How To Spot an Internet Sex Research Hoax


Media coverage of sex research is often misleading and sensational. Whether stating that sex aids prostate health when the real benefit comes from an orgasm (which can be had alone or with a partner) or representing one researcher’s interpretation of data as absolute fact, reporters tend to drop the ball and reinforce long-held stereotypes about sexuality.

But then there are times when they just make shit up.*

A commenter recently posted what I consider an excellent example of fake (as in completely fabricated overstated) sex research news. Let’s use this wonderful hoax as a case study to learn critical thinking about sexuality research.

Case Study #001: Porn Causes Sexual Anorexia in Men?

The news item above reads more like a piece from The Onion than a genuine article. How can I tell it’s a fake? Here’s a handy guide.

  • Where did the news item originate? In this case it was News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s media company. Renowned for making shit up. If you search for this text you find it copied and pasted all over the internet including the news outlets reporting on it. (Ansa News contains nearly the same text as on the Fox news report. Red flag.)
  • Where are the links? Without a link, you cannot easily verify where this source came from. The beauty of the internet is self publishing. Likewise, the danger of the internet is self-publishing.
  • Does it mention an academic journal or university? Any academic research you read about will be published or mentioned in an academic journal or associated with a university at the very least.
  • “Experts/Scientists say…” Attaching the term “expert” or “scientist” to a piece of information does not make it legit, but damn if we don’t love fancy titles.
  • Check the Sample Size/Methodology. Our case study states the data comes from “[a] survey of 28,000 users.” Problem is, research is incredibly tedious. Not only do you have to find 28,000 participants but you must then code and analyze those 28,000 data points. This takes loads of work and trained data analysts and research assistants who must be paid or given tons of class credit. This means funding. Lots and lots of funding. [Counter example: the NSSHB, conducted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and funded by Trojan, only had 5,865 participants.]
  • Who are the experts in question? Just because Dr. Phil has a doctorate does not mean he is qualified to talk about sex. Now, in our case study, Dr. Carlo Foresta is an actual medical doctor and surgeon. However, he specializes in andrology and endocrinology. His most recent research papers were titled Bone Mass in Subjects with Klinefelter Syndrome: Role of Testosterone Levels and Androgen Receptor Gene CAG Polymorphism and Bone Mineral Density and Testicular Failure: Evidence for a Role of Vitamin D 25-Hydroxylase in Human Testis. His area of expertise has nothing to do with media effects on sexuality.

And how do I really know this is 100% fabricated bullshit? There is no mention of “pronografia” in the SIAMS conference program, the Italian urology and sexual medicine society that held the conference where the alleged research was presented.

If there is anything we should be teaching younger generations it is media literacy. The internet seems to be where discussion often goes to die while zealotry and personal viewpoint reinforcement runs rampant. Look hard enough and you can find any article that agrees with your viewpoint. But what is the worth of that article? Where did it come from, who wrote it and is the viewpoint valid?

I worry about the older generation. Some researchers and academics seem hell-bent on proving their ideology with whatever crap sources they can dredge from the interweb’s depths. And then they go posting the sources as fact or citing them in their books only to look like complete fools.

So, please, try to be exceptionally critical of any information you receive firsthand. Or at least learn proper investigative and research techniques.

*I originally came to the conclusion that the piece was fabricated but it later came to light that this was reported in Italian language news outlets as well. I’m really thankful that was pointed out and I found a major blindspot in how I search for foreign language news items. For further commentary and insight about this, check out Thomas Roach’s excellent guest contributor piece at Tiny Nibbles [NSFW].

34 thoughts on “How To Spot an Internet Sex Research Hoax”

  1. I love when this happens. Not too many things fill me with more joy that when a bogus news story is discredited based on the knowledge of basic research methods. I really think that research methods should be taught at a high school level and should be manditory. That way even the most basically educated person would realize what qualifies as a real source.

  2. I love the following term which describes the phenomenon, like money laundering, whereby information is passed from one source to another until it becomes “legitimate”. Since the majority of us don’t have the resources or the time to check the legitimacy of the information, we just accept it and probably repeat it. [chuckles] The sky is not falling.

    Pornography: Statistics Laundering

    1. I think it’s just being sloppy or else trying to sway people from the trail.

      I’m actually avoiding providing a direct link because I don’t like feeding them traffic. They has an evil.

      For the truly curious here are search queries that will lead you directly to the article: foxnews.com + internet porn + impotence

      1. Agreed. You have my permission to remove my other comment in that case. That direct link also has it as “NewsCore” and it’s simply the internet version of “News Corp.” TIL today!

