Lies, damn lies, and self-reported sexual activity statistics

According to “Womens Hour” on BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 30 Aug 2016

“a US study” said that people born after 1980 (ie under 35) are having “less sex than previous generations”.  The study was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour (a journal I know from my Psychology degree).  I believe this was the August 2016 study “Twenge, J.M., Sherman, R.A. & Wells, B.E. Arch Sex Behav (2016)”, found at the URL below.

As the quote from the study below shows, the above BBC description of the study findings was a simplification.  The trend was more pronounced for women, but nonexistent for Black Americans, and for all college graduates.

“Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s … were more likely to report having no sexual partners as adults compared to [those] born in the 1960s and 1970s … The shift toward higher rates of sexual inactivity … was more pronounced among women and absent among Black Americans and those with a college education.”

I have removed the obscure US slang terms for the different generations.

The data came from the US “General Social Survey” (GSS), from people aged 20-24, who were asked about their number of sexual partners since age 18.  Thus the data and the finding relates to the age range of 18 to 24.

According to the same radio programme, the UK National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles “appears to show a similar pattern” in the UK.  However this too was inaccurate.  The “NATSAL 3” 2012 study does indeed show a continuing small decline in the median number sexual encounters over the past 4 weeks, but that was in a sample of the UK population aged 16 to 44, not 18 to 24 as in the US study.  The UK age range is thus very different from that of the US study above, which makes a direct comparison with the US figures impossible.

This self-reported UK decline in median sexual activity is relative to previous higher figures from 1999, and still higher figures from 1990.  The study was set up around 1990 because of the need for accurate statistics on the topic due to the AIDS epidemic, so those are the earliest comparable figures.

“On average over the past two decades there has been a decrease in how often people [aged 16–44] say they have sex.”

According to the BBC radio programme’s description of the 2012 NATSAL3 study, “1 in 5 people aged 16-24 said that they didn’t have a sexual partner.”

In fact the 2012 NATSAL 3 study reported that 19.8% of people aged 16-24 had *never* had a sexual partner, not that they currently lacked one.  The sloppy wording on the radio programme suggested more sexual activity had been self-reported than was actually the case.

To summarise:

o In the USA only *some* categories of people reported having less sex (when aged 18-24) than those born before 1980, not the entire US age cohort (as the BBC alleged).

o Contrary to the BBC report, the available UK data logically *cannot* tell us whether the same thing happened here (because the UK NATSAL age range studied is much wider than the US GSS one).

o UK data does tell us that a different age range from the US study (16-44) have been reporting less sex in 1999 than in 1990, and less again in 2012.

o The UK 2012 NATSAL data also tells us that 19.8% of people aged 16-24 reported *never* having a sexual partner, not (as the BBC claimed) that they “currently” lacked one.

I’ll leave the last word on the more interesting question (“Why?”) to the BBC.

Channel 4’s “Naked Attraction”: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Goodness that last political post was heavy and depressing, wasn’t it?  “… And now for something completely different”, a TV review.

This is the clipped, cleaned-up version, without any latin, or colloquial, terms for the human “naughty bits”.

Given that the series consists of attractive young men and women choosing potential partners based only (at first) on what they look like in the nude*, then what is my excuse for viewing this “filth”?  Well, this Channel 4 TV series is a cultural phenomenon (although I admit to not being as interested in “Bake-Off”).  I’m watching this new phenomenon closely so that you don’t have to!

(* When I say “nude” I really do mean completely naked, from all directions, and in close-up.)

The Good

The series was moderately inclusive, in terms of build, size, fatness, disability (including prosthetics), sexual orientation, occupations (an indicator of socioeconomic class), regional accents, and ethnic origins.  However I have seen nobody either old, nor ugly.  Potential advertisers and viewers would probably not have accepted that.

The Bad

The format was extremely shallow.  The “educational” content was minimal.  Things they could usefully have mentioned in particular contexts were left unsaid.  Having read “The Annals of Sexual Behaviour” for my Psychology degree tutorials, studied human evolution and development, I honestly think I could have provided more educational facts myself.

Throughout the series the term used to describe the external female “naughty bits” was actually the term for an internal organ.  That was a crime against language, and such incorrect terminology could promote confusion if used in a medical context.  (So much for “educational content”!)

The Ugly

It was essentially nude flirting, which could be regarded as pornography.  To my mind this should not be normalised by appearing on a mainstream TV channel, even after the 10 pm watershed.

