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? Is it biology, or 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 presupposes that 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.
A few years ago, the Sexual Health journal published the results of the second Australian Study of Health and Relationships. 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 from a similar-sized sample that were collected 10 years earlier. This is robust and credible research about adult sexuality in Australia.
There’s lots of fascinating details that emerge from this study, but one of the key take-outs is that it confirms that human sexuality is not black and white, that it’s not necessarily linear, and that it comes with a lot of contradictions and anomalies.
The Australian survey asked respondents about three key areas - their sexual identity, their sexual attraction, and their sexual experience. If human sexuality was straightforward, you’d 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 that this would also match to the percentage of people that report that their sexual experience has been exclusively with the other sex. But what the survey revealed was material differences across those three responses. It’s worth noting that those material differences between those responses are consistent when we compare this latest survey with the responses that were collected 10 years earlier.
The survey in Australia found that the number of men who say they are heterosexual has gone down during the 10 years between the first and second survey – dropping from 97.5% to 96.8%. But when men say that they are heterosexual, 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.
Taking it a step further, the number of men who acknowledge that they’ve acted on that same-sex attraction has also increased. 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 guy-on-guy sex. That’s up from 6% in the earlier survey.
What this survey demonstrates is that there are men who identify as gay or bisexual, and there are men who identify as heterosexual but are sexually fluid to some degree in that they’re attracted to other guys and having sex with other guys. The results of this survey illustrates the number of heterosexual men who are acknowledging that they’re a bit sexually fluid are increasing.
Looking at the UK, insights from the Office for National Statistics supports the trends identified by the Australian survey.
The Guardian reports that the number of people in the UK who identify as heterosexual is decreasing.
Analysing the annual population survey, the Office for National Statistics found that in 2017 there were 93.2% of people who identified as heterosexual. That’s down from 93.4% in 2016, and a fall from the 94.4% that was recorded in 2012.
One interesting aspect of the UK statistics is that the proportion of people who are identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual seems to be remaining unchanged, with people appearing to be shifting from ticking the Heterosexual box, to ticking the box marked Other.
One insight that the Office for National Statistics is able to give us is that we seem to be seeing a generational change reflected in the data. People aged 16-24 were more than twice as likely as the general population to identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. This same age group also had the highest proportion of people recording their sexuality as Other.
It seems like we still have some way to go to continue to unravel the complexity of human sexuality.