Sex, lies and statistics

// 30 September 2014

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Paperclip Numbers.jpgI love statistics. I love discussions of sexuality. Thus, the Guardian‘s British Sex Survey might be my kind of Sunday reading.

There is some good news. For example, the number of people who did not want to have sex with a disabled person has decreased from 70% to 44% since a similar survey was conducted in 2008. Equality is not about getting laid, but the reasons people rule out disabled people as sexual partners tend to be around infantilisation, fear and othering which effects our treatment and opportunities in every aspect of life.

However, this is a sample of 1052 people, which is a pretty small group to represent a population of 64 million. The write-up includes information about the difference in behaviour between homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual people, but at 4% each, there can only be around 40 gay people and 40 bisexuals in the study. Asexuals, non-binary people and men without penises don’t seem to exist.

And some of the stats are very ropey.

My favourite, which is often cited in newspaper columns and by sexual experts is that men have many more sexual partners, on average, than women. Many studies claim this and the British Sex Survey places these two figures as 12 for men and 7 for women. This is extraordinarily unlikely.

There are roughly the same numbers of heterosexual men and women in the world. This means that straight men and women have to be having sex with each other at roughly the same rate. This doesn’t mean that straight men or women necessarily behave the same or even that a typical man and a typical woman (should such mythical creatures exist) have the same number of sexual partners. But whatever differences there may be, the averages simply must tally.

It could be that somehow female sex workers were excluded from the survey and the 22% of men who had used the services of a prostitute do so regularly and see many different women.

Another possible explanation is that gay and bisexual men have many more partners than straight men – it would have to be 58 partners each – pulling up the male average. There are certainly folk who have had that amount of experience, but as an average, this seems fairly ludicrous.

People lie about sex. They lie about sex even when they’re answering anonymous surveys. And it’s probably the case that both straight women and men lie about the number of sexual partners they’ve had, but in two different directions. It may also be the case that men count certain kinds of sexual encounters that women do not, and for a small minority, there will be men who count women as sexual partners where those women would count such men as assailants. But mostly, people are probably just fibbing.

This is vitally important to acknowledge. Whatever differences in sexual behaviour men and women may exhibit, it cannot be demonstrated in numbers if those numbers don’t add up. Another stat the Guardian offers is that 29% of men but only 10% of women have had sex with someone whose name they didn’t know. This conjures romantic scenes where men readily introduce themselves but their lovers remain stubbornly mysterious. Or maybe men are just bad with names?

When these statistics are quoted – and they will be quoted widely – we receive information about what is normal. I’ve seen similar stats offered in advice columns to explain that it’s normal for a straight man to be more sexually experienced than his partner. As sex therapist Meg Barker says in an article running alongside the survey,

“People are very scared of not being normal. By far the most common question I’ve heard as a therapist is “Am I normal?” And people come to sex therapy with the hope that it will make them “normal”.”

Women are encouraged to play down their experiences to what they imagine might be more normal levels. In 2014, in a culture which largely accepts and expects women to be sexually active regardless of their marital or relationship status, it is ridiculous that sexual experience should come with any shame. One friend confided that she had lost count of the number of sexual partners she’d had, but had told her boyfriend – who had been crass enough to ask – that she’d had just three.

Thus women are condemned to the pretence of a kind of pseudo-virginity; we’re grown women, of course we’ve been around the block. But, not far; not as far as you, darling.

Men, too, are pressured to exaggerate, although invention is a little easier than erasure; you’re never going to bump into an imaginary ex-girlfriend at a family wedding. One could read a lot into Nick Clegg’s answer of “No more than 30. It’s a lot less than that.” when asked about his sexual history in 2008. There’s also a difference in being embarrassed by what you haven’t done (yet) and being ashamed of what you have done (and can never now undo).

My hackles are raised any time a statistic is blithely used to demonstrate a massive difference between men and women’s behaviour (having almost twice as many sexual partners would be a massive difference). It is not necessarily that these stats mean nothing, but both their validity and their impact needs to be examined before we accept them at face value.

