Sexual health lessons from James Bond

The BBC News website has, in its Magazine section, a rather silly article about the sexual health of James Bond. My first and most overwhelming reaction is just to want to say “you’re not supposed to take 007 this seriously”. I mean, the whole point of the Bond films is that they’re just silly pieces of throwaway fluff that should never, in a million years, be taken seriously. To be fair to Jon Kelly, who wrote the article, he does make this point, ascribing it to unnamed ‘defenders of the series’:

Of course, defenders of the series insist its entire basis is as a modern fantasy – and suspension of disbelief is required during the sex scenes just as much as it is for the fights, car chases, gadgets and super-villains.

Unfortunately, making the point is not the same thing as recognising that it makes a mockery of the whole article you’re writing.

So, for example, at one point Kelly decides to compare Bond’s total number of sexual partners with those of an average male. Being the hyper-intelligent person you are (although why you’re slumming it on my blog I can’t imagine…), you’ll already have recognised the problem here: James Bond isn’t a real person. In fact, as a screen persona, he’s been given life by no fewer than six people – Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig – and has therefore managed the neat trick of remaining broadly middle-aged (never younger than his 30s, never older than his 50s) for a period of half a century. Given this Doctor Who-like ability to regenerate, it’s not entirely surprising that he might have rather more sex than an actual, real-life person who would, like Sean Connery, have aged into his eighties by now, with all the variations in libido (and opportunity…) that implies.

Then, too, there’s the fact that comparing Bond to an average male is kind of silly, because Bond, even if he were real, is very obviously not an average man. For a start, he’s never really been married (the one and only Mrs Bond didn’t even make it as far as her wedding night), and has only ever shown the briefest flashes of interest in long-term, monogamous relationships. We would surely expect that a real person with these attributes would have more partners than an ‘average’ male. If we were going to compare Bond with anyone, it would make sense to compare him with the kind of real-life men who have the desire and opportunity to have sex with large numbers of women – men like sportsmen, musicians and models. In this context, I suspect Bond’s approximate tally (the figure comes from an academic study cited by Kelly) of 46 partners in the first 40 years of his screen career – an average of just over one sexual partner a year – would count as pretty restrained.

In fact, this proposition seems to be indirectly supported by another source cited by Kelly – a 2010 sexual health survey that he uses to identify the number of sexual partners the average UK man has across his life. Although this survey does supply the mean average figure of 9.3 partners for straight men reported by Kelly, it also indicates that the median average number of partners is in the range 4 to 6. This discrepancy would imply that the mean average figure is being skewed significantly upwards by an outlying group of men with a much larger number of female sexual partners – the very group to which musicians, models and fictional spies might be likely to belong. (I should note in passing that, personally, I wouldn’t put much faith in this survey. It reports that the median number of female partners for men is in the range 4 to 6, but it also reports the median number of male partners for women is in the range 2 to 4. This must either indicate that a small number of women is having sex with an inordinately large number of men or alternatively that the men in the survey are significantly over-reporting their sexual conquests, or the women are significantly under-reporting theirs, or both.)

No doubt taking all of this as seriously as I am is as silly as the original article, and the truth is I have only been stung into responding because of some other things in the article which don’t just strike me as silly, but as also unpleasant – maybe even dangerous. Principle amongst these is the assumption that, because he has been seen to have a number of sexual partners, this must mean that James Bond suffers from poor sexual health. In fact, Kelly even goes so far as to source a quote from a GP:

“The likelihood of James Bond having chlamydia is extremely high,” says Dr Sarah Jarvis, a general practitioner and regular guest on the BBC’s The One Show. “If he came to my clinic I would definitely advise him to have an STI test.”

The recommendation to have an STI (sexually transmitted infection) test is a good one – anyone who is sexually active should have them regularly – and drawing attention to chlamydia (a common infection with serious long-term consequences that often causes few noticeable short-term symptoms) is also a good thing. That said, I have to say that I am not hugely impressed by a doctor who will allow themselves to diagnose a fictional character with a real disease. Neither am I impressed by a doctor who is prepared to reach even provisional conclusions regarding the health of anyone – real or imaginary – on the basis of incomplete information.

The fact is that we never actually see Bond have sex. We see him kissing women, and undressing them, and lying next to them in bed – all things that are highly suggestive of sex – but so far as I’m aware we never actually see him have sex. Because of this, we don’t know for certain what kind of sex he has, or what precautions he takes, and therefore we don’t know what, if any, STIs he’s at risk of contracting. Kelly makes the point in his article that Bond’s behaviour didn’t alter in the era of AIDS, and it’s true that the lack of an emphasis on the use of condoms did frustrate some sexual health campaigners. But the fact that we didn’t see him put one on doesn’t mean he didn’t use them: he may always have used them. Certainly he’s never, so far as I know, been contacted by an ex-Bond Girl with a baby at any point in his 50-year existence, which suggests either that he’s infertile, or that he’s been making effective use of some form of contraception. And if he uses a condom for vaginal sex – somehow I don’t see James Bond having a vasectomy, except perhaps involuntarily with a laser – he may equally wear one during fellatio, and make use of a dental dam during cunnilingus.

