, so we have to act, to be open to learning from our mistakes, to notice when our habits kick in when we are acting on self-interest, and then to act again, attempting to avoid this.

'At times we may concentrate on the specifics of material existence: creating a livelihood that is in accord with our deepest values and aspirations. At times we may retreat: disentangling ourselves from social and psychological pressures in order to reconsider our life in a quiet and supportive setting. At times we may engage with the world: responding empathetically and creatively to the anguish of others' (Batchelor, 1997, p.42).

Perhaps it is useful, also, to be aware of the risk of meditation – and other more 'inner' focused practices – to become a mode of self-monitoring, done with the aim of self-improvement, which takes us away from engagement with others, as well as of the risk that externally focused activities may be done in a way that hurts others if we do not attempt to be aware of what we bring to those situations in terms of our personal hopes and fears.


My next blog will focus on another tension from the weekend – that around kindness and honesty. I'll also conclude with a summary of social mindfulness and some places to read more.

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Tragic Optimism in the Northern Existential Discussion Group

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 18 Sept 2011, 11:31

Tragic Optimism in the Northern Existential Discussion Group

7th September 2011 saw the second meeting of the Northern Existential Discussion Group. This month our reading was a short essay by the existential psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, called The Case for Tragic Optimism. He wrote this in 1984 as a postscript to his classic book about his experiences of the holocaust: Man's Search for Meaning. The essay makes the case for finding meaning in life despite the inevitable tragedies which we will experience. Frankl is, perhaps, one of the most accessible existentialist writers to read, and the essay is very engaging and thought-provoking indeed.

Here I'll say a bit more about the author, summarise his argument, and then give a flavour of our discussions: what we found inspiring about the essay, and where we felt it was limited or problematic.


Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl (1905-1997) was a professor of neurology and psychiatry who founded a type of therapy known as logotherapy. This was the thrid type of therapy to come out of the University of Vienna Medical School (following Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology). However, it was a lot more existential in nature than these more psychodynamic approaches, and has gone on to have a significant influence on the field of existential psychotherapy more broadly.

Frankl spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps during World War II and these experiences had a marked impact on his philosophy and his therapy. They are movingly recounted in his book Man's Search for Meaning. Following the war, Frankl returned to Vienna where he practised, and wrote and published over thirty books. He was also a visiting professor at Harvard.


Tragic Optimism

The Case for Tragic Optimism basically advocates a certain way of living, that is saying 'yes' to life in the face of its tragic elements. Here is a quick summary of the argument:

Frankl states that life involves three inevitable kinds of tragedy, the 'tragic triad':

  1. Pain and suffering,

  2. Guilt, because we are free to make choices in our lives, and are responsible for the impact of those choices, and

  3. Death, and knowing that our life is transient.

He says that it is hard to find meaning in the face of such tragedy, but that if we do not, then our sense of meaninglessness lies behind our experiences of:

  1. Depression,

  2. Aggression, and

  3. Addiction.

He also argues that meaninglessness is a particular issue in current western societies (when he was writing in 1984) where the youth see themselves as having 'no future' and people 'have enough to live by but nothing to live for' (p.142).

Frankl then puts forward three ways in which we can find meaning in our lives:

  1. Through our work or deeds,

  2. Through experiences or encounters with other people (e.g. love), and

  3. Through rising above, and growing from, the inevitable suffering which we will experience.

So Frankl is advocating that we make meaning from all three kinds of tragedy:

  1. Pain and suffering – from learning from the experience and finding meaning in it,

  2. Guilt – by taking responsibility for our actions, and

  3. Death – by living our life as if it was for the second time, knowing how we got it wrong the first time.

Frankl says that it is easy, in the face of inevitable tragedy, to fall in to nihilsm or to chase after things like happiness, success or youth instead of seeking meaning, especially in a culture which seems to encourage such pursuits. However, he is clear that the quest for meaning is the only one which he considers worthwhile. He suggests that seeking happiness is a form of 'hyperintention': Like trying to get to sleep, or trying to have an orgasm, it is one of those things that if we try too hard to make it happen we will be even less likely to achieve it. For Frankl the only true way to happiness is through finding meaning.


Discussion of the Essay

The group found much to like in this essay, but we also had some serious reservations about some of the arguments. I'll try to summarise, first of all, what we resonated with, and then some of our key concerns about Frankl's philosophy.


The Potential of Tragic Optimism

First of all, I think we mostly agreed with the idea that life does contain a great deal of tragedy, and that it is useful to acknowledge this rather than denying it. We were interested that Frankl highlighted suffering and death as inevitable facts of life (in common with Buddhist, and other existential, philosophers), but that he also included guilt, which other writers rarely talk about. We wondered whether the experience of surviving the holocaust might have led him to reflect upon guilt more than most.

We also related very much to the pain of meaninglessness, and many of us agreed that our darkest and most troubling times were located in such experiences. We were struck that it is hard, or even impossible, to capture the feeling of meaninglessness in words, and that it is an experience which is kept private, and taboo, perhaps more than any other. We may express anger, sadness, joy, and fear, but the expression of meaninglessness is often shunned by other people, as if it were contagious. According to those who had experience of mental health systems it is also dealt with quite poorly there, perhaps because it requires an intuitive and nurturing response which isn't what professionals tend to be trained in.

In terms of Frankl's suggestions for finding meaning, we could relate to the ideas he put forward. For example, I reflected on my experience of writing and trying to get published this year. First of all I certainly found meaning in the deed of writing the book. When it wasn't immediately taken up by a publisher, I found that another way to meaning through it was in giving it to a few people to read and sharing an encounter with them through that. Finally, I found that it was useful to move away from a focus on striving for the accomplishment of publishing, to a decision to find meaning through the process of learning about how to get published, and through finding that I could deal with the inevitable pain of rejection that is part of this process. It seemed that perhaps cultivating all three paths to meaning (particularly the last one, as a fall back option) was a good way of ensuring a sense of meaning and fulfilment in life.


Problems with Tragic Optimism

One problem we had with Frankl's ideas was with the contradiction between the suggestion that it is good to pursue meaning, but not to pursue other things (e.g. happiness, success, etc.) We wondered why meaning was a special case of something that it was okay to pursue. Perhaps, just like pursuing sleep or happiness too vigorously, seeking meaning too desperately would also inevitably prevent us from finding it.

I reflected that my own way of dealing with meaninglessness in life, as well as employing many of Frankl's suggestions, has also been to embrace it as an inevitable part of life which will happen with some regularity. There will be times – perhaps quite frequently - when we feel that our projects are pointless in the grand scheme of things, or when the world feels an overwhelming and cold place to live in, or when disconnections and conflicts with others feel unbearable and we feel utterly broken by life. If we see such times as evidence that we are 'getting it wrong' and try desperately to find some meaning quickly, we are – perhaps – likely to spiral even further into hopelessness. Some of us in the group said that, when we had such moments, we instead found it useful to focus on the very basic mundane activities of life (walking the dog, making our breakfast, having a shower), getting on with it until it passed. And sometimes we just have to be with the horror of the meaninglessness while it is there without trying to change it, and without being able to do anything whilst it is happening.

We also thought that Frankl implied that meaning was 'out there' (or 'in us') somewhere to be found if we searched for it, and that disagreeing with this was a form of nihilism. We didn't all agree with this and many of us were more in line with philosophers such as Sartre and de Beauvoir who hold that we create our own meanings but that there is no intrinsic meaning in life. In fact, perhaps facing this fact is also a vital part of finding meaning (recognising that we create our own meanings and could create them differently).

Finally, we had a big problem with how individualistic Frankl's philosophy seemed to us. The focus appeared to be very much on each person finding their own meaning, rather than any collective meaning-making (although, you could argue, that both guilt and death are very relational experiences as one is all about the impact we have on others, and the other is only something we understand through seeing others die).

Frankl seems to see the ultimate in meaning as being the person who can 'hold their head high' in the face of suffering: for example, the people he saw who found meaning even in the hell of the concentration camps, or a person rendered paraplegic who insisted that 'I broke my neck, it didn't break me.' Whilst such examples are incredibly inspiring, we thought there was a real neglect of the different circumstances of people's lives here. Surely it is far more easy for some, than others, to find meaning: for example, for those in a position of relative privilege, and who have resources and lots of support, compared to those who are oppressed, marginalised and alienated in various ways. Frankl's philosophy could lead to a dangerous kind of victim blame where we judge people for not being able to make meaning from their suffering.

Also, he seemed to argue that it was never okay for somebody to choose death over life, and we felt that such a choice could be considered meaningful (and who is anybody else to judge this anyway?) We thought there were resonances of Frankl in recent political speeches and journalism about the UK 'riots': the focus on the individuals involved and the need for them to take more responsibility, rather than any consideration of the wider socioeconomic context in which these occurred.


Questions to Consider

  • Is life inevitably tragic?

  • Are pain, guilt and death the only, and inevitable, tragedies we will experience?

  • Do you agree with Frankl that we can't force ourselves to be optimistic, or happy?

  • Do you agree that meaning is the thing we should strive for in life?

  • Is meaninglessness the root of all depression, aggression and addiction?

  • Is meaningless a particular issue in contemporary society? Do Frankl's comments on youth, and on having nothing to live for, ring true at the moment?

  • Are the three paths to meaning work, encounters and growing through suffering?

  • How does the world we live in now encourage, or discourage, the kind of philosophy which Frankl was advocating?

  • Is our sense of meaning something that we can find (as Frankl seems to imply) or is it something which we create (in a world where there is no given meaning)?

  • In our search for meaning should we be looking for a great purpose or project (the meaning of life) or seek meaning in the more mundane, everydayness of life?


Find Our More

You can read another summary of The Case for Tragic Optimism, here.

You can list to an audio version of the essay here.

The essay is also included at the end of Frankl's famous book about his experience of the holocaust, Man's Search for Meaning, which you can find here, and summarised here.

There are several clips of Frankl himself talking on YouTube here.



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

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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.


The common idea of the conventional relationship is of a monogamous, long-term relationship between a man and a woman, based on them falling in love, and committed to through marriage. The conventional family is the so-called 'nuclear' family where such a couple has two or three children. And the conventional home is the house which this family owns and where they live out their private life, away from the gaze of other people.


Understandings of the conventional relationship has certainly changed a great deal over time. For a start, the current emphasis we have on love as the basis of a relationships is a relatively new thing. In the past, relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it in her book Marriage, a History 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. The current form of love relationships seemed to emerge in the 1950s, although, as I often point out, the TV series Mad Men, which has so caught the popular imagination, is a pretty accurate demonstration of some of the tensions that were in it right from the start.


Some have argued that the historical shift in emphasis to romantic love is related to the decline of religion, the precariousness of work situations, and the tendency of people to move about geographically rather than remaining in one place. Intimate relationships have become the new religion: the place people turn to get self-validation, a sense of meaning, and the belonging they may previously have gained from family or community. It certainly seems that marriages are a relatively recession-proof industry, and that there is a strong message – in popular culture – that people will meet The One with whom they will have a happily-ever-after.


However, there is an inevitable tension here because we are also living in a time which emphasises individuality, autonomy and reaching our personal goals. Increasing gender equality, and recognition of lesbian, gay and bisexual people's relationships, means that romantic couples are now generally made up of two people who want both togetherness and independence, both belonging and freedom. This means that old rules, around rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules available for how to manage these relationships. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.


These changes may be the reason why marriages, and romantic relationships, are relatively unstable, and why there is evidence of an increasing diversity of relationship forms. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Around 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not. Newspaper articles wonder whether Bridget Jones singledom, or Sex and The City serial monogamy, will replace long-term monogamous relationships as the new form of relating. Many people are engaging in forms of openly non-monogamous relationships, from the new monogamy (where couple relationships are, to some extent, open to other sexual and emotional connections), to swinging, open relationships and polyamory (where people form multiple emotional and/or sexual relationships).


There have been similar shifts in families and homes over the past century. Related to changes in relationships, are increases in single-person households (estimated at seven million in the UK, and particularly high in urban areas). There have also been changes in parenting (single-parenting, step parenting, and families with multiple parents), and at returns to the less-private, extended, forms of family (both biological families and families of choice) due to economic pressures and other reasons. Also interesting is the British love of home-ownership following the involvement of mortgages in recent financial crises.

Those who are interested in finding out more might like to listen into Thinking Allowed, follow the links in this piece, and check out the UK General Lifestyle Survey 2009 which charts how things have changed in recent decades.


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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 22 Aug 2011, 14:12

What's wrong with heteronormativity?


Yesterday a couple of things happened in quick succession which left me feeling strange and sad. They both called something into question which I have thought about, spoken about, and written about so much for so many years that I regard it as obvious. Having it questioned left me struggling to find words at all.


Reflecting on this today I'm reminded that, of course, this is not something which is obvious to everybody. So I thought I would write a post where I try to articulate what it is that I usually take for granted: that there is something wrong with heteronormativity.


Apologies that this blog entry ended up being rather extensive. If you don't have time to read it all then you can jump to 'the short version' which I've provided at the very end.


What is heteronormativity?

The first thing that happened was that a group of colleagues and I received a response to a complaining letter which we had written to a television company. We had complained about a recent documentary about sex which they aired. One of our main problems with the programme was that virtually all of the sex that they included in it was heterosexual sex (heterosexual couples kissing and cuddling, or – when it got more explicit - somebody with a penis penetrating someone with a vagina). A small part of the final episode was given over to considering why some people are attracted to the 'same sex', but the vast majority of representations of sex were heterosexual. The response from the television company was that they didn't really see a problem with their representations given that 'the majority of the British population is heterosexual'.


After receiving this email, I took a bit of a break and read a few news articles which my friends had linked to online. I found a particularly interesting one about a legal case where a woman wanted the right to wear a collar to work because she was into BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism). After finishing the article I looked through the comments which people had written on the website. I was struck by how many of them argued that the woman should keep her sexuality to herself, 'leave her sexual proclivities at home like most people', stop 'going on' about what she does in private, in her bedrooom, etc. A similar issue has recently come up in psychotherapy and counselling, whereby some people have argued that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) counsellors should not let their clients know about their sexualities, and that being open about them could be harmful.


All of these are examples of heteronormativity: the idea that attraction and relationships between one man and one woman are the normal form of sexuality, that sex itself should involve a penis penetrating a vagina, and that any other forms of sexuality, or gender, are not normal, or at least not as normal as this.


The first example which I gave of heteronormativity is pretty obvious. The argument from the television company is that it is okay to present heterosexuality in virtually all of the examples of sex on the show because 'the majority' of people are heterosexual. The second example is perhaps a little less clear, but none-the-less I think it is an example of heteronormativity. People generally have no problem with a person wearing a wedding ring to work, having a picture of their heterosexual partner on their desk, or talking about what they did with their heterosexual partner at the weekend. The suggestion that it might not be okay to wear clothes, or have conversations, which imply that a person is lesbian, gay or bisexual, or a BDSM practitioner, is heteronormative because the same kinds of things which are challenged - or regarded as strange - here go unquestioned for non-kinky heterosexual people.


These second kind of challenge also reveals that people are generally assumed to be heterosexual (and interested in heterosexual, non-kinky, sexual practices) unless proven otherwise. This is another example of heteronormativity. People who are not heterosexual (or who are kinky, or non-monogamous, or otherwise outside the heteronorm) have to make a decision whether to let people know this or not, whereas people inside the heteronorm know that people will make the correct assumptions about their sexuality, relationships, gender, etc.


Why is it a problem?

So what the television company, and (by implication) many of the people commenting on the collar story are saying is that heterosexuality is normal, and therefore it is fine to depict it as such, and to see people as strange who do not fit within it, and to put different restrictions on their behaviours than we do on heterosexual people.


I'm guessing that many of the people concerned would agree that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are bad things: it is not okay to be prejudiced towards, or to harm people people on the basis of, their sexuality or gender. However, they don't see a problem with regarding people outside of heteronormativity as somehow 'less normal' and treating them differently on the basis of that.


Why do I think this is such a problem? There are many reasons, but here I am going to focus on three rather practical ones. First, rather obviously perhaps, heteronormativity is bad for people who are outside of heteronormativity. Secondly, it is based on some quite problematic ideas about what is normal, and whether that should be what we base our treatment of other people on. And finally, perhaps less obviously, I would argue that heteronormativity is also bad for people who are within it.


Heteronormativity is bad for people outside of it

Psychologist Catherine Butler wrote a short story, which was eventually produced as a film, called 'homoworld'. This imagined a world in which heteronormativity was reversed: where being gay and lesbian was seen as the norm, whilst heterosexuality was regarded as peculiar and requiring explanation. It is a useful exercise for people who are heterosexual themselves to reflect upon what it might feel like to be outside of the sexuality norm. For example, the characters in homoworld have to decide whether to come out (and deal with the stress of possible rejection or prejudice) or to hide their relationship (and deal with the stress of keeping such an important thing secret). They also have to cope with questions from others about the ways in which they decide to commit to their relationship or to have children. On a very everyday level, they are surrounded by lesbian and gay representations: on billboard advertisements, in pop songs, and on the street where it is generally only lesbian and gay people who are kissing or holding hands.


It can be useful also to check out the heterosexual questionnaire, and the straight privilege checklist, to get a sense of how heteronormativity feels for those who are outside of it. These tools raise awareness of the fact that it is not just outright homophobia which is bad for LGB people. It is also tough if everybody around you feels that it is okay to ask what you think caused your sexuality, or to question whether you are really that sexuality, or whether it might be better just to keep quiet about it. Similarly, there is a degree of privilege, comfort and security, in having a sexuality which nobody else feels discomforted by, which isn't used as a reason to question your masculinity or femininity, which isn't the basis of derogatory language (e.g. 'that's so gay'), which is not seen as the totality of who you are, and whereby you are not expected to speak for everybody else who has that sexuality. The monosexual and cisgender privilege checklists are similarly useful in relation to bisexuality and trans.


Psychologists know that dividing people into 'us' and 'them' is often the first step towards treating 'them' differently, and even cruelly. So we can see that heteronormativity and homophobia cannot be as easily disentangled as people might hope. When we heternormatively separate 'normal' heterosexual people out from other groups (e.g. LGBT, BDSM, non-monogamous, asexual), we reinforce divisions which then make it easier for those groups to be ridiculed, stigmatised, and attacked. We know that biphobia, transphobia and homophobia still exist at worrying levels: there are still countries where people can be put to death for these things, and in the UK the extent of LGBT bullying and discrimination is still extremely problematic. If we are serious about ending hate crime and prejudice we need to look beyond just criminalising transphobia, homophobia and biphobia, towards addressing the heteronormative society which suggests that it is acceptable to see LGBT people, and other groups, as 'different'.


Heterosexuality might not be normal, and why are we so concerned with normality anyway?

This is all very well, you might say, but the television company is right that surveys have found that most people are heterosexual. Perhaps it is just bad luck for those who are outside of heteronormativity. We can't stop presenting heterosexuality as the norm just because it is hard for a few minorities that we do so. Facts are facts.


