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Misunderstanding Sex Research

April 18th, 2006

Dr Petra

Today Cory Silverberg has raised some concerns about media reporting of sex research.

And with good reason. The story Cory’s picked up on started with Reuters. I say started, perhaps a better term was ‘repeated’ since the story itself isn’t news.

The news piece was about a conference on ‘The Future of Sex’ where people discussed possible developments and innovations. It happened a couple of weeks ago with little uptake, but with a bit of spin the story’s suddenly gone global:

Get ready for a kinky future with your robot sex partner – Daily News and Analysis, India.
Sexual Gizmos: coming to a store near you? – Independent Online, South Africa.
Cyber sex a bigger turn on – News.com, Australia.
Robots may feature in future sex – TVNZ, New Zealand.
Experts ponder a future of new sex gizmos – Scotsman, UK.

And so on.

All this coverage is fine, but isn’t exactly new. It’s not like we haven’t had magazine, newspaper and television features on teledildonics and other cybersexual possibilities for the past few decades. Nor is this a new area within sex research. Whilst predicting future sex is interesting, I always find it fascinating that it has to be linked to gadgets, gizmos and robots. It rarely deals with predicting our future sexual attitudes, behaviours and experiences. And it never suggests that things may be the same in the future, or perhaps we’ll have even regressed.

The problem with the reportage, as Cory points out, is that the journalists covering it haven’t really got to grips with understanding the difference between sex research and product placement, and also sex evidence and sex opinion. It’s not that one is necessarily better than the other, but when you’re discussing science; it might be a plan to actually understand what sex research is.

Which has got me thinking. Most journalists who write sex features are not science or health writers. They may be excellent journalists, but will not have a background or training that allows them to access or understand sex science. They won’t know about the many methods, study approaches and theoretical perspectives that underpin our work. They won’t know there’s a difference between a sex researcher, writer, educator, therapist, ‘sexpert’ and so on. They won’t have access to evidence, and nor will their editors who’ll be directing their story angles. Who can blame them for getting their story angles wrong or thinking that no sex research is going on?

If journalists aren’t being taught about the science of sex, it’s hardly surprising they’re searching for experts in all the wrong places, and using the wrong people for the wrong story.

Before we start thinking about predicting the future of sex and telling journalists about our forthcoming brave new sexual worlds, perhaps all us sex researchers and scientists out there really need to do something in the here and now.

Share our evidence, explain our methods, and outline the science of sex so poor reportage like the Reuters sex futures story isn’t repeated.

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