Every now and then, reseachers/activists in a think tank somewhere pull out a major study from the past, compare its data with that in similar studies and then announce a few specific conclusions in a press conference. Most of the time they are fishing for headlines and sound bites.
All kinds of groups do this, both on the cultural left and the right. Frankly, this kind of meta-analysis often calls attention to research claims that are made over and over in smaller studies, yet somehow slip past news editors.
That's what was going on this past week at the Family Research Council with that media event linked to, well, (place appropriate adjective here) sex.
The problem was that the results of this study of various studies were a bit too complex for a simple adjective. So far, the only major news story about the results that I have seen -- in U.S. News and World Report -- was topped by one of the most misleading headlines I have seen in quite a long time.
I guess someone just couldn't resist writing the sexy headline:
Devout Catholics Have Better Sex, Study Says
Group presents data showing those who go to church weekly have most frequent, enjoyable sex
You can see the problem already, right? Does "best" equal "most frequent"? Who gets to define the term "enjoyable," other than the folks doing the enjoying? You can see the headline-writing puzzle in the first few paragraphs of the story:
Devout, married Catholics have the best sex of any demographic group, the Family Research Council said at an event Wednesday, pointing to a collection of studies from the last several decades.
The socially conservative Christian group relied heavily on statistics from the University of Chicago's last National Health and Social Life Survey, conducted in 1992, which found the most enjoyable and most frequent sex occurring among married people, those who attended church weekly -- any church, whether Catholic or not -- and people who had the least sexual partners.
"Those who worship God weekly have the best sex," said Patrick Fagan, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a former George H.W. Bush official, in a talk hosted with the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education Wednesday. "I want to see this on the cover of Playboy sometime."
The issue of frequent sex is one thing and the studies were able to report some specifics about that. The problem with this story, and especially with the headline, is that it took one of the more modest and logical conclusions of the report and tried to turn it into a zinger.
For, you see, the "Frequency of Current Religious Attendance" factor in these statistical charts was linked to a factor that was worded in this manner -- "Percentage Who Feel Loved During Sexual Intercourse with Current Partner."
Once again, it's easy to see the problem in the headline mentioned earlier.
The key to the study is that married folks who attended worship services more often -- Catholics included -- reported that they had sex more often, felt higher degrees of satisfaction with their sex lives and, most of all, were more likely to report that they felt truly loved by their partner during sex.
In the eyes of the world, Playboy editors included, does all of that equal "best"? Most "intense"? How about, "pleasurable"? Probably not.
But from the viewpoint of faithful married people, does "more frequent," more "satisfying" and feeling a more intense sense of "being loved" equal "better"? The answer is probably "yes."
The headline depends on one's point of view. The team at PolicyMic.com put a different spin on all of this:
According to this graph, those who are married feel more loved during intercourse than those who are single or divorced/separated. This statistic is a no-brainer: If you are happy being around your sexual partner or have a stronger relationship with him or her, you are more likely to feel loved during sex.
This goes to highlight some overarching flaws with using this survey to claim that married, devout Christians have better sex. First off, the study asked whether or not the respondents felt loved during intercourse, not about the quality of the sex or amount of pleasure they experienced. These are two radically different things. Second, the survey specifies that “with current sexual partner,” which means that naturally married individuals are bound to have advantages in the area of feeling loved and having more consistent sex. If you're single, you have to work harder to get laid. Third, the survey only draws from “households in two middle-sized metropolitan areas,” which indicates that this survey is not the most representative study. Surveying Pittsburgh and Buffalo would give you radically different results and sampling from surveying Wichita and Tallahassee.
From this data, the most you can say is that married couples feel more love during sex and those who have higher religious attendance tend to feel more loved too. And the religious link is most likely a product of those types of people tending to have more stable marriages and fewer partners in their lifetime — not because God is playing an excellent third wheel.
So what we have here is an interesting, nuanced set of data that was certainly worthy of coverage.
But here is the key journalistic question: What is the adjective that goes in the headline and the lede?
Clearly, "best" sex is simplistic and a matter of interpretation. What word or short combination of words would have been accurate and appropriate?