There are many answers to these challenges. First we might think about the findings of those surveys which are mentioned. The percentage of heterosexual, and non-heterosexual, people found in such surveys depends an awful lot on the questions which are asked and the way that they are asked. In the UK, the national census does not ask questions about sexual identity for precisely these reasons. The national treasury estimated that between 5% and 7% of the UK population were LGB, whereas the International Household Survey found that 1.5% of people said they were LGB. However, a further 3.8% said that they were 'other', didn't respond, refused to respond, or reported that they didn't know. Given high levels of stigma and prejudice we might well suggest that these surveys are actually measures of 'out' LGB people who are happy to use this terminology (which not all cultural groups use, for example). The NATSAL survey, which asks about 'sexual experiences' rather than sexual identities, found that 8-10% of people in the UK had had sexual experiences with a partner of the 'same sex' in 2000. This had gone up from 3-5% of people in 1990, so clearly experiences, or at least reporting of them, is not static over time. Also, people may well answer differently to a postal survey (whether they answer at all, and whether they answer honestly) than to an in depth interview, for example. This could partially explain why Kinsey's famous study in the US found that over a third of men reported some 'homosexual' contact.


So we can question whether heterosexuality really is the norm. By some ways of assessing normality (number of people who identify as heterosexual on a survey), we could argue that it is. However, if we turn to behaviour, particularly if we include all of the groups who fall – in some way – outside of mainstream heteronormativity, then we would conclude that it is not. In fact, non-kinky, monogamous, 'opposite sex', relationships and attractions would certainly be the minority if we considered all those people who have had some kind of 'same sex' sexual experience, those two thirds of people who enjoy some kind of BDSM practices or fantasies, the high number of people whose gender identity doesn't fit into traditional masculinity or femininity, and all of the people who are in some way non-monogamous.


But even if we went by the most conservative of statistics, we might ask how big a minority it has to be before we include a group of people as part of the norm, or at least stop treating them as different from everybody else. Analogies could be made here with other minority groups such as ethnic and religious minorities, and those with certain disabilities, although there are clearly different issues with different types of 'difference', and they often intersect with one another. Discussions of sexuality often focus on trying to prove, or disprove, naturalness or normality, but we might ask a bigger question of whether either of these is really a good foundation to base our treatment of people on. We can think of example of very unusual things (being highly intelligent, or a person like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela) which we would agree are good, and very 'normal' things (like being unkind or standing by when others are in trouble) which are not. We might also start to ask questions about why we focus so much on some divisions that it is possible to make between people (about sexuality and gender, for example) and not on others (for example, about eye-colour, food preference, or handedness).


Heteronormativity is bad for people within it

My final point is that heteronormativity is not just problematic for people who are located outside it. It is actually pretty bad for those inside it for many reasons as well. These have been particularly brought home to me in my work as a sexual and relationship therapist. Almost every seemingly heteronormative client who I've seen in this capacity has expressed an overwhelming desire to be 'normal' and often a desperate fear that they might not be, which has frequently made their life a misery. Normality is often privileged over everything else including having pleasurable sex, positive relationships, and open communication.


First, given the degree of stigmatisation of those who are outside heteronormativity there is a lot of pressure on those who are inside heteronormativity to stay within it. They know that stepping outside means, at least, being questioned and seen as less than normal, and, at worst, being attacked, oppressed, and discriminated against. This means that heteronormativity can feel like a dangerous and precarious place to be, especially in these days where everyone is also expected to be quite sexually adventurous in order to prove that they are interesting people with exciting relationships. The lines between heteronormativity and the 'outside' can seem pretty blurry. Where, for instance, do bicurious women fit, or metrosexual guys, or people who buy the fluffy handcuffs and jewelled riding crops sold by mainstream sex shops, or those who have a new monogamous arrangement where it is okay to occasionally get off with somebody other than their partner at a nightclub?


So those who have some kind of desires and inclinations beyond rigid heteronormativity, and who act on these, often live in some degree of fear of others finding this out and of how they might be treated if they do.


Others try to remain completely within heteronormativity, but this often brings with it problems as well. Many people, for example, simply do not tune into their sexuality at all for fear of what they might find if they do so. Instead, they focus on trying to have a certain kind of sex with a certain kind of partner the number of times per week which they have been told is 'normal'. Quite often, this results in problems such as people being penetrated finding it painful or difficult and/or people penetrating finding that they lose their erection or ejaculate too quickly (see www.cosrt.org.uk). Statistics on these kinds of 'sexual dysfunctions' go up to between a third and a half of people, suggesting that they are extremely common. However, we might question whether it is right to see these as 'sexual dysfunctions', or as 'societal dysfunctions' whereby people are being told to have a certain kind of sex which isn't really what they'd most enjoy. Sex therapists often find it useful, when working with these kinds of problems, to get people reading about the vast diversity of sexual practices and fantasies that human beings have, either by reading collections of fantasies and/or making checklists of what they might like to try. It can also be helpful to question the idea that everybody needs to be sexual in order to be regarded as healthy or normal. All of this involves questioning heteronormativity.


Moving from sex to romantic relationships more broadly, we can see that heteronormative models of everyone needing a opposite-sex partner to spend their life with can be very tough on those who are single, or who go through relationships break-ups, as well as sometimes encouraging people to stay in relationships which are not good for them, and sometimes meaning that people leave relationships too quickly due to expectations of the 'perfect' match.


What does an alternative look like?

It is often easier to point out what is wrong with something - like heteronormativity - than it is to offer anything else to put in its place. To end this blog (which has become rather long already!) I will try to offer some quick ideas which might be of help to people like the television companies and commentators who I mentioned earlier, if they are convinced by my arguments.


First of all it is vital to point out that it isn't just heteronormativity that is a problem. Any kind of normativity would be equally problematic. There is a tendency for those who step out of one kind of normativity to quickly produce their own form of normativity in its place. This is pretty understandable because being on the outside is a scary and precarious place to be, and we seem to be drawn to seeing the world in 'us and them' kinds of ways. However it is also unhelpful, and reinforces the very divisions that we are saying are so problematic. For example, it isn't great for LGBT people if, on coming out, they are faced with a whole load of new and rigid rules about how to be properly lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Similarly, for the person who is struggling with sex in the ways which I wrote about above, it isn't great if the only other option that they can find is another kind of normativity where everybody is expected to be hugely sexually creative and try everything once.


So the answer is not just to come up with another kind of normativity that we expect everybody to adhere to. However, what we can do is to replace the normativity model with what Gayle Rubin calls a model of 'benign variation'. This is the idea that there is a diversity of sexual desires, practices and relationships, and – so long as they are engaged in consensually and ethically – they are all equally fine. Here we are not concerned with how normal something is: a person can equally take part in something which is completely unique to them, or which most other people have experienced.


What would this look like in practice? Here are a few ideas, but I would be very interested in hearing other's thoughts.

  • Programme-makers, advertisers, magazine editors and so forth would be less concerned with representing what is 'normal' and would instead go out of their way to ensure that the full diversity of sexual practices, relationships, bodily forms, and so forth, were represented in their materials. In addition they would take care not to present any sexual practice, identity or relationship as ridiculous or problematic on the basis of its unusualness.

  • Instead of asking whether something like wearing a collar to work was a more or less normal activity, we would afford each person with the same rights to express their sexuality or relationships through their appearance.

  • Researchers in this area would be less concerned with questions of what are, or are not, normal sexualities, and with trying to find explanations for certain sexualities. Instead they would attend to documenting the diversity of sexualities that exist, to exploring the lived experiences of different people and communities, and perhaps to examining which ways of understanding sexuality are most positive in terms of decreasing stigma and discrimination.

  • Educators and parents would be keen to ensure that young people grow up with an understanding of the range of possible relationships and identities available to them, rather than the idea that some of these are better than others. The focus would be on ethics, consent, and communication, and on tuning into our own bodies, desires and feelings.


The short version

What is wrong with heteronormativity?

  • It leaves people feeling alienated and alone.

  • It is bad for LGBT people and other people who are outside of it.

  • It sets up an 'us and them' which enables homophobia, biphobia and transphobia to exist.

  • It is questionable whether the 'normative' form of heterosexuality actually is normal.

  • Our treatment of others should not be based on how normal, or not, they are.

  • It is bad for those who have some desires or feelings outside the 'norm'.

  • It puts pressure on those who are inside it to stay inside it, and may prevent them for finding the kinds of sex and relationships that work for them.


What can we do about it?

  • Move to a model of sexual diversity rather than normality/abnormality.


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Writing about writing

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Writing about writing

Last week somebody sent me an email which really pleased me. They are writing a non-fiction book and asked for my advice about this. For some reason I always feel a particular thrill when I'm able to help with something that isn't in what I think of as my areas of expertise. It's a similar feeling when I'm at a conference and I'm the one who manages to get the powerpoint working! This blog post is a version of the email which I sent them in response to their query.


In the last year I've started to provide workshops, and to write papers, about writing itself. As somebody who struggled greatly to write - and to get published - initially, it feels wonderful to help to open that door for other people. I've written quite a bit on how to get published in academic journals (for non-academics or people who haven't done so before). Here I want to focus on writing non-fiction books.


For many years I had a plan for a non-fiction book about relationships, aimed at a general audience. But it was such a huge project, which I had so much invested in, that I never get very far. I'd written textbooks, and edited academic books, but the prospect of a whole book presenting my ideas (rather than just those of others) felt way too daunting.


Last year I finally managed to break through and get the whole thing written, but it must have taken around a decade to get to that point. In some ways I don't regret it because it is a better book for waiting, and also because of what I learnt about writing - and about myself - through finally pushing through all the blocks.


Here are the top tips which worked for me, mainly about the everyday process of writing, and the emotional side of what gets in our way. Of course, these ideas won't work for everybody. Writing is clearly a very personal process as you can see if you compare the advice of different fiction authors. For example, two of my favourite novelists go about the process completely differently: John Irving comes up with his whole story, working backwards from the last line, and only then starts writing, whereas Stephen King begins and the beginning and doesn't know how it is going to end, it is more like a process of receiving a complete delivery of boxes and gradually unpacking them (although this might explain why it ends with a giant spider quite so often).


