Sex & the British: The Facts of Homosexual Life: The Sex Survey: Part Two

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Until very recently, society viewed homosexuality as sickness or sin. Up to 1967, male homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain, and only in 1974 was it removed from the list of psychiatric disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, to be replaced by the diagnosis 'sexual orientation disturbance'.

We saw last week that, since the Second World War, the idea that sex should be confined to marriage has declined dramatically. But, as we shall see, the idea that sex should be confined to relationships between men and women is still widely held. The growing acceptance of gay sex in the 1970s received a setback with the advent of Aids in the 1980s. Sexual relationships between men and women are still very much the socially accepted norm.

But it is at least widely recognised, as it was not earlier in the century, that people do not fall into two simple and opposed categories: homosexual and heterosexual. Rather, people's sexual preferences and experiences are best represented on a continuum.

Our questioning - of nearly 19,000 people aged 16 to 59 - tried to reflect this. In face-to-face interviews, we asked respondents about their sexual orientation on two levels. First, we asked them about sexual attraction: were men, for example, exclusively or mainly attracted to women, exclusively or mainly attracted to men, or were they attracted to both sexes equally? Second, we asked about sexual experience: was their experience exclusively or mainly with the opposite sex, exclusively or mainly with members of their own sex, or was it with both equally? Interviewees were told: 'Sexual experience is any kind of contact with another person that you felt was sexual - it could be just kissing or touching, or intercourse or any other forms of sex.'

This gave us a five-point scale to assess homosexuality (though we never used this term) in both attraction and experience: only homosexual, mostly homosexual, both hetero- and homosexual, mostly heterosexual, only heterosexual.

The vast majority - 90.2 per cent of men and 92.4 per cent of women - claimed exclusively heterosexual experience and attraction. Some of the others reported no sexual attraction or experience or refused to answer. Only 1 man in 100 said that he had had sexual experience exclusively or mostly with other men; fewer than 3 women in 1,000 said that they had been exclusively or mostly lesbian.

There was little difference between preference and practice. We found no support here for the theory that large sections of the population harbour unrealised fantasies about homosexuality. Only 2.2 per cent of men and 2.6 per cent of women said that they were attracted to their own sex but had not translated this into experience.

But how readily do people report homosexual experience? These answers, as we said, were given during face-to-face interviews. But we also asked respondents to fill out a written booklet, with a different set of questions. Respondents were able to seal these booklets before handing them to the interviewer, and they could be identified only by a number on the cover.

These results were different. Men of all age groups, except the under-20s, admitted to more homosexual experience than they had in the interviews. The disparity increased with age. Women also admitted to more homosexual contact, although in their cases the disparity was less marked.

The written answers told us that 6.1 per cent of men and 3.4 per cent of women had had some kind of homosexual contact. Again, this could have been just kissing and cuddling. But, for 3.6 per cent of men and 1.7 per cent of women, it had involved genital contact. And 1.4 per cent of men and 0.6 per cent of women had had a partner of the same sex within the previous five years.

The figure for male homosexual genital contact is somewhat higher than that found in other, smaller British surveys. But it is remarkably consistent with surveys overseas - notably in the United States, France and Norway. For example, 4.1 per cent of French men report at least one experience of homosexual intercourse during their lives - a figure which appears to kill the myth that homosexuality is a peculiarly British practice.

In all age groups, men are more likely than women to report homosexual experience. But the disparity is less among the younger age groups, suggesting that the social constraints on lesbianism are weakening. In Norway, a survey in the 1980s found no difference at all in reported levels of homosexuality between men and women.


We found that people in social classes I and II are more likely to report homosexual experience. For example, 9.5 per cent of men in those classes - professional and managerial people - had some kind of homosexual experience, against 3.2 per cent of skilled manual workers and 4.7 per cent of semi-skilled and unskilled.

Equally striking was the difference between London and other regions. Men who live in Greater London were more than twice as likely to report homosexual experience as men living in other regions. The difference was less marked for women. The reasons, almost certainly, are a mixture of 'pull' and 'push'. Gay people may move to London because it provides anonymity, more availability of gay sex and a more supportive environment; they may also move to escape negative and hostile attitudes outside the capital. Our survey supports this idea - 1 in 3 of the men who had homosexual partners in the past five years are migrants to London against 1 in 10 of men who had no such partners. We also found that, particularly among women, tolerance of homosexuality is much greater in the capital than outside it.

