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The best and worst sex (and science) stories of 2010

December 29th, 2010

Dr Petra

This year seems to have just flown by, and what a busy one it was for research and stories about sex. From philandering footballers to STI statistics we certainly got to hear a lot about relationships.

Here are some of the main stories I think made up the year in media, sex and science.

The year began with the launch of the Home Office’s report on Sexualisation of Young People a problematic review which received lots of media coverage but very little critical attention from the press. It sadly overshadowed a far more detailed and useful similar report that came out just beforehand on Sexualised Goods, Commissioned by the Scottish Parliament. (You can find discussions critiquing the Home Office review here and here with a history of sexualisation reviews from other countries and open access tools to evaluate them here)

January was also noteworthy for being the month all our G spots went missing. Who knew?

Did you know Facebook caused syphilis? No, well nor did I until in March the press went crazy for the ‘Facebook linked to a rise in syphilis’ story. This was based on some opinions from a public health practitioner who should have known better, but who press released speculations about sexual health and social media. Cue plenty of irresponsible media coverage.

It provided an opportunity for sex educators to challenge these claims and also to promote health advice about syphilis, STIs and safer sex. Worryingly many sexual health charities and public health organisations failed to engage with the story in a timely fashion, completely missing the opportunity to share information with the public. An account of how this story unfolded, the heroes and villains of the piece can be found here.

The BBC produced a groundbreaking and sensitive drama ‘Five Daughters’ in April, based on the tragic story of five women from Ipswich who were victims of a serial killer in 2006. It retold the stories of Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell, Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol and Annette Nicholls, plus the role of the police and support agencies. It was praised for its accuracy, respectful approach and depicting the female characters in a humane way, particularly focusing on their friendships and families. A discussion of why and how the series was made can be found here.

April also saw the bizarre case of Clitoraid unfold. What began as a request via twitter and facebook to ‘adopt a clitoris’ soon was a more complex case involving a cult, unclear activities in Burkina Faso, and the support of sex educators and a sex store. A summary of the story can be found here, hereand here. Many questions about Clitoraid still remain unanswered, and have caused rifts between sex educators, activists and health/development practitioners. This bad feeling was distressing, particularly since many involved were highly respected within the field of sex education and activism – and because basic respectful approaches to international practice were ignored.

What do you do if your girlfriend ditches you and goes out with someone else? Mope? Call up your mates and hit the town? Go visit your mum? Listen to sad music? Or cut your girlfriend’s face so nobody else would ever want to date her? If it’s the latter then you’ve clearly been taking your relationship advice from actor Danny Dyer and Zoo magazine. In May Dyer’s advice column contained this shocking suggestion, which was noticed by @sarahditum and quickly spread across twitter. Dyer blamed Zoo, Zoo blamed Dyer. Nobody took any responsibility for anything. But action did get taken, primarily when people stopped complaining to the magazine and editor and started targeting advertisers with the magazine. Dyer was sacked. Zoo was forced to write an apology and feature about domestic violence. The whole sorry saga is summarised here and here.

The same month saw Project Prevention gain notoriety in the UK with largely uncritical media reports like this. Through countless chat shows, broadcast and print news the organisation suggested drug/alcohol and reproductive health services (plus other support services) were failing to manage drug/alcohol users getting pregnant. And suggested cash incentivised sterilisation programmes were the answer. (Project Prevention are only focused on sterilisation or adoption of long acting hormonal contraception. They are not interested in supporting drug/alcohol users after this – in terms of sorting out any addiction, housing/family issues, or safer sex concerns. Moreover they fail to address repeat pregnancies can be a sign of domestic abuse. Their focus is solely on preventing drug/alcohol users getting pregnant).

The media provided no real discussion of what services already exist, what they offer, how they work, where they could be improved. Without this, discussions on Project Prevention were meaningless but this didn’t stop media approaching the issue of drug/alcohol abuse and incentivised sterilisation as though this were a necessary and beneficial option, required because of gaps in existing services. Since no services were seemingly assessed it would be difficult to draw these conclusions but it didn’t stop the media. Who also ignored the concerns of drug/alcohol charities, human rights groups, and healthcare practitioners.

Nor was much investigation carried out into Project Prevention, or their previous incarnation CRACK (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity) despite numerous publications on them in health/legal journals (see here, here, here, here, here and here)

Blogger Stuart Sorensen emerged in this debate as a voice of sanity and tireless campaigner against Project Prevention. Inviting the UK representative of Project Prevention to explain their plans for the programme in the UK then creating resources for practitioners and the public around how to tackle the organisation (all his writing about Project Prevention can be found here and on twitter)

Despite some journalists and bloggers writing about Project Prevention as though it were an established and worthwhile UK organisation, in fact it is not. Ethically in the UK practitioners cannot sterilise people who’ve been financially incentivised or who are drug/alcohol dependent. They can, with the person’s consent, suggest long acting reversible contraception (LARC), although Project Prevention do not appear linked with any existing drug/alcohol or reproductive health services. Currently they are requesting monetary donations to fund getting people onto LARC which can already be freely offered via the NHS. But the media and uncritical bloggers haven’t really considered the ramifications of this at all. The project and messages behind it are popular with media and some quarters so it continues to require vocal opposition. Not least because its focus on the poor, vulnerable and socially excluded feels like eugenics to many people. Rather than giving Project Prevention a platform we would do better to explore complex cases around reproductive health and drug/alcohol abuse, and ways to ensure services can better support addicts and their families.

