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Same-Sex Encounters on the Rise

Researchers say trend reflects society's more tolerant view of homosexuality

SUNDAY, June 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- More Americans say they're engaging in gay sex, a trend researchers attribute to a greater acceptance of homosexuality in society, a new study has found.

About 4.1 percent of men said they had gay sex in 1998, compared to 1.7 percent of men in 1988, according to the survey. About 2.8 percent of women said they had a same-sex partner in 1998, compared to 0.2 percent 10 years earlier.

But researchers aren't sure whether this means that more people are experimenting with same-gender sexual relationships -- or are simply more willing to admit it.

"This study suggests this aspect of sexuality is not as fixed as we would have thought," says Amy C. Butler, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Iowa and lead author of the study, which was published in The Journal of Sex Research. "The number will change depending on the culture and the norms of the society."

Social constraints against homosexuality have loosened considerably in the last decade. In 1990, only six U.S. corporations provided benefits to same-sex domestic partners. By 1999, several hundred provided benefits, according to the study. Sodomy laws have been repealed in half the states, and dozens of states, counties and cities have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Positive portrayals of gays in the media have also increased. On television, there are shows like "Will & Grace," in which one of the lead male characters is gay; and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," in which Willow, a cast regular, is in a lesbian relationship. There's also the gay character, Carter, on "Spin City."

"Carter is a fully developed character who's very smart and just happens to be gay," says Kevin McClelland, regional media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in Atlanta. "Being gay is not the totality of his character. These portrayals are more reflective of real life."

'Positive media portrayals'

Popular culture also has highly visible gay and lesbian celebrities who can serve as role models to younger people, McClelland says. They include the singer Melissa Etheridge, the actress Ellen DeGeneres, the Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, and entertainer Ru Paul.

"As we see more positive media portrayals of the way lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people live that are not based on stereotypes and are not trying to scare people, people are going to feel more comfortable discussing the feelings they have themselves," McClelland says.

There's another factor that researchers say may contribute to the reported increase in same-sex relationships: Over the last few decades, women have gained financial freedom, allowing them to support themselves and their children without a husband, Butler says.

"This may enable women to consider family structures and sexual partnerships that do not include men," she says.

In Butler's survey, women, unlike men, were more likely to report decreases in exclusively heterosexual relationships during the past five years. More than 90 percent of women said their sexual relationships were heterosexual in 1988. This had dropped to 86 percent 10 years later.

Butler's survey used data from the General Social Surveys, a poll of Americans 18 and older conducted every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

America's tolerance of homosexuality also has increased, particularly among youth. A 1999 survey of teens between the ages of 15 and 19 found 54 percent said they "don't have any problem" with homosexuality, up from 17 percent in 1991.

And teens today are more likely than adults to experiment with gay sex. About 21 percent of the teens said they fantasized about "fooling around" with someone of the same sex, and 15 percent said they'd done so, according to a survey by Seventeen magazine and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Many remain opposed to homosexuality

Yet gay sex is still a stigmatized behavior, one that large portions of U.S. society believe is morally wrong. In 1998, about 55 percent of adults said sexual activity between two adults of the same sex is "always wrong," down from 75 percent a decade earlier, according to the General Social Surveys.

It's possible that the real number of people who have engaged in gay sex is actually higher than reported because people are still reluctant to admit it, Butler says. "You'll never know to what extent people are being truthful. With stigmatized behaviors, most estimates from surveys tend to be underestimates," she says.

Butler cautions against interpreting the results to mean that there are more gay people. That number is believed to be constant. The most reliable estimates put the figure at about 2 percent to 4 percent of the male population, and about 1 percent to 2 percent of the female population, she says.

Still, any discussion of sexuality underscores the need for education about safe-sex practices, says Jennifer Kates, senior program officer for Kaiser Family Foundation's HIV/AIDS Policy in Menlo Park, Calif.

"Some sexual behaviors, including anal sex, are riskier than others," Kates says. "This reinforces the need to emphasize safe-sex messages and to provide people with facts, whether they identify themselves as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual."

What To Do

For information on sexual health, including pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and men's and women's bodies, visit It's Your (Sex) Life, or Go Ask Alice. Planned Parenthood's Teenwire has information geared for youths.

Or your can read these HealthDay stories on homosexuality.

SOURCES: Interviews with Amy C. Butler, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work, University of Iowa; Kevin McClelland, regional media director, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; Jennifer Kates, senior program officer, Kaiser Family Foundation's HIV/AIDS Policy; November 2000 The Journal of Sex Research
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