sex research and fuzzy thinking

I read a lot of sex research- both the sorts of stuff that makes a splash on the blogs and the stuff that most people never hear about. And I often see research become sensationalized in the media. OK, that’s nothing new, but can I just say this? CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION!!

Just because two or more things happen at the same time doesn’t mean that one causes the other. One might cause the other, each might cause the other, they might both be the result of some other factor, or it might simply be coincidence that they both happen at the same time. One of the reasons for using the scientific method in conducting research is that it’s a systematic approach to inquiry that helps us avoid mixing all of these things up.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This recent article describes research showing a correlation between frequent masturbation in younger men and a higher rate of prostate cancer as they age. Now just to be clear, the article is very specific about the fact that they’re not suggesting that masturbation causes prostate cancer. In fact, the speculation is that “young men genetically predisposed to have hormone-sensitive prostate cancer will be at higher risk if their bodies naturally produce high levels of male hormones” and these hormones are likely to cause a higher sex drive, which would then lead to more masturbation. This is just speculation at this point- more research is needed into both the effects of hormones on sex drive and prostate cancer before we can say for sure what’s going on.

So we have a correlation: more masturbation and more prostate cancer. And we have a plausible hypothesis about why that is: more hormones. So why do so many people feel the need to present it as:

MASTURBATION CAUSES CANCER!
Masturbation May Cause Cancer?
PROSTATE: TOO MUCH SEX AT YOUNG AGE INCREASES CANCER RISK

and my personal favorite:
Too much sex = Increased Prostate Cancer Risk

Of course, part of the answer is that sensational stories about scary things get attention and increase website hits. And a lot of the answer is that many people don’t understand the difference between two things happening at the same time and one thing causing another. It makes me a little bit crazy (no, that’s not me in the picture) because these ideas stick around for a long time, even when they’ve been proven to be false. I expect that I’ll be hearing people ask “doesn’t masturbation cause cancer?”, and “isn’t too much sex dangerous?”, which just makes my job as a sex educator harder.

So when you hear the latest scary article about sex (or anything else for that matter), I suggest that you take a look at the original research and find out what it actually says. It’s usually not nearly as scary as most bloggers make it sound. And remember- correlation is not causation. Say it with me- correlation is not causation. It won’t necessarily make the fear go away, but at least you’ll know something that the bloggers don’t.

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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