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Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians Is at a Record High in the U.S.

And a rising number of Americans report having had a sexual encounter with someone of the same gender.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)

Given the horrible events in Orlando over the weekend, it would be easy for members of the gay community to lapse into despair. Homophobia has, obviously, not gone away, and while motives remain murky, it may have driven a disturbed individual to mass homicide.

But given this tragic context, it is more important than ever to remember that, in a relatively short period of time, Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuality have radically changed. Activities that were broadly shamed just a few decades ago are now widely accepted.

The latest reminder of this comes in a newstudy in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. It finds the percentage of Americans who have no problem at all with same-sex sexual activity has risen from 13 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2014.

It also finds the number of Americans who have had sex with a member of the same gender — or, at least, are willing to say so to a survey-taker — has increased dramatically during that same period. This is driven by a large rise in bisexuality, which suggests people are either getting more sexually adventurous, or are less likely to deny what used to be called youthful indiscretions.

The percentage of Americans who have no problem at all with same-sex sexual activity has risen from 13 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2014.

“Americans have experienced a fundamental shift toward acceptance of same-sex sexual behavior, and greater willingness to engage in it,” concludes a research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge.

She and her colleagues used data from the General Social Survey of American adults, a large, nationally representative survey taken every other year. Since 1973, it has included four questions on attitudes toward specific sexual behaviors, including whether “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” is “always wrong,” “almost always wrong,” “wrong only sometimes,” or “not wrong at all.”

“In 1973, only 11 percent of Americans believed that same-sex sexual behavior was ‘not wrong at all,’” they write, “which changed very slightly by 1990 (when it was 13 percent). By 2014, however, nearly half (49 percent) of Americans believed that it was not wrong.”

“Women’s attitudes changed more than men’s,” they add. “By 2014, 54 percent of women believed that same-sex behavior was ‘not wrong at all,’ compared to 44 percent of men.” (The negative framing of the question is somewhat jarring, but remember that it dates to the early 1970s.)

Importantly, this shift occurred among all age groups except for the very oldest (people born before 1924), suggesting that this shift is more than a matter of the emergence of a new, more tolerant generation; attitudes have changed almost across the board.

The survey added several questions about sexual behavior beginning in 1989, asking participants how many male, and how many female, partners they had sex with since their 18th birthday.

“The percentage of women who had sex with at least one other woman more than doubled between the early 1990s and the 2010s, from 3.6 to 8.7 percent,” the researchers report.

There was also a big rise among men—from 4.5 to 8.2 percent. “The increase in same-sex sexual experience appeared consistently across all age groups, up to those in their 50s,” the researchers note.

“The increase in same-sex experience appears to be largely driven by those who had both male and female partners,” they add. “The percent of those having sex exclusively with same-sex partners did not change consistently over time.”

Interpreting these numbers isn’t easy.

“The increase in reports of same-sex sexual behavior could be caused by actual changes in behavior, and/or by increased honesty in reporting such behavior,” Twenge and her colleagues write. “Increasing acceptance might lead more people to be more willing to (admit to such activity).”

If this increase is, in fact, real, its causes are complex. “With the stigma around same-sex behavior fading, people may be more willing to engage in it,” they write. “Another reason … may be the risk of hook-up culture, which provides opportunities (and perhaps pressure) for sexual behavior among women.”

While such questions remain, the overwhelming shift toward greater acceptance is undeniable. Yes, there are still homophobes out there, but this study provides compelling evidence that there are fewer and fewer with each passing year.