The pattern of first experience is quite different for men and women. The large majority of men who have had homosexual contact experienced it first in their teens. If a man has not already had homosexual experience by his early 30s, he is unlikely to start later in life. For a woman, however, the chances of making a homosexual debut are remarkably constant until her 50s; a woman in her 40s is as likely to have her first lesbian experience as a woman in her teens.

The proportion of men who report homosexual experience peaks in the 35-44 age group. Members of this age group are also more likely to say they had homosexual experience before the age of 16 - more than twice as likely as those in the 16-24 age group. These men were born between 1946 and 1955 - they were between the ages of 12 and 21 in 1967, when homosexual acts between men over 21 became legal in England and Wales. But our research suggests it was not the legislation that changed behaviour. Rather, it was the liberalising effect following the report of the Wolfenden committee on homosexuality in 1957. There was no marked change in behaviour immediately before or after the 1967 Act.

Why have younger men not followed the 35-44 age group? The pattern for their homosexual experience is closer to that of men aged 45 to 59. One likely explanation is that the upward trend in homosexual activity was reversed by the Aids epidemic. Those in the 25-34 age group would have been between 16 and 25 in 1981, when the first Aids case was reported in the UK.


Homosexual experience is often an isolated or passing event. At some stage in their lives, 3.5 per cent of men in the survey had had a male partner. But only 1.4 per cent had had one in the previous five years, and only 1.1 per cent in the previous year. The picture is similar for women.

It is often suggested that people who are inducted into homosexual practices in their early teens will become homosexuals for life. Our research suggests quite the opposite. Men and women whose first experience of homosexuality occurred before the age of 16 were less likely to have had a homosexual partner in the past five years than those who started homosexual practices later. This is consistent with Kinsey's research in the US: he found that more than 20 per cent of men (in his sample of volunteers) had reached orgasm with other men at some time in their lives - but only a third of these reported such contact after the age of 20. In other words, it seems that, in early adulthood, many people go through a form of bisexuality in which they try out different kinds of sexual relationship.

The experience of both men and women who had attended boarding schools was particularly striking. Those who went to boarding schools were more than twice as likely as those who had attended day schools to report homosexual experience and/or genital contact at some stage in their lives. But they were only very slightly more likely to report homosexual partners in the past five years. Boarding school seems to provide greater opportunities for homosexual experience; but it seems to have little or no effect on behaviour in later life.

Our survey also suggests that exclusively homosexual behaviour is rare. More than 90 per cent of the men and more than 95 per cent of the women who have had a homosexual partner in their lives have also had a partner of the opposite sex. Even among the men who had had a male sexual partner in the past two years, 42 per cent had had sex with a woman during the same period. For the women, the proportion (54 per cent) was even higher.

A small proportion of married men - 1.3 per cent - have had sex with at least one man within the past five years. The proportion of married women who reported homosexual experience within the past five years was even smaller - 0.2 per cent.

Other surveys of gay men have suggested a much greater prevalence of exclusively homosexual behaviour and a correspondingly lower level of bisexuality. This is probably because such surveys have been biased towards those who consciously identify themselves as gay. Our sample, which is larger and more representative of the population as a whole, is likely to include many more people whose homosexual behaviour is more covert. Health education campaigners may find these people hard to reach.


The prevailing view is that men who have sex with other men have many more partners than those who have sex with women. Lesbians are the subject of less speculation or research, but the general view is that they have more stable, long-term relationships.

In our survey, half the men and two-thirds of the women who had had a homosexual partner in their lives reported only one such partner. But many of these would have been people for whom homosexuality was a single - and possibly youthful and experimental - occurrence. At the other end of the scale, we found that 11.4 per cent of the men who had had homosexual experience reported 20 or more male partners and 3.9 per cent reported 100 or more. No woman reported more than 20 female partners.

