Sex, lies and statistics

Broadsheet games with statistical slops

By Lyle Dunne

It’s disappointing to see our “quality” broadsheets serving up research of demonstrable inconsistency, illustrated with salacious quotes and photos of attractive sexually adventurous women, in the service of cheap thrills.

If I were to say that I’d done a survey that showed Australian men were having twice as much (heterosexual) sex as Australian women, you’d smell a rat. Who are they having it with, then, if not Australian women? 

But the claim in the latest Weekend Australian that men had more than twice as many sexual partners as women demonstrates the same fallacy, if less obviously.

The article claims that, according to the euphemistically-titled Australian Study of Health and Relationships (a more honest title might be “the Australian Study of Sex, Sexual Relationships, Sexual Health and Sex”),

The number of sexual partners women have had has increased: the average is sexual contact with eight men.

Men, on average, had contact[!] with 18 women.

Dancing with deception

But a few minutes thought should have made it obvious that such a conclusion cannot possibly be true.

If we said that at a ball, on average the men danced with eighteen women each and the women with eight men, we’d conclude there must have been a severe shortage of men – less than half the number of women.

But we know there are not anything like twice as many women aged 18 – 59 as men in the Australian population.

Some men in the cohort will have had sex with women outside the cohort, ie those now deceased, outside the 18 – 59 age range, or overseas. But even apart from the offsetting effect of women doing the same, it’s unimaginable that this would account for most of the sexual partners of most of the men.

The obvious explanation, then, is that at least some of the respondents are lying: men are significantly exaggerating the variety of their sexual experience, women significantly understating theirs, or both.  (Though it’s theoretically possible that all exaggerated – but men much more!) 

Instead, we’re offered a conclusion that’s about on a par with concluding, from the difference between claimed beer consumption and sales figures, that the bulk of beer sold in Australia must be spilled.

A more honest or numerate account would say that men claimed twice as many sexual partners as women – and point out that this was not really possible. But this would reveal that the limitations of the methodology meant that estimates could easily be half or double the real numbers. Which makes nonsense of claims like

Today, less than one-fifth of men have had sex before the age of 16 compared with 22 per cent a decade ago.

An estimated change of a tenth is clearly not worth very much when we know the margins for error are more like a half.

But there something else going on here. No-one will want to publish an article headed “self-reported data on sexual experience so unreliable that we really don’t have a clue what’s going on” – even though such a statement may be an accurate reflection of what the state of our knowledge. So there’s always an inbuilt prejudice in favour of finding something going on. This is related to what statisticians call “publication bias”: a study which shows a statistical connection between, say, mobile phone use and cancer is much more likely to be published (and publicised) than one which fails to find a significant relationship. 

Making it personal

And clearly even respectable broadsheets are not immune to the temptation to publish titillating stories to attract readers. So in this case, the dubious statistical claims are a lead-in to an even more dubious illustrated “human interest” story. So we have a photo of attractive “Sydney sex and relationship coach Tara O’Sullivan, 28” and “her partner Tomek Juszczyk, 27”, with their hands on each other’s knees (actually hers is on his upper thigh).

Tara thinks it’s “quite lovely” that Tomek, whom she met on Tinder, didn’t want to have sex before their first date. The sense is she had no such qualms – however she is represented as a significantly more cautious than in her early 20s, when she was 

…a lot more experimental, ­adventurous and maybe even promiscuous. I don’t think I was making very healthy choices.

Tomek’s view on this history, or publicising it nationally, is not recorded – but I suppose it’s good for his partner’s business, “teach[ing] women to explore their own sexuality and to take control of it, something which the latest sex survey shows is an increasing trend.”

Let’s pass lightly over whether a 28-year-old woman who has gone from self-described promiscuity to finding sexual partners on the internet is qualified to teach women to explore and take control of their own sexuality, and consider this trend for a moment.

The Australian offers no data in support of such a trend. However, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, the study

…shows that heterosexual women claim on average to have had nine sexual partners in their lifetime, compared to 17.5 reported by heterosexual men.

At the last survey, women reported seven partners, and men 16.5.

 University of Sydney public health researcher Chris Rissel said this appeared to be indicative of a growing social acceptance of sexually outgoing women.

Well at least they said ‘claim’!

Still no acknowledgement, however, that it’s not logically possible for men to have twice as many (hetero)sexual partners as women. So at best, the data show that the average number of sexual partners – which must be basically the same for men as for women – has gone from somewhere between 7 and 16.5 to somewhere between 9 and 17.5.

Hardly dramatic.

Perhaps amateurs are reluctant to be poster children for the Growing Social Acceptance of Sexually Outgoing Women?

The SMH too has a personal angle and photo, but whereas Ms O’Sullivan at least kept her gear on, the SMH has a photo of an apparently-naked couple in bed, captioned “In an open relationship: Madison Missina and Dardan Shervashidze, who also have another girlfriend”.

Because this is a respectable newspaper, though, we don’t see the “other girlfriend”, nor too much of Ms Missina: a sheet is discreetly drawn over her charms, and a veil over her career as a prostitute and pornographic actress — until a bit further into the article.

So we’re back in the realm of the advertorial. Perhaps amateurs are reluctant to be poster children for the Growing Social Acceptance of Sexually Outgoing Women?

Where’s the harm?

Well, many people may be thinking, it’s regrettable to see respectable broadsheets behaving like lads’ magazines, running dodgy statistics and cheap titillation — but where’s the harm, really?

According to the Australian article,

[P]rofessor Chris Rissel said the study showed women wanted sex on their terms. “We have become more accepting over time of women and their own sexual experiences, although the coercion statistics haven’t changed and that is still alarming”, he said.

There’s a sense in which it is surely true that women want “sex on their own terms”: they don’t want to be raped (which is what “coercion” means, if we’re honest).

But this is not the primary sense here: “women wanted sex on their own terms” doesn’t immediately suggest a woman not wanting sex. The focus is on the increased acceptability of female promiscuity, and varied sex practices.

In other words, society, ie men, find it acceptable for women to take control of their sex lives if that means saying Yes – it’s only when they say No that it’s a problem.

This is standard fare for the soft-core pornography which constitutes most men’s magazines: in addition to providing dirty old men (of all ages) with a few cheap thrills, they’re also celebrating the freedom of women – to behave in accordance with male fantasies. Win-win, really.

But of course the reality is that being “open to women expressing their sexuality” in this sense constitutes being closed to women choosing celibacy, or marital fidelity – let alone modesty. 

It’s too much to expect the publishers of men’s magazines to understand that reducing the relations between men and women to mechanics might actually be demeaning and depersonalising, or to realise that too much emphasis on “acceptance” of female promiscuity might lead to expectations of female promiscuity, which in turn might not tend to maximise female self-determination. And in any case, they at least can claim that it’s all openly in the service of sexual titillation: no-one imagines them to be making serious claims about social trends.

In the case of our “quality” broadsheets, on the other hand, it’s a little more disappointing – and a little more dangerous – to see them serving up research of demonstrable inconsistency, illustrated with salacious quotes and photos of attractive sexually adventurous women, in the service of cheap thrills.

Someone might take them seriously.


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