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What do women want? Not this!

March 1st, 2009

Dr Petra

A few weeks ago the New York Times ran a feature called ‘What do women want?’ It claimed to represent cutting edge sex research on women, by women. But unfortunately really only captured a small aspect of sex research and didn’t really address women’s experiences and desires outside of a rather stereotypical view of what sex research is (lab coats, experiments) and what female participants report about sex (confusion, mostly).

As you might expect a number of bloggers helpfully deconstructed the problematic research with Cory Silverberg discussing shortcomings of the report here, and Neuroanthropology taking a thoughtful look at the research described.

Many female sex researchers also contacted the NYT to express their dismay over the feature, and you can read their responses here.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the UK’s Sunday Times decided they would reproduce the NYT feature. I was contacted by a journalist from the paper who wanted to know about sex research in the UK – and how it compared to the NYT piece.

It wasn’t clear if they were going to print it in full, or use it as a jumping off point to talk about sex research on/by women in the UK, so I spent around half an hour explaining to the journalist that the NYT had already been criticised, and I sent them the blog entries and NYT letters (linked above).

I explained how I felt the NYT piece did not represent modern sex research, but instead what journalists’ thought sex research was. In particular I criticised how the focus was on lab-based approaches and how the female scientists in the NYT piece were described in terms of their appearance that I felt would never happen if they were either female scientists studying anything other than sex, or male scientists generally.

I explained that journalists (and the public) are often misinformed about what sex research is and believe it is often lab based and revolves around brain scans and measuring physiological responses.

I painstakingly explained how we study sex and the main areas that get the most attention (sexual health, measuring desire, sexual dysfunction, HIV) and whether other areas could be missed out as a result. I explained the many different methods we could use (observational studies, questionnaires, interviews, diaries, RCTs, action research, experiments, scans/ultrasound/thermal/blood/urine tests). I revealed how some methods and topics are priviledged more than others – and what that means for publications and the public understanding of sex.

I detailed the variety of social and healthcare disciplines that could cover sex (basically you can study sex using any of the social sciences and many of the natural ones – even physics I’m told!). Again I explained how some areas are more active within publishing their studies on sex, and that journalists tend to bring to the public’s attention the more biomedical studies, ignoring perhaps sex research from sociology, anthropology and history.

During our conversations I carefully pointed out how sex research is sensitive and how it is covered by ethical guidance. I discussed how sex research can have a negative image within media, society and even among other scientists/academics. I talked about how we have to be careful to represent research accurately as an ethical duty to the public – and I explained how sex research is currently being negatively affected by the influence of drug company funding, and the overuse of PR ‘surveys’ to product place (which mislead the public that sex research is shoddy and unethical).

In short I gave the journalist what they asked for – a small lecture in ‘sex research 101’. It seemed they took on board all I said and seemed enthusiastic – particularly to hear the original NYT piece was heavily criticised. I felt the journalist was responsible and passed on their details to colleagues working in the UK and other countries who are researching sex.

Several of those individuals also took the time to send lengthy emails to the journalist explaining the shortcomings of the NYT piece, the diversity of sex research, and in some cases outlining the research they were conducting (that did represent cutting edge sex research). In some cases these were female researchers who’d been interviewed but not featured in the original NYT piece, perhaps because their work didn’t fit the narrow definition of ‘sex research’ used.

Interestingly, those who made contact were all academics/researchers from the US. My colleagues from the UK who I approached to contribute to the feature all said the same thing ‘I’d rather not, I don’t trust the media to represent sex research/my work/me fairly’.

Sensible women. I should have followed their lead.

Because today the Sunday Times has simply reproduced the problematic NYT feature (renamed as ‘What turns women on’) They haven’t included any of the criticisms raised about the original piece, although they were sent them all and knew all about them. They didn’t include any reference to the female sex researchers who contacted them from the US.

They did, however, include this quote from me at the close of the piece:

“What is the key to female desire?
One British medical expert gives her view: and concludes it’s folly to study sexual arousal without considering cultural background
UK experts are no nearer to fathoming female desire than American researchers. For Dr Petra Boynton, a psychologist from University College London specialising in sex and relationship health, female desire is a complex subject. ‘What I can tell you about women and what turns them on is that it’s very varied. It ranges from being in love with your husband and dressing up for him and having him kiss and cuddle you, through to tying him up and beating him senseless, or having him do it to you.’ For Boynton, an interdisciplinary approach to the study of female arousal is crucial. ‘In the study of [sex] there is a huge range of perspectives, from social geography to biology.’
Boynton says women often respond to many erotic stimuli, ‘but they’ll tell researchers it doesn’t turn them on.
If you take a lab-based, hard-core biological perspective, either women don’t know their own mind or they are denying their own feelings.’
Boynton cautions that lab work needs to be measured against other factors. ‘There was a recent study that talked about what works in a kiss, but didn’t take into account the fact that kissing is viewed differently around the world. So french kissing, which might be erotic in the West, is seen as revolting in other countries. If you measured hormones and did brain scans in another part of the world, you’d get an entirely different outcome. Some of the research we do in the West is meaningless in other countries, which suggests to me that sometimes we’re measuring culture instead of arousal.’”

