More Americans are having same-sex experiences and fewer people care

Published June 1, 2016

A growing number of Americans are having gay sex, or at least acknowledging it. And that's okay 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 rose 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.

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 had sex with other women.

Wells said there's no way of knowing whether behavior has changed or if people are now more comfortable acknowledging 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.

"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.

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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.

©2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer