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Concerns about the Durex Global Sex Survey

December 28th, 2006

Dr Petra

Most sex features in women’s and men’s magazines are not complete without an obligatory mention of the Durex Global Sex Survey. That means most of the sex statistics you read in the mainstream press come from the Durex research.

Journalists use the resource because it is easily available (it’s one of the first sites that comes up when you search google for ‘sex survey’). It’s also something that’s targeted at journalists as a means of promoting products.

Concerns have been expressed about the Durex survey by sex researchers in the past, including:
* the survey is run online which doesn’t make it accessible and certainly not globally representative
* countries included in the survey are more likely to be Westernised, developing countries are less likely to be represented
* it is unclear how the questionnaire is put together and it doesn’t appear to be based around existing evidence
* the survey doesn’t appear to have any ethical approval
* the aim of the survey is to promote a product rather than an independent study of sexual behaviour, so there is a conflict of interest with the Durex research
* data from the survey are not analysed, only presented as lists of percentages
* although data is collected on a yearly basis, analysis is not completed across different years to measure any change
* results from the Durex study are only published on their website and in the press – not in any peer reviewed journals
* other academics, practitioners or researchers studying sexual health do not use data from the Durex study

Despite these worries, little has been discussed about the survey and its methodology – partly because information about the Durex research is not easily accessible to the wider research community.

However, earlier this year I had an insight into the Durex survey that raises more concerns.

I was approached by email by a PR company working for the Durex survey inviting me to be one of their experts who could help them put together their survey for 2007. I replied that I was interested, but wanted more information first.

Following my email I received a call from the PR company who gave me a brief history of the survey. They told me it was 4-5 years old (they weren’t sure which) and it was an online survey run via the Durex website. In the past they’d had a “huge response” to the survey with over 300,000 respondents (it wasn’t clear if this came from just one years worth of their survey or the whole 4-5 years – they were unable to tell me this). The survey was, in their words “a quick and dirty survey” that covered “the real basics”. It was designed and analysed by a new media company who had experience putting together the Durex survey but no specific training in designing, delivering or analysing sex surveys (hence the need to bring in experts).

They stated that the data was “good” in that “the media really like it” although they admitted “it is distinctly lacking in anything authoritative or credible”.

Moving on to the study itself, they said the Durex survey would be a 20-minute online questionnaire that would cover all aspects of sexual wellbeing (including sex toys and masturbation). It would be completed in a “bona fide way” and lead to “an authoratitive report” that would be “the next Kinsey report”. The reasons for completing the survey was that Durex had moved their brand from being about safer sex to being about “better sex and sexual wellbeing” – particularly with an aim to promoting sex toys, lubricants and condoms as “lifestyle enhancers”. The survey, they informed me, was “our main tool to get good positive media coverage of our product”.

This started a lot of alarm bells ringing for me. Although I already knew the survey wasn’t that robust it was worrying to hear the PR company claiming on the one hand they would promote it as the next ‘Kinsey report’ but then admitting it was ‘quick and dirty’ piece of research that wasn’t remotely ‘authoritative or credible’. If you’re signing up to back a piece of research the last thing you want to do is align yourself with something that even the company promoting it thinks could do better.

I had a number of other questions that I put to them, including:

Who else had they approached to help with the research?

They were vague about the names of people they had contacted although they told me they were all ‘big names in sex research’ based in the UK, US and Canada. I asked colleagues who I consider to be the ‘big names in sex research’ if they’d been approached and nobody had. It is unclear who they have got on board to back the survey.

What existing evidence would the survey be based on?

In robust research you consult the literature to see if anything similar has been conducted before and base your work on that. It means you can compare your research with existing data and also avoid reinventing the wheel when it comes to survey design. When asked, the PR company representing the Durex survey said they had looked at “some literature” but couldn’t say what that was and admitted “it probably isn’t as much or as good as the stuff you look at when you’re doing your research”. They were going to base the survey on other surveys they had run but not compare it with other sex surveys. I was told there was no scope for bringing in existing evidence as the survey had “already been designed”.

Would colleagues and myself be constructing the survey?

If you are calling in experts you would expect they wouldn’t just front a survey (as is typical in PR research), but they would be involved in designing, testing, piloting, and analysing the survey. In the case of the Durex global survey I was told that experts would be able to have an input into the survey but that it had already been designed by a media company and the main structure, focus and questions couldn’t be changed. In particular the questions around sex toys were not to be altered because the aim of the survey was to show high use of sex toys in order to promote the range of sex toys the company had developed.

