Counselling, Psychology, Social Psychology

Developing psychosocially informed self-help on gender

Meg-John Barker writes…

In a previous blog for OU CCIG I outlined my whole project of creating psychosocially informed self-help, and the various methods involved: reviewing existing theory and research; analysing existing self-help; conducting collaborative research with gender-, sexual-, and relationship-diverse (GSRD) communities; autoethnographic reflection; and creative dissemination.

This time I want to reflect on one particular strand of the project: the book How to Understand Your Gender (2017 London: Jessica Kingsley), which I have written with scholar and psychotherapist Alex Iantaffi. The challenge here was very different to the previous project, producing critical sex advice. The sex advice market is saturated with books, columns, and other resources, whilst there are very few existing self-help resources on the topic of gender. This in itself is fascinating. The self-help industry seems to assume that people require a great deal of support with their sex and relationship lives, but very little with their gender – despite the fact that many mental health struggles are related to gender roles and norms, and gender inequalities continue to have a marked impact on people’s lives.

Considering the self-help and pop psychology books on gender that do exist helps us to make sense of this. These overwhelmingly present gender as binary and fixed from birth. Differences between men and women are seen as normal and natural, and the ‘solution’ to any problems experienced is grounded in better acceptance of these ‘inevitable’ gender differences.

There is a small amount of self-help literature available for trans people which takes a different approach. However there is very little self-help recognising that all people have a relationship to gender which can be a struggle at times – despite a proliferation of memoirs and popular feminist books making exactly this point. Just as Enjoy Sex – the previous book arising from my self-help project – challenged the heteronormativity of sex advice and the tokenism of materials aimed at non-heteronormative people, in How to Understand Your Gender we wanted to gently challenge the cisgenderist assumptions that only trans people need assistance with their gender, and that gender is binary.

The research for the book was grounded in our immersion within gender-diverse communities. Alex has been working as a clinician with gender-diverse young people for over a decade, as well as conducting large-scale quantitative research with trans and queer people. In my therapeutic work and academic and activist studies I’ve been focusing on non-binary communities. In the book we weave together feminist psychology and neuroscience, trans and queer scholarship, intersectional thinking, and gender-affirmative psychotherapy; we introduce these ideas simply and clearly, and develop activities to enable readers to apply them to their own lives.

The key methods that we employ to do this include:

  • An examination of how gender is seen in broader culture, and how experiences of gender are located within this.
  • Invitations to readers to engage in mapping how they are located in intersecting social identities and related systems of privilege and oppression, and how these have shifted – or not – over their lifecourse.
  • Regular lists of multiple experiences, where diverse individuals tell brief stories around an aspect of gender. These are anonymised accounts we heard in our therapy, activism, and research –  from women, men, and non-binary, trans, and cisgender people.
  • Autoethnographic reflections on our own gender experiences, expressions, and identities, to model the kinds of activities we invite readers to do.
  • A series of visible spectrums to help readers to locate themselves on multiple dimensions of gender, gently challenging the binaries of man/woman, trans/cis, and binary/non-binary, as well as emphasising the multiple meanings that gender has, culturally and individually. We also explore the limitations of spectrum models in locating people in relation to binaries.
  • Regular pausing points to help readers to ground themselves somatically and to feel their embodied responses to these kinds of gender explorations.

The book’s publication seems timely. Gender has rarely been out of the news this year. Just the past month has seen:

We hope that How to Understand Your Gender will provide a routemap for making sense of such stories, as well as navigating individual gender experience within a wider culture of ongoing tension and conflict around gender.

This blog post was original published on the CCIG Methods in Motion blog here.

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