Compare these figures with those for numbers of heterosexual partners reported last week and it emerges that homosexual male activity is not necessarily so different from heterosexual male activity. But there are two reservations. First, the proportion of 'homosexual men' (those who had ever had homosexual experience) reporting more than 100 partners in their lives was 3.9 per cent, against only 0.8 per cent of 'heterosexual men' (defined as those who had ever had a female partner). Second, the proportion of 'homosexual' men reporting 10 or more partners within the past five years was 9.1 per cent, against 5.2 per cent of 'heterosexual' men. If we eliminate those who had not had partners in the past five years, the contrast is even more marked - 23.8 per cent of homosexual men against 5.3 per cent of heterosexuals. This calculation, it must be emphasised, is based on small numbers.

The picture is complex, but, by any reckoning, most homosexual men do not have an appetite for a large number of partners. On the other hand, a few do seem to choose a highly active lifestyle. There is evidence also that a small minority of people choose the widest possible range of experience, seeking diversity both in numbers of partners and in genders. Men who have had sex with 10 or more women are twice as likely as men who have slept with only one woman to have had a homosexual partner at some stage. The phenomenon is more pronounced for women. Women who have had 10 or more male partners are 25 times more likely also to have had lesbian sex.


Depending on the social circles you move in, homosexuality may be viewed as a proud source of identity, as a more or less tolerated 'alternative lifestyle', or as a perverse and bestial crime against God and nature. These divisions are reflected in our data.

Last week, we described how people had been asked to comment on a variety of sexual relationships - sex before marriage, sex outside marriage, casual sex, for example - on a five-point scale from 'always wrong' to 'not wrong at all'. We found that views on active homosexuality are more polarised than on any other subject. We also found that, while on most sexual subjects men are more tolerant or 'permissive' than women, the reverse is the case for homosexuality.

At one extreme, 20 per cent believe homosexuality is not at all wrong. At the other, 70 per cent of men and 58 per cent of women believe that sex between two men is always or mostly wrong, and there is only marginally less condemnation of sex between two women - 64 per cent of men and 59 per cent of women see it as always or mostly wrong. Younger people are not markedly more tolerant than older people.

Last week we noted that, on premarital sex, the British public is much more tolerant than the US public. Yet, on homosexuality, we are almost as censorious as the Americans, of whom three-quarters judge such practices to be always or almost always wrong.


We found that more than 13 per cent of the sample - and over 15 per cent of those aged 25 to 34 - had had an HIV test in the past five years. The most common reason was that they had donated blood, though pregnancy was a more common reason among young women. A third reason was in connection with insurance, mortgage or travel. A fourth category (4.2 per cent of all men and 2.9 per cent of women) had taken HIV tests for 'other' reasons - mainly, presumably, because they (or someone close to them) thought they were at risk of infection.

We found that those in what are considered 'high risk' categories for HIV are more likely to have had a test and more likely to have done so for 'other' reasons. But, whatever the category, those taking the test were never in the majority. For example, of those with five or more heterosexual partners in the last five years, 21 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women had taken an HIV test. The men were much more likely to have done so for 'other' reasons than the women.

More than 40 per cent of men who had had homosexual partners in the previous five years had taken an HIV test. But, even among men who had injected drugs in the past five years, the proportion taking an HIV test stopped short of 50 per cent.


Among the sexually active, 21 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men reported using no method of contraception within the past year, and among the 16- to 24-year-olds the proportions dropped to less than 10 per cent. We cannot be precise about how many were pregnant or attempting pregnancy, but the proportion who risked unplanned pregnancy is likely to be well under 1 in 10. The extent of change in Britain can be appreciated when we recall that, at the turn of the century, only 10 per cent of women used any contraceptive method at all.

Among women, the pill is the most common reported method of contraception. But its use varies markedly according to age and marital status. Nearly two-thirds of the sexually active women aged 16 to 24 use the pill, against 1 in 10 of those aged 35 to 44. Well over half the single women and nearly half of those cohabiting used it, against under 1 in 5 of the married women.

Among older women, sterilisation (of either or both partners) takes over from the pill. Among married women in their late 30s and early 40s, 44 per cent are protected by sterilisation, most commonly through their husbands having a vasectomy.

Until recently, sterilisation was the method of contraception that showed the most striking rise in popularity, following publicity for the health risks of the pill, particularly for older women. Since the mid-1980s, however, the condom has increased in popularity, as we noted last week when we discussed how and when people lost their virginity.

