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The Dark Side of Sex Broadcasting

December 1st, 2005

Dr Petra

Last night Channel 4 television screened a programme on sex addiction as part of ‘The Dark Side of Modern Love’ season. It has to be one of the worst programmes covering a sex issue that I’ve seen in a while. It presented some very worrying ideas about sex, and more importantly promoted ‘treatments’ and ‘therapies’ that aren’t evidence based, nor advocated by those in the therapeutic or health communities.

The programme described the case of Russell and Clare, a couple in their 30s who’d been married for several years but rarely had sex. Due to a worsening in their relationship and Clare finding some evidence of Russell’s infidelity they consulted with Dr Doug Weiss, a self-proclaimed recovering sex addict and therapist.

From the outset the therapy seemed somewhat suspect. The couple were to be ‘treated’ in an intensive three-day session. Immediately they arrived the ‘treatment’ began by making Russell have a lie detector test. Before the test was even applied Russell became distraught and admitted his behaviour was ‘worse’ than admitted to Clare. He’d been unfaithful with a number of women, used sex phone lines and pornography. However he still underwent the lie detector test, where it was revealed sometimes he masturbated once a day or more – shortly after this he was told he was never to masturbate again.

The therapy prescribed over the three days included Dr Doug taking on the role of one of Russell’s children, begging him not to act on his impulses. Clare and Russell were both given individual sessions where they had to vent their anger using a stick against a padded box (Clare in particular expressed reservations but was told by the therapist she had to proceed). It was identified that Russell had been sexually abused, but the therapy didn’t appear to tackle this problem directly. Instead Russell was encouraged to write an ‘anger letter’ to his mother who was blamed for his abuse (she didn’t abuse him, Russell felt she didn’t help him).

Dr Doug, as well as a recovering sex addict, is also a preacher, and Christian beliefs underpinned the therapy, so Doug was encouraged to talk to Jesus, and the couple were told they had to pray out loud together every day. It became clear Clare had problems with body image and rejection and wanted sex with Russell far more than he desired from her. None of these problems were explored. Russell’s behaviour was to be monitored by regular lie detector tests to catch him if he’d engaged in any of the sexual behaviour off limits to him (anything other than sex with his wife).

Throughout the programme an uncritical approach was taken. At no point were the issues in the therapy unpacked. Viewers weren’t told who Dr Doug was, what his qualifications were, and most importantly how his peers viewed him.

Moreover viewers were told how Dr Doug had created his own therapy based on his own experiences as though this was a great, novel, and innovative idea. Unfortunately to those with any knowledge of this area it’s something that rings alarm bells. There are ways of delivering therapy, and a mishmash of those appeared in Dr Doug’s ‘treatment’, but usually you’d expect a therapist to be working on evaluated techniques approved by the wider therapeutic community.

The programme presented Dr Doug and his therapy as both groundbreaking and unproblematic. We weren’t told whether the therapy had been evaluated (and if so by whom, and how successfully). We weren’t told what others conducting sex therapy think about Dr Doug. The programme also didn’t discuss what exactly constitutes ‘sex addiction’, which would have been helpful since we may consider some sexual behaviours as compulsive, but that’s not the same as an addiction. Russell and Clare may well have been having relationship problems, but none of those were really addressed in the bizarre mix of ‘treatments’ given to Russell (e.g. snap a rubber band on the back of your hand if you think about sex; if you masturbate pay $50 to the Republican party).

At no point did the programme or Dr Doug show where the ideas underpinning the therapy came from, how said treatment had been decided on, how it matched with current therapies and evidence.

Just because a practitioner says they have a PhD, they’re a recovering addict, or they’ve been on Oprah doesn’t mean they’re the best person to feature on a television programme, nor that the therapy they offer is actually approved by anyone outside their clinic. You’d have thought any television researcher worth their salt would actually check they’d got someone truly qualified and respected to appear on such an important programme.

You have to ask what kind of therapist would be happy to show their patients being filmed (potentially breaching their rights to confidentiality)? How much did the treatment Russell and Clare took cost? Who pays? And who profits?

Worse than the programme itself is that Channel 4’s ‘health’ page on its website includes a sex section that features advice about ‘sex addiction’ including links to Dr Doug’s website and promoting his treatment centre. Much of the information included in these advice pages is outdated, inaccurate or assumes there’s an agreed upon condition called ‘sex addiction’ (there isn’t). I’d like to say the rest of the sex pages in the health site are better, but a brief flick through suggests some of the advice in them is at least 30 years out of date and the resources are frequently not those recommended by the wider sexological community.

The sex page of the site states “Channel 4 has always taken a straight-talking, unflinching approach to S E X. Unsure about your sexuality? Think you might be pregnant? Or caught a nasty dose? sex has non-judgmental advice on all aspects of sex and relationships”.

Oh yes, ‘caught a nasty dose’ fits side by side with non-judgemental doesn’t it?! Sadly the site is totally judgemental as was the programme on sex addiction. Just because you don’t question something doesn’t make it non-judgemental. By not being critical and asking for the best about sex you’re not only going to be judgemental, you’re going to be inaccurate and misinform the public about sex.

But again, who profits? The channel made money because people tuned in, Dr Doug had an hour of free advertising. The only people who lost out were the viewers.

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