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Channel 4’s new sex education season – while we praise this progress let’s not forget the channel’s sex broadcasting past

September 12th, 2008

Dr Petra

This season Channel 4 launches a range of programmes tackling sex-related issues including an HIV storyline in the soap Hollyoaks, a youth-inspired series Lifeproof, the multimedia, website and pre-watershed series The Sex Education show.

This is definitely a step forward. Lively, prime time programmes tackling sex in an upfront way is something we certainly need in the UK. These are not a replacement for school or home-based sex education, but can be an alternative place to offer sex information for young people and adults.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Channel 4 are very proud of their new season on sex education, and already believe the programmes/websites are both successful in viewing figures and are making a difference in educating us about sex.

I know I always seem to be the one who spoils the party, and while I’m delighted Channel 4 may be trying to up their game in sex broadcasting we need a little bit of reflection and time before we know what impact their sex programmes have had. The proof of the pudding isn’t in just doing something, but in assessing its impact – and continuing to actively build upon what works.

So while it’s fine for Channel 4 to take the credit for making new programmes on sex education – and putting them on at prime time – I think true praise will only be due the Channel if they continue to make high-quality sex programmes. And that applies to all programming, not just shows with an educational slant. I appreciate Channel 4 need to get public service broadcasting cash and perhaps this recent sex-ed activity is partly driven by this, but such funding can only be earned if quality programming is consistently delivered. An autumn season is only the start.

While Channel 4 has brought us programmes such as a season on decriminalising homosexuality, Sexual Intelligence and a recent investigation into cosmetic genital surgery, let’s not forget that this is also the channel that has timetabled probably more sex programming than many of its competitors and has also showcased some of the most damaging sex programmes over the past few years. Programmes that either shoehorn our sex lives into a makeover show format, or advocate dubious therapies and ‘cures’ for supposed sex problems.

This includes the Sex Inspectors that led the charity Relate to report in a scientific journal an increase in people seeking their help when they didn’t have any problems but were convinced they did after seeing the series. Many practitioners (including myself) were approached to front that show. Most of us turned it down. But when we criticised the programme Channel 4 claimed it was just ‘sour grapes’ because we weren’t chosen to front it. Rather than us refusing to take part due to worries over the format and messages being given to the public about sex.

We’ve also had the channel endorsing unproven spinal surgery for women with a low sex drive, uncritical programmes covering the supposed treatment of sex addiction by practitioners with no formal qualifications or assessment (and pages on the channel 4 website linking to said practitioners and their disputed views on sex problems). Channel 4 also upset people over their handling of the UK masturbatathon, while two of the channel’s (then) top stars advocated recreational Viagra use, and more recently their Embarrassing Illnesses series raised worries with health practitioners after recommending a woman who disliked the appearance of her genitals should go for cosmetic surgery rather than addressing the cause of the problem or receiving counselling.

Of course Channel 4 are not the only ones making bad sex programmes. Channel 5 are no strangers to crap sex TV, while MTV continually commissions celebrity-led shows with sex-addiction content, ignores quality sex education input in favour of making up what the nation really does in bed. BBC Three’s sex programmes don’t even bear talking about. And all of them love to endlessly run completely useless sex surveys to promote their programmes and products.

Channel 4 have undoubtedly worked hard on their new season, and I’m the last person to say we don’t need sex programmes on TV. But I would say that if we’re going to do this we need good sex programmes on TV. For example, The Sex Education show, while lively and fun still tends to be operating in a Cosmo-esque format with plenty on g-spots, pole dancing and shaving your pubic hair while bemoaning how the media makes us have bad body image. There’s also the problem that in trying to be ‘visual’ and compelling the series shows shocking images and unrepresentative case studies that may well make us more anxious about our sexual behaviour.

It may seem I’m not in support of Channel 4’s efforts, which isn’t true. I participated in the filming of The Sex Education show and yesterday took part in a debate on sex education in the UK hosted by the channel. However, throughout this process – and for previous programmes I’ve been approached about for the channel – my message remains the same. You can do better.

Yesterday I outlined to the channel and to staff from healthcare and education how we might do this.

Join me tomorrow and you can read my thoughts on this – and a summary of what we know works in delivering sex education.

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