Sex science = brain scans & lab coats

‘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.

Diverse methods – particularly qualitative methods, visual methods, randomized controlled trials, community led studies, or participatory research are either ignored or misunderstood. While sex and relationships are studied across all academic disciplines the media’s focus remains very narrowly within psychology and biomedical research – particularly that funded by pharmaceutical companies which may be doing more to medicalise otherwise ‘normal’ behaviours than advancing scientific research. It also means research undertaken outside the academy (and by non academics) is ignored or mistrusted. Diverse methods are often excellent for telling an exciting story – for example for challenging commonly held beliefs around what people do sexually, or how they experience sex. They can also be very visual and unfamiliar to viewers/readers who may well be jaded with conventional sex research.

Addressing this requires a collaborative effort between journalists and those who are researching sex and relationships. This means improving access, making papers more easy to find and interpret, journalism training and partnerships between the media and those who study sex. We also need to extend this to the wider public, encouraging them to think critically about the studies they hear in the media and making said research accessible to them to appraise if they wish. None of us should assume because a study has been published it necessarily makes it useful, relevant or accurate. Media should represent the full range of research around sex, rather than focusing on a small number of methods (see also Dodgy stats & bad science; Toy, drug, shop: Product placement).

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