Independent fails, twice

// 28 January 2009

Jill at Feministe points out two annoying stories in the Independent, and I think taken together they say a lot about the Independent’s editorial stance on female sexual pleasure.

First up, they report on a study suggesting masturbating is good for men over 50, cutting the risk of prostate cancer, but younger men with high levels of sexual activity (solo or otherwise) may be at increased risk. But look at the lede:

Masturbation may be good for you – or bad, depending on your age. The solitary sexual activity that is widely practised but little discussed, is linked with an increased risk of prostate cancer when practised frequently by young men in their twenties and thirties, doctors say.

I’m surprised at the Independent’s subeditors for missing such an inaccurate lede; or perhaps they’re also under the impression that only men masturbate? A swift substitution of “men” for “you” was all that was needed, but instead the newspaper decided to opt for a lede which either suggests that it believes all its readers are (cisgender) men or they don’t know women masturbate.

Second, a list of the 10 best sex toys – which doesn’t include any vibrators! As Jill points out:

If there’s room on the list for candles and a glorified foot stool, surely you can squeeze in the Hitachi Magic Wand.

Comments From You

Sebastian Crankshaw // Posted 28 January 2009 at 1:34 pm

As a feminist myself (Yes I’m male, but I’m a huge supporter of feminism) I hate these kind of comments. It’s stuff like this that gives ample fuel to the anti feminism brigade.

Firstly, lets go with the obvious:

ONLY MEN HAVE A PROSTATE GLAND. Thus we can conclude that ‘Feministe’ clearly does not bother with even simple fa t checks, and is constantly on the look out for complete non-issues to leap on in the name of women’s rights.

Even if that were not the case, is this really damning evidence of the Indy’s attitude to female sexual pleasure?

There’s so much else you could target them (and other) quality papers about…sexual objectification of women on the sly (why are exam results always accompanied by pics of attractive schoolgirls?) patronising women’s supplements that are little more than better written versions of cheap women’s magazines…but no. Lets take a pot shot at a complete non issue, that most people know only relates to men, in the same way that men don’t complain about articles relating to, say, cervical or breast cancer.

Second is the sex toys complaint. Oh no, a mainstream family newspaper leaves out the hard stuff.

What does this tell us about their editorial line? Well, let’s see, just about all the items are for him AND her, so perhaps we can conclude, as above, that ‘feministe’ should get it’s head out of it’s arse and stick to real issues?

Sorry, but you’ve just made me despise a magazine I’ve never read. What a bunch of cretins.



Jess McCabe // Posted 28 January 2009 at 1:45 pm

I’m sorry, Sebastian, but I can only conclude you’ve not actually read either article or either my or Jill’s post.

As I point out, the problem is not that the Independent was reporting on the impact masturbation has on prostate cancer. Of course they should report on it. It was the way they framed their opening sentence – as I said, the problem could have been completely avoided by substituting “men” for “you”.

Likewise, if you look at the toys they do include in the top 10, it doesn’t really avoid “the hard stuff” at all; it includes a ceramic dildo, so I don’t think that vibrators were not considered suitable for a family newspaper. If they were, that would be even more damning about the Independent’s editorial stance. Also, lots and lots of people use vibrators in partnered sex.

Actually, although the Independent’s love and sex section is usually relentlessly heteronormative, you;ve actually added the bit about the section being for “him AND her” yourself as far as I can see.

tomhulley // Posted 28 January 2009 at 1:50 pm

Seb, being so offensive to a woman expressing a view is not pro-feminist.

How often do men profess to support feminism then rubbish it?

Male supporters of feminism need to spend much more time listening than responding.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 28 January 2009 at 1:55 pm

Interestingly the BBC news website had a different stance in respect of this research on prostate cancer. The BBC news headline was ‘Sex Drive Link to prostrate Cancer.’ The key sentences are ‘Those (men) who were most (sexually) acrive whilst younger had more chance of developing cancer later in life. ‘

Somewhat different from The Independent’s interpretation of this research. John Neate, Chief Executive of The Prostate Cancer Charity said ‘that while the study was useful its findings would need to be backed by more evidence before they could be accepted. The role of (male) sexual activity is becoming an increasing focus for prostate cancer research but unfortunately this study does little to offer any practical advice to men wishing to reduce their risk of disease.’

But whenever research is published in respect of female sexual activity and despite such research being conducted on small numbers, there is always an emphasis on such research supposedly ‘proving female sexuality is in dire need of fixing’ or ‘there is a subtle moralising in respect of women’s sexual activity. This is the difference between research on male sexuality and female sexuality – male sexuality must not be tampered with whereas female sexuality is always problematic or must be controlled.

