Everyone Wants to Talk About Sex. But Are They Doing It Well?
Sex coverage is getting better, but it still often skews toward titillation.
Last week, Verizon's new mobile streaming service go90 unveiled a brand new show—produced in partnership with BuzzFeed—that's all about sex.
In each episode of Modern Sex, a real life couple embarks on a sexual adventure (boudoir photo shoots, beginner BDSM, and other activities on the light end of the kink spectrum), with a sex expert on hand to guide them through the, uh, ins and outs of their brand new kink. The series premiere, for instance, features a young couple interested in improving their home porn endeavors; a long time porn performer (and sex ed porn director) steps in to offer a few tips.
If Verizon's venture into the risqué seems surprising to you, you clearly haven't been paying attention. These days, sex is the hottest new vertical, popping up everywhere—and not just in the form of advice columns and Real Sex style titillation/infotainment (though there's plenty of that too). Rather than being treated as nothing more than prurient fodder for shock and awe, sex is finally being tackled as a serious subject worth thoughtful consideration, and not just in context of trend pieces on relationships.
What does that look like? Tech sites like Gizmodo and The Verge take XXX tech seriously, running pieces about vibrators, the porn industry, and hook up apps. Fusion's Sex & Life leans heavy on the sex, Vocativ often turns its data focused eye towards the doings of the adult industry, The Guardian has a Love & Sex section, and even Wired dipped its toes into the erotic last year, with its first-ever sex issue. Oh, and don't forget about TV: Comedy Central recently launched NSFW, a Nikki Glaser-helmed comedy show that—as the name makes clear—is all about sex. And I'd be remiss if I didn't note that this piece is being written as part of a column on the overlap of sex and tech, running on a tech-focused vertical on Vice.
The notion that having a bunch of sex inherently makes one a "sexpert" is still considered pretty legit
As someone who's been writing about sex for over a decade and working in sex-related fields for even longer, it's been fascinating to watch the media landscape change its mind about what topics are appropriate for its readership. Back in the late aughts, I was mostly met with blank stares when I tried to pitch pieces that treated vibrators as an ordinary item of household tech; it took until 2011 for Jimmyjane—as mainstream-friendly a vibrator company as there could possibly be—to break into print magazines (even one as sex friendly as Cosmopolitan). Now, it's more shocking to find an American publication that hasn't touched on sex, porn, or sex toys, often in deeply thoughtful and insightful ways.
There's an easy answer to why this shift has occurred; and yes, that answer is "the internet." As access to sexual media has gotten easier, the barriers between polite society, sex, and porn have increasingly eroded. But just because sex is suddenly being treated as a more mainstream topic of conversation, that doesn't mean we're actually getting better about talking about it. After all, Reddit may be a bastion of free porn and discussions of sex, but that hardly means the conversations happening on its message boards are healthy, thoughtful, or respectful of women. Is this new wave of open conversation about sex actually upping our level of discourse–or is it just giving a more mainstream platform to inaccurate, unhealthy ideas?
According to Erin Basler, brand manager at the Rhode Island based Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health, a nonprofit that advances social justice oriented, medically accurate, pleasure inclusive sexuality education, therapy, and professional training, it's been a mixed bag.
"The increased quantity of sex talk is great, especially because more experienced, well-versed sex educators are getting their messages out there," Basler told me over email. "Unfortunately, increased quantity doesn't necessarily mean better quality. There is still a lot of misinformation about sexual practices being put out there."
As an example, Basler cites a recent study that declared "vajaculate" (her term) to be nothing more than pee, a claim which was repeated—often without any critical analysis—despite the fact that the study itself was pretty weak.
Part of the trouble? Because most of us have had sex, we often feel as though our opinions are universal facts—even when we don't actually have the training, education experience, or knowledge to truly be considered an expert. The notion that having a bunch of sex inherently makes one a "sexpert" is still considered pretty legit, which may be one of the reasons why we end up with celebrities like MMA fighter Ronda Rousey declaring in Maxim that anyone who needs lube for sex is "lazy"—or, as she colorfully suggested in response to backlash, that lube is for "gritty kitty bitches" who must be "working with a sandbox." (This assumption that experience with sex = sex expertise is also to blame for the countless "I've seen a porno, therefore I'm a porn expert" essays that litter the internet.)
Sex coverage also gets hampered by the lack of diversity that plagues many media outlets. Sexuality educator and therapist Aida Manduley, who serves on the Executive Committee of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, notes that many pieces about sex ignore the impact race might have on sexual experiences, or assume that heterosexual experience is the default, or erase the experiences of the disabled, elderly, or those dealing with mental health issues. According to Manduley, if an outlet presents "its sex advice as universal when so few things are," that's a sign it should definitely be taken with a grain of salt.
But even with all the missteps, we're still making progress (even if, as Manduley notes, "social change isn't a neat and linear process."). Basler notes a growing number of pieces focused on "removing stigma from sexuality practices and the growing conversation about STIs, particularly herpes" as a positive result of the explosion of sex-focused content. And there's no question that many millennial-focused outlets are actively working to make diversity more than just a buzzword—an effort that helps to combat the damaging notion that there's one specific set of sex tips that can result in universal orgasm.
And though we may be a ways off from Basler's dream of "intersectional, societally representative" sex information that's shared by people with firsthand experience (rather than, say, the voyeuristic gawkers behind a show like Real Sex), we're still making progress. Hey, we now live in a world where long time purveyor of questionable sex advice Cosmopolitan just received a GLAAD Award. That's something, right?