Lies, damned lies and statistics?
April 11, 2012 12:57 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find the primary source of a much-repeated, but somewhat dubious, statistic.

This recent NYT article has been the last to repeat a statistic that I find somewhat difficult to believe: namely that 39% of all Spanish men admit to having paid for sex. As a Spanish man who has never gone to a prostitute, and is not about to do so, I'm somewhat sceptical, even if I do reckon that prostitution is quite rampant in my home country. I have traced back that stat, through this UN report, to this 14-year-old research paper: The Europeans and Their Sexual Partners
by H Leridon, G Van Zessen, M Hubert, Peter Aggleton

I'd be ready to pay to order or download that paper. However, it seems all but unavailable online. Can someone help me? Does that 39% figure really appear in that paper? Does the paper say how and when it was measured?
posted by Skeptic to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
It's not a journal article -- it's a book chapter. From this book (Google Books preview here). Depending on where you are a local library might have it.
posted by brainmouse at 1:09 PM on April 11, 2012

Page 192 of that book starts " an exception, with 38 per cent of men reporting some experience with sex workers in their lives and 10 per cent in the previous 12 months." Unfortunately page 191 is blocked from the Google Books preview so there's no knowing what country is named in the beginning of that sentence, but I'm guessing it's Spain, based on the next paragraph which mentions that Spain also has the highest rate of homosexual and bisexual men paying for sex ("close to 30 per cent").
posted by theodolite at 1:14 PM on April 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks. Google reroutes me automatically to Google Books France, which offers an even more limited preview. I'll have to check it out in a library (it's available as an e-book, but at an eye-watering price).
Thing is, that chapter seems to be in turn a compilation of various national surveys, so it still isn't the primary source...
posted by Skeptic at 1:32 PM on April 11, 2012

The actual book itself is about $6 used from my location; not sure if it's available in yours? Been scrabbling through all the university/academic networks I have access to, but they don't carry it.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 2:08 PM on April 11, 2012

I can confirm that it is "Spain" that is referenced there (page 191 actually has the table; "Spain" is mentioned on page 190). For whatever reason, my Google Books preview is showing me more. Unfortunately, I'm missing what I'd really like - the reference list at the end of the chapter.
posted by Betelgeuse at 2:13 PM on April 11, 2012

I just looked at the Google Books preview and I can see all of p. 190, which has the first word of the paragraph theodolite quoted. It is indeed "Spain." There is an accompanying table with statistics for men from several other European nations but no citation is given for the underlying data.

The final pages are not in my preview so I can't see the notes but table 1.1 shows 16 different national surveys of 11 countries that offered the source data. The preview I can see only has the first part, which does not list the Spanish survey, but does list the PI and funding bodies for the ones that are visible (two from Athens, one each from Belgium and Finland, all between 1989-92.)
posted by camcgee at 2:21 PM on April 11, 2012

I'm not sure how preview on Google Books works, but I was able to get page 196, which is the second half of the references for that chapter. Maybe the book you seek is one of these:

Top half of page
Bottom half of page
posted by themanwho at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2012

Spain's National Statistics Institute also did a study back in 2003, giving a slightly lower figure of 27%. Still highest in Europe, though, according to the article:

But at least Spain isn't Cambodia or Thailand, where 60-80% of men have paid for sex:
posted by woodman at 4:54 PM on April 11, 2012

A more recent study from 2008 (sample size of 5150) gives a figure of 25.4% for Spain, close to the 27% figure given above:

Sex Transm Infect. 2008 Jun;84(3):207-11.
Men who pay for sex in Spain and condom use: prevalence and correlates in a representative sample of the general population.
Belza MJ, et al.
posted by woodman at 5:01 PM on April 11, 2012

Slight derail, but I recommend letting the NYT know about the more recent study that has a lower figure. I once emailed the main letters address regarding a statistic in an article that seemed pretty unbelievable, and got a testy response from the author himself. It was gratifying to be listened to.
posted by Xalf at 5:38 PM on April 11, 2012