Overall, more than 1 in 4 women and more than 1 in 3 men had used a condom in the past year. Among the 16 to 24 age-group, the proportions reached 60 per cent for men and 40 per cent for women.

We found that condom use increased markedly with number of heterosexual partners. Of those who had made love to 5 or more people, more than 70 per cent of men and more than 60 per cent of women had used condoms - proportions well above average. But perhaps, from the point of view of Aids prevention, we should be more concerned about the residual proportions who had not used condoms.

We found some variation between social classes. Men in social classes I and II were more likely to use some form of contraception than those in social classes IV and V.

People with religious affiliations were less likely to use contraception. But Roman Catholics were only slightly less likely than other Christians - and considerably more likely than those adhering to non-Christian faiths - to use some kind of contraceptive method. The main difference between Catholics and other Christians was that fewer Catholics relied on either male or female sterilisation. Catholics were more likely to use the pill or the condom. Nearly 1 in 3 Catholic women had used the pill in the last year, against just over 1 in 5 Anglican women.


We asked our respondents what they understood by 'safer sex'. More than 75 per cent of men and more than 80 per cent of women mentioned condoms. Everything else came a long way behind. Monogamy, restricting the number of partners, and knowing your partner well were each mentioned by about a quarter of the respondents. Younger people were more likely to mention restricting partners, while older people interpreted safer sex more in terms of monogamy. Safer-sex practices, including non-penetrative sex, were mentioned by only 8 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women.

We also asked people how much they thought they were risking Aids 'with your present sexual lifestyle'. The majority thought they were running no risk at all. This included the majority of men and women who had had three or four heterosexual partners over the past five years. Nevertheless, assessment of risk did increase with numbers of partners. Nearly two-thirds of men and women who had slept with 10 or more people of the opposite sex in the past five years thought they were running at least some risk. Yet more than 1 in 3 thought they ran no risk at all.

Awareness of risk among male homosexuals was greater. Even among those who reported only one partner in the last five years, just over half reckoned they were at risk.


People may reasonably say they are at little risk if, for example, they invariably use a condom. So what is the extent of unsafe sexual behaviour among heterosexuals? We identified a group of people who had two or more heterosexual partners in the past year but never used a condom in that time. These people can be described as having 'unsafe' sex.

We found that, of those who had ever had sex, more than 9 per cent of those under 25 were having 'unsafe' sex according to this definition. In all age groups, men were more likely than women to have unsafe sex, but this was least marked among the under-25s.

Married people were much less likely to have 'unsafe' sex than other groups, including people who were cohabiting. But the group apparently most exposed to risk are the separated, divorced and widowed, who are five times as likely to report 'unsafe sex' as married people - nearly 16 per cent of separated, divorced and widowed men had apparently put themselves at risk. These people are a target that has probably been neglected by health educators: they account for nearly 1 in 5 of those having 'unsafe' sex.

It must be emphasised that these people are not the only ones at risk. Others may have been using condoms inconsistently. We felt it unlikely that people could give reliable replies on whether they had used condoms every time they had sex over the previous year. But we did think it reasonable to ask if they had done so over the immediately preceding four weeks.

We found that, of those who had sex only with one established partner over the previous month, 16 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women had always used a condom. Where people had sex with only one partner - but that person was a new partner - the proportions rise to 34 per cent for men and 41 per cent for women.

That brings us to people who had had two or more partners in the previous four weeks and might, therefore, be considered most at risk. Their use of condoms was low. Even when at least one of these partners was new, only 17.5 per cent of the men and 10 per cent of the women had always used a condom.


We found a remarkably strong relationship between smoking and the number of heterosexual partners in the past year. For example, about 1 in 3 of the men who had made love to more than four women in the past year smoked more than 15 cigarettes a day, against fewer than 1 in 5 of those who had had no partners. To take another example, only 20 per cent of the women who had made love to more than four men in the past year were non-smokers, against about 45 per cent of those who had had one partner and nearly 60 per cent of those who had had none.

We found a similarly strong connection between drinking and multiple sex partners. Of those who had more than two partners in the previous year only 6 per cent of men and 3 per cent of women never drank alcohol against more than 20 per cent of those with no partners.

