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Say what we want and keep it light: how (some) magazines like you to talk about sex

March 18th, 2008

Dr Petra

A while back I was asked by a colleague to comment on a feature about men and sex. The piece was to be about the key problems men have with sex and was for a glossy young women’s magazine.

The aim of the piece was to outline common sexual problems and offer tips on how to cope if your boyfriend was having any difficulties.

I outlined some of the key worries that men can have – issues with body image, problems with sexual performance, worries about satisfying their partner and issues with sexual health and psychological wellbeing. I pointed out these were issues that often affected men due to a lack of sex education and the assumption young men ‘naturally’ know a lot about sex. I also explained although these were issues that did affect many young men and girlfriends could be supportive, it was also important that we didn’t always put girls into the role of helper or therapist but we should encourage lads to find solutions to their problems themselves.

And all the while I could tell I was probably being a bit too worthy for the feature. Although I was able to point out exactly the problems lads have with sex/relationships (we know this because it’s been researched pretty extensively), I was told the aim was really do to something ‘light-hearted, fun and not too serious’.

Later a writer from the magazine also got in touch as they had now come up with their own set of men’s sex problems for discussion.

Again they emphasised the feature was ‘fun and light-hearted’ and explained how the piece would include issues like men’s body image anxieties or tiredness due to stress.

I pointed out I didn’t think either of those topics were all that fun, and the journalist agreed but explained since it was a sex feature they never wrote anything all that serious and obviously quotes had to be ‘entertaining’.

I said I’d try and help and they agreed to email over the issues they wanted comment on. Below is the email from the magazine showing their suggested topics – and also more tellingly – how they wanted me to answer. I’ve taken out identifying information about the publication, but the rest of the email is exactly as they sent it.

“Hi Petra,

Following our conversation earlier,

the reasons we have are:

My willy smells – so maybe a sex position to boost his confidence or some kind of foreplay to get him in the mood”

Now this is an interesting response to a common problem. A smelly willy could be anything from poor personal hygiene to a sexually transmitted infection, or just insecurity over one’s body and its natural odour. But if someone genuinely has a smelly penis it’s important they try and identify the cause and sort it out. That might involve having an STI checkup or washing more effectively. A guy may be upset about his smelly bits, or he may not care much or even notice all that often. But the idea that ‘some kind of foreplay’ is going to be the answer is nonsense. If someone has bad hygiene they need to freshen up not try some new foreplay. And if they have an STI causing their odour that needs treating promptly. Clearly you don’t want to knock a partner’s confidence, but you can’t use that as an excuse not to tackle both of your sexual health and wellbeing.

“I feel fat – again maybe some moves to get him to feel special and know that you love him the way he is”

I’d certainly agree making someone feel loved is a good thing. But again the magazine wants this problem sorted by sexual positions. This doesn’t really help. It may be a partner feels fat but has a distorted idea about his body shape. It may be he’s just having a ‘fat day’ or it could be he is genuinely overweight. So while telling him you care may help it may be he also needs to address his physical or mental health or both. Although adopting certain positions may hide your flabby bits it won’t necessarily help as if you’re worrying about your body enough to have to change your sex positions you’ll probably still be fretting about yourself no matter what sex position you try. And evidence suggests that those with poor body image do have more sexual problems.

You can see here how the ‘light’ approach works though. Rather than talking about the causes of body image worries you suggest a sex position.

On to the third concern.

“We’ve just had lunch with your parents – this is to do with the fact that he’s normally more than willing but after spending time with your parents or in your childhood home he now sees you as Daddy’s little girl. Maybe a tip to sex the woman up to really show him she’s not a girl anymore?”

Um, so we don’t have any scope for talking about why he sees you in this way? Or accepting that he’s just not up for it? Or any discussion around relationships and the family? No. The solution to this problem (according to the magazine) is for you to do something suitably slutty to take his mind off thinking about you in relation to your dad. Only if he really is thinking about you in this way trying something sexually daring may make him feel even more threatened or confused. There’s no option here for just deciding not to have sex on this one occasion. The woman is supposed to fix his lack of interest by doing something sexually startling. This assumption plays on that old stereotype that all men are sexual so if you are sexy back it’ll just distract him. Rather than the reality which is being sexually aggressive when someone’s not into sex may make the situation a whole lot worse. Particularly if his mind is on your dad.

“I’ve just had a wank – trying to shift the focus back on sex as a couple, we could even say that maybe this means something is wrong with the relationship but maybe another solution like making yourself irresistible?”

Now if the previous problems and recommended answers weren’t ridiculous enough this one takes the cake! Masturbation is healthy and fine. It’s okay for guys and gals in relationships to masturbate on their own (it doesn’t mean you’re cheating) or in front of your partner. Showing your partner how you masturbate is a turn on, a great way of indicating what pleases you, expands your sexual repertoire and removes the focus of sex as just being about penetration. If he has just masturbated it may be he doesn’t fancy sex so you might want to talk about any unmet needs you have, or see if this is a habit he’s getting into. It may be he’s doing it to try and manage coming too quickly – in which case he may need reassurance. Or it might be you decide that next time you’ll masturbate together and watch each other.

