Meg Barker is a psychologist who specialises in understanding non-conventional sexuality and relationships. As well as being a researcher, Meg is also a psychotherapist where she puts her research into practice to help people overcome sex and relationship difficulties.
Having completed a great deal of research on bisexuality and ‘BDSM’ culture, Meg also has a particular interest in ‘polyamory‘ and non-monogamous relationships and has recently co-edited a forthcoming book on the topic with psychologist Darren Langdridge which attempts to understand the diverse experiences of non-monogamous relationships.
She’s also been kind enough to talk to Mind Hacks about her work and interests.
How do you think open or polyamorous relationships differ psychologically from monogamous relationships?
This is a difficult question to answer because over the years I’ve come to realise that there isn’t really one kind of polyamory, or non-monogamy, just as there isn’t one form of monogamy. That is why Darren and I called our new book ‘Understanding non-monogamies’ – plural.
In fact, the first contribution to that book (by Katherine Frank and John DeLameter) even questions the distinction between monogamies and non-monogamies. They present research which suggests that similar conversations about relationship ‘rules’ are currently happening in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships of various kinds (e.g. swinging, polyamory and open relationships).
Some people have non-monogamous relationships for political or spiritual reasons, because they feel that monogamy is rooted in capitalism, or because they don’t want to ‘possess’ another person in any way. Others recognise that they can be attracted to more than one person at a time; they want to act on their attractions, but not in a dishonest way like with infidelity. Some are in it for the exciting sexual possibilities. Some feel that being non-monogamous is an inherent part of their sexuality (perhaps along with the gender/s they are attracted to). Others feel that it is a choice they have made. Some non-monogamous people are open to multiple sexual relationships but only one ‘love’ relationship, others have multiple love relationships, and others question the very division between sex and love.
So I guess what I’m saying is that diversity is the rule, and my therapeutic work suggests that the same is true within monogamous relationships. Following social changes in recent decades (people living longer, increased gender equality, recognition of same-sex relationships, increasing divorce rates), many of us seem to be questioning how we ‘do’ relationships and redefining our boundaries, commitments, and the lines we draw in relation to emotional and sexual exclusivity.
There are couples who define as monogamous who search for sexual encounters with ‘singles’ on the internet, or agree on a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy when one is away from home. There are those who define as polyamorous who have fidelity within a ‘triad’ or ‘family’, or who define a ‘primary’ relationship. The lines are definitely blurred.
You study lots of sexual activities that were, or are still, considered immoral by some. What place does morality have in sexual behaviour?
Personally I like the psychiatrist, Chess Denman’s, classification of sexualities into those which are ‘transgressive’ and those which are ‘coercive’. Transgressive ones just fall outside our current cultural comfort zone. They may well be accepted in other times and places and there is nothing inherently harmful about them. Coercive sexualities involve some degree of coercion or force: they are non-consensual.
Denman argues that psychology and psychiatry has no business pathologising transgressive sexualities which people gain pleasure and happiness from. Coercive sexualities should be dealt with in the criminal-legal systems along with other acts of violence and abuse.
I also like this quote from Gayle Rubin, one of my inspirations, on this issue. She says: ‘Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere… Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone‚Äô (Rubin, 1984, p. 283).
You research ‘critical sexology’. What is it?
‘Critical sexology’ is the name of a seminar series which I run with my colleague Lisa Downing. Basically the idea is to bring people together from across the disciplines to talk about issues of sexuality (sexology is a word for the study of sexuality). So we bring together medics, psychotherapists, psychologists, sociologists, humanities scholars, activists and a number of others to share their ideas and research.
The ‘critical’ part of the title means that we are generally cautious about taken-for-granted ideas about sexuality, for example the dichotomy of gay vs. straight which leaves little room for bisexual and queer sexualities, the idea that one kind of sex is better than others, or the pathologisation of the ‘transgressive’ kinds of sexuality that I spoke about before.
Most importantly though, we think it important to encourage dialogue about a topic which is researched and theorised across so many different disciplines. We have much to learn from one another.
How does your clinical work inform your research?
Hugely. It keeps me grounded in what is sometimes called ‘the real world’ in academic circles! Whenever I read a theory or some research these days I am always asking whether it is something that could actually be helpful to people grappling with relationship, sexual, or emotional problems in their own lives. Those are the ideas and studies that I am most interested in.
I have been very lucky to find work which brings together my academic interests with my therapeutic work and I am now writing courses for the Open University on counselling and psychotherapy which are, of course, informed by psychological research in these areas.
Name three under-rated things
Comics (I’m excited by the potential for visual methods in psychological research and I’m currently looking at polyamorous comics)
Sitting still (I’m into Buddhist mindfulness)
Seeing diversity as well as consistency (in psychological research on groups or communities)