No, Seriously-Quit Saying 'Unprotected Sex'

Published: January 30, 2013

Author’s Note: When this column was written Wednesday, the study’s “Zero Feet Away” report was not publicly available. Jake received a copy of the report Thursday, just as this column was about to go to print. The link is included in the story below.

Last week, The Huffington Post did their usual job of fanning the flames of panic by running a “story” (more like a copy and paste job) on an alleged study that claimed to have found that a bunch of gay men “had engaged in unprotected sex.”

Before I tear that press release a new asshole, let me just relate to you what the study claimed to have found. Allegedly, two New York-based researchers conducted a survey of just over 700 gay men “who meet their sexual partners through the use of geosocial networking apps like Grindr, Scruff, Manhunt and Growlr on their mobile devices.” The big (allegedly shocking) finding was that just under half of the guys who responded say they had sex without condoms.

Eeek! Oh my God! Call the cops! Call the president!

Well, wait a goddamned second here. All we have to go on is a two-page press release from the organization that funded the study. Who are these gay men? Who were they having sex with? Your guess is as good as mine. We don’t know because the researchers did not tell us.

Let me just tell you why this is 1) a big fucking, 10-inch-dick-sized problem; and 2) some shady ass behavior. While the press release alleges to be based on a report, “Zero Feet Away,” this report was nowhere to be found when the organization ran the irresponsible press release (it has mysteriously surfaced today, just before this column was about to go to print). It has not been published in an academic journal. And until this morning, it had not been published on the organization’s website.

There is exactly zero information on the press release about the survey’s methodology.

“So what, Jake?” you might ask. “Why does that matter?”

Here’s why it matters. Let’s imagine a different research question. Since gun control has been on our minds, let’s suppose you were interested in measuring opinions about gun control. So you head to the local gun show and ask 500 people coming out of the event what their opinions were about gun control. Well, I’ll be! You find that 95 percent of people who bothered to talk to you opposed stricter gun control laws. You put out a press release claiming that 95 percent of Americans oppose gun control.

Who would take you seriously? Not a single person in their right minds, of course. Social scientists call this sampling bias. The press release about the “Zero Feet Away” study was very sketchy about who they asked. Was it 700 gay men exiting sex parties for HIV-positive people? Was it 700 men who showed up for HIV testing? Was it a random sample of gay men obtained by random-digit-dialing? We don’t know because the researchers did not tell us.

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