The Sex Inspectors: Self-help, Makeover and Mediated Sex

Harvey,L & Gill,R. (2011) The Sex Inspectors: Self-help, Makeover and Mediated 
Sex. in Ross,K. (Ed) Handbook on Gender, Sexualities and Media. Oxford: 
Blackwell, 2011

The aim of this chapter is to explore the contours of a new genre that has come to the fore in recent years as part of the proliferation of reality or first person (Dovey 2000) media format: the sex and relationships makeover show. This type of show, we argue, is a hybrid of many other genres including self-help, home/garden/wardrobe makeover programmes, confessional talk shows, and even anthropological or wildlife documentaries. Our particular focus here is on a TV show called The Sex Inspectors, which has so far aired for three series in the UK, and our objective is to explore the programmes as an example of the shift in mediated constructions of gendered sexual subjectivity. The Sex Inspectors is a particularly vivid example of “makeover takeover‟ (Hollows 2000) and offers an interesting opportunity to reflect upon mediated constructions of gender and sexuality in what we argue is a distinctly postfeminist moment (Gill 2007; McRobbie 2009) [page 1]


In this new, modernised version of sex, women‟s value in the heteronormative economy is seen to come not from their virginity but from “technologies of  sexiness‟ (Radner 1993; Radner 1999; Gill 2009) Evans, Riley & Shankar). Women are  exhorted to become “sexual entrepreneurs‟ (Harvey and Gill 2010) able to present as  “appropriately‟ desirable and desiring and willing to perform a number of practices  previously associated with the sex industry (eg pole dancing in the bedroom, engaging in a threesome) to keep their men happy and turned on. Men, by contrast are urged to learn the  “science‟ of “efficient‟ sex. These gendered performances are presented simultaneously as  moments of freedom, choice, empowerment and pleasure, yet also as hard work that is normatively demanded and essential to the success of heterosexual relationships. [page 1]


This chapter examines series one of The Sex  Inspectors. Each episode “investigates‟ and intervenes into the lives of a heterosexual couple  in a long-term monogamous relationship. The couple are filmed for a week in their homes  using CCTV, night vision cameras, and confessional video diaries and interviews. The “sex inspectors‟ are filmed watching and commenting on the footage, interviewing the couple and  diagnosing the ‘problem’. They then are shown working with the couple to teach them ‘tips  tasks and techniques’ to make over their sex lives. The surveillance cameras and video diaries  are subsequently returned to the couple’s home, and the “sex inspectors‟ evaluate the success  of the intervention. Participants are overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, white, without  visible disabilities and aged between 25 and 45. [page 2]


Sex advice has increasingly become the domain of celebrity ‘sexperts’, who are often not trained therapists, but rather brands in a growing industry of self-help, with books, toys and  websites to promote (Boynton 2009). The Sex Inspectors is presented by two such celebrity  icons, Tracey Cox and Michael Alvear. Tracey Cox is (according to her website) “an  international sex, body language and relationships expert‟ and a prolific sex-self help author and journalist who launched her career as a sexpert from Australia’s Cosmopolitan magazine.  She is a global, intertextual subject whose branded products extend to a range of lubricants and sex toys. She gives sex advice regularly in print, radio and television media including the  UK’s News of the World and Closer magazine. She is often called upon by media producers to comment on sex and relationship issues. Michael Alvear is described by the show as a ‘gay agony uncle’ and defines himself as a ‘columnist, author, and TV personality'(Alvear, 2010). Tight deadlines and the tendency for trivialised media representations of sex influences those to whom journalists turn to for comment and quotes (Boynton 2006), meaning that celebrity  experts can often gain implicit authority through multimedia exposure – and this is certainly  the case with Cox and Alvear. Many people use the media for information and advice about sex [ref], giving mediated sex advice an important role in the ‘common sense’ construction of sexuality.

