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Sex Review of 2005

December 30th, 2005

Dr Petra

Yesterday I revisited my sex predictions for 2005 and reflected on their accuracy. Today I thought I’d have a more leisurely trip down memory lane and look back on the year gone by. This is a long blog so you might want to dig out that box of leftover Christmas biscuits, make yourself a cup of tea, and settle down for the long haul.

My favourite sex stories of the year
These have ranged from advice for youngsters in ‘sex ed for the stroller set’ from the New York Times through to a UK couple celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary. I was inspired by the story of trailblazer Dorothy Aken’Ova bravely delivering sex-positive advice in Nigeria, and award-winning nurse Angela Star providing sex education to young people wherever she could. And I loved sharing the groundbreaking research that told us body image, not menopause, causes lack of desire.

Explaining more about sexual health

I really enjoyed using this blog to share sexual health knowledge, positive messages around condom use, unpacking sex research, and outlining tips for talking to your children about sex. I know a lot of you have also enjoyed reading my guide to becoming an agony aunt or uncle. I hope the other blog entries about understanding sex research; critiquing sex news stories and insights into providing sex advice via the media have been useful and entertaining.

Sex and magazines
2005 was interesting in terms of sex coverage in magazines. The newly revamped ‘She’ appeared to lose its once sex-positive approach in favour of becoming something resembling an in-flight and interior design magazine. Grazia launched full of promise to become an intelligent women’s weekly glossy, and ended up being a regular advert for faddy diets, plastic surgery, private healthcare, untested alternative ‘treatments’ and celebrity skinnies. It started out using highly qualified experts (myself included) to become their resident advisors. But within a few weeks, with no warning they dropped all their experts in favour of someone without any qualifications to offer their readers’ advice. I’d already lost patience prior to this when they managed to turn my story of idea of the danger of medicalising female sexual dysfunction into a ‘testosterone, it’s great!’ feature.

Psychologies magazine has had more favourable responses and offers a more accurate approach to relationships although lots of it’s content isn’t always evidence based and overly favours biological, psychometric or evolutionary approaches. For some odd reason they keep advertising Psychologies magazine in ‘The Psychologist’ – a professional magazine for psychologists, which seems to be like a bit of a busman’s holiday (a bit like reading more student essays). At least it’s a gesture of working together and as mentioned much of their coverage is better than most – and they commission experts to write features, which is a breath of fresh air.

Glamour magazine for some reason seemed to go downhill with increasingly weaker sex and relationship features and overuse of the unqualified ‘experts’ in 2005 – whilst New Woman has shown recent promise in trying to underpin at least part of its sex and relationship features with evidence.

Unfortunately across many women’s magazines there was a feel that we’d stepped back to the 1950s with writers consistently asking experts like myself for quotes on how to learn sex techniques to get and keep your man, stop him cheating, and ensure he never looked at another woman aside from you.

Men’s magazines sadly still avoided living up to their potential by consistently not tackling sex issues that matter. Predictably the coverage of glamour models, shock sex stories and simplistic sex tip features for straight guys continued in magazines like Nuts and Zoo, and with men’s magazine editors claiming that sexual health was ‘boring’ there seemed little interest in giving men the sex advice they needed. That said, if you wanted to win your girlfriend a new set of breasts, lads mags were the place for you. FHM and Maxim did little to address sex topics in a new or interesting way, whilst the quality of sex advice in Men’s Health appeared both patronising and outdated, and at times alarmingly inaccurate. Arena did try and cover topics such as alternative sexualities and medicalising male sexuality, although never really delivered past their radical cover lines.

Sex in the news

Predictably for 2005 sex research that sounded ‘sexy’ got the lion’s share of coverage. It didn’t matter that the quality of the sex research was poor, in fact the worse the quality of research the more likely it seemed to get global media coverage. In particular coverage of unapproved and largely untested sex drugs, the heritability of the female orgasm and perils of the oral contraceptive pill and teenagers and the pill were given widespread and in nearly all cases uncritical coverage.

Research from more reputable surveys and systematic reviews indicated that women and men were pretty similar with Western women’s sexual behaviour changing over the past 50 years making it similar to male activity. Strangely this was when the media suddenly got critical and disputed the findings.

These longditudinal studies also indicated infidelity remains a cultural taboo, in spite of some newspapers unfortunately preferring to ignore this evidence in favour of PR driven data to promote the movie Closer and tell the nation we no longer had problems with infidelity. Many women’s glossy magazines also appeared to be fine about swinging – but only if you were wearing designer clothes sweetie, and of course were aged under 40, under a size 14 and attractive. Otherwise it was business as usual.

Research did indicate that young people are having a wider variety of sexual experiences, and media did cover this although seemed reticent to tackle some of the negative aspects of teen sexuality – particularly unplanned pregnancy, abuse and coercion and rising STI rates. Although they remained eager to talk about bisexual teenage girls. I wonder why?

