There are all kinds of ways of having sex and different things work best for different people, and for the same person or relationship at different times. However, sex in the media is nearly always portrayed as penis-in-vagina penetration, giving the impression that this is the only real, normal, or proper kind of sex and that anything else is inferior or even abnormal. Often other activities are regarded as ‘foreplay’ and ‘foreplay’ is not seen as ‘proper’ sex.
Everything we do “rewires” our brain. Brain “rewiring” is portrayed in the media as a negative thing rather than the completely neutral and natural way our brain incorporates experience. Learning “rewires” the brain too, but we don’t go around trying to get schools banned. The fact that porn is shown to “rewire” your brain (by people in white coats with big shiny machines, no less), is used to illustrate that all porn is very harmful and causes irreversible damage, and once you’ve been exposed to it, you’re scarred for life.
‘Science’ is a diverse area and the depiction of science within media is a whole other area of discussion. The common ways of representing sex science in television is to use visual gimmicks not representative of most sex research – brain scans, penile plethysmographs, ultrasounds, blood flow measurement, lie detector tests, or people being observed having sex while ‘experts’ judge their ‘performance’. Because of the limitations of what can be shown physical measurements are popular as they convey authority without actually having to show much in the way of physical activity or genitals.
‘If a man wants to have sex he must have an erection’ is something we hear variations of a lot in all forms of media, but it offers a very limiting idea of men’s role in sex (or any person with a penis) and it also confuses arousal with desire. This puts extra pressure on men to see their role as being about performance which denies them the opportunity to explore the many ways they can have enjoyable sex (and still be a ‘man’ in bed). The focus on erections is also always on the penis, yet the clitoris also gets erect in a very similar (but not as visible) way.
More and more often, celebrity “experts” are replacing real experts (who are deemed not sexy enough?). Currently, there are two types of celebrity “experts”: celebrities with no expertise whatsoever in anything remotely related to the area on which they are required to advise or comment (type 1), and people with a (vaguely) related expertise who are asked to comment on what is largely outside their area of expertise (type 2). Both types of celebrity “experts” lack the knowledge required for them to comment or advise, but we are lead to believe that what they say matters, especially if the “expert” has any kind of professional qualification and/or title.
Media around sex generally assume that the point of sex is the achievement of orgasm. This can be particularly seen in broadcast media depictions of sex where sex is over once either both people involved, or one person (usually the man) has reached orgasm (See All examples are young, heterosexual, white, able-bodied & conventionally attractive couples). Sex which doesn’t end in orgasm is generally only presented in the media as a problem which needs to be fixed. Most frequently it is seen as a physical problem requiring drugs or other physical treatments.
Almost all articles about sex in newspapers and magazines are illustrated by young, white, able-bodied, conventionally attractive heterosexual couples. Similarly most of the images of sex that we see in broadcast media are also of this group. If you think about it, this group actually represents a very small proportion of the population. However, other groups are generally only represented if the story, film or programme is specifically about, for example, the sexual relationships of older people or people in same-sex relationships.
One of the most common themes about media and sex is that of gender differences. We frequently hear, for example that men are visual sexually and women are not (so women are thought to be disinterested in porn), or that men need sex in order to feel loved, whereas women need to feel loved in order to want sex (so men are regarded as sex-focused and women as love-focused and not wanting as much sex). Often there is an evolutionary focus to such stories: it is suggested that this is how people evolved in order to be better able to pass on their genes, and therefore such differences are ‘natural’ and cannot be changed.
Great sex is presented as having to last a particular length of time (not too quickly and not for too long), with particular positions or techniques that will always “blow your mind” which you have to be performed a set number of times per week. This is always framed with able-bodied couples and is always about intercourse and penetration (see Only penis-in-vagina sex is proper sex and All examples are young, heterosexual, white, able-bodied & conventionally attractive couples). There is an assumption that this kind of ‘swinging from the chandeliers’ sex is always the most enjoyable and something the viewer should try to have.
Much research from Western Universities is dependent on student samples. The means that academics often use students (paid or unpaid) to participate in their studies. The advantages of this is that students can earn money and, for those studying social / sciences, they may get research experience. Academics have easily accessible participant groups making it far quicker to run and publish research – something for which they are professionally assessed on. However not all academic research involves student participants, and not all research takes place in academia or is run by academics.
‘Sex is often described as bad (unhealthy) or good (healthy). Healthy sex is presented as a vital part of being a happy fulfilled human being, and having a ‘successful’ relationship. We can see this in the way that somebody’s sexuality is seen as a key aspect of their identity as a person. Also there is stigma around people who remain a virgin into their twenties or thirties. Not wanting sex is presented as a problem to be fixed (low desire) or a sign of depression. Sex is seen as the cornerstone of a relationship, indeed when we say somebody is ‘in a relationship’ we generally mean a sexual relationship. Not wanting sex in a relationships is often regarded as a reason to break-up or seek therapy.
All broadcast media, but particularly print media, stack up their sex stories with the ‘science’ of ‘statistics’. This usually means quoting percentages to support a predetermined story angle and often relying on commercial surveys (e.g. ‘hotel guests say coffee is a better wake up call than sex’ – says a ‘survey’ sponsored by a Travel publication). PR surveys in particular are popular since they’re fluffy, fun, easily accessible and can slip from press release to publication or programme without too much work. They’re designed to create discussion and buzz and are an ideal solution for busy journalists working on numerous stories and short deadlines.
