DiversityNZ logo

Posted by Philip on 15 May 2016, 11:44 am in , , , , ,

Sexuality and Diversity – Bending Rules and Breaking Duals | 7th Sexual Dysfunction Conference

Yesterday I presented at the 7th Multidisciplinary Sexual Dysfunction Conference, somewhat misnamed due to history — as organiser Nic Beets explained, it's become a lot less medicalised over the years. Now it attracts GPs, physiotherapists, counsellors, psychotherapists, sex therapists, sexual health promoters among others. This post summarises my sessions and includes points I neglected to cover.

By chance (or perhaps design on the part of the organisers) I spoke after listening to a presentation by Dr Russell Shuttleworth, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, followed by a Q&A with Dr George Taleporos, Researcher, also at Deakin University, with whom I've been acquainted for nearly two decades. Their topic was Facilitated Sex for Adults with Disabilities. I pointed out the irony that George and I had been having this conversation for those 15-20 years and, from their presentation, it seems not much has changed.

So I began by musing what it would take to move this issue over the line, beyond the concerns of ethics and risks, in order to facilitate the development of policy to allow those with access needs to access support in this area. I postulated that perhaps there were some wider psycho-social assumptions, beyond sexuality and into the wider realms of intimacy, relationship structures and institutions, that remain all but unquestioned in society.

I began by saying that from my experience, having problems accessing sex didn't seem to be something particularly unique to disabled people. I know plenty of disabled people having sex and plenty of non-disabled people who aren't. So perhaps this is a self-fulfilling notion that would be best put to bed.

I continued that I believe the value placed on the couple as a socially accepted institution is inflated, to the point that being single is almost stigmatised. I also ruminated on the myth that being coupled assumed a regular and healthy sex life, but that (UK) research shows "married couples aged 36-55, 44 percent had sex weekly, 32 had sex monthly, 11 per cent had sex annually, 9 percent never have sex and 4 percent had sex every day." These figures certainly confirm many "bed-death" conversations I've had with couples both in and divorced from long-term, monogamous relationships. I also outlined my aversion to formal relationships because of the inherent trappings they tend to bring: the partner becoming more important than other friends and family (trumping was the word I used), expectations to always consult on social activities, shared finances, blended families and more.

Next, I talked about monogamy. Many people think that monogamy is either "part of human nature", or because of the control of wealth and property etc. However, it seems there may have been another, simpler reason we chose monogamy as a social standard. This is the abstract of recent Canadian and German research:

Socially imposed monogamy in humans is an evolutionary puzzle because it requires costly punishment by those who impose the norm. Moreover, most societies were—and are—polygynous; yet many larger human societies transitioned from polygyny to socially imposed monogamy beginning with the advent of agriculture and larger residential groups. We use a simulation model to explore how interactions between group size, sexually transmitted infection (STI) dynamics and social norms can explain the timing and emergence of socially imposed monogamy. Polygyny dominates when groups are too small to sustain STIs. However, in larger groups, STIs become endemic (especially in concurrent polygynist networks) and have an impact on fertility, thereby mediating multilevel selection. Punishment of polygynists improves monogamist fitness within groups by reducing their STI exposure, and between groups by enabling punishing monogamist groups to outcompete polygynists. This suggests pathways for the emergence of socially imposed monogamy, and enriches our understanding of costly punishment evolution.

 Canadian researcher, Chris Bauch, said of the findings:

"This research shows how events in natural systems, such as the spread of contagious diseases, can strongly influence the development of social norms and in particular our group-oriented judgments."

So it's interesting that this more scientific and, if you ask me, logical explanation of how our monogonormative culture came to be has been "lost in history" and, ironically, we haven't realised that, with the invention of the condom, we have effectively cured the need for monogamy.

At this point I clarified my own sexual identity, saying that I use "gay" and "queer" a shorthand because people understand the labels. In fact, I identify as "same-gender-attracted", in that I like the dynamic of a same-gender relationship. Ergo, if I were a woman, I strongly believe I would be attracted to women. I also purposely use the term "same-gender-attracted" and not "same-sex-attracted" because I have been and am attracted to transguys. For me, it is the expression of gender and not the biological sex of people that attracts me.

Next, I spoke of my identification with polyamory, which is another reason I reject monogamous relationship structures. For me, it's this simple: if you can have numerous friends with whom you share your authentic self and go to the movies, why would you not be sexually intimate with more than one person? This is often seen as a radical thought but I for one can't see the huge distinction between sex and other social activities, except an ideological difference.

The other benefit of polyamory is learning how to have open, honest and respectful relationships with not only sexual partners but friends, family and colleagues. In her book The Art and Etiquette of Polyamory, author Françoise Simpère describes the notion of the "balanced ego", which she defines as the essentially adult way to engage in relationships:

“Arrogance...is generally a cover for a chronic lack of self-confidence.

“To be specific, self-confidence is when one is aware of his or her qualities without falling victim to false modesty.

“Humility allows one to recognise quietly that even though he or she is a wonderful person, there may be qualities that he or she lacks.

“An individual with a balanced ego is fully aware of his or her own existence and does not need others to confirm it.

“He or she is interested in others because of who they are, and not because of a need to see him or herself as a reflection in their admiring eyes.”

It really is a wonderful way to describe the basis for healthy engagement. Simpère also discusses the confusion adults have between needs and wants. Needs, she points out, are things babies and children have, which adults have a duty to provide. As adults, however, a need is something one can generally provide for oneself. Anything one adult requires from another is a want or desire, yet the narrative of intimate relationships often retains the expectation the one is entitled to have one's needs met by the other partner.

The final thing that still stands out for me from having read her book a few years ago is the dynamic of initial attraction. Simpère suggests that, rather than two people being attracted to each other, they are in fact flattered by the other's attraction to them! This she holds, means most relationships are founded on deep narcissism and it is this dynamic that causes problems.

I didn't have time to talk about marriage, which is, I believe, the formalised, religious and state-sanctioned control of wealth and property in heteronormative and monogonormative coupling. I have several issues with marriage, not the least of which is what I see as another form of narcissism, asking friends and family to validate a relationship, not to mention the huge and highly profitable wedding industry it perpetuates.

I have never particularly supported marriage equality, either, usually quipping the old chestnut that it just gives queers the right to be as unhappy as straights, but also that it will only serve to raise divorce rates. Ironically, though, this latter theory was quashed by this story of two Australian women who were unable to be divorced after marrying in NZ, because they lacked NZ citizenship and gay marriage is not recognised in Oz. Beyond the obvious irony of these women's sad situation, I can only say that if, as a country, we're going to embrace marriage equality, it would seem only fair to acknowledge divorce equality.

The point of sharing my views is that, if we are going to tackle the complexity of facilitated sex, among other currently taboo issues like sexual consent and abuse, we may need to look more widely at the notions we hold about relationships in general. Having decayed these misunderstood and outdated ideologies, we may create the space to grow new understanding about more perplexing matters.

Follow my blog on 

Get more diversity at DiversityNZ.com

You are welcome to share this post freely and without permission. Acknowledgement and a link back to this site would be appreciated. And please leave a comment if you wish – I'd be interested to know where I've ended up.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Comments