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Reporting on Infidelity Study Highlights Challenges of Turning Sex Research Into News

Study on relationships arouses the media

Whether it's politicians having children outside of marriage or 'family values' spokesmen having affairs, journalists know that infidelity is a big draw. So when Erick Janssen and co-authors released a new study based on the sexual inhibition/sexual excitiation model, it was important not to overstate the findings.

The study was the first to look at the influence of lovers' sexual personality traits on infidelity alongside more typically-examined factors like marital status, religious affiliation, and gender.

Some of their results were unexpected, and sparked media attention.

Photo by Nic Snell
New study is first to consider the influence sexual personality characteristics can have on infidelity.

"The tendency of media is to generalize and sensationalize sex research, so it's always a challenge to present the results within the context of the study, " said Erick Janssen.

In this study, people were more likely to say that they cheated on their spouse if they also experienced an "increased sensitivity for sexual performance problems and a decreased likelihood to lose their sexual arousal in the face of risk or danger." Not the easiest concepts to explain in a sound byte!

So how do researchers handle preserving the nuance and integrity of their study results in the face of journalistic pressure for the hot story?

"Being new to this, I was incredibly cautious with the information that I gave reporters. It was a lot more difficult than I anticipated," said Kristen Mark, doctoral student at Indiana University's Department of Applied Health Science.

"I had a piece of paper in front of me during every media interview that said across the top 'I cannot comment on that' - I had to bring the reporters back to our specific results, rather than generalizing and sensationalizing our findings."

And what study results drew most attention from the media?

"I think reporters were looking for sweeping generalizations with regard to gender differences," says co-author Dr. Robin Milhausen. "They really latched on to the finding about performance concerns in men predicting infidelity - but the exact same pattern of results was found for women and the relationship was almost identical in magnitude for both genders. I had to keep reminding them that this finding was true for women as well."

Kristen Mark adds, "I also think that once reporters got the idea in their head that infidelity was predicted by personality characteristics, they were hoping to spin the story in a way that the saying 'once a cheater, always a cheater' would be supported by science, which really wasn't the case."

And it's more than just an interest in scientific purity that keeps researchers struggling to leash in journalist enthusiasm when they report sex research news. When complex results are simplified and packaged to fit neatly into a catchy phrase or headline, more mundane but practical applications can be left out of the reporting.

Even with personality factors, it is possible to offer suggested interventions to avoid infidelity.

Says Dr. Milhausen:

"If you are easily aroused by a variety of sexual stimuli, suggest it to your partner rather than going outside the relationship. As well, if you have performance concerns which are interfering with your arousal, get help for these from a physician or therapist. You don't need to seek extra stimulation elsewhere, or a partner with whom you have a 'clean slate.'"

On a bright note, the study was widely reported in the media, and the researchers were featured in several radio interviews. You can read some of these articles, and listen to Erick Janssen and Kristen Mark discuss the findings on Youtube:

For more about the study, read the press release on Insights into infidelity: Study examines influence of sexual personality characteristics, or go to the original research article:

Mark, K.P., Janssen, E., and Milhausen, R.R. (2011). Infidelity in Heterosexual Couples: Demographic, Interpersonal, and Personality-Related Predictors of Extradyadic Sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior. DOI 10.1007/s10508-011-9771-z.

For more media coverage, see kinseyinstitute.org/about/news_media.html



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