[The image is a square grid divided into nine squares each with a colourful number (one to nine) in it. These numbers are apparently paperclips. The photograph was taken by Leo Reynolds and is shared on Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.]

Comments From You

Megan Stodel // Posted 30 September 2014 at 6:24 pm

Completely agree about how frustrating it is seeing the frequently cited stats about men having more sexual partners, to a degree that is phenomenally unlikely! I’ve tried to explain this to a few people with little success – nice unpicking here.

iorarua // Posted 8 October 2014 at 1:41 pm

I know I’ve been pointing this out on online forums and in conversation to people for years now. Occasionally, you see a light dawn but most of the time people stubbornly refuse to recognise the simple maths – even women. Given that 95% of every population is heterosexual, for every man who has sex, there has to be a woman for him to have sex with, prostitutes included.

On another note, watching Outlander the other night, the wedding episode, I was yet again (still!!) struck with this irritating sex myth that refuses to go away – i.e. that women orgasm purely through intercourse alone. This anatomical improbability still remains the standard belief – at least in film, TV and novels. But then, if we women were asked about this on a survey, would WE tell the truth?

The Goldfish // Posted 8 October 2014 at 5:31 pm

(D H Kelly here as my alter ego)

In fairness, some women do come through intercourse alone. Anatomically, orgasm through penetration isn’t especially unlikely – most of the clitoris is inside the body and some of it surrounds the vagina: http://blog.museumofsex.com/the-internal-clitoris/

However, obviously, this entails a complex neurology; not everyone’s going to have the same wiring, the same action on the same part of the body will cause different sensations in two different people. And that’s before we get to all the other hormonal, mechanical and psychological factors involves in arousal and climax.

The big problem, again, is with “normal”. Orgasm through intercourse is depicted as normal, perhaps even a hetero romantic ideal, so this puts tremendous pressure on women (and their partners) for whom this doesn’t occur. Such women may well be in the majority, but even if they’re not, there’s wrong about any given person’s experience (unless it is causing them pain or distress).

I’d certainly advocate for a much greater variety of sex in fiction, particularly film and television – romantic lovers always do missionary, casual sex almost always has the woman on top so the viewer can see her breasts, it’s all PIV and nobody ever laughs!

iorarua // Posted 11 October 2014 at 7:05 pm

Goldfish

Thanks for that link. I had no idea that there existed a surgical means of reversing some of the effects of FGM to restore sensation. If so, then thank heaven for that.

I also thank you for alerting me to the different norms by which intercourse is portrayed in film and TV – i.e. romantic, established relationships = missionary position, and casual sex = woman on top. I honestly hadn’t noticed this before, but now that I think of it, you’re absolutely right.

However, in regard to the rest of your post, the premise that there are many different kinds of ‘normal’ negates the fact that most kinds of ‘normal’ for women are straitjacketed into defining female orgasm as being bound by intercourse, and that any other kind of female orgasm depends on the willingness of sexual partners to accommodate female orgasm WITHOUT intercourse. In other words, orgasm through intercourse is still the norm, and clitoral orgasm is still the variation.

If women DO experience orgasm through intercourse alone, because their anatomy and ‘wiring’ allows them to, then this is completely at odds with the scores of women I have (embarrassingly and tentatively) discussed this subject with over several decades, which comprises feminist consciousness raising groups and female family and friends.

The overwhelming consensus (indeed 100% agreement) is that intercourse, while creating all kinds of pleasant sensations, DOES NOT in itself bring about orgasm. Only independent clitoral stimulation does this.

Instead of pussyfooting (pardon the pun) around this issue, in terms of magnanimously conceding that some women are capable, by way of anatomy or brain ‘wiring’, of intercourse-only orgasm, I’d rather see this issue dealt with a lot more realistically, in terms of the experiences of the overwhelming majority of women.

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