The title of a forthcoming article in the journal Personal Relationships recently caught my eye: “Sowing Wild Oats: Valuable Experience, or a Field Full of Weeds?” As a sex researcher, I was naturally intrigued, but a little irritated. I despise article titles that give the impression that certain sexual behaviors are universally good or bad for everyone--in reality, nothing is ever that simple. My disappointment didn't stop with the title, though. In fact, after reading the entire article, I was left wondering how it ever got published in the first place because it feels more like an exercise in moralizing about the dangers of premarital sex than a piece of scientific writing.
This article, written by researchers at Brigham Young University, reports the results of a survey of 2,659 married adults in the United States who were asked about the previous number of partners with whom they had “sexual relations,” as well as the quality of their current marriage and sex life (by the way, if you're wondering what "sexual relations" actually means, I am too--and it's unclear how participants interpreted this. Does it mean intercourse? Oral sex? Sexual touching? Kissing? Other activities? This is an incredibly imprecise way to measure sexual behavior). The authors found that having "relations" with more partners was correlated with reporting lower levels of sexual quality and relationship satisfaction, as well as more thoughts of breaking up. The authors interpret these results as consistent with “sexual restraint theory,” which argues that couples who abstain from sex early on develop higher quality relationships because the lack of sex allows them to establish more emotional intimacy.
So what’s the problem with this study? First and foremost, the associations between number of partners and relationship outcomes were tiny (correlation coefficients ranged from -.10 to -.17). Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of statistics will recognize that these are very weak associations. So it’s not like people who had a lot of partners reported terrible sex lives or awful relationships (which they authors imply when they say that more partners translates to “poorer sexual quality”). The reality is that there was only a *slight* trend for those with more partners to be less satisfied. To be perfectly clear, this is not to say that those with more partners were dissatisfied, they were just a little less satisfied.
It is also important to note that these correlations were likely only statistically significant due to the sample size being in the thousands. Large samples like this are almost guaranteed to produce a lot of “statistically significant” correlations because they have very high levels of statistical power (i.e., they have an easier time detecting very small effects in the data). Unfortunately, “statistical significance” is frequently confused with “practical significance.” In other words, just because a correlation is flagged as statistically significant (i.e., unlikely due to chance) by a piece of analytic software, it doesn’t mean that this correlation is important or meaningful in the real world—and this is especially true when the correlation coefficients are incredibly small like they were here. They may be “significant” in a statistical sense, but that’s about it. The association may be so small as to have virtually no meaning in real life.
But that’s not all—despite this being a correlational study in which it is *impossible* to infer cause and effect, the authors frequently talk about number of partners as causing negative effects on people’s marriages. For instance, the authors said that their primary research question was “does the number of sexual partners influence important relational outcomes?” In addition, at several points in their paper, they talk about their data in terms of previous number of partners “influencing” something else. However, a survey study cannot determine whether one variable “influences” another—it can only tell you whether two variables are statistically associated (i.e., whether they move together in the same direction or opposite directions). The use of causal-sounding language in an article like this is sloppy writing at best, and a lack of understanding about basic statistics at worst.
On a side note, I’ll be the first to admit that in some of my own journal publications from my early years as a graduate student, I sometimes used causal-sounding language to describe correlational studies (something I am incredibly mortified about today). I learned from those mistakes, though, and I’m incredibly careful in how I describe correlational studies now. If the authors of this study were students in training, I wouldn’t be quite as hard on them because they might still have a bit to learn. But the lead author of this article has held a doctoral degree for more than two decades. As a result, I would expect far more precision in language, and the editors of the journal that published this work should have demanded it. What makes this even worse is that the same authors used very similar language to describe a correlational study published last year on how couples that have sex early on set themselves up for future disappointment. Hmm...are you sensing any kind of pattern here?
The other thing that rubs me the wrong way about this article is the authors’ insistence on framing the paper from a sex-negative perspective, arguing that sex is the only possible cause of relationship harm. Alternatively, perhaps number of sexual partners and marital quality are correlated because there is some third variable linking them. For instance, perhaps those who have large numbers of sexual partners have lower levels of self-control, and as a result of having low self-control, they are more prone to cheating or engaging in destructive behaviors that might otherwise harm their marriage. In other words, maybe number of partners is a proxy for self-control and that’s really the key variable here.
Or perhaps people who have had more sexual partners have also had more relationships, and as a result of having more “practice” entering and exiting relationships, they do not see marriage as a permanent institution. So maybe what we should be looking at here is how you view and approach relationships, not how many people you’ve slept with.
Also, consider that participants were simply asked "With how many people have you had sexual relations (including your current partner if applicable)? " We do not know exactly when people had these partners (i.e., before or after marriage). As a result, it could be that having more partners is confounded with cheating and infidelity, and maybe that's why number of partners and relationship quality are associated.
In sum, it is hard to look at this paper as a piece of serious “science.” This is little more than a bunch of weak correlations explained through the worldview of “sex outside of marriage is bad.” The authors make too much of a series of tiny correlations, they describe them with imprecise language that implies causality, and they do not adequately address and account for alternative explanations. Talk about a field full of weeds.
Image Source: iStockphoto.com
 Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Carroll, J. S. (in press). Sowing wild oats: Valuable experience or a field full of weeds?. Personal Relationships.
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