I have just taken part in the Tertiary Student Health Project survey, an Otago University project looking into alcohol use and sexual behaviour among students. Unfortunately the questions were designed such that even myself, a happily married monogomous father with no risk of contracting STDs, would have sounded like a risk-taking no-condom-using childless student! There just weren’t options to choose to describe my actual situation, which will make the results highly questionable.
Fortunately they had a comments section at the end, this is what I wrote:
I have a number of concerns about the accuracy of the data collected in this survey.
Your questions on sexual behaviour are designed assuming all sexual behaviour is casual. Although you would never guess it reading the response to this survey, many people are still married before having sex. If you did not realise this, you may have just consulted with one sector of the student population in designing your survey, and it may be advisable to consult wider before the next one. Your survey equates “a long-term relationship” (whatever that is defined as) and engagement with marriage, when there is a world of difference between the three, especially in terms of duration and break-up rates.
You never ask in what situation the respondent had their first sexual contact, which is far more likely to have been influenced by alcohol than what they happened to be doing in the past 12 months.
You also ask whether you have ever unintentionally got someone pregnant, without asking whether you had intentionally got someone pregnant – there seems to be an assumption that pregnancy is always accidental and undesirable, which is nonsense. As a result your survey will under-record the true rate of pregnancy among students.
You ask about condom use without asking about risk factors for STDs. For example:
- You ask whether you have only had the one partner, but not whether if you have had more you have tested clear for STDs and thus have none to pass on.
- You never ask whether your partner was a virgin before you, or whether she has tested clear of STDs.
If both partners are clear of STDs, they may be unlikely to use condoms. This will bias condom use rates downwards, while having no bearing on STD risk.
- You have equated a long-term-relationship (“long-term” for one respondent may mean 10 years, for another 1 month: high break-up rate and children are usually not desired) and engagement, with marriage (lowest break-up rate as intended to be permanent, children are generally desired), so the condom use between these relationships will be markedly different but never identified in your survey.
- You never asked whether the respondent was trying for a baby.
- You never asked whether the respondent’s partner was using alternative forms of contraception. (You may have asked female respondents this, but you never asked male respondents, despite the major influence this will have on male condom use. Remember not all partners are students.)
Because of these issues your survey is likely to show a low rate of condom use and therefore imply a high risk of STD contraction, which could be used to push policies encouraging condom use on campus, when in actual fact you have no idea what the actual rate of condom use among those at risk of contracting STDs is, because you never asked the right questions.
Having been in this survey I will have to be highly skeptical of the results when they are published unfortunately, especially when making just a couple of extra answers available to pick could have made this information actually useful. However students are behaving this survey will come up with some statistics that could be used to push a particular political line (that of the Family Planning Association), rather than obtaining well-rounded factual data that can be used by people of all opinions. This is very disappointing, because alcohol and sex are highly important issues at university, and need to be understood well in order to help students.
I trust that you will publicise the actual questions asked alongside the results, to ensure people can judge the accuracy for themselves. It would be advisable to consult wider in formulating the questions for your next survey.
Unfortunately, I must advise you to take the results of the Tertiary Student Health Project with a pinch of salt when they are finally published. Which is a great shame, this project is no doubt expensive and could easily have been very useful.