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What does S&M stand for?

January 8th, 2006

Dr Petra

It’s no secret that I’m driven to distraction by ‘sexperts’ – unqualified people who are given a platform to talk about sex in the media. And who’ve ruined a perfectly good job title us sex-positive types liked to use. To date the unqualified ‘sexpert’ has been either someone who writes not very good sex books that wishes to become a celebrity, or someone who’s already a celebrity/glamour model.

But today the world of ‘sexpertise’ got a whole lot more random.

All you need to become a ‘sexpert’ now is an initial that suggests something vaguely sex-related and that will qualify you to answer reader questions about sex.

Welcome to ‘S&M’ in The Observer Magazine. Apparently it covers ‘everything you ever wanted to know about sex, but were too squeamish to ask’. And it’s written by two ‘sexperts’, one of whom’s first name starts with an S, the other with an M. Wow.

It’s a predictable he said/she said approach to a problem that assumes men have a unique and solely male view on the world, women have a similarly unique and female view on the world and these perspectives are always going to be wildly different from each other.


According to their introduction in the magazine S has had sex with lots of people and has also been a male escort. He doesn’t believe in problems because ‘there are no solutions’. Which ought to be the byline for his part of the column. M has written a book about aphrodisiacs, ‘wrote about food for a while’ and has been married for 22 years so her expertise is around ‘long-term sex and the problems of sustaining it’. She’s also ‘made huge mistakes sexually!’ explaining ‘there’s hardly been a man with whom I’ve slept with that I don’t regret in some way, aside from my husband, and even there I’ve had reservations on occasions.’

And in the long tradition of media ‘sexperts’ both S&M set themselves up as the experts who’ve got their knowledge from the university of life, who know all about sex and will tell you what to do – but never how to do it. Unlike qualified sex experts who’ll signpost you to reliable sources of help, share knowledge, and say ‘here are some options I think you might like, here are the life skills to put them into action’.

Although S&M only appeared today, a lucky reader who must’ve been psychic had already supplied a problem for them to answer.

It was from a woman who was unhappy with her sexually risk-taking partner who liked the thrill of potentially being caught in flagrante. After a few rambling sentences S suggested the woman might try and ‘Up the ante. Don’t leave the curtains open – try the door. Parks? What about car parks? Group therapy? Take him to an orgy’. He later concludes ‘If you cannot do any of this then you must leave him. This would be a shame. You cannot discover yourself by merely forbidding’.

M’s view, again after more rambling and flowery prose like ‘while you’re treading delicately through the herbaceous borders of the municipal gardens’ (a tip which I feel is always essential in relationship advice) was that the reader could say ‘no’ to her partner’s sexual demands. But then M suggested ‘work something out that satisfies his schoolboy sense of danger and your desire not to be caught with your pants down’. It’s never stated what that ‘something’ might be.

Evidence from psychological research on advice giving suggests a common and dangerous pattern within advice columns is the reader is either told to endure their problem, or to change so they go along with the situation (S’s advice), or they’re not given enough information to help them assertively deal with an issue that’s distressing them (M’s advice).

In typical media stereotyping S is the naughty boy who’s full of opinions and lots of sexual experience. M obviously stands for ‘mumsy’ – taking up the traditional female role of saying ‘no’ to sex and judging male sexual desire as schoolboyish. Moreover whilst The Observer Magazine could have been radical (which it’s clearly striving for) it might have considered there are more than two genders, and more than a his/her view take on a problem. You could have had a threesome, foursome or moresome of advice givers.

Hell, you could have at least got someone who knows how to give sex advice.

Writing about sex isn’t the same as giving sex advice. I’m sure both S&M could have written perfectly good columns about sex. But answering people’s sex problems is a responsible role requiring training, awareness, and continued professional development. There are sex workers, practitioners and writers who’ve made this transition. Some of them helpfully have names that begin with either S or M that Observer Magazine could have used, like:
Susie Bright
Cory Silverberg

Meika Loe
Mitch Tepper
Charles Moser

My middle name is Monica and I’d have been willing to use that for the chance of giving evidence-based sex advice in a media column. I’d have happily teamed up with any of the S’s above. Failing that my cat Sylvester could have been my co-author. He’d have done a damn site better job than the current Observer Magazine twosome.

Sadly, despite trying to be sex-radical The Observer Magazine hasn’t seemed to realise that S&M is an old term for what we now call BDSM (it stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sado-masochism).

Maybe they planned to do this but couldn’t find any writers or celebrities who were willing to write about sex AND whose names began with a B or a D. But in case The Observer Magazine changes its mind here are a few B&D names that can give good sex advice:
Gloria Brame
Violet Blue
Deborah Addington
Dossie Easton

You know what S&M really stands for? Sucks……Massively.

Update September 2012
A few months after writing this Sebastian Horsley one of the writers I criticise above, was sacked by The Observer. I felt this was wrong. Horsley was an artist and clearly was hired to be provocative and generate attention to a new media venture. He fulfilled his editorial brief. If he had been simply given a column to write about his views on sex I still may not have agreed with him, but I think it could have been interesting and challenging. It is a shame the Observer tried to shoehorn this into an advice column format where it did not really work. People seeking advice and signposting to services may not necessarily want humorous, acerbic and graphic discussions of issues relating to their problems. Horsley found himself fired by the Observer for writing exactly what they had commissioned him to do. They claimed they had been overwhelmed with complaints, mostly around the (very) frank way he had dealt with topics such as oral and anal sex. I was harsh in my criticism of his column, but that was more about my wider frustrations around how advice giving is not taken seriously. I think the Observer treated him dreadfully, continued to show their lack of understanding of how advice giving works, and should not have dropped the column. Horsley’s description of the event in this blog post ends with a very prophetic message “The firing was so stylish. You see, living’s fine, but the way you die often defines you for ever. It is not enough to know how to make a dazzling entry : you need to know how to vacate the stage with the same panache”. He died on 17 June 2010.

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