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Cory Silverberg

What's Wrong with Reporting on Sex?

By April 18, 2006

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Every morning I scan the papers, news wires, and news sites looking to see if anyone is covering sexuality. And every time I come across a headline in a mainstream media outlet that is about sex I get excited, that is until I start reading.

Yesterday's "news item" from Reuters (which is actually just a rehash of coverage from two weeks ago) titled "Future sex: gizmos, robots" was no exception. The piece is not only uninspiring, it reads as if the journalist wrote it in his sleep. He starts with a whimper:

"When America's top sex researchers gathered recently to discuss the next decade in their field, some envisioned a future in which artificial sex partners could cater to every fantasy."

The best that "America's top sex researchers" could come up with is virtual sex, a topic that has been explored ad nauseum in the mainstream press for years?

What follows is a bizarre series of disconnected paragraphs from people who may have something to say, but the majority of whom are not "America's top sex researchers". In fact, God love them, most of them are pushing one product or another. There is the teledildonics manufacturer who assures us that people are "blown away" by his products, tells us how many have sold (numbers which we have no reason to believe) and reveals that sales have been booming since the start of the Iraq war (at least someone is benefiting other than munitions dealers). There is an unbelievable plug for a Jenna Jameson product that has also been available, in one form or another, for several years.

There are the big name sexperts like Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen, both of whom have plenty of insight to offer, but neither of whom should really be referred to as sex researchers. The actual sex researchers quoted, Julia Heiman and Pepper Swartz, offer little insight, and little reason for any of us to think about the importance of actual sex research (as opposed to the kind of "research" a Reuters journalist can do by going on line and searching for new sex toys). This is not to say that Heiman and Swartz don't have important bodies of work well worth covering, it's just that they don't get to talk about them in this fluff piece.

What's infuriating and depressing about all this is that there is great writing and research being done not only in the area of sexuality and technology but also on almost every other facet of sexual experience. But instead of actually picking up a journal, or taking the time to ask a sex research something other than what they think of Jenna Jameson, we get this terrible "dumbing down" of public sexual discussion. By printing these non-stories, and not expecting more than lazy journalism, outlets like Reuters (and it is definitely not the only one to do this) are confirming that when it comes to sex, as long as we see some skin, that's good enough. Just throw a few titillating stories about porn stars and a future where we're all hooked up to machines for our orgasms, and we'll call it a day.

Unfortunately, it's a depressing day, and not one that reflects what's really going on in sex research.

Sex researchers need to take some responsibility here. They should insist that journalists understand the difference between sex research, sexual cultural commentary, and titillation disguised as journalism. They should ask journalists questions to assess whether or not the journalist has any clue what they are writing about (when it comes to sex, 99% of the time they don't). At the very least they should begin to consider some of these issues, and they would do well by starting with a visit to Dr. Petra Boynton's blog where she regularly works through the complicated moral, ethical, and professional issues that are raised when speaking to journalists.

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