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Revisiting my sex predictions for 2008

December 31st, 2008

Dr Petra

Each year I have a go at predicting what will happen in the coming twelve months relating to sex and relationships issues. Here’s a look back over what I thought was going to happen in 2008.

Let’s see how accurate my crystal ball was…..

Sex will get political
We certainly saw a lot of discussions over our sexual rights this year. This included debates over proposed revisions of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill relating to pornography and prostitution. Concerns were raised that political decisions were being based on rhetoric and poor science rather than actual evidence. Academics, researchers, healthcare practitioners and sex workers have all petitioned the government to try and ensure legal changes are not discriminatory and are based on sound science.

By the close of the year Jacqui Smith had proposed that prostitution would be illegal if sex was paid for with a trafficked person and led to further criticism from practitioners, activists and sex workers around understanding of key concepts and sex worker safety. The legal changes are still being discussed and we can expect to see this debate continue into 2009, I’ll continue to keep you updated.

Discussions on the abortion act were very emotive and vocal, although again much of the decision making by politicians was not based on sound science. Groups protested to reduce the 24 time limit for abortions reduced, countered by those arguing the time limit should remain the same. In the end the time limit was not altered, although health practitioners and educators agreed more needed to be done to offer wider access to contraceptive services and sex education to reduce demand for termination. (It’s worth pointing out that most terminations don’t happen at such a late stage and those that do are not made lightly).

In other parts of the world discussions over HIV continued and politics did play a part in provision of HIV care, although the good news was in at least one country with a very poor record of managing HIV (South Africa) a new health minister with an improved approach to understanding HIV may offer hope to the thousands affected by HIV and AIDS.

We’ll be obsessed with future sex
At the close of 2007 and in early 2008 there were a couple of books and articles all claiming we’d be having sex with robots in the near future. I predicted this would become a major focus within the media and public debates on science, and although early signs indicated this would be the case, in fact this topic seemed to fizzle out fairly early on. Perhaps we’re not quite ready for a sex robot that could turn us on, tidy the house, and take out the trash.

There’ll be new opportunities to improve sex education
This was probably the most important sex story of the year, when in October we learned that the UK had changed it’s political stance on sex and relationships education and, using an evidence based approach, had decided to focus more on relationships within teaching, to begin lessons (in an age appropriate manner) from 5 years old, and to make such classes mandatory. Unsurprisingly some of the right wing media deliberately (and some might say capriciously) decided to report this as children-as-young-as-five-to-be-taught-about-condoms, which did lead to some panic among parents. However it was possible to deliver calmer messages within this media bluster.

Having made these recommendations the next year will be spent planning accurate and appropriate teaching materials and lesson plans to ensure PHSE is much improved and to deliver the sex and relationships education that young people so desperately want.

Also in this year we saw Channel 4 deciding they would add to this discussion by running a prime time television series called ‘The Sex Education Show’ along with a number of other initiatives (including a website and school-sex ed series KNTV, and a debate on media sex coverage). These have received mixed responses from practitioners and educators – as some aspects of The Sex Education show were accurate, many ideas pandered to being televisual rather than contemporary.

Meaning we saw outdated swab tests for STIs, were told of an ‘epidemic’ of teen porn addiction, and had teens shown gruesome images of STIs to shock the viewer (even though we know full well such shock tactics don’t educate or change behaviour). A further series is planned for 2009. Whether this will learn from feedback or continue with a mix of accurate and gimmicky remains to be seen.

Despite voicing my reservations I took part in several programmes and was glad to see at least one of the shows did manage to provide a sex positive approach to education and provided a framework for parents and teens to talk to each other about sex. You can see a clip here.

Sex comes to the movies

I predicted sex would be a ‘major theme within mainstream movies this year with films covering topics ranging from affairs to abortion’. While we did have huge amounts of hype around Sex and the City, interestingly this film and others tackling sex issues did not do as I predicted, which was to inform countless magazine and other media features. Instead the reviews of SATC the movie seemed to focus more on fashion, cast in-fighting, and female friendships – perhaps we’ve now grown used to the sexual-sub plot of this franchise?

