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.