In the category of “What Does This Mean” comes a new report out of New York City that highlights the difficulties of self-identification.

Just as it seems that some persons that call themselves “ex-gay” may be attracted only to the same sex, so too may some men who call themselves straight only have sex with other men. And not just a few of them.

To better understand disease prevention, a survey was made of 4,193 male New Yorkers consisting of 130 questions including sexual identification and sexual behavior. They found that 91.3% identify as straight, 3.7% as gay, and the rest as bisexual (1.2%), unsure (1.7%) or declined to answer (2.1%). These numbers are not significantly different from those the CDC published last year.

However, these identifiers did not align closely with actual sexual activity. For example, 9.3% of respondents indicated that they had sex with only men in the past year. Initially, we might assume that these are the gay, bisexual, unsure, etc. men. Not so.

Of the straight-identified men, 9.4% reported having sexual intercourse with at least 1 man (and no women) in the year before the survey.

[the numbers reflect a slightly different population, the second eliminates bisexuals and those who were not sexually identifiable as straight or gay and those who had sex with both men and women]

That seems like a large percentage of men who are “straight” but only doing it with guys. Our next assumption might be that these are men who don’t have an opportunity to have sex with a woman. Again, not so.

Approximately 70% of straight-identified men who have sex with men reported being married, which was substantially more than any other identity–behavior group: 54% of straight-identified men who have sex with women and only 0.2% of gay-identified men who have sex with men reported being married.

In other words, “straight” men who have sex with men (SMSM) are much more likely to be married than straight men who have sex with women.

Not surprising is that these SMSM were likely to be foreign born or part of an ethnic minority. Cultural taboos have long been understood to impact sexual orientation indentification. Just as an ex-gay may identify “as a Christian” believing that this excludes a gay identity, so too may a foreign born person identify as “a Jamaican” believing that this identity precludes being gay.

Other questions suggest that gay men had more sexual partners than SMSM and were more likely to have had an STD (although over 50% of sexually active gay men had only one partner in the past year). However SMSM were less likely to use a condom or get an HIV test.

This is an interesting study and is, of course, very important to those who seek disease prevention. But what do we make of it?

A couple of things to keep in mind in trying to understand this study are:

* This was a representative sample of NYC men, not of all men in the US or the world. NYC has both a larger gay population and a larger minority population than would be found outside of New York, which undoubtedly skews statistics. “In 2000, 36% of the population of New York City was born in countries other than the United States.”

* As we know from our ex-gay examples, being married is not an assumption of heterosexuality or of opposite-sex sexual activity. However, it is very unlikely that a significant percentage of SMSM are ex-gay and we should not assume that ex-gays are in any way reflected in the study.

* The tendency towards a single sexual partner among the SMSM studied may not be reflective of other localities. “This contrasts with findings from a convenience sample of men in Denver, Colorado, who frequented venues for anonymous sex; that study found that married men who reported having sex with men reported more partners per month than gay-identified or bisexually-identified men.”

* We don’t know if these SMSM were having lots of sex with the same guy (a form of monogamous relationship) or just having one encounter with an anonymous stranger. We know little about their spouses and whether they were aware of what was going on.

* We know little about what role these men played sexually or how they perceived themselves within the context of actual sexual action.

What we do know is that self-identifying as non-homosexual may have little correlation with attractions and/or behaviors when in a setting that strongly encourages a “straight” identity.

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