Are the gays recruiting?
Major study finds that more straight men are experimenting with guy-on-guy encounters.
Human sexuality is incredibly complex. Take away the emotional and religious hyperbole and it doesn’t take long to realise that the scientific research and analysis is still relatively inconclusive on many aspects of what makes us who we are.
What shapes our sexuality? Biology? Society? Or something else? Is our sexuality some sort of fixed concept or are we all somewhere on a fluid spectrum? No one really has the definitive answers to these fundamental questions.
One of the challenges that researchers face is that a discussion of sexuality often pre-supposes we all have a very clear sense of self. Studies to understand human sexuality are generally taking a snapshot at a particular point in time — there is an underlying assumption that sexuality and sexual identity are tangible and unchanging.
I’ve recently been reading the results of a major study that was published in the Sexual Health journal . The title of the article is Sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual experience: the Second Australian Study of Health and Relationships. Perhaps not the most attention-grabbing title, but it does give you a sense of the size and scope of the analysis that has been undertaken.
This study involved researchers collaborating from a number of major research institutions in Australia, and there are two key factors that make the results of this research worth reading. Firstly, the population studied was a random sample of around 20,000 men and women in Australia between the ages of 16 and 69. Secondly, the data was able to be compared to survey results that were collected 10 years earlier (of a similar-sized sample). The bottom line is that this is robust and credible research about adult sexuality in Australia.
To make sure that I was reading the results correctly I sat down for a coffee with Dr Qazi Rahman, Senior Lecturer with the Department of Psychology at King’s College London . Rahman specialises in the study of human sexuality — particularly in physical response analysis to understand the sexuality of gay men.
“There are a lot of interesting results contained in this research paper…” explained Rahman, “…but in many ways it confirms that human sexuality is not black and white, it is not necessarily linear, and it comes with a lot of contradictions and anomalies.”
“This survey asked respondents about three key areas — their sexual identity, their sexual attraction, and their sexual experience. If human sexuality was straightforward you would expect that the percentage of people that identify as heterosexual would match the percentage of people that report they are sexually attracted exclusively to the other sex, and would also match to the percentage of people that report that their sexual experience has been exclusively with the other sex. But what we are seeing here are material differences across those three responses and those material differences are consistent when we compare this latest survey with the responses that were collected 10 years earlier.”
“What does that mean in reality? Well, the number of men who say they are heterosexual has gone down in 10 years from 97.5% to 96.8%. But that doesn’t mean that they are exclusively heterosexual. When asked whether they are attracted only to the other sex or to the same sex to any degree, 7.4% of men reported some level of attraction to other guys. That’s up from 6.8% recorded in the previous study.”
“In addition, the number prepared to act on that desire — or at least to act on it and admit it — is up too. When survey participants were asked about their sexual experience — whether that was exclusively with the other sex or various degrees of sexual experience with the same sex — 6.6% of men reported some level of ‘gay’ sex (up from 6% in the earlier survey). So what the researchers have really found out is that beyond the small percentage of men who identify as gay or bisexual, there are men who identify as heterosexual but are sexually fluid in some way — they are attracted to guys or having sex with them. And those numbers are growing.”
Beyond what the survey is telling us about the sexuality of men, the survey’s findings in relation to the sexuality of women suggests an even greater level of complexity.
“It may be that men’s and women’s sexuality are simply different, not just expressed differently…” explained one of the authors of the survey report, Professor Juliet Richters from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales. “Although the term ‘homosexuality’ suggests that being a gay man is in some way the ‘same thing’ as being a lesbian, sexuality is patterned differently among men and women.”
For Dr Rahman, research like this is not just theoretically interesting but practical. It can help governments make decisions, for example about health spending.
“If you reduce depression in young gay men you could save significant amounts of money in the provision of health services. So even while gay men are a minority in the population, that doesn’t mean that the economic impact of improving their health outcomes is not material. This adds to the weight of argument when seeking better services for gay men.”
Are we any closer to understanding human sexuality? Perhaps, but what is clear is that whether you identify as gay, straight, or bisexual, those labels don’t always tell you the whole story.