The point I’m getting at here is that it’s not how often a person has sex – or even how many partners they have sex with – that determines their risk of getting an STI: it’s the kind of sex they have, and the precautions they take, or fail to take. A person who has has enjoyed mutual masturbation with 100 partners may be at lesser risk of developing an STI than a person who has had unprotected penetrative sex with one. That’s an extreme and therefore implausible example, of course, but the principle holds: it’s the act of having unsafe sex that puts someone at risk of an STI.

A person who has only one sexual partner in their entire life is still at risk because, even if they are exclusively monogamous, this does not necessarily mean their partner is, or was. Conversely, a person can have multiple sexual partners while still taking a responsible approach to their own and their partners’ sexual health. It is, of course, true that a person’s statistical risk of contracting an STI increases as their number of sexual partners increases (although, inevitably, it’s a bit more complicated than that), but this risk can be minimised by taking the appropriate precautions – and minimised to the point where it is below the risk experienced by a person with many fewer sexual partners who takes no precautions.

This is why I consider the approach to sexual health taken in the James Bond article to be unpleasant, and potentially even dangerous. It’s unpleasant, in that it has more to do with slut-shaming than it does genuine efforts to improve and protect general sexual health. It’s refreshing in a way, I suppose, to find a man being slut-shamed rather than a woman (although the old proverb about two wrongs not making a right would seem to apply). But even if the gender politics are intended to be somewhat progressive, this way of talking about sexual health is still potentially dangerous in the way it encourages people to view sexual health through a moral lens. If STIs are supposedly something that affects sluts, then it follows that people who aren’t sluts (or don’t believe themselves to be sluts) don’t have to worry about STIs – and this isn’t the case, because anyone who is sexually active is at risk.

I used to do a bit of volunteer work in sexual health when I was younger, and one of the things I know as a result of that experience is that talking about sex in moral terms doesn’t work.

  • It doesn’t work because nothing stops people paying attention faster than the feeling they’re being lectured, especially if those lectures seem to reinforce moral strictures they’ve already rejected – that women should be chaste until marriage, for example, or that gay men must be celibate.

  • It doesn’t work because it establishes new taboos, and many people find the idea of breaking taboos sexually exciting in itself (just look at all the gay bareback porn that derives its erotic charge from the idea that this is a “bad”, “dirty”, “disapproved-of” kind of sex).

  • And it doesn’t work because it leads people to underestimate the level of risk they are exposing themselves to.

What does work, in my experience, is providing people with clear information about the relative riskiness of various types of sex (some of the supposedly “dirtiest” or most “perverted” forms of sex are very low risk for disease, while completely “vanilla” acts can be much riskier), telling them what they can do to minimise the risks, and then trusting them to make their own decisions. (Well, when I say it works, I mean it works up to a point. Nothing will make all of the people have safe sex all of the time, especially people who are drunk or on drugs.)

As I say, slut-shaming doesn’t work as a technique for promoting good sexual health, and that’s reason enough to object to it being deployed, even in light-hearted contexts like these. But I also find it objectionable because, personally, I don’t believe there’s anything shameful in being a slut. Provided they are open and upfront about what they are looking for – and that’s a big and important provision – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a person having lots of sexual partners, or a handful, or just one, or none at all. That’s just a matter or personal preference, and there’s no good or bad, or right or wrong, outside how those things appear within a person’s own moral or religious framework. People need to be responsible in their actions, but being responsible doesn’t have to mean avoiding sex, or cutting down on numbers of partners.

James Bond’s supposedly slutty activities may indicate that he suffers from a ‘fear of commitment’ or a ‘resistance to emotional intimacy’, as Jon Kelly claims elsewhere in his article, but equally they may not. Sex can be a wonderful way of building emotional intimacy and trust in a long-term relationship, but it’s also a physically pleasurable activity that can be enjoyed for its own sake. It’s perfectly possible to have a happy, healthy, responsible sex life that involves multiple partners, just as its possible to have a happy, healthy, responsible sex life that involves only one. We should abandon the practice of using morally and emotionally loaded terms for sexual behaviour – whether that’s labelling people who don’t enjoy sex prudes, or labelling people who enjoy lots of it sluts.

Sex is just sex: some people will have lots of it with lots of different people, others will have none of it with no-one, and most of us will fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not a moral failing to have a lot of sex, just as it’s not a moral failing to have very little sex, or none at all. What matters is that sex for everyone is consensual, and fun, and responsible. And being responsible doesn’t mean counting up numbers of partners and shaming people who have “too many” or “too few”. It means taking the necessary, proportionate steps to protect your own and the other person’s well-being every time you have sex.

If you are looking for advice on having a happy, safe and responsible sex life, the sexual health pages on the Terrence Higgins Trust website are a good place to start.

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