George Claassen

Are Greeks the sexiest?

2005-11-11 10:14

Can you believe the results and findings of research announced by scientists in the media? And what criteria should a lay-person take into consideration when evaluating the results?

Earlier this week the media gave a lot of attention to research results of more than 317 000 people from 41 countries who took part in the world's largest ever survey on sexual attitudes and behaviour.

The research alleged that Greece is officially the sexiest country with the Greeks having sex 138 times a year - well above the global average of 103. Croatia (134) and Serbia and Montenegro (128) come a close second and third.

According to Durex, the condom manufacturer, almost half of all adults surveyed said they were happy with their sex lives although men are the least satisfied with how often they have sex.

The survey also revealed the global average age for first time sex is 17.3 and the trend is for people to lose their virginity earlier, with 16 to 20 year olds becoming sexually active by 16.3 years (the figure for South Africans is 17.5 years).

Sex education

Most people believe sex education should start at 11.7 years. Virtually all those surveyed believe children of 16 and under should receive sex education and more than a third believe governments should invest in sex education in schools.

Almost half of all adults globally admit to having had unprotected sex without knowing their partner's sexual history, despite more than one in 10 admitting to having had a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

But can we believe the statistics announced by Durex and how reliable are the research results? The first test is to determine how the survey was conducted, who was involved, and what factors could have influenced the results.

According to Durex the research was carried out via the website and responses have been analysed by sex and age to give an in-depth and "truly global picture of sexual attitudes and behaviour."

But three factors could seriously have affected the reliability of these results. Various social science projects in the past have shown that the lie factor in sexual surveys can lead to misleading results. Most people tend to be not totally honest, for a variety of reasons, when it comes to telling researchers about their sexual habits and endeavours.

Telling the truth

Research has shown young and old people tend to overstate their sexual achievements; nobody wants to admit to being close to cloisterdom.

The realiability of the survey is also doubtful because Durex does not tell how us who were involved. Was it a random survey, what variables were taken into account, and how certain are the researchers that the people who filled in the survey on the internet, were telling the truth about their age and other variables?

These are always factors that can distort any survey that is conducted through the internet.

But the most important question-mark behind the research results is the conflict of interest that underlies the survey.

One of the first questions the public should ask when research results are announced - and this has become quite a contentious issue in science today - is who sits behind the research, who funded it, and what results were not announced?

Recently the Integrity in Science Project of the US Centre for Science in the Public Interest set out the following strict guidelines with regard to scientific surveys:

To allow scientists, the public, and policy makers to make more informed judgments about research reports, letters, commentaries, editorials, book and literature reviews, and news articles, and to safeguard the credibility of scientific peer review, we urge all journals to adopt a strong policy regarding disclosing conflicts of interest and publishing those disclosures. That policy should include the following provisions:

Disclosure by authors should be mandatory, not voluntary, and disclosed information should be published alongside articles.

Disclosure by editors and reviewers asked to judge manuscripts should be mandatory, not voluntary, and editors and reviewers should be disqualified from reviewing manuscripts concerning which they have conflicts of interest.

Disclosure should include:

  • The sources of funding for the study, review, or other item being published;
  • Any financial or other significant relations (eg, consulting, speaker fees, corporate advisory committee memberships, expert testimony given in legal cases) of the author and the author's immediate family in the last 5 years with companies, trade associations, unions, or groups (including civic associations and public interest groups) that may gain or lose financially from the results or conclusions in the study, review, editorial, or letter.
  • The specific contribution of each author of the published paper (conception and design; analysis and interpretation of data; drafting of the article; critical revision of the article for intellectual contents; final approval of the article; statistical expertise; administrative, technical or logistical support; and collection and assembly of data.).

    Disclosures of relevant financial interests of the journal's editorial board members should be printed in the journal.

    It is doubtful that Durex's survey would pass the litmus test of the above criteria.

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger, South Africa's largest circulation Afrikaans daily newspaper.

  • Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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