  3. That stat about Germans being the biggest consumers of Internet porn is not only fake, it’s incomplete. It should say that 34.5% log on to look at porn, and the other 65.5% are liars.

    ba-da bing

  4. It’s fine to toss out a bunch of straw-men arguments, but you are simply wrong. This is not a hoax.

    Here’s the link from an Italian site that goes into further details. http://wwww.ansa.it/web/notizie/rubriche/scienza/2011/02/24/visualizza_new.html_1583166408.html

    As you will see, the survey of 28,000 men was commissioned by the Andrology Medical and Sexual Medicine Association (SIAM). The president Carlo Foresta is quoted as saying the survey was presented at the conference, but it was not on the official program agenda. (He used the term “on the sidelines,” perhaps because it was too recent.)

    It was presented. This is real. And although I don’t like Fox news, I find your conspiracy theories a bit implausible, if not silly. If the results of the survey had shown porn was harmless, you would have had no objection to this item. You just don’t like the results.

    If you are going to call something a hoax, then you should be held to very high standards of proof. You can’t say that we need to investigate a news story that appeared in various places and countries more thoroughly, when you are obviously not willing to investigate your own assertions thoroughly.

      1. I read through the Italian version and all it says is that they collected data on porn consumption and age. Nothing I can see about *how* it’s linked to the sexual anorexia they seem to mention in passing. This is in no way the research represented in the English language versions, that research found porn causes impotence.

        (P.S. William, thank you for finding the Italian one! I tried multiple search queries and wasn’t able to find it.)

        If this is in any way true, that they surveyed all of these people about their experiences with impotence, lack of desire and how it related to porn I have got to see the abstract or the study. (Which I’ve emailed Foresta about several times already.)

    1. This isn’t about a conspiracy theory. This is about being properly critical of the media we see and questioning sources. And I would be just as critical if I saw a piece saying they found the opposite if it was presented in the way this was.

      The thing is: I searched and searched but found nothing about SIAMS and a study linking pornography consumption to impotence/lack of sexual desire. No abstract, no study, no listing on the conference schedule, nothing. That is a huge claim. All I can see from this is that they paid an outside traffic analytic company to analyze ages among porn site visitors. That’s it. Not exactly how this was presented in the English language sites.

      If this is real, that they studied sexual desire and impotence links, point me to the abstract or a link to the data and methodology. Or e-mail Foresta yourself: carlo.foresta@unipd.it

      1. So you really believe this is all a hoax? I’m truly dumfounded.

        If you search Google Italiano, you should come up with at least 93 separate articles on this “fake survey”. Including articles by other medical doctors. These articles quote the president-elect of SIAM, Dr. Foresta.

        These fake articles have been circulating in Italy for the last ten days. Don’t you think Dr Foresta would have caught on by now? Maybe you should email him what your investigation has so far uncovered.

        1. The reports on the Italian sites are not what’s being promoted on the English sites. At all.

          Fake Study: Internet porn may cause impotence

          Real Survey: Ages of Italians visiting porn sites

          Not the same thing.

          I get the feeling you think I bash this stuff because I’m vehemently pro-porn. This isn’t why. I am highly skeptical of many conclusions obtained in sex research (which are often rooted in researcher’s own ideas about sexuality) and even more skeptical of how they are reported in the media regardless of the ideological side on which they fall.

          Example: the claim gets bandied about in sex positive and pro-porn circles that porn decreases rape. There was even an analysis by an economist asserting that pornography serves as a substitution for rape, especially among 15-19 year old boys.

          Disagree with that analysis. Why? Because our lives are made up of more than just porn or no porn. There is more that can influence us than watching films of people fucking. Human sexuality is more complex than a call and response. There are questions of background, beliefs, socioeconomic status, personal psychological makeup, etc. Simply finding a correlation says very little to me in and of itself. I find many of these explanations to be simplistic and often create hysteria over whatever is controversial in sexuality.

          So, to me, porn serves as a red herring to actual issues surrounding sexuality that I think affect everyone. Trying to navigate the new gender order, homophobia, sexism, abuse, basic self-acceptance and reflexivity when many of us start life with incredibly damaging and restrictive messages about sexuality.

          (Also, I did email Foresta a couple of days ago and bring up questions I had about the validity of the news report. Still waiting on a response.)

          1. Clarification about the porn-rape correlates: I disagree in the sense that I in no way think porn is a panacea for rape. There are so many mitigating factors to consider.

          2. I’m not sure why you are continuing this charade. Perhaps you are hoping your visitors don’t read Italian, or can’t use Google translator. You are simply making up nonsense.

            I could cut and past dozens of these. This is a Italian medical doctor reporting on the survey.

            Headline: L’anoressia sessuale: patologia under 25 riferibile agli internauti ‘addicted’ ai siti pornografici

            Translated: Sexual Anorexia: pathology under 25 attributable to Internet users ‘addicted’ to porn sites

            Text Translated:
            Our scientific advisor, Dr. Rosario Porzio (pictured) looks at his speech and behavior that is common enough that many involving young people, but not all. Today we speak of ‘sexual anorexia’.

            Sexual Anorexia is manifested by a kind of rejection towards sex that develops in the Internet which are often visit pornographic sites, which are developing or have developed a real ‘addiction’ to them so as to refuse a real sex life. Rosario Porzio report shows that the psychological problem of these people ‘was the’ Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine.

            Decreased libido and erectile dysfunction issues are always of those who surf porn sites. But who are the Internet sexual anorexic? Mostly are men, ages average 24 years (but can also be reached within 44 years, and someone does not have 18 years).

            What happens in the human brain and personality of who is porn-web-addicted’? “The daily use of such images has slowed down the brain maturation of sexuality, sex dall’affettività released, and without loss of interest sexuality real instead for a healthy development, it needs imagination, “said Professor Carlo Foresta, president of Siamsa.

              1. You and Violet Blue, now that’s unbiased.

                It’s only “crap science” because you don’t like the results. I think I’ll take a survey of 28,000 men commisioned by the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine, and reported by medical doctors, over the non-scientific opinions of 2 highly biased bloggers.

                The charade is your above statement that Italian news outlets are reporting one story, and US another:
                “Fake Study: Internet porn may cause impotence”
                “Real Survey: Ages of Italians visiting porn sites”

                This is a lie, plain and simple. In fact, from an Italian news outlet, here’s a further explaination by that evil doctor.

                “This survey – says Professor Carlo Foresta, president of the Societa Italian Andrology and Sexual Medicine, urologist Professor of Clinical Pathology at the University ‘di Padova, promoter of the research – it was created by the need to understand a new clinical phenomenon that involves substantially under 25 years: the sexual anorexia. Of the 50 boys who have turned to our clinics for diseases of sexuality, loss of libido and erectile dysfunction, 70% were for years the bad habit of going on Internet sites pornographic very thorough. The daily use of such images has slowed the aging brain of sexuality.”

                1. Considering the amount of time you’re spending here, chatting with one of those “biased bloggers,” Mr Wilson, it would seem that your behavior is in disagreement with your stated goal.

                  The “crappy science” is not in the numbers, but in their statistitcal handling, their confirmation bias, and in the connections they have to groups pursuing certain agendas.

                  Phrenology didn’t work, nor did phlogisticon.

                  By all means believe anything you want, but don’t forget to mention the studies that DISAGREE with your viewpoint (or else you look just as biased as the “two bloggers” you so dismissively mention). Citing only studies that agree with your ideas is not exactly a way to endear yourself with those who strive for rationality.

                  Mr Wilson, I urge you to consider the opposing viewpoints which you are not taking into account. Your activism here (and your posting here is nothing other than this: activism, albeit as a dilettante) would benefit from actually considering counterarguments and discussing them in detail.

                  Or else, you might consider keeping your activism in your own blog. People do come and read you after all; it’s not like you lack followers.

      2. While we are on the subject. The phenomenon of today’s hyperstimulating porn causing erectile dysfunction is not limited to Italians. Here’s a German Sexologist, Dr. Jakob Pastötter, President of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozialwissenschaftliche Sexualforschung
        German Society for Social Scientific Sexuality Research in a transcription from a TV talk show:

        http://www.scribd.com/doc/50053587/Alles-Porno-%E2%80%93-Jugend-und-Sexualitat-2010

        “Aber wir wissen zum Beispiel von den Gesprächen auch mit den Therapeuten, dass wir es seit etwa 10, 15 Jahren, also seitdem Pornografie extrem leicht auch in Gegenden verfügbar ist, die vorher Pornografie nicht kannten, zum Beispiel die ganzen arabischen Staaten, dass der Anteil an jungen Männern, die unter schweren Potenzstörungen leiden, extrem zugenommen hat.”

        Translation:

        “But we also know, for example, from our talks with therapists that for about 10 or 15 years – since pornography has become extremely easily available in areas that previously did not know pornography – for example, the Arab states – the number of young men who suffer from severe erectile dysfunction has extremely increased.”