My top tips

* Whilst you need to be aware of your audience and where they're coming from, try to let go of any desire to please everyone. For example, with my book I had to recognise that I was imagining the average person on the street complaining that it was too complicated, and an academic critic complaining that it was too simplistic. Recognise those kind of fears, but remember that even if the book speaks to just some people that is enough. Aim at the 'good enough' book rather than the perfect book.


* If you can, make a plan to write for an hour every day (for me, early on in the day works best). Just write during that time, not worrying about the quality of it: you can always come back to edit another time. If it starts to flow then keep writing. If it doesn't, then stop after the hour and come back to it the next day. That way you won't burn yourself out spending hours and hours looking at a blank screen and feeling rotten. It can help to have a list of other tasks you want to do towards the book which don't involve writing - e.g. reading, making notes, searching online. Then you can do these when you are not writing. Also, I find that walking is often a good way of freeing things up. I often return from a walk with a clearer plan.


* For me structure helps a lot. Have a plan of the structure of the book, then the structure of each chapter (subsections). Then, for each subsection, you can think about the point you want each paragraph to make. If you have a developed outline then writing just becomes a case of filling in the detail, rather than having to write and shape the story as you go along.


* Break it down. Seeing it as a book can be really scary, so it is useful to break the book into chapters and the chapters into sections. Then, each day, you can think which section you want to write (e.g. something 500-2000 words long) and just do that. If you do this it becomes much more like writing a blog entry or a short essay (which people are often more familiar with). You can always go through later and edit them together more smoothly.


* When you're really struggling to write, it can be useful to write, or talk to someone, about what you want to write. Instead of actually writing the book, you could write in a notebook, or in an email, or talk to a friend (perhaps recording the conversation), about what you want to write in this book (or in a particular chapter of it), what the aims are, why it is important. Just let yourself loose on that, starting each sentence with 'I want to write about...'. You might well find that some of what you write or say can then be turned into a first draft.


* Ideally write about the bit you're feeling most passionate about at the moment, rather than being too rigid thinking you have to write from beginning to end, for example.


* Whilst you are writing, try not to worry too much about (a) how many words you've written, (b) the quality of the writing, or (c) what other people will think of it.


In my experience it definitely got easier and easier the more that I wrote. The first 3 chapters were extremely hard going, but then I got the momentum and I could tell that it was going to happen so it got faster, easier and better. I went back to those early chapters later to polish them, so that was fine. I think the thing is just to get something written, whatever the quality, and that'll start to give you the confidence that you can.


I hope these tips are helpful. Natalie Goldberg has some wonderful ideas for mindful writing which apply to fiction and non-fiction alike, and I picked up some of these ideas from her. I'd be interested in hearing other people's feedback on what they find useful.

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Mindlessness and the riots

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011, 16:55

Mindlessness and the Riots


Following the news reports over the last few days I, like many people, have struggled over what, if any, response I can make that would be useful. As the rioting and looting which started in Tottenham spread across London and then to other large cities, it became clear that something complex was happening which could not be wrapped up in any singular, generalised, explanation. Even as a social psychologist, I don't feel that I know enough about all the economic, social and political aspects of the situation to comment wisely about this. Similarly, I can't claim enough understanding of how the current circumstances are playing out through the experience of those directly involved to talk in anything other than a patronising way about what this might feel like on an individual level.


So what can I offer? In the news reporting, one word has jumped out at me time and time again, and that is 'mindless'. As an article in the New Statesman pointed out, this is the 'explanatory cliché' that politicians and journalists are constantly falling back on: '"mindless acts of violence and destruction" and "mindless criminality" carried out by "mindless thugs"'.


As someone who is currently writing a book about mindfulness, mindlessness does seem like something that I am knowledgeable enough to comment upon, so here are my thoughts.


What 'mindlessness' does

When news reports label those who are rioting and looting as 'mindless', I don't think that they generally mean it as an opposite of 'mindful'. They are not simply pointing out that acting in violent ways displays a lack of awareness of the implications of what people are doing, and a lack of compassion for those who it affects.


Rather, dismissing acts as 'mindless thuggery' serves to distance us (the authors and readers of the accounts) from those perpetrating these acts, and to dehumanise them in the process. If we think of a 'mind' (or consciousness) as the thing that is often regarded (albeit somewhat problematically) as the defining feature of human beings, then describing somebody as 'mindless' is similar to stating that they are somehow less than human. In this way, we set up an 'us and them' situation where we are individuals with humanity who could never act in ways which would be so violent, so potentially harmful to others, and they are people who don't have the capacity – the mind – to respond in a human way to the situations they find themselves in.


Such distancing achieves multiple things. First, it enables us to locate all of what is disturbing and nasty about what people can do in this other group: the 'mindless' thugs. This stops us from having to look into ourselves to acknowledge the potentials we have – given the wrong situation – to wish harm upon others or to act in ways which we know will hurt (perhaps ways which are less direct than smashing a shop-window, such as buying products that are the result of exploitative labour, or failing to stop and help a stranger who is struggling). Secondly, the individualising explanation that a particular group of 'others' are 'just mindless' means that we don't have to consider wider - often social, political, economic, and historical - reasons which may be a large part of why these things are happening (this is a similar point to one I've made before about why we prefer simplistic explanations of violence).


Finally (although there are probably more reasons still than the three that I have outlined), 'mindlessness' as an explanation means that we don't have to address the complexity and multiplicity in why things happen. Generally we tend to see the full situations which result in our own actions, whilst we put other people's actions down to individual flaws within them, such as mindlessness. However, it seems more likely that, as with most human actions, there are many different reasons why people act in the ways that they do. In the case of the riots, as an article in The Guardian points out, there are many different people involved in rioting and looting, with many different motivations for doing so. Even within one person, there are probably multiple motivations at work. As Dave Hill says, in his commentary:


'People who riot do have minds, and in these lie the reasons for their rioting...These may be greed, hatred, a craving for status, for battle and excitement and for an antisocial sort of liberty. Some deep, possibly incoherent rage against authority and a safer, kinder more prosperous world they can't join might be part of this story too. None of this is evidence of mindlessness, and to declare it so is to hide from reality.'


What are we when we are mindless?

Social psychologist, Ellen Langer, has studied mindlessness in depth. The first part of her book, Mindfulness, is devoted to the common 'mindless' habits that human beings share. Her definitions of mindlessness includes the following:


Being trapped by categories: Ellen gives the example of a person opening their door to a wealthy stranger who is on a scavenger hunt and who offers them a million dollars if they can give him a 3 foot by 7 foot piece of wood. Because they never think of their own door as 'a 3 foot by 7 foot piece of wood' they don't think of using that. In terms of the riots we might think of the categories of race, class, gender, and age which shape our assumptions of 'crime' and who commits it. For example, we tend to think of young men as perpetrators of crime and young women as victims, but young men are by far the most at-risk group as victims, and young women were also involved in the London riots.


Behaving automatically rather than paying attention to what we're doing: Ellen conducted an experiment where she sent an interdepartmental memo to university offices which read 'This memo is to be returned to Room 247'. When the memo looked just like a standard university memo, 90% of people complied, rather than asking themselves why the person sent the memo if they just wanted it back. If people were encouraged to pay more attention – by the memo being in a different-to-usual format - only 60% complied. When we see these events in the news it is helpful to do what we can to break from any habitual responses we might have and to pay more attention.


Acting from a single perspective: In another study, Ellen and colleagues planted an experimenter on a busy street. She told people passing by that she'd sprained her knee and needed help. When people stopped she asked them to get her an Ace bandage from a shop nearby. The shopkeeper then told them they were out of Ace bandages. All the people in the study returned empty-handed, rather than asking for advice or getting something different. Linked to behaving automatically, we might deliberately reflect on each news story from multiple perspectives. We might creatively imagine what it might be like for attacker and for the attacked, for the person observing, for the journalist writing the story for a deadline, for the politician whose soundbite is included, and for the police officer who responded.


Towards a more mindful response

In one of the most powerful responses to the London situation, writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe called for 'careful listening' to the young people who were caught up in what was going on. He had already been listening carefully for years and therefore was not at all surprised by what was now happening. Unfortunately, those interviewing Darcus did not even listen carefully to him, let alone affording this kind of respect to those actually taking part in the violence and looting.


'Careful listening' is one key aspect of mindfulness, which is generally translated as a form of deep awareness and full attention. When we listen carefully we are less likely to fall into our usual automatic responses, or to act from a single perspective, trapped in categories and ignorant of context. We are more likely to be aware of the full, complex, human beings behind various actions, and the multiple meanings that these events will have for them. As Penny Red highlights, one of the motivations behind the riots may well be a lack of listening, and Camila Batmanghelidjh suggests that compassionate listening to the human beings involved – rather than searching for a 'mindless' enemy to fight – is a more likely solution.


Mindfulness, however, is not about just listening and accepting and failing to act in any way. Rather it originally emerged in a time of social inequality as a form of political action (against hierarchical caste systems), and will hopefully have a similar impact today with all the people who are currently embracing it. The theory behind mindfulness is that suffering is largely rooted in craving. Several commentators on the London riots have linked the looting taking place to the wider economic climate: not in a simplistic way that the recession has caused the riots, but in the suggestion that the desire for consumption within our current economic system is also implicated in the desire for certain products – by people who do not have access to them - inherent in much of the looting which is going on.


As well as careful listening to those involved, we can also do with turning our attention to the multiple implications of living in a culture which advocates striving for more and more consumption, which encourages people to believe that they are lacking without it, and which only makes this available to certain people.


Find out more:

Useful book on related topics include:


David Loy: Money, Sex, War, Karma

Barry Magid: Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

Marshall Rosenberg: Non-violent Communication

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Computer games: Causing violence or a new scapegoat?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 24 July 2011, 10:12

The third Psychology in the Pub event took place last Wednesday. To conclude our 'sex and violence' series, Simon Goodson, from the university of Huddersfield, presented his work on the impact of violent video games.