In fact research has overwhelmingly always been focused on female sexuality and attempting to make it ‘fit a male-defined norm.’ Research on male sexuality has only just begun because for too long male sexuality was presumed to be unproblematic. This research does not prove anything, but at least male sexuality is beginning to be researched. But the danger is reducing male sexuality to a medicalised problem and claiming it is male (hormones) sic which are responsible. Hormones are not either ‘male or female’ they exist in both sexes.

Link to BBC news article is:

Rose // Posted 28 January 2009 at 1:57 pm

I’ve got to agree, I wouldn’t want to see vibrators mentioned in a proper newspaper. To be honest, I think a ‘sex toys’ piece was prob. out of place.

Not saying there is anything wrong with use of sex toys, or talking about it… but in a paper read by some kids?

The masturbation thing seems a ‘little off’, but I’m with Seb, they do so much worse.

The article becomes clear as you read down, and is of general medical interest – not a moral debate.

Sabre // Posted 28 January 2009 at 2:43 pm

The ceramic dildo was so lame! I guess the floral pattern made it ok for a ‘family newspaper’ rather than, say, an 8-inch black silicon vibrator with 3 speeds and rotating head. The ceramic dildo looked like it could double up as a salt shaker or flower vase. Lol! And why would anyone want to put something that hard and breakable inside themself?!

The masturbation story just seemed to be sloppy writing style rather than anything else.

The Independent is really poo in its attempts to look at gender issues anyway so I don’t expect much from them apart from a wry laugh.

Rosalind // Posted 28 January 2009 at 4:26 pm


….so no woman would read the article? No woman would be interested in scientific research or the health of men?

Anne Onne // Posted 28 January 2009 at 7:36 pm

Their choice of top sex toys was laughable, and I’m not even that clued up about sex toys. Pearl G strings? Candles?

If you’re going to write about *sex toys* write about just that. Since a newspaper isn’t really the most appropriate place for a serious discussion about all the variety of sex toys out there, I would have thought the topic should be left to where it can be properly explored.

Massage oil and candles and cushions and lingerie are all very well, but calling them sex toys is a bit of an exaggeration.

I also wasn’t at all impressed by the lace torture* pants (pearls down there? OUCH), nipple tassels. The book of erotica looked like it followed the ‘women are sex’ narrative. The body paint, cushions/footrest and massage oils, paddle, ribbons and ring looked like they could be used by anyone, like the dildo (Note to Independent: don’t assume only women like to use them, or even that heterosexual men don’t. Heteronormativity is also not cool.) That was the only thing soecifically aimed at female pleasure, whereas the nipple tassels, pearly pants and book were more aimed at men. If you’re going to be heteronormative and assume men and women fall into neat categories, you might as well offer the same amount of ‘for him’ and ‘for her’ stuff. Otherwise it just enforces the idea that sexual pleasure is for men.

* I know some people like pain, but it wasn’t being presented as BDSM material (nor indeed should BDSM be presented as being about female subjugation and male pleasure, something they might have considered) but as sexy wear

Sebastian: First of all, anti-feminists are going to find something against feminists regardless of how careful and reasonable our wording is, because they resent feminism and the idea that women should be equal. If this doesn’t lend fuel to them, something else will, and if the answer to avoiding anti-feminist criticism is to never criticise society, then we won’t actually achieve anything. So this reverse ‘honey catches more flies than vinegar’ talk isn’t all that helpful. Or pro-feminist.

And someone calling themselves an ally who throws a fit whenever they disagree with the movement and decides they despise a website based on their response to one article probably isn’t that much of an ally. If someone’s only with a movement so long as nobody ever puts a foot wrong or disagrees with them, or points out something they don’t notice, they’re not that much of an ally. As someone who isn’t part of the marginalised group, isn’t it important to, you know, actually think for a second if someone brings up something you didn’t think of? Maybe something like PRIVILEGE might be why you didn’t pick up on it? Maybe getting defensive and hostile isn’t a good response when one’s supposed to be engaging in critique?

Here’s a clue: maybe we’re so sick of mainstream culture that glamorises male masturbation whilst pretending female masturbation doesn’t exist, or that it is dirty and not to be discussed. That that article represents one more time when the premise of a story about masturbation is that it is inherently tied with being male. Maybe we expect people writing about science wouldn’t assume that only men read their articles, and that knowing how marginalised women have been in language, they would try not to be discriminatory in how they frame it.

And yes, I think they DO know that prostates are found in men. However, it doesn’t follow that the article has to address the reader as if they are male and automatically assume that they posess a prostate or engage in male masturbation. That’s like assuming that only women read articles relating to women’s health in any way (which society also does, by putting them in the ‘lifestyle and fashion’ section!) and considering the default used to be that the reader was assumed to be male, I think we have a right to point out when language still assumes a male reader. If it had been a help site specifically about prostate care, and males had been the main target audience, assuming the reader is male would have been appropriate, but this is a casual science article in the paper, something women are as likely to read.

Not all people who read articles on science are male, so it’s the assumption that the reader is male that is the issue here. This is a common mistake, but just like the outmoded references to ‘he’ every time a writer mentioned their reader, complaint is the only way to get these subtle but problematic uses language changed.

maggie // Posted 28 January 2009 at 8:55 pm

I think the header and opening line was put there to draw in the female reader. Let’s not forget that the wee woman will nag her man to go to the doctors…because real men don’t do health issues. What a load of old boll@*ks.

If you’re going to do an article on sex toys then do it properly. A book is not a sex toy – would get a bit messy with print stains etc.,

Kath // Posted 28 January 2009 at 11:36 pm

I think these are minor failings. “Such and such is bad for you” is a common construction which is probably why it was used. The word “may” is also in there which makes the sentence applicable to any reader. I like the way Jill reported it at Feniniste but she succinctly made her point in one sentence and that’s all that needed to be said.

The sex toys stuff: obviously “lifestyle” spice-up-your-lovelife kind of stuff aimed at het couples. What I would expect. I wouldn’t read a newspaper to get advice on proper sextoys. That’s what the internet is for! Jill’s probably right again though; the Hitachi wand is just about respectable enough to go in there and would be a nod in the right direction ;)

Kath // Posted 28 January 2009 at 11:50 pm

Okay, just read the masturbation article. Jess, you should have pointed out the headline! I find it much more problematic than the lede, which actually mentions men and prostate cancer. The headline “Masturbation can be good for the over-50s” really does imply that only men masturbate.

Ros // Posted 29 January 2009 at 10:59 am

Also a little ageist in that case, no? (assuming the reader is both male AND over 50)

Deadbeat Dad // Posted 30 January 2009 at 6:31 am

The only thing I found problematic in either of the articles cited was this statement:

Sure to get her hot under the collar

Why the assumption that dildoes (or, indeed, vibrators) are the preserve of female pleasure?

There was one key omission from the Indy’s sex toy list, however (and My Secret Garden really ought to have been in there too, I think).

The ceramic dildo looked like it could double up as a salt shaker or flower vase. Lol! And why would anyone want to put something that hard and breakable inside themself

You’d be surprised, Sabre. My last girlfriend had an alarming collection of turned wooden implements (offcuts from furniture production). She would deploy these in pairs when she pleasured herself. It was impressive to behold.

Kez // Posted 30 January 2009 at 8:51 am

No, I don’t think it’s ageist. It isn’t assuming the reader is over 50 – that particular article is just about a story affecting the over-50s, which is not the same thing. But the headline doesn’t specify that it’s referring to men. Had it said “Masturbation can be good for men over 50” there would have been no problem.

Sebastian Crankshaw // Posted 17 April 2009 at 8:38 pm

Wish I’d checked back on here earlier, nice to get some responses, sorry for the late reply!

Firstly, I feel that several responses have made the same basic mistake that I was objecting too.

This is not a generalised article about the health benefits of masturbation. If it were, I’d never have commented, though I still feel there are more important targets for ire. Certainly the criticism would be quite justified.

But no.

This is an article, specifically, about how masturbation can prevent PROSTATE cancer, hence the article is perfectly entitled to only refer to men, or to write from a male perspective, since this is an issue which would only affect men, or women wanting to know how it affects men.

You say it would have been fine substituting the word ‘men’ with ‘you’, so, pray tell Jill and Jess, in what way does your masturbation affect anyone’s prostate?

If I wrote an article about how masturbation helps prevent cervical cancer, and then only mentioned women masturbating in that article, would you be picking up on it as an example of sexism? Or would you be glad that a paper is giving coverage to a health issue particular to women and means by which they can prevent it?

I’m genuinely surprised that you haven’t just acknowledged (what seems to me) like a very basic error of misunderstanding…in fact that you repeat the error makes me feel a lot more secure in my (more serious) worry that Jess and JIll might be in a state of ‘pre-offence’, and thus hyping non-issues at the expense of all sorts of issues that you could be hyping up instead.



I’ve been offensive about the viewpoint, not the woman expressing it or that she is expressing it. Women can and should say whatever they with exactly the same freedom we should all have…but when any person comes out with such an absurd complaint I also have the right to strongly dismiss it.

In retrospect, I do regret using the word cretin at the end, given the obvious intelligence of posters here and the general tone of respect.

Apologies to all for that.


See above. Of course women can and should read whatever they want, but they should also avoid taking offence when the article, in offering a cross-gender activity as a solution for a problem which only applies to men, only refers to men taking part in said activity.

Replace the word prostate with cervical and reverse the gender pronouns…do you still have a problem with the article?

