Sex and the schoolkid

by | 9 Dec 2021

There is nothing wrong with the principle of the Scottish Government's 'sex survey' - but there is so much wrong with the execution it's hard to know where to begin...

The questions around the Scottish Government’s ‘sex survey’ (the census being sent round schools which contains explicit questions about sexual behaviour) are not straightforward. The idea that the public sector should NOT gather information about children’s sexual health is a deeply flawed one. How can you develop public policy without workable data?

So I don’t have a lot of patience for those who suggest that to ask these questions of someone under 18 is some kind of abominable transgression of decency. That is just a silly and reactionary argument which is most likely to lead to a policy environment that fails to address precisely the behaviours that are seen as the problem here (underage sexual activity or unsafe sexual activity among young adults).

Beyond that though it is difficult to think of how the Scottish Government could really have made more of a mess of this – from top to bottom.

Let’s start with an issue which simply should never have been an issue – dubious confidentiality. Either you are gathering information to inform policy and debate or you are snooping on people.

There is no midway point between these. Either a respondent can answer in the certainty that their answers stay between them and their pen (other than as an aggregate) or their answers could lead to a knock on the door with a council official or even a police officer enquiring further about the amount of anal sex they have been having. It’s one or the other.

Saying ‘write down your answers and you can probably be sure of confidentiality unless we decide otherwise at any point we want to’ is about as Scottish Public Sector as it gets. It says almost explicitly ‘your rights are sacrosanct unless they clash with our convenience in which case our convenience comes first’.

I don’t think Scottish public officials intend to be high-handed, intrusive and to view their interests as at all times above the interests of those they govern; I think this is an unavoidable consequence of the culture of public service in Scotland, a patronising, paternalistic culture which hasn’t moved far beyond the 1960s when a public official decided what colour your front door could be.

I very much want my high-school-aged daughter to get good sexual and emotional health education and yes, that will sometimes mean uncomfortable, explicit and potentially intrusive subjects being broached

What I find very surprising about this is that a major piece of research of this sort would usually be undertaken in consultation with academic expertise and it doesn’t look like it has. The first thing an academic should have done is to say ‘you can get honest, confidential answers or you can use it for enforcement and intervention but you can’t do both’.

That is bog-standard academic research practice. Why it is not being used here is (I guess) down to the fact that the Scottish Government is fundamentally shoddy at these things. It is just too convinced about its own moral certainty and the certainty that the population needs to be managed closely to properly listen to what represents good practice.

That leads to the second glaring issue here – the poor construction of the questionnaire. In the world of polling (which is based on these kinds of research practices) there is a thing called a ‘push poll’. This is when you structure questions to ‘push’ people towards giving the answer you want them to.

If you do even a fairly basic analysis of the sex questions in this poll you would probably conclude it is a push poll. The ordering and assumptions in the questions appear to create assumptions in the respondent that are unsound.

To see what I mean, consider the following questions. “When last did you steal from a shop?” followed by “What was it you stole from the shop?’” with a list of options one of which is ‘nothing’, followed by another question which goes “the last time you stole from a shop did you get caught?’ followed by ‘the next time you steal from a shop do you expect to be caught?’

The structuring of the questions means that each one appears to have a baseline assumption that it is quite likely you did steal from a shop. And if you answer ‘no’, it doesn’t make any difference because you’ll still have to answer three more questions that assume you have stolen from a shop.

Likewise ‘did you have sex?’ then ‘what kind of sex was it?’ then ‘did you use contraception the last time you had sex?’. It’s not just that this pattern of questions normalises underage sex as an apparent baseline for all the questions, it’s that it doesn’t take no for an answer.

There are simple ways to deal with this. The general approach is to use a ‘skip to’ methodology. “Some people your age are already sexually active. Do you consider yourself to have been sexually active in the last year? If your answer is no jump to question X’. So unpacking what that means and thereby creating an apparent ‘menu of normalised behaviours’ is only for those who have answered affirmatively.

it is difficult to think of how the Scottish Government could really have made more of a mess of this – from top to bottom

I’ve been involved in plenty research projects in the past and have filled in numerous academic consent forms which very carefully set out what I’m answering to and how it will be used, how the survey is prepared according to best practice and how best practice will be used in the analysis of the outcomes.

This is not what those look like. This is what it looks like when someone in an office doesn’t put too much thought into the process.

I am hardly prurient – quite the contrary, I’m exceptionally liberal on matters personal and sexual. I very much want my high-school-aged daughter to get good sexual and emotional health education and yes, that will sometimes mean uncomfortable, explicit and potentially intrusive subjects being broached. I would also encourage her to participate in surveys which give people reliable data on which to adapt and improve that education and to improve the provision of child protective services.

That is precisely why it is so incredibly important to approach the matter with great sensitivity, careful thought and best practice. It is also why trust is so, so important. To have made quite such a pig’s ear of both the trust and the sensitivity issues is quite something.

It used to be the political right which gave the impression of being obsessed with people’s private parts and where they put them. The impression of obsession seems now to apply equally to the liberal centrists, the dominant ideological positioning of the SNP/Green administration. In neither case does it seem a particularly healthy obsession.

The Scottish Government should not step back from its intention to gather this information (though a smaller-scale academic study would probably give more useable and reliable results). But it should withdraw this survey in this form, get it right next time and ask itself why it keeps making a mess of these things.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This