Dodgy stats & bad science
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.
This misrepresents the ‘science’ of sex research as something either quirky and quasi experimental or ‘lite’ and tied to a commercial product. It means when journalists are presented with more complex research they struggle to understand it or take it seriously.
As much ‘sex research’ journalists encounter is not of a high quality there’s a suspicion of those working in this area – particularly that they must be disreputable for studying sex or a ‘failed scientist’ for working in such a ‘lite’ area. That is not to say some sex research is poorly designed or even prejudicial or dangerous. However the focus on ‘sex research’ as a mix of lightweight, medical and pseudoscientific can mean core questions on the quality of work, who is running and funding it, how the study relates to other research, and whether it is ethical are missed. It reinforces the idea that ‘experts’ control what defines our sexual lives while missing the activism and advocacy many in research are involved with – which can involve challenging poor practice in academia, research and practice.
Many who write sex features are unable to understand scientific papers and little is done to enable this (despite critical appraisal being a skill that’s easy to teach and with practice easy to do). Academic publishing must take responsibility for this, however, since many studies are not open access – creating a barrier for those who want to broaden their coverage.
The downside of the currrent approach is that journalists and the public don’t trust sex research and the public are often misinformed about their intimate lives or made to feel anxious unnecessarily. It also permits tie ins with commercialized and medicalised conversations about ‘perfect sex’ to go unchallenged. Or it implies all our intimate lives must be laid bare, talked about publicly and dissected for the viewing/reading pleasure of others. Ideas of choice and consent, so vital to research, are often missed when sex ‘science’ hits the media.
As mentioned, in Sex science = brains scans & lab coats, it is important to represent the full range of scientific, social science, historical, and other research about sex. It is useful to present research critically and to encourage critical consideration in viewers/readers (being aware of any flaws or problems generalising – see The research sample quotes is WEIRD). Engage with researchers who are doing serious research around sex who will happily tell you about their exciting and original findings, rather than focusing on poorly conducted PR surveys and the like.