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The Geography of Sexual Orientation: Structural Stigma and Sexual Attraction, Behavior, and Identity Among Men Who Have Sex with Men Across 38 European Countries

Abstract

While the prevalence of sexual identities and behaviors of men who have sex with men (MSM) varies across countries, no study has examined country-level structural stigma toward sexual minorities as a correlate of this variation. Drawing on emerging support for the context-dependent nature of MSM’s open sexual self-identification cross-nationally, we examined country-level structural stigma as a key correlate of the geographic variation in MSM’s sexual attraction, behavior, and identity, and concordance across these factors. Data come from the European MSM Internet Survey, a multi-national dataset containing a multi-component assessment of sexual orientation administered across 38 European countries (N = 174,209). Country-level stigma was assessed using a combination of national laws and policies affecting sexual minorities and a measure of attitudes toward sexual minorities held by the citizens of each country. Results demonstrate that in more stigmatizing countries, MSM were significantly more likely to report bisexual/heterosexual attractions, behaviors, and identities, and significantly less likely to report concordance across these factors, than in less stigmatizing countries. Settlement size moderated associations between country-level structural stigma and odds of bisexual/heterosexual attraction and behavior, such that MSM living in sparsely populated locales within high-structural stigma countries were the most likely to report bisexual or heterosexual behaviors and attractions. While previous research has demonstrated associations between structural stigma and adverse physical and mental health outcomes among sexual minorities, this study was the first to show that structural stigma was also a key correlate not only of sexual orientation identification, but also of MSM’s sexual behavior and even attraction. Findings have implications for understanding the ontology of MSM’s sexuality and suggest that a comprehensive picture of MSM’s sexuality will come from attending to the local contexts surrounding this important segment of the global population.

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Acknowledgments

We begin by thanking all of the men who took part in EMIS 2010. We also thank the more than 235 websites who placed the EMIS banner, and particularly to those who sent individual messages to their users: PlanetRomeo, Manhunt, Qruiser, Qguys, and Gaydar. We also thank all NGOs who promoted the survey. This research was made possible by The EMIS Network. EMIS Associated Partners: DE: GTZ, Robert Koch Institute; ES: Centre de Estudis Epidemiològics sobre les ITS i SIDA de Catalunya (CEEISCat); IT: Regional Centre for Health Promotion Veneto; NL: University College Maastricht; UK: Sigma Research, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. EMIS Collaborating Partners: AT: Aids-Hilfe Wien; BE: Institute of Tropical Medicine, Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis, Ex Aequo, Sensoa, Arc-en-ciel Wallonie; BG: National Centre of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases, Queer Bulgaria Foundation; BY: Vstrecha; CH: Institut universitaire de medicine sociale et préventive, Aids-Hilfe Schweiz; CY: Research Unit in Behaviour & Social Issues; CZ: Charles University (Institute of Sexology), Ceska spolecnost AIDS pomoc; DE: Berlin Social Science Research Center (WZB), Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe; Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA); DK: Statens Serum Institut, Department of Epidemiology, STOP AIDS; ES: National Centre of Epidemiology, stopsida, Ministry of Health, Social Policy and Equality; EE: National Institute for Health Development; FI: University of Tampere (Nursing Science), HIV-saatio/Aids-tukikeskus; FR: Institut de veille sanitaire (InVS), AIDeS, Act Up Paris, Sida Info Service, Le Kiosque, The Warning; GR: Positive Voice; HR: University of Zagreb (Humanities and Social Sciences); HU: Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), Háttér; IE: Gay Men’s Health Service, Health Services Executive; IT: University of Bologna, Arcigay, Instituto Superiore di Sanità; LT: Center for Communicable Diseases and AIDS; LV: The Infectiology Center of Latvia; Mozaika; MD: GenderDoc-M; MK: Equality for Gays and Lesbians (EGAL); NL: schorer; NO: Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services, Norwegian Institute of Public Health; PL: National AIDS Centre, Lambda Warszawa; PT: GAT Portugal, University of Porto (Medical School), Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; RO: PSI Romania RS: Safe Pulse of Youth; RU: PSI Russia, LaSky; SE: Malmö University, Riksforbundet for homosexuellas, bisexuellas och transpersoners rattigheter (RFSL); SI: National Institute of Public Health, Legebitra, ŠKUC-Magnus, DIH; SK: OZ Odyseus; TR: Turkish Public Health Association, KAOS-GL, Istanbul LGBTT, Siyah Pembe Ucgen Izmir; UA: Gay Alliance, Nash Mir, LiGA Nikolaev; UK: City University, London, CHAPS (Terrence Higgins Trust); EU: ILGA-Europe, Aids Action Europe, European AIDS Treatment Group, PlanetRomeo, Manhunt & Manhunt Cares. EMIS Advisory Partners: Executive Agency for Health and Consumers (EAHC), European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), WHO-Europe.

Funding

EMIS was funded by grants from the Executive Agency for Health and Consumers (EU Health Programme 2008–2013); Centre dEstudis Epidemiológics sobre les ITS HIV/SIDA de Catalunya (CEEISCat); Terrence Higgins Trust for the CHAPS partnership; Regione de Veneto; Robert Koch Institute; Maastricht University; German Ministry of Health; Finnish Ministry of Health; Norwegian Institute of Public Health; and the Swedish Board of Health and Welfare. Dr. Hatzenbuehler’s contribution to this analysis was partly funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (K01 DA032558).

Author’s Contributions

The survey was designed and executed by AJS, UM, and PW in association with The EMIS Network (see Acknowledgements). AJS coordinated the study, PW coordinated the survey promotion, and UM initiated the study. Data were prepared and coded by FH and AJS. JP and MH designed the analysis with suggestions from MM and AJS. JP and MH conducted the statistical analyses. The article was drafted by JP and MH and co-authored by all other authors. All authors approved the final article.

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Correspondence to John E. Pachankis.

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Pachankis, J.E., Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Mirandola, M. et al. The Geography of Sexual Orientation: Structural Stigma and Sexual Attraction, Behavior, and Identity Among Men Who Have Sex with Men Across 38 European Countries. Arch Sex Behav 46, 1491–1502 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-016-0819-y

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Keywords

  • Sexual orientation
  • Stigma
  • Minority stress
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Male bisexuality