Sexual orientation versus behavior—different for men and women?
If you know which sexual orientation people identify with, how much does that tell you about whether they have sex with women, men, or both? How similar or different are the links between identity and behavior for women and men? Building on our post from last June, “Women’s sexual orientation and sexual behavior: How well do they match?” we update the analysis of women to include more recent data and add an analysis of data on men.
We’re using data from the 2002, 2006-2010, and 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth for men and women 15 to 44 years of age. Detailed tables, along with how we generated our measures, are in the Appendix at the end of this post. Here we focus on a few specific questions:
How common is it for heterosexual men and women to have sex with same-sex sexual partners?
Unsurprisingly, almost none of the men identifying as heterosexual have had only male sexual partners and only 2% say they have had even one male sexual partner (Table 1). For women, like men, almost none of those who identify as heterosexual have had only female partners, but 10% say they have had at least one same-sex partner, five-times the rate reported by men. (We’ll only mention differences between men and women if they are statistically significant at the .05 level.) In sum, it is more common for heterosexual women than men to have had sex with members of their same sex.
We can get a little closer to assessing how common inconsistency between identity and behavior is by comparing men and women’s current identity with whether they’ve had same-sex sexual partners in the last year. Here we get a much smaller figure—only .4% of men and 2% of women who called themselves heterosexual on the survey report that they had sex with a same-sex partner in the last year (Table 2). Thus, behavior usually aligns with identity in any short (one year) time range. But here too the percent of heterosexuals having same-sex partners is larger for women than men. The graph below shows the percent of each gender that identify as heterosexual but report having had a same-sex partner ever, and in the last year.
How should we interpret the finding that some men and women who identify as heterosexual have had sex with other-sex partners? It may mean that they had sex that doesn’t match their stated sexual orientation at the time, perhaps because of the stigma associated with same-sex partnerships in some quarters. Another possibility is that, although they see themselves as straight now, they identified as gay/lesbian or bisexual at the time they had same-sex partners, so there was no inconsistency between identity and behavior. This is especially plausible regarding with whom one has had sex “ever.” If that is the explanation, then women’s higher rate may mean that they are more likely than men to change the sexual orientation they identify with. But we are speculating; we would need panel data following the same people over time and repeatedly asking about orientation and recent behavior to distinguish (a) changing sexual orientation where behavior and identity are almost always consistent from (b) inconsistency between current identity and current behavior. It is also possible that the way people see their own orientations don’t fit neatly into the three categories provided in the survey in most years, so some respondents choose the best fit of not-well-fitting categories.
How common is it for gay men and lesbians to have sex with other-sex sexual partners?
As the graph below (drawing from Tables 1 and 2) shows, 39% (37% + 2%) of gay men have had a female sexual partner sometime in their lives, whereas a much higher 59% (5% + 54%) of lesbians have had a male sexual partner sometime. The proportion of either gay men or lesbians who have ever had sex with other-sex sexual partners is much larger than the proportion of heterosexual men and women who have had sex with same-sex sexual partners. And it is much larger than the proportion of gays/lesbians who have had sex with an other-sex partner in the last year, 5% (3% + 2%) for men and 18% (5% + 13%) for women.
As for how things differ by gender, it is clear that lesbians are more likely than gay men to have ever had sex with an other-sex sexual partner, whether in the last year (5% for men and 18% for women) or ever (39% for men and 59% for women). The larger share of lesbians than gay man who had other-sex partners in the past year comes both from lesbian being more likely than gay men to have partners of both sexes (13% of lesbians), as well as being more likely to have had sex with only other-sex partners (5% of lesbians).
Why would this be, that lesbians have sex with men more than gay men have sex with women? One explanation is that women’s sexual attractions don’t fit the three categories allowed by the survey as well, or that women are more likely than men to change the sexual orientation with which they identify. Either can be seen as more fluidity in women’s sexuality than men’s, a topic taken up by Lisa Diamond and Leila Rupp and her coauthors. Another possibility is that either evolution or cultural conditioning make guys the initiators in sex. So it is probably a less likely scenario that a young man who thinks that he may be gay is approached by a woman for sex and acquiesces despite not wanting it, compared to an analogous scenario in which a young queer woman has sex with a man she doesn’t want. Indeed, both lesbians and gay men are likely to have men as their first sexual partners, according to research conducted by Karin Martin and Ritch C. Savin-Williams. In some cases these early partners may have raped them, as indicated by research on the prevalence of sexual assault among gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals by Emily Rothman and her coauthors. We suspect, however, that greater sexual fluidity among women and the frequency of male initiation contribute more to the gender differences in partnership patterns than sexual assault.
How does the behavior of bisexual men and women differ from that of gay and heterosexual men and women?
Given that the common-sense meaning of the term “bisexual” is an interest in having sex and romantic relationships with men and women, we would expect more bisexual than heterosexual or lesbian/gay individuals to have had sex with both men and women. Indeed, we find that 62% of bisexual men and 73% of bisexual women have (ever) had sex with both sexes, higher than the analogous figures for gay men and lesbians, and drastically higher than the figures for heterosexual men and heterosexual women.
Who have bisexual men and women had sex with in the last year? As the graph below shows, drawing from Table 2, the percent that have had sex with both women and men in the last year is 33% for bisexual men, 27% for bisexual women; 2% for gay men, 13% for lesbians; and 0.4% for heterosexual men, and 2% for heterosexual women. Thus, as we would expect, bisexuals are much more likely than either gays/lesbians or straight men or women to have had sex with both sexes. They are also more likely to have had sex only with other-sex partners in the last year than are gay men or lesbians, but are less likely to have done so than are heterosexuals.
All this suggests a tendency for behavior to conform to identity in any short time range, and that bisexual women and men in some respects are a middle point between straights and gays.
