Another Case of Misleading Headlines About Sex Research

There have been a whole lot of websites posting articles about some new research on the long-term effects of sex during adolescence:

What you wouldn’t know from these rather scary headlines is that the research looked at hamsters. Yes, hamsters. Some of the articles do at least make that a bit more clear in their titles:

But even so, what most people are going to take away from the articles is that (once again), teenagers having sex is scary. So let’s take a look at what was actually reported:

The researchers took a group of 40-day-old male hamsters (the equivalent of human teens) and put them with adult females in heat. A second group of males in adulthood (80 days into life) were also put wit adult females in heat. And a control group was not exposed to females. Since hamsters reach puberty at 21 days,  by 40 days they’ve reached late- to post-adolescence, roughly equivalent to ages 16 to 20 in humans.

At 120 days, they put them through some tests. In a swim test, the males that had sex at 40 days were more likely to stop swimming vigorously, which is a sign of depression. And all of the sexually active hamsters showed higher levels of anxiety, measured by willingness to explore a maze, than the hamsters in the control group.

There were also differences in the brain structure of the hamsters in the two experimental groups. Their brains showed less structural complexity and more expression of a gene associated with inflammation. Further, certain reproductive tissues were also smaller in these animals.

But here’s the thing. Zachary Weil, one of the authors of the paper is quoted as saying, “In no way do these data bear directly on the issue of teenage abstinence.” I googled quote and got exactly three sites that include that information. When I clicked on the link to show the omitted sites at the bottom, I saw 18 more, all of which were reposts of other articles.

This is exactly the problem with most of the reporting on sexuality research. It’s easy to take a sliver of information and write an article that sounds like it’s about the science, when it’s really a way to reinforce the misinformation and prejudices that people already hold.

So I did a little digging. Since Weil’s other hamster research focused on Siberian hamsters (also known as Djungarian hamsters), I assumed that they were the subjects of this study, too. They seem to be used for cardio-vascular studies due to their cardio-vascular similarities to humans and cancer studies since they’re susceptible to certain cancers. And of course, quite a few people study them just to find out what makes them tick. It seems that their testicular growth is affected by melatonin rhythms and exposure to short day cycles affects their testicle size. But as far as I’ve ever heard (or can find online), day length doesn’t affect human testicle size. So what makes all of these websites jump to the conclusion that this study says something about human sexuality? As usual, there are a couple of likely possibilities:

Lack of training in interpreting research. This is always a difficulty for reporters and bloggers, especially when they’re under pressure to post as quickly as possible.

Bias in reporting. This one is especially common when it comes to sex research. After all, a headline like Teenage sex ‘leads to bad moods’ in later life is much more likely to get readers’ attention than something more accurate. And of course, given the moral panics that surround adolescent sexuality, plenty of people will misrepresent the information in order to convince readers.

Whether these articles are the result of a desire to misrepresent the research or simply laziness in reporting, they have the effect of reinforcing fears and sex-negative myths. You deserve better information, and unfortunately, sex educators are going to end up dealing with the results. Again.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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