It seems ironic to be writing once more on the subject of misrepresentation and lie mongering by the media, especially so as it is Stephen Fry who is the latest high profile person to fall victim, and it was Stephen Fry who championed this blog for exposing media irresponsibility. Well, I’m sorry for Stephen Fry that the media has again behaved like a self-serving whore, and I’m pleased that things seem to have improved quickly for him.
As you will no doubt know, the scandal arose over a magazine interview that quoted Stephen Fry as thinking that women don’t enjoy sex as evidenced by their not going to parks looking for it. As soon as I saw this I thought the latter part correct, from a biological standpoint, and the former likely a construct by a misunderstanding hack.
The sensible strategy from the evolutionary biology of humans is for men to scatter their seed as far and wide as possible by inseminating the maximum number of mates, while women need to be more cautious as they are ultimately left with the baby, and so they are on the look out for reproductive partners. The thing to note is the difference between a mate and a partner. Once measures of sexual selection have been satisfied, facial symmetry, physique, etc., the women is also looking for someone with which to share childcare responsibilities. Bottom line is that men cottaging in public toilets or on the heath are not doing so in order to advertise their capacity for parental investment. That’s the female imperative, and I believe also the intellectual message that Stephen Fry was attempting to convey.
Furthermore, men who have park sex are arguably either there for the thrill, or they are unable to find sexual partners in other, more socially acceptable ways. Perhaps women would consider both the behavioural consequences of an unattractive genome, whereas men do not have to take that into account when all they want is to get their rocks off.
In summary, I do not know the details and cannot conclude whether or not Stephen Fry was misquoted as he claims. However, the point that it seems he was trying to make, about women prioritising parental investment and so not tending towards sexual promiscuity, is consistent with a general understanding of human reproductive biology and, as a concept, has been well documented in both the mainstream literature and in many popular science books.
That’s not to say that Stephen Fry or anyone else preaching this simplistic view is entirely correct. Of course as with much that is human related, our sexual behaviour is complex too, not least since the introduction of reliable birth control. However, on face value, and as far as consistency of professional behaviour goes, the media has a lot more ground to make up than Stephen Fry. So, even though things seem to have blown over somewhat, I do hope the hacks involved sleep less well at night, knowing that they have yet again, even temporarily, tarnished someone’s reputation through their falsehoods.
As they used to say, today’s news is tomorrow’s chip wrapper.
Before forgetting the incident, one noteworthy claim deserving closer inspection that Stephen Fry makes in his rebuttal suggests that it is the media themselves that perpetuate his place in the limelight, so that every comment he makes is taken as some sort of oracular opinion.
Indeed, you don’t have to look far to notice evidence for this. For example, from this very worrying, very anti-democratic, very day, within an hour of Stephen Fry tweeting his first on Paul Chamber’s #twitterjoketrial appeal, the Guardian runs with:
Well, yes, Stephen Fry did repeat his generous offer to cover Paul Chambers’ fine, and while no doubt a welcome show of support, it was in no way providing leadership, and it was a single tweet, late in the day, after the verdict had been passed, while all day long everyone else was getting #twitterjoketrial trending globally.
Why do the papers do this? It must simply be to sell copy, or the advertising with which it has become festooned. But that does beg the question, when did the news become not enough After all, it was an article about the Twitter Joke Trial, so why the mugshot of Stephen Fry in any case? Why not Paul Chambers, or a shot of the legal team outside the court?
It’s clearly a cheap trick for the media and one that they consider a better qualification of newsworthiness, if they can get a news item fixed onto even the most flimsy celebrity peg. Plus, a stock photo of a celebrity that they have already paid for is cheaper than sending out a photographer and reporter to actually cover the story. As Stephen Fry says, it’s the media that perpetuate his profile, and while that certainly seems true, it also reveals a worrying motivation in the media that stretches beyond daily news and into our area of interest as part of this blog, namely science journalism.
As with the “Stephen Fry says women don’t enjoy sex” folly, sex sells. And if you can’t lever sex into the story, then look for something equally ‘newsworthy’. Over the last decade, climate change has been the sexy subject in science. It’s meteorology with it’s tits out.
And that’s where we will go with Part 2 of this post …
ADDENDUM: The Independent has an article arguing much the same scientific background to Stephen Fry’s comments.