Sex Science News: From Academic Journals to the Media

Zhana Vrangalova Huff Post Live

Discussing the study on Huffington Post Live

As anyone checking my Twitter or Facebook in the past week knows, one of my research studies got picked up by the media. It was my first time something like that happened, and, boy, that was quite the ride. I got to experience the excitement of getting my name and research out there, but also the frustration at (some) journalists misreporting the science.

Now that it is (mostly) over, I want to document my experience with this process: How does a scientific study make it from the academic journal in which it was published to the mainstream media, and what happens to it along the way?

Part 1. The Academic Journal

The study was titled “Birds of a Feather: Not When It Comes to Sexual Permissiveness,” co-authored by Rachel Bukberg and Gerulf Rieger, and published online ahead of print in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Here is what we did, why we did it, and what we found.

We surveyed 750 college students about their own sexual behaviors and attitudes, and then had them read a description of a hypothetical same-sex person who had either 2 (nonpermissive) or 20 (permissive) past sex partners. After they read the description, they evaluated this potential same-sex friend on 10 friendship-relevant outcomes: general friendship desirability, mate guarding, competence, emotional stability, warmth, dominance, extraversion, morality, liking their sexuality, and disliking their sexuality.

What we found was that female participants preferred the nonpermissive potential friend in 9 out of 10 outcomes (only exception was extraversion where they preferred the permissive woman). This did not depend on their own level of permissiveness: Even permissive women preferred the nonpermissive target.

Among men, things were a bit more mixedpromiscuous men preferred the non-promiscuous friend in some outcomes (including mate guarding and disliking of sexuality), preferred the promiscuous friend in other outcomes (including competence, emotionally stability, and extraversion), and showed no preference for either target in all other outcomes.

Non-promiscuous men preferred the non-promiscuous target in 5 of the 10 outcomes (including friendship desirability, morality, mate guarding, liking of sexuality, and disliking of sexuality), preferred the promiscuous target in 2 outcomes (extraversion and competence), and had no preference in the other 3 outcomes.

The finding that promiscuous people, women in particular, would be liked less than non-promiscuous people was not a new finding. Many a study before ours has documented the undesirability of sexual permissiveness in potential partners, friends, people in general. When it comes to same-sex friendships, the reasons for this are two-fold.

- Mate guarding: Prior research shows that promiscuous people are more likely to cheat on their partners or “poach” other people’s mates, so a promiscuous same-sex friend poses an evolutionary threat to your own romantic relationship. Thus, distancing yourself from permissive friends could be an effective mate guarding strategy.

- Social stigma: Although attitudes in the US have become more permissive over time, the prevailing standard is one that finds sexual activity acceptable only with a few long-term partners. And you know what they say: You are who your friends are. So, distancing yourself from your permissive friends can help you preserve your own reputation and promote your own social status.

What was new and somewhat surprising in this study was that even promiscuous women rejected other promiscuous women.

Why was it somewhat surprising? There is a very well-established finding in sociology and psychology, called homophily, that people become friends and lovers with those similar to them in all sorts of characteristics (demographics, intelligence, attitudes, etc.). So based on the homophily principle, we expected that promiscuous people might like other promiscuous people as friends.

Why was it not entirely surprising? Because mate poaching should affect promiscuous and non-promiscuous people similarly, and even if your own reputation is already somewhat tarnished by your own promiscuity, distancing yourself from a promiscuous friend can still help preserve it to some extent.

It turned out that, at least for women, social stigma and evolutionary concerns trump homophily.

For men, this was less so, which is not surprising, given the double sexual standard.

Part 2. The University Press Release

Ted Boscia, one of the journalists writing for the College of Human Ecology at Cornell (where my Human Development department is located), saw the study get published online and decided it was interesting enough to write an article about it in the Cornell Chronicle, Cornell University’s official source of daily news about research, outreach, events and the Cornell community. Ted read parts of the study, then interviewed me in person, then cleared the written story with me before publishing it. It was pretty good and accurate. You can read it here Study: Women reject promiscuous female peers as friends. (We both agreed that the findings for women were more interesting – and simpler, and more striking – hence the headline.)

After the story was published in the Chronicle, the Cornell University media office decided it was interesting enough that the mainstream media might want to write about it, so they issued a press release for any journalists interested in the topic to see. The media office warned me that the media will ‘eat this up’ and that I should prepare myself for a week of emails and phone calls about the study.

Part 3. The Media

The Cornell media office weren’t wrong. Requests for full text of the study, for phone and email interviews, and for radio and live video appearances started coming in first thing Monday morning. Stories started to appear in the media (local, national, and international) even before Monday. My friends started linking to published stories on my Facebook, my Twitter, my email. It was amusing, exhilarating, exhausting, and frustrating all at the same time.

But most of all, it was fascinating to track what happened to the story in the media.

1. There were the outlets that requested the full text of the study and/or talked to me, and didn’t get anything wrong. For example:

The Huffington Post. Female Friendships: Women Less Likely To Befriend Promiscuous Peers Regardless Of Their Own Sexual History, Study Finds.By Nina Bahadur.

Science Omega. Promiscuous Women Rejected by Potential Same-Sex Friends. By Katy Edgington.

2. The outlets that didn’t talk to me but mostly copy-pasted the official press release (maybe adding a little bit of their particular flavor) and thus didn’t get anything wrong. For example:

Cleo News, New Zealand. Girls still judge their promiscious peers. [Well, they did misspell 'promiscuous', but otherwise was fine].

Ithaca Journal. Cornell Study: Women Reject Promiscuous Female Peers as Friends.

Medical News Today. When Making Female Friends, Women Reject Sexually Promiscuous Peers.

Post Jagran, India. College going women have negative opinion about promiscuous female peer. 

3. The outlets that didn’t talk to me, mostly copy-pasted the official press release as the basis for their write-ups (and thus didn’t get stuff wrong in the main text), but used sensationalist headlines that were incorrect. For example:

Daily Mail Reporter: Women don’t want to be friends with girls who sleep around (but men don’t care if their mates do) – And EVOLUTION is to blame.

- Say what about the men? Men don’t care if their partners sleep around? We didn’t test that. Or men don’t care if their partners are friends with girls who sleep around? We didn’t test that either. Or men don’t care if their partners are friends with guys who sleep around? Ah, we did test that, but we found that men do in fact care. Oh, you mean ‘mates’ as in friends? Well, that was less clear – they did care in some aspects, and didn’t care in others.

- Evolution is only one of the things we theorized was to blame. Social stigma is the other. Theorized being the operative word here – We did not test either.

NY Magazine: Study: Sluts Have no Friends. By Kat Stoefel.

We did NOT find that promiscuous women had no friends. We found that women did not want to be friends with promiscuous women. That’s very different.

4. The outlets where the writer didn’t talk to me or request the full study, yet wrote an original piece and got so much wrong.

The worst, and most unfortunate, case of this was Jezebel: Study Makes Case for ‘National Befriend a Slut Day’, by A. Breslaw.

As a sex-positive feminist, I love that Jezebel picked up on it, and love the spin they put on the findings: ‘National Befriend a Slut Day’ is an idea I can get behind. But the author butchered the science badly. For example:

- “Nine out of ten women surveyed listed promiscuity as a negative trait in another woman”.

No, not at all. On average, women preferred the 2-partner female target over the 20-partner target in 9 out of 10 tested personality characteristics. We did not ask women what they thought about promiscuity (we had them evaluate different targets with differing levels of promiscuity), and we did not report on the percentage of women who said anything (we reported means and standard deviations).

- “While men were more lax about this attribute in the female profile.”

No. Men did not read female profiles – this study was a study about SAME-SEX friendships.

-  “Men with a higher number of sex partners favored men who had less experience, but specified that it was due to evolutionary mate-guarding”.

Men with a higher number of sex partners did NOT favor men with less experience on most tested attributes: They favored him on only 2 (out of 10) traits. Mate-guarding was one of these two traits, but the men did not specify that their preferences were due to evolutionary reasons – that’s what we as researchers are theorizing.

*UPDATE, 6/13/13: This blog post somehow found its way to the writer of the Jezebel article, and she emailed me to let me know she changed it. It is now fairly accurate.

Nerve: 751 College Kids Scared of Sluts, No One Else Is, by Kate Hakala.

This is more of an opinion/critique piece than it is a news article about the study, but it still misrepresented the science.

“The research concluded that sexually permissive women don’t want to befriend other women like themselves because they are safeguarding their mates, a competitive biological instinct…. But oh yeah, the fact that promiscuous women are purportedly less desired as friends—it’s evolution. Totally. It has nothing to do with being beaten over the head with the warnings of slut-shaming ideologues our whole lives.”

First of all, we did not conclude that mate guarding was the reason for our results (we did not test this directly, so we cannot conclude). Instead, we suggested it might be one explanation of the findings.

Secondly, we suggested mate guarding as only one of two potential explanations of our findings. The other explanation was the exact explanation that the author of this piece seems to favor: social stigma and the sexual double standard. We argue for slut-shaming (without using those exact words) as a potential culprit of the results very explicitly in our paper.

5. And finally, the outlets that asked for the full text of the study and talked to me, yet still got stuff wrong. For example:

Salon: Do Prudes Make Better Friends? By Katie McDonough 

The article was actually pretty good, but there were two big “buts”:

- The headline is completely off topic. Our study had absolutely nothing to say about who makes better friends.

