The Gay Report
January 9, 2006, revised October 15, 2006
When The Gay Report was published in 1979, it was hailed as “the first comprehensive survey of the homosexual community.” Written by English professor and feminist activist Karla Jay and journalist Allan Young, it burst onto the scene at the very height of the sexually-charged Studio-54, pre-AIDS 1970’s, giving a voice to a segment of the gay community which rejected the sexual norms of a disapproving society.
The Gay Report, which presented the results from some 5,400 lesbians and gay men who completed an exhaustive 16-page questionnaire, convincingly and proudly confirmed the uninhibited go-go attitudes of that era. Some of the responses are so startling that this book has become a favorite resource for anti-gay activists. And it’s no wonder, when you consider some of what they are able to glean from its 800 pages:
In The Gay Report, by homosexual researchers Karla Jay and Allen Young, the authors report data showing that 73 percent of homosexuals surveyed had at some time had sex with boys sixteen to nineteen years of age or younger. — Timothy J. Daily, Family Research Council.1
According to the study, 35% of respondents admitted to having had 100 or more different sexual partners throughout their lives… 77% of respondents had taken part in “threesomes” at least once, while 59% had taken part in orgies or group sex. 38% had partaken of sadomasochistic practices at least once and 23% had practiced urination in association with sex. 24% admitted to having been paid for sex… They cite gay respondents as saying that, “Promiscuity is a heterosexual concept used to attack us… If you speak in terms of ‘sexual freedom’ and sharing of sensual experience, it can be a fine thing. I guess it all depends upon motives” — Gregory Rogers2
Evidence also exists in the literature and in gay self-admissions that lesbians exhibit high levels of promiscuity relative to the general female population. Jay and Young’s Gay Report revealed that 38% of lesbians surveyed claimed to have had between 11 and more than 300 sexual partners lifetime. — Tony Marco, founder of Colorado for Family Values3
That’s some pretty heady stuff. In fact, some anti-gay activists have expressed surprise and delight in how useful The Gay Report has been to them:
What might immediately strike one as odd is that Jay and Young are both gay activists… What is somewhat more curious, however, is how potentially damaging to the gay liberation cause is the data presented in the study. Jay and Young apparently have no qualms about publishing admissions from the gay quarter of underage sex, gross promiscuity, disease, suicidal tendencies, and more. — Gregory Rogers4
Other Examples of Casual Survey Results
Anti-gay activists are fond of citing casual surveys like The Gay Report and those published in gay magazines like The Advocate and Genre. But to get a sense of the sort of statistics about straight people that can be gleened from casual surveys, see our parody, The Heterosexual Agenda: Exposing The Myths.
The Gay Report is modeled after many other informal sex surveys which were popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Magazines like Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Playboy often conducted reader surveys, and books like The Hite Report on Male Sexuality were best-sellers, satisfying a voracious demand among curious readers during that anything-goes era. The Gay Report was the result of a similar survey of gays and lesbians.
While these informal surveys were hailed by many for depicting a sexually-active society — they were lauded by some left-wing activists as “proof” that what really went on in the bedrooms (and elsewhere) didn’t conform to the Ozzie-and-Harriet assumptions of conventional thinking — they were also heavily criticized by reputable researchers in the field for suffering from some very serious methodological flaws. The many shortcomings of these informal surveys have become so widely recognized that they are rarely performed anymore, except for those magazines which continune to perform them purely for the sake of titilating entertainment. Their methodological flaws have rendered them largely useless from a statistical standpoint. The Gay Report provides a typical example of these shortcomings.
To prepare for this study, the authors distributed “hundreds of thousands” of 16-page surveys across the country, with an abridged version printed in the adult magazine Blueboy, which is sort of a gay equivalent to Playboy or Penthouse. Out of this massive distribution, they received only 5,400 responses. While that may seem like a sizeable response, it is quite low when you consider the response rate. The authors estimate that 400,000 gay men and 100,000 lesbians saw at least one form of the questionnaire.5 That means the response rate for this survey is barely 1%. A negligible response rate like this would render any survey statistically meaningless.
Of Reponse Rates and Participation Biases
To fully evaluate the merits of any survey, it’s important to keep in mind several factors. For a basic primer, see The Survey Says… What Everyone Should Know About Statistics.
Why was the response rate so low? Many formal surveys involve some sort of enrollment process or, at the very least, some form of personal contact (by telephone, for example), which encourages a higher level of compliance by a broader cross-section of participants. But with informal surveys, there is no enrollment, no personal contact and no follow-up. People who received these questionnaires felt no obligation to complete it. In fact, nearly everyone who received this questionnaire simply threw it away.
