Why You Should Take Anything You Read About Sex With a Giant Grain of Salt
Remember back in school, when you would blurt out a fact you learned online and some smarmy-ass adult would respond with, "Don't believe everything you hear on the internet"? OK, so maybe the average person doesn't swallow up to seven spiders a year, but -- for the most part -- we do take a large chunk of what we read on the internet as fact.
This chunk consists of studies, personal essays, and surveys taken at face value, which are then aggregated by your favorite websites and spread by your friends and family all over social media. In some cases, these articles can be true... but when it comes to sex, a lot of what you're reading warrants some serious skepticism.
Surveys aren't always indicative of real trendsAs a writer who specializes in sex and dating, I know how much pressure there is to put out articles that will get eyeballs on them. Thus, you need to write headlines that will be clicked on. Anyone writing for online publications these days is guilty of using clickbait. So I can't totally condemn any of the writers or publications mentioned.
"Surveying scientifically is hard," says Ronald L. Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association, "On the other hand, if you don't care whether the results are relevant, accurate, meaningful, and generalizable, then anyone can do it. One should be very suspicious of survey reports that don't provide details about the methodology involved."
"These numbers are rarely as definitive as they sound. The way to read new articles in the field of sexuality is to note the study's findings but keep an open mind."
"Any 'truth' we learn in the social sciences often gets overturned later," agrees New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder, MD. "But journalists are hungry for content -- especially content with statistics attached -- 'X percent of Americans are Y' -- that kind of thing. These numbers are rarely as definitive as they sound. The way to read new articles in the field of sexuality is to note the study's findings but keep an open mind. It's extraordinarily difficult to approach sex with any objectivity. Sex is always political, and we're all biased by our cultural baggage."
At least some websites admit the manhandling some studies go through in order to grow into a story. "Science Says That Blow Jobs Are Good for Women's Health and Fight Depression" was a piece written around a 2002 study of 293 women at the State University of New York. The author points out the inexplicable virality of the piece, and "loosely" comes to the conclusion that frequent blow jobs make women happy. Who wouldn't want to believe that?!
Then, we look at this Maxim piece: "Bad News, Guys: Blow Jobs Could Be Bad for Her Health." Right off the bat, it’s a headline that's going to get clicked on, because... well, raise your hands if you hate blow jobs. That's what I thought.
In the piece, the author makes the bold claim that "... oral sex basically carries the same risks as vaginal sex," which is then supported by an article penned by Metro from a study done by an "online health clinic" called euroClinix. Thrillist, of course, isn't innocent of spinning surveys and studies to be more sexy and grandiose, but writers are often pressed to find the original source of the article in question and take a hard look at the data.
Be wary of hot takesBig question here: who writes these surveys that get eaten up by publications like Metro and Maxim?
"Designing a study is hard," says Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, who holds a PhD in sociology and whose scholarly focus includes studies in gender, sexualities, work and organizations, media and new media, pop culture, and qualitative research methods. "There are a lot of factors that go into research design, from basic know-how and expertise in a specific area to pure feasibility (read: is there funding?). As such, there is a lot of work out there that's limited -- but is often touted as fact."
She goes on to describe how many of these studies can be biased and use pseudo-science.
Surveys aside, it's through the medium of personal essay and hot takes that opinions become mistaken for fact.
"There's also the extremely frustrating occurrence of research with an agenda -- 'studies' and such conducted to shore up an existing perspective, rather than find new information. Now obviously, all studies are impacted by human biases to some degree, but studies done by foundations or 'think tanks' (and even universities) intended to show something social is bad or something tied to a specific community is especially good -- these are the worst! It's certainly OK for communities to have their own norms and standards -- as long as consent is present, more power to 'em. But to make claims about the veracity or nobility of a standpoint on the basis of pseudo-science is no good."
Surveys aside, it's through the medium of personal essay and hot takes that opinions become mistaken for fact. This comes from, in some cases, relatable writing -- when writers "distill it down into plain language, making it accessible for average folks," says Dr. Tibbals.
How do you filter out the garbage?Just do your homework, essentially. If you really think that you're going to get cancer from all those blow jobs, talk to a doctor. Dr. Tibbals says the very same thing, even suggesting that writers take everything they read with a grain of salt:
"My best suggestion would be to always go back to the source and double-check your 'hot take' -- better that than miss an opportunity to reach readers due to a poor explanation or translation. And readers can contribute too by doing their due diligence. I know we supposedly all already know this, but just because it says it on the internet doesn't make it true. Ask questions, demand better content, and make sure to pay for the information.
"Part of the reason so many things are falling by the wayside is our insatiable need for new content/stimuli, which devolves into poorly paid writers scrambling for clickbait. Make sure to pay for well-done work, and more well-done work will follow."
The internet is a big place -- too big, some say -- and that means that a lot of people are going to be publishing a lot of content with a scary amount of misinformation. As Dr. Tibbals says, one must do their own research before taking the word of a stranger and use a subjective eye for everything they read. Harness that giant grain of salt like a horse. A horse that's had too much salt to eat.
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Jeremy Glass is a writer for Thrillist and tried some of Cosmo's sex tips. He still can't rid himself of mango smell.