Estimates of Non-Heterosexual Prevalence: The Roles of Anonymity and Privacy in Survey Methodology
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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.
KeywordsSexual orientation Prevalence of non-heterosexuality Survey methodology Heteronormativity
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.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
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.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
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