The previous month Clare Bale had raised important questions about the current idea that the 'sexualisation' of media is harming children. She argued that there is strong evidence that young people have never been more responsible or thoughtful in the decisions that they are making around sex, that their voices are often missing from debates and reports about this issue, and that we need to understand the complex and sophisticated ways in which people respond to media representations.

Simon Goodson highlighted many similar issues in relation to the popular belief that video games cause people to be violent. He started by presenting newspaper reports which have drawn links between playing computer games and acts of extreme violence. The following example is taken from his website:

On the evening of Sunday 21st October 2007 17 year old Daniel Petric walked into a room in his parents house and asked his mother and father to close their eyes because he had a ‘surprise’ for them. Daniel then shot his mother and father in the head, killing his mother and wounding his father. Daniel Petric planned and carried out the attack because his parents had taken away his ‘violent’ video game, Halo 3. The media referred to Petric as the ‘Halo 3 Shooter’ and ‘Halo 3 Killer’ amongst other titles and gave in depth accounts proposing that he was unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and even suggested that Petric believed that his parents would not be dead forever but would ‘regenerate’ as in the game.

Some research, particularly in the US, has claimed to support this popular idea of a simple cause and effect relationship between violent video games and real life violence. However, Simon went on to point out that there are many problems with this research. For example:

* The measures used are questionable. Does a higher score on an aggression questionnaire mean that somebody would be violent in real life? Are these questionnaires validated with people who are extremely violent?

* The video games used are often many years out of date, and not the ones people are playing currently.

* There is a clear bias in publication. Research is much more likely to be published if it finds a link between violent games and agression than if it does not.

Simon's own research raises big questions about the assumed link between violent games and aggressive behaviour. Measuring people on questionnaires, and on levels of brain arousal, he has compared violent games (such as Gears of War), against football games, driving games and table tennis games. He found that people scored far higher on aggression and arousal when they were playing a game where the content was related to things that they would do in real life (such as driving or watching/playing football) than when the game was unrelated (such as games involving warfare or shooting monsters). Indeed, in the latter type of game people were often no more aggressive or aroused than if they were simply relaxing.

Clearly this research questions the idea that violence in society is related to this particular form of popular media. People in the discussion also pointed out that rates of violent crime have gone down during the years that the computer games of concern have become more popular.

I was left with the question of why, given such findings, news reporters - and some researchers - seem so keen to find a link between violent games and criminal behaviour. Clearly this is not a new thing. As Martin Barker has pointed out, links have been made between violent media and real life violence from the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, through the 1950s horror comics, to the Video Nasties of the late 1970s and 80s (which look rather tame when compared to the Hostel or Saw series of movies).

Perhaps violent media is an easy scapegoat which prevents us from having to address more complex social problems which underpin violent crimes? Certainly this seemed to be the case when I studied the reporting of the Jamie Bulger murder some years ago. The horro video Childs Play 3 was blamed for this crime, despite no evidence that either of the boys who killed Jamie Bulger had seen the movie. What was rarely reported were the tough backgrounds which the boys came from, or the fact that one of them had already been violent towards himself, but that there were not enough resources to provide him with support.

What also went unremarked were the high levels of bullying from other children which are a taken for granted part of childhood for most kids and which lead to untold levels of misery throughout life. Perhaps we like to focus on these occasional extreme acts of violence, and to blame the handy scapegoat of violent media, because it stops us from having to look at the everday violence which is so much a part of life, and our part in allowing it to continue.

It seems that a strong linking theme in the panics around sexualistion and around video games is that it is children and adolescents that people are worried about being influenced. Clearly this is related to the current idea that children are innocent (by which we seem to mean non-sexual and non-violent). If children are sexual or aggressive at all it is put down to corrupting external forces. As one person at Psychology in The Pub pointed out. Perhaps we need the media to be this external force now that there is much less belief in demonic or supernatural forces.

This blaming on the media is dangerous though because it prevents us from being aware of the inevitable sexuality and aggressiveness which children have (given that they are, after all, just young, small human beings). Avoiding this fact as a society can exacerbate the very problems which we are trying to alleviate, because it stops us from communicating about sexuality with young people (leaving them confused and unable to negotiate it themselves), and it means that we fail to address the bullying between children and teenagers which is so prevalent and destructive in their lives.

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Multiple (perspectives on) Orgasms

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Thursday, 16 June 2011, 18:00

Multiple (perspectives on) Orgasms


During the last few days I have been attending the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) conference up in Glasgow. Right before that, on June 11th, we had the conference of the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT), which is the key British organisation for this group of practitioners.

I organise the programme for the COSRT events and, to make it go with a bang, this year we decided to focus on the orgasm! On Saturday we spent the day learning about the science and art of orgasms, and on Monday we brought our various perspectives to the attendees of WAS in a very well-attended symposium on the subject. Here I want to give a flavour of just some of the ideas that were presented over the course of the two events.


Orgasm science

During the COSRT conference we were very fortunate to hear from three of the major international researchers in this area: Roy Levin from the UK and Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk from the US. We learnt that many of the same underlying physiological processes are involved in orgasms regardless of the sex of the person involved: for example, increased blood flow to the genitals, activation of the dopamine system, and the involvement of the hormone oxytocin. Indeed, research has found that experts cannot tell the difference between descriptions of orgasms given by people of different sexes. Vaginal muscles, like those of penises, contract during orgasm, and many also ejaculate a specific fluid as well (sometimes called 'squirting'). However, there is no evidence that vaginal and uterine contractions are involved the transport of sperm for fertilisation (a common myth).

Given that the genitals begin in the same form in everyone – only being sexually differentiated later in foetal development – there are more similarities than we often realise. For example, the clitoris is not simply the 'button' that most people think it is, but rather a structure of much larger size stretching back through the body, meaning that some people with clitorises experience pleasure or orgasms from internal stimulation, for example of the 'G-spot' at the front of the vaginal wall. However, it is important to remember that 70% require external stimulation of the clitoris glans (the button) in order to orgasm, so orgasms from penetration alone are actually quite rare. Similar to the G-spot, the stimulation of the prostrate through the rectum can produce/enhance orgasm for many people.


Orgasm art

When I organised the programme for the conference and symposium I wondered whether there might be conflict or tension between the perspectives of the scientists who were speaking, and those of the therapists and others who were talking from a more practical, or even creative, point of view. Actually, nothing could have been further from the truth. There were so many resonances between the different talks. For example, we heard from Roy Levin that sounds made during orgasm occur at the same time as contractions and are an important part of the process. Then tantric teacher Barbara Carrellas echoed the importance of sound, and the involvement of deeper and higher notes in different orgasmic experiences.

Similarly, Alex Iantaffi and myself spoke about the fact that it is important not to see orgasms as the goal of sex. Psychosexual therapists find that clients who put too much focus on orgasms and/or erections or penetration often experience problems and don't enjoy sex as much. Beverly Whipple said exactly the same thing in her talk, emphasising that it is better for sex to be pleasure-directed, rather than goal-directed. There are many things that might be involved in sex (fingers, tongues, fantasies, imagery, kisses, self-touching, other-touching, holding, caressing, talking, various kinds of penetration, and various kinds of sensations – sometimes including orgasm), but not all of these are necessary each time or for every person.

We also heard from several speakers that genitals need not always be involved in orgasms at all. Barbara Carrellas introduced us to tantra-style energy orgasms which involve breathing in a circular motion up and down the body and squeezing the pelvic muscles during this process. Again, this is not done with the goal of orgasm, but can result in orgasmic experiences which build and build and which are indistinguishable from other kinds of orgasms when the brain activation is recorded in an fMRI scanner.

Speakers Michelle Donaldson and Sue Lennon spoke about the potential for widening out our understandings of orgasms, and the parts of our bodies and minds which are involved in them, for people with spinal injuries and various cancers. They may have less, or no, genital sensation, following injuries or surgeries, but they can still experience orgasms if they develop these wider understandings and experiences. Psychosexual therapist, Tricia Barnes, spoke at the WAS symposium about the importance of taking a biopsychosocial approach to orgasms, which incorporates the whole body, the perceptions and thoughts people have, and the wider sociocultural world they inhabit which may have positive or negative notions about sex and orgasms.


Question marks around the current treatment of orgasms

During the COSRT conference we screened the recent documentary Orgasm Inc which follows the race, in the US, to find a medical treatment for women who have difficulty experiencing orgasm (along similar lines to the popular treatments which exist for 'erectile dysfunction'). The documentary cautions against a purely medical approach for all the reasons that we have already mentioned:

  • The focus on attaining orgasms is goal-directed rather than pleasure-directed, and may therefore be counter productive in encouraging focus on a particular 'end point' rather than people being present to the whole experience of sex, whatever it involves.

  • Orgasms are biopsychosocial experiences, and medical treatments alone may stop us from considering the psychological and social processes involved. For example, many women feel they should have sex even when they don't want to in order to maintain their relationship, and there are many negative social messages about sex for women who have 'too much', or 'too little', sex.

  • Most people with clitorises need external stimulation in order to experience orgasm, and many of those seeking medical treatment are still under the popular misconception that it is 'normal' to experience orgasm from penetration alone.

  • There are whole body, emotional, and imaginative techniques which can open up orgasmic experiences which would be well worth trying before taking a medical treatment with potential side-effects which have not been researched long-term yet. Certainly a good starting point would be exploring what turns you on and communicating about that with sexual partner/s.

