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A quickie with Dr Meg Barker

February 9th, 2009

Dr Petra

Today I’m joined for a quickie with Dr Meg Barker, who manages an exciting career that combines the roles of an academic, sex educator and relationship therapist.

Dr. Meg Barker is a lecturer in psychology at the Open University as well as working as a sex and relationship therapist at an NHS clinic. She co-organises the Critical Sexology series of seminars, and is a trustee of the British Association for Sexual and Relationship Therapy and contributor to their website. Meg has recently co-published a book on sadomasochism (Safe, Sane, Consensual) with Darren Langdridge and they are currently editing a book on non-monogamous relationships (Understanding Non-monogamies) and are launching a new journal (Psychology & Sexuality) with Taylor and Francis in 2010.

Welcome, Meg!

What have been your proudest achievements?

I am always most proud of the times when I’ve done something personally challenging, like facing up to my fears or managing to weather a storm, rather than of the more obvious successes.

Sometimes this has intersected with my professional life. I remember the first time I submitted a paper for publication it was rejected by one of the reviewers. It took me years to have the confidence to submit again. I am particularly proud of my chapter in the book ‘Out in Psychology’ because I was still very anxious about writing academically at that point. I will always be grateful to Liz Peel and Victoria Clarke for shepherding me through that process.

I’m also very proud of having become a therapist. It requires a completely different kind of knowledge than academic life does and I find it so fulfilling.

What do you still have left to achieve?
My dream is to write books for a general, as well as academic, audience about life and relationships. I have a couple planned but it will be another scary step into an unknown area. Working on the BASRT website was a good step in this direction.

Who are your heroes/role models?
All of the people over the years who have combined their academic or therapy work with political activism even though it has often been dangerous and painful to them. Particular examples would be Alfred Kinsey and also Gayle Rubin whose paper ‘Thinking Sex’ gave me the confidence to research in this area and has yet to be bettered in terms of what it has to say about sex.

Tell me one thing about you that might surprise me. What do you do to relax? What makes you happy?
The answers to these questions are all the same and are the fact that, over the last year, I have begun rock-climbing. Given my fear of heights it is an extremely unlikely thing for me to do, but I am finding it deeply rewarding. It takes me away from thinking about things academically and talking to people (which is what I spend so much time doing). I get out into nature, which I love, and I enjoy the combination of figuring out the problems, facing the emotions that climbing brings, and enjoying what my body is capable of.

What projects are you currently working on?
I’m just finishing editing the book ‘Understanding Non-monogamies’ which Darren Langdridge and myself are publishing with Routledge. It has been a dream project bringing together researchers and writers on all different kinds of openly non-monogamous relationships in one place. I think it is quite an important book as it comes at a point where more and more attention is being paid to these issues but right now it is still quite a small field.

What are the main problem areas in sex/relationships we need to deal with currently?
The fact that we live in a sex-saturated culture where sex is everywhere and people are being encouraged to have lots of sex, but, at the same time, there is so much anxiety around sex with so many people struggling to match up to this image and not feeling okay about their sexuality.

What’s the best sex tip you’ve ever heard?

My supervisor told me that, on the est courses back in the 1970s attendees would be encouraged to see out the weekend with the promise that the last workshop would be on sex. When they got to this final workshop they would be told one thing: ‘when you’re hot you’re hot and when you’re not you’re not’. I wonder if a lot of sex therapy would be made redundant if people were able to accept that.

What do you consider to be the main innovations in sex/relationships over the past century?

Definitely the fact that we have become more open to the diversity of sexual preferences and relationship styles that are possible instead of seeing a tiny range as ‘normal’ and anything outside that as pathological, criminal or sinful.

Where do you see our sex lives going in the future?

I hope that this trend will continue and people will be able to be more comfortable with themselves whatever they are into sexually, and whatever relationships suit them, so long as everyone else involved is also happy and consenting.

What are the main things people worry about in relation to their sex lives?

In my clinical work still the main thing people worry about is whether they are normal, and whether they will lose a relationship unless they have a certain kind of sex and follow certain rules.

What causes those worries?

Well the media still presents a certain view of sex and relationships as the ‘norm’: mostly it is heterosexual, between young, able, white people, and it involves finding ‘the one’ person, falling in love, and living happily ever after continuing to have ‘great sex’.

I think this puts a lot of pressure on people either to conform to this image or to feel bad about themselves if they do not (if a relationship breaks down, or if they want to have different kinds of sex to this, for example).

Again it would be good to see all kinds of relationship and sexuality depicted equally, and more awareness of the kinds of relationships people are having these days (which may sometimes last a shorter time, or change from ‘romantic’ to ‘friendship’, but not necessarily be less fulfilling because of it).

What sex/relationships issues are worth campaigning for?

Equality, acceptance of diversity, and the fact that all bodies are beautiful not just model-like women and gym-toned men.

Are there any issues in sex/relationships are given too much attention?

I think there are too many TV programmes and articles about ‘different’ sexualities or relationships which present them as something strange and freaky to be goggled at, rather than just another way people live their lives.

Thanks for your time Meg. Meg has very kindly recommended a couple of other trailblazers in the field of sex therapy so I hope to be bringing you a quickie with them in the very near future.

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