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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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Multiple (perspectives on) Orgasms

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

Multiple (perspectives on) Orgasms

orgasmhurdle

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 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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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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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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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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