The Problem With Sex Surveys

You may have heard about the recent research published in the British Medical Journal that’s been making the rounds. The original title (Sex, health, and years of sexually active life gained due to good health: evidence from two US population based cross sectional surveys of ageing) isn’t nearly as funny as the one that the Atlanta newspaper came up with: Researchers: Men want sex until almost dead.

In any case, the original study has some interesting things to say about how sexual activity may change over the lifespan. In the 75 to 85 year old group, men were twice as likely as women to be sexually active (38.9% v. 16.8%), more likely to report a “good quality sex life” (70.8% v. 50.9%) and more likely to be interested in sex (41.2% v. 11.4%). Also of interest is the fact that being in good health makes it more likely that you’ll have a “good quality sexual life” for longer.

Time Magazine’s article touches on some of the reasons for these disparities, although the statement that “[s]ome of this surely has to do with Viagra, which makes it easier for older men to be interested in sex” makes it clear that someone over there doesn’t understand the difference between arousal and erection. And there are some other factors that I think have been mostly left out of the discussion.

For example, according to the 2000 Census, there were 4,879,353 men and 7,481,827 women between the ages of 75-84. So when you multiply the numbers together, 1,898,068 men in that age range had sex, compared to 1,256,946 women. There’s still a disparity, but it’s less than it seems at first glance (66 women for every 100 men, rather than the 43 to 100 ratio that you’d get if you just looked at the percentages).

Similarly, Science Daily reports that “[a]lthough 72 percent of men aged 75 to 85 have partners, fewer than 40 percent of women that age do”. If we do the same calculations, we see that 3,513,134 men in that age range had partners, compared with 2,992,730 women. (Actually, it’s a bit less since I used 40% rather than “fewer than 40%”.) That means that only 15% of men in that age range had younger partners, rather than the 45% that it seems at first.

This is one of the biggest problems that I see with a lot of sex research and of media discussions around sex. It’s a lot easier to study people in ways that generate numbers and it certainly makes for more interesting sound bites. But there’s often a backstory that gets left out and that creates misunderstandings and misapplication of the data. Sometimes, looking at the percentages gives us a different picture than looking at the actual numbers

Granted, there are still significant differences in the experiences that men and women reported and I certainly am not trying to calculate them away. For example, the fact that more sexually active men reported a good sex life than active women is definitely important. And the fact that men tend to be sexually active later in life is also significant. All I’m saying is that it’s valuable to see how the different pieces come together before jumping to conclusions.

As the saying goes, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” You need to dig a little deeper to get a better story.

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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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