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Sex, Lies, and Social Science’: Another Exchange

In response to:

Sex, Lies, and Social Science from the April 20, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

R.C. Lewontin and Richard Sennett both criticize the NORC survey on the Social Organization of Sexuality [“Sex, Lies, and Social Science,” NYR, April 20 and the following Exchange, NYR, May 25] because they doubt its accuracy and validity. Sennett and Lewontin have different approaches to validity in assessing social behavior, with Sennett criticizing both Lewontin and NORC investigators for their reductionist and quantitative approach to information about human sexual behavior. Both Sennett and Lewontin focus on one particular piece of data reported by the NORC investigators as evidence for their accusations. This observation is that 45 percent of men between the ages of 80 and 85 report having sex with their partner. Both Sennett and Lewontin feel this is so obviously untrue that it calls into question the validity of the entire survey and the reports that were drawn from it.

Why do they think it is so obvious that this is a lie? Neither of them offers a single shred of empirical evidence that would support their doubt. They are in fact operating on the same unfortunate negative stereotype of aging that far too many Americans still hold—that aging is a period of sexlessness, silence and social irrelevance. In particular, sexuality in elderly men is viewed as either absent or, if present, with disgust as embodied in the phrase “dirty old man.”

And yet part of the miracle of the dramatic increase in life expectancy that developed countries have witnessed in this century is that for many people old age is a much healthier condition than many of us could ever imagine. The 80- to 85-year-olds surveyed excluded those in institutions and therefore selected the healthiest of elderly men. Furthermore because of increased life expectancy of women compared to men at that age there are two to three times as many women as men, and active men are very much in demand. If Professors Lewontin or Sennett had chosen to heed their own admonitions and seek empirical support for their claims they might have checked the medical literature on sexual activity in the elderly. If they had done so they would have found that in one study of noninstitutionalized elderly men over 65 the prevalence of sexual activity was 73.8 percent in married men and 31.1 percent in unmarried men. Studies done at Duke University showed that 75 to 85 percent of men in their sixties and seventies maintained a continuing interest in sex. And an additional study of male veterans found that even men in their nineties maintained sexual interest. Intercourse frequency declined from monthly in men in their sixties to less frequently but at least once a year for men in their seventies and older. And in up to 15 percent of elderly men followed longitudinally there was an increased level of sexual interest and activity at a certain point in old age such as after recovery from the grieving period of widowerhood. A recent study of 202 healthy upper-middle-class men and women living in a residential retirement facility between the ages of 80 and 102 with a mean age of 86 found that 53 percent of the men had a sexual partner.

I hope that scholars who call for an alertness to problems of validity and accuracy in social science would consider their own biases before using unsupported stereotypes to criticize such a major piece of work as the NORC study.

Christine K. Cassel, M.D.

George Eisenberg Professor in Geriatrics Professor of Medicine and Public Policy Studies

University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois


  1. F.E. Kaiser, “Sexuality and Impotence in Aging Men,” Clinical Geriairic Medicine, Vol. 7 (1991), pp. 63–72.

  2. E. Pfeiffer, A. Verwoerdt, and H.S. Wang, “The Natural History of Sexual Behavior in a Biologically Advantaged Group of Aged Individuals,” Journal of Gerontology, Vol. 24 (1969), pp. 193–198.

  3. D.L. Rowland, W.J. Greenleaf, L.J. Dorfman, et al., “Aging and Sexual Function in Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 19 (1993), pp. 753–758.

  4. T. Mulligan and C.R. Moss, “Sexuality and Aging in Male Veterans: A Cross-sectional Study of Interest, Ability and Activity,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 20 (1991), pp. 17–25.

  5. J.G. Bretschneider and N.L. McCoy, “Sexual Interest and Behavior in Healthy 80- to 102-year-olds,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 17 (1988), pp. 109–129.

  6. G. Persson and A. Svanborg, “Marital Coital Activity in Men at the Age of 75: Relation to Somatic, Psychiatric, and Social Factors at the Age of 70,” Journal of the American Geriatric Society, Vol. 40 (1992), pp. 439–444.

  7. R. Stall and J. Catania, “AIDS Risk Behaviors among Late Middle-aged and Elderly Americans,” Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 57–63.

To the Editors:

As a sociologist with a long interest in how questions are asked in surveys and how the asking affects the answers people give, I would like to comment on one point raised by Richard Lewontin’s review and especially by his subsequent letter concerning The Social Organization of Sexuality. I have no wish to enter into the merits or limitations of the Laumann et al. book or of Lewontin’s critique of it. My comment has to do rather with an important assumption that Lewontin makes when he contrasts “those who try to learn about the world by manipulating it and those who can only observe it….”

It is not true that surveys are entirely divorced from the possibility of fruitful experimental manipulation. On the contrary, there is a vigorous tradition in survey research of randomizing respondents however they have been drawn, though preferably through probability sampling—and varying experimentally many aspects of the “observational process”: the form, wording, and context of questions, the race, gender, and other features of interviewers (or of the questionnaire, if self-administered), the degree of anonymity provided to respondents, etc. Although the experimentation cannot be complete, this tradition has made careful survey researchers quite aware of the malleable and contingent nature of answers in surveys (and in the rest of life also). To take a simple but well researched area as an example, we know that black Americans tend to express less distrust toward whites when the interviewer is white than when he or she is black, and that a similar phenomenon occurs for whites when they answer parallel questions. Moreover, we need not assume that either type of response is true or truer than the other. Rather the difference itself becomes a datum subject to analysis and interpretation, and indeed subject to change over time, as we know from a series of experiments over half a century.

