Part two of my critique of the new sex study everybody is talking about! Part one is here.
Yesterday I wrote about my methodological concerns regarding the study by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, “Why Humans Have Sex,” published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Today I’m looking at the reasons themselves and discussing some of the conclusions they drew, and some of the conclusions I’d draw looking at the same data.
First of all, I want to dispense with the notion that there were 237 reasons. Quantifying things is an important part of scientific research, of course, and coding data (fitting responses into categories, etc.) is a process that can never be wholly objective. (Somebody at least has to create the categories!) In this case, my criticism arises because the authors indicate that they whittled 715 initial “reasons” down to 237 by eliminating or merging responses that were “too similar” to other responses. That, they claim, produced a list of 237 “distinct reasons”.
I disagree. How distinct is “I wanted to experience the physical pleasure” from “I wanted the pure pleasure,” or “It feels good”? All three of those made the top 15 for men and for women. For the women in the study these were reasons 2, 13 and 3 respectively and for men they were reasons 3,12, and 2.
I’m also not really sure how “I wanted to keep a partner from straying,” is different from “I was afraid my partner would have an affair if I didn’t have sex with him/her” or how “I wanted to get my partner to stay with me” is different from “I wanted to prevent a breakup.” (All were less common than the top 50 but more common than the bottom 50 for both the men and the women in the study.) There are other examples of very similar “distinct reasons” but you get the idea.
Now sometimes researchers use similar answer options to test whether respondents are consistent or not in their reporting of whatever is being studied (personality traits, motivations, what have you). But that doesn’t mean these are “distinct reasons.” Also usually in that case the similar items are scattered throughout the list of items. In this study similar answers are generally clustered together on the list of items raising both a methodological and analytical problem: were people more likely to give consistent answers because they were faced with similar choices clustered close together?
I have not gone through the list of 237 and figured out how many “distinct reasons” I’d come up with, but is clearly fewer than 237. if you’ve downloaded the study (which you can do in PDF form here) it would be interesting for a bunch of us to try it and compare notes!
Second, it’s important to note that most of the reasons were not reasons most of the time for most of the students in the study. Even in the top 50 for both men and for women, most items have a mean score of less than 3. Remember, individuals were asked to indicate whether each of the 237 reasons was true for “none”, “a few”, “some”, “many”, or “all” of their sexual experiences. (This raises a separate methodological issue in that fatigue sets in for lots of survey takers well before they’d have reached their 237th item on the survey!) Those categories were numerically coded 1-5 with “none”=1 and “always”=5. So an item with a mean score of 3 would be true, on average, for “some” of respondents’ sexual experiences. Of the top 50 reasons for women, only the top 8 had mean scores of 3 or above. For men the top 10 did.
Bracketing the methodological problems for a minute, this is interesting because it indicate that people’s self-reported reasons for having sex are pretty varied, and it would seem that few people always have the same set of reasons.
An aside: In a disheartening interview on the Brian Lehrer show I heard Lehrer, who I usually think asks pretty good questions, as “Did we really need a scientific study to show that?” As if the scientific confirmation our hunches about sex is somehow unimportant! When we have hunches about other things, global warming for example, we certainly expect to use science to confirm whether our hunches are accurate. Why would we not do the same for sex?
(Here’s a link to the Lehrer piece. If you listen to the clip, at 7 minutes 51 seconds you can hear Leonore Tiefer, noted sex therapist, researcher and sex educator, call in to raise the same methodological questions I raised in my blog entry yesterday. Leonore, I wish I’d heard the piece in time to site it in yesterday’s post!)
Anyway, given those variations, and still bracketing the methodological issues for a moment, it’s interesting to look at the top 50 reasons with a purpose slightly different from that of the researchers. Their interest was to categorize peoples’ reasons. Mine is to examine what they mean. Remember that these are self-reported reasons. They are self-reported at two levels: first, the list itself is the result of people’s own reports about why they have sex. Second, the ranking comes from people’s reports about the relationship between their thoughts and their behavior. (Our self-reporting is not always accurate but it is interesting because it does represent the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do.)
I’m pleased that actual desire to have sex and enjoyment of sex is reported as often as it is (the second and third most common reasons for both men and women in the study). I’m pleased that affection, attraction and love are mentioned as often as they are (all rank in the top 20 for students of both genders). I’m pleased that the students in the study were able to acknowledge and own their horniness (the seventh most common reason for women and men in the study).
That said, there are some troubling reasons in the top 50 for both the men and women students who participated in the study.
For male students in the study, the 34th most common reason was “The person was too ‘hot’ (sexy) to resist” (mean score of 2.17), 38th most common reason (with a mean score of 2.15) was “I saw the person naked and could not resist” and the 42nd most common reason (with a mean score of 2.11) was “The person was too physically attractive to resist.” Framing one’s sexual activity in terms of “being unable to resist” is troubling if it is accurate because it implies a lack of ability to control oneself. In addition, pointing to another person’s characteristics (attractiveness, sexiness) as the cause of one’s own inability to control oneself reinforces the victim-blaming that often surrounds rape, and acquaintance rapes particularly.
That for women students in the study the 49th most common reason (with a mean score of 1.89) was “I was drunk,” certainly doesn’t make the situation easier. And the fact that both men and women cited “heat of the moment” (mean score of 2.84 for the men and 2.89 for the women), “it just happened” (mean score of 2.23 for the men and 2.21 for the women) and “my hormones were out of control” (mean score of 2.20 for the men and 2.11 for the women) is only reassuring in that I’m glad the students were aware of those things as factors in their own sexual behavior.
Sexual motivation is complicated and deserves serious study. This study, though disappointing in many ways, at least has us talking about the need for better research on why people have sex. Understanding people’s sexual motivations, both their conscious motivations and their unconscious motivations, could be important to designing effective public health campaigns, and address the still-too-real problems of sexual abuse in our society.
So lets move beyond this study. Let’s move beyond the trivializing focus on how many people said they had sex to get rid of a headache, or the focus on the number 237 and what the 238th reason might be, and lets start talking about the different ways to design really good sexual motivation research.
(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.org)