The Media on 'Sex when young gives you prostate cancer'

Warning: Only just this second noticed this and it has annoyed me into knocking-this-out very quickly, so if the maths is off, it's totally my fault. Please pick me up on it. This post will also include lots of euphemisms for sexy-time.
Update I: Said 'colon' when meant 'prostate' cancer. As I said I'm not a (medical) doctor. Fixed now. Though my shame remains.

Update II: There are, rather elementary, flaws in this post - but the overall point just about holds - though lots of timbering is more statistically significant than my first, quick guesstimate (it's not just the increase in risk, it's the duration of that increase).  See the comments. 
The BBC, The Press Association, A Canadian site I've never heard of and an Italian site called AGI news are all reporting that increased amounts of genitalia-wrestling when between 20 and 30 increases your risk of Prostate Cancer.

Fuck!! Sex is awesome isn't it!? Things we love being bad for us always makes for a depressing story, which is of course a good story for the media peeps. 

Saying that the BBC story is quite good actually, pointing out that the sample size is too small and so on, but the others are worse. The Italian one starts like so:
Sexual abstinence, besides opening the gates to paradise, also seems to prolong the lives of men.
That's a neutral point of view if every I saw one. But more importantly not a single one of these articles mentions the increase in terms of the quantitative risk of getting the disease (aka the natural frequency, or in this case how many people per 100,000 will get prostate cancer every year). As we will see is kind of a big deal. I've had a spare ten minutes so I've just guesstimated what that would be. 

So lets ignore the very small sample size. Lets ignore the complexity of comparing the rate men masturbate. Lets ignore the fact that people who have more sex might do lots of other things to excess too (like drugs and rock and roll) so the idea that it is specifically sex isn't necessarily true (though they make sensible sounding hormonal claims to my non-biologist ears). Anyhow lets ignore all that and take the worst values we can find.

For about 400 cancer stricken men 40% had lots of bump-and-grind.
For about 400 cancer free men 32% had lots of chummy-time-sex-wees.

So you might think that means your chance of getting Prostate Cancer increases by 20% by plunging-your-oats to excess. Which sounds quite scary until you realise that's only a 20% increase over the natural frequency of getting the disease in the first place. 

And from a quick google  117 in every 100,000 men get prostate cancer in a year. (according to UK Cancer Research - oh and I chose the largest value I could find - because if your doing a quick guesstimate you may as well go conservative).

Which means that at maximum if everyone had lots and lots of how's-your-father, then the number getting prostate cancer would increase from 117 in every 100,000 to 140 in every 100,000.

Or to put it another way by having lots of hide-the-sausage your chance of catching prostate cancer skyrockets from 0.116% to a absolutely no less scary 0.140%. A massive 0.024% increase! QUICK TO CELIBACY! Never shall my loins mingle again!

Remember this isn't to do with the legitimacy of the science involved. This is purely an issue about the way it has been reported. For this, my friends, is how the media turns non-scary medical research into scary everything-you-love-kills-you stories. I know it may come over a little pedantic to say this, but a lot of people would have read this today and felt guilty over a natural part of their lives, and the media hid the values that might have reassured them that the sex is so fucking worth it in order to make it scarier.

Unless your making a horror film why would you want to make peoples lives scarier than needed? Is circulation really that important to you? Is it too much to ask for you to report the risks in a way we can easily judge it?

(Oh, and if you are thinking I only wrote this because I've just read Ben Goldacre's book - you would be right)


Anonymous said...

You have to multiply by the number of years you live.

So about 9.3% of paragons get prostate cancer, while 11.2% of sex fiends will get it (80 year life span). This is a high level of incidence in the population.

I believe this undermines the entire point of your post.

pj said...

Anonymous's figures are about right for lifetime incidence - so it isn't a trivial risk.

Of course there is also previous research suggesting that masturbation is protective (particularly in the 20s) and that multiple partners and STDs are risk factors.

And, of course, the retrospective nature of this data makes it a little dubious.

But reading the abstract (life is too short to actually open an article from a urology journal) I see that early sex/masturbation is only a risk for early prostate cancer (under 60) which has a much lower incidence (dunno - maybe .5% lifetime incidence) - and that sex/masturbation is protective when done in your 50s.

Lave said...


Yeah, the BBC article mentioned that the increased risk fell as the frisky people aged and returned to be in basic equilibrium with the prudes.

So it's just a difference of about 10 - 20 years rather than a full lifetime.

But still indeed it is. My fault for making a post whilst cooking/burning dinner.

I'll update this in the morning,.

Lave said...

Here we go, I took the part in the bbc article where they say:

"The gap between the two groups narrowed as the men aged, suggesting that the difference was strongest at a younger age."

Implying that raised risk is only for a short period. But yeah this still undermines this.

Dr* T said...

..which is a shame because it was a good read.

Lave said...

Cheers Dr*T.

At least I'm man enough to admit my mistakes though.