There’s been some noise this week about the study which claims that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex by age 44, and that this percentage has been quite constant for 40 years. The Guttmacher Institute has a clear social/political agenda in all this, but let’s put that aside for the moment. People can have an agenda and still be accurate, after all.
(The immediate joke at Pajamas Media, of course, was that postmarital sex was also unchanged for the last 40 years at 5%.)
Numbers that dramatic should always raise an eyebrow. It pays to look at what is being measured, and how the data was obtained. In this instance, you will look long before you get the answer to some key questions about the data. After the phrase “surprisingly high refusal rates” popped up – in the context of my being unable to locate the actual number – I began to wonder whether this number was being downplayed, or even hidden. Perhaps not. But it’s hard to find. Refusal rates were 17%-27% for the various studies, averaging 21%. That is not an enormous number for survey studies, as many people just don’t want to do surveys about anything, let alone their sexual history, even for the $40 payment. It would be hard on researchers to expect a much better response.
But such high refusal rates, even if they are expected and common, should sound a cautionary note to researchers. If you are going to make even a tentative statement about 95% of Americans, you should be asking yourself “what about the 20% of Americans who wouldn’t answer at all?” If we could magically obtain that data, perhaps it would be similar to the four-fifths of the people who responded. Researchers do often try to equalize the demographic factors as mauch as they can.
But perhaps the numbers from that group are quite different. We don’t know. It would be easy to make up plausible explanations why people at extremes in any direction would avoid being questioned too closely. The study itself, in reviewing abortion data, goes out of its way to note that abortion data is generally underreported by about 50%, and to caution that people should be hesitant about basing conclusions on their data. Another pink flag.
Next we come to the question of what, exactly, is being measured? The study gives out that (round numbers) 75% of Americans have had premarital sex by age 20. From 20-44 years old, apparently, the total rises to 95%. The original 75% number seems high. But perhaps it’s true. If you are counting up everyone that has ever had sex, even only once or twice, maybe the number climbs that high. But let’s look at the second part of that equation. Of the 25% of the population who has not had premarital sex by age 20, (and note that this is quite a different population than the citizenry as a whole) four out of five of them will have premarital sex over the next 24 years? Don’t some of those people, like, get married over the next few years and stay married until age 44? To qualify as having had premarital sex, that previously chaste group of people would either have to be starting sex right away and then marrying, or having affairs. Does anyone think that is going to turn out to be true for 80% of those people?
Unlikely. So the group of people who get married and stay married are going to pull the average down a lot. Some percentage might have sex before their one marriage, or have affairs, but nothing like 80%.
And they are more than half the cohort we’re talking about. Most of those who marry, marry after 20. Those who marry later have lower divorce rates. Thus, this is more than half the remaining group.
This leaves the people who do not marry before age 44, or marry and divorce. Apparently, 110% of these people are having premarital sex. The people in wheelchairs, the developmentally disabled, the germ-phobics, all of ‘em. Seems unlikely.
Well, someone’s numbers are wrong here – perhaps mine. There’s something major missing from the data. Let’s pretend it’s my bad. Let’s give the Guttmacher Institute the benefit of all doubts here – the missing fifth of the population, the unlikely sudden behavioral change of 20 year-old-virgins, the greater-than expected number of marriages where both people are having affairs, the wheelchairs. Give ‘em all of it.
Oh, and make it retroactive for two generations.
Their goal in this, expressly stated in the study and the press releases, is to stop the government from providing abstinence-only sex education. The institute believes this is a terrible and unrealistic approach and wants to squash it. Their interest is in showing that simply everyone has premarital sex, therefore abstinence-only programs are unrealistic and even dangerous. Not so fast. The one does not follow from the other. Remember that we are counting in this population the people who have had unmarried sex even once or a few times over decades. You get counted in their data for any of it.
Unmarried 40-year olds who had sex twice in 1996 and once in 2002 do not consider themselves “sexually active.” And there is nothing to suggest anything about any type of formal sex education after age 20. No one attempts much of that or collects much data. Any data.
Plus, the original 75% that we breezed past early in the discussion – those kids who had premarital sex by age 20 – Guttmacher is counting the ones who had sex once or twice, and even the ones who had sex once or twice with their fiancee. Technically true, of course. But it’s hard to draw sexual safety conclusions at all from people having sex that infrequently. Theoretically, there’s risk every time. But there’s no actual data on what increases the sexual safety of that subgroup. The groups that we study tend to be highest-risk groups, and what works with them. (Which is fine, by the way. That’s who we should be studying. Go where the problem is. But there is nothing to indicate the results for the high-risk group bears on the general population.)There are several good arguments for some safe-sex, rather than abstinence-only sex education. This study isn’t one of them. But this is exactly the sort of thing that will stick in the mind, and will give the impression of having proved the point.