07/15/2010 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Got Sexual Problems? Step Right Up!

The first time I saw the email was two weeks ago. A colleague sent it to me after it was sent to her with the request that it be posted in a popular online forum she moderates. Then I got it again, this time on a listserv I subscribe to. And the third time was when it was rudely posted in my own forum, without the courtesy request my colleague had received. Each email was the same, announcing a new program to be aired on Oprah's new network, and trolling for guests with sexual problems who are promised help from a "world-renowned Sex & Relationship Expert." Before we go any further, can we agree that when you have to tell people you're world-renowned, you're probably not?

Here's the pitch:

Are you struggling with your sex life or relationship?

Have you lost the spark in your relationship?

Is intimacy -- or lack thereof -- a source of conflict between you and your partner?

Are you desperate to reconnect but don't know where to turn, or don't have the resources to get the information you need?

Dr. Laura Berman can help!!!

It goes on, in a flurry of exclamation points and one wonderfully Freudian typo to promise that the host will help you "get exactly what you want and need in the bedroom and beyond!" Then it asks for your personal sexual story and a photo. The return email address is a gmail account with a well positioned "Harpo" reference, just so you know there's some connection to Oprah.

Now, I like television. I've worked in television production, making sexuality related programming, for over a decade. I also watch a lot of TV. I've watched Laura Berman on TV. I've read parts of her two most recent books, one of her industry papers, and some of her website. In the past she's given advice I find problematic and sometimes advice I find okay (that is, if you think that what people need is expert advice, which I happen to think is the last thing most of us need).

No amount of marketing can distort the reality that if you want help, going on television to receive it isn't the way to get it. Television is a good medium for many things, but providing individual counseling or advice simply isn't one of them. If you want more intimacy, or greater connection with a partner, it's not going to happen in front of a studio audience when the conversation is being guided in equal parts by the "world-renowned Sex & Relationship Expert" and the producer who is feeding her both lines and time constraints through her earpiece. The only people who benefit are the producers and host of the show. The audience is invited to gawk, to consume for a short period of time the empty calories offered by a narrative about sex that doesn't reflect anyone's lived experience.

I believe it's unethical to induce people to come on a television program and disclose information about their private lives (information which, by the way, could get them fired, socially ostracized, beat up, killed, disowned, and more) with the promise of "help" from a professional. I think if you want to help people, giving them pat answers that are timed to commercial breaks isn't the way to do it.

I reject comments that I've heard like "but she's just trying to help" or "some people might be helped by this". Let's stop pretending. A television show is a business enterprise. It exists to get viewers and sell advertising. Tacking on secondary goals, for genuine or self-serving reasons, doesn't change that fact. Self-improvement/self-help television has absolutely sold us a bill of goods. And we keep buying it. Eating McDonald's could be said to "help" me if I'm hungry (after all, it's inexpensive, and afterward you have a vague feeling of being full). But at what cost? Who benefits and who loses, and along what social axis are these effects distributed? My point isn't that we need to censor these shows, it's that we need to think critically about them.

And this is particularly true for sexuality. Most of us live with such shame, fear, and guilt about sex that we end up with very little knowledge, and few skills to question our own assumptions, let alone the assertions of a "world-renowned sex expert." In the end what they get is money, ratings, and better publishing advances. But what are we left with?