Article: To Titillate or Educate? (Sex In The Mainstream Media)

Today was International Women’s Day. Many media outlets scrambled to hail the strength of women and empowerment was easy to come by.

But what sex-based headlines have we had in the last 24 hours?

Why are Americans having less sex? Blame eggplant emojis – or Paul Ryan –The Guardian

Was there really a secret sex message hidden in Art Attack’s Talking Head? –Metro

‘THEY HAVE LOUD PARTIES IN THAT FESTERING CHLAMYDIA SOUP’ Angry Mumsnet user goes ballistic about naughty neighbours who keep having sex in their hot tub at 5am –The Sun

15 Times It’s OK to Leave Immediately After Sex –GQ

Are women ever too old for sizzling sex? Survey claims women are more sexually satisfied at 80 –The Daily Mail

What I wish I’d known before having sex –Gauntlet

Now, granted, not all of these articles are of an eye-rolling nature.

‘What I wish I’d known before having sex’, for example, might appeal to someone who is thinking of taking those first steps towards a sexual experience and wants to get an idea of what to expect. The article itself alleviates any fears about tearing or pain during penetration which I wish my little Vaginismus-riddled teen self could have encountered before building up a whole world of anxiety and anticipated agony (that manifested in to real agony).

The headline from The Daily Mail also plays its part in dispelling the myth that older individuals are suddenly devoid of sexual attraction or attractiveness (loathed as I am to give such a publication any coverage).

But do you notice anything consistent about these headlines?

Sensationalism. An appeal to common trends. Even (in the case of the oh-so-professional Sun) all-caps. HOW DRAMATIC!

Does the mainstream media use sex to educate or shock? Perhaps a bit of both.

It’s fair to say that mainstream media has found itself in a bit of a rut when it comes to adult content. And this, to some degree, is completely understandable.

There’s a reason why clickbait headers are used with such frequency in our modern media landscape—they work. When you’re running a business that depends on clicks and the purchase of physical copies engagement matters. Not only that but it needs to be swift, effective, and eye-catching.

There’s no doubt that all of the headlines above fall in to this category, but is that a good thing?

What can we learn about our attitudes towards sex from the headlines of mainstream media?

We live in an incredibly mimetic society and our attitudes towards sex seem to be entrenched with notions of shame, scandal, and cliché. Do I for one moment believe that The Daily Mail is truly happy about the open sexual enjoyment of older women? I’d love to say yes, but it’s more likely that the story was picked up because it will shock and intrigue many of the younger generation—who might view such information as taboo.

They might not be wrong either. If the Eroticon panel ‘Sex in the Mainstream Media’ is anything to go by then some topics are rarely accepted and often highly edited when it comes to certain aspects of sex and the general public.

Why is this the case? Is it because we truly cannot comprehend certain sex acts, or is the answer much more nuanced?

It’s true that most people still see sex as an intimate, private, and sometimes even taboo point of discussion. As such in order to make sex in the media more approachable stories either have to be so cliché and in line with societal norms that they are deemed ‘acceptable’ or so outrageously divergent from the norm that they are approached with reasonable distance and perhaps even a degree of novelty.

In this relationship neither the media nor the readership are purely to blame. Media outlets keep on producing such content because it sells and readers keep on reading it because it fits with in their presuppositions of ‘safe’ engagements with the topic of sex and sexuality.

The downside of this is that many of these pieces and up being predictable, reinforce stereotypes of ‘proper’ sex, and can perhaps even propagate systems of shame that cause people to have a negative approach to their own sexuality.

But there is a silver lining.

While these stories may not be the preferable way to approach sex they at least bring topics of sex and sexuality to the masses. Writers are not unsympathetic to the plight of readers either, nor the troubling aspects of mainstream approaches to sex.

For every cliché or damaging sexual article out there you can bet there is a writer trying to slowly change the narrative and work towards more positive representations of sex. The process may be a slow one, but it’s ongoing and most responsible writers will find ways to slip positive representations of sex in to their writing.

Things don’t end with the writers, either. One of the most significant aspects of mainstream media is that when the public shouts, the media outlets listen. As a reader you have power when it comes to the mainstream representation of sex and sexuality and that is well worth remembering.

So when you next see an eye-catching headline addressing sex why not take the time to click through and examine the article in depth. If you can see a hard-earned turn towards sex positivity then leave a comment commending the efforts of the writer and perhaps begin a dialogue with fellow commentators. If you’re truly inspired then perhaps even write to the publication commending them on their sensitive approach to rarely-addressed issues concerning sex.

Once you begin to engage with attitudes towards sex yourself you’ll be surprised by how mainstream media responds. The seeds are being planted by writers (this I know for sure) all we need to do is help them grow.

This article was made possible thanks to Knicker Rocker Glory and is inspired by the Eroticon panel ‘Sex in the Mainstream Media’ including Paisley Gilmour, Morenike Adebayo and Rebecca Reid.