The Sex Researchers (Channel 4)

Today's nosy-parker sexologists make for unconvincing viewing.

This new documentary series is classic Channel 4 fare: intellectual but smutty - or, if you prefer, smutty but intellectual. It tells the story of the rise of sex research from Victorian times to the present day, taking in all the usual suspects - Dr Freud, Masters and Johnson, Shere Hite - along the way. There are elderly and not-so-elderly talking heads, some good archive footage and various amusing animations for when things get really, erm, mechanical. But there are also lots of naughty images: women furiously masturbating, men proudly revealing their giant members, that sort of thing. What I'm trying to say is, don't tune in if your mother-in-law is visiting - unless she's the kind of woman who reads Nancy Friday in bed, naturally. Maybe check out her bedside table first.

The material included in the first film, which focused on that mysterious thing, the female orgasm, was broadly familiar to me because I was once sent on assignment to California where, it was rumoured, certain drug companies were close to developing the so-called female Viagra. In the course of working on this story, two things happened. The first was that I learned to keep a straight face while extremely suburban-looking American scientists told me about such things as lubrication, blood flow and the swelling of vaginal walls. The second was that I grew increasingly suspicious of what you might call the medicalisa­tion of sex. It wasn't only that I was concerned these doctors were going to make an awful lot of money out of "fixing" something that might not have been broken in the first place. It was their intense interest that bothered me. Why are some doctors so obsessed with the female orgasm? Shouldn't they find the cure for can­cer first?

The Sex Researchers (starts 16 June, 10pm) does not alleviate this anxiety, and how could it? One of those interviewed is Cindy Meston, from the University of Texas in Austin. Dr Meston wears a white coat to work, which is fair enough, I suppose. Slightly more alarming, however, is that her little dog wears one, too; it has his name and title - "laboratory assistant" - embroidered on it in red silk.

Would you let a woman whose dog wears a lab coat stick a probe up your vagina? No, I wouldn't, either. Meston wants to find out why women don't have more orgasms, which seems to me to be a futile project; I'm not sure most of us feel such a lack and, even if some do, it's hardly a matter of life or death. Then again, her little project is possibly not quite so futile as the work of Meredith Chivers. This Canadian researcher has discovered that women get moderately aroused when watching footage of bonobo monkeys mating. Hmm. Lie back and think of the bonobos. Remember where you heard it first, girls.

The film is at least replete with wonderful, and extremely weird, facts. Victorian men sent their randy wives to the doctor to have their genitals massaged, a treatment that proved to be strangely popular. Some of them - the husbands, I mean - also wore spiked metal rings to deal with unwanted erections of their own. In the 1920s, you could buy a mechanical vibrator that could be attached to any electric light socket. The doctor, writer and social reformer Havelock Ellis, who died in 1939, got turned on by the sight of women urinating and not very much else, and was once told by a prostitute about a client of hers who could achieve climax only if he was able to watch a pigeon having its neck broken at the same time as he was having intercourse.

On their own, such items of trivia make for great dinner-table conversation (I'm also looking forward to telling my girlfriends about the bonobos over pasta and a glass of red). When gathered, however, they suggest to me that most people know exactly what they want and how to get it, and have done down through the ages. The nosy-parker researchers, armed with their horrible probes and their plastic penises, are trying and mostly failing to quantify the unquantifiable, clumsily invading what was once the province only of the poet. l

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis