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How the media gets sex stories wrong

March 2nd, 2005

Dr Petra

Prior to Kinsey’s research the press hardly covered sex. Now we face the opposite problem. There’s lots of sex in the media, but much coverage it is inaccurate, misleading, or just half hearted. How has it gone so wrong?

Research terms are misused
Unfortunately many journalists aren’t able, or don’t have time, to assess whether the sex survey they’re quoting comes from a reputable researcher, or is just a PR ruse to plug a product.

Key terms are misunderstood
Often journalists aren’t trained in health/ social sciences, so they don’t understand research terms. Percentages are used in place of statistical analysis, and ‘syndromes’ are invented by magazines or newspapers to liven up stories, not describe a genuine disorder.

A frequent error is the confusion of ‘case study’ with ‘trend’, like the ‘new trend’ of the woman who loves casual sex, based on Angelina Jolie mentioning enjoying no-strings sex. Most women aren’t movie stars, or affluent, or even all that confident, and most are not having ‘casual sex’ in the controlled and predetermined way a celebrity could manage.

Existing evidence is ignored
The media overlooks other sex research methods. Qualitative studies, genuine case reports, or observational work is overlooked. Frequently magazines, newspapers and websites create their own so-called surveys to fill copy. This means they miss out on quality sex information, and usually ask readers misleading sex questions that produce unhelpful or inaccurate sex information.

Journalists look in the wrong places for sex information
Sex research stories are usually found by in other magazines or papers. Grazia magazine recently ran a feature on “alpha females”, which The Independent on Sunday then used for a story on the phenomena of women who have everything except relationships. The best place to start is within the scientific literature, not other magazines or television shows.

Good and bad science is indistinguishable
Sex isn’t really seen as all that scientific by many journalists. They see it as being ‘lite’ or ‘just a fun piece’. That said, most editors demand sex stories be backed up by statistics and expert quotes, meaning many sex stories frequently mention, and usually misunderstand, hormones, biology, and genetics.

Rather than teaching people communication skills or how to identify and deal with a sexual problem, quick fixes that sound sciencey are used instead. In a current magazine, men with erectile dysfunction are being encouraged to eat jam, dark chocolate or zinc as a cure for their problems.

Sex stories always have to be about something ‘new’
You’re sure to have heard about current asexual ‘trend’, but we’ve always known there are people that aren’t into sex and are fine about it. It has only hit the headlines because a lesser known academic study was picked up a couple of national journalists. And suddenly we’re faced with a “newly discovered phenomenon! Before this, the press largely ignored asexuals, because not having sex equalled not doing anything, therefore a non-story.

False debates are created
Sex is rarely black and white, but sex stories usually pitch experts against each other, or describe relationships purely in terms of whacking great gender differences, using sociobiological ideas to support the inaccurate ‘men are from mars, women are from venus’ myth.

Sex is assumed to be just a matter of opinion
Some journalists feel that they can pretty much put across any view, rather than there being evidence to underpin sex stories and accurate accounts to be presented. Much current evidence is dismissed or downplayed. The public and the media are also confused between qualified sex researchers and ‘sexperts’, the former who speak from evidence, the latter who speak from personal experience.

Editors and journalists know best
I recently had a call from a journalist writing about porn. During our discussion she stated that “research shows men are more visual than women”. I told her this is a common misunderstanding. Women are very visual. They just weren’t included in many studies of porn. A more accurate definition is ‘men and women can be visual, but only men were included in research’.

“Yeah well, I’ve obviously picked the wrong person to talk about this with”, she countered. “I don’t believe you. I think men are more visual, and the people in my office do too”.

Sex researchers who explain evidence that doesn’t fit the journalist’s brief will either be ignored, or their comments left out of the story. And possibly they’ll be told they don’t know what they’re talking about by someone who’s never studied this area.

The real sex experts get missed out
Journalists mainly use those who put themselves in their path – the ones with books, products, courses or themselves to promote. Which is okay, but means nurses, doctors, outreach workers, sex researchers and those who’re busy, or have little or no incentive to talk to the press are continually overlooked.

We don’t want anything too radical
The media’s current approach to sex is odd. New and naughty topics are needed, but in a ‘not too rude’ way. You can talk about sex toys, but not where you might want to put them; or threesomes, but only a girl, girl, guy combo – never a guy, guy, girl, or a guy, guy, guy one.

Never let facts get in the way of a story
Several right wing papers have an ongoing tack that teenage pregnancy and STIs are all down to permissive sex education. Many journalists and editors writing these stories don’t know (or don’t care) that in the UK our sex education isn’t equally delivered across all schools, with many young people receiving little or no sex advice. That’s why there are problems with STIs and teen pregnancy – but that doesn’t suit the story they want to tell.

Sex stories only reflect the people who write them
Young, financially independent, urban living, healthy people write aspirational sex stories that assume everyone else is, or should want to be, like them. Meaning most people’s sex lives (even journalist’s) aren’t adequately covered in the media.

You get the press you deserve
Some journalists use this as a reason for not writing about sex very accurately. Or they argue they know what their readers want. Or the public are blamed by journalists. The “if they don’t get sex messages it’s because they don’t want to know – all the information’s out there” argument. The trouble is, not everyone has equal access to the media. And those who have the best access – journalists – can’t even work out what’s a good sex story from a trashy one. So do they expect the public to cope?

While men desperately need sex information, lad’s magazines focus on entertainment, and nothing ‘too heavy’ about sex. Women need confidence and communication skills, but their magazines just feed them inspirational tips on sex techniques and toys. It’s all very well for individual publications to opt out of responsibility, but if collectively the media isn’t sorting out sex, and many people claim it’s their first port of call for sex information, someone at some point has to do something.

And you know what? It really isn’t all that difficult. There are plenty of genuine, qualified sex researchers out there. All journalists have to do to fix this is pick up the phone, and call one.

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