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My sex and relationships predictions for 2011

January 4th, 2011

Dr Petra

Pierre et Gilles Crystal Ball

Christmas is over, the New Year has begun. There’s only the last few unwanted choccies left in the tin and it’s time to take down the decorations. Pour yourself a glass of good cheer (or make a cup of tea), settle down, and let’s anticipate the year ahead. What’s 2011 going to bring us in terms of sex and relationships?

This is an annual task I set myself. To forecast things I think are going to happen which I glean from on my work as a Social Psychologist researching sex and relationships in an International Health context – and listening to other educators, practitioners, therapists, bloggers and healthcare staff working in the areas of sex/relationships. For this reason some of the predictions are focused more towards sex/science/health. You’ve doubtless got predictions of your own based on your interest in sex and relationships, so please don’t see this list as exhaustive. Maybe use it to create your own list of predictions for the coming year. (If you want to see my predictions from last year and whether I got any right, click here).

We’ll all get wedding fever

Well we might not, but the media certainly will. It’s no secret there’s a Royal Wedding in the spring. This is going to put the press into an absolute frenzy. The opportunities to talk about not only a Royal Wedding but also weddings generally will be too good to miss. Imagine the endless opportunities to discuss wedding dresses, rings, pumpkin coaches and no end of commercial nuptial possibilities you probably didn’t even know existed. There’ll be scores of chances for psychologists, body language experts and relationship therapists to discuss the ins and outs of the engaged couple’s experiences before, during and after their wedding. And loads of opportunities to speculate about the Royals’ lives, or prescribe to us how weddings and marriage should be.

Opportunities to talk about diverse relationships – non monogamies, cohabitation, or being less judgemental about singledom, will be few and far between. Although we may see the Royal Wedding be something to revisit debates around civil partnerships vs marriage. Whatever happens I predict if we’re not already heartily sick of the Royal Wedding and wedding fever – we most certainly will be by the end of April!

The ‘science of sex’ is going to be super popular

From kissing to orgasm we’re going to get very interested in the ‘science’ of sex in 2011. Books, television and radio programmes, plus public science events will be tackling a wide range of topics including the science behind sexual behaviours and sexuality. Along with deeper explorations into the methods used to study sex – and an insight into the lives of (some) sex researchers.

Some of these are going to be amazing, groundbreaking and exciting. Others will be the predictable reductionist approach to both ‘science’ and ‘sex’. These accounts will focus more on biology and neurology (although not necessarily in a cutting edge way). In the process ‘sex science’ will be treated in an ahistorical, heteronormative and culturally biased fashion. The media is going to love ‘sexy science’, will treat it as if it’s an entirely new discipline, but will give far more attention to the more simplistic views of sex/science than the more nuanced, interesting and ethical research that many sexologists strive for.

Related to a fascination with sexy science there are also several large scale (epidemiological) sex surveys already underway (such as the NATSAL survey which is in the midst of data collection currently), and a major International sexological conference in Glasgow this Summer there’s plenty to be interested in relating to sex research.

This isn’t a prediction but I do hope sex researchers take the opportunity to reflect on and share more of their work via blogs and the mainstream media as it is something that continues to fascinate the public and yet often remains highly inaccessible. Let’s make sexology more open access in 2011!

Sex research is going to have to do more for less

Academics are seeing cuts across the board, but sexology (particularly critical sexology) is going to be one area that is more affected than other disciplines. Sex research that falls within the health/medical areas may fend better, but critical research and practice around less ‘mainstream’ topics is certainly going to struggle. Topics such as non monogamies; challenging heteronormative approaches; critical thinking around mainstream topics like ‘sexualisation’; researching pleasure; porn studies; Queer and Trans studies and research on alternative sexualities and BDSM are in need of inquiry but will struggle to get funding. For this reason practitioners, academics and activists are going to have to work more collaboratively, find ways to do ‘more for less’, consider methodological approaches that permit them to ethically explore areas without large scale budgets, and think about new ways to share information with colleagues and the public.

It is going to be a difficult year for those working in the more thoughtful and political areas of sex research. Fortunately networks such as Onscenity are already being established among academic communities, working internationally and cross disciplines to try and broaden research opportunities and mentor researchers.

Similar problems will also be affecting sex and relationships research in international health/development, although I’ve not see the same kind of mobilisation there, particularly not in public health. With the exception of some more foresighted groups and individuals, the majority of research on sexual health internationally seems to becoming narrower in focus – not least because of budgetary restrictions. This in turn is having a depressing effect on training and support for people working in reproductive healthcare and education.

One thing is certain, money may be limited but people’s need for information on sex and relationships is not.

Austerity measures will affect our sexual (and other) lives
It’s all a bit doom and gloom with my predictions this year, but unfortunately we are looking at a bleak year ahead. Financial cuts plus increased demands will undoubtedly affect Sexual and Reproductive Health Services. Practitioners are already warning particularly about the negative impact this will have on GU clinics and maternity services. With the end of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy it is unclear what established services for teen parents will be retained. Sexual, reproductive and relationships outreach services may also be affected by local government cuts – and we can be certain where this happens the first to be affected will be projects aimed at sex workers, LGBTIQ groups, ethnic minorities and excluded young people.

