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Why sex tips aren’t always tops

February 11th, 2006

Dr Petra

A magazine and tabloid newspaper staple is the ‘top tip’ sex feature, like ‘ten ways to better orgasms’ to ‘thirty ways to tell he fancies you’ or ‘six surefire tips for better sex tonight’. They’re more popular in women’s magazines than men’s and seem to peak around seasonal times like Christmas, Summer and Valentines – which is why there’s a current crop of them.

They’re popular and so frequently used that we rarely question them. We assume they’re for people to inform and enhance their sex lives. But do they really help? Often the ‘top tips’ approach is one of the most problematic when it comes to sex reporting. Here’s why…

How do they pick those tips in the first place?
Here’s how the ‘sex tip’ story works. Journalists will be given a theme to fit tips to by their editors, and need to find as many as possible. The ones that seem the most shocking, sexy or ‘sciency’ will be selected to appear – although how this selection process occurs is usually pretty random. The reader doesn’t know this, they’ll be under the impression the best, most useful, and most contemporary tips will be in a feature.

Are the tips in any order?
Usually tips are presented as a ‘top’ list, where you might assume that number one is the best. Unfortunately it’s never made really clear if any tip is better or more accurate than another – partly because journalists and those advising them don’t know. And the reader’s never informed that some tips will be better than others, nor that they can use only the tips that appeal.

Are they really true?
Mostly tips you’ll read about won’t be based on any evidence at all. Journalists tell me they’ve selected sex tips because they sound exciting or because they turned up on a quick google search. Tips that are accurate are discarded in favour of those that sound more dramatic. This can be because journalists lack can’t tell the difference, or prefer soundbite over accuracy. Sometimes experts aren’t clued up enough to tell journalists they’re on the wrong track or more often they point out a tip being pursued is incorrect, but are ignored.

Can’t those sex experts ensure the tips are right?

The role of the expert in these tips features isn’t what you might think. Rather than a journalist contacting a range of respected experts to get a list of issues that fit within their theme (e.g. sex drive, positions, enhancing desire), the journalist creates a list and then gets experts to sign up to different points. I’ve been told by journalists if they suspect an expert won’t agree with a tip they won’t ask them about it, or they keep suggesting tips to experts until one supports (or doesn’t disagree) with it.

What journalists don’t do within these tip features is listen to advice. An expert may tell them one or more of their tips is outdated, incorrect or perhaps more complex than they make it sound. Sadly journalists fail to often understand that there are hierarchies of evidence and that just because one expert says something’s ‘true’ doesn’t mean the wider scientific evidence – or their peers – agree.

This presents a problem for experts. Do you agree to help with a tips piece, understanding that your information may well share space with information that is incorrect or damaging? Many reputable experts won’t, and a recent offering from “Women’s Own” in the feature ‘sex drive boosters that really work!’ perhaps gives you an insight why.

Of the 21 tips on offer, four are highly dubious – that you should transform yourself in order to get sexy, make yourself have sex even when you don’t want to, stop taking the contraceptive pill to rekindle desire, and boost your sex drive by sniffing a scent patch. One tip that advocates readers can be treated on the NHS for desire disorders with a hormone patch is downright wrong.

Three more tips advocate herbal supplements that aren’t evidence based, and no information is given on dosage, when to use supplements, and how to take them. And virtually all of the 21 tips tell the reader what to do, but give no information on how to achieve it (more on this later).

So contributing experts like myself may have their one useful piece of information within a tips feature, but then you see it counteracted with a larger range of inaccurate ideas. Worse still you have to decide whether you want to share a platform within these pieces with people you know aren’t qualified, who’re advocating nonsense, but who readers will see as your peers.

I usually try to co-operate with sex tips features, but it’s incredibly difficult since it’s mostly a battle where the journalist has already decided on their tips, won’t listen to reason, and assures you if you can’t help they’ll find someone who will. And there’s no guarantee that even if you give some quality information it’ll see it’s way into print. That’s why many qualified sex experts simply don’t bother wasting their time on tips features. And another reason why the reader unknowingly misses out.

Not enough information
Because tips are designed to be short they obviously don’t give us much instruction. Unfortunately for sex pieces it’s the instruction we desperately need. Within tips features you’ll commonly see readers advised to ‘use hormones’. Which hormones? and where can you get them from? Who feels we should all be taking hormones? And where should you go for impartial advice? Alternatively readers will be told to ‘take zinc’ (or similar) but without instruction on dosage, when to take, side-effects or contraindications, readers could harm themselves. Herbal, vitamin and mineral supplements are presented in sex features as benign. Sadly readers misinterpret this so without further guidance can – and do – assume that if zinc boosts your sex drive then lots of zinc will make you even sexier.

As well as advocating incorrect use of products, you also see tips saying things like ‘talk to your husband’, ‘use a sex toy’, ‘try new things’, ‘think about sex’. But without further instruction how can someone, particularly someone who’s not confident, put those tips into action? For those readers a sex tip feature doesn’t provide them with answers, it simply further saps their sexual morale.

So how could we fix this? It’s pretty simple. Here are my top ten tips for improving sex tips features…
1. instead of making up sex tips themselves, journalists should canvass experts and get a list of accurate, evidence based, and actionable ideas.
2. where experts tell journalists some of they’re chosen tips aren’t based on evidence or are inaccurate, they should be prepared to listen and replace with a more accurate tip (which a qualified expert will happily provide).
3. journalists should enable experts to write tips themselves (providing them with a word limit) to ensure ideas are explained correctly.
4. tips on medical interventions (e.g. using hormones or changing contraception) should only be reported if they’re accurate, and clearly direct the reader to their doctor.
5. tips concerning herbal, vitamin or mineral supplements should only be included if said products have been subjected to a trial to prove their efficacy for sexual health and full dosage and side effect instructions should be given. Readers should be informed of the dangers of overdosing and side-effects.
6. rather than picking out specific foodstuffs, medical or herbal products as ‘fix its’ readers should instead be encouraged towards an holistic lifestyle change – exercise, diet, healthcare, communication and confidence skills – not a ‘quick fix’ pill or product.
7. experts quoted within tips pieces should be asked to validate any claims they make.
8. if the tips are weighted in any way, those with greater evidence or importance behind them ought to be indicated.
9. Journalists should never attribute a tip to an expert just because they think that’s what the expert would say (and yes, this happens a lot).
10. Readers need actionable points to follow – tips that don’t just tell them what to do or buy, but explain how to put pointers into action. Information on how much time it might take to action a point and whether other support is needed to help you (e.g. therapy or a book) should also be indicated.

These will take more time, but most experts would be happy to contribute ideas, and also to indicate to journalists where ideas aren’t quite right. It’ll make sex tips more than just a random list – and who knows, they might even become something we could actually use.

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