What about gender differences between bisexual men and bisexual women? The two groups have a similarly low percent who have ever had sex only with the other sex (14% for men and 12% for women), but it is much more likely for bisexual women than men to have had sex only with the other sex in the last year—34% for men but 53% for women (Table 2).
We have shown that identity—the sexual orientation one identifies with—is strongly, but by no means perfectly, associated with whether men and women have had sex with women, men, or both. Heterosexual men and women are the most likely to have had sex only with other-sex partners, bisexual men and women are the most likely to have had sex with both women and men, and gay men and lesbians are the most likely to have had sex only with same-sex partners. In this sense, behavior is roughly consistent with sexual orientation. Unsurprisingly, this consistency between current identity and behavior is much stronger when the behavior being asked about is in the last year rather than over the whole lifetime.
However, the patterns differ between men and women. Women, both lesbian and straight, are more flexible with either their identities or behavior than men. Thus, they are more likely than men to have what could be seen as mismatches between identity and behavior. As an example of this, looking at behavior in the last year, heterosexual women are more likely than heterosexual men to have had sex with women, and lesbians are more likely than gay men to have had sex with an other-sex partner.
As part of women’s “flexibility,” women are more likely to have partners of both sexes than men are. Taking people of all sexual orientations combined, 14% of women, but only 4% of men have ever had both male and female sexual partners, as Table 1 shows. Similarly, in the past year, 3% of all women had both male and female sexual partners, compared with less than 1% of men. This is partly because more women than men identify as bisexual, but is also influenced by the higher proportion of women than men among those who identify as either heterosexual or gay having had both male and female sexual partners.
Our analysis uses data from the 2002, 2006-2010, and 2011-2013 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) on men and women 15 to 44 years of age.
To explore the relationship between sexual orientation and behavior, we began with the measure of sexual orientation in the survey. Men and women were asked whether they “think of themselves as” “heterosexual or straight,” “bisexual,” or “homosexual, gay, or lesbian.” Actually, the wording of these options changed slightly between waves. In 2002 the “gay” option for both men and women was “homosexual,” whereas in 2006 and later, it was “homosexual, gay, or lesbian” for women and “homosexual or gay” for men. Also, in some years of the survey (2002 to mid-2008), respondents were also given the option of calling their sexual orientation “something else.” Because this response option was not consistent across years of the survey included in analysis, we excluded men and women who selected this response option.
We generated two different measures of sexual behavior from various questions in the survey.
- Have you ever had a male/female sexual partner? For this measure, we relied on two questions. One question asked men and women the number of male (if male) or female (if female) sexual partners they have had during their lifetime, but did not specify what sexual behavior was meant for “sexual partners.” Men were asked to answer this question if they reported that they had ever had oral or anal sex with a man and women were asked to answer the question if they reported that they had ever had a sexual experience with a woman. If men and women said they had had one or more, we considered them to have had a same-sex sexual partner for this measure.
Regarding sex with other-sex sexual partners, men and women were asked how many women (if male) or men (if female) they had ever had vaginal intercourse with; if this number was 1 or more we considered them to have had an other-sex sexual partner during their lifetime. These items were used to create a variable indicating whether each man had had no sexual partners of either sex, sex only with one or more men, sex only with one or more women, or sex with one or more women and one or more men.
- Did you have a male/female sexual partner last year? This is constructed just like 2) above, but using questions about the number of female and male sexual partners one has had in the last 12 months.
One might worry that respondents would not be honest about same-sex sex or non-heterosexual identities, given the social bias against them. To try to avoid respondents saying what they thought the interviewer wanted to hear rather than the truth, the questions on sexual identity and sex with same-sex partners were asked through an Audio Computer-Assisted Self-Interview (ACASI) system in survey waves prior to 2011. The interviewer handed the respondent a computer and earphones and stepped away to provide privacy while the respondent keyed answers into the computer. This ACASI approach was used for questions on sexual orientation, as well as the questions on number of same-sex partners, and what specific sexual behaviors respondents had done with a man and with a woman. In the survey wave from 2011-2013, these questions were moved to the main male respondent questionnaire.
One might also be concerned that there seems to have been a higher bar to saying a man than a woman had sex with a same-sex partner, since men were only asked the question of how many same-sex partners they had had if they reported they had ever had oral or anal sex with a man, whereas women were asked the question if they reported they had ever had any sexual experience with a woman. (Only in 2002, when an oral sex screener question was used, would women have had to have oral sex to be counted as having had a same-sex partner.) However, we have ascertained that over 90% of those who report having had a female sexual partner (whether or not they have had any male partners) also report having had oral sex with a woman sometime. This convinces us that most women we are counting as having had female partners are not referring to experiences such as public kissing, but to sexual activity involving genitals.
Note: Men are asked their number of male sex partners if they report ever having had oral or anal sex with a man, and are asked their number of female sex partners if they have ever had intercourse with a woman. Women are asked their number of female partners if they report they have ever had a sexual experience with a woman, and are asked their number of male sex partners if they have ever had intercourse with a man. N=14,732 men, weighted. N=17,140 women, weighted. The asterisks indicate that men and women’s sexual activity are significantly different from one another, at p<0.05, two-tailed test.
Note: Men are asked if they have had male sex partners in the past 12 months if they have ever had oral or anal sex with a man, and are asked if they have had female sex partners in the past 12 months if they have ever had vaginal, oral or anal intercourse with a woman. Women are asked if they have had female sex partners in the past 12 months if they report they have ever had a sexual experience with a female and are asked if they have had male sex partners in the past 12 months if they have ever had vaginal, oral or anal sex with a male. N=14,732 men, weighted. N=17,140 women, weighted. The asterisks indicate that men and women’s sexual activity are significantly different from one another, at p<0.05, two-tailed test.