Boxer, Sarah. "Truth or Lies? In Sex Surveys, You Never Know," New York Times, 22 July

 

Boxer, Sarah. "Truth or Lies? In Sex Surveys, You Never Know," New York Times, 22 July
2000, pp. B7, B8.

Wardell B. Pomeroy, one of Alfred Kinsey's associates in the 1940s, was interviewing a man
about his first ejaculation. He asked, "When?" The man answered, "Fourteen." Pomeroy then
asked, "How?" and was surprised to hear: "With a horse."

In his new biography, "Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey," Jonathan
Gathorne-Hardy records what happened next. Pomeroy asked the man, "How often were you
having intercourse with animals at 14?"

The man looked confused and said, "Well, yes, it is true I had intercourse with a pony at 14."
Pomeroy, it turned out, had misheard the man's previous answer. It was "with whores," not "with
a horse." So the man was stunned that Pomeroy had had the insight to ask him the horse question
out of the blue.

Sex surveyors are bedeviled scientists. Beyond the problems of hearing the respondents correctly
and not making imaginative suggestions themselves, they face a number of obstacles. People lie
about sex. Those who don't lie often say inaccurate things. And most sex researchers aren't
exactly neutral.

Two battling biographies of Kinsey, "Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Man" by James H.
Jones, published in 1997, and Mr Gathorne-Hardy's book have recently brought the issue of truth
in sex into focus again. And this December a new book, "Sex, Love and Health," further
analyzing the results of the National Health and Social Life Survey on sex, will be published,
raising the question again: how much can we really know about other people's sex lives?

Sex surveys give "a hardened imitation of reality," says John H. Gagnon, an emeritus professor
of sociology at State University at Stony Brook who studies sex. Certain kinds of questions elicit
certain kinds of answers, and certain questions are asked because of fear.

If you look back at American sex studies , Mr. Gagnon says; you can see that most are concerned
with risk: the risk to marriage, the risk to virginity; the risk of sexually transmitted diseases,
violence, teenage pregnancy and child abuse.

The first sex survey published in the United States, according to Julia A. Ericksen's book "Kiss
and Tell: Surveying Sex in the 20th Century," was F. S. Brockman's study of adolescent boys
around the turn of the century. College-age men were asked about their boyhoods: What was
your severest temptation? Did you yield? The results were published in "The Pedagogical
Seminary," edited by G. Stanley Hall, a prominent psychologist who believed that masturbation
depleted a man's energy. The study showed what was feared: young men were in spiritual crisis
and masturbation was partly to blame."

By 1916 concerns had changed. Walter Robie, a neurologist and advocate of birth control, was
worried about premarital sex and venereal disease. He believed, Ms. Ericksen writes, that
occasional "autoerotism would help prevent nonmarital intercourse." His survey confirmed his
belief that masturbation saves marriages.

Later sex surveys were probably no less biased; it's just that the biases had changed. Mr. Jones
writes in his biography that Kinsey's sex studies were an effort "to help himself," that from
childhood on Kinsey "lived with two shameful secrets: he was both a homosexual and a
masochist." He was determined, Mr. Jones writes, "to strip human sexuality of its guilt and
repression."

Accordingly, Mr. Jones says, the homosexual cases made up approximately one-fifth of the
sample." And so Kinsey vastly overstated the incidence of homosexuality (10 percent for men).
Mr. Gagnon takes a different slant on Kinsey's bias. What affected the data, he says, is that
Kinsey's subjects were "all white, Midwestern or Northeastern, young and highly educated."

The surveys that followed were even less representative: in the 1970s Shere Hite, the Cassandra
of women's sex, was criticized for choosing a sample that included. too many women who had
emotional problems with men in.the "Hite Report on Female Sexuality." The sex surveys done
by Redbook, Cosmopolitan and Playboy were based on the responses of readers, a self selected
group.

