It had been a while since the newspapers told us to drink red wine in order to receive a health benefit. There has been plenty of reporting in recent years suggesting that a glass of red wine a day can reduce the risk of heart problems; articles talking of the virtues of the Mediterranean diet and how it’s the red wine causing the lower rates of heart disease in a very specific population, and nothing to do with any other aspects of lifestyle, and so on.
The Sun newspaper recently declared that red wine could be the secret to a “grape sex life” (how they come up with such ingenious puns for every single article is truly a mystery). According to the article, published 6th August, a recent study done by “boffins” (surely “nerd” or “geek” would be equally appropriate) from the University of Florence found that women who drank two glasses of wine per day scored on average 27.3 points on the Female Sexual Function Index compared to 25.9 for those that drank one glass, and 24.4 for the non-drinkers. It does not mention if the differences between these two scores are statistically significant. Perhaps the journalist reasoned things like that are better left to the boffins. Instead, there is a telling quote from the article’s lead author: “historically, the aspects of wine and sexuality have been well known since the times of Ancient Greece”. Well there we are then, no other explanation needed.
Naturally the article in The Sun doesn’t mention any other demographics or confounding variables; and why would they? After all, any good Sun journalist knows that correlation proves causation. Of course, this finding was also reported in the well known broadsheet. They don’t use the word boffins, or work any woeful puns into the headline, but they do report exactly the same figures, and use exactly the same quote from the lead author. As an aside, both articles report at the end that the study also found that older women “enjoy a more fruitful sex life”. This is a one liner; there is no detail about the scores relating to this particular finding and certainly no mention of whether or not age groups differed at all in their drinking habits. The Telegraph (like The sun) even mention that the Female Sexual Function Index is used by doctors to assess women and sexual health, although the website for the instrument itself says “It was not designed for use as a diagnostic instrument and should not be used as a substitute for a complete sex history in clinical evaluation.”
These newspaper articles were published back in August. The journal article in question is published in this month’s edition of the. So how accurate were The Sun and the Telegraph? There were 3 groups in the study: group 1 was the daily, moderate red wine intake (one or two glasses); group 2 were teetotallers; and group 3 were those who reported occasional drinking of any sort of alcohol. The researchers did find that group 1 had higher total FSFI scores than groups 2 or 3. They found that group 1 had higher scores than groups 2 or 3 on desire and lubrication, but found no significant differences between groups on arousal, orgasm, satisfaction, or pain. Despite the positive overall findings, the researchers advise caution when interpreting the results, pointing out the “small sample size, self reported data, and the lack of laboratory tests and any instrument to psychometrically address sexual distress”.
There is no intention here to belittle the research itself; rather the intention is to highlight the stunted and somewhat meaningless nature of reporting the findings, out of context, in the newspaper. The authors of the journal article make no claim that adjusting your diet to include a higher alcohol content will improve sex life, and moreover, they advise caution in interpreting the findings whilst suggesting more research be done. It is obvious why The Sun picked up on the article: it contained references to alcohol and sex, but they have pointlessly oversimplified a complex issue for the sake of filling column space that could potentially lead some people to believe that increasing their intake of alcohol could help their sex life. This would surely be a little irresponsible considering the abuse of alcohol carries a number of recognised health risks.
But perhaps this is being too harsh on the Sun, maybe they were fed the story from elsewhere and had no idea that this was bad reporting. The Daily Mail also picked up this story and published it. Aside from the headline and opening sentence the articles are identical, word for word. In fact, on closer inspection of the version in The Telegraph it is also a carbon copy of those in The Sun and The Daily Mail. But this identical story doesn’t end there, just about any news outlet reporting the story had the same few paragraphs. Maybe the newspapers are now collaborating to bring us poor scientific reporting, without having the original press release from the university it is difficult to say whether the multiple stories were taken directly from that.
1. Mondaini, N., Cai, T., Gontero, P., Gavazzi, A., Lombardi, G., Boddi, V., Bartoletti, R (2009) Regular Moderate Intake of Red Wine Is Linked to a Better Women’s Sexual Health. Journal of Sexual Medicine. 6:2772–2777.