In the midst of this we had a general election. Labour lost. The conservatives and liberal democrats formed a coalition. Many long term labour supporters, myself included, had become disenchanted with many of the actions of the labour party. Particularly around its use and neglect of scientific evidence to inform policy and law. (I wrote about my direct experiences of this here). The Liberal Democrats were eager during electioneering to persuade scientists to focus on ‘geeking the vote’ and made many promises around healthcare, education, academic funding, university fees and supporting science. Perhaps unsurprisingly many working in academia and science were persuaded to vote for them on this basis (I certainly was, something I am still regretting – and you’ll understand exactly why when you read this – the most personal post I’ve ever shared on this blog). For some the subsequent backtracking and u-turns of the Liberal Democrats have come as no surprise, to others of us it has come as a dreadful shock. And a sad let down not only to see the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats since they became part of the coalition, but also to note many of those who so actively courted the academic and science vote have dropped contact with us. Leaving us feeling cheated on many levels. A truly depressing turn of events.

June saw the FDA reject the drug Flibanserin – the female ‘desire drug’ despite months of media hype about this being the next ‘female viagra’ (as the media consistently and incorrectly described it). Shortly after drug development was discontinued, while later in the year Ray Moynihan’s fantastic book Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals highlighted further the problem of medicalisation of female sexual functioning by the pharmaceutical industry.

Also over the summer we saw a scandal break around off label use of the drug dexamethasone given to pregnant women to prevent congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) in girls. CAH is a disorder that affects the adrenal glands, so a person will not make enough of the hormones aldosterone and cortisol, but will make too much androgen. One of the results of this can be girls with CAH having ‘ambiguous genitals’. Using dexamethasone to prevent CAH (and particularly to prevent girls developing male genitals) is a standard practice for some clinicians, as is offering genetic testing to parents with a history of CAH. Many endocrinologists and medics have argued prescribing dexamethasone should only happen within a controlled, supervised, trial programme (which is currently not the case). The real scandal around CAH came from a clinican who was prescribing ‘dex’ to not only prevent CAH but also to prevent lesbianism.

This case was broken by Alice Dreger and colleagues and quickly spread to the media who focused on the need for using dex to treat CAH and the circumstances under which it might be used (see here and here for examples). The media, while expressing dismay, were not as critical about the use of dex to ‘treat’ both gender and sexuality as bloggers were. The blogosphere (particularly writings from trans and intersex people) took a more politicised, critical and wide ranging approach to this story (see for example this post from Mark Simpson assisted by @quietriot_girl, which links to other discussions about dex, sexuality and CAH).

Around the same time, a separate story was broken by Dan Savage which also involved Alice Dreger and colleagues. This time alerting practitioners and the public to research being undertaken at Cornell University by Dr Dix Poppas. Poppas’ research focused on ‘treating’ young girls judged to have oversized clitorises by performing clitoral reduction surgery on them. And testing for post operative sensitivity with manual stimulation and the use of a vibrator. Unsuprisingly this led to an outcry, primarily from bloggers (rather than the mainstream media who didn’t give it as much attention). Bloggers and activists saw the research as child abuse and female genital mutilation/cutting (examples here, here and here). It also led to wider discussions around surgical interventions and intersexuality within forums and on twitter – some of which became pretty heated but were definitely of interest. Sadly even within these discussions some intersex people felt they were (as so often happens) being spoken for or spoken over. The CAH and particularly Cornell case showed us we still have a long way to go around open and respectful dialogues in this area.

While it was right to focus on both the CAH/dex/lesbianism and the Cornell /cutting stories, what proved interesting about both was they recieved far more attention and debate across the blogosphere than within the mainstream media. But both these cases still received masses more attention in both blogs and the mainstream media than the clitoraid case. Despite the Clitoraid case being equally troubling on many levels. Those of us involved in challenging Clitoraid were left wondering whether it was simply the case that when it came to the rights of African women the press and bloggers just weren’t as interested. Not a comfortable feeling.

The media tend to view the summer months as ‘silly season’ and they certainly didn’t disappoint in August, with a spectacular misunderstanding of public health data and wild claims that not only were dramatic numbers of 11 year olds on the pill, but the belief they were all using hormonal contraception because they were sexually active. In reflecting on the story health practitioners began to realise just how little journalists covering stories like this understand about young people, puberty and hormonal contraception. Or that very few young women are prescribed the pill – and if they are it’s usually for things like acne or heavy periods. A rundown of the story in its full ridiculous glory can be found here

Not to be outdone by the press, MP for Peterborough Stewart Jackson decided the best use of twitter was to insult his followers who questioned his anti sex education statements. By calling them ‘sex obsessed leftie weirdos’ and other choice insults. Accounts of which can be found here and here .

