Researchers Daring to it Differently! Creative Ways of Exploring Sex, Gender, Sexuality and Relating

Riotous assembly  


Paul Simpson writes: Held at Manchester University on 9 April 2014, this event brought together 30 academics from arts, humanities, social sciences, nursing and social work and from Brazil to Newcastle and many points in-between.

We looked beyond standard research methods (e.g. interviews and focus groups) to explore generating richer narratives through:

  • photographic-related methods;
  • creative writing around intimacy, desire, and sex;
  • craft, modelling and creative play;
  • estrangement and the gendered learning/research environment;
  • movement and meditation.

Bad sex?

A ‘bad sex media bingo’ game was used as an icebreaker. This explored reporting that reinforces constraining ideas about sex, gender, sexuality and relating. We examined pseudo-scientific reportage based on conventional notions of gender, which undergird ideas about ‘proper sex’ – as heterosexual, mechanical, rational, goal-oriented, genitally-focussed and male-centred. We also examined thinking about the effects of pornography as uniformly corrupting and dangerous. Participants spoke about how sex-negative thinking (devoid of consideration of emotion) fosters less enlightenment and empowerment and more immobilizing guilt and self-blame as inadequate, malfunctioning sexual beings.

A smorgasbord of innovation: participant views on workshops 

Informal, collaborative, fun and intellectually stimulating, the event lacked the serious, competitive atmosphere that often plagues ‘conferences’. Paul Simpson explains: “Normally, I endure conferences. I try to find a fellow rebel/outsider and hold hands with them until it’s all over. Here I felt confident and valued. The vibe encouraged people to be more adventurous in their contributions.”

  1. Photographic and related methods – facilitated by Katherine Johnson, University of Brighton    hands ’til it’s all over. It was so easy to ‘network’ (yuck) but in a very organic

Katherine shared her use of ‘photo-voice’ – photographs taken by LGBT individuals experiencing mental health difficulties (mhd) with their own explanatory text added. These testimonies – exhibited at a gay history event – spoke powerfully, poignantly and at times with ironic humour about the exclusion and the productive insights of people with mhd. These ‘arty-facts’ accessed a rich vein of detail about lived experience that inspire empathic understanding of the pain associated with mhd.  This method also shows a different, more humanly engaged form of public engagement and assessing the impact of research on social groups.

  1. Writing strategies, play and different audiences – Caroline Walters, Middlesex University        

Carolineencouraged focus on writing as a research tool, a form of play and reflection on our relationship with writing. For, Amy Forrest (Independent researcher), the workshop explored whether we all have a reader in mind and the consequences of this. Emma Turley explains: “Caroline’s workshop really enabled me to think differently about the process of writing, and about the reasons (real or imagined) that I sometimes feel unable and/or unwilling to write. We discussed useful writing strategies, including how to overcome the frustrating blocks we all get.” Steve Hicks added: “It was really great to have a space to talk about the process of writing – something we rarely do – and to hear how other writers approach this. We talked about audiences, constraints, and ways to develop writing. It was good to talk about the notion of writing as dialogue.”

  1. Movement, meditation and intuition – Jamie Heckert, independent academic 

Learning through the body is so obvious yet has been seriously overlooked by rationally-oriented academe. This workshop got participants to practice some simple, therapeutic exercises to connect mind and body. Jamie got across the value of looking inwards to move beyond our habitual selves to become a more creative researcher/writer: one that is more self-directing than driven.

  1. Estrangement, Gender & Sexuality – Adrienne Evans, University of Coventry

Based on auto-ethnographic practice of a productive-self-estrangement, Adie’s workshop encouraged performance of reflection and lived experience of the teaching and research contexts.  Emma Turley explains: “This validated my own feelings of the classroom as gendered space… It was refreshing to hear a frank view about how female academics can manage this. Very original and thought-provoking.” Steve Hicks said: “I liked how Adie weaved experiences and strategies in with writings about the gendered spaces of classrooms. She used some surprising tasks with the group, which inspired thinking about how we relate to each other in teaching and research spaces.”

