More on statistics about gay sex

This post from FS Magazine‘s editor Ian Howley about a survey the magazine conducted recently touches on some of the exact issues I talked about in my posts about statistics and gay sex last week, so I thought I’d share it.

The post is headlined “You won’t believe how many gay men didn’t use condoms the last time they had sex” and it offers this piece of information:
72% of gay men said they didn’t use condoms the last time they had sex. 

Although the headline and stat are deliberately alarming and sensational, Howley’s point is actually to criticise the misuse and abuse of statistics. Noting that “stats can be great to bring attention to a topic but they can also be used to manipulate a story,” he explains that this 72% figure includes all kinds of sex, not just anal sex.

Unfortunately the way that the statistics are explained in this article are less than entirely clear. Howley writes, “[a]bout two thirds of the men in our survey did you [sic] a condom the last time they had anal sex,” but looking at the article that goes into greater detail it seems like this is not quite correct. Based on my rough calculations (the summary in the article doesn’t report the results in full) I think what he meant to say is that 34% of men had anal sex without a condom the last time they had sex. That’s still almost the exact inverse of what the original statistic misleadingly implied.

[Edited to add: I emailed Howley to clarify what he’d written and he confirmed that “About two thirds of gay men DID use condoms the last time they had anal sex.” I still don’t quite see how that squares with the information presented in the 2nd article, but he seemed quite firm, adding, “[a]ll our stats were checked three times by different stat proofers to make sure they were correct.”]

Beyond that, it turns out that a majority of the men who had condomless anal sex were in “long-term relationships.” It’s not clear exactly where he draws the line between “casual”, “short term” and “long term” here, but the more detailed figures certainly suggest that rates of condom usage go down as you go from casual to monogamous relationships. 

Being in a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no risk of HIV transmission. Many men who are HIV-positive don’t know it and may assume they’re negative, and there’s strong evidence that a significant proportion of new infections occur between steady or regular sex partners. But in general, condomless sex between men in relationships is considered less risky than between casual partners, so the distinction matters.

Unfortunately one of the risks of using grabby headlines to make a point about how deceptive grabby headlines is that people may miss your point. For instance, here’s a post at the US gay blog Queerty that does just that. Explaining the sensational headline, author Graham Gremore writes that “[t]he study found that 72 percent of respondents said they didn’t use condoms the last time they had anal sex.” Sigh.

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