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Heterosexual Identification and Same-Sex Partnering: Prevalence and Attitudinal Characteristics in the USA

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This paper used the 2011–2017 National Survey of Family Growth to estimate population sizes and attitudinal characteristics of heterosexual-identified men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW) aged 15–44 years. Analyses estimated population sizes in stages: after excluding respondents who reported only one lifetime same-sex partner, which happened before the age of 15; after excluding males who reported nonconsensual male–male sex; after excluding respondents who reported only one lifetime same-sex partner, regardless of the age at which that experience occurred; after excluding respondents who reported only two lifetime same-sex partners, the first of which occurred before age 15; and after excluding males who reported male–male sex work. The broadest criteria included many individuals with limited same-sex sexual histories or those who experienced nonconsensual sex or potentially coerced sex in youth. After excluding those respondents, analyses showed that heterosexual-identified MSM and WSW had a diversity of attitudes about gender and LGB rights; only a distinct minority were overtly homophobic and conservative. Researchers should carefully consider whether to include respondents who report unwanted sexual contact or sex at very young ages when they analyze sexual identity–behavior discordance or define sexual minority populations on the basis of behavior.

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Availability of Data

All NSFG data are publicly available.

Code Availability

Stata code is available upon request.


  1. Although the 2015–2017 NSFG included respondents aged 45–49, weight recalibration procedures necessitated dropping them when combining data releases.

  2. The NSFG asked how old respondents were when they first had a same-sex partner, but not how old respondents were after the first.

  3. In technical documentation, the NSFG did not report why the survey asked the question about nonconsensual same-sex sex to males but not females.

  4. The NSFG did not ask males how many times they experienced same-sex sexual assault. Thus, it is not possible to know whether a male experienced both consensual and nonconsensual male–male sex.

  5. Females were asked about military service only in 2015–2017. Only males were asked about history of incarceration. Consequently, neither variable could be analyzed for females for the 2011–2017 combined file.

  6. An additional question about same-sex parenting was asked in 2011–2015, but it was removed for 2015–2017.

  7. The wording for this item changed slightly in 2015–2017: The word “young” was deleted such that the question read, “It is okay for an unmarried woman to have and raise a child.” Most attitudinal variables females answered in 2011–2015 were removed for 2015–2017. The only other question about motherhood all females answered was one about how they would feel if they did not have another child, which is not instructive to analyze because many females had already had all of the children they wanted.

  8. Of the 1,750 females and 307 males who identified as heterosexual and reported at least one same-sex partner, 13 females and 3 males were missing data on the variable about age of first same-sex partner. These respondents were not dropped from analysis; they were treated according to their valid data on same-sex partnering. For instance, respondents with missing data on the age of their first same-sex partner were excluded as appropriate based on their number of lifetime same-sex partners (e.g., respondents who reported only one same-sex partner were excluded at the fourth step in Table 1).

    Table 1 Estimated population sizes and prevalence of heterosexual-identified MSM and WSW aged 15–44 after implementing different exclusion criteria
  9. Age 15 was chosen as the cutoff because that was the youngest age at which the NSFG surveyed respondents, and because it is fairly common for teenagers this age to engage in consensual sexual activity with peers (Martinez & Abma, 2020).

  10. For instance, the General Social Survey (GSS) asks only about the sex(es) of sexual partners since age 18. US federal surveys which query about same-sex sexual behavior include the NSFG, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) (Wolff et al., 2017). NHANES contains many questions about sexual behavior but does not ask about nonconsensual sex or sex work. YRBSS asks only about the sex(es) of sexual partners. The NSFG is the most comprehensive nationally representative survey available in the USA that allows researchers to estimate population sizes of heterosexuals from youth to midlife who have had same-sex contact under a range of circumstances.


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The author did not receive support from any organization for the submitted work. The author has no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose.

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Tony Silva was responsible for all data analysis and manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Tony Silva.

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Ethics approval was not necessary for this paper because it used de-identified data made publicly available through the NSFG website.

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The NSFG obtained informed consent from all participants.

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Silva, T. Heterosexual Identification and Same-Sex Partnering: Prevalence and Attitudinal Characteristics in the USA. Arch Sex Behav 51, 2231–2239 (2022).

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