Diarmuid Doyle asks does Channel 4’s latest sex expose reveal anything new
Last Night's TV: The Sex Reseachers
Channel 4 has made so many bad programmes about sex over the years (who remembers ‘Designer Vaginas’ and ‘The World’s Biggest Penis’?) that few viewers can have approached last night’s The Sex Researchers with anything but trepidation.
And in some ways – a surfeit of gratuitously naked bodies; Monty Pythonesque graphics – it was exactly as you’d expect. As a piece of history, however, it worked very well, providing interesting facts and fascinating perspective in equal measure.
Did you know, for example, that cornflakes were invented by WK Kellogg because he thought that a dry, bland breakfast in the morning would dampen people’s sexual desire? It makes you wonder what the snap, crackle and pop of Rice Krispies is supposed to do. Kellogg was one of many people throughout history who were obsessed with female sexual desire, essentially believing that there was no such thing and that any manifestation of such pleasure must be a sign of illness. Until very recently, this was a more widespread view than you might think, rooted in Christian belief rather then science, and last night’s programme made a very good case that throughout history sex research, by conducting investigations and uncovering facts, acted as a kind of scientific counterweight to the prevailing morality of the day.
A man called Tiresias from Greek mythology is regarded as the first sex researcher after living for seven years as a woman. He was later struck dumb by Hera, the wife of Zeus because of his belief that women took more pleasure from sex. Even in those days, such an opinion got a bad press. Like Hera, David Norris’s friend Plato had very definite views on female sexual desire. It didn’t really exist, as far as he was concerned. In later years, such desire was write off as witchcraft, and later as hysteria. The vibrator was invented as a medical device, to cure women who displayed signs of sexual pleasure, and in the early years of the last century, conservative women’s magazines like Home Needle Generator were full of ads for such gadgets. It was only when they came to be seen as a means to sexual pleasure in themselves that they migrated to sex shops, the back counters of Ann Summers’ stores and to the internet.
Sexual research continues up to the present day, and seems currently obsessed with what woman want, and what brings them the sexual pleasure they were denied for so long. According to one experiment, a vigorous 20 minute workout before intercourse greatly increases a woman’s enjoyment, assuming she has any energy left, of course. Another investigation of “the plasticity of female sexuality” showed the same two images – of a naked male and a naked female – to a heterosexual man and woman, whose eye movements were monitored to determine precisely where they looked.
The man’s eyes barely left the female’s body (and occasionally her face) while the woman’s eyes spent as much time looking at the female as at the man. Was this a sign that she was “checking out the competition”, The Sex Researchers asked, or was it a sign that she is more open to new sexual experiences then men? There’s no answer to that one yet, apparently. There are some things even sex research can’t find out.