Research team defends 1-in-90 gay sex claim

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The Independent Online
ACADEMICS who carried out Britain's biggest survey into sexual behaviour yesterday rejected charges that they had grossly underestimated numbers of gays and lesbians.

The survey of nearly 19,000 people aged 16 to 59 concludes that one in 16 British men and one in 29 women have had homosexual experience. But this is often confined to kissing and cuddling: only one manin 28 and one woman in 60 admitted to genital contact. One man in 70 has had a homosexual partner during the last five years and only one in 90 during the last 12 months.

About one person in 50 said that they were attracted to members of the same sex but had no homosexual experience.

Members of gay rights groups insist that the true figure for male homosexuality is nearer one in 10. 'Closet gays are very unlikely to admit their homosexuality to a total stranger who turns up on the doorstep,' said Peter Tatchell of the OutRage group.

But Dr Anne Johnson, one of the four authors, said yesterday that the figures were similar to those that emerged from properly-conducted surveys in the United States, France and Norway. She added: 'It's not as if our interviewers walked up to people in the street shouting 'Are you gay?' The interviews were conducted in privacy and we didn't even mention the words homosexual or gay. We asked about sexual experience with other men or other women.'

Kaye Wellings, the team's medical sociologist, explained that they had decided that most questions on homosexuality - and other intimate subjects - should be given to interviewees in a written booklet. Respondents wrote down their answers and placed them in a sealed envelope, which did not carry their names. Confidentiality was guaranteed.

Estimates that one in 10 men is gay are based, the authors say, on surveys that were not representative of the whole population.

In London, the survey shows, the proportion of men reporting homosexual contact is as high as 12 per cent. The reason, the authors suggest, is that gays tend to migrate there because of the more tolerant atmosphere.

The controversy comes as the House of Commons prepares to vote on a proposal to lower the age of homosexual consent from 21 to 18 or 16. Opponents of change have argued that the survey - financed by the Wellcome Trust, and carried out by Social and Community Planning Research - shows that gays have exaggerated their numerical strength in order to strengthen the case for homosexual rights.

But Anya Palmer, the spokesperson for one campaigning group, Stonewall, said yesterday: 'The arguments for equality still apply whether gays are one per cent or 10 per cent. Less than one per cent of the population is Jewish but that doesn't justify anti-Semitism.'

The survey authors believe that their results provide support for lowering the age of consent. Despite the present law, the large majority of men who have had homosexual contact experienced it first before the age of 21. But teenage experience does not necessarily lead to lifelong homosexuality - those who first had sex with another man before 16 are less likely to have had a recent homosexual partner than those who started gay sex later.

Serialisation of the survey, which is published by Penguin and Blackwell Scientific Publications tomorrow, continues in today's Sunday Review. One finding is that smokers and drinkers have more heterosexual partners than non-smokers and teetotallers.

Leading article, page 18

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