Anne Onne:

The article is not about masturbation, but about prostate cancer. It would be stupid for it to refer to general masturbation as a solution to the problem, which is the point of the article. Clearly only the individual man masturbating will prevent his own prostate becoming cancerous, so surely, if anything, using a general cross-gender pronoun confuses the issue by, as I suggested above, implying that female masturbation could somehow do something to prevent prostate cancer?

Would that it did mind…a worldwide cross-gender/sexuality masturbation fest to prevent all forms of cancer would certainly be entertaining.

Ahem, anyway.

You’re absolutely right about anti-feminists etc using any old stick to beat you with…but therein lies my point. When they use any stick as it is, do you really need to be handing them a club?

It undermines the arguments in the same way that Eurosceptics are undermined by coming out with some scare story about how the EU wants to straighten bananas or some such, which then turns out to have been based either a fabrication or a misunderstanding.

It makes them come across as very much like the christian decency on TV type groups…actively seeking the tiniest things to get offended by, then not even stopping to check facts and/or context before complaining about it.

I completely agree with most of the rest of what you’re saying about the marginalisation of women’s health problems…I’d point you to Jennifer Drew’s comments above, excellent, interesting take on what is in fact a much wider issue and how it is generally portrayed, I also completely agree with her view on how female sexuality is presented.

Subtle but nasty stuff that works on so many levels…indeed interesting that just recently we’ve had high-profile criticism on (as I understand it) a bit of genuine burlesque (that talent show thing), while the casual objectification of, and lack of clothes on, many women in all media is apparently a complete non-issue.

My problem is that this has picked up on a specific thing and got it badly wrong, and hence my first experience of feministe has immediately given me the impression of it being the feminist equivalent of someone like Mary Whitehouse.

So, sorry, long post but thanks for the responses.

I should also know a lot better than to start comments on here with something like ‘as a feminist myself…’ stupid move Seb. That one was just asking for trouble!

Sebastian Crankshaw // Posted 17 April 2009 at 8:55 pm

Sorry, Re the vibrators:

I did add the ‘him and her’ bit myself…it just seemed clear from the article that it was going for a fairly innoffensive ‘couple neutral’ type list, IE no, for want of a better word, ‘aggresive’ battery dildoes, just like their weren’t any spiked scrotum rings or whatever.

More generally, once again it just seems like an absurd thing to get worked up about. The Indy’s 10 best lists are usually so offensively bad I could almost mistake them for satire, I bet there are any number of such lists which are far more patronisingly offensive than merely leaving out vibrators – such as this one:

Number one –

Absurdly high-heeled shoes

Number two –

Overpriced designer salad bowl

…what [i]every[/i] girl wants indeed.

(Though I suspect that the list of men’s gifts is every bit as patronising and shit, I predict that number one will be something hugely over-priced and completely useless that relates in some way to either cars/sport etc)

Actually I was wrong. That isn’t as bad. The point about the Indy’s general editorial stance is most likely absolutely bang on – I just wish you’d chosen better examples to illustrate it, like I just did ;)

Jess McCabe // Posted 19 April 2009 at 11:09 am

@Sebastian Crankshaw – please see the Feminism 101 post “why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important”.

Mephit // Posted 19 April 2009 at 2:55 pm

Sebastian, you seem to be missing the point entirely. What is the difficulty in seeing that a title which says “Masturbation can be good for the over-50s”, yet is about an exclusively male health issue, basically says that women over 50 don’t exist.

It isn’t that feminists are trying to baggsy some of that prostate cancer for themselves, it’s that this framing erases women. You see, the ‘Over 50s’ as a group includes men & women. However, this is not a story about that group: it’s actually a story about a sub-group, the sub-group of ‘Male 0ver 50s’.

Sebastian Crankshaw // Posted 19 April 2009 at 3:13 pm

Thanks Jess, read and noted. Very good arguments. Still think that very poor examples were picked though. Anyway – keep up the good work. This is an excellent and worthy site, I’m sorry my first comment was a negative one.


Sebastian Crankshaw // Posted 20 April 2009 at 9:30 pm

Mephit –

Ooops, scratch that, you’re right, I totally misunderstood Jess’s substitution of ‘men’ for ‘you’ bit, she means to put ‘men’ where you is, not ‘you’ where ‘men’ is.

Absolute shocker on my part, props to all of you and a great big massive raspberry to myself.

By framing it as ‘masturbation may be good for you’, it suggests that the article is ‘relevant’ for men and women, when actually it’s just for men, or to look at it another way, since the article is only ‘relevant’ for men, the you then suggests that masturbation is an activity assumed to be male only.

Well. What a pillock I am. Sorry too all!

Sebastian Crankshaw // Posted 20 April 2009 at 9:33 pm

Actually – that should probably be cretin shouldn’t it? A very big one…

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