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Am I a sex educator or a schmuck?

February 28th, 2006

Dr Petra

Hopefully you’ll know by now that I’m very keen on sex education and helping people to get access to free and accurate sex knowledge.

I’m more than happy to try and share sex information wherever I can, and to support my professional colleagues to get their messages across.

And that sometimes presents me a bit of a dilemma.

Because if you’re offering to provide sex education, and whining on constantly about people using ‘evidence based sex information’ then what do you do if people ask for your help?

Particularly if you suspect their motives for approaching you.

Try this example from a glossy women’s magazine:

“Hi Petra
Happy new year! I’m just dropping you a line as I’d love to talk to you about any ideas you have for features within __________. The Editor and I have been looking at your website and we’re really interested in talking to
you further about how you think we could best approach sex as a subject in ____________. …… it would be great to speak to you….. my direct line is ____________”.

So what to do here? Perhaps the magazine wanted me to help improve their sex coverage (which like most women’s mags could do with a thorough overhaul). But maybe they only load of free ideas for features. Whatever the reason they clearly expected me to call them and deliver.

I replied explaining that I was happy to discuss (but they could call me) and rather than giving them features ideas I’d prefer to be retained by them to advise on future stories.

They called back full of flattery and flannel. Of course they wanted evidence based information, and whilst they couldn’t guarantee a retainer there was a good chance I’d get one (editor permitting). But for now could I give them some new ideas for sex stories?

Encouraged by their commitment to evidence and promise of retainer I started with a basic idea, when the journalist revealed they needed the information for a ‘features meeting later that afternoon’.

It all slipped into place. This was a typical example of the magazine beauty contest – where you’re flattered into giving free information. So I provided them with ideas, but nothing new.

They promised to call me the next day to confirm our continued working relationship. Did they call back? What do you think?

Other situations that are similar come from TV companies who round about this time of year are keen on new ideas for programmes and series. Several have asked me for a list of all the ‘hot new topics’ I could ‘foresee in sex’ which they’d ‘possibly use’. When I asked if I’d be involved as a consultant or have some role in developing these programmes. They replied ‘well we can’t say that right now, but if you send us over your ideas we might be able to keep you involved’.

Ah yes, the free-ideas-for-a-possible-inclusion-in-our-programmes-promise. How inviting.

In the past I bent over backwards to help out TV researchers because I thought in providing evidence they’d use it. But increasingly I’ve realised they don’t. They collect lots of information which they may incorporate into programmes, but more often than not discount since anything remotely evidence based is usually also requires ethical treatment – which poses too many problems for reality sex TV coverage.

I have fewer qualms about ignoring TV companies. But it’s a trickier problem when a potential colleague gets in touch.

Within sexology networking is common. In fact within sexual health networks are now recommended as a means of creating and disseminating good practice.

So when a recent email request arrived from a ‘sexpert’ working on a popular website who wanted me to send them “evidence on sex” I was unsure how to proceed. Call me naïve, but surely if someone’s email tells me how many thousands of people belong to their website (and their site shows just how much they charge for their services) they really ought to have a bloody good handle on what the “evidence on sex” is as a matter of professionalism?

This is a tricky one because I bitch about ‘sexperts’ who don’t have a clue and give sex advice but what happens when those who’re clearly unqualified ask me to help? Shouldn’t I step in and give them advice? What if I can be pretty sure if I do provide it
1. they won’t pay me for the privilege
2. they’ll then pass off that evidence as their own, or
3. they’ll continue not bothering with current ideas and continue spouting outdated or incorrect ones.

I don’t mind sharing ideas and rely on discussing topics with colleagues. But there’s a difference between that community of practice and someone who doesn’t know their stuff looking to someone who does to do their work for them.

The trouble with all these approaches was they were from individuals or organisations who were already passing themselves off as expert sexologists or journalists and making money from this. They didn’t want me to provide evidence but to give them a free leg-up. And it was pretty obvious that whilst they saw me as a source of information, they didn’t value me as an expert colleague.

I do hear from charities, organisations, writers, health and therapy professionals and media outlets from all over the world who’re already trying very hard to improve either their sexual knowledge or that of their clients, members or audience. They demonstrate the work they’re already doing and ask for specific help that I’m happy to provide. They can’t often offer anything in return, but that’s not the point, they don’t need to, we’re all working for the same cause. And I’m always delighted to help.

So I’ve made a belated New Year resolution. I’ll continue to share ideas and information with those who’re working hard to make a difference – particularly those who can’t easily access sexual health and relationships evidence.

And I’m also not going to feel guilty about not sharing knowledge with those who ought to know about it already, or who aren’t really trying to make things better for the rest of us and are really just out to make money for themselves.

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