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Big trouble in Little China

November 8th, 2005

Dr Petra

According to the results from Durex’s 2005 Global Sex Survey, the Chinese aren’t happy. Only 22% reported they were satisfied with their sex lives (compared to a global average of 44%).

Every year Durex runs an online survey across 41 countries, this year getting responses from 317,000 people. However, it’s a volunteer online survey meaning it’s only based on data from people with Internet access, and the inclination, time and privacy to complete the survey.

These data are irresistible to the media because they compare countries against each other – so there’ll always be a ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ country. If your country has respondents reporting lots of sexual activity it’s a headline – or in the case of the Chinese this week, it’s also a headline if respondents are not satisfied. Virtually every media outlet wins because you can pin a national or local angle on it.

Although this survey is for a condom company, the main aim of the survey is not to add to the science of sex. It’s PR. And it’s very effective. Open most magazines and their sex stories will inevitably contain some data that comes from the Durex sex survey (and of course gives a plug to the company each time it’s mentioned). The reason the figures are so widely reported is they’re easily available and well known. Any journalist writing a story will find the Durex global sex survey more quickly and easily than they might find a survey reported in a scientific journal.

So it’s the Durex data that are repeatedly reported, rather than other robust scientific sex survey results. Something journalists should be aware of, and academic sex researchers ought to be concerned about.

It’s not to say we shouldn’t use this data, but only in the context of a commercial survey with some limitations, and only linked with other data where it supports existing findings. Frequently the Durex survey produces data that doesn’t fit with other existing evidence.

Which seems to have happened this year. Many Chinese sex researchers have argued the low satisfaction rates reported in the Durex survey do not match with data generated from other large-scale studies.

There are problems within China (as in most countries) about sex education, sexually transmitted infections, and relationship problems. The increase in Western influences within China could lead to a rise in reported sexual dissatisfaction. What would be more accurate and more useful from the Durex survey would be an idea why respondents reported dissatisfaction, and better still what they’d like to help them feel better about their sex lives.

Most academic researchers don’t use the results from the Durex surveys in their research papers; they rely on other scientific evidence. It’s not to say we dismiss these data completely, but that journalists need be aware if the wider scientific community aren’t relying on the Durex global survey to inform practice and research, then perhaps the media ought not depend on them so heavily.

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