The show exploits the exhibitionism of some young people, who should have been dissuaded for their own good.  It uses images of foolish people’s bodies to create marketable content (a sort of “naked Facebook” business model).

It’s dating for the Tinder generation, as the presenter is quoted as saying in The Guardian newspaper.  In my opinion, anyone who makes a decision about whom to date based primarily on physical attraction is probably heading for disaster.

What is the function of democracy?

Until 2014 the majority of the UK electorate supported the re-introduction of the death penalty.  Only in 2014 did they turn against it in the annual British Social Attitudes Survey (run since 1983), and only by a very narrow margin.

Mainstream political parties (run by an enlightened liberal elite) have conspired to keep this issue off the agenda since capital punishment was suspended in 1965.  That suspension was unpopular at the time, and has probably remained so until recently (even longer than I’ve been a member of Amnesty).

The issue of the death penalty has been highlighted recently, because voters for Brexit were more likely to support hanging than they were to be members of UKIP.  If liberal democracy does not (usually) give an apparently illiberal electorate the brutal and self-harming policies that they say they want, then what is it for?

One could try to argue that democracy is a way of taking decisions that are popular, even if they are bad ones.  However the Brexit referendum result has highlighted the weaknesses of that argument.

Direct democracy (referenda for example) often lacks a deliberative element.  Some people decided how to vote in the recent referendum based on what they saw on Facebook, or in the tabloid press.  They didn’t really think for themselves about the issues, they didn’t read serious newspapers, nor watch/hear TV/radio documentaries.  It would have been preferable to have unbiased expert advice put to a citizens panel, and their conclusions included on the ballot paper.

According to the Venice Commission code of practice for referendums in Europe, a majority of 50% +1 person should be enough to win a referendum, even if this leaves an electorate deeply divided.

Even representative democracy can still be very divisive.  The last coalition government was the result of an election in which no party had an overall majority in parliament.  Nobody voted for the compromise programme of legislation that they enacted.  I’m not saying that all of it was bad, merely that it lacked legitimacy.

A significant minority are either unable, or unwilling, to vote.  This is true even in referenda, where the issues are clear, and every vote counts.

A tiny majority in a referendum, or a coalition of minority parties at a national election, or even a low election turn-out can all reduce the perceived legitimacy of the outcome.

Regardless of the issue of legitimacy, any group is more likely to make bad decisions than an individual.
“Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds”, “The Human Zoo”, Series 8, Episode 5 of 8

According to this documentary, had the electorate been asked a simple numerical question, such as guessing the number of jelly beans in the jar, then we might have had a better collective decision than an individual one.  More complex value judgements often tend to come out wrong when a crowd is making the decision.

Unfortunately, the alternatives to democracy are even worse.  I think the best thing we can hope for to help democracy to work better is that basic economics is made compulsory in schools.

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons (11 November 1947).

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”

Attribution debunked in Langworth’s ‘Churchill by Himself’. First known appearance is in a 1992 Usenet post.

The Psychology & Sociology of Brexit


Despite the 2:1 majority vote to remain in 1975,,_1975

according to 2 Sociologists  James Dennison and Noah Carl

The ultimate causes of Brexit: history, culture, and geography

“the UK has been the least well-integrated EU member state, and so the closer the EU was moving toward political union, the more likely Brexit was becoming.”

People in the UK were the least likely member state citizens to identify themselves as “European”.  They are amongst the most distrustful of the EU, and the least likely to live in other EU counties.

The UK trades less with other EU countries than most other EU members trade with each other, and has less investment to, or from, most of the other EU countries than they have with each other.

They claim that the reasons for this are:

o “Britain is the only allied European power not to have been occupied during the Second World War.”  But, unoccupied neutral European powers now inside the EU include: Spain, Portugal, and Sweden.  Of these only the Iberian pair suffer from Euroscepticism, due perhaps to the Eurozone economic problems.

o Geography – the UK is relatively isolated (checking other EU islands for myself, Cyprus comes out with similar figures, but curiously not Eire)

o The English legal tradition.  This is completely different from the Code Napoleon basis of most of the continent.  However, I must point out that Scotland has a hybrid system closer to the European ones.

o An established national church.  This would not apply to secular France, but they do not mention that other smaller EU members also have national churches.  I’m not convinced this difference from continental Europe is relevant here.

