Synopsis: We’ve been doing it since we first walked the Earth. It gives us pleasure and it gives us life. But how much do you know about how sex works? Now, National Geographic Channel takes a fascinating look at one of the world’s most popular pastimes: sex. Through gripping real-life stories and simulations, we journey from first times to playing the field, and all the way to humankind’s ultimate goal, procreation. We’ll learn anything and everything you’ve ever wondered about sex.
eyelights: the various angles of the documentary.
eyesores: the limited scope of the “research”.
‘Sex: How it Works’ is a 2013 TV documentary produced for the National Geographic Channel. It claims to explain the basics of sex from “virginity to arousal to birth”. In an informal fashion, it follows the experiments of a variety of scientists and researchers as well as conduct interviews with dozens of adults.
Over the course of 85 minutes, we:
- Observe the initial signs of attraction between heterosexuals. Under the guidance of a Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, eight men and eight women are monitored before and after meeting for the first time to ascertain what their conscious and subconscious signs of attraction are. We find out that the men preferred fuller lips and large eyes, whereas women preferred symmetrical features. After the tests, and the speed dating, they got to relax together before being quizzed a final time.
- Follow the exploits of a sexually-confident single white male as he goes out to hook up. It was hard to know if he was merely showing off for the camera, but he seemed genuinely sure of himself. So we followed him into a bar with his “wingman”. We never actually watched them mingle and flirt, just got the end results. We also met his favourite “friend with benefits” and got to hear both of their views on sex and relationships.
- Witness a so-called “sperm race”, which consisted of calculating the sperm counts and speeds of five young men (who, bizarrely, waited patiently in a bar for the results). I don’t know what the point of this was, other than to make the participants self-conscious about their potency. You’d think they’d want to keep this private. Really weird. Anyway, it’s likely that nervousness might affect response in the subjects or that their counts might change over time, so, ultimately this is useless.
- Watch an individual deal with his approach anxiety. Our subject is a 30-year-old male who is a virgin, and is too nervous to talk to women – so he enlists the help of a so-called pick-up artist to teach him how to get over his anxiety. Basically, we watch him try talking to women on downtown streets to help him get over his fear of rejection. It’s mildly succesful, but a day of this wouldn’t be enough anyway. And how do we know this P-U artist is a good teacher, anyway? Says who?
- Glimpse at tests being done to understand the female orgasm. These scientists can’t fathom the evolutionary purpose of orgasms, since women don’t need them to reproduce – as though pleasure wasn’t an incentive to have sex (without it, sex would likely be an imposition). As well, excitement prepares the female body for the reception of sperm. So it has a purpose. Anyway, here a woman is asked to have orgasms in an MRI (“Donating an orgasm for science… how bad could it be?” she asks). We are not privy to the conclusions, which defeats the purpose of the segment.
- Take a look at erectile dysfunction. The show interviews a 20+ hockey coach whose blood flow got blocked when he got sexually excited so he couldn’t have an erection – he had never had one. Even Viagra wouldn’t help, because it didn’t fix the mechanics of it. So he got a $30,000 surgery to have an implant put in. Wasn’t surgery to unblock his blood flow an option? This is not explored at all, but we do hang out with his dad and his friends. Informative stuff for sure.
- Briefly explore homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality. There’s no attempt to understand any of it. We meet men who were into women and eventually realized that they were gay, meet a man who is bisexual and who hooks up with whichever (depending on his mood), and meet a woman who is asexual but is in a relationship with a man – who is understanding of her sexual nature. Again, there is no in-depth look at any of this – a few stats, and that’s it.
- Touch on STIs for a few moments. Aside from some disgusting pictures of extreme examples of STIs gone wrong, the only case study of STI is a gay man who got HIV. How cliché: being gay is a cautionary tale. As per usual. Couldn’t they also show infected heterosexuals? They exist, you know…
- Spend time with a couple that’s waiting until marriage to have sex. This takes place five days prior to their wedding night, and we get a sense of each’s perspective: he’s had sex before, and she hasn’t (“Everybody knows how sex works”, she reassures herself. Um, right…). We also go on her bachelorette party, where she’s told by a friend that sex gets better over time – even though the stats defy this notion. There are also street interviews about people’s first times.
- Discuss conception – but not the whole process and birth per se. Aside from an animated explanation of how a sperm fertilizes an egg, it’s quite vacuous. We find out that a woman’s sex drive frequently goes up in the first few months of pregnancy returning to normal and that a man’s drops after birth.
- Observe the changes in sexual dynamics over long-term relationships. In particular, we meet a couple who used to have sex all the time, at least once a day (it was the first thing they did whenever they got together) but, 19 years later, are finding it challenging to be sexual together. So they consult a sex therapist and go on a weekend together.
During the show there is a bunch of raw data shown at the bottom of the screen during the interviews and other footage, such as:
- the average sex lasts 7.3 minutes. (Does that include foreplay too?!)
- the average time for masturbation is 4 minutes for women, and 2.5 minutes for men.
- climaxing is a good painkiller; it can be equal to three shots of morphine.
- women’s sex drive is also rooted in testosterone, but it’s 1/18th that of men.
- men have 2.5 times the brain space allocated for sex than women.
- men think about sex an average of 24 times a day – twice as much as women.
- bisexual men have a higher sex drive than either heterosexual or homosexual men. (There is no data on women.)
- women who have sex regularly live longer, whereas men who have sex 3 times/week reduce their chances of heart disease.
- brain scans of male orgasms show effects similar to that of heroin. (There is no data on women.)
- for every older sibling a male has, there’s an extra 30% chance of being gay. (There is no data on women.)
- every month that a couple is together, the woman’s sex drive drops by 1%. Not so much in men.
- sex is the root cause of divorce in 50% of cases.
…and much more.
My main beef with this programme, aside from the fact that it provides little conclusive evidence in many of its segments, is that it seems focused on marriage and wants to perpetuate the notion that men are more naturally sexual (which actually may depends on age group, social conditioning, …etc.). Personally, I’ve met women with very high sex drives, so I know it’s not always the case. It’s likely all about conditioning – case-in-point, the dramatic changes in female sexual behaviour since the ’70s.
So basically, ‘Sex: How it Works’, for all its claims, seems to have the agenda of bolstering standard perceptions about gender roles and sexual identity. It opens the door to other possibilities, but mostly it’s about heterosexual men and women and how set they are in their ways. It’s informative to a certain degree, and it’s certainly entertaining, but I wouldn’t give it that much credence. You simply can’t fully explain the whole breadth of human sexuality in 90 minutes.
Date of viewing: February 2, 2014