Where to begin?

Well, I’m a Social Psychologist and I work in health care. But that doesn’t make me a ‘medical expert’. I never used that term when talking to the journalist and carefully pointed out that while I may research and teach medics (as well as non medics) I am not a clinician. As someone who frequently takes issue with those who claim qualifications they don’t have I’m always dismayed to see myself misquoted like this. Mostly because I know those reading it (particularly my employers) may be less than sympathetic at what they might see as me passing myself off as something I am not.

I did talk about the varied ways women experience desire, but where’s the mention of ethics, methods, process, politics, and funding? Nowhere. Instead we’re left with something that sounds like ‘sex tips for girls’ and I’d be forgiven for sounding like someone who’s never run a scientific study in her life. While I did say women can experience pleasure and that can take different forms, I didn’t talk about them in relation to a ‘husband’ (I never assume participants are all straight and married). I described sex as a progressive and evolving area of study, rather than one that’s stumped by the study of female desire.

Admittedly the quote does mention how studies can be conducted in different subject areas, but my explanations on the limitations of lab based research (in relation to the NYT piece) are mashed into some strange description of women not knowing their feelings/minds.

Nowhere is the key message I kept repeating, which is that lab based studies have a place in the good sex researcher’s toolkit, but they are not the best or only method. Nor are they a bad method unless they’re not used appropriately or ethically.

There’s no mention that all my interview was in the context of explaining the NYT piece and how we can study sex. Not really about women and desire or the UK vs US sex research scene. Discussions on that were a very small part of a very lengthy exchange. The last paragraph isn’t so bad, but the bit that comes before is a problem – if not for the science of sex, then for me personally.

Here’s why.

It may come as a surprise to you to know the work I do within the media (including this blog) comes at a personal cost. While many academics and healthcare professionals agree that we should communicate our findings and related theories directly to the public via the media, not everyone agrees. This is particularly acute in sex research where, in order to get taken seriously, practitioners are often nervous of working with the media who may misquote them or misrepresent their work.

So if I appear in the media (particularly in the context of my academic institution) and I appear to misrepresent myself or sex research then I’m causing other sex researchers and my employer a potential problem.

It doesn’t really matter if I said a lot of useful, accurate and good stuff to a journalist if what appears in press makes me and/or sex research sound stupid.

Misquotes like this can seriously put my job at risk.

But outside of my personal difficulties, the public are shortchanged by reports like this because they’ve been given a piece about sex research that isn’t accurate. The Sunday Times was given all the information they needed to create an interesting piece that either criticised the NYT piece or went beyond it and talked about what sex research actually is. They made the decision not to bother.

Frankly I am fed up with having to use my blog to put right things that should never have gone wrong. It’s a waste of my time to talk to a journalist who I trust to share information with the public if I have to rewrite everything a second time here to ensure accuracy (and to protect my career). I am so tired of taking time to give information in a clear way only to have it ignored or misquoted – and so fed up with the public never knowing this kind of nonsense happens constantly.

I’ve notified my sex researcher colleagues who contacted the Times about the piece to sadly share the news their efforts went in vain. I’ve notified the journalist who I spoke to that they misquoted me, and I’ve written to the editor to that effect as well. I’ve also tried to post to the Times piece that they misquoted my job title and didn’t acknowledge the NYT piece was strongly criticised – but that’s not appeared on their site’s comments.

What to do? All I want is the opportunity to share good sex science with the public in ways that helps them understand their lives. I have to do this with journalists a lot of the time, but each time something like this happens I wonder if my colleagues who don’t get involved with the press have a better idea.

I really feel the time has come for to stop trying to explain sex research to the press.

Otherwise I have to face a continued battle where I end up feeling angry, frustrated and fearful of professional repercussions. Where I know that information I wanted to share with the public and was led to believe would be published never materialises. Where poor sex coverage continues to pass as the norm, even though hours are spent telling journalists the accurate, interesting and contemporary evidence. And where, if something goes wrong, few people have sympathy because either you’re blamed for not being clear, or not trying hard enough, or simply for talking to a journalist in the first place.

Update 02/03/2009
Following this blog yesterday many of you have sent me some really helpful feedback, advice and reflections on this case. I am going to allow a few more days for people to share their views (you can do this direct to me via email – info@drpetra.co.uk) and then I’ll blog about the advice and feedback given.

One thing I may not have made clear in this blog is that I have been working with the media for the past decade (see the end of the About Me page for more information). So this isn’t a case of me having a bad experience as a newbie, it’s about being exasperated with continued problems on working with the press that seem, if anything, to be getting worse over time.

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