What ethical approvals would be sought for the research?
Usually in reputable research you would require ethical approval before you could complete any research, and you would not be able to publish any study without proof that ethical approvals had been granted. This is to ensure participants in any study are protected, understand what the research is about, and are represented fairly. Whilst the rules may differ slightly on a global study (particularly an online one) the host institution/individual who are leading the research should have approval for their study and permissions should also be sought locally in participating countries. When asked the Durex global survey team stated they “didn’t need to worry about ethics” as they were completing a “commercial venture”. They did say they would fit with standards set out for market researchers, but given the study is one on health and wellbeing wider controls should be applied if this was to be a quality piece of work.

What countries would it be aimed at?

I was told the study would cover either 27 or 40 countries (not clear which) and the representative I spoke to said they couldn’t say which countries would be included although they would be ones with “good internet access”. When asked about other countries I was told those without good Internet access or who would be unlikely to consume Durex products (particularly lubes and sex toys) would not be included since there was “no point” in talking to them as you couldn’t sell to them.

What the purpose of the research would be?

In all good research you need an aim or question to guide your research. In the case of a global sex survey that might be to identify key areas of sexual behaviour, risk, pleasure, amounts of sexual activity and levels of sexual knowledge. When asked about this I was told the purpose of the Durex was to “get lots of publicity for the products via the media”.

What analysis would take place?

As mentioned, a criticism of the Durex survey (and other similar PR studies) is they present lists of percentages that does not constitute analysis. To demonstrate differences in country-wide behaviour, or by age or gender the research needs to use statistical analysis. When asked about this the PR representative for the Durex survey stated that presenting percentages definitely was analysis and hadn’t heard of any other statistical tests that could be used. I asked if they experts could do analysis and they said it would be unlikely since the marketing company produced the percentages and we could see that finished data but not have access to the whole dataset. That means a dataset of thousands of responses will not be adequately analysed wasting respondents time and a pool of data.

Who would own the data and where would it be published?

Who owns data is always a contentious issue in research and can lead to problems of reporting so I asked the Durex PR representative who would own the data. Unsurprisingly they said the company, but they also added that the ‘authoritative report’ from the research would be on the website and sent to journalists, no research would be submitted to journals for peer review which you would expect if the survey was as important as they were claiming. Given the pressure on healthcare professionals and academics to publish their work it is unlikely many people could become involved in such a survey if they were unable to publish the data. Even some of the Big Pharma companies who make sex drugs publish in peer-reviewed journals to give their work some credibility. It is worrying that Durex has no plans to do so and did not apparently understand the importance of publishing.

How long would the project take?

Usually a sex study will take several months and often years. That will include reading the existing literature, developing your research tools, gaining ethical approval, and testing and piloting your study. Recruiting participants and publicising your research as well as managing data and keeping a study running to capture a range of responses is necessary, as is coding, cleaning and analysing your data. Finally writing reports and papers will add time to a study. And all that needs to happen before you go to the press with any findings. On most of the sex surveys I’ve worked on or seen colleagues produce they’ve taken several years. The Durex survey planned to be designed, put on the website, data completed and analysed within three to seven months.

It will come as no surprise that I had reservations about being involved. It’s a shame since as a sex researcher I’d welcome the opportunity to access a wide range of people’s experiences and the chance to design and conduct a well-planned piece of sex research. Durex has had the opportunity to develop a quality piece of research as well as being made aware of limitations of their existing work. I’d question the ethics of experts who do decide to get involved since I didn’t receive any assurances that the study was anything other than a standard piece of PR work to which you’d put your name but not your skills.

Having answered my questions (see above) I was told that a representative of the marketing company and someone more senior at Durex would be ringing me to give me more information and discuss the research. Guess what? They never got back in touch.

Next year they will launch their survey. No doubt people will complete it in large numbers and no doubt it will show we have more sex than ever, we enjoy sex more than ever and that we use more sex toys than ever. We’ll then be told about the array of lifestyle products that you can get from Durex to compliment your sex life. Journalists will of course continue to use the survey as their main source of sex information – despite there being countless existing reliable sex surveys available. So the survey will definitely do what it wants – promote a product.

We’ll just be left with misleading data about sex from research that could have done better, but seemingly couldn’t be bothered.

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