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The Science of Sex

October 8th, 2005

Dr Petra

A few years ago Channel 4 commissioned a sex programme. Its aim was to get ‘experts’ to look at different couples sex lives and ‘fix’ them. The approach was like most of the self-improvement genre, a couple was identified who were doing sex ‘wrong’, the expert told them off and showed them how to put it right, then the couple tried out the expert’s tips and bingo! their sex lives were transformed.

I, like many other people, was asked if I wanted to be involved in the programme. As a sex positive educator I initially agreed since I’m always keen to support any means of getting sex information to the public.

However what I was presented with was having to judge and criticise people, offer definitive ‘quick fixes’ and to give a ‘one size fits all’ approach to sex. Rather than reducing stigma and embarrassment, the show seemed only to be going down the blaming-couples-for-bad-sex route. They weren’t interested in applying current evidence or helping couples find their own way to sexual pleasure through increased confidence or communication skills.

I had to decline. So did pretty much everyone else they approached.

But I didn’t do any of this publicly, so when the series was broadcast and a newspaper interviewed me, the channel concerned claimed I was criticising because of ‘sour grapes’ since I hadn’t been selected as presenter. Rather than the real story that was me refusing to endorse a programme that wasn’t sex positive or accurate.

I’ve learned from that experience.

There’s a new series about sex in the pipeline and I want to put on record my involvement with it.

It’s called ‘The Science of Sex’ by Endemol. It’s a series planned for Channel 5 (UK) this autumn. And so far the experience of myself and other sex educators/researchers/therapists with the production company has been pretty poor.

To date I’ve been contacted over 20 times by different runners and researchers working on the show. They’ve asked me for (and I directly quote):
“The weirdest sexually transmitted disease you’ve ever heard of. Not HIV that’s boring”
“Can you put us in touch with crippled people you know who go to sex surrogates?”
“Can you give us the phone number of pensioners into swinging or dogging”
“Do you know of men who’d like a penis reduction operation – we’d pay for it”
“What’s the weirdest fetish you’ve heard of – and can you give us that person’s contact address?”

Now ethically I can’t provide confidential information about people I’ve met in research. But there’s an additional issue here of the ‘science of sex’ – so far the list above seemed more about obtaining a list of people who could be case studies to be judged, rather than anything scientific.

In every case I’ve asked the researchers what the programme is about – answers have included “dunno” “sex, yeah?” and “science and sex but don’t ask me more than that because it’s my first day”.

I’ve said to each researcher either by phone or email that if they can tell me more about the programme, its direction, aims and objectives, and more specifically what ‘science’ they’re covering, I’d be happy to help out.

Having talked recently to one of the new producers on the show (there’ve been a procession of these over the past few weeks it seems) I still have no more idea about the ‘science’ that will underpin the ‘science of sex’.

They’ve included experts in their show who are medical doctors, psychologists and therapists. Which is fine. However unless these people are also engaged in completing sex research or who actively use evidence from sex research to underpin their practice, they are probably closer to sex educators than sex scientists.

There’s nothing wrong with being a sex educator. But if your programme is about sex education then call it that. If it’s about science then we’d assume there’d be people featured who use a variety of sex research methods, know all the data about sexual behaviour, and have a view about sexual response across different countries or periods of history. They’d study sex from the position of the biological, medical, cultural, social, historical, geographical and so on – all using different approaches and methods – and all knowing loads of fascinating stuff about the science of sex.

When I put this to the producer they explained they had to make an ‘interesting programme’. That meant not being ‘worthy like BBC4’ and also not going into any detail apparently. Discussing sex methods wasn’t interesting it seemed, but how can you talk about the science of sex without a mention of method? Given the volume of fascinating evidence from sex research there’s no danger of it ever being boring. However if you pick well-informed practitioners who’re not engaged with sex science you may miss this.

In my latest encounter with Endemol (where the producer apologised for the staff I’d had previous contact with – mainly because they knew they “weren’t very good”) I was asked to contribute in the following ‘scientific’ way.

They wanted an expert to watch couples having sex – they’d be filmed in a white room (“so it isn’t sleazy”) with cameras outside their bodies and also filming within during penetration. My job would be to explain the ‘science’ of each position and why it’s ‘best’ for certain situations (e.g. increasing fertility, stronger orgasms).

This throws up a number of questions. First is that to look ‘scientific’ sex has to be ‘performed’ in a lab-based type setting. It has to involve measurement with internal and external cameras and the focus is on penetration and the physical body. Scientific research about sex suggests it is more than penetration. It’s about what different positions mean to people, embarrassment and shyness, and communication skills. It’s not about endorsing a one-size-fits-all approach to sex.

What if you’re shy? What if you’re having difficulties with your partner and can’t say what you want? Why is sex all about positions and moving about – why not find ways of pleasure without ‘performance’? What about those with disabilities who can’t fit into certain positions? What about variety? What about a position working great at certain times of the month but not others, or with one partner but not another one? How about learning to say what turns you on and sharing that?

We know that if you give people a set view of having sex they’ll of course try it out. And when it doesn’t work for them they feel like they or their partner have failed. It isn’t a positive or empowering way of teaching. If the science of sex tells us this, why try and go down this route on a programme claiming to be about sex science?

When I mentioned this, alongside the idea that those who could perform sexually in a lab-style setting fixed up with cameras not representing most of our sex lives, there was really no interest from the producer at all.

Basically their view of ‘science’ is not about sex science at all. It’s about using the trappings of science (a lab, scientific measurements, people with job titles like ‘medical doctor’ that sound sciency) to fulfil a pre-existing view of sex set out by the programme makers.

I know countless talented, ethical and amazingly qualified sex scientists. Either they’ve not been contacted by the show, or those that have have been told what they’ll be expected to do by runners and researchers. Many have been treated rudely or unprofessionally by Endemol staff. Most haven’t been asked about science but simply to refer their ‘most unusual’ cases to the show – again ethically something we cannot do.

I may be wrong. The series may be a huge success. It certainly may help around sex education.

But from where myself and my sex scientist colleagues are standing, the ‘science of sex’ is going to be about a certain view of science and a certain view of sex.

We’re concerned about the quality, ethics and content of the show. We’re worried that those making the programme have not listened to our concerns, nor appreciated that the methods and means of conducting sex research are not about electrodes and lab based observations. And mostly we’re worried that yet again this programme has missed the chance of truly educating the public about sex.

It isn’t difficult. You just have to listen to the experts. Sadly something Endemol hasn’t been able to manage on this occasion.

I still stand by my offer that if the programme truly is about sex science I can help. But I can’t endorse ideas that scientific evidence disputes. Particularly not just to keep programme makers happy.

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