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Who’s won the worst Valentine’s Day media story?

February 17th, 2008

Dr Petra

Well, we’ve survived Valentine’s Day and I hope you were able to enjoy the event – or happily ignore it. I’m thinking for future years we ought to change the name of St Valentine’s Day to St Consumer’s Day as it would be more accurate. But perhaps that’s me being cynical as I tuck into my extra large box of Valentine’s choccys.

There’s an overall winner of the absolutely worst cashing in on Valentine’s Day prize. Before we get to that check out the competition with press releases for Valentine’s day submitted to the agencies – for example Response Source and PR Newswire (you’ll need to type in Valentine as a search term). No matter what your product is, or how unromantic it may be, you can still try and link it to Valentine’s Day. And sadly journalists were happy to give some of these dodgy stories coverage. Just follow up a few of them in google news and you’ll see what I mean.

But now to the winner of the dodgiest Valentine’s story. It contains a fantastic mix of bad science, poor sex advice and a complete lack of any contemporary knowledge of sex research or education.

Let’s give a big boo to the UK’s National Health Service – or NHS Direct to be precise.

NHS Direct is the telephone/internet advice service you contact when you’ve got a health concern. Two years ago they tried to raise their profile over Valentine’s Day by telling us that sex was great exercise, made you look younger and was a cure-all for all kinds of things. A message we’re used to hearing from weak magazine relationship articles, but not exactly what you should be told by an organisation based around evidence based healthcare.

This year they’ve come back with exactly the same message and some rather vague relationship features for their ‘Mind and Body’ magazine. My particular favourite was ‘Get more than zeds in bed’ which is an all-singing, all-dancing festival of bad science. It recommends ‘sexercise’ as a means of working all muscle groups, tells us sex burns over 300 calories an hour, and how orgasms make you have glossy hair and reduces wrinkles. Sex also reduces our aches and pains, and all those hormones released make us feel good. In fact, for NHS direct sex is pretty much only about hormones. We’re even promised that regular sex will prevent a heart attack.

This is intriguing. And I would love to know exactly where all the ‘evidence’ that underpins this feature comes from. Where are the papers published in peer reviewed journals that show us sex burns 300 calories per hour, reduces wrinkles or makes our hair glossy? I’ve been searching and I can’t find them. Maybe NHS Direct could share their evidence base?

The more you think about their claims, the more ridiculous they are. How regular is regular sex? If I have sex regularly every six months is that enough to prevent my ticker giving out? And what difference will my ‘regular’ sexual activity make if I take no other exercise and eat a poor diet?

There’s a major assumption within the feature that sex is something that can be achieved at a vigorous level for an hour or more. The suggestion is that sex here means penetration – and something you really go for to burn calories. It presumably doesn’t include things like being tied up, blindfolded and anticipating a partner’s caress; or lying back and enjoying oral sex – things which can feel good but presumably aren’t going to burn calories for you. More worrying is the NHS is supposed to be aiming health advice to all people – and particularly folk with health worries. This means if you do have health problems or a disability that makes movement difficult the kind of sex that burns 300 calories an hour may not be suitable, desirable, or possible for you.

There’s also the value-laden subtext that sex is something for the young, the healthy and the able bodied. That ‘good’ sex is something that’s going to make you fitter – and younger, and more beautiful. But we know already people are limited sexually if they have poor body image. We ought to be aiming our advice to welcome diversity and tackle people’s confidence worries, not telling them the best kind of sex to aim at is the kind of sex that keeps you looking young and glossy haired.

More than that the feature argues in favour of having ‘sexercise’ instead of rest. Yet for many people tiredness is a major reason they don’t want sex. Simply telling people to have sex when they’re tired to make them healthier is rubbish. In fact it could be dangerous to encourage people who are tired due to workload, stress, or other factors to ignore those aspects of their lives and have sex instead. In many cases if you’ve gone off sex what you need in bed is zeds – to give you some energy at a later stage to enjoy sex in the bedroom or somewhere else.

And if you did want to get more than zeds in bed you might want to explore new avenues of sex or revisit old favourites. You’ll need to be offered a range of pleasurable activities to suit everyone’s physical ability. And you’ll want tips on being able to learn what you’d like to do and share that with a partner. But from the NHS’s point of view sex is there to burn calories, make you avoid a heart attack and prevent wrinkles. And it’s all explained through hormones. A problem also picked up on by Cory Silverberg in his coverage of pre-Valentine’s press coverage.

There’s nothing in this feature and the others about sex/relationships in ‘Mind and Body’ that allow for variety, adventure, exploration, anticipation, pleasure, desire – or saying ‘no thanks I’m not in the mood’. Which is a further illustration of just how out of touch with contemporary sex research and evidence NHS Direct is.

In fact, if you follow NHS direct’s advice you’ll be having bad (and boring) sex for some rather strange reasons. If you’ve existing health problems no advice is given, and you’re unlikely to prevent anything from wrinkles to heart disease just by having sex. Wonderful if it were true, but it’s just nonsense.

The problem is the NHS is legitimises very bad sex advice and poor understanding of biology. It sets up a standard for sexual activity which is limited, soulless and boring. And it makes it virtually impossible to talk journalists out of writing bad sex features elsewhere. After all, if the NHS tell us sex is all about hormones, vigorous activity and calorie counting it must be true.

This is probably the heart of the problem. NHS Direct wants people to use the service and believe a catchy way to draw in visitors is to offer sex/relationships advice. They’ve seen the aspirational coverage most media offers and they believe this is what their visitors also want to hear. So they write something familiar and banal, rather than something accurate, useful and spicy.

My message to NHS Direct is if you want to get some Valentine’s coverage to promote your service by all means do it by writing sex features. But at least write ones that are based on accurate – and sexy – information. And please don’t rewrite something that was rubbish two years ago and hope we won’t notice. Particularly if we told you then it was crap and you’ve ignored us.

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