As Terry Pratchett's great sage Granny Weatherwax put it
'Sin young man, is when you treat people as things including yourself, that's what sin is.'
It's an unlikely reference to find in a book which appears from the outside to be a psychology text book, and yet that's just one of the 'spoonfuls of sugar' found in the book "Rewriting the Rules" written by Dr. Meg-John Barker, senior psychology lecturer and a founding member of BiUK (the same MJ Barker of recent 'Pink List' 2013 fame).
Yet in another way, it's only to be expected. Because the crux of their book is the comparison and juxtaposition of the current rules of gender, sexuality, love and attraction depicted in pop culture versus how they work in reality without society's imposition of what is viewed as 'normal' and acceptable. And normal - as we all know - means Sex And The City (with specific episodes and events highlighted to illustrate various case studies), Friends and plenty of Hollywood blockbusters thrown in (oh Mrs Doubtfire, how we love thee).
However those fizzingly light references are artfully mixed with some profound psychological insights, a dash of eastern philosophy and a few heavyweight quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre and Judith Butler. It's not just the big philosophers either...for those familiar with today's fish in polyamorous ponds, relationship scientist Bjarne Holmes, The Ethical Slut authors Eastern and Hardy, and More Than Two blogger Franklin Veaux also get a mention.
[Edit: as of 2019, Franklin Veaux is the subject of multiple reports of harmful behaviour.]
In fact the whole book is a dichotomous mixture of wisdom and self deprecating wit with serious clinical terms and sit-com humour. In this way it is far more palatable than other psychology text books. And yet it is still a reference book; because the uncomfortable truths which sit in it, need digesting more than once, and each chapter undermines many of our society's traditional rules (which with some expansion could have each been a book in themselves). Which means that it's no less valuable as a guidebook, but it IS a different kind of book. It does itself rewrite the rules of what we might expect from books. A single book dismantling self, and gender, and attraction, and monogamy, and love, and conflict, and break-up and commitment?
A Book Less Binary
Make no mistake, for the uninitiated this is not a cover to cover read; moreover unless you've been exposed to some non-normative thinking in the past, you may not even make it all the way through quite simply because it will challenge too many ideas at once.
And yet since the principle takeaway from this book
'is that clinging to the common rules too rigidly, often paradoxically, ends up with us being less likely to get what we were aiming for in the first place'
...the beauty in this book is that it may sit on your bookshelf for months and years before you dip into it again. And then only because in your misery over a 'failed' relationship you recall reading something about how break-ups can really be re-framed as positive change. Or perhaps having considered yourself heterosexual all your life a sudden surprising liaison with your same sex colleague will leave you guiltily bewildered until you check in with the 'sexuality and gender' chapter and read about how we all evolve, and change along a continuum for our entire lives.
Whilst I can truly say that if I had read this book during my youth (caged by my mind), I would have scorned it as a ludicrously over intellectualized and liberal piece of dangerous propaganda. But now in my 38th year I read it nodding along, unsurprised by its content and pleasantly comforted by some good analysis. In an ideal world I would have liked THIS book to introduce me to my medicinal philosophies that have been painfully swallowed through my own bitter (but enlightening!) experience because its language and style couch previously unacceptable truths in a respectable veneer of humble pedagogy. And had I read about those truths framed in the sugary language of Nick Hornby, Terry Pratchett and Frank Zappa the medicine would have gone down so much easier.
As it is, I hope that my recommendation of Meg-John's work helps others rewrite their rules more joyfully.
Read next: Polyamory, this season's gay (co-written with Meg-John Barker)