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Missed opportunities in sex survey reporting

May 28th, 2006

Dr Petra

Last week I was called several times by a reporter from The Sunday Times who wanted some help interpreting a new sex survey meta-analysis. The research, by staff at San Diego State University in California, drew on 530 sex surveys from 1943 to 1999.

This research was similar to a UK study completed last year, which I referred the Sunday Times journalist to.

In both studies, analysis of data over time reveals Western women report a greater range of changes in their sexual attitudes and behaviour, including an increase in premarital sex. The latest US study showed 13% girls reporting being sexually active in the 1950s compared with 47% of girls disclosing sexual activity in the 1990s. Guilt around sex had also reduced, as had the age of first intercourse, whilst views about premarital sex had become more positive.

During my 3/4 hour conversation with the Sunday Times journalist (and their follow up phone calls), I painstakingly unpacked the results of this research at their request.

I pointed out how the results would apply to the West rather than internationally, and the US study may not be completely representative given some states were (and are) more amenable to sex research than others which would bias outcomes. I also described how many studies are limited in their focus on behaviour and counting sexual activities without asking people to talk about whether they enjoyed said activities – and to capture issues like pleasure and desire.

I explained how surveys don’t just report on attitudes and behaviour, but they’re also affected by cultural forces and in many ways shape and maintain rather than report social factors. For example, in the 1950s until the 1970s it was common for surveys to ask about feeling guilty about sex since it was expected those having pre or extra marital sex should be ashamed of such behaviour (particularly women). However, as times changed and we no longer viewed premarital sex as negative or unusual we tended to drop the questions about guilt from our surveys. So it may not be that respondents were less likely to feel guilty in the 1990s (although it’s probably true), it’s more likely that they were just not asked if they felt guilty since it wasn’t such a social issue.

I returned to this when the journalist asked me if I was ‘shocked’ by the apparent increase in female sexual behaviour. I outlined how in the 1950s and 1960s in particular it was frowned upon for women to engage in or report sexual activity. That’s not to say women didn’t have sex or experience desire, but before the widespread availability of effective contraception, sex carried with it the risk of pregnancy and either the risk of an unsafe abortion (since terminations were illegal) or the social stigma that came with being an unmarried mother.

Sex surveys are also often unclear what they mean by ‘sex’. The interpretation of the Sunday Times journalist I spoke to was 13% of girls in the 50s were having intercourse compared to 47% in the 1990s. Yet because surveys define and measure ‘sex’ in different ways it may be that some of the surveys in the US study’s meta-analysis were measuring kissing, cuddling, petting, masturbation, oral sex or intercourse.

Modern surveys are more likely to ask about oral and anal sex, whilst those from the 1950s-1980s are less likely to ask about them due to sexual taboos relating to these practices during that time. All this means some comparisons over time are possible, often sex surveys are more of a portrait of contemporary social attitudes and some activities and behaviours can’t be measured longitudinally since they’re either not asked consistently over time, or social factors prevent people answering openly.

Clearly the availability of the pill, wider social and work opportunities, and legal changes for women have had an impact on female sexual behaviour – although that’s not to say women are entirely liberated, nor that we can equate an increased reportage of sexual behaviours as an indicator that women are now the same as men.

Despite explaining this to the journalist from The Sunday Times it seems I wasted my breath. I was under the impression they wanted me to interpret the US study, which I was happy to do. Unfortunately they didn’t run with that angle. Instead their article briefly reported the US study, expanding on it with a few random quotes from people who, whilst they might have something to say about sex, are with respect neither representative of the population and aren’t in a position to interpret the US study.

Instead of being quoted as someone explaining sex research I became the negative voice. Part of a wider quote where I was trying to explain that in the past it was seen as problematic if you did have sex, now it was a problem if you didn’t was taken out of context.

You can read the piece in full here.

It’s always depressing when you think you’ve done your job as a scientist who talks to the media only to discover that you wasted your time, an opportunity was missed, and you were misinterpreted. I was captivated by this US study and eager to see the treatment the Sunday Times would give it. When I opened the paper today my heart sank. Not only had they missed the chance to report accurately on an amazing sex study, but they’d misrepresented me professionally and personally.

You can see from the piece they’d fixed their headline before anything else and hadn’t let any of the facts get in the way. Shame they hadn’t made that clear to those they were interviewing.

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