The self-help section is a scary corner of any bookshop. There are hundreds of titles promising perfection in your love life, your career, your soul – if only you’d follow a few easy steps.
The obvious response, of course, is that if it is so easy to fix every aspect of your life by reading a couple of books, then why are so many published? And why do they seem to contradict each other?
Combating this problem, Dr Meg Barker’s Rewriting the Rules claims to be an “anti-self-help” book. Rather than giving a set of rules which must be followed to the letter, Barker draws on her career as a psychology academic and sex therapist to offer a critical look at the “rules” of relationships.Image via routledge.com
Do we really need to find “the One” to prove that we’re worth something? If we break up with someone, is that relationship now meaningless? What about sex – does that always have to be “normal”? What if we don’t want to be with just one person?
Barker covers a range of topics in the book, including sex, gender, monogamy, conflict and love. She first examines what society’s current rules are, and the ways in which they often contradict each other. For example, we are told that sex is extremely important, but that you shouldn’t need to discuss it to do it well; sex should be normal but also incredible every time – and anything else is a failure.
She then goes on to explain why it is important to question these rules: “bizarrely, there is still relatively little awareness that [penis-in-vagina] sex is actually unlikely to result in orgasm for women.”
Each chapter then offers alternative rules for each topic discussed. What if enjoyment was more important than being normal? What can we learn from bisexual or asexual people, from BDSM communities, from group sex? What if consent was the most important factor?
Finally, she goes on to examine how we might go beyond rules to “embrace uncertainty”. Sexuality does not just involve being gay or straight, but many preferences and desires. Plus, “as well as being plural, there is increasing evidence that people’s sexualities are changeable and fluid over their lifetimes.” How we feel about sex at 15 is probably very different to how we will feel at 50.
Rewriting the Rules manages to communicate complex ideas accessibly, with examples from pop-culture as well as academia. And refreshingly, it nowhere claims to have all the answers; readers are encouraged to make up their own minds. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all, easy fix for life – but the more we question ourselves and the society around us, the more open we can be to change.