The main trend within media sex coverage, be that in television, magazines or print media, was to approach sex in a way that favoured the biological, hormonal and medical approach. Previous years’ discussions of sex in evolutionary terms remained popular, although overall most journalists got hot under the collar (and were asking for) sex content that could mention ‘drive’, ‘biology’, ‘hormones’ and ‘science’. For the most part the people they quoted knew nothing about these topics, and the cultural, social, historical, spiritual and educational aspects of sex remained absent from most coverage.

Television coverage provided the widest range of approaches with some fantastic coverage through to programmes that advocated untested treatments, unapproved therapies, or strange approaches to science communication.

Stupid sex surveys still reigned supreme

Some were the usual attempts of PR companies to get their clients into the news via a sexy sounding survey, others were promotional attempts to increase magazine circulation with stories about childbirth being super sexy, or wilfully wayward teens. The coverage got attention but did little to favour or inform magazine readers. On a couple of classic occasions we were even treated to magazines or newspapers either inventing their own scary sex surveys or bastardising established and respected studies into crass sex features.

Sexual and reproductive health

Within the UK rates of sexually transmitted infections increased and attempts were made to try and reduce those, increase self management of sexual health and improve sexual health services. Across the developing world concerns remain about HIV, and particularly the impact on children which fortunately did get media coverage.

Confusingly in the UK there were a number of initiatives and proposed policies around sex education that conflicted with each other. Some advocated wider sex education initiatives, others argued in favour of police or social services being told about young people’s sexual activity which medics and other health educators believed a gross breach of confidentiality.

Female fertility received a lot of attention, not all of it positive, with medical reports encouraging women to have babies in their twenties – and subsequent coverage blaming women who delayed pregnancy without looking at why they might make such a decision.

The much hyped drug for premature ejaculation that spawned countless newspaper articles and some magazine features didn’t get FDA approval and consistent with other medical interventions for sexual dysfunction suddenly fell silent post-FDA decision. That’s not stopped drug companies selling to the media forthcoming other new sex wonder drugs – with the usual coverage of ‘we don’t know how it works, but it does work, it will work, it will transform your sex life – in the future!’

And what have I been up to?

Outside of observing and being part of these sex developments, stories and media coverage and alongside my day job, I’ve had a few other exciting things happen this year.

In February the movie Kinsey was released, and I reviewed the film for the British Medical Journal and was part of a panel of experts who spoke to journalists and the public about Kinsey’s work, the film, and the experiences of modern-day sex researchers. The release of the DVD of the film also permitted wider discussions of sex research and allowed me to help offer some journalists training around understanding sex research.

In March I enjoyed an amazing trip to South Africa, meeting many new friends, training sex educators, researchers and activists on how to talk to the media about sex, and helping to set up distance learning scholarships for South African healthcare staff.

In June I launched an online survey on bullying in academia with the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES). This generated over 800 responses from academic and academic-related staff, and over 500 additional emails from people telling me their stories. The research revealed the high prevalence of bullying within UK universities and our initial findings published in September showed the negative impact bullying has on academic staff. Ongoing analysis will be used to inform the way we deal with this distressing issue.

I also launched a new online course for doctors to communicate more effectively about sexual health through that went with a training module I designed for GPs.

July saw me very busy with the launch of my book ‘The Research Companion: a practical guide for the social and health sciences’which is accompanied by a free messageboard and website where researchers can network and talk about research wherever they are in the world. If you’re a researcher/practitioner hope you’ll join up and join in our conversations! So far reviews are positive and the website is proving a popular resource for researchers, service users and healthcare professionals.

August saw me taking on a new role as a Playingsafely (safer sex campaign) spokesperson that I’ve continued formally throughout the year. I spent the summer advising on safer sex tips for holidaymakers (some of which you can see in that month’s blog entries).

In September myself and colleagues received the good news that we’d won the e-tutor of the year award from the THES and Higher Education Academy for our work on our distance learning MSc and in the same week we collected the award I enjoyed running a workshop for journalists as part of the British Association Festival of Science on ‘how to get the best from experts’. This led to creating further free resources for journalists’ and increasing dialogue between journalists and scientists.

Throughout the year I’ve been available to help journalists, television researchers and other media staff with quotes and background information for their stories – I hope I’ve been useful. I’ve continued to host and write my regular radio sex and relationships phone in for BBC Radio 5 Live, with the help of presenter Dotun Adebayo, and have also been training other radio presenters and agony aunts across the world on offering sex advice.

November saw the first year anniversary of Beauty Zambia, an African women’s magazine where I’m the resident Agony Aunt. Whilst December ended somewhat sadly when I resigned my position of sex expert at when their very talented Internet editor Will Callaghan announced he was moving on to new ventures. I didn’t feel anyone could replace Will who’d tirelessly worked to bring men quality health information and I’m grateful to him for enabling me to share sex knowledge with men.

More positively where I’m an agony aunt revamped itself and now has both an agony and sex advice page where teenage readers can find sex positive information to empower them.

There are plenty of sex positive new ventures ahead and I’ll be telling you more about them in 2006.

If I’ve not worn you out today I hope you’ll be joining me tomorrow when I’ll be making my sex predictions for 2006.

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