Both smoking and drinking were related to frequency of sex within the past four weeks. Among those who had sex more often, the proportions of non-smokers and teetotallers declined, the proportions of moderate or heavy smokers and drinkers increased.

Smoking and drinking are more prevalent among young people. But that is not the explanation for our results: smokers and drinkers, regardless of age, gender, social class or other factors, have more sex with more different partners than non-smokers and non-drinkers. We doubt that the relationship is causal, despite advertisers' persistent attempts to link both smoking and drinking with sexual success. Rather, it seems that some people are more inclined to take risks than others - whether these risks involve lung cancer, heart disease, unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases such as Aids. But we must be cautious even about that. Drinkers, it is true, are less likely to have used a condom on the last occasion they had sex, but smokers, we found, are more likely to use a condom.

Adapted from 'Sexual Behaviour in Britain', by Kaye Wellings et al, to be published by Penguin tomorrow, pounds 15. A hardback version, including greater methodological detail and appendix tables, will be published by Blackwell Scientific Publications on the same day, under the title 'Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles', by Anne Johnson et al, pounds 29.95.

Alison, 39, realised she was a lesbian as a teenager and had her first sexual experience at university. She lives with a bisexual woman and each has had a daughter by artificial insemination.

I grew up knowing that I had a perverse sexuality. I was full of an incredible desire for very intimate contact with my girl friends. I didn't feel I could do anything with these feelings and I was very keen for sexual experience, so as soon as I left home and went to university at the age of 18 I made a point of losing my virginity. I went to bed with quite a lot of boys. Although I enjoyed the physical sensation, I never found male bodies erotic. I couldn't bear to identify myself as lesbian because being that was totally unacceptable - I felt that my family would ostracise me and I'd end up in the gutter. And when I did come out, I perceived it as meaning I must be sexually active all the time, so I spent a decade being excessively promiscuous. I also felt as though, in some way, I had to make up for being so repressed all that time.

I was in my twenties when I learned what to do in bed with a woman, but I fell in love with a woman who was involved with someone else so it was terribly painful. It was at this time that I came out to my parents and that was very painful, too. My mother regarded it as a phase, she didn't realise it was something I had known and kept secret since I was 13. And my parents were very worried that it would create problems for my brother and sister if it came out in the small country town where we lived. My response to all this was to reject as much heterosexual life as possible. I hung out with lesbians and gays and got involved with gay consciousness-raising and political gay groups.

I met the woman I live with and realised this was love and important. It was certainly the central relationship for us, but we both had other affairs. We then decided that we wanted children. I advertised for a donor and found a really delightful man who turned up and donated sperm, which I inseminated myself, until I conceived.

Though we both want to give the children stability, we never wanted to recreate the nuclear family. But I did find it very difficult when my lover became involved with a man who, like her, is bisexual. His boyfriend had died of Aids, and from having felt rather safe as a lesbian everything was altered. We all three had tests and in fact tested negative.

It is a strange time for me now. I have got involved with a younger woman, although my lover and I are still together. I am glad I was able to acknowledge my sexuality, though I don't feel happy about my early promiscuity. What I see of today's young gay women is that they are very confident, very clear about their right to be who they are. I envy them all that.

Dan, 22, lost his virginity at 16 and says he has slept with more than 20 women since then. He talks of a 'pretty adventurous sex life' and admits to having taken substantial risks, particularly when he has used drugs and drink.

My discovery of my sexuality came just as Aids arrived. I knew I ought to use condoms, but I found them so inhibiting, they prevented me losing my virginity when I really wanted to at 15. After struggling to put them on I always lost my erection, so I stopped using them. My first affair lasted a week and sex was awkward, but I think we both saw it as a learning process. The following summer I went out with a lot of women and didn't use condoms. I know it was foolish, I knew it then - my generation has had it drummed into them. But I was going for pleasure not sense, and I was determined to become sexually expert before I risked condoms again.

I've had three proper relationships since I started having sex and was pretty faithful during those. I never tell someone I love them when I don't. In my experience plenty of women are willing to sleep with you on the first night, and I do now use condoms if this is the case, although I admit there have been times when I've had too much to drink or some drugs and I've broken that rule. If we are waiting, say, a week, I will find out a lot about a woman during that time and only have unprotected sex if it seems safe. I slept with a girl in Greece and found out afterwards that she had been out with a heroin addict - I had an HIV test after that. It panicked me to think I had such bad character judgement. Men are seen as refusing to wear condoms when women want them to, but in my experience plenty of women are happy not to use them, and certainly they don't always ask you to.