In our symposium at the WAS conference, Alex Iantaffi and I concluded that the constant focus on what is 'normal' in sex, and on diagnosing people with 'disorders' or 'sexual dysfunctions', is unhelpful. Instead it would be useful to recognise that orgasms mean different things to different people at different times. An orgasm can be experienced as all of the following things and more:

...a mechanical release, a demonstration of one’s masculine or feminine sexuality, a relief of stress, a loss of control, allowing someone to see you at your most vulnerable, a display of intimacy, the height of physical pleasure, a transcendent spiritual experience, a performance demonstrating prowess, a giving of power to another, an exerting of power over another, a form of creative self-expression, a humorous display of our rather-ridiculous humanity, an unleashing of something wild and animalistic, a deeply embodied experience, an escape from bodily sensations and pain, and/or a moment of complete alive-ness or freedom...

So orgasms can be positive experiences, they can be relatively mundane, or they can be negative. Not everyone sees them as an important part of their experience, and many may prefer other kinds of stimulation, or to stay in the realm of fantasy, or to focus on other aspects of life. Instead of worrying so much about having certain kinds of experiences (like orgasms), we could simply be with our sexuality as it is at the time, allowing it to be all that it is, and to ebb and flow over the course of our days, weeks, and lives. Instead of trying to force ourselves to fit what we perceive as 'normal', perhaps we could put that energy into letting go of our preconceptions about sex and discovering our sexualities anew.


Find Out More

  • The website for Orgasm Inc is here.

  • You can find the accessible book on orgasms which Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk co-authored with Sara Nasserzadeh, and Dr. Carlos Beyer-Flores here.

  • Barbara Carrellas's Urban Tantra website is here.

  • The COSRT website is here, and their journal, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, is here.

  • The Scarleteen website contains useful information about exploring and communicating sexual turn-ons.

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Response to the Bailey Review

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Tuesday, 7 June 2011, 14:44

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., 2009; Papadopolous, 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.

The review definitely falls down on the 'anti' side of sexualisation debates (see my previous blog here for more about the different positions on this subject). It is not possible in such a brief post to point to all that is problematic about the Bailey review. For example, it does not define what it means by sexualisation (despite acknowledging that it is highly subjective), it prioritises 'common sense' over long-term research findings, and it is quite misleading in its use of statistics (if 40% of parents have seen something 'inappropriate' that means that the majority have not, and why recommend changes in relation to the watershed if 72% of parents feel that the current regulation of television is about right?)

Here I want to focus on something which jumped out at me from the review: namely the different treatment of parental concerns about the sexualisation of clothes aimed at children, and about the gender stereotyping in such products.

The review states that 'sexualised and gender-stereotyped clothing, products and services for children are the biggest areas of concern for parents'. Parents were concerned about sexualisation, particularly in relation to clothes sold to children which were felt to be inappropriate for their age (like 'bras (padded or not), bikinis, short skirts, high-heeled shoes, garments with suggestive slogans, or the use of fabrics and designs that have connotations of adult sexuality' such as lace and animal prints). Parents were also concerned about gender-stereotyped clothes (division into pink or blue clothing, ultra-feminine clothes for girls and army or sports clothes for boys, and make-up and accessories just aimed at girls).

What is very telling is the response which the review makes to these two issues. The concern about the sexualisation of clothes results in on of the key recommendations of the review: that retailers should come up with a code of good practice regarding retailing to children which they all adhere to, which – Bailey suggests – should involve avoiding selling 'scaled down' sexualised adult clothing and clothing with sexual slogans. One of the main themes at the start of the review argues that retail needs to be 'explicitly and systematically family friendly, from design and buying through to display and marketing.'

However, in relation to gender stereotyping, the review concludes that there is 'no strong evidence that gender stereotyping in marketing or products influences children’s behaviour'. It argues 'that the relationship between gender and consumer culture is more complex' and that the marketing of pink products for girls could have a positive impact (e.g. getting them interested in science if it was marketed in pink packaging and related to beauty/pampering). The review states that gender preferences are strongly biologically driven and part of 'normal, healthy development of gender identity'. There are no recommendations made regarding gender stereotyping of products, rather it is accepted that this will continue as long as there is consumer demand.

I think that this example reveals serious problems which run through this review. First, given that the review claims to prioritise the 'common sense' of parents over research, why does it take parent's 'common sense' about sexualisation seriously, whilst dismissing their 'common sense' about gender stereotyping?

Secondly, when I look at the research in these areas, I would conclude that there is – if anything – clearer evidence for the negative impact of gender stereotyping than there is for the negative impact of sexualisation. Cordelia Fine's recent book, Delusions of Gender, for example, summarises a wealth of evidence that gender stereotyping (suggesting that one gender is less good a particularly activity, for example, or that they are more likely to be interested in a certain field) impacts on our cognitive abilities, confidence and many other aspects, and that neurological differences between the genders often result from exposure to such stereotypes. Beyond that, there can be little question that the narrow definitions of femininity and masculinity expressed in stereotyped clothes and other products make life a misery for the many children who do not neatly fit in these boxes, who often suffer from bullying and alienation. On the other hand, much of the research on sexualisation of children has failed to find many of the kind of products which Bailey's review refers to, and there is no clear evidence yet that such products have a negative impact. In fact recent studies of suggest responsible and thoughtful sexual behaviour amongst young people. Particularly there is a dearth of evidence so far on how young people themselves make sense of these products.

This suggests, to me, that the Bailey review is more concerned with bolstering current cultural norms than it is with either what the evidence has to say, or even what parents and young people think themselves. The current norms are that sexual behaviour amongst young people is inherently problematic (hence the desire to clamp down on anything that might encourage it), and that people should adhere to rigid gender roles (hence the lack of any problem with gender stereotyped products). I think that we need to think critically about both of these conclusions.


Find out more:

The Bailey review itself can be found here

Clips of Bailey summarising the review can be found here and here

The Radio 4 report on the topic is towards the end of this news segment

A very helpful overview here

There are other articles on these issues here, here, here and here

For more on these topics in general see the Onscenity Network website which includes a collection of blog posts on sexualisation

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Hell is other people?

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Hell is other people? The Northern Existential Group discuss No Exit

2nd June 2011 saw the inaugural meeting of the Northern Existential Group (a Manchester-based version of the London-based Society for Existential Analysis discussion group). For our first session we chose to discuss the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit: a marvellously accessible introduction to the ideas of the French existentialists, and particularly resonant in these days of reality TV shows which place contestants in a very similar situation to the one in which his characters find themselves.

No Exit

In No Exit, three characters (Garcin, Inez and Estelle) are, one-by-one, escorted into a drawing room and left there together, locked in. We soon discover that all have recently died and that this room is the hell to which they have been condemned for eternity. The characters initially respond in surprise that the room is nothing like the fiery pit of torture and torment which they had always imagined hell to be. However, Inez quickly realises that the idea must be that 'each of us will act as torturer of the other two'. Whilst Estelle and Garcin try to deny that they would torment the others, and even the validity of them being in hell (perhaps it is all a mistake), Inez is more aware of their fate and resigned to her rightful damnation.

Over the course of the play, we discover that all three characters have done things that they regard as bad and/or cowardly: Inez had an affair with her cousin's partner and he ended up killing himself, which led to his partner killing both herself and Inez, and she admits that she needs to make others suffer. Estelle became pregnant as a result of an affair and killed her daughter despite her lover begging her not to. Garcin tried to run away rather than being sent to jail as a conscientious objector, and beat and cheated on his wife. They succeed in becoming each others' tormentors mostly by denying each other what they seek which they believed would alleviate their suffering: Estelle wants Garcin to want and desire her and Garcin wants somebody to see him as a hero and not a coward. Eventually Garcin realises that there will never be any escape from being looked upon by Inez and Estelle, and that they will never see him as he wants to be seen. This is when he delivers the famous line 'hell is – other people!'.

Discussion of the play

There is a certain awkward humour to finding yourself sitting in a room as a group of relative strangers discussing this particular play! One of us had researched the play a little online before attending and said that some have simply read it at face value: that it is about the kind of hell that might await these particularly (bad) people. However, we agreed that Sartre meant it to be a much wider comment on the human condition: other people are always hell for each other. There is some debate between Garcin, Inez and Estelle over whether they have been chosen as the ideal tormentors for one another, or whether they were simply allocated at random. We suspected that it was the latter: the point being that any human beings thrown together would inevitably end up being hell for each other in some way.

This idea relates to Sartre's wider philosophy: the notion that as soon as we are in the (real or even imagined) presence of another person, we begin to see ourselves through their eyes and this is the end of our freedom. In his early work Sartre only sees two ways that we can deal with this situation: either we can try to make ourselves something for the other person, or we can try to turn them into something for us. Thus in No Exit we see Estelle trying to turn herself into a desirable object for Garcin, and Garcin trying to get Inez to rescue him from his fear that he is a coward. The Look of other people has this incredible power. If only Inez (the truth-sayer) could see Garcin as not cowardly then that would mean that he is not. However, Sartre says that such strategies are doomed to failure. Our freedom will always bubble up and we will resent trying to be what others want us to be, or we will grow weary of another person who has turned themselves into an object for us, because they will no longer have the freedom that we were originally attracted to. It is also possible to bring this existential reading together with a more psychodynamic one in the form of the transactional analysis drama triangle whereby there is always a victim, a perpetrator and a rescuer, but these roles keep switching: We see such switches throughout No Exit as freedom ensures that no role remains static for long.

There are also strong echoes of Simone de Beauvoir's philosophies in No Exit (unsurprisingly given the close relationship between her and Sartre). Indeed, on discussing the play we were struck by the resonances between the characters and the triangles in Sartre and de Beauvoir's own life, particularly in relation to the younger women who Sartre became involved with. There are reverberations of The Second Sex in Inez's berating of Estelle for thinking that being a desirable object for a man is something to base her life (and even afterlife) around. And it is rather interesting for those of us who have reflected on the gendered treatment of Sartre and de Beauvoir's work that Inez sees the truth of the situation from the start, whilst Garcin (who was oblivious) is the one who is given the show-stopping line (which just summarises what Inez has been saying all along).

Is hell other people?

