What, how often and with whom?

Lawrence Stone

In the early Eighties, Western governments, notably those of America, Britain and France, were anxious to assess the probable rate of growth and pathways of infection of Aids. They sponsored extensive sex surveys in order to find out, for example, the number of sexual partners an average male had in his lifetime and how many used safe sex. The British survey was carried out by four women, primarily trained in medical statistics, epidemiology and health care. The American survey was carried out by four men, primarily trained in sociology. The purposes, methods and conclusions of the two surveys are much the same, although the British one is more directly focused on assessing risks of the spread of Aids and asks a rather different set of questions.

The American survey appears, mysteriously, in two forms: one for scholars and one for the general public, written by most, but not all, of the same authors. The scholarly version is careful and may be better sociology, but is almost unreadable, being choked with platitudinous and pompous social sciences language, much of which means absolutely nothing:

Overall, these profiles of sexual expression suggest that the interests and resources associated with specific social locations lead to diverse manifestations of sexual expression.

Although presented in isolation from their behavioural context, these practices must be seen as moments in the various sexual scripts that render them meaningful.

Age, for instance, was curvilinearly related to the appeal of vaginal intercourse.

Only sociologists could contrive to make such a gripping subject as sexuality so very hard to understand. This is presumably why the more popular version of the survey was published at the same time – a unique publication ploy, so far as I know.

Until very recently, the insuperable obstacle for those asked to reveal embarrassing information about their sex lives to strangers was modesty or prudery. All but the libertines, eager to boast of their prowess, flatly refused either to fill in a questionnaire or to answer a set of questions put by a trained investigator. Assurances of confidentiality were not believed. This natural reluctance was reinforced by the stress placed by Christian churches for the last thousand years on the sinfulness and shamefulness of sex. The poll-takers were baffled, since only a tiny handful, composed of the sexually most liberated sectors of society, would volunteer to speak frankly, and they were by definition not at all typical of the majority. Back in the Forties, Alfred Kinsey recruited his informants from gaols, mental asylums and the University of Indiana in Bloomington; post-1970 authors, like Shere Hite, from readers of sexually-oriented magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Even so, within these already biased samples, fewer than 6 per cent of those invited agreed to participate. That two fundamental sampling errors wrecked these earlier attempts to investigate sex in America was repeatedly pointed out in scholarly reviews at the time. By way of contrast, the new US survey had an acceptance rate of 80 per cent, and the new British one of 70 per cent, both taken from genuinely random samples. The volunteer trap has at last been broken.

It is disturbing, however, to find that 21 per cent of the respondents in the new American survey were interviewed with other people – usually sexual partners or children – present in the room. This is surely undesirable given the intimate nature of the questions asked, about matters such as masturbation, fornication, adultery, sodomy and the number of sex partners. That it affected the results is proved: the presence of others led to a dramatic fall from 17 per cent to 5 per cent of the sample who admitted to having more than one sex partner in the previous year. The major weakness of the American report, however, is that the sample, a mere 3400 respondents, is too small. For example, the data on homosexuality are based on a sample of only the 150 women and 143 men who reported any same-gender sexuality.

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