Sex & Relationships

10 Things the American Media Really Need to Learn About Sex

The sexual conversation often turns otherwise professional journalists and pundits into alarmists and preachers.

Of all the national conversations suffering for lack of rigorous debate and actual facts, the sexual conversation is one most likely to turn otherwise professional journalists and pundits into alarmists and preachers. 

When editors and writers aren't just playing to America's persistent sexual ignorance, they're deepening it: pegging stories to stereotypes, slip-sliding over science, even recycling their own sketchy trend pieces. This is how female desire can be rediscovered every month, while women are shamed for actually acting on it – sometimes just a few pages away. 

“A lot of journalists just get a pass,” says sex educator Cory Silverberg. “The bar is so low, and our expectations are so low when it comes to covering sex." But why, as a load of awful sex advice pieces have asked before, should we settle?

1. Sex is not a trend, a style...  

First, let's assume there is a desire on the part of journalists to produce journalism on sexuality, the kinds of stories that don't need to be labeled, like so many dildos, “for novelty use only.” Let's imagine that all those times sex gets assigned just a few sheets ahead of the back pages, it's not because there was nothing to report and no one to report it. (The Washington Post still uses its Style section to cover “women,” after all.)

Our sexuality is such a fundamental part of our lives, and yet, how many stories cycle through announcing the “discovery” of female sexual desire? That adultery is popular? That people use the Internet to find sex partners? The media should accept that what it continues to “discover” might actually be norms. Instead of running lightly rewritten “sexpert” press releases on this thing called a vibrator and how to get one, dig deeper. Where's our expose on the Foxconn of Chinese sex toy factories?

2. ...or a slideshow.

The new ways we pass news around on the Internet has done a bit to dislodge sex stories from their gutter. But social media hasn't don't much to speed the demise of the worst cliches in sex writing. If anything, now that they've got more news real estate, otherwise reasonable outlets that could treat sex with some seriousness are still thwarted by the twin demons of search engine optimized headlines and slideshows of whatever sort-of smut a celebrity has generated that week. 

The sideshow atmosphere of these story packages sometimes run to the advertorial (“Five Hot Bars To Pick Up A Guy Tonight!”), but even real, sober human interest stories get wedged into what someone thought would run best alongside an attractive series of headshots. While this happens across the media, sex fluff has little sex investigation to balance it. Until then, maybe we can creatively infiltrate these listicles. To “Ten Ways To Jump Start Your Love Life Now!“ why not add "Number 8: the government getting out of the way when I need the Pill, hello!”?

3. There is no reason to panic.

If the dominant trope in writing about technology is that everything is always new, in sex, everything is always worse: the kinds of sex people have, and the people having it – especially women, and young ones even more so. At what point in history was sex better, simpler? 

Take what's come to be called “hookup culture” in the last few years: young people have no feelings and no ability to connect with one another anymore, because they are too busy occupying one another's beds without swapping blood tests and rings first. “These media pieces or social panics have always happened around sexuality and young people,” says Heather Corinna, founder of Scarleteen, a sex education Web site for young people. “In the 1920s, some young people engaged in 'petting parties,' group hangouts where everyone was making out or having 'everything-but' sex, what the term petting used to refer to.”

4. Girls: Not significantly wilder.

When some historical context does manage to make its way into a sex story, it's often to valorize a past-that-never-was. In these stories, it's always the latest generation that's most under threat from whatever new danger faces them. Every good future-panic piece needs a damsel in distress: usually, it's quite literally the girl.

Author, housewife and famous-nanny-employer Caitlin Flanagan argued this for the New York Times, claiming that hysteria has actually returned with this generation, and that parents must protect their fragile young daughters from this condition at the onset of puberty by cloistering them at home – as if the Pill had never been invented and abortion were never legal. Boys, of course, need no such coddling and isolation, and if a girl does go astray by having sex or even desiring to, despite her requiring constant protection, it's still her fault. 

Teen abortion and pregnancy rates are at record lows in the United States, but that's no reason not to hit “publish” on stories warning parents that young women should be “protected” from access to contraception and abortion – especially if the president is the one making the demand

5. We know how much you love teen sex (and it's a little creepy). 

A slight offshoot of the “wild” theme can be found in the barrage of stories warning parents that their children are having increasingly risky, bizarre or just plain icky-sounding kinds of sex. The chief implication here is, parents themselves never did these things when they were young (not that anyone checked), which is followed up by the rationale that young people today face far more pressure than parents did. The proper response, then, is for parents to take control of them. 

