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Society, Politics & Law

Meg Barker rewrites the rules

Updated Saturday, 17th November 2012

If everyone were to read and absorb the message in the book Rewriting The Rules, the world would be a much better place, writes Professor Fred Toates in his review of Meg Barker's work.

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A cartoon showing images of femininity Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Sex and Relationships by Meg Barker
Published by Routledge, 2013

This is a beautifully written and profound book that is laced with wisdom and humour, full of quirky and novel bits of insight and advice. It is very clearly written and I am happy to recommend it most strongly. I believe that any of us could greatly benefit from reading this study (I certainly have) and discover much unexpected insights into ourselves and our way of dealing with others. Couples, particularly at times of conflict, would probably gain much by both parties discussing together its message.

The basic underlying theme that runs throughout the study is that the rules by which we lead our sexual and romantic lives are open to question and to be undermined. The criterion of whether they should be undermined is essentially a pragmatic one – are these rules really working for you? However, rather than being an egoist's DIY manual, it is very much grounded in sound ethical principles. I understand these to be that you can, indeed should, experiment, bend and challenge rules and do what you want provided that you are not hurting or being coercive towards another in the process. This seems like an excellent criterion to me and one which would relieve many people of their remorseless stress, discomfort and guilt.

Meg challenges the notion that there exists inside each of us a 'true self' that is simply waiting to be discovered with the help of DIY books. Once found, this true self would presumably reveal itself to be better than the untrue self that is familiar to us. At the same time the self that we experience is made to feel inadequate by the incessant commercial messages that our bodies could look better, we could have a better sex-life or we could own more material possessions. We are encouraged to compare ourselves against those who have succeeded more than us, a source of unremitting misery. Meg notes the desperate need of many people in therapy to perceive themselves as 'normal'.

The book's philosophical foundation is that social norms are essentially socially constructed and thereby are open to be socially negotiated according to the changes and vagaries of life's experience. Hence, the message represents a revolt against the view that there are 'absolutes', fixed and immutable standards by which we should lead our lives. There is not some golden standard which we must all aim to achieve, except the golden standard that there is no golden standard.

Meg describes her work as "a kind of anti-self-help book". Thereby, it stands in contrast to the multitude of books that are based on the assumption that there are ideals by which we should live and which then attempt to explain how we can minimize the deviations from such ideals. Meg provides evidence that in reality few, if any, live up to golden standards and the attempt to meet them is doomed to frustration, pain and failure.

To turn to the theoretical foundations of Meg's study, she acknowledges the role of biology and rightly sees it acting in dynamic interaction with the environment (page 87):

"… is important to bear in mind that physiological differences are not necessarily present from birth (or down to 'nature'). All through our lives our brains connect up in various ways due to the situations in which we find ourselves and the learning that we do, so it is just as likely that such brain patterns are a result of socialization (or 'nurture')…"

This seems to lead logically to the assertion that (p.87):

"It is also interesting to note that the differences between what men are like in two different cultures are far greater than the differences between what men and women are like within the same culture….."

I am not convinced by this claim. For example, apparently running somewhat counter to Meg's argument, I have yet to hear of a culture in which prostitution is predominantly a male profession that caters for females or where sexual assault is primarily a female crime targeted at male victims. Similarly, I know of nowhere where male virginity is treasured more than female virginity, with corresponding sanctions against its loss, or where male promiscuity and infidelity are condemned more than the female equivalents. I know of no instances anywhere of women who accumulate hoards of male shoes or underwear. Indeed, whenever I mention this possibility in lectures, students invariably laugh at the mere thought.

Meg notes (p.97):

"This is the sexual double standard which explains why there are hundreds of negative words for a woman who has sex with multiple people, and only a few, mostly positive, words for a man in the same situation."

This is certainly (and sadly) true within a given culture such as ours but this seems to me to raise a question related to Meg's assertion, just described, concerning inter- and intra-cultural differences. Are there cultures that can be compared such that the differences appearing in this double standard of pejorative/praiseworthy naming are greater than are the differences within a culture? Are there cultures in which promiscuous men and women are equally condemned, or even where men are termed something equivalent to slut or whore and the women are called the female equivalent of studs?

