Let's talk about sex: How digital is shaping audience attitudes towards relationships

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Rebecca Holman, acting editor of the Debrief (Bauer Media’s lifestyle brand for millennial women), on the changing ways in which we talk about sex and relationships in the digital age.

How digital is shaping audience attitudes towards relationships

Before we launched the Debrief, our mission was simple: to stalk (in the least creepy way possible) young millennial women, find out what media they were consuming, when and, crucially, what they weren’t getting from women’s media. In the course of our research one thing quickly became clear: our audience talks about sex. A lot.

‘All my friends talk about is boys and food,’ noted one girl we spoke to. It quickly became clear that our audience had a frank and forensic attitude to sex, and saw sex as funny and fun. But that conversation she’ll have with her mates in a group Whatsapp chat on a Sunday morning? Or the drunken conversation she’ll have with her best friend on a Thursday night in the pub? There was nothing relatable in the mainstream women’s media that could fuel that content.

A quick look at the landscape back in 2013 showed that young women were still being told how to please their man (in fact they still are: case in point, US Glamour magazine’s car crash of an article ‘13 Little Things That Can Make a Man Fall Hard for You’ in July was rightly pilloried). And sex was only ever discussed in an overly sanitised or cutesy way.

The reality? Tinder – which in the 18 months since we launched the Debrief has already gone from the most important invention in dating in the last decade to passé (or so my team, a group of exactly the sort of 20-something women we are targeting, tell me) – has spawned numerous copycat dating apps. As a result, sort of seeing that friend of your brother’s who you met in the pub has been replaced with five dates a week, each of which will be live messaged to 10 of your closest friends who have developed a complicated rating system for your unsuspecting date.

In fact the world of online now fuels every element of the dating game. If Tinder is the new first base, Facebook messaging is second base. Actually giving someone your mobile number for some sexting is a sign that you’re really very keen on your potential beau. And if you get to fourth base – actually meeting IRL – then you’re practically engaged. Everything has changed – from from the politics of emojis (you might use the heart-eyed cat to indicate that a booty call’s on the cards, but what if he takes that as a declaration of your undying love?) to the politics of gender. Note my use of the word ‘he’ just then. The assumption that every couple is made up of a he and a she is as outdated as the fact that female audiences are being told how to please their man in the first place.

Everything we do needs to reflect that – and clearly it works. 97 per cent of the respondents from our reader survey last September ‘liked’ or ‘loved’ the sex channel. They said it was ‘unique’, funny’, ‘frank’, ‘honest’, ‘open’ and, crucially, ‘relatable’.

And that’s the biggest change when it comes to our audience’s expectations around how we talk about sex and relationships in the digital age. It needs to be relatable, it’s got to be useful and it’s got to be funny. With an audience as smart, savvy and vocal as ours, a filler list titled ‘10 Ways You Just Know He’s In Love With You’ (I’ve just made that up, but how many articles with that exact title do you think exist?) just won’t cut it.

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