- “Vrangalova and her colleagues had expected women to judge other women less negatively based on their sexual histories than men do — particularly among sexually active women — but actually found the opposite to be true in their research sample.”

Umm, no, we did not expect women to judge permissive women less negatively than men do. Based on what we know about the double standard, that would be silly to expect. No idea where the writer got that from. We expected that women in general (and men in general) would judge permissive targets more negatively than non-permissive targets, but that this tendency would be attenuated or perhaps reversed among more permissive individuals. I emailed her to change that sentence, and she did.

Even the Huffington Post Live segment that had me on the show in person to discuss our study got the headline wrong: Promiscuous Girls Have No Friends. [Not to mention the moderator mispronounced my name, like badly.]

It was a good segment though, overall. I hope you watch it.

Part 4. The Blogoshpere.

Oh My Dog, the Blogosphere! People out there are allowed to say whatever they want on their blogs, so they will say it. And with an incendiary and controversial topic as promiscuity, they sure did say it.

1. The Sex-Positive Blogs
Those who are trying to create a safe social space for people whose sexualities might not fit the traditional (heterosexual, monogamous, relational) idea of acceptable, took the study as a sign that we need to work harder to get rid of the double standard and/or embarked on a project to defend sluts from their enemies. I already mentioned Jezebel’s initial story with the suggestion for a National Befriend a Slut Day. Here’s a couple of more examples:

- Jezebel: 10 Reasons Sluts Make Better Friends, by Tracy Moore

- Slate’s XX Factor: Slut-Shaming is Not Just a ‘Girl-On-Girl’ Crime, by Amanda Hess.

2. The Sex-Negative Blogs

Those who want to force everyone to conform to the traditional idea of acceptable sexuality took the study as evidence that women should really not be promiscuous. They are using the results to scare women who would like to be promiscuous into not being promiscuous so as to avoid social rejection. According to these people, shunning promiscuous women should be done every chance you get so that they mend their ways. Also, according to them, the sexual double standard is immutable, so no matter what we do, promiscuous women will always be shamed and discriminated against by friends and partners; hence, they shouldn’t be promiscuous.

If you can wade through the misogyny and conservative ideology, knock yourselves out. For example:

- Hooking Up Smart. Even Slutty Women Reject Slutty Women for Friendship.

- Had Enough Therapy? Slut-Shaming or Guilt-Tripping.

Personal attacks or ridiculing was to be found on both types of blogs.

So what have I learned from my first media experience?

1. Be very very careful what you say to journalists and how you say it, because they can misunderstand, misinterpret, and sensationalize everything and anything you say.

2. Some level of inaccuracy in the news is the price to pay for publicity. Learn to live with it.

3. The media will talk about your sex-related studies, whether you like it or not, because it’s, you know, sexy and controversial. If you have a chance to say something too, it’s better to say it than let your science get discussed entirely without you.

4. Don’t even try to engage with the blogosphere. There’s no way you have time to argue with all of them.

Overall, the experience has been much more positive than negative. I can’t wait for my next study to come out ;-)

25 thoughts on “Sex Science News: From Academic Journals to the Media

  1. “Daily Mail Reporter: Women don’t want to be friends with girls who sleep around (but men don’t care if their mates do) – And EVOLUTION is to blame.”

    I think you may have misinterpreted this. It seems they are referring to “mates” in the British sense, i.e. “friends.”

    • Oh, that never occurred to me. Ha, you’re right, they probably do. And I mentioned it to a couple of people (some actually British) and no one pointed that out. Heh. Thank you.

  2. Don’t assume that a reporter didn’t read the study because they didn’t get it from you. They could have contacted your PR person, gotten it directly from the journal, or had direct access another way (many are provided media subscriptions.).

    • That’s true, I didn’t necessarily make that assumption. But given the short deadlines journalists work with, I doubt even the ones who asked for the study actually read it in full; at best they skimmed it (which is totally fine). But when there were some obvious mistakes, like in the first Jezebel article (which was published a day after the press release and before all the other ones), it’s clear that the writer didn’t read the story.

  3. Pingback: Sex News: Kinect porn, Showtime’s Masters of Sex, Dan Savage | av-movies.us

  4. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (15 June 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

  5. Pingback: Linky and the Brain: Science and Art edition

  6. Pingback: Sex News: Kinect porn, Showtime’s Masters of Sex, Dan Savage | FantasyFap.com

  7. Had an almost identical experience earlier this year, when my university interviewed me over a recently published work on meditation. The school’s press release was OK, but by the time I was done looking through the blogs that carried it, my study had been turned into something akin to “Researcher PROVES meditation FORCES people to enjoy music”! I was both shocked and amused, but hey, who doesn’t love a little press?

