March 10th, 2008
Every year we can look forward to Durex releasing their sex survey, used as a means to promote their products rather than giving us clear and accurate sex information.
This year is no exception, with the results setting up some kind of international sex contest with ‘global averages’ based around sexual frequency and other behaviours. Not all that surprising, they used the same approach last year.
The survey would be useful if it took into account a truly global approach rather than just 26 (mostly Western) countries. And if the survey wasn’t completed online which further restricts who can reply. Oh, and if it wasn’t hosted through a website for a condom manufacturer which further leads the kind of replies people will give and the type of person who’d want to answer questions. And if the company didn’t keep releasing lots of different data from the same survey – giving the impression more research has been completed than actually has.
The difficulty with the Durex survey is it continually confuses sexual frequency with ‘good sex’. In the latest survey we’re told how often people do it with countries reporting lots of sexual activity heralded as the ‘most sexual’. Which highlights a major flaw in this study’s design and indicates how unlike a reliable sex survey it is. Because in a reliable sex survey we don’t just ask about frequency of activity, we ask about how much someone enjoys what they do, or how concerned they might be about their behaviour. Meaning it’s entirely possible for someone who has a lot of sex to feel anxious or unsatisfied, and someone who has sex occasionally to have a wonderful time.
The media, predictably, have responded to the survey as though it was accurate and reliable. They haven’t acknowledged it’s a marketing tool and it will continue to be used to stack up sex features. Most coverage has reported international comparisons without recognising some glaring problems with the ethics, design, delivery and accuracy of the survey. Some of these I’ve reported on previously and they’ve also been covered in a recent book Panicology that details hypes and bad science in the media.
I’d feel far happier about the Durex survey if they were honest that it is very limited and is a PR tool not a piece of science. But I think we all know that’s never going to happen. I’d also feel reassured if, rather than completing an entirely new survey every year, the survey would be replicated on an annual basis and yearly differences or similarities in the data discussed. I’d also feel better if some kind of analysis was completed on the survey. After all, you can brag you’ve surveyed over 26000 people, but what’s the point in that if you only present summary data in the form of what percent answered what question. If you don’t analyse your data, compare answers or cross check what’s going on you’re just wasting all that information you were sent.
Of course you could say it’s mean to question a survey for a condom company. After all, shouldn’t we be encouraging condom use? Definitely we should, but there’s an ethical question when we’re encouraging condom use but creating inaccurate data alongside it that gives us misleading information about our sexual behaviour. And I’d like to see the evidence that the annual release of the survey data actually leads to an increase in condom use.
There’s nothing much that can be done about this survey apart from raising concerns about its accuracy wherever possible, and trying to educate journalists that there’s lots more reliable sex statistics they can use. Sadly when it comes to sex features most journalists like things quick and easy to find and set out in league tables. Which is why we’ll continue to have our sex lives informed by a commercial venture. And that’s not just bad news for science, it means we’re comparing ourselves to inaccurate and impossible standards.Tweet