During our discussion of the play we were magnetically pulled, again and again, back to the big question that it raises. Are other people necessarily hell for each other? Is there another way? Garcin tries, in the play, to disengage from the others, thinking that if they all just sat there in silence it might be okay. But the futility of this demonstrates what existentialists know – that we are inevitably in-relation with others and can never truly escape their influence (even if we retreat or rebel we are doing it in relation to them).

But might there be another way of being-with-others? We were reminded of the Jewish parable of the long spoons, where hell is a place with a magnificent feast but everyone has spoons so long that they are unable to feed themselves and they starve. Heaven is exactly the same, but people are using the spoons to feed each other. Might the heaven version of No Exit consist of the exact same three people in the exact same room, but they have found a way to feed each other?

This idea sounds something like the form of mutual, or reciprocal, relating that de Beauvoir proposes in her work (notably her Ethics of Ambiguity), which also echoes in Merleau-Ponty's theories of intersubjectivity, and which Sartre was perhaps moving towards in his later, more Marxist influenced, writings. De Beauvoir argues that it is in all of our interests to recognise the freedom of others, not only because this is the reality of the situation, but because we need others to be free in order to trust their validations of us and to aid us in our own goals.

It seemed to us that it was necessary for Inez, Estelle and Garcin to recognise, themselves, that their cowardice or cruelty was there, but also that it was not all that they were, and was not fixed and unchangeable. But perhaps they do require the Look of others to affirm that plurality and flexibility in themselves (they cannot use the long spoons to feed themselves). Our discussion ended with a reflection on whether we inevitably regard others as objects for ourselves, or whether we can aspire to seeing others – and therefore ourselves – as unique, complex, changing, human beings. In fleeting moments of connection or mutuality can we experience a flash of heaven?

Find out more:

You can read No Exit here, and there are some fascinating clips and music videos based on the play if you search You Tube for No Exit.

There is a link to the drama triangle here, which comes across quite clearly in this play and represents another more psychodynamic reading.

If you would like to be on the mailing list for the Northern Existential Group, please send your details to Susan Iacovou: therapy@susaniacovou.com

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Sexual Nature: Happily Ever After

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 16:04

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'.

With that note of caution in mind, when we do look across animal species or human societies what we actually find is diversity. The Sexual Nature exhibition itself demonstrates the huge variety of relationship forms which exist amongst animals: from species of bird where many different females mate with the male whose displays are most visually attractive, to the male seahorses who give birth to their young, to the bonobo chimpanzees who use sex as a social activity to develop and reinforce bonds with other male and female chimps. Volker talked about the various forms of polygyny, polyandry, and polygynandry that have existed across the world at various times (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy), often relating to the physical environment that people find themselves in. For example, there are societies where women marry a man's brothers as well as the man himself, where men have sexual relationships with other men early in life before marrying a woman, where men have more than one wife who take on different roles in relation to work and domestic labour, and where the norm is for people to have 'trial marriages' - with someone of the same, or other, gender - by cohabiting for a while before making any legal commitment.

Diversity is also the case when we look at UK society today. The UK is one of the 10-20% of cultures worldwide which are held to be monogamous. However, as I mentioned at the event, statistics on infidelity in marriage of up to 50-60% suggest that we could say that non-monogamy is actually more usual, but that it usually takes the form of secret affairs, rather than the recognised forms of polygamy that exist elsewhere. There are also many forms of open monogamy which are commonly practised, from the 'new monogamy' where couples are – to some extent – open to emotional and sexual commitments with people other than their partners, to forms of swinging and open relationships, to polyamory where people form multiple romantic and sexual relationships. It is more useful to view relationships today as on a continuum of sexual monogamy (from one sexual partner to many) and a continuum of emotional monogamy (from one close intimate person to many). Individuals are negotiating their own relationship rules around monogamy, for example whether they decide whether to remain close to ex-partners, or whether online sexual contact is acceptable.

Returning to the question of what makes a successful relationship, it is clear that the answer to this is 'different things for different people at different times'. We live at an uncertain time where old rules of relating don't necessarily apply to the patchwork families and serial relationships that many people are experiencing. However, we remain in a situation where some relationship forms are considered far more acceptable than others, and afforded much more social approval, recognition and protection.

When asked for my prescription for a 'successful' relationship I suggested that, on an individual relationship level, they would involve people respecting each others' values, communicating openly about these (rather than assuming that they are shared), and being open to the inevitable shifts and changes that will occur in relationships over time. On a societal level it is important to recognise the variety of relationships that people are actually experiencing, rather than trying to squeeze everyone into one-size-fits-all models of relationships or family.

Find out more:

The Sexual Nature exhibition is open till October 2011

You can read the tweets from the 'Happily Ever After?' event by searching twitter for the #sexualnature hashtag.

There is more about monogamy elsewhere on my blog

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Psychology in the Pub: Social Networking

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 11:22

Social Networking: Friend or foe?


This month saw the first Psychology in the Pub event take place in Sheffield. This spin-off from the popular London event is organised by myself and Mary Langridge. It will be happening once a month from now on at the Showroom in central Sheffield.

For the first event we were very lucky to have Sue Jamison-Powell from the University of Lincoln talking to us about her work on social networking. Sue has particularly studied the experience of 'defriending', or being 'defriended' on social networking sites such as facebook. She points out that, in real life friendships, there is the possibility of allowing friendships to drift into acquaintance-ships. On many social networking sites, however, it is only possible to have people as a 'friend' or not. This makes online friendships something more like romantic relationships, which we tend to view in an either/or way: Either we are in a relationship or we are not. For this reason Sue suggests that the experience of being 'defriended', or 'defriending' someone, may have more in common with losing a lover.

Defriending is certainly a very common experience. Sue found that only 16% of the people she studied had not experienced being on one end or the other of a defriending. When she studied those who had been defriended by somebody else, she found that the vast majority of them had not done anything about the situation when they found out about it. Research on romantic relationships suggests that an important part of the break-up process is some kind of communication between people acknowledging that there is a need for change. Clearly this doesn't happen in online defriending. Rather people are generally surprised to find themselves defriended, and don't feel that initiating a conversation about it is something that they want to, or are able to, do. Levels of distress following a defriending clearly weren't usually as high as after most romantic relationship break-ups. However, they were not non-existent either.

When she looked at the reasons people gave for defriending others, Sue found that it was sometimes done due to different expectations of the friendship (e.g. one person thinking it was pointless because they weren't close in 'real-life'). Other times people found it difficult to bring together different groups of friends on a social networking site and defriended those whose comments were likely to be disapproved of by other friends or family ('I didn't want me mam reading about my debauchery'). Some people valued their privacy and didn't want their posts read by certain friends (for example, work colleagues). Others found themselves irritated by some friends' online styles (spamming them with quizzes, for example).

Sue's talk sparked a lively discussion amongst the Psychology in the Pub attendees about the potentials and pitfalls of social networking sites. It became clear that people used them in very different ways, and that they meant different things to different people as well. For example, some were friends mostly with people who they knew well and used the sites to arrange meeting up. Others used social networking more to keep up with people at a distance, and/or to connect with new people. Some had more than one social networking persona for different aspects of their lives (e.g. work, social, family, sex) whilst others brought these together in one place.

Like Sue, it is important that people studying sites like twitter and facebook maintain an awareness of the multiplicity of experiences that people can have of them. Rather than trying to determine whether social networking is a good thing or a bad thing, perhaps it is more useful to explore the potentials that they can open up and the possibilities that they can close down. For example, the limiting either/or approach to (de)friending has changed now that it is possible on facebook just to hide friend requests. However, this may still discourage any kind of open communication between people and leave them feeling rejected with no idea why.

Social networking can be both a wonderful way for shy people to try out relationships in a safe context and for those who are geographically isolated to connect with like-minded people. It can also encourage fairly superficial connections and a sense of alienation when a post is not commented upon, for example. Seeing the varied experiences of our facebook friends can remind us that everyone suffers and give us opportunities to offer, and to receive, compassion. Alternatively, we might be confronted with purely shiny happy postings which leave us worrying there is something wrong with us, or with an overwhelming sense of hardship and impotence when many of our friends are struggling. When we socially network we can feel pressured to present one, coherent side of ourselves which will gain the most approval ('like'), or we can creatively enjoy the precarious experience of revealing the complexity and multiplicity of our daily existence.

In conclusion, as facebook would have it: it's complicated.

Find out more:

You can read Sue Jamison-Powell's presentation here

Find out more about Psychology in the Pub here

I will continue to blog here about the Psychology in the Pub events. Watch this space...

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Porn: Giving people ideas?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 20 May 2011, 12:49

Porn: Giving people ideas?

Also posted on Society Matters

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.

For a start, when you look at the kinds of ideas that these groups are most worried about porn giving to young people, they are often the ideas which are outside of the 'norm' of heterosexual sex: sexual practices which are most commonly linked to lesbian, gay and bisexual people (such as oral and anal sex) and those associated with kink or SM, or having more than one partner. When thinking about porn it is important to make sure that we are really considering what is best for young people and not just repeating normative notions about what makes normal or abnormal sex, and assuming that normal equals good and abnormal equals bad. We know that such notions serve to marginalise groups as well as leading to sexual anxieties and problems as people become obsessed with being normal over having enjoyable sex.

Also, Alan pointed out that 'giving people ideas' is a pretty good definition of education. Could it be that porn might actually be valuable as a form of sex education? Certainly, when we study people who consume pornography, something they all say is that they use it to educate themselves about sex (in addition to sexual entertainment).

In a very innovative project, Alan and his colleagues got together a big group of experts on sexual health to come up with an agreed definition of 'healthy sexual development'. This resulted in a list of fifteen attitudes about sex which would be good to develop over the course of a lifetime. The full list can be found here.

