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Groundbreaking Study: 19 Percent of Americans Don't Consider Themselves Heterosexual

It turns out people often don’t answer honestly even when they’re anonymous. A new study attempts to deliver solid findings about sexual preferences in spite of this.
 
 
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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?”

 
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