All examples are young, heterosexual, white, able-bodied & conventionally attractive couples

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.

It seems to be assumed that the audience will all be made up of heterosexual, able-bodied, young, white, cisgender, monogamous people – who will want to see people only like themselves – when of course this isn’t the case. However, the problem here goes beyond the simple fact that many groups are excluded from these depictions. We know that lack of visibility in the media impacts on people’s well-being and how comfortable they feel about their sexuality, as well as how professionals view them. For example, it is commonly assumed that disabled people are not sexual, which can make it difficult for disabled people to find relationships, to be accepted by others, and to get good advice about sex. Similarly the stigma around sex and old age, alongside the pressure for relationships to stay sexual over time, can make it hard for older people who do want to be sexual, and for those who don’t. The continued extremely narrow range of what media presents as ‘attractive’ is extremely toxic, and many people have anxieties and discomfort around sex because they feel their bodies don’t match up to this ideal. Finally, it is often assumed that sex should take place in committed couples, which stigmatises those who enjoy more casual sexual encounters. Sex work is particularly stigmatised, which is very damaging for those who work in that field. They tend to be presented as either abused victims or empowered exclusive call-girls, rather than any sense of the full diversity of people who work in this area.

If we need to illustrate articles, programmes and the like with images of people being sexual it would be best to represent the full range of bodies and relationships, as well as a diversity of sexual practices. Particularly it would be great to include older bodies, disabled bodies, larger bodies, same-sex couples, and sex with one person or with more than two people. It would be good to include such people incidentally, rather than only when the story is particularly on a related topic. At a minimum editors and producers should consider the percentages of different groups in wider society and try to represent them accordingly. Ideally, it would be good to represent some of these groups even more than that, in order to counter years of invisibility and stigma around them and sex.

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