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For the Reckord | Self-expression at the heart of infidelity, says sexologist

Published:Tuesday | May 8, 2018 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
Dr Karen Carpenter.
From left: Professor Donna Hope, Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah and Dr Karen Carpenter.
Yashika Graham reading a Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze poem, ‘I’m a Third World Girl’.

How to stop one's partner from straying is a question that is probably as old as mankind. The answer might have been given in a talk at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, last Friday.

The second annual Stuart Hall Distinguished Lecture was given by Dr Karen Carpenter, psychologist, clinical sexologist, host of the radio programme Sex and Love, and part-time lecturer at the university's Institute of Cultural Studies (ICS). Speaking on the topic 'Hyphenated Realities and Identification 'Outside' Culture', Dr Carpenter stressed the importance of us accepting, even embracing, our multiple identities.

Non-acceptance, she said, tends to be associated with mental disease. She explained that the repression of one's sexual feelings is often associated with personality disorders. (she points out that she was not claiming that the former caused the latter.)

In the talk aimed at "provoking thought and a new way of seeing", she said that infidelity (her term was 'transgression') flowed from a desire to express sexually as someone different from our regular selves.

"We go to a different place to be a different person, not to be with a different person," she posited. That suggests that if couples allow and encourage the full expression of their own and their partner's 'hyphenated' (various) selves, neither would need to look outside the relationship for self-expression.

The big sexual-identity questions to be asked, she said, were: "Who do I say I am, and who do I want you to resonate with?" and "Who do I want to be when I'm sexually engaged?" She points out that persons often disavow in the day the person they are at night.

She said that society is obsessed about sexuality, and, in fact, we live in "a pornographic society". Ironically, the over-absorption of sex is because we've restricted sex so much, and repressed our sexual selves.

"We've 'rarefied' sex to a point where it has become a salacious delicacy of conversation. Nothing is talked about more than the sexuality of others. We're constantly looking (critically) through the keyhole (of our neighbours)."

Why? "What that does for us is affirm for ourselves that we're OK," she explained.

Dr Carpenter said that identity begins developing at the age of two. The favourite word of any two-year-old, "no", shows the child moving away from seeing the world as an extension of him or herself to self-identity as a separate individual.

"The child who is not allowed to say 'no' can't shape a person's identity," she said. The resulting low self-esteem can be carried through life, though the teenager goes through a similar process trying to assert him or herself in the world.


Popular culture to the rescue


Dr Carpenter notes that fortunately, popular culture has been helping us to come to grips with our hyphenated sexual selves that aren't just homosexual, heterosexual, transgender or any single one of the other sexualities.

As examples, she cited the nudes displayed in the National Gallery (relating an anecdote about a man who thought they were a disgrace, adding that many of us wince at seeing nakedness, "which is just part of the landscape"); the play The Vagina Monologues (which producer Fabian Thomas, who was in the audience, staged on campus); the television series Sex and the City; and Spike Lee's 1986 film, She's Got to Have It. Dr Carpenter said that in the "brilliant" film, the main character, Nola Darling, whose behaviour she was recommending only for questioning, not for copying, engages with both sexes and has multiple partners. But, in full control of her identities, she has sex only in her 'loving bed' with persons she enjoys.

The dramatic works, Dr Carpenter said, have brought to public attention the issue of female sexuality, which had been underground for too long. They show women having sex 'intentionally' and enjoying sex.

The many questions that followed the lecture indicated that she had indeed provoked thought.