Saturday, July 02, 2011

Why are gay men less promiscuous today than they used to be?

Agnostic suggests that the (gay) AIDS epidemic had the effect of curtailing male homosexual promiscuity. As Pat Buchanan famously wrote, "they have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution."

Using the GSS, Agnostic looks at the number of partners a respondent has had in the last year. He finds that gay male promiscuity has decreased from the the late eighties through today, presumably as the consequences of AIDS became more firmly established in the public consciousness. This line of reasoning appears sound, although it doesn't mesh with my personal experience. Among all the gay people I know or have known, never has one indicated to me (explicitly, perhaps obviously, but not implicitly, either) that the dangers of sexual promiscuity are an inhibiting factor in his actual sexual behavior.

As the question set on sexual behavior only extends back to 1989, the method precludes any self-reported data prior to the 'discovery' of AIDS (initially referred to as "gay-related immune deficiency" in popular culture and "the 4H disease" by the CDC, as Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users were disproportionately afflicted).

However, the GSS offers an alternative route to tracking gay promiscuity prior to and after the onset of AIDS. I looked at the percentage of gay and bisexual men, aged 45-60 at the time of the survey, who had ten or more male partners in the course of their adult lives. I did this for the time periods 1989-1994 and also 2006-2010. For the early nineties cohort, who were romping around well before AIDS hit the scene, 40.4% of gays reported having ten or more male partners. For the contemporary cohort, the figure is 33.6%.

Given the greater acceptance of homosexuality in the popular culture that has occurred over the two decade period, gays should feel less social pressure for restraint, and so promiscuity should have increased in the contemporary cohort. We see, however, that the opposite has taken place. This corroborates Agnostic's claim.

But we've also witnessed a stagnant, and even declining, level of sexual activity across the American population over time. Men and women are not having more sex or seeking out more partners than they did in the past. If anything, they are having less sex and seeking out fewer partners than they used to. Maybe the decline in promiscuity among gay men simply parallels the decline in promiscuity among the heterosexual majority.

Comparatively, consider the same analysis mentioned above, but this time for lesbian and bisexual women, again aged 45-60 during the periods 1989-1994 and 2006-2008. Among members of the early nineties cohort, 22.9% reported having ten or more female partners in the course of their adult lives. For the contemporary cohort, the figure is only 8.9%. So it looks like lesbians, who have nothing to fear from AIDS, have, like gay men, also become less promiscuous over the last couple of decades than they were before.

GSS variables used: NUMMEN, NUMWOMEN, SEX, AGE(45-60), YEAR(1989-1994)(2006-2010)


gwern said...

Could it be due to changes in the gay population?

I am thinking of an explanation that runs like "many gays used to be closeted and have no partners or not be counted in the statistics; with increasing public acceptance, they have come out. The ability to be closeted is due to a generally smaller appetite for much sex and many partners, so as they come out of the closet they will dilute and pull down the average numbers of the gays who could not stand to be closeted and had many partners."

Sid said...

This is just a hunch I have, but I've noticed that gays have become more accepted overtime in America in part because gays have presented themselves as being just like the average American, only that they enjoy relationships with people of their own sex. Gays, when they were outside of the cultural mainstream, might have figured that since they're already scorned by the masses, they may as well just do as they please.

But now that they're accepted not just by women, but also by more and more straight men, they might feel more social pressure to be more monogamous. Again, this is only a hunch.

Saint Louis said...

It might be that the reason for straight Americans having fewer partners now is also because of AIDS.

Sure, AIDS is primarily a disease of sodomites and IV drug users, but a lot of people (myself included) were taught in school and on TV in the early '90s that ANYONE can get AIDS; just look at Magic Johnson.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Open relationships, promiscuity, adultery and frivolous divorce is CELEBRATED in LIBERAL HETEROSEXUAL culture.

Read and you will find TWO MAJOR groups in America:

- Liberal heterosexuals
- Traditional conservative heterosexuals

Whom possesses vast influence and has paved the way for homosexual and transgender acceptance in the culture at large? Liberal Heterosexuals.

If you see "declining promiscuity" it's because there are two groups of gays now:

- The promiscous gays and the non-promiscuous gays.

