Monthly Archives: November 2009

WHO wake-up call

Anyone who thought that the feminist movement’s work was long done will have been shocked by news from Geneva yesterday.

The World Health Organization’s first study of women’s health around the globe has concluded that H.I.V. is the biggest cause of death and disease among women between the ages of 15 and 44. According to the U.N. agency, one in five deaths among women in this age group is linked to unprotected sex.

‘Women who do not know how to protect themselves from such infections, or who are unable to do so, face increased risks of death or illness,’ observed the 91-page report, which aims to highlight gender inequalities in health care.

As WHO chief Dr Margaret Chan told journalists in Geneva, ‘We will not see a significant improvement in the health of women until they are no longer recognized as second-class citizens in many parts of the world.’

By way of an interesting addendum, it’s well worth reading William Pesek’s recent column for Bloomberg. ‘Following the money often gets you to the bottom of a story,’ he notes, but ‘following the economic experience of women may offer more insights.’ In short, the more a society values women, the healthier its economic prospects are likely to be.

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The real secrets those sex diaries reveal

Photo: Joshua Allen for New York magazineEvery Monday since April 2007, New York magazine’s ‘Daily Intel’ blog has posted an anonymous, seven-day sex diary from one of its readers. Contributors have included a gay commodities trader, a therapist in a relationship with an almost-divorced family man, and a semi-retired engineer who has discovered nudism, Tantra and internet porn. There is even a twenty-something, temporarily celibate actress.

More than 140 weeks on, trends have begun to emerge from their saucy, sad, and sometimes plain strange stories. As journalist Wesley Yang puts it, ‘They cracked open a window into the changing structure, rhythm, and rhetoric of sex in New York’.

From the experiences of this admittedly self-selecting group of chroniclers, Yang has identified 10 key trends, all of them anxieties. Their polarities encompass the eternal (from the anxiety of too much choice to the anxiety of not being chosen), and the peculiarly modern (from the anxiety of appearing overly sincere to the anxiety of being unable to love).

Yang notes that taken together, they pose a single question: ‘Are the digital tools that make it easier to find sex compounding the confusion that accompanies it?’

This is the question that the New York Times’s David Brooks chose to run with in his recent op-ed column. His answer? Yes.

It’s the influence of cellphones and texting that he zeroes in on. They encourage compartmentalization and contingency, he says, promoting a utilitarian mind-set that is ‘naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination’.

Poetry! When did you last hear that word uttered in connection with sex? The imagination is of course crucial, yet the mainstreaming of ever more explicit imagery denies it a role.

In such an environment, Brooks writes, ‘a coat of ironic detachment’ is required to survive the marketplace hurly-burly. ‘In today’s world, the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act than the choice of an erotic partner,’ he concludes.

The reader response is also well worth checking out. Plenty disagree, but the thought they’ve given his column confirms that Brooks is onto something. As, indeed, does the very fact that New York magazine’s readers have been so eager to (over)share details of their conquests in the first place.

Whatever else they suggest, these diaries – along with websites such as and the British craze for ‘dogging’ – indicate a group of people failing to connect with one another through that most intensely personal human activity, sex. Instead, they require an audience in order to fully inhabit their own intimacies.

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We don’t need no sex education

That was the catchy title of a Sunday morning debate at the Battle of Ideas, held in London last weekend.

Four panellists and their chair – plus an audience alert as a double-espresso – hunkered down in the Royal College of Art‘s cafe to discuss whether sex education can possibly fulfill political expectations, parental hopes, and pupil needs. Does it even have a place in the curriculum?

Those were the questions. The answers that emerged over the course of 90 minutes were as varied, complex and personal as the subject itself, and that was one of the sessions’s most inspiring messages.

Battle of Ideas

For Simon Blake, director of Brook, the sexual health charity for young people, there was too much emphasis on biology. Dr Hera Cook, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Birmingham, felt we were still too uptight about sex. She also insisted that abstinence teaching had failed, throwing down the gauntlet for David Paton, a professor at Nottingham University’s Business School.

He argued against current teaching on economic grounds. The emphasis on safe sex has not significantly reduced the teen pregnancy rate, he said – why not try another approach, and talk about partner reduction or delaying sex? It’s the role of parents, he believes, to start these conversations. Sex education we need, sex educators we don’t.

In true BoI style, plenty of smart thoughts came from the audience, too. An Iranian student confessed that he was 12 before he had any idea of what sex involved biologically. This was shameful, he declared, but on the other hand, he hoped that there was room for discussing the emotional effects of sex.

Overall, there was a strong feeling that in trying to teach relationships, they became at best just another subject. As one woman put it, sex ed denied ‘the passion and privacy’ of those fumbling early enchantments. (A sly smile suggested that her mind was right back there, enjoying the charged clumsiness of a roaming hand in some boy’s bedroom, Pink Floyd pounding from a record player.)

Again and again, speakers and listeners alike made the point that some things simply can’t be taught. As Dr Jan Macvarish from the University of Kent at Canterbury said, intimate relationships cannot be reduced to a set of learnable ‘skills.’ We infantilize sex, she declared, thereby denying the fact that it does have serious consequences. To use that caddish line: it’s complicated.

Too often, this challenging yet oftentimes rewarding complication gets lost in the other battle surrounding the subject – the battle not of ideas, but of agendas.

The debate was part of a two-day festival organised by The Institute of Ideas. Check out the website for more details and ways not to miss out next time.

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