Skip to content

Not so helpful sex advice from the NHS

February 12th, 2006

Dr Petra

This week the UK’s information portal NHS direct has launched a new section about sex. Given that many calls to NHS direct concern sex – particularly worries about genital size, shape and performance, it’s a good idea to have a sex guide.

Whilst some of the information offered by NHS direct is helpful, most of it’s a list of ‘what to do’ not ‘how to do it’. For example in the section on fantasies readers are told “do whatever you feel is right for you and your partner. Making sexual fantasies a reality can be risky – never put yourself or your partner in any dangerous situations, always consider the consequences and remember to stay safe and legal”.

Saying this is easy, but how can couples be sure what’s right for them if they’re new to this area? How do you know what’s dangerous? And how to stay safe and legal? Without additional resources readers are left to find out these important issues for themselves.

As you can see, much of the coverage isn’t sex positive. In the section on orgasm readers are informed “Faking an orgasm doesn’t get you anywhere either. You might end up having to fake it all the time or your partner will wonder what they’re doing wrong”. No advice is given about how not to fake an orgasm or what to do if you’ve been faking until now.

In the advice on sexuality things get more problematic with readers questioning their sexuality being told: “Many people have feelings towards other people of the same sex. For many people these feelings can be confusing and isolating. Some are gay and will go on to have sexual relationships with people of the same sex, and some will be attracted to members of both sexes and will have relationships with men and women. Others will eventually become attracted to people of the opposite sex as their feelings change over time”.

Sex advice has consistently been criticised by gay and lesbian researcher practitioners for being negative or implying there’s something wrong with sexuality, or it’s a phase. Within the NHS guide it’s fairly clear that if someone’s concerned about their sexuality it must automatically mean they’re unhappy about it – rather than just curious. Furthermore there’s real confusion in how they present being straight, gay or bi that implies people can just plump for any sexuality they choose.

More worrying is that the sex advice isn’t particularly contemporary or critical. Again, under the section on orgasm women (presumably) are encouraged to do pelvic floor exercises to ‘boost arousal’ and ‘make orgasms more explosive’ – yet not one mention of clitoral stimulation appears within the orgasm section – something pretty crucial for the female orgasm.

None of this would be a problem if it were a regular media sex advice site. Most of those are outdated and inaccurate and full of jumbled misunderstandings of hormones and physical functioning. But this is the National Health Service we’re talking about, who’re supposed to be evidence based. In fact Ann Grain, head of external affairs at NHS direct stated “This isn’t just a bit of fun. There are still serious messages there, and everything we write is backed by science and clinical evidence”

I would really love to know what evidence they’ve drawn upon. Whilst some of the information was accurate, a lot was not based on any evidence I was aware of – and I’ve been researching and teaching in this area of healthcare for the past decade. Much of their information was disappointing given the wide range of critical, sex positive research evidence available. There’s no excuse for the NHS not to know about it. And it’s worrying they appear not to have looked at evidence nor consulted with sex researchers when writing these sex guides.

But colleagues and myself are really most concerned by NHS direct’s launch of their new guide. To coincide with Valentine’s Day they’ve featured a sex article on their website.

The article isn’t too bad – apart from the fact that again it coyly avoids mentioning genitals, doesn’t give any actionable pointers, and suggests a view of sex that a large proportion of people (particularly those with physical or psychological health problems) won’t be able to achieve.

To get the article into the headlines, NHS direct made some fairly astonishing claims to newspapers concerning the power of sex. Apparently it can reduce stress and pain, burn calories, combat cancer, cure insomnia, reduce your chances of a heart attack, and give you glossy hair and wrinkle free skin.

Pretty fantastic eh? Shame there’s no evidence to support it. Not that it stops them from advising people “Forget about jogging round the block or struggling with sit-ups… (have) a good bout of ‘sexercise’ “.

Thanks NHS direct for ignoring the concept of evidence based medicine in your scramble for self-promotion. And thanks also for overlooking what we already do know. Which is this. If you eat healthily, take regular exercise, reduce stress and seek medical help quickly when you need it, then you’ll enjoy a number of additional health benefits including a better sex life. Sex can’t fix any problems or make you fitter. It won’t make you younger, more attractive, or prevent chronic diseases.

Even if people are physically healthy, problems of low income, relationship difficulties, a lack of sexual knowledge or confidence, or poor body image will get in the way of a good sex life. Just having “regular romps” as NHS direct advises won’t overcome these difficulties and could make them worse.

Aside from suggesting a view of sex that meanders between negative consequences, coy references and mandatory bonking, NHS direct’s approach of sex as a panacea makes sex really dull. I mean if you’re banging away and thinking ‘great this’ll help me lose those love handles, remove my wrinkles, and stop me having a heart attack’ then you’re not exactly having mind-blowing sex are you?

Sadly NHS direct has chosen to jump on the Valentine’s bandwagon and as a result given frighteningly incorrect messages – particularly around heart disease and cancer, and advocating not exercising. It’s another reminder that sexual health is the Cinderella service in the NHS and the science of sex isn’t valued. When it comes to sex you can write any old nonsense and claim it as ‘evidence’ as NHS direct have done. If the NHS can’t get it right or treat sex seriously how can we be surprised if practitioners or patients also are badly informed?

We sex researchers, particularly those working in healthcare, get irritated when journalists write features on how sex can help you look young, lose weight, or prevent disease. How can we be angry with them if the NHS spouts the same nonsense? And how will we be able to convince journalists of the real evidence when even our health service refuses to get it right?

Comments are closed.