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Same-Sex Sex Is Getting More Common

Or at least it’s becoming more acceptable to say you’ve had it.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The number of American adults who’ve had sex with a same-sex partner has nearly doubled since the 1990s, according to a new analysis—or at least the number of people willing to report that they’ve had sex with a same-sex partner has doubled. At the same time, Americans have become “substantially more accepting” of men having sex with men and women having sex with women.

“By 2014, 49% of American adults believed that same-sex sexual activity was ‘not wrong at all,’ up from 11% in 1973 and 13% in 1990,” psychologists Jean Twenge, Ryne Sherman, and Brooke Wells write in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Those results are based on data from the General Social Survey, which every year or two asks Americans a series of questions on a range of topics including politics and sex. Since 1989, they’ve specifically asked how many male and female sexual partners each person has had. (Even today, many people are uncomfortable identifying themselves as homosexual or bisexual, so it’s become conventional to focus on specific behaviors, like whether a man has had sex with another man.) For the present study, the team focused on 28,161 people who answered questions about behavior, and another 33,728 who answered questions about their attitudes.

“Americans have experienced a fundamental shift toward acceptance of same-sex sexual behavior.”

Overall, the percentage of women who had sex with at least one women since age 18 increased from 3.6 percent in the early 1990s to 8.7 percent in 2010s, the team writes. For men, the percentage rose from 4.5 percent in the 1990s to 8.2 percent in the 2010s. Both men and women now have more same-sex partners on average now than in the past—1.65 and 0.38 on average in the 2010s, compared with 0.60 and 0.25 in the 1990s. Those increases in same-sex intercourse appear to be driven largely by an uptick in the number of men and women who’ve had both male and female sexual partners, the authors write.

Of course, those numbers could reflect a rise in people’s willingness to report such sexual activity, perhaps due to growing societal acceptance. Regardless, tolerance certainly has grown. The GSS specifically asks people to rate the morality of homosexual behavior on a four-point scale from “always wrong” to “not at all wrong.” The percentage has hovered at just over 10 percent since the question was first asked in 1973 until about 1990, at which point it increased four-fold. In the most recent surveys, just shy of half of Americans reported finding nothing at all wrong with homosexuality.

The study “suggests that the cultural change of the last few decades extends beyond simple tolerance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals and their civil rights to include acceptance of same-sex sexuality and the freedom to engage in same-sex sexuality — or at least the freedom to report one has done so on a survey,” the team writes. “Either way, Americans have experienced a fundamental shift toward acceptance of same-sex sexual behavior and a greater willingness to engage in it.”