"AdamAndEve.com Finds Most Americans Have Sex In Public!" This recent press release got my attention (as it was obviously designed to do). Yahoo Shine, YourTango, More.com and other pop culture media immediately picked up the story without questioning the veracity of the numbers, with leads like "52 percent of adults in the United States cop to copping a feel outside the privacy of their homes."
Really? Fifty-two percent of adults in the U.S.? The truth sometimes gets lost entirely in publications that are designed to grab your attention quickly and let it go just as fast. In the story above, the truth is, 1000+ people who were already Facebook fans of Adamandeve.com, which is a sex toy company, responded to an online survey. Around 600 of them said they'd had sex in public. Not exactly a random sample!
So consider the author and source, and look beyond the sound bite. The sex in public item was a press release with an obvious agenda, but even sexuality research that is published in peer-reviewed journals is subject to personal and political agendas, questionable methodology and skewed conclusions. John Johnson's post, "Are Women as Driven by Sexual Desire as Men? Part I: New Research Says "Yes" is a great example of how to unpack controversial sex research and view it through a few different lenses.
Getting to the truth about sex has special difficulties because it's so hard to accurately measure what's really going on. That's one of the reasons that 1989 Clark & Hatfield study Johnson mentioned was one of the most widely quoted ever. It was done in a naturalistic setting instead of asking people to imagine what they would do. It's a normal human tendency to omit, "forget", lie about or otherwise fudge the truth about sensitive, embarrassing or unpopular attitudes and behavior when you ask them instead of watching them in action. To complicate things further, what constitutes shameful, embarrassing or inappropriate behavior can vary by gender, culture, religion, class and other factors. Here are some techniques sex researchers have come up with in attempts to get to sex truths beyond the Conley study Johnson reviewed so well.
The Fake Lie Detector
Remember the "rule of 3" for figuring out someone's number of lifetime sex partners? According to this urban myth you multiply what a woman says by 3 and divide what a man says by 3, because the sexual double standard still portrays men as studs and women as sluts for sleeping around. Fisher & Alexander employed a clever way to test how much fudging about the number goes on by randomly assigning heterosexual U.S. college students to one of three survey conditions. The first group was told that the investigator might eventually view their responses to a written questionnaire, and the investigator sat outside the room with the door open while they completed the survey. The second group was alone in a room with a closed door, and was told their answers would remain anonymous. In the third group subjects were attached to non-working polygraphs and told they were being tracked by working lie detectors.
Interesting gender differences were revealed across conditions. The men's responses to questions about masturbation, age of first intercourse and porn exposure did not vary significantly with survey mode but the women's did. Women admitted to higher masturbation, earlier first intercourse and greater involvement with porn in the lie detector condition. Their average number of lifetime sex parters increased from 2.6 when they thought their responses might be seen, to 4.4 in the lie detector condition. Men increased marginally from 3.7 to 4.0. So when everyone thought a lie would be detected, women's numbers slightly exceeded men's! A reasonable interpretation of these differences is that, on average, men are socialized to believe their sexual behavior will not be judged as harshly as women's, so they are more open to revealing the truth, regardless of survey mode.
The Real Lie Detector - Your Body
Since the 1990s, about 15,000 young people have been completing in-home interviews for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. To help reduce false responses to sensitive questions about sex, computer-assisted self-interviewing techniques are used instead of putting the interviewer face-to-face with the subjects on these questions (but the interviewers are still in their homes with them). In a 2011 publication of third wave results1, ninety-two percent of the teens also consented to providing urine specimens that were tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomonas vaginalis (all contracted through vaginal intercourse). Even though these teens were given the chance to deny consent to urine tests and special efforts were made to get honest answers, over 10% of teens that had lab-confirmed sexually transmitted infections also reported abstinence from intercourse in the past year, and half of those said they had never had intercourse.
Putting Sex Difference Research In Context
A number of studies have shown that men think about sex more than women do but in relation to what, and why? Are they really just the hornier gender? In a new study, Terri Fisher and colleagues randomly assigned college students to three groups. The first tracked food thoughts, the second tracked sex thoughts and the third tracked sleep thoughts. Thoughts were tracked by clicking golf tally counters every time the designated kind popped up.
Results showed men did think more about sex—but they also thought more about food and sleep than women did. (Or were they just more inclined to use their counters overall?) The within-group differences were enormous—sex thoughts varied between 1 and 140 times per day for women and 1 and 388 times per day for men. When there are such large within-gender differences, it's problematic to conclude that men are one way and woman are another. Some other factor(s) apart from gender are often at play.
When Fisher et al examined these students' levels of sexual permissiveness, emotional comfort with sexuality ("erotophilia") and desire to be seen in a positive light in general (social desirability), none of these other factors were good predictors of how much men thought about sex. But the best predictor of how much women thought about sex (or at least were willing to count them) was their level of emotional comfort with sexuality. The more comfortable they were, the more thoughts they recorded. Women who were more concerned about being seen in a socially desirable light in general, also recorded having fewer thoughts about sex, but socially desirable responding didn't affect men's results significantly. So, once again, we can't just take gender differences in sexuality at face value and chalk it up to Mars / Venus biological differences.
The bottom line is, we will never know the whole truth about human sexual behavior. But if we take time to check sources, identify potential personal and political agendas, read more broadly and deeply, and examine our own biased lenses, we're off to a good start.
1. DiClemente, R. J., Mcdermott Sales, J, Danner, F & Crosby, R. A. (2011) Association between sexually transmitted diseases and young adults' self-reported abstinence. Pediatrics, 127 (2), 208-213
Copyright, 2011, Linda R. Young, Ph.D.