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Estimates of Non-Heterosexual Prevalence: The Roles of Anonymity and Privacy in Survey Methodology

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Abstract

When do people feel comfortable enough to provide honest answers to sensitive questions? Focusing specifically on sexual orientation prevalence—a measure that is sensitive to the pressures of heteronormativity—the present study was conducted to examine the variability in U.S. estimates of non-heterosexual identity prevalence and to determine how comfortable people are with answering questions about their sexual orientation when asked through commonly used survey modes. We found that estimates of non-heterosexual prevalence in the U.S. increased as the privacy and anonymity of the survey increased. Utilizing an online questionnaire, we rank-ordered 16 survey modes by asking people to rate their level of comfort with each mode in the context of being asked questions about their sexual orientation. A demographically diverse sample of 652 individuals in the U.S. rated each mode on a scale from −5 (very uncomfortable) to +5 (very comfortable). Modes included anonymous (name not required) and non-anonymous (name required) versions of questions, as well as self-administered and interviewer-administered versions. Subjects reported significantly higher mean comfort levels with anonymous modes than with non-anonymous modes and significantly higher mean comfort levels with self-administered modes than with interviewer-administered modes. Subjects reported the highest mean comfort level with anonymous online surveys and the lowest with non-anonymous personal interviews that included a video recording. Compared with the estimate produced by an online survey with a nationally representative sample, surveys utilizing more intrusive methodologies may have underestimated non-heterosexual prevalence in the U.S. by between 50 and 414%. Implications for public policy are discussed.

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Notes

  1. Note that we have only included estimates from surveys that asked respondents directly about their sexual orientation. Data sources such as the American Community Survey and the US Census, which can be used to estimate sexual orientation preference inferentially, are omitted from our analysis. Such estimates are obtained by comparing data on the sex of the head of a given household, the sex of other members of the household, and the relationship between those other members of the household and the head of the household.

  2. National studies measuring non-heterosexual prevalence conducted in other countries, such as the UK (Dahlgreen & Shakespeare, 2015; Joloza, Evans, O’Brien, & Potter-Collins, 2010), were not included in our study. There is reason to believe, however, survey issues regarding sexual orientation are similar in other countries to the issues we raise in the present paper (e.g., see Burkill et al., 2016; Langhaug, Sherr, & Cowan, 2010).

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Acknowledgements

Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality and at the 2014 annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association. The authors would like to thank Brian W. Ward, Debby Herbenick, Randy Sell, and Tom W. Smith for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Ronald E. Robertson.

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Conflict of interest

All authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Human and Animal Rights

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Additional information

The data and code used in this paper are available at: https://github.com/gitronald/nh-estimates.

Appendix: Questionnaire Content

Appendix: Questionnaire Content

Mode

Questionnaire item

Online

In any setting where Internet access is available to you (on your personal computer at home, a public library computer, etc.), you read questions about your sexual orientation on a computer screen and respond by entering your answer on a keyboard or a touch screen. No interviewer is present, and you are not required to give your name or contact information

Online (name required)

In any setting where Internet access is available to you (on your personal computer at home, a public library computer, etc.), you read questions about your sexual orientation on a computer screen and respond by entering your answer on a keyboard or a touch screen. No interviewer is present, but you are required to give your name and contact information

CASI

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you read questions about your sexual orientation on a computer screen. You respond by entering your answers on a keyboard or touch screen. No interviewer is present, and no one in that setting knows your name

CASI (name required)

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you read questions about your sexual orientation on a computer screen. You respond by entering your answers on a keyboard or touch screen. No interviewer is present, but you gave your name and contact information when you entered the setting

ACASI

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are presented with questions about your sexual orientation on a computer screen as you simultaneously hear an audio recording of the questions through a pair of headphones. You respond by entering your answer on a keyboard or a touch screen. No interviewer is present, and no one in that setting knows your name

ACASI (name required)

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are presented with questions about your sexual orientation on a computer screen as you simultaneously hear an audio recording of the questions through a pair of headphones. You respond by entering your answer on a keyboard or a touch screen. No interviewer is present, but you gave your name and contact information when you entered the setting

SAQ

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you answer questions about your sexual orientation on a piece of paper and return it to the administrator when you are done. You were not required to write your name or contact information on the paper, and no one in that setting knows your name

SAQ (name required)

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you answer questions about your sexual orientation on a piece of paper and return it to the administrator when you are done. You were required to write your name and contact information on the paper

CATI

At home, you are called by an interviewer who says that he or she works for a university or a research organization. You are not asked to provide your name. The caller asks you questions about your sexual orientation and enters your answers into a computer

CATI (name required)

At home, you are called by an interviewer who says that he or she works for a university or a research organization. The caller asks you for your name, and you give it. The caller then asks you questions about your sexual orientation and enters your answers into a computer

CAPI

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are face-to-face with an interviewer whom you don’t know. He or she asks you questions about your sexual orientation and enters your answers into a computer. No one in that setting knows your name

CAPI (name required)

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are face-to-face with an interviewer whom you don’t know. He or she asks you questions about your sexual orientation and enters your answers into a computer. You gave your name and contact information when you entered that setting

CAPI (video recorded)

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are face-to-face with an interviewer whom you don’t know. He or she asks you questions about your sexual orientation and enters your answers into a computer. No one in that setting knows your name, but a video recording is being made of your session

CAPI (name required and video recorded)

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are face-to-face with an interviewer whom you don’t know. He or she asks you questions about your sexual orientation and enters your answers into a computer. You gave your name and contact information as part of the interview, and a video recording is being made of your session

Face-to-face

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are face-to-face with an interviewer whom you don’t know. He or she asks you questions about your sexual orientation and takes notes as you answer. No one in that setting knows your name

Face-to-face (name required)

In a university setting or research facility—somewhere you’ve never been before—you are face-to-face with an interviewer whom you don’t know. He or she asks you questions about your sexual orientation and takes notes as you answer. You gave your name and contact information as part of the interview

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Robertson, R.E., Tran, F.W., Lewark, L.N. et al. Estimates of Non-Heterosexual Prevalence: The Roles of Anonymity and Privacy in Survey Methodology. Arch Sex Behav 47, 1069–1084 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-1044-z

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