        Why do you think Davy Rothbart has to fake orgasm? http://nymag.com/news/features/70976/ Our forum is brimming with men trying to heal their ED and general lack of responsiveness to real partners from Internet porn use. Most had no problem…until their brains became numbed to pleasure from years of overuse. If you want to learn more, watch “Erectile Dysfunction and Porn” http://yourbrainonporn.com/erectile-dysfunction-and-porn

    2. Mr Wilson, it’s a pity that you apparently jump to conclusions as to other people’s motivations and criticism. Your tone is not always very civil, which saddens me. The study you linked to says something very different from what was posted in the news sites which propagated it, as a cursory examination of their content reveals.

      We all know that the media is always all over any study on sexuality that supports or doesn’t support contemporary popular beliefs. Alas, the media has a record for being less than very careful with fact-checking on academic matters. The sexademic’s reaction is not only natural: it should be our default reaction to most of what we see on the internet. Or else we would be all sending our bank account numbers to Nigerian bilionaries in distress.

  5. The phenomenon of today’s hyperstimulating porn causing erectile dysfunction is not limited to Italians. Here’s a German Sexologist, Dr. Jakob Pastötter, President of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozialwissenschaftliche Sexualforschung
    German Society for Social Scientific Sexuality Research in a transcription from a TV talk show:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/50053587/Alles-Porno-%E2%80%93-Jugend-und-Sexualitat-2010

    “Aber wir wissen zum Beispiel von den Gesprächen auch mit den Therapeuten, dass wir es seit etwa 10, 15 Jahren, also seitdem Pornografie extrem leicht auch in Gegenden verfügbar ist, die vorher Pornografie nicht kannten, zum Beispiel die ganzen arabischen Staaten, dass der Anteil an jungen Männern, die unter schweren Potenzstörungen leiden, extrem zugenommen hat.”

    Translation:

    “But we also know, for example, from our talks with therapists that for about 10 or 15 years – since pornography has become extremely easily available in areas that previously did not know pornography – for example, the Arab states – the number of young men who suffer from severe erectile dysfunction has extremely increased.”

    Why do you think Davy Rothbart has to fake orgasm? http://nymag.com/news/features/70976/ Our forum is brimming with men trying to heal their ED and general lack of responsiveness to real partners from Internet porn use. Most had no problem…until their brains became numbed to pleasure from years of overuse. If you want to learn more, watch “Erectile Dysfunction and Porn” http://yourbrainonporn.com/erectile-dysfunction-and-porn

    1. Mr Wilson, I’m sure your forum is brimming with men who are ‘numbed to pleasure’, and I’m sure their excuse — it was internet porn! — helps them get over it. However, as in many other similar cases, there are reasons other than overexposure (which is more often a symptom than a cause) for this numbing. People get themselves into difficult situations with partners who they don’t or no longer lust after (a phenomenon painfully well known from all times and ages, long before porn on the internet), and blame all kinds of external factors for that. The demand for aphrodisiacs and anti-impotence drugs and spells is known since time immemorial; there may have been cavemen who believed that sabertooth tiger urine might make them responsive again (‘take away the numbness’).

      Just as the Christians used to blame ‘the Devil’ for the problems they didn’t want to face (or couldn’t face, or didn’t know how to face) and which were leading them to behaviors they didn’t like, now we also want to blame external factors. It’s the violence on TV. It’s the porn. It’s all those TV commercials that making everything into a commodity. It’s the Muslims and their Sharia law. It’s all those self-styled “experts” telling you what to do. It’s
      “Capitalism” and its way of bringing out the worst in every person. It’s…

      It’s you. You, and yourself; and your life story. Face it, and stop blaming ugly outside forces. Stop demeaning yourself. Stop saying ‘I couldn’t help it! I couldn’t control myself! I am weak, weak, oh so weak!…’. Be strong. Take control.

  6. OhMyGod Sexademic, it’s such a major pet peeve with me that mainstream news does not adequately attribute their source. At worst, it’s ‘Experts say’. At best, they may mention a name of one of the researchers and his location.

    I spend so long trying to find the original. It’s such a particular clear, outright and misleading danger in the field of healthcare in general. In the UK, we have this at least: http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx

    So many times I’ve looked up things to find them vastly overinterpreted at best.

  7. Sorry, Mr. Wilson…but you can quote all of the German and Italian and French translations by supposedly serious sex researchers, and it will still render your treasured studies as nothing more than the usual antiporn/antisex bullshit.

    Let’s take one example you cite to justify your claims of legitimacy:

    “But we also know, for example, from our talks with therapists that for about 10 or 15 years – since pornography has become extremely easily available in areas that previously did not know pornography – for example, the Arab states – the number of young men who suffer from severe erectile dysfunction has extremely increased.”

