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Problems with 21st century sex

May 15th, 2005

Dr Petra

Today I was an invited speaker at the Sexual Freedom Coalition’s annual conference.

Several people asked for a copy of my talk – so here it is. Comments, questions or queries gratefully recieved.

Problems with 21st Century Sex
Two weeks ago a glossy women’s magazine ran a feature about swinging, which stated the criteria for people who wanted to go to a particular event.

Apart from needing to be dressed in Marc Jacobs or other designer wear, the feature stipulated “a panel vets each application: if you seem ‘suspect’ (i.e. not between [age] 18 and 40 and sufficiently attractive) a private detective will be dispatched to check you out. NO ONE OVER A SIZE 14 IS WELCOME AND IF YOU TURN UP FATTER THAN YOUR PHOTO, YOU’LL BE TURNED AWAY” [emphasis in original]

Who’d have thought 21st century sex would be based on income and appearance, and run by committee?

I’m getting increasingly concerned about the way sex is presented to the public. After family and friends, the media’s our main source of sex information. The problem is that most media sex coverage isn’t doing us any favours.

Glossy magazines, newspapers, and many television companies or websites are staffed by people who are mostly straight, white, able-bodied, young, financially independent, have no kids, are monogamous, are confident enough to want to spice up their sex life (although not too much), and have no major mental or physical health problems.

In other words people who’re nothing like most of the rest of us.

With the growing availability of sex products, alongside the media’s obsession with ‘newness’, it’s inevitable our sex coverage is now all about consumption.

It would be great to think that 21st century sex could be about pleasure, adventure, exploration, and confidence. Learning what turns you on and being able to share that with others. About celebrating difference, diversity and acceptance.

Because there’s a lot of sex coverage, the press and the public assume this is already happening, and that we’re liberated. Look beyond the surface and you can see we’re far from that.

Sadly we’ve got a message that sex is about products and performance. Something you have to pay for, something else to accessorise.

Many people in the UK believe they’re missing out, consider themselves to have a worse sex life than others around them, and worry they’re dysfunctional as a result.

What’s out there for you if you can’t afford the panties that cost £50 a pair, or the jewel-encrusted dildo, or you’re made to feel your too old, too young or just the wrong physical shape to enjoy the sex lives everyone in media land is talking about?

Much of our sex coverage is now about creating anxieties so we’ll want to consume. A large number of people providing sex advice to the media – those ‘sexperts’ we see quoted, are only there because they want to plug their latest book, shop, or product. The quality of sex advice, services, or products is variable, and standards for good practice largely absent.

Pharmaceutical companies have capitalised on this climate, starting with erectile dysfunction that they’ve turned into a highly medicalised condition. I’m the first to approve of sex drugs to aid those with health conditions that impair sexual functioning. But Big Pharma researchers hyped up the sexual dysfunction figures to make minor sexual dissatisfactions into full-blown diseases.

Premature ejaculation and women’s lack of desire are now being spun to the press by pharmaceutical companies as needing pills or patches to cure them.

The misuse of sex surveys by PR companies leads to distorted statistics about sexual activity, alongside Big Pharma targeting the press to make us all feel inadequate. Add to that our lack of sex education, and a media preoccupation with features that tell us what to do, and what products to use, but never how to identify or communicate our desires, you can see what I see most days as a sex researcher and agony aunt.

Fear, confusion and disappointment.

Isn’t it a shame that people can’t get reliable, accurate and exciting sex information without it coming with a price tag or prescription? And that the messages of super exciting sex we hear ignores the very diverse sexual (and not so sexual) lives we may be having.

We need to recognise what’s going on, request better sex information, and whilst we may enjoy some products that can spice up our sex lives, our sex lives shouldn’t depend on having them.

Here are some ways we might achieve that:
· Free stuff (e.g. advice on sexually transmitted infections) should stay free.
· Sex information should be available in a variety of formats accessible to all.
· Sexperts should be appropriately qualified and transparent about their skills and qualifications.
· Commercial ventures could support charitable groups or non-profit organisations.
· Products and services should be developed for diverse communities – at diverse costs.
· Journalists could be offered wider sex awareness information to break the cycle of reporting sex as ‘new’ or ‘product related’.
· Provide the public with the ability to critically evaluate media and health care messages, so pharmaceutical companies and others can be made to become more transparent in their practices.
· Offer training and support to those selling sex products to enable them to be able to give the best advice to the widest audience.
· Campaign to improve the quality and reliability of sex toys; self help books, DVDs and videos.
· Encourage the public to reclaim their sex lives and explore their own erotic possibilities rather than having them imposed upon them. And to acknowledge and celebrate that while some people are keen to explore and experiment sexually, those who don’t feel sexual and are okay with this also need acknowledgement.

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