Questionnaires again

Back a while, I tried to make sense of the last sex survey by Details magazine; a lot depended on how the questions were worded and how the respondents understood those questions. Now another case, this time from a much more carefully conducted study: George Vaillant’s Grant Study of Harvard graduates, as reported in the May 2013 Atlantic. The relevant section of Scott Stossel’s piece:

Aging liberals have more sex. Political ideology had no bearing on life satisfaction—but the most-conservative men ceased sexual relations at an average age of 68, while the most-liberal men had active sex lives into their 80s. “I have consulted urologists about this,” Vaillant writes. “They have no idea why it might be so.”

Now “having sexual relations” and “having an active sex life” are not necessarily the same thing; “sexual relations” implies another person, though there’s still possible unclarity about what counts as having sexual relations with someone, while “an active sex life” can be solitary. So a lot will depend on how Vaillant worded his questions.

Before I continue, this warning:

[TMI Warning: The following posting contains information, opinion, or reflection that some readers might find uncomfortably or unwelcomely personal, private, or intimate in topic or content: too much information, as the saying goes. As a general observation, I’m willing to go almost anywhere in my postings, including some places that some readers don’t want to go.]

On Vaillant:

George Eman Vaillant, M.D. (born 1934) is an American psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Research for the Department of Psychiatry, Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Vaillant has spent his research career charting adult development and the recovery process of schizophrenia, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and personality disorder. He has spent the last 30 years as Director of the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard University Health Service. The study has prospectively charted the lives of 824 men and women for over 60 years. (link)

And on the Grant Study, from Stossel’s Atlantic piece:

In June 2009, The Atlantic published a cover story on the Grant Study, one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development. The project, which began in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 75 years, measuring an astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits—from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of his scrotum”—in an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing.

Recently, George Vaillant, who directed the study for more than three decades, published Triumphs of Experience [2012, subtitled The Men of the Harvard Grant Study] , a summation of the insights the study has yielded.

Back to conservatives, liberals, and sex in aging. Some of the results will depend on how degrees of conservatism and liberalism were determined in the study; I assume the criteria are clearly laid out in the book. With that out of the way, I turn to sexual relations, ceasing sexual relations, and having an active sex life. First, there’s the issue of having sexual relations vs. having an active sex life, mentioned above.

I haven’t had sexual relations with someone else since 2006 (when I was 65), so I could be said to have ceased sexual relations when I was 65, under the most-conservative men’s average of 68 (I would surely count as a most-liberal man). But I’m definitely sexually active in another sense, since I jack off once or twice a day (occasionally more).

Then there’s “having sexual relations with” someone vs. “having sex with” someone. Many people don’t understand these as equivalent, but treat “sexual relations” as taking in a great many acts past kissing (even deep kissing) but short of oral sex or intercourse (vaginal or anal) — licking, sucking, and stroking various body parts, finger fucking (vaginal or anal), using dildos, etc. — and some would withhold the label “had sex with” from oral sex or intercourse in which neither partner comes, but would still say that they “had sexual relations with” a partner in such cases. Some would say that they “had sex with” another person only if one of the partners is fucked (by a penis), and would treat oral sex as “having sexual relations with” their partner, but not “having sex with” them.

On that last, strict, usage of “having sex with” someone, I haven’t had sex with anyone since some time in the last century, long enough ago that I don’t remember exactly when, but I would have been in my 50s.

So, once again, the wording of the questionnaire is crucial, *and* it’s crucial to know how the respondents understand the questions. I can’t find any information on these points on the net, so I suppose that I’ll have to consult the book itself and hope that Vaillant elucidates these matters there; of course, it’s possible that he doesn’t, in a book meant for a popular audience.

There are also several potential explanations for a conservative-liberal distinction, including the possibility that highly conservative men are disinclined to seek new sexual partners when they are widowed, while very liberal men are entirely comfortable with that. Or that highly conservative men feel more constrained by their age and physical condition. In either of these cases, a urologist would not be the expert to go to for an explanation.


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