Teaching Sex

Five ways in which sex advice manuals are perpetuating harmful, stereotypical ideas

I read 60 sex advice manuals – here's what I learnt.

I can’t recommend reading over 60 sex advice manuals. I spent several months doing this and it results in a particular combination of sadness, anger and frustration that I’d rather never repeat.

The reason for my painful few months was my new book, Mediated Intimacy: Sex Advice in Media Culture with Rosalind Gill and Laura Harvey. The book explores the changing forms of “sexpertise” and how they influence ideas and practises around sex. In addition to sex manuals, we studied blogs, magazines, reality TV shows such as Sex Box (which actually gets people to have sex in a box), newspaper problem pages, websites, apps, and more.

We emphasise throughout our book that it’s rarely a matter of any sex advice being all good or all bad. Rather, sexpertise often opens up some things – in terms of ways of understanding or experiencing sex – at the same time that it closes down others. And the same text has the potential to be read in different ways by different readers. For example, somebody might read sex advice to get ideas, to enjoy sexual images, to find humour in it – or a combination of these.

But it’s also important to acknowledge just how deeply problematic the vast majority of mainstream sex advice is. Especially in this moment of #MeToo, and greater awareness of intersecting systems of privilege and oppression, it’s most concerning how few texts even mention consent, and how many assume that sex equates to penis-in-vagina intercourse, often depicted by endless images of young, white, slim, non-disabled, normative male/female couples.

When the panic around the messages young people receive about sex so often focuses on sexually explicit material, it’s about time we turned our attention to the insidious and disturbing messages that people are receiving from materials which are supposedly designed to educate, inform, and advise about sex.

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So – in true sex advice “top tips” form – here are the top five problematic messages that we’ve found are perpetuated by the majority of sex advice.

1. There’s a set script for ‘proper’ sex

As sex therapist Clare Staunton puts it, the “kiss, kiss, boob, boob, penis in vagina” approach to sex is found everywhere. Even advice which tries to expand sex beyond this formula often defaults to an assumption that penetration is somehow better or more ideal than other forms of sex. In addition to the number of sexual identities and practices this excludes or marginalises, it also makes ongoing consent more difficult as it is easy to simply default to the script without checking whether you find this pleasurable or whether it is what the other person wants.

2. Certain bodies are sexy and sexual, others aren’t

People are encouraged to engage in surveillance and disciplining of their bodies in order to have a sexy appearance, and to perform sexually. From the images found throughout mainstream sex advice it’s clear that older bodies, disabled bodies, and fat bodies are not deemed sexual given that they are absent or – if they ever do appear – clothed. Again, this marginalises many bodies, and encourages people to treat their bodies in unkind ways that takes them away from the potential for embodied erotic experiences.

3. Individuals are responsible for having great sex

The ideal self in sex advice is one who has banished repression, overcome taboos, dealt with any “issues”, and become a properly adventurous neoliberal lover. Sexual problems are almost always located within the individual – often a woman – who is also told they are responsible for improving themselves through various “technologies of sexiness” (toys, techniques, and so on). There’s very little consideration of how wider cultural messages and social structures frequently restrict our capacities for sexual desire and pleasure.

4. Pleasure is imperative (but restricted)

Sex advice emphasises that people must experience sexual pleasure – even suggesting that it’s an imperative of being a healthy person or having a healthy relationship. But there’s little unpacking of what pleasure is. Rather, it’s assumed that the range of acts presented in sex advice will be pleasurable – often equated with resulting in orgasm. There’s little consideration of the complex interweaving of pleasure and other experiences in sex (such as duty, shame, validation, disappointment, relief), or the ways in which goal-focused approaches to sex often result in less pleasure and more pressure.

5. No need to mention consent

Shockingly, hardly any mainstream sex advice we looked at mentioned consent in any detail. When it was touched upon it was almost always in relation to having safewords for kinky sex, with no sense that other forms of sex may also require consent, and that it may be about far more than just “saying no”. Advice about communication hardly ever gave consent as a reason for communicating, or as something that people might need to communicate about.

This is even more concerning considering that much sex advice actually gives messages that run counter to treating yourself – and others – consensually. For example, women are encouraged to provide unwanted quickies or forms of sex they did not enjoy so as not to risk losing the relationship, to allow partners to do anything they liked at the point of orgasm, or to begin having sex when they didn’t feel like it – because supposedly women don’t get into it until they’ve been doing it for a while.

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The most recent NATSAL survey found that nearly half of people report a sexual difficulty of some kind. This seems unsurprising given the the pressures and restrictions sex advice places on sex, and the lack of advice about how to expand our erotic imaginations, to tune into and communicate our desires, and to have sex in ways that don’t risk further non-consensual experiences.

Meg-John Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, The Open University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.