If Meg is asserting that such gender differences are not the result of biology alone, she is doubtless right. If she is asserting that, given exposure to a more egalitarian culture from birth, such differences would be eliminated, this seems to me to represent no more than an act of faith (though not one that is thereby necessarily wrong).

I would suggest that a study of biological and evolutionary principles could be of relevance here. In some cases, biological inheritance, as reflected in brain processes, could act as a brake on what we can expect to achieve. Neither genes nor environment are absolute determinants but rather the outcome is invariably a highly complex and subtle interweaving of both factors. I believe that the developing brain presents us with a certain range of possibilities/ probabilities for our mental life and behaviour, which might be otherwise expressed as biases or predilections. These are then strongly strengthened/moulded, or conversely sometimes even inhibited and undermined, by our environment, both social and physical. The outcome is open to varying degrees of flexibility and change. Some predilections are at odds with others and some kind of resolution needs to take place.

Cultures take these predilections and embody them in moral principles, religious edicts, legal rules, habits and conventions. The brain has a limited capacity to take long-term considerations into account, particularly under conditions of heavy load and stress, and often settles for the easiest short-term option. This is exemplified by our addictive and destructive consumerism and complacency in the face of climate change. It is equally exemplified by our repeated giving in to the temptation to score short-term gain in relationships at the expense of long-term misery. Meg in fact addresses this issue in terms of hard and soft options.

It could well be that some of the things that Meg suggests that we can change to optimise our quality of life are strongly restrained or will fly in the face of counter-pressures. Take, for example, the rules of attraction. Here Meg writes (p.24):

"…the usual rules of attraction are strongly rooted in physical appearance, and this has a profound effect on how we treat our own and other people's bodies".

I would suggest that, in questioning this, Meg is hoping to undermine something that is deeply rooted in our evolutionary inheritance. For example, there are certain cross-cultural standards of facial attraction, albeit ones that are subject to certain culturally rooted fine-tuning.Even new-born babies spend more time looking at faces that are judged by adults to be attractive. Meg is right: there is a historical and cultural variation in what is considered an attractive female body size. Evolutionary psychologists argue that this is programmed evolutionarily so as to vary with food availability. It might prove difficult, if not impossible, to test satisfactorily the validity of this idea.

Having said all this, cultures relentlessly reinforce the stereotypes, as documented by Meg. This doubtless contributes to much dissatisfaction and misery. However, I think that any attempt to rewrite the rules whereby people would opt out of the 'arms race' in which each individual tries to enhance his or her own sexual attraction value is unlikely to be successful.

In the chapter 'Rewriting the rules of love', Meg writes (p.43):

"What I am questioning is the idea that there is only one way of doing love, and the burden that puts on us and on our relationships."

Again, I think that our biological inheritance sets certain limits on how far we can rewrite these rules. There is a powerful imperative to maintain the bond with another, which derives, according to Bowlby, from early infant attachment. Meg writes (p.43):

"…let's do a quick exercise to knock romantic love off its perch as the ultimate experience in life."

A class of her students came up with various other experiences as the ultimate, such as "My team winning the cup." Indeed, unlike football, it seems to me that most accounts of romantic love even at its best are commonly expressed in terms of unremitting misery, as reflected in the words of so many popular songs. However, as biologically-orientated researchers are establishing, the intensity of liking something does not equal the intensity of wanting it. My hunch is that those students offering their team's win as equally powerful an experience as romantic attachment would not rank 'my team losing' as being as equally and enduringly painful as loss of a romantic relationship (I might be wrong!).

In the chapter entitled 'Rewriting the rules of monogamy', it seems to me that Meg confronts the dilemma posed by two tendencies, each of which owes much to genetic inheritance, being locked in conflict. On the one hand, brains seek novelty, found most intensely for some in the quest for variety in sexual partners. On the other hand, brains are powerfully triggered by the threat of the partner's infidelity, which creates the recipe for a collision course. Some resolve this by open relationships and others by means of co-marital sex, more usually described as swinging. The rewards of novelty might outweigh or even suppress the lurking blackness of jealousy but let us not pretend that the solution is easy to negotiate.

In summary, this is a powerful and important study and, although I would question some of its assumptions, this does not detract from its overwhelming value. If everyone were to read and absorb the message of this work, the world would be a much better place.

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.
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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.





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