  8. This is an interesting piece. At least, up until your conclusions, where, in my opinion, you really go off the rails. To wit:
    “1. Be very very careful what you say to journalists and how you say it, because they can and will misunderstand, misinterpret, and sensationalize everything and anything you say.”
    Really? That’s your conclusion?
    Yet, in the detailed examples you go through of every story about this paper, you cite only ONE example of someone (a journalist, that is, as opposed to bloggers) who actually talked to you and yet got some things wrong (two things, to be precise), and actually those were pretty trivial things — one of them being the headline, which, in fact, is virtually never under the control of the writer, so it doesn’t really count in terms of the point you’re making.
    So, to summarize: In your one foray into writing about how science gets reported, I would submit that your stated conclusions are a clear case of “sensationalizing anything and everything” that occurred.

    • Thank you David, for writing what I was thinking.

      As a science writer myself, I also really enjoyed reading this piece, but felt the conclusions were unnecessarily inflammatory. In fact, conclusion #1 sort of sticks out like a sore thumb in this piece. The rest is thoughtful and informative,

      • Hm.. you raise a good point, not ‘everything’ I said was misinterpreted and sensationalized. I deleted the ‘and will’ from conclusion #1.

      • Zhana, I appreciate the fact that you’re paying attention and did make one change as a result of this discussion, but I think you still didn’t go far enough. This piece seems to be intended as advice for other scientists in dealing with the press, but it seems to me your conclusions still do not follow from your “data.” Specifically, it appears that in EVERY CASE where you actually communicated with a journalist, according to your own report, they got the story right, and therefore the logical advice would be to encourage other scientists to communicate as much as possible with journalists, rather than the negative spin you’re giving.
        The “wrong” reports, apparently, other than headlines (which, as discussed below, journalists have no control over), were only from blogs and outlets that did NOT talk to you. The one exception was a piece that you say had one mistake, which was promptly corrected as soon as you contacted the person.
        Overall, this seems to be a success story of communicating science, yet you seem to be sensationalizing it by making it seem like a negative outcome.

      • The piece was not really intended to be advice for other scientists, it was more a personal documenting of this experience for myself. I’m actually quite surprised that

        Not every time I talked to a journalist they got stuff right. Sometimes they got stuff wrong and I had to email them to request them to change what was wrong. Even the HuffPostLive video segment that had me on the show talked about the study as if we had found that sluts had no friends.

        But those experiences aside, I don’t think I’m trying to make it sound like a negative experience. Overall, as the last bolded sentence clearly says, it was more positive than a negative experience.

        I also clearly say that scientists SHOULD talk to journalists about their work – see conclusion #3. I certainly intend to do that in the future. :)

  9. You shouldn’t blame the reporter for the headline on the story. While a reporter can suggest one with the copy, often the headline is written by someone entirely different — someone who gave the story only a cursory read before getting creative in trying to grab a reader’s attention with a headline that may or may not reflect the content of the story. Often the reporter is as dismayed with the headline as is the source.

    • I wasn’t aware of that, thanks for pointing that out. Although, I didn’t actually blame the reporter, I blamed the ”media outlets” for that…

  10. Great post, thank you. I think part of your negative experience was your topic — “sex” attracts media coverage. I do a workshop at the annual human genetics meetings, with an audience of instructors, about having students track the media coverage of a Science or Nature-type technical report. With your topic you must be more on the defensive than with, say, reporting a gene discovery or new use for stem cells. (Also you mean hypothesize, not theorize. Big difference.)

    • Heh, it’s certainly harder to sensationalize new gene discoveries (unless they’re about sex, lol).

      But it wasn’t really a negative experience overall. I enjoyed most of it and most of it the coverage was mostly correct.

      We didn’t actually test those hypotheses in the study which is why I didn’t use the word, but yes, you’re right.

  11. Zhana–

    Thank you for clarifying your study so succinctly. I have an academic background, but not one in the sciences, so I imagine I will struggle reading the actual academic piece. I still hope to do so.

    Why? Because I’m a promiscuous female who regularly struggles with perceptions of same sex (and “other” sex) friends and lovers. Your study sounds important.

    While in many circles I feel comfortable embracing my “slut” status, I have been forced to use a pen name when writing about my personal sexual experiences. The anonymity allows a freedom, my friends “worry” less (because I keep my exploits a secret from them), and I can “pass” with some men now that my exploits are mostly underground. It’s a lie I choose to live.

    Researchers like you and your colleagues do a valuable service for men and women who make sexual choices outside of the mainstream. I applaud your efforts and look forward to reading your study.

  12. Pingback: Links and Such Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s