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From time to time newspapers, women's magazines, men's magazines, and even medical journals publish statistics about sex. Chances are, however, people don't tell the truth to researchers – or even themselves.

Sex is a health topic that essentially everybody is interested in. We may not discuss what we read with our friends, and certainly not our families, and probably not even with our significant others, but any kind of data about sex gets immediate and massive interest. The problem is, most of what people tell pollsters, social surveyors, reporters, their doctors, their partners, and maybe even themselves about sex is not really true.

A New York Times Op-Ed Writer Looks At The General Social Survey

A good example of how what people say about their sex lives is not reliable comes from Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a PhD economist, formerly employed by Google, and a contributor to the New York Times.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz was a pioneer in using Google search data as a way to generate questions about social trends. The questions that pop up on Google are an indicator of what is important to the people searching for answers. Many of his readers asked him to write about sex.

Search engine data is a good place to get questions, but you have to go somewhere else to get answers. Stephens-Davidowitz turned to the General Social Survey to get answers on how much sex Americans are really having, how often, and with whom. Just as a disclaimer, I should note that I myself once was an analyst of the General Social Survey, until half a dozen data runs (in an era in which it was hard to get access to a mainframe capable of analyzing this huge data set and your boss expected useful results after giving you computer time) consistently showed that the best predictor of sexual behavior in the USA, according to the survey, was astrological sign.

Numbers That Don't Add Up

Every other year the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago sends out interviewers to about 5,000 randomly selected Americans. The interviewers ask hundreds of questions about life in the USA in sessions that last about 90 minutes each. Millions of responses are recorded and coded and analyzed to create the General Social Survey.

In the latest General Social Survey, both men and women were asked how often they have sex. The answers are illuminating:

  • On average, heterosexual adult men reported that they engage in sexual intercourse 63 times per year.
  • On average, heterosexual adult women reported that they engage in sexual intercourse 55 times per year.

Already, the data raise some awkward questions. Are women so unimpressed they just don't remember eight sessions of lovemaking every year? Are men exaggerating about how much sex they have? Are there some other activities that we really should not be exploring in detail on a family-oriented website?

To get at the truth, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz looked at some more data. The heterosexual men who reported having sexual intercourse 63 times a year also reported that, on average, they use condoms 23 percent of the time. The heterosexual women who reported having intercourse with men on average 55 times per year said that the men they were with used condoms 16 percent of the time. 

Aha! The New York Times economist realized he could check the veracity of the reports of sex against actual sales of condoms.
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