Hormonal contraception will be a hot topic
The discussions on the ‘male pill’ weren’t so prevalent in the media, although the research race to get a pill ready for market continue. There were more discussions around the range of female hormonal contraception – particularly with pilot schemes looking into pharmacies becoming a new outlet for prescribing female hormonal contraceptives. I had predicted we’d see more within healthcare and the media pushing new brands for hormonal contraception, but this was not as great as I’d expected. What did happen was a focus on promoting other forms of contraception for women (for example the coil or cap) which we might benefit from seeing more of in 2009.

What overshadowed all this was the HPV vaccine which has been rolled out across the UK and still raises many questions that have not been adequately answered. There have been some problems with parents understanding what the vaccine offers (particularly with some parents and teens mistakenly thinking it protects against all STIs). In 2009 greater efforts will be made around public understanding of the vaccine, although whether this will be accompanied by asking some of the more pressing questions about the vaccine remains to be seem.

The new taboo will be zoophilia
Last year I was pretty sure zoophilia would become big news as there were some movie due out and documentaries on the topic. It seemed the media, fed up with swinging and dogging, and were looking for a new shock topic. However, this didn’t pan out and zoophilia didn’t receive attention. Instead we returned to concerns over ‘sex addiction’ – mostly because of a few celebrities claiming to have the condition.

Teenage pregnancy will be a big issue
Teen pregnancy continues to be a problem within the UK and most other countries. In 2008 it was great to see a government response to this with a clear promise to transforming sex education (see above). Predictably there was a fair amount of teen (mother) blaming when the issue of either teen pregnancy or proposed sex education changes were mentioned – bizarrely with many journalists and religious groups arguing against teen mothers, access to contraception/termination for teens AND school based sex education. This made me wonder exactly how we could prevent teen pregnancy. Fortunately many journalists were a lot more progressive and some had begun to ask critical questions that moved from teen mum blaming to look at the role of preventing teen pregnancy, the involvement of teen fathers, and schemes to support teen mums.

The media will obsess about marriage
Early in 2008 we did see coverage of celebrity marriages and a number of television series about marriage and what it means to couples. Unfortunately at the close of the year we saw a threat to lesbian/gay civil partnerships with Proposition 8 in the US, although it was heartening to see much positive media coverage challenging this. However, it’s fair to say that marriage wasn’t really the main media focus of the year as celebrity divorce and infidelity took centre stage with a couple of very high profile couples involved in public and acrimonious divorces.

Sexual problems will return as a medical crisis

Interestingly the sexual dysfunction crisis wasn’t as high profile within 2008 as I’d predicted. That’s partly because a number of drugs being tested for sexual dysfunctions were discontinued at trial stage and partly because the promotion of forthcoming products was happening away from the media glare. What we did see was a lot of hype around the 10th anniversary of Viagra which led to some pretty abysmal media coverage but also some opportunities to talk frankly about sexual dysfunction and the role of Big Pharma. I’d predicted a major push from pharmaceutical companies on female sexual dysfunction and that is ongoing, so expect to see more of this next year (hey, I was only a year out on this!)

So were there any surprises in 2008? Well, a few.

High street store Superdrug announced they’d be selling a herbal product ‘Viapro’ to boost male sexual functioning – only trouble is it’s not based on any real clinical evidence and the number of complaints of side effects are rising. What was surprising about this story wasn’t so much the drug store selling the product, but the completely uncritical media coverage of it.

Towards the close of the year there was the rather strange and depressing case of gay rights organisation Stonewall apparently sidelining Trans gender folk. This led to some very unpleasant debates, although the good news is this led to a grassroots protest by Trans gender people and supporters and the formation of pressure groups such as T-CAN (Trans Community Activist Network). It wasn’t quite alls-well-that-ends-well but it was a story that showed grassroots activism is still alive and well.

It wasn’t really a surprise that we saw bad sex science reporting, although it was depressing how quickly dodgy stories spread. The top four most problematic studies were:
the g-spot ‘discovery’ story
the how-you-can-tell-a-woman-has-vaginal-orgasms-by-her-walk study

the how women get bitchier as they get older research and
the bizarre study suggesting women prefer intercourse to foreplay

We lost a few sex pioneers in 2008. Cory Silverberg has an update on some of the folk we should remember.

Join me tomorrow when I’ll be ringing in the New Year with some more sex predictions for 2009.

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