But even if such biases are removed, will the whole truth out? Apparently even the sternest
scientific studies - mass surveys of randomly selected people, conducted by interviewers trained
to look unbiased, unimpressed and unembarrassed - are not beyond reproach.

Six years ago the results of the National Health and Social Life Survey were published in "The
Social Organization of Sexuality" by two sociologists, Edward 0. Laumann and Mr. Gagnon; an
economist, Robert T. Michael; and a researcher, Stuart Michaels. The study, which was
motivated by the AIDS epidemic and was supposed to be publicly financed, ended up being paid
for privately when the Senate, at the urging of Senator Jesse Helms, voted against support.

Contrary to prurient expectations, the survey, based on interviews with a random sample of 3,432
people between 18 and 59, was a picture of sexual squareness: low rates of homosexuality and
promiscuity, high rates of marital fidelity and connubial bliss. It showed that in a given year most
Americans have only one sex partner; that the median lifetime number of partners for women is
two and for men is six; that most people have sex less than twice a week and it`s over quickly;
that most Americans are happy with their sex lives and partners. It also showed that people most
often have sex with their own class.

This survey was to be the nest representative and accurate ever. Indeed, the researchers took
extreme precautions against lying. For potentially embarrassing questions, they had the
respondents give written as well as oral answers. And only written answers were given for two
questions the researchers considered the most sensitive: masturbation and household income.

Despite the rigor, the study did not persuade everyone. In The New York Review of Books,
Richard Lewontin, a population geneticist at Harvard, complained that the researchers still had
no way of knowing how many people had lied. And even admirers of the study sounded
disappointed. Paul Robinson, a history professor at Stanford University and the author of "The
Modernization of Sex," says that the survey "had little resonance - it didn't make much of a
splash."

So where is the science of sex surveys now? In December "Sex, Love and Health," an extension
of the project begun in "The Social Organization of Sexuality," will be published. In keeping
with the concerns of the time, it will focus less on AIDS and more on teenage sex, race, class and
gender, sex between adults and children, circumcision, sexual dysfunction and abortion. But
something more basic is on the horizon. It appears that researchers are abandoning the dream of
quantitative carnal knowledge. "We are not in the truth business," Mr. Gagnon says. "People tell
us the truth as they see it." But they forget, and the stories they tell are altered by having told the
story before, by storytelling conventions, by the audience and by the news media.

Rachel Maines, the author of "The Technology of Orgasm," says sex surveys won't tell you
people's deepest, darkest secrets. But over time sex studies do show changes. For example,
people used to say, they disliked using condoms because it suggested premeditated sex, Ms.
Maines says. Now they might say that they don't like them because of the loss of sensation.

Mr. Lewontin wrote: "The answer, surely, is to be less ambitious and stop trying to make
sociology into a natural science. There are some things in the world that we will never know and
many that we will never know exactly."

Such reduced expectations seem to have brought Kinsey new respect. Mr. Gathorne- Hardy's
biography defends him by suggesting that he wasn't really out to find sex norms. Kinsey, who
started off as a biologist specializing in the study of the gull wasp, was not so much a statistician
as a taxonomist, someone who classified the variety of sexual behavior.

Mr. Gathorne-Hardy notes that Kinsey never asked "have you or did you ever?" but rather "when
did you first do something - have intercourse with a woman, a man, an animal?" By assuming
that everyone had done everything, he encouraged people to talk. Kinsey got 18,000 people to
reveal the "details of sensitive matters Me. extramarital affairs, masturbation, child- adult sex and
so on," Mr. Gathorne-Hardy writes.

Kinsey's work "probed the limits," Mr. Gagnon says. He was the first to break open the doors. In
the tradition of American reformers, he believed that sexuality, if liberated, was redemptive.

But do people read sex surveys for liberation? No, says Mr. Robinson. They "want to know how
many people are like me."

And for that "people want absolute truth from science," Mr. Gagnon says. "There is a desire for
the gold standard, the real numbers." People want to know how they stack up. They don't want to
hear stories about a boy and his horse.