Be suspicious of statistics, especially those that seem too good or too bad or too surprising to be true.
You may have seen this amazing news headline: 1 in 10 Teens Has Had a Same-Sex Partner. The story on AOL Health begins this way:
Nearly one in ten teens has had a same-sex partner — double what previous research has shown, according to a surprising new study.
That’s about twice as many as indicated in a 2002 study of Massachusetts and Vermont teens showing 5 to 6 percent of teenagers had had same-sex partners.
“I don’t know that it means there’s an increase in prevalence,” said Massachusetts psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Carlat, AOL Health’s mental health expert. “As homosexuality has become more and more accepted in society, people are more willing to acknowledge their sexuality than they used to be.”
Wow! Who knew? 1 in 10 American teenagers has had a same-sex partner?! That’s really terrible/terrific (depending on your point of view). What a revelation!
The only problem with this revelation is that it’s false. If the reporter for AOL had taken time to read just the abstract for the Pediatrics article she may have seen the heading “CONCLUSIONS” (in all caps) and noted this summary:
Of sexually active adolescents, 9.3% reported a same-sex partner, a higher estimate than other published rates.
AOL speaks of 1 in 10 teens; the original article concludes 9.3% of sexually active adolescents reported a same-sex partner. There’s a big difference. The survey analyzed data from 17,220 teenagers. Of those, 7,261 (or 42%) reported having had sex. So according this study 58% of teens are not having sex with anyone and 9.3% of those have, had same-sex partners, or 3.9% of the total sample.
There are other reasons to be suspicious of the headline. For starters, as AOL reports later in the article: “The new research analyzed data from 17,220 teenagers in New York City who filled out public health surveys” (emphasis mine). The whole Pediatric article is not available online so I can’t comment on the ins and outs of the methodology. But I have to believe that a study dealing with “teens in New York City who fill out public health surveys” is going to yield some different results than, say, teens in Dallas or Atlanta or Sioux Falls.
And then there’s the disturbing information, which the AOL article also reports, that “About a third of teen boys who had bisexual experiences said they’d had forced sex, compared to 6 percent of boys who reported having only heterosexual experiences.” Later the article says that 36% of girls with bisexual experiences and 35% of boys with bisexual experiences endured some kind of “dating violence” in the past year. So, at the very least, a good chunk of the teens with a “same-sex partner” were forced into this experience. Indeed, the journal abstract concludes: “Adolescents with both-sex partners reported a marked prevalence of dating violence and forced sex.”
The lesson in all this is, once again, to be wary of dubious data. It is not true that 1 in 10 teens have had a same-sex partner. What’s true is that around 4% of teens in New York who filled out a public health survey reported a same-sex experience, and that a not insignificant number of those experiences were forced in some way.
Don’t believe everything you hear.