The results of a new study indicate that the numbers of exclusively gay men and women remain very small but the numbers of those who have experienced gay sex has increased -- perhaps an increase of bisexuality more than homosexuality.
A growing number of Americans are having gay sex, or at least admitting to it. And that's OK with more and more of us. "People over time are reporting more same-sex sexual experiences than ever before," said Brooke Wells, a social psychologist at Widener University's Center for Human Sexuality Studies.
The behavioral trend, reflected in an annual survey conducted between 1973 and 2014, was fueled largely by people who had sex with both men and women. There has been little change in the number of people reporting exclusively homosexual behavior. The changes were reported Wednesday in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The research team included faculty from Widener, Florida Atlantic, and San Diego State Universities. A total of 33,728 people answered the survey over the 41-year period.
The number of U.S. adults who said they had at least one same-sex sexual partner doubled between the early 1990s - that question wasn't asked earlier - and the early 2010s, from 3.6 to 8.7 percent for women and from 4.5 to 8.2 percent for men. Bisexual behavior rose from 3.1 to 7.7 percent, accounting for most of the change. The survey found that only 1.7 percent of men and 0.9 percent of women said they had exclusively homosexual sex. Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who said they believed same-sex behavior was "not wrong at all" rose dramatically, from 11 percent in 1973 and 13 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2014.
Among men, the youngest and oldest generations had the smallest proportion reporting same-sex sex from 2010 to 2014: 7.5 percent. That compared with 8.2 percent of baby boomers and 9 percent of those in Generation X. For women, same-sex experiences are much more common among those who are younger. Only 2.4 percent of women born before 1945 said they had had sex with another woman. More than 12 percent of Millennials and 11 percent of Generation Xers said in the latest surveys that they had done so. Women who attended church once a month or more were less likely to have sex with other women.
Wells said there's no way of knowing whether behavior has changed or people are now more comfortable admitting what they're doing. It is probably some combination of the two. The survey did not ask until very recently whether respondents identified as gay or bisexual, so researchers don't know whether respondents considered their behavior an experiment rather than a function of stable sexual orientation. The complex sexual attitudes of young people make that kind of labeling particularly difficult.The freedom to experiment without necessarily labeling the person clearly does contribute to the results of this study but how much is hard to ascertain. The fluid shape of sexuality (now no longer even remotely connected to love, marriage, or children) is surely another factor. The changing landscape of friendship, the role of social media, and the decline in the support networks of church, friends, and family are also factors. What we have is raw material to suggest that there are not all that many strictly gay men or women but there are growing numbers of folks who no longer feel any constraints against acting on sexual impulse or desire. What is a surprise to me is that the higher numbers for men are found in the Midwest?! So much for the old idea of solid Midwestern values and mores. Or it may be testament to the fact that the Midwest is changing. Somebody else will have to figure that one out. What is clear is that the witness of Scripture and the teaching of Christian ethics is being effectively countered by the increasingly permissive and approving trend in society for people to do what feels good and not to feel bad about it or necessarily to be defined by it.
"More and more young people today are sort of rejecting those very strict labels of gay, straight, or bisexual and saying, 'I'm fluid or queer,' " Wells said. "People are increasingly complicating the measurement." Sexuality researchers say female sexuality tends to be more fluid than male and can change, in both directions, throughout the life span.
About 10 percent of Midwestern men reported same-sex experiences, compared with 4.5 percent in the East, 7.1 percent in the West, and 9.4 percent in the South. Among women, 11.3 percent of those in the West said they'd had a same-sex experience, compared with 7.4 percent in the Midwest, 7.9 percent in the East, and 8.3 percent in the South.