Karen Lorimer explores the challenges of discussing sex within a culture that all too often drenches such discussions in ridicule or fear.

As a sexual health researcher, I am often thinking about how to communicate my research findings in the media but also to listen, debate and interact with various audiences – in other words, public engagement. General media training offered to academics often includes advice such as the better you are at getting your message across then the greater the likelihood of seeing an accurate article. Too often, however, whenever you hear or read discussions relating to sex, you will find them drenched in anything ranging from trivialisation to open ridicule, or even fear and alarm. What effect does this culture have on the way sexual health researchers approach their public engagement work?

We should be mindful that such attitudes towards discussions involving sex are nothing new: Gail Hawkes, in her book ‘Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture’ (2004), reminds us that desire and pleasure have always been seen as socially disruptive and morally dangerous. From classical antiquity, there have been aspects of human behavior considered in need of being controlled; in particular sexual desires are often considered in need of being controlled in favour of purposeful and controlled sex for reproduction. We have moved from the binary concepts of mind and body as separate entities – Cartesian dualism – to binary concepts of good versus bad sexuality, with the bad flogged across the media. So, when I am asked by a tabloid newspaper to comment on the ‘promiscuity’ of nine year olds being tested for STIs, I am mindful of not only the contemporary sexual landscape but also the long history of ideas about sex and pleasure. But in this instance I felt taken aback at being asked to comment on a ‘news item’ where they seemed to want to paint these nine year olds as being ‘promiscuous’. Was the journalist absentminded or willfully disregarding the range of specific offences in Scotland to protect children under 13, who cannot legally give their consent to any form of sexual activity? If a journalist is immediately seeking to sensationalise, and ‘sex-up’ a story about child rape, from what starting point do I attempt to engage them in a dialogue about the issue? Perhaps when a baby is born to such a young person the media view it differently, such as with this article in The Sun, which refers to rape.

Currently, in the UK there are debates about equal marriage, which have included gay marriage being described as “barking mad’ and that “most parents would prefer their children not to be gay”. The MP who made those statements (yes, an elected Member of Parliament) also fears that the teaching of ‘gay sex’ may lead to more young people becoming gay, as though these young people are at risk of ‘conversion’. Many subjects have both an evidence and moral dimension to them: think about the way abortion time limits were recently discussed in the UK media. At that time, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service criticised politicians for their misuse of science. Within this heady mix of hyperbole we witness an age-old narrative: fascination and fear.

For those working in the fields of sexuality or sexual health research, it can be a challenge to be taken seriously by the media, because it is about sex. The media often don’t ‘get’ sexuality research: it’s not science, anyone who works in this field can be called ‘Dr Love’ (or similar), titillation must at least be in the backdrop to a piece and ‘facts’ should not get in the way of a good story. There are good examples of serious writing but all too often the sex that sells cars also sells newspapers and drives website traffic. Some scientists, such as Professor Brian Cox, have been vocal about opinion not being elevated above science and pointing to potential problems within our democracy from the media portrayal of a ‘frankenstein science’.

So, are we powerless in the face of the distorted, media voice? Not if professionals collaborate to challenge poor media portrayals of sex, sexuality or sexual health, for example challenging media malpractice: in 2011, UK practitioners challenged Channel 4 over its poor track record of sex coverage, particularly the problematic Joy of Teen Sex Series (you can read Dr Petra Boynton and others’ response to Channel 4). Let us not forget from where the study of sexuality emerged: its social and political dimensions, from the early part of the twentieth century, was in large part driven by social movements within society. Feminist, gay and lesbian movements and the response to the HIV and AIDS pandemic pushed the study of sexuality in to some of the most important debates at the global level.

Sex, sexuality and sexual health debates do need to be played out in the media. Perhaps we need our own Professor Brian Cox of sexuality research describing the rich social history of sex and pleasure to the general public, instead of getting the ‘Joy of Teen Sex’. In the meantime, scientists, particularly young scientists who are often drawn to new technologies, can harness technologies for their science-society dialogues, which could help shift the ‘influential voice’ towards science.

Dr Karen Lorimer is Convenor of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland Working Group on Health and Wellbeing. She is a member of the Global Young Academy and is a Research Fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University.

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