Skip to content

Reinforcing the ‘no sex we’re British’ myth and misunderstanding data along the way

October 25th, 2006

Dr Petra

Fairly often I have a ‘why do I bother working with the media?’ day, and today is one of them. Yesterday I did a straightforward interview with a journalist from The Telegraph who managed to misquote me and now a number of other papers have copied and run with the story compounding the error.

So what happened? A journalist from the Telegraph writing about new research from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) contacted me yesterday. Their study of sexual habits found in the past year one in six men had not had a sexual partner and most of the respondents who had had sex were in a monogamous relationship.

That’s not particularly surprising since it’s common for people to be single and also the majority of people still aim to be in monogamous relationships. You can read the full Telegraph report here

The journalist who called me was clearly going for a ‘loss of libido’ and ‘reduced sexual interest crisis’ angle with their story – interpreting that people weren’t having sex that much as an indication we were losing interest in sex as a nation.

I explained in detail how within our current culture we overemphasise the importance of sex – with incorrect PR or commercial ‘sex surveys’ hyping up both the visibility of this issue and the idea that sex is something we are (or should be) doing very frequently, and that we’re all into casual sex. That’s why the findings seemed shocking to the journalist but weren’t particularly shocking to me. More reputable data always indicates people have a range of sexual experiences and the average amount of activity is often lower than we would think. Of course the crucial issue is not how much you do it, but whether you enjoy it when you do – a factor that isn’t always apparent in research but a vital question needed to interpret data on sexual behaviour.

The report was interpreted by the paper (and countless others who’ve picked up the story) as showing we’re a ‘sexless’ society. This is an interpretation too far. Because people are monogamous and having sex less frequently than media hype might have us believe does not mean they are dissatisfied with their sex lives. And it assumes that single people are ‘sexless’ – which ignores the fact that many single people will still enjoy pleasure from masturbation. The data also needs slightly closer scrutiny since people often interpret ‘sex’ to mean ‘intercourse’ meaning activities that included oral sex, mutual masturbation, kissing and so on may not have been perceived or reported by respondents as sex.

It’s clear that the media is now so used to believing the incorrect information they report on sex that they cannot recognise or correctly interpret reliable sex research data. And when such data appears it is spun to indicate some form of sexual deficit or crisis – which is not accurate and in turn makes people feel bad or anxious about their sex lives. And also permits those with commercial interests to take advantage.

You can see this within the Telegraph report where an expert is cited as saying we’re ‘behind’ the rest of Europe in terms of frequency of sexual activity. Not necessarily so – some countries may report more sex than we do but again that doesn’t mean they’re having better sex or we need to catch up. And for many poorer countries within Western and Eastern Europe lack of contraception or sex education as well as cultural concerns over sex means people do not have sex as much as we do. This kind of interpretation makes no real sense unless you’re planning some kind of Eurovision Sex Contest.

Whilst the Telegraph piece does correctly indicate life stressors can get in the way of sex, again it implies that not having sex on a daily or weekly basis is a deficit or problem – without knowing how often couples have had sex you can’t claim they’ve suddenly dropped their sexual activity. And most couples who do report having sex less than in the past say the quality of their sex life is still good, so long as their relationship is happy.

Whilst the Telegraph piece does record some of the data from the ONS report it then moves to stack up their story with the following….
“Findings presented to the World Congress of Sexology in Paris showed a quarter of British women had sex once a month or less, more than in any other country studied. British women were also the least likely to have sex five times a month. Only 22 per cent reported enjoying conjugal relations that often, compared to a third each of French, Swiss, German women and 27 per cent of Italians. Half of British women said they had seen a drop in their sex drive recently, and two thirds said they had become less interested in sex over the last five years”.

What does this mean? We’re not told who did the research presented at the conference, was it an independent piece of research or a pharmaceutically funded promotional project? Was it was published anywhere and who were the respondents? It implies that this was a study completed by the World Congress of Sexology, rather than a paper presented at their conference – which took place five years ago. It’s quite clearly a case of ‘quick! Have to find some sex data to fit my story angle, type something into google and write down what you get’. Worrying given there are robust data on Britain’s’ sexual activity easily available from a number of reputable UK journals that pretty much supports the ONS data. Why wasn’t that information accessed?

This story keeps coming back to the data implying we’ve got a national ‘loss of libido’ which isn’t true – basically it’s just showing across the UK in general people have an average amount of sex (and most are probably happy with what they have or might like a little more, circumstances permitting). It doesn’t show that we’ve suddenly hit a downward spiral in sexual activity – although you can bet because of this poorly interpreted study magazines and other publishing outlets, not to mention commercial ventures, will now be claiming a crisis that needs fixing. Watch out for ‘sex tips to boost your libido’ coming your way soon.

Apart from feeling disappointed that this story could have been a whole lot better, the reason why I’m having the off-day with the media is due to a misquote within the Telegraph piece. Whilst they did correctly quote me in most of the piece they misquoted me as saying “we are not a nation that sleeps around or takes risks.” Now this isn’t accurate, it makes me look like I don’t know about sexual health and hadn’t read the ONS report, and it wasn’t what I said. I’d explained how existing incorrect sex ‘data’ suggests we’re all having casual sex, sleeping around and taking risks’. That’s not the same as a claim we’re not a nation who takes risks because quite simply within our population there are a great many people who do. Overall they may not be the statistical majority, but they pose a risk to their own and others health by not practising safer sex.

Whilst this may seem like a small issue to the journalist and perhaps to others, I know my peers will be happy to rebuke me for seemingly not knowing my stuff and giving the wrong impression about sexual health, and it doesn’t help wider sexual health campaigns if we imply there’s no problem in the UK which there clearly is. It’s an area I work in on a daily basis so I’m annoyed to see it misrepresented in the papers and I can only imagine colleagues working in sexual health clinics will be even crosser.Because the media feeds off itself countless other papers have all picked up on the same story, mostly misquoting me further as saying ‘we’re not a promiscuous nation’ (which I never said at all), but perhaps unsurprisingly not quoting my key message – which is sex data is largely misrepresented, the ONS findings are right, there is no loss of libido crisis but we still have a lot of sexual health problems to fix.

Until we can trust journalists do really understand data and not agenderise stories we won’t see reliable information in the press, the public will continue to be misled, and people like me will continue to think twice about whether to help journalists explain it via the media.

Comments are closed.