Last week, I got an object lesson on how preconceptions color our interpretation of the news. I was visiting Washington D.C., as the guest of Wilberforce Forum, giving some lectures on my new book, Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World, which argues that marriage is the most appropriate context for sex. Friday morning, my friend who was escorting me around DC, asked me if I had seen the headline. I had barely found my way out of the hotel, so naturally, I hadn’t seen the headline.
“Married Americans remaining faithful,” announced the front page of The Washington Times. How nice, I thought to myself. I scanned the article as we zipped through traffic on our way to breakfast. I discovered that the claim was based on a data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
We arrived at our breakfast appointment, an informal gathering of policy-makers interested in my topic. After I was introduced as an expert on marriage and sexuality, one of them burst out, “did you see the new study showing that more teens are engaging in oral sex than ever before?” No, says I, wondering which left field that information flew out of.
So he showed me the newspaper headline, “Half of all Teens Have Had Oral Sex.” I scanned the story, and found the same institution had published this study: the National Center for Health Statistics. Then I noticed, I was reading The Washington Post, the more liberal beltway paper.
I could hardly contain myself: I just about knocked the orange juice out of the waitress’s hands. “I bet this is the same study. Same data, different headline.” I made a mental note to check this out when I got home to California later that day.
There is was, on the web, looking exactly as my friend had showed it to me in the Dead Tree version of the Washington Times. More than 90% of married Americans said they were faithful to their spouses in 2002. And there was the Post story as well: half of all teens between the ages of 15 and 19 have had oral sex. The proportion increases to 70% of the older teens between 18 and 19.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love In A Hook-up World. She blogs at jennifer-roback-morse.blogspot.com
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