Sex (and significance) is in the eye of the beholder

Posted: Sep 26, 2005 12:05 AM

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.

 I did a bit of Googling and found the original study on the CDC website. (You can find it too, here.) I printed it out and carried it around, and read it when I got a chance: a few minutes at lunch, spread out on the kitchen table, or while hiding in the private room with plumbing, the only peaceful place in a household with kids.

 So what did this study actually say? Well, with 56 pages and 29 tables, it said a lot. Everything reported in the two Washington papers was accurate, but each reporter picked out results they found particularly significant. In fairness to the Washington Post, the press release on the study did emphasize teen participation in oral sex. An increasing number of teens appear to be using oral sex as a birth control method. Experts quoted by the Post are rethinking their “safe sex” messages since oral sex spreads some sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, an the human papillomavirus.

 Kudos to Cheryl Wetzstein, the author of the Washington Times article: she must have actually opened the study and not just the press releases. I found the basis of her headline right in Tables 1 and 2. Ninety-two percent of currently married males and 94% of currently married females had just one sexual partner in the last year. You can interpret this to say mean that marriage is a public health measure because it reduces the number of sex partners people have. Partner reduction has to be part of any sensible program to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

 What interests me about this study is the competing definitions of homosexuality. It is difficult to pin down the commonly-held belief that 10% of the population is gay. Do we define homosexuality as attraction to persons of the same sex, or as same sex behaviors?  Do we define a person as gay because the person defines themselves as gay? This study asked participants all these questions, and finds the same ambiguities as previous studies. 

 If we ask men how they describe their own sexual orientation, 90% describe themselves as heterosexual, 2.3% as homosexual, 1.8% as bisexual, with the remainder describing themselves as “something else” or not reporting.  Do these numbers mean 2.3% are gay, or that only 90% are straight, with all others either gay or lying? We get a slightly different picture if we look at how people describe their sexual attraction. Of those who describe themselves as being attracted “only to the opposite sex,” only 94% describe themselves as heterosexual, with the largest portion of the remainder, 3.4% describing themselves as “something else.” 

 Behavior tells a still different picture. Six percent of men and 11% of women report ever having had any sexual contact with a same sex partner in their lifetime. However, in Table 17, we learn that only 2.9% of men have had any same sex partners in the last 12 months, while only 1.6% had exclusively same sex partners in the last 12 months.  So who counts as gay?

 The proper definition of gay depends on the question we are asking. The epidemiologists favor behavioral definitions, while psychologists look at sexual attraction. Political activists want to know how people define themselves. These are each legitimate questions, which generate different answers and different interpretations of what is important in the data.

 Meanwhile, on the Left Coast the LA Times tells us what it found significant in the report. “Study finds big rise in female gay sex.”  I rest my case.