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Sex, the recession, and some strange statistics

November 17th, 2008

Dr Petra

Over the past few weeks it seems that many companies selling sex products have been targeting the media with stories about sex and the credit crunch.

This has included a private health clinic claiming STIs are on the rise because people are having riskier sex as a result of our precarious financial climate. This ‘study’ conveniently ignoring the real reason for increase in STIs at this time of year when our STI rates always go up as people return from holidays where they’ve often had unsafe sex and notice symptoms.

Then there was the research from sex toy manufacturers who claimed their sales have dramatically increased since the recession as people are staying at home and having sex together. They were joined by baby clothing companies suggesting they were experiencing a boom in sales as folk were responding to the credit crunch by making babies. You can see both examples of these stories played out here.

Or the story from strip clubs that suggested along with the financial downturn has been a decline in punters visiting clubs.

The problem with all these stories is most are working from data gathered in the past year. That’s data that was collected before the general public were aware of the ‘credit crunch’ (which the media has only really been flapping about for the last quarter). That makes me think we cannot reliably pin any of this data to the recession or related behaviour – we’ll only be able to do this over the coming months as the impact of financial problems will be felt more acutely.

Also, as far as I can see nobody is doing any checking of this data. So for all we know the figures could be completely manufactured in order to make us think we ought to be making babies, buying sex toys, staying home and having lots of sex with the occasional trip to a lap dancing club.

In most cases these stories are being used to promote particular products, services or individuals and most probably don’t hold water if properly investigated. It seems that sex is a good angle for any paper to cover and in a recession what better way to promote yourself by making up a ‘sex and the credit crunch’ story to get a quick plug and hopefully boost sales.

I wouldn’t object to this, but what I do find really irritating about all these stories are they are accepted by journalists as ‘lite’ but still run as though they are a serious story. They are not critiqued or questioned, but are constructed as a ‘real event’ happening. The story, in all these cases, is why are commercial sex outlets making such an effort to spin the credit crunch to their advantage (and why the media doesn’t seem to see through this ploy).

Which brings me to the latest in this current trend. Last Thursday a journalist from The Guardian called to say she had some new research from directory enquiries company 118 118. They had noticed, she stated, a massive increase in requests for numbers of lap dancing clubs and sex shops over the past year. The journalist explained this wasn’t a PR survey but data she had obtained from the company (how she had obtained it wasn’t clear).

I was told this would be a ‘lighthearted’ story and the journalist wanted my take on what this said about our current sex lives – particularly in relation to the recession. I explained that I couldn’t comment on that as the data didn’t really make much sense. Here’s why. I’d want to see whether this is something that has genuinely happened over the past year, or if it’s been generally increasing or decreasing over a longer period of time – that would tell us if this is something we could pin on the ‘credit crunch’. We can’t really draw any conclusions unless we see whether the same effect has been noted by other directory enquiries firms. Otherwise this might be something specific to this particular company and nothing to do with the recession or sex industry at all.

Moreover we simply can’t assume from a number of enquiries to a company that this is an indicator of a change in our sexual behaviour (as the journalist seemed to believe). Because someone rings up to ask for a number does not mean they necessarily follow through and visit a sex store or lap dancing club. Indeed The Guardian has only recently highlighted another study as being problematic for taking a similar (limited) approach.

The data also doesn’t explain the purpose of these calls which could be from potential customers, people thinking they might get a job in a sex shop or lap dancing club, or folk wanting to identify where venues are so they can boycott or protest against them. Just because there’s been an increase in request for phone numbers does not mean there’s been an outbreak in folk feeling more frisky. The only way to establish this would be to assess from clubs or sex stores if trade has increased – which is going to be tricky since people probably won’t want to be honest about this. Although as we’ve seen lap dancing clubs are complaining in the media of a downturn in trade and sex stores in an increase. None of this research is independent though, so all of it has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Finally with data like this we can’t draw any real conclusions unless we ask to see records of all enquiries and establish whether the requests for sex-related numbers were higher than anything else, or whether enquiries about bowling alleys or dog grooming services had also shown a proportionally similar increase too. In which case we might assume that there isn’t anything that specific about the sex industry and the data hasn’t been correctly interpreted. Without seeing the data, though, you can’t draw any reliable conclusions.

I put all this to the journalist and explained I’d be happy to be quoted as such. They again repeated how the story was a ‘lite’ one and so obviously these views were not complimentary to their angle. I pointed out that it was depressing for me that I’m only called to talk about ‘lite’ stories for pieces that are really just PR for a company. I should have added that it was equally depressing to give some useful angles and have them ignored. Particularly from the paper that prides itself on busting Bad Science.

Predictably my warnings about the story being free advertising for a company and based on bad data were ignored as you can see from today’s paper. As you will see there is plenty of space for promoting the directory enquiries company, no critical coverage of the data, but a wildly overstated claim that the data represents a massive change in our sexual behaviours.

My worry with reporting like this is it misunderstands data, does not require any critical analysis, and fails to make a considered opinion about the story. In this case the journalist could have decided to:
- reject the story after appreciating there was not enough data to make a reliable piece (and after realising all they’d be doing was providing free advertising for a company)
- accept the story but present it in a critical context and ask questions about the data like the ones I’ve outlined above
- use this story as an idea for a wider investigation about why commercial companies are using the sex-and-recession angle to try and persuade journalists to write about them (and perhaps even take this further and find stories where journalists seem to have been hoodwinked into doing just that)

Stories like this are going to continue to spread within the media since once one paper covers the issue, others jump on board. For example one journalist read about the story of STIs increasing with the recession and pitched it to Company magazine. They asked me for a quote and I explained the shortcomings with the data, the likely explanation for the STI increase, and the problem of a private clinic trying to generate publicity from an STI story. I offered the journalist and their editor the opportunity to write about a more serious issue of STIs increasing over Christmas (which is a genuine problem). It would allow them to fit within deadline and be topical. Sadly my advice was ignored.

This is the most depressing part of these stories. I can understand (but not accept) journalists are busy, deadlines are tight, editors are inflexible and these sex-and-recession stories are just too juicy to ignore. But why is it when faced with advice about how such data is dubious this information is being excluded from press coverage. There is a deliberate decision being taken to accept dodgy stories and provide free advertising – while ignoring advice on how such stories and the data they’re based on are completely flawed and misleading.

Reliable evidence does show that people’s relationships (and sex lives) can be affected by the culture they live in. During a recession the worry about money, threats to job security, redudancy and other problems undoubtedly can lead to higher divorce rates, more relationship problems, and more sexual problems. But since this recession is fairly new we cannot say at this time the impact it’s had on us. We can make guesses at what’s happening but we’ll only really be able to draw firm conclusions based on quantitative outcomes once this recession is in the past.

So if you’re a journalist wanting to write about this issue you can draw upon the existing evidence to talk about what we know can happen and how to handle this. But it would be more professional and ethical if you perhaps avoided the slew of PR based stories coming your way on this topic as data to stack up your story. There is data available which you can use, and it means you don’t have to promote something dodgy to do it.

As for the rest of us, the next time you see a story telling you our sex lives, relationships or sexual health are changing as a result of the credit crunch remember that it is too soon to know what impact the recession is having. All you are reading is someone trying to get you to buy something – and since we’re in a recession you’re best saving your pennies. One way to do that is by avoiding purchasing products or services from someone who’ll spin shoddy sex data to try and get cash from you.

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