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The Delicate Business of Conducting Sex Surveys : Honesty: Contradictions between the results of a new poll and earlier studies prove at least one thing--we don't always tell the truth about our most intimate moments.

April 21, 1993|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since the 1953 Kinsey Report, conventional wisdom has held that 10% of the U.S. population is gay. Forty years later, the Janus Report stated that 22% of American men had had a homosexual experience, but last week the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported that figure is only 2.3%.

Likewise, the public has heard conflicting reports on infidelity, the practice of safe sex and the prevalence of rape.

Does anyone really know the truth?

Knowledge about sexual behavior has become an urgent matter in the United States, with widespread concern over AIDS, abortion and teen-age pregnancy. But while sex surveys have become more common, sophisticated and accurate than ever before, the art of turning intimate acts into scientific data remains . . . delicate.

Today researchers can ask difficult personal questions that would have been unthinkable in years past, such as "Have you had anal intercourse? With men? With women?" But they acknowledge such questions can also skew a survey by either repelling or attracting participants, or embarrassing people into fudging.

"You always wonder: Are you getting over-reporting, or under-reporting?" said Kristin A. Moore, executive director of Child Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. With the exception of questions regarding abortion, which can be independently verified, "you don't have a way to tell."

Scientifically valid studies of sexual behavior, with samples that represent all groups, did not begin until the mid-1980s. So far, there have been only a half-dozen "good studies," said Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. The General Social Survey has been tracking trends in American society since 1972.

Pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey published "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948" and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" in 1953 based on face-to-face interviews with 5,300 men and 5,940 women, all Anglos, in the United States and Canada chosen by "quota sampling and opportunistic collection."

The "Janus Report on Sexual Behavior," conducted between 1988 and 1992 by sex counselor Samuel Janus and his wife Cynthia, a physician, used written questionnaires and 125 interviews with 2,765 men and women, chosen to approximate a cross section of the United States.

In 1991, the Alan Guttmacher Institute's National Survey of Men studied 3,321 men, ages 20-39, in a population-based, nationally representative survey.

Today's researchers believe their numbers are more reliable than Kinsey's, or those that appear in men's and women's magazines, because they try to systematically account for geographical, ethnic, social and economic variables. Most of the current research on sexual behavior involves face-to-face interviews--and interviewers are trained extensively. And even though the sex researchers have only a fraction of the experience of, say, unemployment researchers in refining their questions, they're working on improvements.

One of the major hurdles they encounter is honesty.

When people understand the medical or public health reasons for a sex survey, most of them respond honestly, researchers said. But some do not.

By checking reports from hospitals and clinics, researchers know women under-report their abortions by as much as 50%, Smith said. Most assume the women are afraid the interviewer will think less of them if they admit to having had one or more abortions. Other researchers speculate the women are afraid word will leak out to their friends or family. Some wonder if the women don't even want to remember it themselves.

Homosexuality is also thought to be under-reported, but no one knows by how much.

Researchers suspect single men may over-report how often they use condoms because they want the interviewer to think they are socially responsible, Smith said.

Other researchers believe some men tend to exaggerate or "round up" the number of their sexual experiences.

If you ask men and women about sexual partners, men report more than women, said Kathryn London, a demographer with the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md. "Theoretically, the number of partners should average out."

But Smith said his research shows the opposite. He asked groups of husbands and groups of wives how often they had sex, and the wives said they had sex more often than the husbands.

Particularly troublesome to social scientists are questions of infidelity, rape and sexual harassment, Smith said.

It has been widely reported that one in three women have been raped. Smith said official crime statistics of 2 to 4% are "clearly way low," but one-in-three has not been scientifically established.

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