Best answer: So, I went down to the library since they had a copy of this book. I think this is the money paragraph:
In many European countries, visiting a sex worker used to be (but is no longer -- see Chapter 2 on sexual initiation) a common way of initiating males sexually. It may now be a more frequent means of obtaining sex during time spent out of union. When this is the case, the number of men reporting having paid for sex over their 'lifetimes' can be much higher than for a shorter period, such as the last 12 months. Table 5.10 [sic, it's actually 5.11] shows that Norway, Switzerland and, to a lesser extent, the Netherlands probably come into this category, as almost 20 per cent of heterosexual men (13 per cent in the Netherlands) reported paying for sex sometime in their life, but only around 2 per cent over the previous last year. Spain is an exception, with 38 per cent of men reporting some experience with sex workers in their lives and 10 per cent in the previous 12 months.
And here's an excerpt of some data from Table 5.11:
Survey country: % who've ever had paid sex / % who've had paid sex in last 12 months
Finland (1992): 9.7% / n.a.
France ACSF (1992): n.a. / 1.1%
Germany West (1990): n.a. / 4.3%
Netherlands (1989): 13.4% /2.8%
Norway (1992): 19.7% / 1.6%
Portugal (1991): n.a. / 4.7%
Spain (1990): 38.1% / 9.9%
Switzerland (1992): 17.8% / 2.3%
The base for this data is males 18-49 years who ever had sex (except Switzerland which was 18-45). The total size of the Spanish survey was 1,103 with 859 in the 18-49 range.

As for tracking down the primary source for this data, it's possible that it might actually be that book. It appears to be a report on a series of surveys conducted as part of "the European Concerted Action on sexual behaviour and the risks of HIV infection supported by the EU Biomedical and Health Research Programme (BIOMED)".
posted by mhum at 8:52 PM on April 11, 2012

Someone else who might be interested in this (and may have even written about it) is Carl Bialik, the WSJ's long-time "Numbers Guy." He spends a lot of time getting to the bottom of potentially questionable statistics like this.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:58 PM on April 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, nhum. So it appears that:
a) The original survey is 22 years old (!).
b) The sample had a slight selection bias, since it included only males aged 18-49 who had had sex. That particular survey is also rather fishy in that the result was 1/3 higher than those of later surveys.

I'll probably contact the NYT and let them know, although I'll make clear that I don't intend to pick on a statistical detail of an article that justly addresses a large, worrisome issue.
posted by Skeptic at 1:39 AM on April 12, 2012

Skeptic, having studied and worked in Spain around the time in question I wonder if indeed the study is an artefact of how sex-postive people felt they had to be in answering the question? I don't know how old you are but the first flurry of post-dictatorship excess had just passed and I recall the pressure a lot of people were under to be sexually active or at least say they were sexually active. (I taught in a University and spoke to a lot of the students who were only a few years younger than I was and I had a very wide social group at that time in both Madrid & Leon)

Social behaviour studies are notorously difficult and in one where N=1,103 of men who had had sex I would be asking where they lived. (My insinctive response was Barcelona, but to be useful they would have had to sample a variety of places)

I recall at the time outside urban enviornments there were still quite significant social & religious constaints operating, not least access to contraception.
posted by Wilder at 6:20 AM on April 12, 2012

sorry, I should say thanks for linking to this article I have been surprised by the growth in PutiClubs I see, especially around tourist areas but also along the motorways.

I travel back to Spain every year, often 2 or more times a year and I have really noticed a very obvious increase in visible prostitution in coastal areas. Most recently I observed something which depressed me; along the side of the road where a trampled path into the undergrowth led to breezebloc structure akin to a stable, if the woman was at the side of the road leading to the path, she was clearly free, if she wasn't there from about 11am daily, she was busy. On one stretch of road I saw about 5 of these in a 400 metre stretch and once I saw the layout I started noticing how ubiquitous they were all over that part of Fuengirola. I've seen the same near Valencia & Jerez so I suspect legislation and acceptance have led to a situation which in my travels in Greece, Italy, and the islands I haven't seen as openly.
posted by Wilder at 6:33 AM on April 12, 2012

Wilder: Social behaviour studies are notorously difficult and in one where N=1,103 of men who had had sex I would be asking where they lived.

I don't have the book in front of me now, but if I recall correctly, N=1,103 was the total size of the entire sample (not just men, not just men who had sex). This put it in the same range as most of the other countries surveyed which were in the 1,000 to 3,000 range, except for the UK which was somewhere north of 10,000.

Secondly, I do recall specifically that the sample was taking as a random sample from the national registry, so hopefully the geography wasn't overly skewed. The entire first chapter of the book was detailing the methodology of the various surveys.
posted by mhum at 8:16 AM on April 12, 2012

thanks for that mhum, that makes it more interesting.
posted by Wilder at 8:45 AM on April 12, 2012

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