  1. Creative play to access different stories about sex – Meg Barker, Open University.

Encouraging modelling with plasticine, this workshop encouraged different ways of engaging with research subjects and the public. Emma Turley described it as: “Great fun! This method encourages going beyond established discourses to understand sexual experiences. I intend to use it generate stories with my research participants.” Steve Hicks added: “We each made a plasticine model and then talked about it. Meg showed us that this can be a different way to communicate and to get research participants to think about aspects of themselves. The question and answer format of research can be limiting and sometimes difficult for people, whereas this got us thinking and communicating in a different way.”

  1. Superhero Barbie: craft and creative play to present narratives – Paul Singleton, Leeds Metropolitan University

Participants were encouraged to transform a Barbie/Ken-type doll as means of communicating their research to the public.  Our chatter about fetishes as we dressed our dolls and advised each other was as much fun as you could have at a highly engaged, politically aware ‘ladies sewing circle.’ Our engagement with “Craftivism” encouraged us to ponder classed and gendered narratives e.g. “fur coat and no knickers” and how this method might be a good way of engaging subjects on ‘sensitive issues’ and on different feminisms in different cultures and dialogues between them.  Amy Forrest’s own special creation enabled her to talk about gender subversion, the mutant body, aesthetics and human subjectivity and her personal/intellectual project of post-pornography (see below).

Whatever next?

A roadshow has been mooted. Leeds, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leicester, Birmingham, Coventry and Middlesex Universities as possible. See our Facebook Page – Creative Methods in Gender & Sexuality.    


Paul Simpson, (University of Manchester), Meg Barker, Adie Evans, Jamie Heckert, Steve Hicks (UoM), Katherine Johnson, Paula Singleton, Caroline Walters, Amy Forrest (Independent researcher) and Emma Turley (Manchester Metropolitan University).


See also Amy’s own fascinating blog here.




Bad sex media bingo

Over the last week a group of us from Sense about Sex to put together this bingo card – and accompanying website.

bad sex media bingo draft 2


We’re currently seeing a flood of programmes and related articles about sex and pornography, such as Porn on the Brain and Sex Box, as well as the sex advice columns which have become a regular feature in most national newspapers and magazines.

Those of us who work as sex researchers, sex therapists and sex educators, are aware of the vast differences in quality between the different radio and TV shows, and features, on the topic of sex. Many of them are not well grounded in the evidence around sex, relationships and sexual media. Also they often perpetuate problematic ideas about sex which we then hear from the clients and young people who we work with as counsellors or trainers.

For these reasons we decided to put together a bingo card of all the worst common messages that we see in media reporting of sex. We figured that, if people used the card, it might help them to think about the merits of the information and evidence they were viewing and reading about, as well as challenging some of the particularly common myths about sex.

For each square on the card we’ve also provided explanations about why these messages, or kinds of information, are a problem, what impact they can have on people, and how media might report these things in better ways.

Our hope is that this information will be useful to media producers and editors when producing future materials. It will help them to avoid common traps, and to produce more innovative, useful and ethical pieces.

So many of these programmes and articles focus on complaining about other media (porn, fashion, online sex ed, etc.) and perpetuating panic and anxiety about sex. Instead we would like to see media taking a positive role in providing inclusive, well-researched, thoughtful and balanced, education about sex.

You can join the Bad Sex Media Bingo event on Facebook here and follow our twitter @badsexbingo, #badsexbingo


Sex Ed via Blurred Lines

Reblogged From Rewriting the Rules

Meg writes:

I was late in the day to the Blurred Lines phenomenon. At a conference where I was talking about gender and sexual consent a colleague mentioned that I should really check it out. Since then I have followed some of the commentary online, not to mention the numerous parodies that have been produced (as with last year’s Gangnam Style). I was moved to write this post about how this might prompt some very interesting and useful conversations about sex (perhaps in the context of youth work or teaching on sex and gender in higher education).

