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Charlie Rose on Human Sexuality

November 21st, 2007

Dr Petra

The recent Charlie Rose show covers a debate on the science of sex. You can watch the 50 minute programme here.

I found the programme interesting in the way it constructed human sexuality (predominantly as heterosexual) and research (as if the scientific study of sex began with Kinsey). A number of key figures in sexology outline the discipline although many of the examples of good practice they cite are not without critics (for example Master’s and Johnson’s research).

Sex research is also mostly defined in the show as biomedical more than a social or cultural area (although these factors are mentioned). And psychology or sociology are presented as inferior to biomedical models of understanding sex. Moreover sex research is described more as a quantitative or biological endeavour which is a very limited view of work within this area.

In terms of key topics of research interest you would believe from this programme that sex research is around biology, sexual dysfunction and sexual anxieties. There were many mentions about testing the benefits of testosterone and listing various hormones which does not really represent what sexology is all about.

Perhaps this could be to do with the practitioners chosen to participate, or maybe because of the drug company funding the programme. Certainly in the interests of scientific transparency the show would have benefitted from having a full disclosure of what experts appearing work for or are supported by drug company money and how their work is truly seen by their peers.

Maybe the biomedical focus and overemphasis on neurology and evolution was due to how the media feels comfortable with talking about sex – and how sex researchers like to construct their discipline as a serious topic. Or perhaps it’s more reassuring for a primetime ‘science’ show to have people who’ll come on and discuss fairly safe topics relating to sex.

Sex research uses more than just surveys or biological studies. It is more than looking at sex problems (although a lot of studies are completed in this area currently due to drug company money). It can be very conservative (as shown by most of the folk on this show) or it can take a much more critical and enlightened view of how we understand things like gender, sexuality, and sexual behaviour.

It’s worth watching this show but with this warning – it represents a common view of sex research, but not a very contemporary or enlightened one. Unfortunately it’s programmes like this that give journalists and the public an idea of what ‘sex’ is ‘about’. Which is very difficult to challenge – particularly when the wider voices of sex research are still not being heard.

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