What is porn? There is no universally agreed upon definition. There is what we refer to as erotica, which gets a much better press – but one person’s porn is another person’s erotica and vice versa. So where do we draw the line? When porn is discussed in the media, we are meant to automatically assume that all porn is the same. The often repeated statement that all porn humiliates, degrades and abuses (women in particular), is never challenged. Yes, porn that does all that definitely does exist, but it isn’t the only kind of porn. There is porn made by women for women where the performers are enthusiastically consenting to the action taking place, i.e. they are doing it because they are turned on, not because they are coerced or damaged in any way. There is feminist porn, ethical porn, (real) lesbian porn, and so much more.
There has been a lot of media attention on ‘sex addiction’ in recent years with worries, particularly, that people – usually men – can become addicted to watching pornography online, but also worries that some people are compulsively having casual sex or paid-for sex rather than forming relationships. However, even the most conservative medical groups – such as the American Psychiatric Association – have failed to find evidence of sex addiction as a genuine disorder. Often the definitions of what constitutes sex addiction are simply amounts – and types – of sex that are beyond what the people who designed the measures are familiar with, rather than anything that is necessarily problematic (for example, measures often include things like phone sex, cybersex, viewing porn, and masturbating frequently).
Media overwhelmingly presents people as either gay or straight. If people are attracted to more than one gender they are generally depicted – in soap operas and news stories about politicians for example – as going from straight to gay or gay to straight. This is despite the fact that we know that many people have sexual relationships with people of more than one gender over the course of their life, and that even more – perhaps most – people have attraction to more than one gender at some point (i.e. they are not exclusively gay or straight).
Sex education is a much talked about topic. We’ve known for many years that sex and relationships education (SRE) is inconsistent and not good enough in schools and that young people feel that it is too little, too late and too biological. It is also highly heteronormative with little or no consideration of other sexualities. LGBT young people report feeling excluded by language or use of sexual activities that render ‘same sex’ activities invisible. The portrayal of stereotypical normal sex (see only penis in vanina is proper sex) is also suggested by some researchers to regulate young peoples sexuality and limiting sex education’s effectiveness.
Sex is generally represented as happening only within heterosexual, able-bodied, young, white & conventionally attractive couples, and that it generally involved penis-in-vagina penetration ending in orgasm. When forms of sex, gender and relationships other than this are represented in the media, they tend to be presented as either ridiculous, freaky, or damaging. So, for example, we often see comedy around somebody dating a person who is trans* (particularly trans* women). Crime dramas often link kink practices to murderer and psychological damage. People in openly non-monogamous relationships, such as polyamorous people, are often depicted as weirdos and oddballs who need to explain their strange behaviour and can’t possibly have good relationships. There are similar issues for representation of bisexuality, asexuality, fetishes, etc.
“Sex surveys” are often sponsored by sex toy companies, for instance, or to coincide with a launch of a new product or project. So the questions can be skewed to show a need for a certain product as a solution. Also participants are often not a cross section, but rather people who visit a certain (sex toy) site. The results are then applied to the general population.
Over the past ten years there has been an explosion of concern about the sexual nature of society and the sexualisation of young people. The way young people are described is highly gendered – polarised and separated into two camps. Girls are influenced to become ‘too sexy too soon’, robbed of their natural, childhood innocence. Boys meanwhile have no natural innocence, and are latent predators. Through sexualisation this latent sexual aggression is reinforced and they are taught to objectify women – growing up believing they have an intrinsic right to sex whenever and however they want. This polarised analysis is problematic for both boys and girls and is reliant on rather essentialist notions of women as passive and boys as aggressive.
A standard way in which media treats sex is to present it as a moral issue – framed within a black and white debate format where individuals from two perceived ‘sides’ do battle. Another common examples is where one individual writes or presents a particularly contentious column or programme and viewers/listeners are encouraged to disagree. A slightly different format is where experts are used to berate viewers/listeners/readers for not acting in a particular way.
There is an assumption that there are some kinds of sex that everyone wants and likes all the time. Because we are meant to like these things there’s no need to seek each others consent first as it’s a given that we’ll want it. An example of this is ‘every guy wants a blow job so why not give him one as soon as he comes in from work as a treat’ or ‘women love their G spot being stimulated so next time you’re giving her oral put your fingers inside the vagina and aim for the upper wall.’ There is nothing wrong in suggesting different kinds of sex that people might like but it’s problematic to say that everyone always wants something.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in wanting to have lots of great sex and for this to feature great orgasms or something exciting and new. However the problem is that setting them as goals means that people who can’t or don’t want to have this kind of sex feel inadequate and that they aren’t doing it properly. Also it sets up a script of sex that we ‘should’ have rather than sex we might actually ‘want’ to have, which can be problematic if we are wanting to promote (and model) sexual consent.
In the past decade or so gay couples have become a mainstay in films, soap operas and mainstream TV. Many view this as a positive move ensuring gay relationships are normalized and celebrated. We would agree making gay relationships visible is positive. However there is a problem with what kind of gay relationships are shown. Typically these are young or middle-aged men in monogamous/married relationships, or men who wish to be in such relationships. Lesbian relationships are shown less often while bi relationships or those that are openly non monogamous are rarely featured. The inclusion of a conventionally attractive (usually young) male couple both fails to show diversity in same sex relationships and also reinforces the idea that youth and beauty is vital for gay men.
The belief that sexualization is a new problem ignores a long history of well-documented anxieties that have existed in relationship to childhood, sex and culture including rock and roll and, even, at the turn of the last century, the Waltz! Similarly, the idea that children are ‘asexual’ is founded on developmental models that are now considered unhelpful and simplistic. It is also highly classed (Primark rather than Boden is the problem) and gendered (see boys are predators, girls are victims). The range of educational resources aimed at informing young people of the risks of sexual media for example CEOP reinforce these messages that girls are passive and boys are latent predators, which does a great disservice to young people.