October 3rd, 2005
Hot on the heels of Empire magazine’s bad sex movies, it seems the film industry is about to take another beating. This time it isn’t for making bad sex films, it’s for showing bad sex in films. Research in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine has suggested sex and drug scenes within popular movies lack a public health message.
The research selected the 200 top movies of all time and excluded films that weren’t about humans and those pre HIV era (1983). This left 87 films in which there were 53 episodes of sex. 98% of these showed no references to contraception, safer sex or the consequences of unprotected sex (e.g. pregnancy or contracting an STI).
I got sent the press release for this research last week and could tell right away that it was a sure fire media winner. I wasn’t wrong. Here’s some of the headlines that accompanied this research:
Safe sex? Nobody does it worse than James Bond (Sunday Times)
James Bond: the champion of unsafe sex (Softpedia)
Sex Rap for Bond (FemaleFirst)
Bond Promotes Unsafe Sex (iAfrica)
Although I suspected this would be a popular story, it was confusing why James Bond was picked as a major culprit. It seems some newswires and certain versions of the press release used James Bond as an example of unsafe sex in mainstream films. But since the cut-off point for the movies was 1983 it seemed strange that a film that had become less popular post 1980 than in it’s 1960s/70s hayday was picked as a problem. Particularly since other movies featuring sex have been bigger box office draws.
But more problematic is the research itself. Sure, it generated other headlines about the evils of Hollywood and how films cause us all to have unsafe sex and take drugs, but the study itself isn’t all that original. Certainly within media studies, cultural studies and psychology film analysis of this kind has been done before and done better.
Whilst I agree it would be useful if movies made condom use more mainstream, the idea that films should always be about social messages or teaching us something is perhaps not what everyone wants to see. We know when we see a film we’re suspending belief for an hour or so, so preaching about safer sex may well not work with audiences. Making condoms seem more fun and sexy could be a better idea, which I support.
Yet within this research, worryingly for a media-based project, is the complete absence of context. Of the couples having sex in a film we don’t know how many were within a relationship where perhaps they wouldn’t be using a condom. We don’t know specifically how ‘sex’ was defined or measured, or how the analysis was carried out. These researchers have honourably assumed what’s needed is public health messages in films, we don’t know if that’s what audiences want. A more interesting study might have been to find that out.
Whilst they focused on mainstream movies they didn’t focus on films from developing countries that have specifically used the medium of film to transmit safer sex messages. Nor have they included documentary films that have also specifically targeted sex and drugs issues.
You can always see what’s going to press the media’s buttons. Here we have a nice combination of sex and drugs and public concern. There’s an obvious target (Hollywood) and clear victims (the public). It doesn’t account for how people interact with films, nor suggest what we might do to change things – short of calling upon the film industry to alter their practices, which, after you’ve just held them responsible for the spread of STIs is not a great place to begin bargaining.
I always get depressed when media analysis is used in a clumsy manner outside of a wider social context and with no useful applications. But I get even more depressed when I know that this isn’t a particularly novel idea or groundbreaking study. I’m certain the authors were very well-meaning in their approach, and perhaps have flagged up important public health messages.
But as social researchers the first rule is always read the literature first to see if it’s already been studied. And if it has, perhaps your goal should be to refocus your efforts rather than replicate something (perhaps even unknowingly) that has been done better somewhere else. In the past it was common for researchers working in medicine not to read up on research from psychology and vice versa. But with our easily available journal access and electronic search facilities nowadays there’s simply no excuse for not spotting that similar work has already been published – it’s a key skill both researchers and journalists should share.Tweet