Skip to content

Why women’s magazines still need to sort their sex coverage

January 6th, 2007

Dr Petra

Just before Christmas I was in the hairdressers flicking through some women’s magazines when a feature on spicing up your sex life caught my eye. It was a typical piece with the usual hints for boosting desire. In the middle of it there I was, quoted as saying that sex increased your ‘cuddle hormone’ and brought you closer to a partner. I was also quoted as saying this was a reason to have as much sex as you could manage with a partner – even if you didn’t feel like it – since the hormones would kick in and make you want sex more.

I wondered as I sat through my haircut whether I’d gone temporarily nuts and given exactly the opposite advice to the usual information I’d share? I make a point of not discussing hormones with journalists for the following reasons:
-Journalists need to speak to an endocrinologist or other qualified expert if their piece is about hormones
-Most journalists writing about hormones don’t understand what they are writing about so need expert support
-Most journalists writing pieces about hormones only think there are one or two hormones that act entirely independently of each other
-Most pieces that rely on hormones tend to be very reductionist and make the reader believe with a change in hormones (brought about through sex, exercise or diet) they will transform their sex life

So when I got home I contacted the journalist and asked whether there had been a mix up. Perhaps they had spoken to someone else who gave them information for their feature and wrongly attributed it to me. Maybe we’d not understood each other (although I’d no recollection of discussing the piece with the journalist).

The journalist said ‘oh I know I didn’t talk to you about it but I was sure that’s what you would say and I didn’t think you’d mind me putting that quote in’.

I was stunned. I pointed out to them that it certainly wasn’t what I would say; in fact it was the complete opposite of what I’d say. They replied that this wasn’t really a problem though because even if I wouldn’t say it a lot of sex experts would and anyway the editor wanted someone attributed to the quote and I had ‘Dr’ in my title so ‘it sounded good’.

A couple of days later I was called by another magazine fact checking for a story. They read back my quotes for a piece around sex predictions for 2007. I was quoted as saying there would be a boom in sales for green sex toys; an epidemic of polyamory and loads of ‘exciting’ new hormonal products available to boost our sex drives. Whilst these issues were discussed with the journalist I’d actually said I didn’t think we’d have a massive growth in ethical sex toy sales, polyamory wasn’t going to be the next big sex trend and I’d spent at least half an hour pointing out the problems with the hormonal treatments for women. The journalist writing the piece claimed they’d done lots of google searches to show hormone products would be available, but I’d tried to explain would be and might be were two different things and a pharmaceutical company having a patent on a product wasn’t the same as a safe product available for the public. As I tried to explain this all to the fact checker they asked me not to change my ‘quotes’ since it ‘sounded better’ and the editor wanted the predictions to be the stance of the magazine.

Hardly a week goes by without there being some problem with sex reporting in women’s magazines. Colleagues and myself who deal with the media are driven to despair by it. Either it’s a case of editors making up new sex trends, or journalists misunderstanding even the basics of biology. Often it’s the problem that magazines don’t value sex coverage (although it is obligatory) and so fill magazines with features they consider to be ‘lite’ (not proper journalism). Men’s magazines are just as bad but most of these make no secret of the fact they consider sex features to be fillers that don’t have to be taken seriously. Women’s magazines, on the other hand, consistently present sex features as something helpful and worthy – even though the magazines don’t really value them and the final products are often anything but helpful or worthy.

Increasingly we’re seeing women’s magazines wanting case studies for their features and making up case studies for sex stories out of sheer desperation. Even there the case studies details are often changed to fit the magazine focus.

Often this is just attributed to sex features not being taken seriously, but it’s also the case that magazines are fearful of losing their advertisers and so never want their sex features to get too racy. Sticking to vague references around hormones, predictions, positions and sex products means you never have to tackle more specific issues around communication, pleasure, technique and adventure.

Contemplating the start of another year of bad sex features I was reminded by colleague Paul Joannides of an article in Columbia Journalism Review from a couple of years back that shows how widespread the problem of women’s magazine sex coverage is – and how nothing really seems to be changing or improving in this area.

It’s worth a read as it shows just where magazines go wrong, and also how they value and create sex coverage. If you’re a member of the public it’ll give you an eye opener on what really goes on behind the scenes of those sex features you read. If you’re an educator or sexual health worker it may give you more ammunition against poor sex coverage. And if you’re a journalist it might give you some ideas on where and why sex coverage is going so wrong.

I live in hope we can change the sex content of magazines. There are plenty of people like myself willing to share quality information. We just need to get beyond magazines’ prudishness about sex features and encourage them to become a little braver – and a little less reliant on making up coverage or using poorly qualified people as ‘experts’ in their pieces.

Comments are closed.