The kinds of sex parents need to protect young people from changes only slightly with the times, all obsessively relayed so as to best allow parents to identify “warning signs” so benign as to make all young people suspect. Does your daughter not want you to look at her cell phone? Maybe she's sending naked photos to her classmates. Was your son vague about what he did while you were out of town last weekend? He was probably throwing a group sex party in your basement.

6. 20-year-olds: Not children! 

In some cases, these panic pieces aren't even about teens, but young adults who are then characterized as “children” by reporters. “The sexting panic has been a great example of this,” says Heather Corinna. “This really seemed far more to be about adult sexual behavior than the sexual behavior of teens. And lo and behold, it finally comes to pass, thousands of panicked reports and studies later, that that's exactly what it was: much, much more about people in their 20s and up than about teens.” 

7. We can tell when you're uncomfortable.

“With writers, their own discomfort and shame around sex seeps into the process,” Cory Silverberg says. "You can hear their issues. And if you're reading carefully, you can hear their editors' biases, too, way more than, say, if they were reporting on the death penalty, their fears about death.”  

It's no better when otherwise “legitimate” reporters actively put themselves in a the middle of a sex story as a device by which to distance themselves, the “normal person” (and the one the reader should relate to) from the subjects of the story. Jessica Pilot hung out with what she called “hipster hookers” for a story, playing the “will-she-or-won't-she” card right until the end, because we all know people who would actually have sex for money are incapable of producing journalism on the same.

The “from the frontlines” approach might not even be so offensive were it combined with some basic unsexy reporting, too. When lefty hero Chris Hedges went to an adult video trade show and had bad feelings, he came to the conclusion that everyone in porn was a victim to be saved. He didn't do much to back his claim up with interviews or research, outside his own wandering from porn-blaring booth to booth, as if there could be anything else worth reporting.

8. Don't just put a lab coat on it.

Calling in some research is one way to make an otherwise salacious story seem legit -- not to mention the aura of truth lent by the accompanying appeals to facts, figures and bias-free conclusions. There's also no shortage of sex-related studies to report on, supporting claims from all sides: there's no such thing as a clitoral orgasm, there's no such thing as the vaginal orgasm, our genes makes us gay, nothing can make us gay, and on and on.  

Particularly suspect are nods to evolutionary psychology. “Evolutionary psychology is useful because it has the veneer of science,” Cory Silverberg says. “If someone says this is tied to who we were on the savannah, this is tied to our ancestors, it carries with it a weight. That there's also a body of literature that contradicts this doesn't really make the news, because it's much more complicated.” 

9. We will respect you in the morning.

Sex coverage is so consistently assigned as pure fluff, even as tabloid and blog headlines threaten to collapse into nonsense for the sake of getting any hint of adult sexual relations in front of the reader. Why? The reader, we are told, wants this, even as the reader, we know, will likely never see anything that resembles her own sexual reality reflected back in such stories: posh teen sex orgies, the hazards of flashing some crotch while exiting a hired car, a parade of pills to up your desire, with just enough scaremongering around disease, disorder and difference to keep us all coming back. 

That kind of sham journalism isn't going to hold up much longer, not with the rise of independent and citizen media. The Sex-Positive Journalism Awards launched several years ago in order to recognize “those writers who stick to high journalistic standards in a climate of repression and misinformation around human sexuality” – but also, as an organization made up of both journalists and activists, to demand it.

10. Going beyond shock.

When we settle for outdated and biased sex coverage in our media – equal parts titillation and fear factor – it doesn't just give a pass to bad journalism. Ask yourself: why have right-wing political operatives been able to cast contraception as a kind of abortion? Why would any teacher or healthcare professional call an abstinence curriculum that teaches teenagers to never have sex a form of “sex education”? Why are transgender people, queer youth and sex workers considered most newsworthy when their lives are threatened, or ended by force? 

Shortchanging sex in the media has devastating consequences far beyond our sexual literacy. Yes, we might be getting shortchanged in the bedroom – but bad sex journalism props up ignorance, drives terrible policy and sustains a disconnect between a shared, public understanding of sexuality and our own experiences. We're left with a kind of sex-specific shock doctrine, hyping us up, leaving us cold and colder to one another, and less equipped to question why.

Melissa Gira Grant has written for Slate, the Guardian (UK), the New York Observer and Jezebel, among others. Follow her on Twitter: @melissagira.