While neither Tracey Cox nor Michael Alvear make claims to be professionally trained  therapists or medical professionals, they adopt a terminology of authoritative and concerned expertise that validates their claims to knowledge. Throughout Tracey and Michael’s observations, interviews, tasks and evaluations they present a confident, singular vision of sex as a matter of common-sense, self-discipline and hard work. [page 2]

This informal new “sexpertise‟ is suffused with psychological language, an indicator of the rise of the “psy complex‟ (Rose 1996) in contemporary life. Casual as they are, Tracey and Michael‟s discussions nevertheless “analyse‟ and “diagnose‟ borrowing heavily from a popular vocabulary of psychoanalysis […] The ‘tips techniques and tasks’ offered by the sexperts create sexual terminology for the participants and the audience to learn. Even where the sexperts are advising participants to get ‘back to basics’, this involves the acquisition and practice of techniques with names like “the Coital Alignment Technique” (Episode 3), “the Prop and Flop” (Episode 2) or “the Spiralling Stalk” (Episode 1). For example, the Coital Alignment Technique is something that the sexperts claim will increase couples‟ “chances of climaxing together‟ by “at least a third‟. It “takes patience to master but is well worth the effort‟ [page 3]


Significantly, Tracey and Michael never disagree on the problem, diagnosis or solution. The informal banter between them is thus largely phatic and playful, not designed to introduce the idea that there might be any ambiguity, let alone contestation, over the “right‟ way to have sex. Instead sexuality is presented as something that is simple to understand and ‘fix’ with the correct expertise. This gives an impression about the obviousness and self-evidence of the advice, as well as promoting a fantasy about each of the presenters as somehow perfect, unimpeachable sexual subjects, unlikely to struggle with any sexual conflicts, difficulties or even ambivalences in their own lives. The show implies that the right expertise translates into having great sex all the time.The sexperts‟ criticism and instruction of participants makes the claim to a ‘right’ way to have sex, which necessarily involves instruction, goals and evaluation [page 3 – 4]

The goal of The Sex Inspectors is purportedly the achievement and maintenance of ‘great sex’ for its participants and its audience. “We‟ are encouraged to move from being “bored in the bedroom” (Episode 3) to having “red hot” sex (Episode 2) that is “sensational between the sheets” (Episode 6). This language of excellent performance reflects a way in which the relationship between power and self is shifting towards an increasing responsibility to selfmanagement of our intimate live [page 4]


Failing, in the “sex inspectors‟ terms therefore, is not getting wrong an individual tip, technique or task, although they are tutted and scolded for doing so. Failure is not having orgasms, not lasting long enough, having ‘predictable’ or ‘boring’ sex, or, worse still, not wanting to have sex at all. These are
seen to lead inexorably lead to the ultimate failure of all – the breakdown of a relationship [page 4]


The sex of The Sex Inspectors is at the heart of the production of participants’ subjectivities – just as Foucault might have argued. Without sex with a partner they are not whole, they are not fully themselves. Indeed, their sexuality and sex lives are central to the truth and core of who they are. The sexperts present a version of ‘great sex’ which relies on a heterosexual, long-term monogamous relationship, in which both parties have ‘compatible’ libidos, and are having variable, mutually orgasmic sex regularly (several times a week). While the sex inspectors talk about many different sexual activities, penis-vagina intercourse is presented as the fundamental ‘act’ of sex, with all other acts defined as ‘foreplay’. McPhillips et al, (2001) explore the ways that the language of sex often presents intercourse as the ‘quintessence’ of heterosexual sex – a ‘coital imperative’  [page 4]

Factors such as long hours, childcare, exhaustion, sexual history, unhappiness or simply less desire for sex are ignored or glossed over in favour of a focus on the individual’s responsibility to work on their ‘sexual appetite’. Libido is presented as the capital of sex – participants must invest time and energy into increasing theirs in order to participate fully as sexual subjects. The series’ investment in the gendered differences of sexual subjectivity even bypasses the participants own reading of their sexuality – participant John’s video diary shows him wishing for intimacy, connection and “the feeling of someone that you love‟ (Episode 3) but the episode‟s narrative ignores John’sdesire for intimacy and instead reinforces a gendered ‘truth’ of sex that “like 88% of women, Tracey finds it difficult to have sex without intimacy‟ and instructs [page 6]

Generally speaking, sexual entrepreneurship seems to require different things for male and female participants. For men, the focus is on the science, efficiency and techniques of sex; for women the transformation must also take place at a psychological level. It is not simply about adopting techniques but making over the self to display an appropriately desirable and desiring sexual subjectivity – even when this involves “shutting off emotions‟ as we saw with Charlotte. As we have argued elsewhere (Harvey & Gill,2010) this sometimes involves the exhortation to do things you do not want to do, but, more perniciously than this, to perform the experience of enjoyment of such acts or, better still, to internalise them not as externally demanded but as freely chosen and pleasurable. This is what we understand as part of a gendered technology of sexual subjectification, closely linked to postfeminist media culture, that involves – for women – the very remaking of subjectivity [page 7]

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