Being a Woman · This Week in Bad Journalism

This Week in Bad Journalism: Sex Sells, We Know.

An article was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior that got picked up by the Guardian.  The Guardian provides a lot of cute charts and, in short, concludes that lesbian women are having a lot more orgasms than other women, and that women need a “Golden Trio” of deep kissing, oral sex, and genital stimulation to orgasm.

Well, first of all, let’s start by getting it out of the way: #notallwomen

Right? But beyond that, we can dig into the actual article a bit more to see where the cute charts and Golden Trio advice might not quite match up with the research itself.  Because all the cute charts in the world are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.


First, let’s take a look at the study itself, because there are some methodological issues that the authors do, in their defense, mostly acknowledge.

  • The N is massive.  Yes, a large N is good, but with 52,000 observations, everything is going to be significant. Because of this, the authors select a cutoff point for the coefficient size: any coefficient less than 0.09 is not reported as significant. I’m not sure this makes much  methodological sense, but at least they’ve acknowledged that sometimes, there IS such a thing as too big.
  • They run three (six) models when I think they should have run one (two).  Rather than controlling for, or even better, creating interaction terms for, the authors run three separate models for straight, gay/lesbian, and bisexual individuals.  I’d rather see a model of all women with some indication of how (straight * oral sex) affects the likelihood of orgasm.
  • Their causal arrow might go the wrong way.  I know. I KNOW. Always my critique. But is it the case that the number of orgasms is caused by how long you’ve been together, or do you stay together longer because you’re getting lots of orgasms?  The authors partially acknowledge this by running a model in which they take out relationship satisfaction as a variable (because it might be circular, in the sense that satisfaction causes orgasms which causes more satisfaction), but at the end of the day, we’re not proving that orgasms are actually caused by any of this.

The Guardian article, however, decides not to take a very nuanced approach to reporting on this. Sex sells and talking about orgasms is a great way to get likes and shares (it worked, obviously, because we’re talking about it here), but this article makes some pretty strong claims about what’s happening in the bedroom that aren’t backed up by the data.

The cute chart with the waterworks?  Percentage who saw they “Always” orgasm? Is that really the appropriate level of comparison? ALWAYS? Always is a lot.  The article itself does include information comparisons between groups on whether they “usually/always” orgasm, but the chart is what you look at, and it’s not really telling a good story about how heterosexual and bisexual women are enjoying their sex lives.

There is a bit of a throwaway statement that another question might be to find out whether women are happy with the frequency with which they orgasm. Actually, I think that’s a much BETTER question!  It’s quality, not quantity, folks (I haven’t got any data on that).

And we haven’t even begun to talk about the problems with asking people to report on their own sex lives.

Overall, I think Dr. Lloyd’s hope that women will “talk about [the Golden Trio] with their partners” is a great one, because we can probably all agree that more communication about what we want in order to be sexually satisfied is probably a good thing (yes, I know, where’s the data?).  But this is Bad Journalism. It’s making strong claims about sexual behavior that result in lots of clicks, without enough support to back it up.

Let’s be honest:  if Sociologists aren’t careful, we’re going to lower them in the Social Science rankings. Watch it, Sociology!


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