    First off: “we all know from our talks with therapists…??” Which ones would that be…those who only agree with your biases?? Why not give names explicitly in the original study for sourcing, then??

    But this is the really stupid part: “…since pornography has become extremely easily available in areas that previously did not know pornography – for example, the Arab states – the number of young men who suffer from severe erectile dysfunction has extremely increased.”

    And where by chance is the control group of those in countries where porn has always been available?? Or…comparisons to those “Arab” (Islamic??) countries where porn is still essentially illegal and its use punishable by prison or even death?? Where is the evidence that “erectile dysfunction” is less prevalent in those still porn-free countries??

    And finally, Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Robinson, there is this that reveals your own true agenda:

    Why do you think Davy Rothbart has to fake orgasm? http://nymag.com/news/features/70976/ Our forum is brimming with men trying to heal their ED and general lack of responsiveness to real partners from Internet porn use. Most had no problem…until their brains became numbed to pleasure from years of overuse. If you want to learn more, watch “Erectile Dysfunction and Porn” http://yourbrainonporn.com/erectile-dysfunction-and-porn

    Oh, I see..so the five or so clients to your forum represent the hundreds of thousands of porn consumers who claim to have no such issues with their usage…or are they just lying??

    Just like the phony stats brought out by Internet filtering companies about the dire threat of porn use by “children” used to scare governments into imposing censorware….your side simply invents stuff up just to scare people. Yet, you dare to come here and call Jessi a fake and biased??

    The plural of anecdote is not data. The plural of propaganda is not truth.

    Anthony

  8. You go Anthony! It seem like the negitive sex folks are attacking Ms Jessi and he web site.I guess the blog
    is doing some good stuff.

    1. Complete and utter hoax.

      1) There’s no such research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

      2) Dr. Karen Weatherby doesn’t seem to exist outside of the article text.

      3) There is no way they could draw these conclusions simply by saying to participants, “Alright, you guys stare at boobies, you guys just look away. We’re trusting you.” Even if the study had been real, it is so methodologically flawed that none of the claims could be trusted.

      4) It’s on Snopes: http://www.snopes.com/humor/iftrue/breasts.asp

      This news item has apparently been circulating since 1997. Next time you see this study pop up in the “news” you’ll know.

  9. Now this is a complete off-topic comment. I just didn’t know how else to reach you.

    Could you please make a post about anal sex? (Or email me I don’t know..) I’m trying to find how to perform it without the hygiene issues it presents, even with condoms, but I can’t find any convincing enough information.

    Thank you!

    1. Happy to! I’ll bump it up on my post queue. Best way to figure out when it’s posted is to subscribe to my blog or keep up with my twitter feed. I’ll try to have it out in the next week.

  10. BACK TO THE ACTUAL SUBJ OF ARTICLE:
    (posted for a friend who wanted to but couldn’t)

    Interesting but I don’t even share her point of view. My reasons against hook ups are purely scientific. I often have to defend this because ppl think I *can* hook up but I’m just being “moral”. Whenever I want to hook up, I chicken out at the last minute because:

    a. I have been raped several times (yes this can occur during the context of a hookup in which the man hardly knows or doesn’t care about the woman) b. Terrified of STDs to the point where it’s a compulsion, kills the mood and any hook up fantasy I had.
    C. Hymen issues, condom fears, pregnancy issues.
    D. Oxytocin and my Asperger’s codependency: sex creates it and for reasons based purely on evidence from my past, I don’t want to get attached to the wrong guy and go through yet another painful tormenting episode.
    So ppl can take that, slap it in their face, and smoke it with a big fat bag of weed next time they blow off my sex fears as ‘morality’ or ‘girl guilt.’

    Adrianne

  11. People with Asperger’s often have difficulty with courtship ritual and often behave as developmentally younger than we are when it comes to sex. I’m Asperger’s too, so I know what she’s talking about.

  12. Adrienne:

    However you may couch your opposition to “hook-ups” as scientific or based on your personal experiences, they are still essentially your opinion, and yours alone…not a universal that applies to all women or all people or even all those with Asperger’s Disease.

    Merely quoting scientific gibberish does not make your POV any more scientific.

    No one is doubting your tragic experiences..but they don’t reflect upon the majority of people who do “hook-ups” without any hint of damage.

    And it still doesn’t answer the point of Jessi’s point that most of the “porn addiction” panic is based less on real science and more on antisex idelogy and slut shaming. Gary Wilson’s rantage here and his sockpuppetry proves her point exactly.

    Anthony

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