Furthermore, people often “do not tell themselves the truth about their own lives,” as Lewontin says, but even more important, there is often no single truth, both because perceptions depend heavily on subjective definitions and because attitudes may be deeply ambivalent. Answers to survey questions are not answers to research questions, but only one starting point in a serious attempt to understand human actions.

Howard Schuman

Survey Research Center/Institute for Social Research

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Richard Lewontin replies:

As a supporter of the work of Physicians for Social Responsibility, of which she has been president, and because I agree that social stereotypes of old people are pernicious, I regret being in contention with Dr. Cassel, but her righteous indignation has interfered with her careful judgment.

My criticism of the NORC study certainly does not focus on the report of sexual activity by octogenarians, nor did I claim that it was sufficient to “call into question the validity of the entire survey and the reports that were drawn from it.” She has confused this issue with my discussion of the internal contradiction between the reports of men and women respondents. The data on old men was not part of the NORC study, but the result of one of their previous surveys, and it was mentioned because it illustrated the inconsistent standards of the NORC team, who claimed on the one hand that men between 18 and 65 exaggerated their sexual contacts, but, on the other, accepted the self-reports of 80 year olds.

Indeed, the empirical evidence that men between 80 and 85 lie about their sexual exploits is that younger men do. Or does Dr. Cassel share with Laumann et al. the view that only the young exaggerate? Nowhere in what I (or Sennett) wrote is there a single word that even suggests that aging is a “period of silence and social irrelevance,” nor, for that matter, is the belief that old men exaggerate their sexual activity a claim for their “sexlessness.” Dr. Cassel’s citation of various studies from the “medical literature” only illustrates again the lack of methodological care that characterizes the field. Unless, unknown to the rest of us, medical science has produced an electronic scanner or a blood test that will give an objective read-out of how many sex partners a man has had in the last year, studies like those cited by Cassel are just self-reports, offering nothing different than the NORC survey except smaller sample sizes, and less survey expertise. Calling it “medical literature” is only a bit of propaganda meant to lend “an air of verisimilitude to a bald and otherwise unconvincing narrative.”

Stereotypes come in all sizes and shapes. The struggle to overcome the unreasoning prejudices against old people is not well served by romanticizing them. It is a myth that the aged are characterized by a serenity and objectivity that finally allows them a clear vision of the world denied to them earlier. On the contrary, deprived of the work and responsibility that gave a center to their lives, and facing the abyss, old people need to affirm themselves even more than the young. In a culture that is obsessed with youth, physical vigor, and sexuality, one form of that affirmation is surely sexual boasting.

Dr. Schuman raises an extremely important issue about how one might be able to manipulate survey methods as a form of experimentation. It goes to the heart of the methodological issues that I had hoped would be discussed. It is fundamental in sample survey work that the answers you get depend on how you ask the questions. As Schuman and others have shown, the same questions asked in a different order produce different responses, especially in attitudinal surveys, because, among other things, people try to be consistent and principled. For example, many more people agreed that journalists from Communist countries should have free access to the United States, if the question was preceded by one asking whether American journalists should have free access to Communist countries.

In my previous exchange I drew a distinction between those who try to learn about the world by manipulating it and those who can only observe it. The question is whether manipulating sample surveys is analogous to a battery of different tests and diagnostic devices that look at the undisturbed organism in different ways or whether the analogy is to an experimental manipulation of an organism, pushing it beyond its usual bounds to watch its response. For example, my cardiovascular system can be investigated by listening to my heart, taking my blood pressure, taking an electrocardiogram, injecting me with a dye and looking at my arteries with X-rays, and a variety of other tricks of observation that do not change my physiological state. None of these, however, may be sufficient to predict what will happen when I exercise violently, so I may be subjected to a stress test that monitors (at some peril to me) the consequences of running a treadmill that goes faster and faster.

The judgment of which analogy is correct hinges on what is the real object of study. In a survey that depends on self-report, manipulating the questions amounts to manipulating experimentally the state of consciousness of the respondent. If it is that state of consciousness that is the object of inquiry, as in an attitudinal survey, then a real experiment has been performed and, as Schuman writes, “the difference [in answers to different questions] itself becomes a datum subject to analysis and interpretation.” But if the object of inquiry is not what is in the respondent’s head, but who was in his bed, then an objective historical fact is in question that has not been changed by the different attempts to ask about it. We need to pay careful attention to Schuman’s closing remark that “survey questions are not answers to research questions, but only one starting point in a serious attempt to understand human actions.” Indeed, but that attempt is powerfully affected by the presuppositions of the investigators, which is the main point that I tried to establish in my review. The most profound observation on the issue is contained in a letter I have from Otis Dudley Duncan, a distinguished sociologist, who remarks that to get a theory out of observations, you have to put theory in.

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