Complex topic oversimplified

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.

While some aspects of sex and relationships are straightforward, as with so many parts of our lives they can also be complex. Our life experiences, education, personal circumstances (including our physical and mental health), where we live, personal beliefs/faith and interactions with other people will all affect how we understand and engage in relationships.

Most media doesn’t work in this way. Instead of a discussion about issues where they are unpacked, explored and examined in relation to our diverse lives, they are simplified and reduced. This is often into extreme positions where the person who shouts the loudest ‘wins’. Sadly this often happens during discussions where extreme sensitivity and awareness is required. Topics such as relationship breakdown, abortion, contraception, school based sex education, or sexuality are framed in a ‘right or wrong’ position that don’t account for the many different views people have. Nor allow for people who want information and advice to find this.

This style of discussion also excludes those whose professional ethics don’t allow for them to belittle and abuse others, or whose personal practice is based on shared discussion and multiple viewpoints that are not ‘expert’ led. It excludes those who find on the spot debate difficult or who don’t have just one extreme view to share. Those who may are not neurotypical, who don’t speak English as a first language, or who have learning difficulties are excluded (particularly from television and radio discussions), as are those who see this format for debate and fear they may be abused or belittled by taking part. This is not an unreasonable fear given the polarized debate format allows for ad hominem attacks both by fellow guests and the wider audience (regardless of what position you are speaking from). Additionally, they set up a situation where ‘experts/leaders’ speak for the whole of science, therapy, religion, or communities and so on – while often not being representative of said areas.

It would be better to acknowledge difference and diversity, and to allow multiple voices and positions to be heard – rather than to shout across each other. Where one view is being featured it would be good to put this within context. It’s also common to find that people who seemingly agree in theory have many different perspectives that can lead to a richer discussion (for example in putting together this Bingo card we’ve had numerous discussions, disagreements and attempts at finding areas of consistency). Putting people together who can add to a discussion rather than take each other down can also help in areas where issues are complicated, or where more nuanced positions are required. Those working in cultures where authoritarian approaches are frequently taken by those in positions of power – medicine, education etc – need to be careful such voices don’t drown out those of wider communities or suggest inaccurate ideas (for example that masturbation will cause infertility). It is right to question issues in this area, but this needs to be managed in ways that those who are already disempowered are not further sidelined – or anyone who is speaking is not put in a position where they can be threatened or abused.

This may require more work at finding experts or framing discussions but will benefit any audience who might be temporarily entertained by a shouting match, but will still not have questions on relationships unanswered at the end of it.

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