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Is the Gay Population a Lot Bigger Than Even Kinsey Predicted?

• October 23, 2013 • 11:00 AM

Rainbow flag. (PHOTO: LUDOVIC BERTRON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A new study, which attempts to correct for problems with current survey methodology (even when anonymous we don’t always answer honestly), finds that 19 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves heterosexual.

Since the classification of modern homosexuality in the 19th century (PDF), society’s perception and acceptance of people who have sex with others of their own gender has grown considerably. One continued argument against the widespread acceptance of individuals who belong to that group, though, has to do with its relative size.

At The Atlantic Garance Franke-Ruta wrote that Americans seem to think there are a lot more gay people in the world than there actually are. As she explained last year, “surveys show a shockingly high fraction think a quarter of the country is gay or lesbian, when the reality is that it’s probably less than 2 percent.” Anthropologists, a notably tolerant group, often consider homosexuality, due to its rarity, an aberrant behavior, like alcoholism or drug abuse, promiscuity or violence.

But new research indicates that the real prevalence of homosexuality might be a lot higher than previously thought.

The most-cited guess as to what percentage of individuals are homosexual is around 10. Some LGBTQ college groups have even named their clubs things like The 10% Society, despite the fact that, at some schools (e.g. Bob Jones University), the percentage of past and present homosexual students is likely much lower, and at some others (Sarah Lawrence or Smith) it might be a considerably higher.

That number is based on Alfred Kinsey‘s 1948 study, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” in which the Indiana University researcher concluded that 10 percent of American men “were predominantly homosexual between the ages of 16 and 55.” While Kinsey also said that “males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual,” and, mixing his metaphors here, “the world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white,” the 10 percent number has been repeated for more than 60 years now. (Engaging in homosexual sex between the ages of 16 and 55 is not exactly everyone’s idea of “gay”—in contemporary understanding it’s something more like the idea of being attracted to a member of one’s own sex, regardless of regular sexual interaction—but Kinsey’s estimate is the closest we’ve come to a widely-agreed-upon percentage.)

But it’s possible that most past and present surveys of homosexuality might have been misleading participants, and the size of the LGBT population could be a lot bigger than 10 percent. That’s according to a new study by researchers from Ohio State University and Boston University published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Katherine Coffman, Lucas Coffman, and Keith Marzilli Ericson indicate that the true percent of the population attracted (if not necessarily exclusively) to their own gender may be almost 20 percent. According to their study:

We run an experiment on 2,516 U.S. participants. Participants were randomly assigned to either a “best practices method” that was computer-based and provides privacy and anonymity, or to a “veiled elicitation method” that further conceals individual responses. Answers in the veiled method preclude inference about any particular individual, but can be used to accurately estimate statistics about the population. Comparing the two methods shows sexuality-related questions receive biased responses even under current best practices, and, for many questions, the bias is substantial. The veiled method increased self-reports of non-heterosexual identity by 65% (p<0.05) and same-sex sexual experiences by 59% (p<0.01). The results show non-heterosexuality … [is] substantially underestimated in existing surveys.

When asked directly, 11 percent of survey participants said that they did not consider themselves heterosexual. When asked indirectly, some 19 percent of participants indicated that they did not consider themselves heterosexual. This discrepancy was exposed due to some pretty interesting methods, particularly the use of “blind” questions. In the direct method, which resulted in the 11 percent response, participants were asked to answer a simple yes or no to the question “Do you consider yourself to be heterosexual?”

In the indirect, or “veiled” method, the survey asked people to choose between 0 and 4 to indicate their agreement with the statement “I consider myself to be heterosexual.” The results don’t necessarily mean that 19 percent of the population is composed of exclusively gay men and exclusively lesbian women, but rather that a significant percentage of the population is unwilling to position themselves at either extreme end of a spectrum.

Using the direct method, 17 percent or survey respondents indicated that they had had a same-sex experience. But using the veiled method, the researchers concluded that some 27 percent of participants appear to have had some same-sex experiences.

The research was not an attempt to measure the actual size of the country’s gay and lesbian population. And the researchers are careful to temper their findings by cautioning that the survey respondents did not represent a random sample of the adult population. In fact, they note that their study group was younger, more educated, more politically liberal, and less likely to identify as Republican or to describe themselves as being at least “moderately religious” than the rest of the country.

The most important takeaway isn’t a final tally of the gay people in society, but, rather, an understanding of the ways in which surveys and other existing attempts to measure such things might be slightly misleading. “The results show non-heterosexuality and anti-gay sentiment are substantially underestimated in existing surveys, and the privacy afforded by current best practices is not always sufficient to eliminate bias,” note the researchers, who were just looking at the way surveys might under-count both homosexuality and attitudes toward homosexuality.

Many gay activists (and human sexuality experts) resist putting humans into exclusive sexual boxes at all. The rate of homosexual behavior in America’s prison system, after all, might be as high as 75 percent. And homosexual behavior among the male aristocracy of Ancient Greece was widespread, at least if we believe Kenneth Dover, the first modern scholarly writer to discuss the issue.

As Gore Vidal wrote, over and over: “There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”  We should probably not worry so much about who is gay so much as recognize that lots of people could potentially do something defined as gay.

“If someone as deluded as I was can be brought out of homosexuality then surely anyone can,” said Joe Dallas, the speaker at Focus on the Family’s Love Won Out conference. Another way to think of this, however, is that people can also be brought into it. Sexuality is complicated, and our experiences in the bedroom shift, particularly in the case of some members of the ex-gay movement.

Just don’t expect most surveys to measure how often this sort of thing occurs. It turns out people often don’t answer honestly even when they’re anonymous.

Daniel Luzer
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Luzer.

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