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

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This post also appears over on OpenLearn

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

 

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

 

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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Heteronormativity

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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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Response to the Bailey Review

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Tuesday, 7 Jun 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?

 

HappilyEverAfter


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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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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Making sense of the sexualisation debates

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011, 16:52

This blog entry is one of many collected together over on The Onscenity Network.

Making sense of the sexualisation debates

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

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

The Simple Form of the Debate

The simple form of the debate, as it is played out on TV programmes, in policy documents, and in the huge number of popular books on the subject of sexualisation, goes something like this:

One side says that our society has become hyper-sexualised: wherever we go we are blasted with messages about sex. Boys are watching hardcore online porn from an early age and this is warping their sexualities and turning them into sexual predators. Girls are sexualised before they are out of toddlerhood with high-heeled baby shoes, playboy style mini T-shirts, and Bratz dolls. By the time they are teenagers they have bought the message that being sexy is all-important, putting them at risk of everything from eating disorders to STIs to sexual violence.

The other side of the popular debate emphasises choice and fun and power. We live in a time of equality, it says. People get to choose who they want to be. And if women want to go pole-dancing for leisure and feel empowered by dressing up sexy that is great. Lads magazines and sexy dancing on the X-Factor aren't bad for women – they celebrate women – and anyone who disagrees needs to lighten up and get the joke.

The More Complex Form of the Debate

When the topic is debated in more academic circles, a somewhat more sophisticated version of these two sides tends to be put forward, which it would definitely be useful to get out there more widely:

The side that is concerned about sexualisation says that all this emphasis on choice, fun and power makes it really difficult for people to resist messages about sexiness. To be a lad means always being up for it, and to be an empowered woman means choosing to pamper yourself so you look gorgeous and have all eyes on you. There's no room for all the many, many men who feel anxious about sex, or all the women who don't fit the very rigid standards of youth and beauty. And those that do fit live in fear of losing that.

The side that is more sceptical about sexualisation points out that the whole thing seems like a moral panic: the kind of thing people get worked about every decade or so. Weren't people panicking about mini-skirts and rock & roll in the same ways back in the 1950s and 60s? Talking with young people directly suggests that their sexual behaviour hasn't changed that radically. They're not all constantly sexting, watching porn, or trying every sexual practice that they see online. And lots of people find easier access to porn and other sexual information to be helpful in figuring out their own sexualities. People on this side of the debate ask questions like: Why are we so worried about sex instead of all the violent imagery that is out there unchallenged? Or whether all the concern that girls and women are in danger and need protecting from men reinforces divisions of gender, leading to more problems than it solves.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Holding the tension: My main thought is that we need to move away from these either/or debates, not towards some resolution that is probably impossible, but more towards recognising the inevitable tensions and contradictions in the complex world we live in. We are massively shaped by the world around us, so current bombardment of sexual imagery is unlikely to leave any of us untouched, but we also all filter this through our own experiences and histories in unique ways so the same messages won't have the same impact on everybody. We should be mindful of how these debates have played out in the past, and of who is included and excluded in them.

Recognising what we bring to it: Emotions run high whenever these debates occur, and yet we all pretend that we don't have a personal stake in it in order to make our points sound reasonable. It would be useful if we could acknowledge that being someone who watches porn, or a parent, or a person who does – or doesn't – fit the current ideals of sexiness, influences how we come to these debates. And that the person we are arguing with will have similar, deeply personal, investments in it.

Talking to people: A lot gets said on both sides of this debate based on assumptions, like looking at a music video and assuming it will make young people want to copy it, or assuming that because you feel able to resist some of these messages it will be just as easy for other people. We need to talk to people a lot more to find out how they are really being affected, and to help us remember that it is not the same for everyone.


For more information see The Onscenity Network and The Pornified Seminar Series.

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