Following my last post I'm very pleased to report that last Friday, I was the proud recipient of the Erotic Award in the academic category. Even better that my co-nominees Sue Newsome and Brooke Magnanti both received awards in other categories: Sue for her important sex therapy work around disability, and Brooke for her recent book about sex work and sexuality, Sex Myths.
My award was the last one of the night to be announced so I was extremely nervous by the time they got to me. Despite regularly talking to large audiences, I found the thought of going up on stage absolutely terrifying. My main worry was that nobody would know why I was there: that they would see me as something of a fraud compared to all the performers, activists and practitioners who had preceded me and who are so well known in these worlds.
The audience mainly consisted of members of the kink and related communities who were also staying on for the rest of the Night of the Senses ball, including those in Outsiders (the sex and disability charity which the event was fundraising for. These are very important groups for me because so much of the academic work that I've done has been within such communities, and with the aim of increasing awareness of them beyond the stereotypes and myths that frequently circulate. I've always tried my hardest to make my work accountable to the people who are involved in it, and to the wider communities that they come from, but this seemed to be a real test of that. Would they see my writing as valuable? Would they even know who I was?
I needn't have worried because the announcement of my award received a wonderful round of applause. As I made my way to the stage my legs were shaking, and I have very little recollection of what I said other than of hugging the startled compere. So I'll use the opportunity of the rest of this post to say what I wanted say then about why this award meant so much more to me than almost any other that I could have received.
A decade ago when I started researching sexual communities, very few people in my discipline of psychology studied the kinds of groups that I was working with: the kink, bisexual and polyamorous communities. Those who did were generally seeking to conduct research which would explain why some strange people deviated from ordinary sexual behaviour: by engaging in practices other than genital sex; by falling outside the gay/straight binary; or by being in sexual relationships with more than one person.
I felt that the much more important, and less patronising, question to ask was what we could all learn from people in these communities who had – by necessity – examined issues of sexuality, gender and relationships closely and come up with many different ways of doing things. Inspired by the work of Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues, my assumption was always that there is a diversity of possible ways of being sexual and relating to others and that there would be real value in making people more aware of this. My work as a sex therapist has brought home just how much rigid ideas around sex and sexuality are responsible for all kinds of pain and suffering: from the teenage girl trying to figure out what to do sexually so as not to be labelled too tight or slutty; to the person who forces themselves to have sex for fear of losing their partner; to the people with disabilities who struggle to find any representations of themselves as sexual beings; to the many people who live in fear of their sexual desires (or lack of them) being exposed because they don't fit into what they've been told counts as 'normal'.
It hasn't always been easy working in this area. At the start many colleagues found it embarrassing and questioned the legitimacy of what I was doing. Being open about my own involvement in the communities I was studying – so that people could evaluate my work with knowledge of my potential biases – led to exposure and judgement that was very painful at times. But over the last few years it seems that more and more academics have been taking these areas seriously and asking the same kinds of questions as me, as you can see if you check out the papers in the journal I co-edit Psychology & Sexuality. Also colleagues in other areas have become much more interested and supportive. And public awareness has shifted such that media reports are far less likely to demonise or ridicule either the communities or the research.
Last year I published my book, Rewriting the Rules, which brings much of the work that I've been doing to a general audience. The response has been completely positive from academics and non-academics alike. I'm very grateful to my university – The Open University – who have been nothing but supportive, publishing The Bisexuality Report launching my book, and publicising my Erotic Award on their website.
This year Christina Richards and I are publishing a book on sexuality and gender for therapists and health practitioners. This will hopefully make professionals more aware of the needs of people across diverse sexualities and genders, whether 'normative' or 'non-normative'. I'm engaging again with kink communities to explore the sophisticated understandings of consent that are developing there which may be helpful more broadly given the current climate regarding sexual abuse. Finally, I'm starting a project with Rosalind Gill and Laura Harvey analysing sex advice in self-help books, problem pages, and TV shows. I'm hopeful that this work can lead to the publication of some more positive sex advice which is inclusive of all of our sexual practices, identities and experiences.
I'm so grateful to all of the people and communities who have supported my work over the years and who have taken part in it for little direct reward. There is no way that I could have done all this without them, and that is why this award means the world to me.
This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
Want to know more about studying social sciences with The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.
Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.