Standards & Practices: Sex survey not representative

The Daily Northwestern Editorial Board

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Last week, The Weekly conducted its Sex Survey to analyze NU’s bedroom behavior.

Though it gave us insight into what does – or doesn’t – happen between the sheets, the “first stab” at gathering the numbers needed left a lot to be desired, said Alex Ilyashov, editor in chief of The Weekly and a Medill senior.

The survey should be considered a non-scientific study, said Communication Prof. Peter Miller. The 1,000 responses were gathered through people who chose to answer listserv e-mails or click through links on The Daily’s Web site – not through a random probability sample. The online survey did not require verification of NU undergraduate standing or prevent submitting multiple responses from different computers.

“The responses that they gave, I would argue, are not representative of the Northwestern student,” said Miller, who is also president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. “The people who volunteered to do this are probably not like the people who did not volunteer.”

Still, The Weekly aimed to use its Sex Survey for starting conversations about the “extremely nosy, extremely nitty-gritty questions” that people wonder about, Ilyashov said.While 1,000 responses would be enough to do a nationwide analysis, about 200 would have been plenty with a random sample, Miller said.

Online self-reports could be considered fairly reliable if respondents felt a sense of confidentiality that would allow them to open up perhaps more than in-person or phone interviews, Miller said.

Some students also pointed out flaws in the wording of questions lacking inclusiveness of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, said Will Pearse, Weinberg senior and co-president of the Rainbow Alliance.

“I’m sure a lot of people who did see the survey thought, ‘Does this really apply to me?’ ” Pearse said. The Rainbow Alliance chose not to distribute the survey over its e-mail listserv.

Questions like whose responsibility it is to provide condoms or about same-sex sexual fantasies would not apply to some students, he said.

More precise phrasing or breaking down some LGBT responses separately may address a greater representation of the student body, Pearse said.Interested in newspaper oversight and coverage commentary? Apply to be public editor. E-mail Editor in Chief Emily Glazer at