For those who aren’t aware, Blurred Lines is a song, and music video, by Robin Thicke which has topped the charts this summer across 14 countries. It caused controversy both because of the inclusion of a group of skinny, near-naked female models in the video, and because of the lyrics which seem to suggest non-consensual sex. The repeated line ‘you know you want it’ next to ‘but you’re a good girl’ seems to support the common problematic assumptions that ‘good’ women shouldn’t be sexual, and that women can want sex even when they are refusing it. The ‘blurred lines’ idea seems t suggest that it isn’t always clear whether it is okay to have sex with somebody or not, which is a problematic message given the high rates of sexual violence.

It can be difficult to raise these kinds of issues – around gender and power, and around consent and sex – with people who enjoy the catchiness of the song and don’t particularly see a problem with the lyrics or video. Given how widespread these kinds of images of women – and messages about sex – are, there are many who struggle to see the difficulties.


Sense about Sex public events

Join us in London on 3rd November, and in Sheffield on 6th November for a couple of public events about sex, sexuality and sexualisation. We will be exploring common myths, assumptions and attitudes about sex and drawing on cutting edge scientific and social research to consider how we might look at things differently.

  • What is normal sex? And who is having it?
  • Is society becoming too sexualised?
  • Are young people becoming sexual too early?
  • What impact does pornography have on people?
  • How can we find out what we’ll enjoy sexually? And how do we tell our partners about it?
  • What secrets do sex therapists learn about what people get up to in the bedroom?
  • Why was 50 Shades of Grey so popular?
  • How common are sexual problems and what can be done about them?
  • Where do our sexual desires come from?
  • How do orgasms work?
  • Can you get addicted to sex? Has the internet made this more of a risk?
  • Sexually speaking, are men from mars and women from venus?
  • What new rules are there for sexual relationships?
  • When it comes to sex, what are the vital statistics?

The London day will begin with a speed debating session to get to know each other (1-2pm) and end with a question-time discussion (4-5pm) where you can put your queries and comments to a panel of experts. For the remainder of the afternoon we’ll be running a series of workshops, discussions and activities which you are welcome to pop in and out of, including sessions on body mapping and communicating about sex.

For the Sheffield evening we will just have a question-time style panel discussion and lots of time for debate.

Experts include Clarissa Smith (author of One for the Girls and regular expert witness in sex-related legal cases), Clare Bale (expert on sex in young people), Petra Boynton (sexologist and Agony Aunt for The Telegraph), Katherine Angel (historian of sex author of Unmastered), Feona Attwood (porn researcher and author of Mainstreaming Sex and and Meg Barker (sex therapist and author of Rewriting the Rules).

For more detail of timings and venues click this link. We look forward to seeing you there…

After Pornified

The feminist librarian has blogged some useful notes about the book After Pornified.

As readers of this blog know, I spend a not-inconsiderable amount of time reading, writing, and thinking about sexually-explicit materials. Not just histories and health texts, but also works of fiction and nonfiction intended to arouse. In other words: porn.

As as you may also remember, I have little time for categorically anti-porn feminists (e.g. Gail Dines) whose only way of critiquing porn is to attack it wholesale. Pornography — by which I mean, in the broad sense, material of any medium that is sexually-explicit and intended to involve the reader/viewer on a visceral level — is, like any other creative medium, a way for us as humans to make sense of our world. And discounting it wholesale seems nonsensical to me. Should we not, instead, engage in a critical discussion about what we do and don’t like about the current state of porn (there will, naturally, be differences of opinion here) and what we’d like to see more of moving forward (again, there will be no consensus — there creativity lies)?

Therefore, I was super excited when I first heard, last year, about Anne G. Sabo’s forthcoming book After Pornified: How Women are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters (Zero Books, 2012). A follower of her blogs (Quizzical MamaNew Porn by Women; and Love, Sex, and Family), I knew Anne would have thoughtful and thought-provoking things to say about a genre of porn — motion picture porn — that I have had little experience with, and know little about. I was excited enough about the book to press the author for an advance review copy, which she was kind enough to send me (hooray!). Since that exchange earlier in the summer we’ve actually gotten involved in an ongoing conversation about sexuality and identity — along with Molly of first the egg — which has the potential to solidify into a collaborative project down the line. Read more…