The survey - financed by the Wellcome Trust - explodes the myth that British men are more likely to be homosexual than those in other countries. Equally false, according to the survey, is the belief that young people can be 'inducted' into lifelong homosexuality by early experience. Men and women who first experienced homosexuality before the age of 16 were less likely than those who started homosexual practices later to have had a partner of the same gender in recent years.
The findings will be powerful ammunition for those lobbying MPs to support legislation to lower the age of consent from 21 to 16. The House of Commons is expected to vote on the proposition next week.
Previous estimates of the extent of homosexuality were based largely on the Kinsey Report, carried out in the United States in the 1940s. This suggested 1 in 10 men were homosexual. But Kinsey did not survey a representative sample of the American population.
The Wellcome survey, carried out by Social and Community Planning Research, interviewed nearly 19,000 Britons, aged 16 to 59, in 1990-91. It rejects the idea that the population can be divided simply into 'gays' and 'straights'. The huge majority of those who have had homosexual experiences have also had a partner of the opposite sex. Even among men who had had a male sexual partner in the last two years, 42 per cent had also made love to a woman during that period. Men who have had large numbers of female partners are more likely than monogamous men to have had a homosexual experience.
The survey found 6.1 per cent of men and 3.4 per cent of women had had homosexual contact but, for many, the experience had been confined to kissing and cuddling. Only 3.6 per cent of men and 1.7 of women reported genital contact. The number who reported homosexual partners within the past two years was even smaller: 1.4 per cent of men and 0.6 per cent of women.
Several surveys have been conducted overseas recently which have produced similar results on homosexuality. In France, 4.1 per cent of men reported at least one experience of homosexual intercourse during their lives - countering the view, expressed by Edith Cresson, the former French prime minister, that English men were peculiarly prone to homosexuality because of their boarding school experience. In fact, the Wellcome survey shows, people who have been to boarding school are more likely to have had homosexual experience at some stage in their lives, but no more likely than anyone else to have been actively gay in the recent past.
The survey shows that homosexual experience is almost twice as common among middle-class people as among the working-classes. And men living in Greater London are more than twice as likely to report homosexual experience as men living in other regions.
The view that gay men are specially promiscuous is also questioned. Half the men who had had homosexual partners reported only one such partner. Fewer than one in nine men with homosexual experience had had 20 or more male partners. No woman reported more than 20 female partners.
Mr Justice Harman, sitting in the High Court, last night granted an injunction restraining Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, from reproducing any substantial parts of the survey except those that the Independent on Sunday has already published.
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