MEDIA ROUNDUP: Mainstream press slowly eases into the subject of sex

The media has become more open to sex-related stories in recent years, but care must be taken to keep reporters at ease with the subject. And having a humorous angle certainly helps.

The media has become more open to sex-related stories in recent years, but care must be taken to keep reporters at ease with the subject. And having a humorous angle certainly helps.

The adage "sex sells" may work in advertising and entertainment, but for a long time, the US news media did all it could to avoid reporting on stories dealing with human sexuality. "Twenty years ago in TV and radio, you couldn't mention body parts and you couldn't mention sexual activity outside of terms such as 'making love' and 'playing around,'" says Dr. David Reed, who formerly worked in radio, and is one of the leading human-sexuality educators in the US. While almost everyone was doing it, there wasn't - and to some extent still isn't - a huge media role in educating the populace about sex. "We have the leading number of teen pregnancies for an industrialized nation," says one PR exec who requested anonymity. "And part of the reason for that is we as a nation still treat sex as taboo, and that includes the media." But the last 15 years have seen an increasing willingness among the press to write about sex-related issues in an informed and mature manner. Part of the credit for opening up the media to sexuality-themed stories goes to high-profile therapists such as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose motherly advice on frank issues opened doors, making it OK to talk publicly about sex. But the main reason is that major national events with sexual themes - from the AIDS epidemic to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to the introduction of Viagra - have almost demanded mainstream press attention. That trend has continued in recent years, as the debate over teaching abstinence in schools has garnered page-one coverage. There has also been major spot-news coverage, such as a recent scandal involving two New York radio hosts who encouraged a couple to have sex in a church, or when a woman sued Delta Airlines after she was allegedly pulled off a flight and publicly humiliated after the sex toy in her luggage activated while she was waiting to board a plane. "Issues of sex and sexuality are at the forefront now," says Lisa Hanock-Jasie, managing director of PR for STC Associates and former PR director for SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States). "There are entire website sections and entire news columns devoted to sexuality. It began from a sexual-health viewpoint with medical heath professionals who were more comfortable talking about it from a clinical standpoint. But with Clinton-Lewinsky, the release of Viagra, and the rise of women's health as an issue, it's now at the center of a lot of discussions." Emergence of sex editors Most traditional outlets still use their medical health reporters to cover sex. But Andrea Burnett, a San Francisco-based publicist who represents Good Vibrations' retail outlets, website, and product line, says, "There has been an emergence over the last few years of sex editors, particularly at national magazines. Publications such as Marie Claire and men's magazines like Stuff and Gear all have sex editors now." Among the leading journalists covering sex and relationship topics are Kathleen Kelleher, who pens the Birds & Bees column for the LA Times, Loveline co-hosts Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Pinksy, Marie Claire sex editor Maria de la Cruz, Salon.com's Stephanie Lehmann, and columnists Dr. Joyce Brothers and Dan Savage. Many outlets cover the subject regularly, though not with the same journalist. "What we tend to experience is dealing with a different reporter or editor each time," says Lauren Mason, account director with MS&L, which handles PR for condom producer Durex. "Someone will take on the sex- or sexuality-related story for the month of October, and someone else will handle it for the December issue. So what we try to do is keep our media database as broad as possible, and every time we do a mailing we include everyone." Mason says radio remains the easiest medium to pitch because there are many drive-time "shock jocks" looking for news items that combine titillation and humor. Many of them subscribe to the Wireless News Flash service. Durex receives a lot of attention each year for their annual global sex survey, which compares the frequency that couples make love in 40 different countries. "It's a very legitimate project done by an independent survey organization, so we tend to get a variety of pickup," Mason says. "We get a lot of daily newspapers, but we also get Howard Stern, who talks about how many times a year Americans have sex." Keeping journalists comfortable Mason stresses the need for PR people to make sure the reporter feels at ease. "It's still very sensitive, and a lot of people have problems even discussing it on the phone," she says. "A lot of the college media have trouble even talking about it. We don't like to be flippant about the issue of protection against pregnancy and disease, but you can build humor into it to make people comfortable talking about sex." But while many outlets are writing more about sex, some still worry about overstepping boundaries. "While recent events like the Clinton scandal have broken down some of the barriers for mainstream press to cover human sexuality, it is still challenging to pitch these types of stories to the media, especially when dealing with pregnancy and disease prevention," says Jennifer Rappeport of Publicis Dialog in Dallas. "It's interesting, because there are major issues affecting a variety of groups, i.e., teens, adults waiting longer to marry, adults resuming dating after divorce or loss of a spouse," she continues. "However, the media remains conservative about discussing issues like the importance of responsible, safer sex, and products that can help protect them from disease and pregnancy." Part of the reason for this is that in the current economic climate, outlets are fearful of offending their audience and their advertisers. "Sometimes an editor will say, 'We love the story, the story's great and newsworthy, but our advertisers will pull out if we run this piece," says Burnett. "Even in the gay and lesbian community, there are advertisers who have specifically chosen to channel their advertising through gay and lesbian press, which is traditionally a lot more sexually open. But they're the ones who are a lot more conservative with some subjects." The best outlets for sex-themed campaigns are men's and women's lifestyle magazines, though Rappeport notes, "The placements are traditionally featured as product roundups rather than as part of 'bigger picture' articles." Some magazines give products to readers, and then sum up their reviews. Women's magazines tend to cover these issues with more depth. "Most men's magazines will do stories on what you need to have in your medicine cabinet, and include condoms on the list. But they don't touch on as many of the public-health issues," says Mason. "In general, we view a hit as a hit," adds Burnett. "But I won't approach a Maxim with a serious safe-sex story." Good Vibrations usually sends out a release to tout new products, and then follows up to see if the reporter wants a sample for trial. "Of course, we screen the press to make sure they're legitimate," she notes. But Burnett suggests that with a creative pitch, you'd be amazed at what gets covered by the supposedly staid mainstream press. "If we get a new product and it's very unique, a lot of reporters will write about it because it's funny," she says. "The San Francisco Examiner wrote about the Sanrio 'Hello Kitty' vibrator. And I'm pitching a lot of stories related to changes in sexuality and sexual attitudes after 9/11." ----------- Where to go Newspapers San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, alternative weekly/college newspapers Magazines Marie Claire, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, YM, Cosmo Girl, Stuff, Gear, GQ, Details, Esquire, FHM, Self, Glamour, Men's Health, Women's Health Weekly, The Advocate, Out, Genre, Girlfriends, On Our Backs, Instinct, Curve, Metro Source TV & Radio Lifetime, Oxygen, Discovery Health, Good Morning America, Howard Stern, national and local drive-time FM radio, CNN, Fox News Network, MSNBC, NPR, Loveline Websites MSNBC.com, Salon.com, Foxnews.com, DataLounge.com, Oxygen.com, Advocate.com, Sexetc.com, Planetout.com, Sexuality.org, Goaskalice.com, wellbeing.com

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