Also additional cuts on benefits, rising unemployment and stealth cuts to educational, youth and arts charities will have a knock on negative impact on the nation’s relationships health. This may not seem obvious but proposed cuts aimed at people with disabilities won’t just impact on standards of living and opportunities for work, they will also impact on the ability to be able to date, socialise, form or maintain relationships (or generally have any energy or confidence for intimacy). Young people face losing clubs and activities that give them things to do, aspirations and goals. After school clubs and similar social activities face closure as to arts programmes – all having funding cut via stealth. Realistic efforts to tackle housing and poverty issues seem unattainable (or counteracted by benefit cuts elsewhere). We know young people who lack supervision, activities and who live in poverty and without adequate schooling and support are at a far higher risk of unplanned pregnancy, early sexual debut and STIs (more info here). It is perhaps unsurprising many practitioners, educators, parents and young people are already anxious about what the year will bring – and sadly we may see many casualties of the cuts before the year is out.

You might get ‘nudged’

It’s not as naughty as it might sound. If you’ve not heard about ‘nudging’, it’s a theory by economist Richard Thayler that was popular in the US prior to being noticed here by civil servants, politicians and some health/social care practitioners. Sometimes described as ‘libertarian paternalism’ it’s a form of behaviour change. It was designed from a financial perspective but has been applied to various areas – including healthcare (particularly issues like reproductive health, obesity etc).

Because previous attempts at behaviour change (in healthcare at least) were viewed as clunky, top down and overbearing ‘nudging’ aims to still manage people’s behaviour but through changing aspects of their lives to making them feel more in control over what they are doing. Critics obviously still see this as top down and oppressive, not fully engaging communities and focused usually at particular groups politicians view as ‘problematic’ (the poor, ethnic minorities, young people). David Cameron has been a fan of nudging for a while, and it has slowly been gathering momentum within political and policy making circles. However, as with any theory it has limitations and requires understanding and critiquing within an academic context. There’s no real evidence the coalition has done this so in 2011 we will see a version of ‘nudging’ being adopted and sold to us via politicians, charities, healthcare groups etc. Most of whom will be keen on this latest buzzword but won’t necessarily understand the theory behind it. It won’t stop it becoming popular, however. Not just in the UK. Practitioners keen on behaviour change models are already adopting this theory for use in the global South – frequently overlooking cultural differences that may make such interventions untenable.

Sexualisation will remain a popular political cause

Over the past few years we’ve seen the term ‘sexualisation’ enter popular culture with several countries commissioning reports into its effects. In the UK these reports are currently being re-evaluated. In 2011 we’ll continue to see the media focus on this subject and politicians see it as a major issue (particularly for young girls). Critical debates of the term will be less common, but we will see debates on the impact on sexualisation extend to talking about porn – with more conservative plans suggested to implement various blocks and bans on accessing materials. Addressing wider issues around gender, sexuality, sex education access to information and advice for young people will not be given priority. Nor will listening to young people themselves or acknowledging they may have any opinions or agency in this area. I think we can also anticipate growing links between Conservative/faith based groups and anti porn feminists moving to make porn/sexualisation more of a campaign issue – much like some of you will remember from the 1980s and early 1990s, and echoing what has already happened in Australia.

Mainstream media sex coverage will become increasingly limited

I know I’m a bit of a broken record over poor media sex coverage, but I’m going a bit further and predicting this year it is going to get worse. I’m probably setting myself a hard task with this prediction since I’m going to have to find evidence to support such a claim at the close of 2011. Or perhaps journalists could just save me the job by vowing to produce quality sex reporting? My hunch is they won’t, not because they’re not aware of the problems with reportage, but because they are restricted by time, budgets, overreliance on PR stories (and surveys) and editors’ daft ideas about sex. An example of just how reductionist and poor media coverage is at the start of the year comes courtesy of USA Today who’ve already set the bar massively low – surely it can’t get any worse? (I bet you it can).

Self reflection and diary keeping will become a major phenomenon

After all this misery and grouchiness here’s a more positive prediction. Sex researchers have been inviting people to keep sex diaries for years. Sex bloggers have taken this a stage further by reflecting on their relationships adventures. But this year I think we’ll see the idea of self reflection and sexual diary keeping become more of a mainstream phenomena. We might be using these for erotic entertainment, to communicate with a partner, or to identify particular problems we wish to tackle. Susie Bright has helpfully paved the way with her Sex Journal (which gives you pointers about what to write and space to share your reflections). Numerous magazine features are set to follow. You can easily join in by writing about and reflecting on your intimate life/lives online or in private. I’ll share more tips on how you might do this later in the year.

What’s definitely happening

There are some things I don’t need to predict as we already know they’re taking place. In February the Natural History museum delves into Sexual Nature with a fascinating exhibition on animal sex – easy tiger! Sex work is back on the political agenda (see here and here) and sex workers are particularly encouraged to get involved with consultation and lobbying on this issue (see here for more on how to do this). Debates are taking place around age of consent in Ireland (as is the topic of policing prostitution). In the UK the future of sex education will be debated in the early part of 2011 but we’re still uncertain what will happen.

So there you have it. Not perhaps a particularly cheery year to look forward to financially, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of interesting things happening in sex and relationships research, education and activism in 2011. And plenty of work to be getting on with! On that note join me later this week when I’ll be outlining my plans for this blog for the next 12 months. I’m changing approach and format somewhat so I’m hoping it’ll be more useful and interesting for you.

Here’s wishing you a fantastic New Year!

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