Desperately Seeking Sexual Statistics

By Weiss, Rick | Science News, July 8, 1989 | Go to article overview

Desperately Seeking Sexual Statistics


Weiss, Rick, Science News


DESPERATELY SEEKING SEXUAL STATISTICS

Having made remarkable progress toward understanding the biology of the sexually transmitted AIDS virus, scientists who would control the disease's spread have struck an unexpected roadblock. Somewhat to their chagrin, they find they know more about the reproductive habits of the virus than they do about those of their own species.

The few large-scale surveys to lift the veil of secrecy shrouding U.S. sexual propensities are long outdated, experts say. And with the increasing spread of the virus in the population, that lack of information hinders health officials trying to map education and prevention strategies and predict the epidemic's costs.

"There's an extraordinary lack of information on human sexuality especially in the United States," says June M. Reinisch, director of the Bloomington, Ind.-based Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. "What little data we have are only on white middle-class people; we have even less information on the many subcultures that make up very important parts of U.S. society" including those most at risk of AIDS.

In an effort to fill this epidemiologic black hole, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Bethesda, Md., has allocated funds for a new survey to reveal in unprecedented detail what Americans do behind closed doors. Implementation of the survey has been temporarily stalled by Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan's insistence that the proposed questionnaire narrow its focus to points directly relevant to the spread of AIDS. Some members of Congress have protested that the survey's original design went beyond the realm of reasonable public health inquiry representing a government intrusion into people's private lives.

While the questionnaire's final contents remain unsettled, the survey already has researchers asking difficult questions among themselves. How does one design such a sensitive inquiry? Are there ways to ensure the answers are honest and complete?

Phase one of the project, already underway, seeks to discover the ideal means of collecting such delicate data before implementing the full-scale survey itself. For example, says Reinisch, "if the research is not done in the vernacular -- in the words of the group--then it doesn't do any good. You can ask some women who are five or six months pregnant whether they've ever had sexual intercourse and they will answer 'no.' That's because 'sexual intercourse' are not the words they use to describe the behavior that helped them to get pregnant.'

Beyond phraseology, researchers wonder who should do the interviews, where they should be held and how to structure the interview process. On the basis of research already completed, the NCHD has decided that live interviews lasting about one hour, rather than self-administered questionnaires, will best elicit the complex answers it needs and expects. For comparison, interviewers will also administer a shortened version of the questionnaire by telephone to a small study population.

Debate continues about who should do the interviews, says Marcie L. Cynamon of the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md. Sociologists remain divided on the value of matching the race, sex and age of interviewers and interviewers. So far, Cynamon says, "focus groups conducted for this survey repeatedly selected while, middle-aged female interviewers as the type of person with whom they would feel most comfortable" discussing such issues. …

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