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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Is 10% of the population gay?

Alfred Kinsey

David Spiegelhalter in a Guardian article analyses new statistics which suggest that that's not a bad guess.  But it's a question of definition.  Which is pretty much what I've been saying for a few years now.

For a single statistic to be the primary propaganda weapon for a radical political movement is unusual. Back in 1977, the US National Gay Task Force (NGTF) was invited into the White House to meet President Jimmy Carter’s representatives – a first for gay and lesbian groups. The NGTF’s most prominent campaigning slogan was “we are everywhere”, backed up by the memorable statistical claim that one in 10 of the US population was gay – this figure was deeply and passionately contested.

So where did Bruce Voeller, a scientist who was a founder and first director of the NGTF, get this nice round 10% from? To find out, we have to delve back into Alfred Kinsey’s surveys in 1940s America, which were groundbreaking at the time but are now seen as archaic in their methods: he sought out respondents in prisons and the gay underworld, made friends with them and, over a cigarette, noted down their behaviours using an obscure code. Kinsey did not believe that sexual identity was fixed and simply categorised, and perhaps his most lasting contribution was his scale, still used today, in which individuals are rated from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual on a scale of 0 to 6.

Kinsey’s headline finding was that “at least 37% of the male population has some homosexual experience between the beginning of adolescence and old age”, meaning physical contact to the point of orgasm. He claimed that 13% of males were predominately homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55 (scoring at least 4) and that 4% of males were exclusively homosexual all their lives (scoring 6). For 30-year-old US men, he estimated that 83% would score 0 (totally heterosexual), 8% would be 1 or 2 on the scale, and 9% would be at least a 3. He acknowledged that people could move on the scale during their lifetime, and indeed Kinsey himself is said to have moved from a 1 or 2 when younger to a 3 or 4 in middle age.

When he published his study on women in 1953, Kinsey estimated that 20% of women had had some same-sex experience and 13% to orgasm. In unmarried females between the ages of 20 and 35, he claimed there was at least some homosexual experience in 11%-20%, and 1%-3% were exclusively homosexual.
So, in 1973, when Voeller was putting together the NGTF campaign, he went back to Kinsey’s estimates for those with predominantly homosexual experience (4 to 6 on his scale) for at least three years. As this was around 7% for women and 13% for men he took an average to get the headline figure: 10% of the population was gay.

This 10% claim was controversial, to say the least, and reignited old arguments about Kinsey’s poor survey methods. But even cleaned-up data gave similar answers, and Voeller stuck to the 10%, stating in 1990 that “the concept that 10% of the population is gay has become a generally accepted ‘fact’… As with so many pieces of knowledge (and myths), repeated telling made it so.”

However, later surveys gave much lower results, and of course the ChrisTaliban seized on them as proof that gays don't need rights (as if Jews, for example, who are much less numerous, shouldn't have rights either because there are so few of them)

The explanation lay in the terminology.  If you ask ppl whether they're "gay" or "lesbian" or "bi"  most say no.  Even if they have had same-sex experiences to orgasm.  

Same-sex sexual behaviour can come in all degrees of intensity. So Natsal carefully distinguishes a “same-sex experience”, which could be just a smooch in the dark, from a “same-sex partner”, who is someone with whom you have had any genital contact intended to achieve orgasm. Respondents are asked about activity at any age, so adolescent fumblings counted.

For women in the age range 16 to 44, the proportion who report having had some same-sex experience has shown a dramatic rise over the past 20 years: from 4% in 1990 to 10% in 2000, and to 16% in 2010 – a massive change in behaviour over such a short period. But this is not all just girls kissing girls in imitation of Madonna and Britney Spears; around half report genital contact, and around half of these in the past five years, so that overall nearly one in 20 women report a same-sex partner in the past five years.

But has there really been a change, or are women simply more willing to report what they get up to? Using some neat cross-checking, Natsal reckons that the change between 1990 and 2000 was partly due to more honest reporting, but the rise in 2000 and 2010 was all real.

And it is clear that there is a lot of experimental activity – roughly, for each woman who has had a recent same-sex partner there are two more of the same age who have had some same-sex contact in their lives, but no partner in the past five years.

Men show a different pattern. In 2010, about 8% of 16- to 44-year-old men reported having had a same-sex experience: this is higher than in 1990, possibly associated with both better reporting and the decline in fear of HIV, but there have been no substantial recent changes.

Overall the proportion of people with same-sex experience is far higher than the proportion who identify themselves as gay and bisexual. This must mean that many same-sex contacts are by people who do not consider themselves gay or bisexual. That’s just what we find in reputable surveys: in the last big US survey, 10% of women and 3% of men who identified themselves as “heterosexual” also reported a same‑sex contact.

Read more here.

Other pieces about this:

How many of us are there?

How many American Men are Gay?

What makes us gay?

The Cum-and-Go Culture

I kiss them because I love them



Jeffrey Marks said...

So much depends on methodology. It's dicey to expect strangers to share their orientation, especially when there are so many threats to the LGBT community, whether through employment or these RFRA laws. Double blind surveys would be ideal for finding out more, and the ones that have been done put the figures over 10%.

Nikolaos said...