Will You Stop Inquiring About the Sex Life of Japanese?

These days, presumably to make up for the shutting down of US panda-cams, the World has taken a keen interest in the reproduction problems of the Japanese people.

The last wave started with a cheap click-baiting article in the Guardian, who really, by now, should know better than publish poorly-researched articles about made-up Japanese “trends”. On par with its gratuitously sensationalising title, the article gleefully mixed miscellaneous unconnected research data with completely random anecdotal stuff. Using the thin pretense of studying Japan’s problematic demographics, to go on a fact-finding mission with a Japanese dominatrix turned sex coach: because prurient article on the wacky sexual habits of the Japanese sell so much better than boring age pyramid charts and the like.

In response to this new milestone in paid-by-the-click pseudo-journalism, a few marginally better-written articles popped up, somehow attempting to reframe the discussion into something approaching fact-based reporting. While a whole lot more just piled on, presumably in hope of getting some of that sweet sweet internet buzz. Finally, some journalists pointed out the glaringly racist undercurrent running through the whole thing (not that orientalism is a new thing), charitably overlooking gross journalistic incompetence as the key ingredient to that potent mix of offensive stupidity.

In the lesser spheres of non-retributed publishing, every Japan-related blog or forum has contributed its fair share of anecdotal comments ranging from the Reddit-topping hilariously inept armchair pop-psy take on it1 to the ubiquitous (and no less silly) counter-argument: “These articles must be wrong, because I know lots of Japanese who are having lots of sex. (wink wink nudge nudge)“.

Some Japanese blogger came very close to summarising my exact thoughts on the subject, in a few neat statistical plots2. But it still missed some fundamental issues I have with this joke of a news trend, so I thought I’d give it my own try:

Low fertility has little to do with absence of sex

This is the most glaring failure at basic logic, present in absolutely all the Western articles I have read, and it baffles me to no end. You would think that the average British (/Western) journalist has been told about birds and bees and how to have sex without babies, but apparently not so much. Conversely, as many a teenage mum3 will tell you, you don’t need to have a lot of sex to get pregnant.

Bottom line: these are two entirely separate topics, with a very tangential connection, mostly relevant if we are talking about pre-Industrial Revolution Europe or some remote Tanzanian village (and even then). So stop using one as a pretext to talk about the other, let alone as the starting point to your harebrained hypotheses on the matter.

These “sex surveys” are not studies

When you dig deep enough, you eventually realise that, none of these articles cite a single reputable source for their sex-habits statistics. Without sinking to the abysmal level of the Guardian piece4, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any data that does not turn out to have been compiled on the corner of a greasy napkin by some underpaid website intern.

Getting unbiased, reliable data on such a topic is already notoriously hard in an academic context… Make it a commercially-funded non-reviewed survey based on self-reported data collected internationally over the internet, and you might as well be casting dice to fill the answers. Each year or so, when magazines fill their space with puff-pieces about quirky sex comparisons between countries, they rarely insist on the fact that the data generally comes from the Durex™ Survey, a marketing effort so devoid of scientific validation, it’s barely worth the time to debunk it. And that’s before you even account for the huge cultural differences between countries that will likely bias your data even further.

Theoretically, a real social scientist (unlikely to be involved in such projects) would control for such biases and might achieve a modicum of reliability. In the absence of any transparency, published methodology or anything resembling an incentive to produce accurate data (generating “marketing buzz” is the explicit goal of such surveys), it will take some serious fools (or a newspaper contributor) to actually believe that these basic statistical concerns got addressed.

Nuances are so boring

Once you remove the fallacious correlations5 and dodgy data, you are left with the usual lazy stereotyping (“Japan be so kwaaazy”) and pointless anecdotes (of course, your two-year experience as an expat hanging out in Akihabara is completely representative of the average Japanese native life experience!).

Not that there can’t be a kernel of truth in many of the folk-psy arguments bandied around6, but the statistical reality is most likely a much more nuanced and boring one. For instance: once you observe that the low frequency of sex amongst married couples might have some very real roots in traditional Japanese marriage values (convenience over feelings, divorce still exceedingly rare…) and factor the comparatively still high incidence of marriage to this day, you realise how stupid it is to talk about the sexlessness of “the average Japanese”, when what you mean is the (reported) sexlessness of “older married couples”.

Once you control for such factors, I’d bet my left pinkie that the resulting data looks a lot more like any other developed country. But why bother with all this complicated technical stuff, when inaccurate, meaningless, figures works so much better at grabbing people’s imagination.

Yesterday’s News Anyway

I could get angry at such levels of willful incompetence, but let’s be honest: come tomorrow, newspapers will have shifted their interest over to Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest dietary tips and people will stop forwarding stupid articles about the supposed sex-aversion of Japanese people for a while.

Update: In some other corner of the blogosphere, someone serendipitously posted their own thoughts on the matter, pretty much in the same direction.

  1. Extra irony points for having started in the psychology subforum of Reddit, where people are hard at work dispelling any notion that it might be an actual science. []
  2. I know: not exactly gonna sway the masses against the appeal of “Queen Ai, professional Japanese dominatrix” and Guardian in-house resident statistics expert. []
  3. Incidentally, teenage pregnancy: Britain’s own claim to fame in the domain of sexual statistics. Which might explain a lot, come to think of it. []
  4. Japan Crush? That’s your source? Seriously?? []
  5. Correlations often turned into even more fallacious causations, because journalist hacks really enjoy pissing off every single person who’s ever taken a freshman class in Logic or Statistics []
  6. Sure: worrying about money or career might have an impact on the sexual life of certain categories of older, married people… but it has not been known to stop youngsters from having sex in the past. []