Pile of Various newspapers over white background.Media representations of sexual health

It is my pleasure to introduce this special blog piece on media representations of sexual health. In this special blog, three Network members have written from their own experiences and perspectives. Kirstin Mitchell writes about sexual function, Sharron Hinchliff about sex among older adults, and Martin Holt reflects on media coverage of gay men, sex, drugs and HIV.

It’s more than fifteen years since Batchelor & Kitzinger (1999) published a report of a snapshot of media portrayals of teenage sexuality in the media. During one week in 1999, they gathered data across television and print media (newspapers and magazines).

They found patterns, including: young people tended to be shown as a homogenous group, typically white and heterosexual (so an absence of ethnicities and sexualities); an absence of young people abstaining from sex, and assumptions of sexual activity, or desire to be sexually active, and; a focus on women’s responsibilities for contraception and consent. These were common across media, but there were some differences, with television tending to represent pleasure more than newspapers, which commonly reported on risks (e.g., exploitation, assault, unintended pregnancy).

If you are reading this thinking, well these findings might not be out of place today, if we looked across media, you might be right. In 2013, Martin, Hilton & McDaid published research which analysed UK newsprint media representations of sexual health and blood borne viruses (not quite the same focus as Batchelor & Kitzinger’s study but still an interesting comparison).

They found that whilst there was a mixed picture, there was a general negative tone across these sources, with around 40% of articles focusing negatively on blame, risks and failures. They found some differences between ‘serious’ newspapers and ‘midmarket’ and ‘tabloid’ newspapers for levels of positivity, with the ‘serious’ newspapers being more positive than the others. Gender stereotypes persisted within this study from when Batchelor and Kitzinger conducted their study, with women commonly the focus of contraception-based articles.

So, the media still seem unable, or unwilling, to present sex and sexuality in the diverse ways that people experience and express themselves. For me, there is still a tendency to focus on behaviours and risks, which narrows the narrative to the level of individuals and prevents an understanding of sexual health as more than just bugs and babies. When I ask people in my research about their understanding of sexual health, too often I hear the bugs and babies response but little awareness that good relationships, communication, sexual violence and broader wellbeing are indeed tied up with sexual health. Are they merely reflecting back the narrow education and media representations?

We have some way to go in terms of encouraging diversity in the coverage, in terms of topics but also in terms of positives in addition to the negatives. If researchers can work with the media then perhaps such perspectives can become more common.

KarenLorimer2Karen Lorimer, SHRN Chair and Manager


All quiet in the eye of the storm: Why sexual function doesn’t grab the headlines…

Kirstin Mitchell, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London, UK

When the headline findings of the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) were announced in November 2013, a media storm was unleashed.

As a research team we were prepared. We had done our media training, polished our press releases, and rehearsed our key messages. I had first-authored the paper on sexual function and knew all my facts and figures off by heart. This was to be my first significant encounter with the media and I was extra well prepared.

On the morning following the press conference, I went into a newsagent and bought a copy of all the papers. I was delighted to find that our survey was on the front page of almost all of them. By the time I reached the office the phones had begun to ring. BBC News, Sky News, The Today Programme, and Women’s Hour all clamoured for sound bites and more. They wanted to know why British people are having sex less than we used to, why so many women report sex against their will and why women are having more sexual encounters with each other.

I waited for my phone to ring. Surely they would also want to know why 1 in 10 people are distressed about their sex life? But my phone didn’t ring that day or the next. I did some generic radio and magazine interviews on behalf of the team and really enjoyed doing so. But no one wanted to talk to me about sexual function. Finally, the New Statesman asked for an opinion and editorial piece debunking myths about sex. I wrote about ordinary sex lives and about how we should aim for good-enough rather than perfection.

I felt disappointed, if a little relieved to find myself in a quiet place surrounded by the storm. Perhaps if I’d thought about it a bit more I wouldn’t have been so surprised. That 40% of men and 50% of women report one or more problem with their sex life is neither shocking nor sensational; it’s perhaps just a depressing reminder that many of us have sex lives that could be better. Or perhaps sexual difficulties are just ‘slow burn’ from a media point of view. A year later Suzi Godson did a piece in the Times on low libido couples which cited some of the findings of my paper. And there has been more since. While sexual function won’t grab any headlines, it does have potential for an in-depth piece in a Sunday supplement, read at leisure over a cup of coffee. That’s good-enough for me.

Misrepresented and mocked: research on women, ageing and sex

Sharron Hinchliff, University of Sheffield

A few years ago I submitted a paper to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society (BPS). The title of the presentation was Pleasure, duty, fulfilment, love – why do women have sex? and it was based on the findings of a project where we interviewed 46 heterosexual women in-depth about the role of sex in their lives. The women were aged between 20-83 years with a mean age of 48.