The non-promiscuous gays generally aren't a part of the LBGT community and tend to reject liberal heterosexual culture.

Don't be under the illusion that the ones whom have normalized homosexuality and transgenderism aren't liberal heterosexuals.

Don't be also under the illusion that there aren't two major groups of gays.

Audacious Epigone said...


So is the decline in self-reported promiscuity among all gays over the last couple of decades a result of non-promiscuous gays coming out of the closet more and reporting what they would've hidden in the past, as gwern suggests?


Better to have gays assimilating to American sexual norms than trailblazing new ones, I suppose!

Saint Louis,

Tangential, but whenever someone asks if I'm "sure" or "positive" about something, I like to retort: "As positive as Magic Johnson".

Shawn said...

I think it's because today gays use websites like manhunt to find and meet sex partners. Because of this they meet one gay at a time.

In the past, gays went to clubs and had anonymous sex with many men, or went to other group events where sex could happen.

By the way, I just caught myself using the word "sex" for sodomy. Sex has generally be defined along the lines of penile to vaginal insertion.

Jason Malloy said...

One thing that I've discovered that hasn't hit the academic journals yet is that male homosexual experience, not just homosexual promiscuity, has (seemingly) dramatically decreased among millennials, even as female homosexuality has sky-rocketed. That is less young men are having any sexual encounters with other men than at any time in the 20th century. There were more gay men around in your grandfather's conservative homophobic youth than there are now at the time of gay weddings and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

I don't attribute this to AIDS, which isn't nearly as scary as it once was due to medical advances (e.g. safe sex isn't increasing among gays), or any sort of "choice," but rather to a biological change in the population. Less men want to do sexual things with men; gayness is going extinct.

NB: The academic literature has been clear for nearly 2 decades that gay men are not unusually promiscuous, and have a similar median number of sex partners as straight men. Although many gay males are completely celibate, and a small minority of gay men are super-promiscuous:

"we found that just 2% of gay people have had 23% of the total reported gay sex, which is pretty crazy"

michelle said...

Jason said,

"Less men want to do sexual things with men; gayness is going extinct."

Now THAT is news. Source, please?

How would you explain this, Jason?

kurt9 said...

Is not the decline of promiscuity, among both heteros and gays, a good thing? It is well-known that crime has decreased as well as teen pregnancy. Drug abuse may have decreased some or remained stable. These are all metrics of social decay. Since all of these metrics seem to be moving in the positive direction, what is the basis for the social conservative argument that our society is "decaying"?

These metrics indicate that human behavior is generally improving, even though the belief in organized religion is declining. If religious belief does not correlate with good behavior, why does a society like ours even need organized religion at all?

The social conservatives are always ranting and raving about how our society is declining. Yet, the only problem I see is the continued growth of government regulation and federal debt. Everything else seems to be fine.

Jason Malloy said...

michelle, my GSS analysis is linked above under "dramatically decreased". I also provide several different kinds of explanations.

Anonymous said...

Jason, you are mixing "will admit to any homosexual experience" with "gay". Not all gays will admit to any homosexual experience, and men who will admit to any homosexual experience aren't always gay. I think the real reason that overall homosexual activity has decreased in the last couple of decades is the almost total end of single-sex schools and colleges. The only place today where males cannot at least pursue sexual relations with females, is prison.

Psychohistorian said...

It seems very likely that increasing social acceptance of homosexuality is behind this. Twenty years ago, gay men would tremendous difficulty publicly maintaining intimate relationships. Given the alternatives of not-that-intimate relationships and celibacy, they went with the non-intimate relationships and slept around a lot. Now that they have more of an ability to form lasting relationships in the open, they choose to do so. Not all, obviously - a gay dude who just wants lots of sex will have a fairly easy time getting it - but as the cost of serious, intimate relationships fell, it makes sense gay men would purchase more, so to speak, and thus less promiscuous sex.

Incidentally, the deadliness of HIV has declined dramatically, which rather mitigates your point. It used to a fairly quick death sentence; it's now much closer to a bad chronic condition. People are hardly eager to get it, but it should make it less of a deterrent than it used to be.