When examining the list it is clear that pornography promotes around half of these attitudes. For example, porn consumers report that porn helps them to learn about what they might enjoy, to communicate openly with partners ('I saw this and thought I'd like to try it...'), and to feel that sex can be pleasurable and should be joyful rather than aggressive and coercive (depictions of joyless sex are not popular amongst most porn consumers). Porn can also help with self-acceptance, given that there are niche markets for every sexual taste.

Of course, as critics have pointed out, pornography is also bad at many of the attitudes on the list of healthy sexual development. There is no negotiation of sex in porn, so it doesn't foster ethical conduct or consent. There are very poor depictions of safer sex, and very little representation of public/private boundaries or the relationship skills necessary for ethical sex.

However, there is no argument that pornography should be the only form of sex education, merely that it be recognised as one possible form, and a form which often provides the very things which are extremely hard for conventional forms of sex education, from parents and teachers, to do, such as depicting specific acts or emphasising joy and pleasure.

People are often concerned that the activities depicted in porn will result in young men pressuring young women to do these things. Clearly this is where other forms of education are needed to help people with how to go about negotiating sexual practices together (whoever is doing the suggesting). Over the rest of the sex, health, media day we heard about several great projects providing such forms of sex education focused on consent, enjoyment and diversity, including Sex & Ethics, Scarleteen, Petra Boynton's blog, Charles Moser's book on Sex Disasters, and the upcoming CoDeX project, which many of the onscenity network are involved with.

If readers want to contribute to knowledge about consumers of pornography, there is currently a big study on this very topic looking for participants. Follow the link and get involved.


Find out more:

There is an interview with Alan McKee about his work here

And one with Feona Attwood, who organised the Sex, Health, Media day, here

There is an upcoming conference on porn and sexuality which I am co-organising, and you can read another blog entry on this topic here.


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The Royal We

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:36

The Royal We

Also posted over on Society Matters

With the royal wedding fast approaching it is interesting to consider what advice could be given to Kate and William, or any other young couple marrying in the UK in 2011. If we bring together psychological, sociological and philosophical work on relationships, as well as the experiences of relationship therapists, what are the key things that we could offer to people on the point of tying the knot?

Relationships Today

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, whilst Kate and Williams' situation is rather an extreme one, it also illustrates very well some wider patterns that are present in relationships today. Many commentators have linked their wedding to the recession, and certainly marriage is often found to be an almost 'recession proof' industry. When things are bad economically, people still want to get hitched.

Also, the desire to wed remains despite our knowledge of the high chances of the marriage ending at some point. In terms of UK statistics, one in ten marriages will not last five years, and somewhere between a third and a half will eventually end in divorce (more exact statistics are difficult due to yearly fluctuations). Of course, there is probably even more pressure on in the case of the royal wedding, due to the high rates of separation in William's family (three out of four of the Queen's children having been divorced).

So what does it mean that people, Kate and William included, are choosing to marry despite all of this? Perhaps it speaks to a great deal of hope that is being placed on romantic love, to the extent that some have suggested that it is almost a new religion in its own right. At a time when work is precarious, and when many people do not have strong religious beliefs, relationships are often the place that they turn to seek out validation, meaning and belonging. This is quite a change from past times when relationships generally served more practical purposes to do with finance, work and the raising of children. As historian, Stephanie Coontz, puts it: 'people have always loved a love story. But for most of the past our ancestors did not try to live in one'. These days we do try to live in a love story, seeking out The One and hoping for a happily-ever-after despite all the evidence against this being the most likely outcome.

The pressure is on relationships to fulfil us in every way throughout our – increasingly long – lives. However, we also know that relationships are a point of great potential struggle and pain. Living up close alongside somebody for many, many years may be one of the most difficult things that any of us do. Indeed, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson argue that romantic relationships are the most dangerous places to be because they are where we are forced to confront ourselves and to learn about how we are capable of behaving. It might be possible to keep up a shiny, happy veneer with our work colleagues, our neighbours, and even our families once we are no longer living with them, but our partner gets to see us when we are at our most tired, stressed and ill.

This is something that is well captured in the Christian wedding vows. It really will be for better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, and at the worse, poorer and sicker times we all (us and our loved ones) have the capacity for cruelty, coldness and cowardice. There will be times when we find ourselves frustrated, angry and bored with the love of our life and scared about what that may mean, as well as times when we see the loving gaze slip off their own faces to be replaced by something else. Such times can be terrifying if we have invested in this relationship the idea that it is a constant validation that we are okay and secure. It can be even harder if what we were expecting was some kind of constant perfection and happiness.

This may sound depressing and defeatist: an argument for not marrying at all, but it is not. Even if we didn't get married, or form romantic partnerships, we would still get intimate and connected to people, and these struggles would still arise. What I am arguing against are the industries that continue to sell us dangerous myths of perfect people and eternal happiness: the ever-smiling billboard, television and movie couples, and the self-help books and magazines that promise to reveal the secrets of 'successful' relationships which will lead to impossibly happy-ever-afters. This is what so many publishers, advertisers and film-makers sell, because they know that people want to hear it. But our constant saturation in these messages is the very thing that is leading to so much pain and struggle and heartache. And the image of the perfect love may well result in us leaving a relationship too quickly assuming that there must be something wrong with it, or staying in a tough relationship too long because we don't want to admit to 'failure'.

Perhaps instead of loading all these expectations and pressures onto Kate and William, and every other marrying couple, we could offer something different: a recognition that relationships will be tough at times and that there aren't any simple tricks to constant happiness. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim have pointed out, along with wanting a great deal from relationships, relationships themselves have changed so much in the last few decades that we can feel lost and uncertain. Old rules, for example about rigid gender roles in relationships, no longer apply, but there are no new rules out there for us to follow either. As they put it: 'love is becoming a blank that lovers must fill in themselves'.

If love is a blank then the thing that is, perhaps, most needed to fill in that blank is communication. The wedding gift that we might give to Kate and William, based on all the relationship therapy and research about relationships, would be communication.

A Wedding Gift: Communication

I'll use the wedding vows that Kate and William will be making to demonstrate both the importance of communication these days, and also the ways in which it might work. We make a lot of explicit, and implicit, promises to each other all the way through relationships, but we often fail to think much about what these promises mean, or to check whether they mean the same thing to both people. Research suggests that young couples actually often disagree quite strongly about the things that they thought they had both signed up to.

Kate and William's vows will be the ones from the Church of England 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This means that they will go something like this:

'I, William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor, take you, Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, till death do us part; according to God's holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.' (and vice versa)

And later: 'With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.'

There are a lot of promises in there. To pick out some key ones, it seems that in marriage people are promising the following:

  • To stay together, through whatever happens, till death
  • To love each other throughout this time To have, or belong to, each other
  • To be sexual throughout the relationship (with my body I thee worship)
  • To share their worldly goods (usually understood as living together and sharing money)

In terms of the first promise, it might be useful – giving the statistics on separation – for couples to talk through this commitment. Would they want to stay together in exactly the same way, for example, if they found that they were fighting all the time in ways that hurt themselves and those close to them, or if one or both of them changed such that they found themselves with very different life goals. Some recognition that people and relationships change over time would be helpful here, and perhaps thinking about what they might do when such changes happen. Would the relationship staying in its current form be prioritised over their well-being? The idea that relationships can shift and change might take the pressure off a little as it offers something in between staying together exactly as we are, or completely ending the relationship.

In terms of loving each other throughout, it is worth talking through what love means to each person and how they express it, or like to have it expressed. People often feel very differently about this, for example, with one person liking regular declarations of love and big romantic gestures, whilst the other prefers practical signs that the other person has taken them into consideration (by doing the washing up, for example), or thinks about them during the day (the odd text message).

In terms of having and holding, it is very important to consider to what extent people belong to each other and to what extent they are free. This is at the root of so many big relationship conflicts. For example, one person might make a decision about their career which the other would have expected to be consulted upon, or one might think that they were free to be closer to certain friends than the other is happy with.

There is also often an expectation that marriages will stay sexual throughout, but there tends to be very little communication about what sex means to each person and what they actually enjoy. Research has found that people who have been in relationships for over a decade still haven't told their partners all of their sexual likes and dislikes, and of course these can change over time. It is useful to talk through what people want sex for, which actually differs quite a lot (e.g. from a release, to an affirmation of their attractiveness, to a reassurance about the relationship, to an expression of intimacy, to a sense of a physical need that requires regular fulfilment), and also recognise that this will fluctuate through the relationship too.

Finally, it is well worth communicating about what will be shared and what will be separate. Does sharing worldly goods mean having joint finances, for example, or keeping some separate? Do we expect to spend all our time together, or to have periods of separation? What are the limits on what would be acceptable (e.g. can we go on holiday with other people, or work apart for a while)? And what about space? Are we planning to live together, sleep together? Will there be any separate space? Who will be responsible for keeping shared space clean and tidy (and to what extent)? Or for caring for children, pets or plants? Will we have any things we keep private (e.g. certain activities or information)?

It is likely that with all these kinds of questions and more, there will be some aspects that both people agree on, some where they disagree but are able to reach a compromise which meets each other's requirements as well as possible, and some where they simply can't agree. These last ones occur in every relationship. They are points of tension which are likely to crop up every now and again, but can be a lot easier to cope with if there is awareness of them and respect for difference (rather than each person trying to force the other into their way of thinking). It can be very hard to respect that, while you would like to share everything, the other person really values keeping some things to themselves, or while you like lots of public displays of affection and 'I love you's', the other person prefers more private intimacy. Also, of course, both people will change over time, so it is worth revisiting these promises and seeing whether things have altered and any renegotiation is necessary, rather than 'you've changed' being a fatal accusation.

Hopefully a grounding of mutual commitment to communication, to respect for difference and change, and to understanding and forgiveness for behaviour when things get tough, will be a better basis for the rough and the smooth to come, than the expectation of perfection (in oneself and one's partner) and a fairytale happily-ever-after.

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