I'm sure I'm not alone in the experience of clicking on an exciting headline outlining a new study on human sexuality, only to delve into the study's sample and find it's not so comprehensive. It's sensational to read a report that 55% of people reported they have cheated on their current partner. It's not so sensational when you discover that the sample population was 50 21-year-olds at a single Canadian university.
A study's sample makeup is its most important aspect. If a study surveys only one ethnic group, all under the age of 25, all with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, then the study can't reasonably be extrapolated to the rest of society. Most studies on human sexuality are performed by academic researchers, and the easiest sector of the population to entice into an in-depth explanation of their sexual habits are the students right there on campus. Therefore, many of the new sex studies being sensationalized in Internet headlines don't really tell us much about American sex lives, though they tell us a lot about the sex lives on America's college campuses.
The Kinsey Institute, in collaboration with the Indiana University, released a smart phone app designed to overcome the specificity of many studies on human sexuality. The Kinsey Institute famously conducted interviews and released two books – Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) – collectively known as the Kinsey Reports. The two books were released to much fanfare and controversy, as they challenged commonly held beliefs on human sexuality and explored previously taboo topics. Though Kinsey's methodology for eliciting responses came under scrutiny, his sampling was doubtlessly more representative of society at large than some of the current studies performed on college campuses.
Data Culled from Kinsey Reporter
The Kinsey Reporter, an app released by the institute, was intended to aggregate information submitted by citizen reporters on their sexual "events." If a user witnessed sexual behavior, from masturbating alone at their home to seeing a couple making out on the street, they were supposed to report the activities to the Institute via the app. Well, this week, only a month into its public availability, the Kinsey Reporter was yanked due to privacy concerns. Though the reports made to the app were anonymous, Indiana and Institute lawyers apparently felt more work needed to be done on the app before public use continued.
The problem with all voluntary studies, especially those with no financial incentives, is that of self-selection. I would probably use the app. I do fill out online surveys for my friends when they post them on Facebook, but I talk and write about human sexuality all day long. It seems the Kinsey Reporter is unlikely to give any more representative data on America's current sexual behaviors than college campus studies. The app would just give data on persons across the country comfortable with their sexuality, or at least interested enough in reporting on it to log details into their phone.
That being said, I hope the app does get back up and running soon. Even the self-selected citizen reporters give a slightly more interesting snapshot. They are likely to represent a wider range of ages and ethnic groups, and, as stigma attached to sexual activity diminishes, perhaps we will have more middle-aged divorcees reporting on their sex lives. The anonymity of the online communication offers the real opportunity for outreach to seldom-surveyed populations. Perhaps a similar app could be used to gather information from pre-selected individuals – much like Nielson television ratings – and offer a means to gather more detailed and current data that would actually yield a clearer picture of our culture's sexual habits and opinions. While the Kinsey Reporter, in its current incarnation, feels a bit novel and unscientific, I think current technology is paving the way to a better, truer understanding of how we think about and experience sex.
Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet.