Posted by: Amelia | August 15, 2007

Sex & the CDC: The Follow-Up

Pursuant to Monday’s post, I was going to title this entry “Harry Potter and the Sexy Celebrity-Dating LOLcat,” but it turns out I don’t even need an excuse to bring up a traffic-building subject. The New York Times has cottoned on to the puzzling discrepancies with the CDC sex partners survey I wrote about a while back.

One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.

But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.

There’s even a delightful little proof accompanying the article. The mathematicians and researchers interviewed came up with the same general explanations that I came up with in my earlier post:

Sevgi O. Aral, who is associate director for science in the division of sexually transmitted disease prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there are several possible explanations and all are probably operating.

One is that men are going outside the population to find partners, to prostitutes, for example, who are not part of the survey, or are having sex when they travel to other countries.

Another, of course, is that men exaggerate the number of partners they have and women underestimate.

As Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon is reporting, though, women are probably fudging their numbers down more than men are fudging theirs up. Marcotte cites a study “where researchers found that if you tell the subjects that they’re strapped to a lie detector, men’s numbers go down a little, but women’s go way up.” Upon reflection, this doesn’t surprise me all that much, actually. The socially-ingrained censure for a woman with many sexual partners is greater, I would argue, than the censure for a man with few partners. In other words, if you surveyed a man and a woman who both had six sexual partners, I would not be at all surprised if the man nudged his number up by one but the woman nudged hers down by two. Et voila, the man reports 7 and the woman reports 4.

As one of the mathematicians interviewed in the Times article says, reporting these results without explanation can serve to reinforce the very social pressures that caused them.

Dr. [David] Gale added that he is not just being querulous when he raises the question of logical impossibility. The problem, he said, is that when such data are published, with no asterisk next to them saying they can’t be true, they just “reinforce the stereotypes of promiscuous males and chaste females.”

In fact, he added, the survey data themselves may be part of the problem. If asked, a man, believing that he should have a lot of partners, may feel compelled to exaggerate, and a woman, believing that she should have few partners, may minimize her past.

“In this way,” Dr. Gale said, “the false conclusions people draw from these surveys may have a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

On the other hand, the sexual double-standard is pretty clearly alive and kicking all by itself. It’s going to take a major cultural shift to slay that beast-with-two-backs. Correcting false survey interpretations can only do so much.

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