In the US a spate of suicides of teens bullied over their sexuality led to Dan Savage establishing the It Gets Better project aimed at providing messages to young LGBTI people that things can improve. Numerous celebrities, politicians, activists and members of the public have posted their stories to the project in an attempt to highlight for many young people suffering homo/transphobic bullying that life can change and is worth living. There are too many to share here but the notable and moving contributions (in my view) to discussing how ‘it gets better’ came from Councilman Joel Burns

and the staff at Pixar

This programme was unusual as it took a slightly different approach to the usual anti bullying approaches, by taking a positive and hopeful view. Perhaps unsurprisingly some critics felt it oversimplified problems, suggested that things always worked out okay, and that adulthood is an automatic escape from homo/transphobia. In particular the message that it was worth enduring hardship/distress now because a brighter future awaited proved problematic for many. (This is explored in more depth here). Debates began about whether the project was a good idea. Blogger Furrygirl robustly responded to feminist critics of the scheme. While thoughtful writer Tania Glyde took a different view, thinking around why sometimes things don’t get better – and why that happens. And how often this may not be under your control. Her amazing and moving post on this is here.

It Gets Better still requires discussion and evaluation – it would be interesting to see what a difference this grassroots project may make. But it also reminds us of the lessons many working in sexuality, sex and relationships health/education already know. Which is that we can’t give blanket messages. It is important to have positive goals, but telling people what to do rather than how to get there may not be enough. And that anti bullying messages based on oversimplistic ‘it’ll be okay’ or ‘it’s dreadful’ are unhelpful. Instead we need more tailored approaches to tackling homo/transphobia for young people, adults and families. Across schools, the legal system, media and beyond. It Gets Better may have its fans and critics, but it has reminded us many young people are at risk of bullying within the school or other spaces and we all need to take action to empower and safeguard them. Now and in the future.

During the year it became apparent that science funding and other provision for education were under threat and in October UCL scientist (and all round fabulous woman) Jenny Rohn decided to take a stand. She gathered together a merry band of scientists and practitioners and got them to back the Science is Vital campaign which resulted in a petition, plenty of blog posts on the topic, extensive media coverage, and defended science against the cuts. Oh and some really questionable singing

Oh, and this woman turned up too :-)

November saw the 40th anniversary of Page Three – but was this a cause for celebration? Nobody seemed sure. It also marked the closure of the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group (TPIAG) who had overseen the (then) government’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy over the past decade. Their final report can be found here, with TPIAG warning that not taking action on teen pregnancy (and supporting teen parents) will cause problems in the future. While the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy was not without its critics (from various sources) it did commit to supporting teen mothers and identifying causes of teen pregnancy. What will happen under the Coalition in relation to support for young people, and particularly teenage parents, remains to be seen.

This month also saw the Geek Calendar project go into overdrive, with plenty of coverage, advanced orders and the opportunity to raise funds and awareness for libel reform. I was delighted to participate and hope many of you are now a proud owner of a Geek Calendar of your own!

At the close of the year the government have revisited the issue of prostitution, calling for a review into best practice in managing the issue, echoed by ACPO who have also called for a review of legal and health approaches to sex work. Media coverage on this so far has been positive, but focused more on women, not addressed male and trans workers.

The year has also ended on a similar note to how it began, with a return to reviewing sexualisation and commercialisation, this time led by Reg Bailey (chair of the Mothers’ Union) who will be looking at existing reviews in this area and deciding what else needs addressing for children and young people. Critics have already questioned why a ‘review of reviews’ need completing, and whether Bailey is the appropriate person to oversee this process.

Linked to this was the government suggestion that Internet Service Providers block access to porn which has had a mixed reception. However, debates about sexualisation continue to be a media favourite and are for the most part not based on sound research. Indeed much of it seems to just be speculation – like this claim that cheating footballers are normalising adultery. This sadly seems to be the way Bailey and others are trying to bring boys into this debate. Not exactly helpful.

During the year we’ve had to say goodbye to several people who’ve been trailblaizers in the areas of sex, education and health. Including
Claire Rayner
Professor Otto Wolff (a hero of mine who was the first and pretty much only senior health practitioner to recognise the work of agony aunts as having a relevant health role)
Actress and model Pamela Green
Cory Silverberg also pays respect to others who have passed during the year over at his blog.

Join me on New Year’s Eve when I’ll be looking back over my Sex and Relationships Predictions for 2010 and seeing how many of them came true, or where I was completely off track. And in the new year I’ll be giving you a new list of predictions for 2011.

Thanks to @bishtraining @mngreenall @SexEdUKation for their help with this blog – and checking I’d managed to remember all that’s happened this year! And for @quietriot_girl and many others who emailed me to remind me about things I’d forgotten and needed to add.

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