Their conclusion: “Britain is the least well-integrated EU member state” and “as the EU moved closer toward political union, the UK’s fundamentally less European character meant that Brexit was increasingly likely”.  Obviously (as the authors admit) other factors provided the immediate trigger for Brexit.


There is an underlying variable behind the apparent statistics on what sort of people voted for Brexit, in my previous posting.  According to Eric Kaufmann (Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College):

It’s NOT the economy, stupid: Brexit as a story of personal values

the underlying variable is authoritarianism.  “For me, what really stands out about [the British Election Study 2015] is the importance of support for the death penalty [in predicting Brexit voting intention].”  It outweighs all demographic data and party loyalties.  “… 71 percent of those most in favour of the death penalty indicated in 2015 that they would vote to leave the EU.”

According to Stian Westlake, Head of Research at the think tank Nesta “If you look at attitudes to questions such as, ‘Do you think criminals should be publicly whipped?’ or ‘Are you in favour of the death penalty?’ – those things are much better predictors [of Brexit voting intention], and you get over 70% accuracy,”.

As Ben Shimshon of Britain Thinks (which advises businesses and political parties on how to communicate with the public), broadly agrees with Westlake. What united Leave voters in focus groups in the run-up to the referendum, he says, was support for a whole set of “traditional” values.

“They tended to value things like order, stability and safety against things like openness, modernity and other social-liberal values that were more popular among Remain voters. Often it’s about harking back to the past – sometimes a feeling that they don’t belong to the present.”

Which previous demographic findings does this explain?  Young people are generally less authoritarian, and were thus less likely to vote for Brexit.  The same applies to people with experience of higher education, who were also much less likely to vote for Brexit.  Authoritarians may tend to be concerned about national identity, and less accepting of transnational bodies like the EU.  They may also be more prone to “aggression towards sanctioned targeted minority groups”.

According to Lord Ashcroft Polls

How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why

“By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.”  These too seems consistent with underlying authoritarianism.

According to “30 years of British Social Attitudes self-reported racial prejudice data”

there has always been much more low-level racial predjudice in the UK than I would ever have imagined.  This is apparently similar in other EU countries.

The EU referendum was like turning over a stone.  Some very unpleasant things were revealed lurking underneath.

Does the unawakened digital majority really troll?

My friend Matthew suggests here
that “… the Leviathan, the unawakened digital majority who now have access to the internet, but no time to play with it.” includes “…a contingent there who, possibly feeling dis-empowered by the those who wield an on-line reputation of any sort, seek to drive their targets off the internet, though constant anonymous abuse.”  Although he quite sensibly qualifies this “I don’t want to tar the whole Leviathan with the same brush …” However, I wonder how much truth there really is in this concept?

Wikipedia’s entry on trolls states “Two studies published in 2013 and 2014 have found that people who are identified as trolls tend to have dark personality traits and show signs of sadism, antisocial behavior, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.”  So it would seem that personality may be more important than disempowerment.

[Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 67, September 2014, Pages 97–102, The Dark Triad of Personality: “Trolls just want to have fun”, Erin E. Buckelsa, Paul D. Trapnellb, & Delroy L. Paulhusc.

“… cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.”]

[Jonathan Bishop – The effect of de-individuation of the Internet Troller on Criminal Procedure implementation: An interview with a Hater, 2013 International Journal of Cyber Criminology. January – June 2013, Vol 7 (1): 28–48

Bishop distinguishes different types of trolling and interviewed a type “known as a ‘hater’ “.  “the psychopathy of Internet trollers resembles those with [anti-social] personality disorders.”  Bishop’s ‘haters’ resent others who are more successful than they are.  The troll said that trolling passed the time “between stacking shelves” (ie real-world economic disenfranchisement, rather than any digital divide)

Also, what qualifies people to be on the wrong side of the digital divide?  I post on
Facebook, but have never had a blog until now.  Was I a digital producer, or (more plausibly) merely a consumer of digital “junk-food”?  I don’t see a clear digital divide in the UK, just 50 shades of grey separating the digiterati from the cyberphobes.

I hope Matthew will excuse me having another niggle, this time at his more recent post on a related topic where he says ‘The political class seek to be more nimble and responsive by leveraging “big data” … Do the disenfranchised contribute less data to the the Big Data … ?’  I really don’t think so.  I suspect that they are the ones giving masses of their data to Tesco via their club cards and mobile phones!  Whether that’s a good thing and whether the political class should be using Big Data rather than conventional political techniques are separate questions, on which I will spare you my opinions for now.