The paper was accepted and about a week before the conference the BPS media team got in touch to ask if they could press release our work. We agreed. The media team was great; we worked together on a catchy press release which was embargoed until the first day of the conference. The paper attracted a high level of national and international interest and over the course of that first day I was interviewed by the ‘press pack’, the Press Association and various radio stations. Other media outlets – local, national and international – picked up on our study through its publication in the larger newspapers and it became global in a very short period.

It was a busy and exciting time. But what I found interesting was discovering which aspects of our work the media focused upon the most. Two in particular, and these have stuck in my mind ever since.

First, even though we were reporting the findings of a qualitative study, many media reports presented them in the same way they would the results of a survey, with headlines such as ‘8 out of 10 women think… ‘. This was frustrating because I knew where the figure had come from: I was pushed to give an estimate of how many participants felt this way and replied ‘around 80%’. But it was frustrating also because the journalists and publishers wanted a figure for the story, as though research could only be understood by their readers when presented numerically. In my view this likely reflected the prominence afforded to quantitative research in UK society and the consequent lack of understanding of research that is qualitative and in-depth.

Second, the findings on occasion seemed to be a great source of humour. One radio interview was particularly memorable as the presenters asked for clarification that the majority of women in the study were middle-aged. When I answered ‘yes that’s right’, it prompted laughter and jokes about the idea of ‘older’ women being sexually active.

So, I learned very quickly that outside of academia other people may not take sex research as seriously as the researchers themselves. And I was left wondering if the response would have been different if the participants had been younger (the majority of sex research does focus on young people) or if they had been men (because, according to social stereotypes, men don’t lose interest in sex as they get old). Perhaps the combination of age and gender was an issue here; the double whammy of ageism and sexism that a lot of women encounter in western societies. But media handling of sex research isn’t always problematic and I’ve since had many positive dealings with journalists and good representation of my work on sex and the older woman.

We’re all going to hell in a handbasket – reflecting on media coverage of gay men, sex, drugs and HIV

Martin Holt, Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Australia

Many researchers will tell you that they have a love-hate relationship with the media. While we are often passionate about our work and want it to reach a wider audience, the process of translating research findings into something digestible for news media can often leave one bewildered and frustrated. In general, every new story needs a hook, and a doom-and-gloom headline (‘we’re all going to hell in a handbasket’) tends to be more of an attention-grabber than a measured, qualified story (‘some of us may end up experiencing hardship depending on a number of mitigating circumstances’).

My primary research area is HIV prevention with gay men. I am responsible for overseeing community-based surveys of gay men, which produce regular snapshots of how often gay men use condoms, test for HIV, take drugs and so on. These data are important to discuss publicly, particularly given current efforts in Australia (and elsewhere) to increase rates of HIV testing and treatment uptake, to sustain condom use and to consider new interventions like pre-exposure prophylaxis. However, when I talk to the media, I often have to discuss topics about which most journalists, let alone the general population, know little about. These include how gay men negotiate sex, drugs and relationships, the variety of methods that gay men use to reduce the risk of HIV, and developments in HIV treatment and prevention science that mean there a number of alternatives to condoms. Take for example, the longstanding findings that gay men in relationships are much less likely than men with casual partners to use condoms for anal sex, or that HIV-positive gay men may not use condoms when having sex with each other. The idea that gay men do not use condoms for every episode of anal sex often troubles simplistic notions of what counts as ‘safe sex’, and can result in eye-catching but depressing headlines, such as ‘Gay men abandon condoms’.

Admittedly, the media is not a single monolith. In my experience, gay community media and specialist health reporters tend to be more engaged and informed, and less likely to reach for a shocking headline. However, even journalists from the ‘quality press’ can be seduced by the idea of a salacious headline and clickbait. The Lancet is a case in point. While the academic journal has a deserved reputation for publishing high quality and ground-breaking research, the journal’s news coverage can be more inflammatory. The journal’s coverage of drug use and rising HIV rates among gay men in London are in case in point, with eye-grabbing headlines such as ‘High-risk drug practices tighten grip on London gay scene‘ and ‘New HIV diagnoses in London’s gay men continue to soar‘. The content of both news pieces is predictably sensational, which raises the question about whether the journal is trying to generate action about these issues or simply drive traffic to its website. Admittedly, you can sometimes gently intervene in these debates, as I was fortunate to do last year in an invited commentary about HIV-positive gay men, sex and drug use. However, it remains very difficult to change knee-jerk narratives about gay men as reckless, risky and contaminated ‘others’. Working with the media to improve HIV prevention and sexual health outcomes remains challenging, but necessary.

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