But I do think there is considerably less casual sex than there used to be. There's been an emphasis on other ways to enjoy yourself and people do more drugs. This summer I met a lot of girls when I was working in a bar. Once I would probably have slept with almost any who liked the idea, but I only had sex with a few. It's sad that sex has to be seen as dangerous, and I don't think it's the best basis for morality.

Brian, 36, works for a Japanese bank, where he is 'out'. He has lived with another man in a monogamous relationship for several years. He has been much involved in gay liberation politics.

I had one homosexual experience at my grammar school in North Wales. It was on a field trip: another chap and I walked to a lake and things just happened. Afterwards we slapped each other on the back, returned for dinner and it didn't happen again. At university I came into contact with the first group of people who had come out after decriminalisation and there was a real groundswell to the Gay Liberation Movement. Then the GLC and London councils took really positive initiatives. A very active social scene grew up and in the late Seventies Heaven opened - the biggest gay nightclub in Europe. There was a lot of wild uninhibited sex and not much sense of danger. The first link with Aids seemed to come through blood transfusions, but although the link with sex didn't seem to be proved, it was enough to make me scared. And of course it wasn't long before we began to know people dying of Aids. It really came home to me when I saw the effect on Rock Hudson, what it could do to such a beautiful man. The last time I had sex with someone the night I met them was in 1983. I would always use contraception with someone new these days, although I am well aware there are people with a devil-may-care attitude who won't use condoms and who drink, do drugs and generally abuse their bodies. On the other hand I think Aids has enabled some people to say no to things they didn't want to do anyway.

By 1987 the Sex Road Shows were going around showing people what you could do

instead of fucking, and I began to realise that there were very enjoyable alternatives, even things like massaging your lover with pineapple aroma oil. A broad response has been to find new ways of sex. There's far less anal sex than before.

In the late 1980s I met my partner Anthony. We are still together and we don't have any problem with being an out couple. When I applied for my job as head of credit and risk with a bank, I wrote 'gay' under marital status on the application form. But I think there is now a more oppressive atmosphere, which means men in some professions, teaching for instance, are not letting their sexuality be known for fear of losing their jobs. And I think it is harder for young men trying to come out now.

Norman, 57, realised he was gay in adolescence and had his first homosexual experience in his teens. He was aware of its illegality and felt he could not 'confess' until gay politics made it seem possible.

As a teenager the wet dreams I had were about men, and realising that I was gay was a trauma. I was left without a life-plan. I had heard my father talking about homosexuals and realised it was regarded as on a par with being a leper. From the time I let it be known I was gay he was openly hostile to me.

My first experience was when I was doing National Service and someone picked me up in the cinema. We went home to his place and he asked me 'Which way do you like it?' I was so nave I had no idea what he meant. When I left home at 21 I didn't know who I was or what sort of relationship I wanted, and because I had been repressed for so long I was very promiscuous for a couple of years.

I knew homosexuality was illegal and that there would be shame and risk. I was a streetcruiser rather than using bars but I never used toilets. Even so I was framed by the police on a cottaging charge. I went in for a wee, and when I came out I was set upon by all these people in dirty raincoats who said they were arresting me for importuning. In the dock the police described an act that was anatomically impossible as far as I could tell, but the judge believed them. I was committed to a year's treatment with a psychiatrist.

I used to meet people at Speakers' Corner or Piccadilly - they were less likely to be part of the scene and I found them more genuine. Then in 1960 I began to work as a teacher and I felt the only safe thing was to be celibate, which was hard. I cultivated non- gay friends and put a lot of energy into friendship. I stayed celibate for 14 years, then when I was 40 I quit teaching. A year later I decided to come out. I made an absolute decision that I would not be a victim any longer.

I've never used a condom and would find the idea horrifying. I've been into non-penetrative sex since the 1980s and I get just as good orgasms and as much satisfaction through things like masturbation, rubbing against each other and a lot of body contact.

Interviews by Angela Neustatter / Researched by Cate Kelly

(Tables omitted)