Tonight I went to hear Slate.com’s “War Stories” columnist Fred Kaplan talk about his new book Daydream Believers. It was thought provoking and even a little entertaining. Whether you agree with or believe Kaplan’s thesis about the Bush administration, when you listen to him talk its clear that he is both incredibly smart and deeply passionate about what he does, and the topic he covers. His talk, of course, had nothing to do with sex. But whenever I get to speak with, or in this case listen to, a professional journalist who has the privilege of spending a great deal of time on one subject matter, and who actually cares about their work I’m left slightly depressed at the state of health journalism in the area of human sexuality. And I always wonder, where is our Fred Kaplan (I’m only picking on him because he happened to be reading tonight at Politics and Prose).
It’s not as if sexuality doesn’t have its intrigue. We’ve got politics, art, science, culture. We have betrayal and public warring. Lord knows we have money (by “we” I don’t mean me or you so much as I mean a handful of male pornographers and that guy who sold the sex.com URL for 62 billion dollars). And of course we have a topic that millions of people are interested in and billions of people are affected by.
But instead of serious journalists trying to cover a serious topic and provide us with a picture somewhat larger than our iPod screen, we get swimsuit designers regurgitating press releases. Instead of sex being covered under health, politics or culture, it falls under fashion and style.
A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research tried to address some of these issues. They brought together a group of sex researchers and journalists at the Kinsey Institute for a focused discussion on media coverage of sex research. Disappointingly, the paper returned only the most superficial of answers. Journalists need to build rapport with researchers, researchers need media training, etc…. We’ve heard this before and while they may be valid points, nothing in the journal article addressed the deeper issues of how sexuality is constructed by media producers.
I’m not a journalist and I don’t feel like I have a good understanding of what the problem is exactly. I imagine it’s systemic, and I assume that it has a lot to do with how sexuality is dealt with at the editorial level (something about sex being worth covering either as frivolous luxury or a death sentence, but nothing in between). If you’re starting from there, what media outlet is going to pay a journalist to cover sexuality full time over a period of several years? And sad to say, how many journalists would be interested enough to take that gig?
Sometimes, since I’m not a journalist, it feels like all I do is complain. But that’s not entirely true. I volunteer my time freely to journalists who ask for help. I even volunteer my time when they don’t ask for help. In my work as a sex educator I do my best, but my best involves working with people one small group at a time, and much of that time is spent trying to explain why most everything people see in the media about sex is wrong. The work is good, but if we had some better sexuality journalism I might get to spend more time talking about what I’m actually trained to do.