Certainly if your partner always selects masturbation over intimacy with you then this might indicate a wider problem in your relationship – but in that case the solution isn’t making yourself irresistible – it’s about having a conversation to find out what’s going on. The subtext from the magazine is that problems can be ‘fixed’ by giving him sexy signals (which presumably as a man he’ll be powerless to resist) and that masturbation is somehow a problem you must overcome. Put simply the magazine seemed to believe that masturbation wasn’t appropriate and so you should use your girly charms to stop him self pleasuring. Which not only limits his sexual expression, it limits hers too.

But there were more problems they’d identified, so on to the next ‘issue’

“I just saw you taking a dump – here maybe there is brother/sister syndrome or the initial romance has gone. A top tip please!”

Well, what a calamity! Better put a lock on the loo in case your partner happens to see you on the throne and whoosh – love goes out the window! Okay, so it might be embarrassing if your partner walks in on you, but this is relationship dependent. There are some couples for whom the bathroom door should always stay firmly shut. There are some who don’t really care about sharing toilet habits, shaving or other grooming rituals. And there are those for whom seeing a partner go to the loo is a massive turn on. But for a mainstream magazine there’ll be no scope for scatalogical endorsement, a mere glimpse of a partner on the lav is clearly a signifier your relationship is in crisis and must be fixed.

“I’m knackered – making him feel comfortable or encouraging time spent together dedicated to sex?”

This is a typical magazine approach to sex problems. If you don’t fancy sex, rather than looking at the possible causes and trying to solve them you should bypass any issues by….
….having more sex! A guy who doesn’t want sex may be tired because of overwork, health problems, difficulties within his family or your relationship, or countless other reasons. And the solution is for him to identify the cause of his exhaustion and address that. After which his sex drive should return, or you can think of ways to encourage more activity. But suggesting a partner who’s knackered should spend more time with you where you just have sex simply diverts attention from what could be a serious problem. Of course what’s happening here is reinforcing the idea that men are so hyper sexual they can overcome any obstacle (including exhaustion) by doing it. This is why so many men have problems and feel they can’t talk to anyone about them.

“You hurt me – this one could definitely be that he shouldn’t be pushed into it and you need to resolve issues”

At last they were catching on! Yes, I think if someone hurt you then they shouldn’t be pushed into sex – although to play devils advocate one might wish to define the hurt since if he’s very keen on being spanked then he may well want something saucy to follow his punishment. Clearly though the magazine weren’t meaning a trip to BDSM land in the feature and they are right that if a man has been hurt he oughtn’t be pushed into anything he doesn’t want. And yet…It’s interesting how for other issues it was fine to mend everything with sex, but for emotional hurt the answer is no sex. In reality this is an issue for negotiation. He may well need space and time to lick his wounds if you’ve had a particularly nasty fight, but he may equally want affection, reassurance and a cuddle, or even some steamy make up sex. With all these answers the magazine clearly distilled everything into single focus problems and expected a fairly narrow answer – but with most of our sexual and relationship difficulties the problems are rarely simple and there’s often more than one solution.

But enough of philosophising about modern relationships, there’s still time for their last ‘problem’:

“and finally You’re too pushy”.

Hmmm. All through the feature the reader was being encouraged to ‘fix’ their sex life by showing him sex moves, indicating you’re no longer a little girl, and making yourself irresistible. How then can an average reader work out how to enact this, but at the same time not be pushy? Particularly when everything she’s being told to do involves encourage him to have sex. More than this being a confusing situation there is an underlying message that if you’re too demanding this isn’t sexy. Which can often make women feel completely unable to ask for what they would like in bed and frustrates men no end since they would like to know what to do – and when they’ve got it right. Research over the past few decades has indicated how women constantly have to balance being available but not too sexual for fear of getting a reputation or losing a partner.

On the one hand you want to scream ‘be pushy!’ but given how we know women are being given mixed messages about sex there’s room for discussion about what you are doing in the bedroom. After all, if you’re constantly being told that sex is something you perform through how you look, dress and express through positions and techniques you may well inadvertently seem very pushy while you are simply trying to make a partner happy. And it’s confused features like this one that makes women so muddled.

After setting out problems they thought were an issue (rather than what we know men are really worried about) and telling me how to answer them, the magazine ended with the following…

“We are looking for it to be as light as possible but I totally understand your concerns. I hope we can work something out”

Guess what? We couldn’t.

But this serves as a very useful example of magazine sex reportage. For a start it documents for the public that rather than experts writing their own quotes or angles these are often written for you. It also shows how magazines will ignore a wider body of evidence and create weird and wonderful angles of their own. And for journalists it should hopefully indicate that setting up one dodgy argument can lead to you contradicting yourself two paragraphs down your feature. It also limits how you talk about sex and coating every feature with a sex negative and judgemental attitude that does us no favours.

Not long after this email was sent the magazine was closed down. Funny, that.

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