Naked assault on the truth: Laurie Taylor explains why you can never believe what you read in surveys on sex

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOMETHING dramatic has happened to our old friend masturbation. No longer is it merely a mildly secret pleasure with the great advantage, as Quentin Crisp put it, that one doesn't have to dress up for it. In the last 10 years the 'hidden vice' has undergone a 'revolutionary change' and finally emerged triumphantly from the closet as 'a natural part of life'.

This at least is the conclusion reached by Samuel S Janus ('a Board certified sex counsellor') and his medical wife, Cynthia L Janus, in their recently published Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. And surely they must know. For their news is not based upon such insubstantial stuff as argument or logic, but the rock-hard statistics derived from 2,765 completed questionnaires. Two-thirds of all American men and women in this sample agreed with the sentiments of the following statement: 'Masturbation is a natural part of life and continues in marriage.'

What really excites the double-Janus is that this 'contradicts' previous survey evidence which suggested that masturbation, especially among the married, is the 'most commonly held sexual secret'. It's as well that masturbation did come up trumps, for there's not a lot of other revolutionary news jostling for our attention in the 400 pages of this report. Dinner parties are hardly going to grind to a halt when someone announces across the tiramisu that 26 per cent of married women have had extra-marital affairs or that most men are having sex from three to seven times a week. Neither will there be dancing in the streets at the Januses' overall conclusion that our sexual emphasis is still on 'fun and social growth' but that a 'new more mature liberation is in'.

But a weariness with such sex surveys shouldn't blind us to their influence. In the absence of other sources of reliable information their findings can become powerful weapons in the hands of pressure groups and legislators. Kinsey's post-war discovery that 10 per cent of men had been 'more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years' provided gay activists with a powerful argument for full civil rights, just as the more recent survey finding from the Guttmacher Institute that only 1 per cent of American men have had 'same-gender sex exclusively during the last 10 years' has been seized upon by members of the Traditional Values Coalition.

At the heart of such disputes is the reliability of survey evidence. If 'voting intentions' are notoriously suspect, how much more so the intimate confessions of sexual predilections as told to well-meaning strangers. Janus and Janus do their best to provide some reassurance, to record their extraordinary efforts to ensure that their survey could stand alongside such attitudinal beacons as Kinsey (1948) and Masters and Johnson (1970). We're told that 210 professors and research associates formulated the areas to be researched, that eight preliminary versions of the questionnaire were tested, and that eventually 4,550 copies of the final version were distributed to sites around the country in such a way as to ensure that the sample matched the national population in terms of sex, age, income, education and marital status.

So far, so rigorous. But then come the omissions. In a book which can find ample space for the precise arithmetical details of how many American women have had personal experience of 'golden showers' or 'waterworks', there is not so much as a sentence on how these vital questionnaires were administered. We are told that they were 'distributed', but whether from street corners, post office counters or low-flying aircraft remains a mystery.

What is also glossed over is the number who clearly didn't like what they found when they started to leaf through the questionnaire - 4,550 were distributed but only 2,765 properly completed documents made it back to base. All these respondents may have been nicely divergent in terms of age, sex, region, income, and marital status, but their apparent readiness to wade through 122 detailed personal and intimate questions and then entrust their responses to the postal system suggests that unlike the 1,875 who put their questionnaires aside, they shared one disqualifying characteristic: sexual exhibitionism.

There are more careful investigators of the human sexual response than Janus and Janus; researchers who would never rely on a postal questionnaire, who readily recognise that male responses to such 'athletic' statements as 'I consider myself sexually active' need to be scaled down, while women's answers to more 'vulnerable' questions such as 'How much below maximum sexual potential are you?' need revising upwards. But in an age in which talk about sex increasingly seems less a commentary on the phenomenon than a sexual activity in its own right, there is always the possibility that what is being so assiduously collected is not brute reality but happy fantasy.

None of this looks likely to affect the future of the sex surveys. For the paradoxical effect of their revelations is to persuade us that sex is still a highly secret and therefore much more interesting area than it really is.

We may learn from Janus and Janus that 11 per cent of American men and women have had personal experience of dominance/bondage, but instead of that news satisfying our curiosity, it merely prompts more detailed questions. What sort of D/B gear is favoured by Mr and Mrs Babbitt? Are Nazi jackboots still in favour? And if it is true - as we also learn here - that some couples happily go into their routines in front of the children, how on earth do they explain themselves? Like consumers of pornography, we are already breathily awaiting even more naked truth.

One could at least hope that future surveys of this kind carry one additional statement for comment: 'These days, I find I'm getting more and more sexual satisfaction from reading and responding to sex surveys.' It might help to separate the boasting goats from the confessing sheep.