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Stop with the whats when you want the whys!

March 22nd, 2005

Dr Petra

Virtually every story idea put to sex researchers by journalists always contains the phrase “and if you have any statistics/ surveys to back this up, that would be great”.

Either that, or we’re presented with a list of percentages, gleaned from uncited sources that we’re supposed to endorse.

And the remainder of the conversation with the journalist never touches on quantitative data (the how often, how many, who with). Instead, they just want to know ‘why?’ like…

‘Why do men fall asleep straight after sex?’
‘Why are women like foreplay so much?’
‘When do you know he’s ‘the one’?’
‘Is there a difference between love and lust?’

And so on…

This presents sex researchers with a problem. We’re asked to explain behaviour, which requires us talking about a broad range of evidence, but it always has to be tagged onto a percentage.

Usually there is quality data available from qualitative or quantitative research. Unfortunately most journalists’ quick Google searches throw up unreliable quantitative data, and miss out qualitative research completely.

The upshot of all this is that sex researchers either can’t help journalists, because they’re being asked to put their name to data they know is incorrect or misleading, or because the story requires more information than just ‘stats’. Those who’re not qualified in sexology or research methods may be happy to give a quote – because they’re not hot on data and don’t realise they’re endorsing something incorrect. The result is the public get fed incorrect information, and qualified sex researchers tear their hair out!

If you want to find sex data try Google Scholar which links you into academic research. Or sites like PubMed that link you to medical papers.

Certain sex research organisations like the Kinsey institute have lists of commonly asked questions about sex and accurate data to go with them, or links to groups concerned with the study of sex.

Reputable sex researchers, although often very busy, appreciate that many academic papers on sex and relationships aren’t always that easy to follow. They’d be far happier with you asking them what data’s available, and providing you with that data, than being given a list of dodgy stats to comment on.

Often journalists misunderstand that sex research is painstaking, and is designed to answer complex questions about our sex lives that stand the test of time. Unlike media stories that have to shock with ‘new’ findings, most sex researchers draw upon a body of established evidence. This means quality existing data is overlooked by journalists who seek out the ‘latest’ findings – normally from PR or other studies that hijack sex as a means to sell a product and grab headlines. These sort of ‘quick and dirty’ projects aren’t valued by reputable sex researchers, so again, if you present them with data from a dodgy PR study, they’re unlikely to be willing or able to help you.

Terminology also presents a problem. Journalists frequently ask us where they can access ‘sex surveys’. A survey, also known as a questionnaire, is the list of questions participants are asked to complete. What journalists really want are ‘data’ – the results from sex questionnaires. Alternatively they muddle ‘statistics’ with ‘percentages’, wanting us to provide frequency data, but nothing that’s been analysed. And amidst the rush for the ‘statistics and surveys’ all those rich case histories, interviews, observations, epidemiological studies, or other forms of sex research are discarded, simply because your editor wants a ‘statistic’.

Sex researchers spend their lives looking into new ways to find out about personal issues. Most will be happy to talk with you when your story is taking shape, or let you know when a new study has been published that you can peg a feature on. There are hundreds of sex research papers published each year that never get used in the media, simply because journalists aren’t aware they exist, and don’t realise they can ask sex researchers to recommend them.

So next time you’re given a sex story to write, don’t find the statistics and then ask your expert to approve them. Instead, ask your sex researcher contacts to help you match data to your story – you’ll find there are lots more than you realised.

And editors, if you’re reading this, you’re by far the worst culprits here. Journalists pitch your ideas, demand your ‘statistics’, and then may get negative responses by sex researchers who can’t endorse the story or the statistics provided.

Sex research is a vast area, with a large number of methodological approaches at its disposal. Do your staff and readers a favour. Talk to the experts, and find out what’s going on. You need to realise there’s more to sex than numbers.

Do this and we’ll get the sex features we deserve. Quality ones, based on a variety of evidence.

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