Science?

I'm spending my afternoon immersed in 'sex research'. I'm a member of the New View listserve which is a group of people who are interested in women's sexual health and are concerned about attempts to over-medicalize it. Through this wonderful listerve with all of these fabulous, and very knowledgeable people, I'm learning a lot about research on sex and sexuality and how it's conducted. Every few days, one of the members will send out a link to an article in a popular magazine, journal, or newspaper about some new sex research. At first glance, these articles seem like simple lifestyle news pieces - just quoting some new study that's come out. But I'm learning to take a much closer look at what these articles are really saying and the effect they might be having on us.

If we think that newspapers and magazines are really there to inform us, we are kidding ourselves. Most mainstream newspapers and magazines are there to sell ad space and they do that by getting readers. They get readers by finding content that will grab reader's attention. And believe it or not, a lot of sex researchers want the media's attention so they want to present their findings in a way that will appeal to the readers of the media. So guess what happens? A study that may have shown some interesting findings, that are complex and nuanced, and certainly cause for further research, gets boiled down to a 10 word headline and a 500 word article that's easy to digest. Why? Because the media don't think their readers want the whole, complex, nuanced story. They think they want something they can read on the toilet in 10 minutes and feel like they learned something valuable.

So a study that looked at 30 women and found that many of them reported greater sensitivity in a certain area in their vagina under certain circumstances becomes 'Sex Researchers Find the G-spot'. And in the case of this last one I read, a study which looked at physical and psychological arousal in both men and women, and resulted in rather complex results needing much study and interpretation, got boiled down to 'What Do Women Want?'. And even though the article was rather long, it focused mostly on what the researcher looks like and what she personally thinks, rather than what she actually found. So much more interesting to read than a bunch of data. The story concludes that we can never know what women want. Then why the study and why the article about it?

The problem here is that for most of us, mainstream media is the only regular access we have to sex research. Most of don't actively seek this stuff out. We don't read medical journals. The only time we see anything about sex research is when some study makes it into the papers. When we see it there, the study and the researcher, and usually the university s/he works for is cited. It makes the conclusions seem ever so scientific and authoritative. But those conclusions often don't appear in the actual study at all. They are simply headlines and sound bites put together by the person who sent out the press release, or by the person who wrote the story. You have to go and find the actual study to find out what it was really all about. A newspaper article might say that a given study showed that 40% of women can't have a vaginal orgasm (there have been several studies that have been reported as finding such a result). What the article doesn't say is that the study only surveyed 40 women. It doesn't tell you that those 40 women were just given a self-report survey to fill out. It doesn't tell you that the survey did not ask them detailed questions about what they considered the term 'vaginal orgasm' to mean. It doesn't tell you that the women were never given any kind of physical exam and never underwent any clinical testing to see if they were having orgasms. So really, what the study tell us is that 16 out of 40 women who took a survey we know nothing about said that they believed they didn't have vaginal orgasms. And yet women everywhere read that only 40% of women can have vaginal orgasms. Now we all start thinking that we have a problem just like these women and we need to do something about it. Inevitably, the story will include, or be followed up by, possible remedies for this problem that 40% of us are now deemed to have.

We have to be so very careful about what we accept as 'science' and 'fact'. Whenever I see these types of headlines in the news, I try my best to find the original study and find out what it was really all about. There are so many agendas going on in the field of sexual health research, especially when it relates to women and their behavior. We have to be very careful that what's presented to us in the media isn't simply a convoluted attempt to make us buy a drug, or a product, or a cosmetic procedure, or to try to make us act in a certain way. We are constantly being told that there is something wrong with us. And there is always someone waiting there with the cure.

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