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How to get to the bottom of a media sex story

December 15th, 2005

Dr Petra

People often ask how to critique sex writing, and I usually tell them it’s not difficult to do, you just need an inquiring mind and the ability to think outside the box (scuse the pun).

Today I read a report from a website that provides a really clear example of sex writing that might seem to be scientific and accurate if you’re not familiar with the area, but a closer look highlights some glaring errors.

The article was called “A drug for dealing premature orgasm in women” and I’ve replicated the text in full below. After you’ve read it I’ll take you through how to critique it. (You may already have a few good ideas as you read).

”Pfizer, the maker of erectile dysfunction (ED) drug Viagra is on its way to produce a new premature orgasm pill for women. This medical advancement is going to change the sexual life of women forever.

Orgasm is a moment of most intense pleasure in sexual intercourse. It’s the most important aspect of a sexual act. According to research studies conducted by Pfizer, women suffer from a condition called premature orgasm, where she reaches the peak of sexual excitement before she desires. This lack of control hampers her sexual performance to the hilt. They don’t realize it many a times due to their partners’ silence.

The studies and experiments conducted by Pfizer had a fruitful result in the new premature orgasm treatment drug. This drug will prolong orgasm in women and help in reaching the climax during sexual activities. The new drug also showed enhanced lubrication, more sexual arousal and less pain. The side effects associated with the drug are headaches and vision problems.

Research findings suggest that more women suffer from sexual dysfunctions than men. 43 percent of women between the age group of 18 to 39 are affected by some sort of sexual dysfunction.

Main causes of sexual dysfunctions in women are:
* Lack of intimacy between her and the partner
* Psychological factors like closeness, depression, worry etc affects her sexual performance
* Physical factors include injury or other disabilities

There is a huge market for female sexual dysfunction drugs. So, apart from Pfizer, a whole lot of drug companies are planning to develop drug meant for treating female ED for grabbing a foothold in this market. According to experts, most of the disabilities in sex life of women stem from the brain. So, a drug which would enhance her sexual passion and make her more open to active sexual activities will prove to be the perfect pill for her sexual delight”.

How to critique sex articles like this? All you need to do is start asking questions:

How do we know the claims a feature makes are ‘right’?

The article states, “this medical advancement is going to change the sexual life of women forever”? This drug isn’t even in production or testing yet, so how, until it’s been trialled, can we be certain it’s a medical breakthrough? Who benefits by claiming before a drug is tested and trialled that it’s a groundbreaking medical advancement – and why might they suggest this?

Always question biology and physical response.

It may not be correct. Take the definition of climax – “Orgasm is a moment of most intense pleasure in sexual intercourse” – where would orgasms through oral sex or masturbation fit in here? Why might a writer exclude them? (Answers might include ignorance or perhaps a particularly limited view of sex).

When a claim of a dysfunction is made, check it out.

This piece mentioned ‘premature orgasm’ as a condition where women reaches their peak before they desire. Whilst men might report this condition, women do not. You might want to look at other research on female sexual functioning and question why some sex writers incorrectly present male and female biological responses as identical, and why female sexual behaviour that either doesn’t cause distress or leads to minor worries is rediagnosed as a ‘dysfunction’. If you want access to other research evidence to check the robustness of this argument why not visit Google Scholar where you can search the scientific literature?

Where drugs are mentioned it’s worth being critical.

Who was in the research, where was it published? Was it published in a scientific journal, or did a PR company send it straight to media? If it was published in a journal did people support the research or question it? Has other similar research been published that reached comparable conclusions? Is there research out there that questions the ethics, accuracy or quality of the data? If it’s a drug-based study ask what phase of testing it’s at – many drug companies present data when the drugs are still in the early stages of testing to whet the market’s appetite for a drug of the future.

Always question statistics.

You can learn a lot from them. For example any journalist who quotes the 43%-of-women-have-sexual-dysfunction line clearly haven’t done their homework. That much touted (and inaccurate figure) came from a 1999 US study where women reported dissatisfaction, not dysfunction. You don’t even need to read the original research to be able to question this research (although if you wanted to it’s title is “Sexual dysfunction in the United States, prevalence and predictors” by Ed Laumann et al, published in Journal of the American Medical Association – JAMA Oct 6;282(13):1229). Or you could just think logically – do nearly half of women globally in the 18-39 age group have a sexual dysfunction?

Look at the story in context.

This report discusses a medical breakthrough that’s going to work on the body’s physiological response. Yet the reasons for female sexual problems are firmly routed within relationship or emotional problems or a physical health problem. Perhaps a critical reader might spot these causes could lead to a sexual problem that might not be fixed by a medical intervention – or perhaps does not require a sex drug. Or they may wonder why the conclusion of needing a medical cure has been drawn largely from non-medical ‘symptoms’.

Finally does the writer use terms correctly?

This writer refers to “female ED” which might sound scientific to the untrained ear. ED is short for ‘erectile dysfunction’ – something that affects men but not women – at least not to my knowledge.

This piece was particularly poor but I’ve seen similarly bad coverage in some of the most highbrow broadsheet papers. Just remember you can take apart sex stories without much effort. All you need to do is ask questions about the researchers, the study and method used, who took part, who funded it, where it was published, who benefits from the results, and where it was reported in the press. Even considering those questions might give you an inkling that most of the sex stories you’ll be reading are either poorly written, inaccurate, or often just a front for a sales pitch. And sadly bad writers may inadvertently do the selling for a drug or product that’s not even approved for public use yet, without even knowing they’ve done so.

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