With such a low response rate, what can this survey say about the more than 98% who, when confronted with a 16-page questionnaire asking extremely personal and explicit questions about their sexual experiences, declined to answer? Some respondents commented that it took from six hours to three days to complete it,6 which leads to an even more important question: what does it say about the motivation of very few who did make the enormous investment of time and energy to respond?
Most of those who respond to casual surveys like this — especially one as complex as this one — are often highly motivated do so because they feel they have something unusual or interesting to share, a phenomenon known as “participation bias.”7 Research shows that such participants tend to be more sexually experienced, more interested in sexual variety, and less inclined to follow rules or conform to social norms.8 They are more likely to want to share their unusual or “kinky” sexual behavior with a larger audience. Those who choose not to respond tend to be more conservative and less sexually “experienced”.9
These biases appear to be the case here with The Gay Report. The enthusiasm of many of the respondents surprised the authors:
Of course, most of the people who answered the survey were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about it. After all, if the survey totally disgusted them or annoyed them, they could simply tear it up or burn it; no one forced people to answer the questionnaire or to continue working on it once they had begun… Yet we must immodestly admit that the praise was more extensive than we expected.”10
One respondent said, “This is one of the most thorough questionnaires I’ve ever seen. It was a real turn-on.”
But praise among respondents was far from unanimous, and the complaints offer a revealing glimpse into some of the biases in the survey questions. One respondent wrote, “I didn’t like your tendency to overcategorize (that is, restrict your alternatives) and at times I felt that I was being led to a certain answer.” Another who refused to participate complained that “I got the feeling that Part II is not so much a survey as it is an effort to gather pornographic material.”11
These complaints suggest that in addition to the self-selection of “participation bias,” the percieved biases in the questions may have further skewed the results. Research has shown that if there is an implied approval of some of the activities in sexuality surveys, those who have participated in the “approved” activities are much more likely to share their experiences.12 Others, on the other hand, may feel they have nothing to contribute. As one respondent said, “the only problem I had with this questionnaire was the intrinsic assumption of more than one lesbian lover… I kept feeling that maybe I shouldn’t be answering your questionnaire because it assumed so much more experience than I had.”
An additional source of bias comes from how the survey participants were recruited. In this case, there’s no assurance that the survey participants represent a random sample Formal surveys typically employ some sort of sampling technique (for example, random telephone digit dialing, or household selection via census data) that would give everyone an equal chance of being contacted. But in this case, nearly 45% of all responses came from readers of Blueboy. Surveys of magazine readers, at best, reflect the only attitudes of those who read that magazine. And since Blueboy is a gay “adult” magazine, it should come as no surprise that the responses from 2,462 Blueboy readers would skew the results dramatically. With such a huge distortion caused by Blueboy readers, this study would be no more representative of the overal gay population than would a study of Playboy readers represent the overall straight population.
These Blueboy responses were further augmented by unknown responses from other sources which can significantly skew the results even further. The authors note that “employees at all-male movie theaters in Boston and Los Angeles distributed a significant quantity of questionnaires to men who might otherwise never have seen them.”13 Other venues where the questionnaire was distributed include therapy centers, sex shops, adult bookstores, private sex clubs, and porn consumer bulletins. One friend of the author even distrubited questionnaires to men cruising a rest stop outside Holyoke, Mass.
So in the end, this survey suffers from three very serious flaws:
- As an informal survey, the respondents were self-selecting, which encourages those who are more sexually adventurous to participate. A miniscule response rate of little more than 1% exposes the work to the heavy influence of participation bias.
- The respondents who perceived a bias on the part of the authors based on the questionnaires may have participated — or declined to participate — based on whether they believed their answers were what the authors were looking for.
- The respondents who perceive a bias on the part of the authors may have inflated, exaggerated, or otherwise altered their responses in accordance with those perceived biases.
- By relying on readers of a gay porn magazine for a significant bulk of the responses, the authors have virtually guaranteed an exceptionally heavy biased towards the opinions and experiences of those who are much more sexually adventurous. These are hardly your Redbook readers, or even your typical Advocate readers.
Any one of these flaws would cause serious inaccuracies in the survey. Together, these flaws make it statistically worthless.
But just because the statistics are largely useless, it doesn’t mean The Gay Report is without some value. Through the many hundreds of pages of quotes from thousands of respondents over a wide range of topics, it offers a glimpse into the thoughts and opinions of many who lived in the sexually adventurous era of the late 1970’s. On that level, some researchers have found the book somewhat useful, but only as a passing reference.14
The authors recognize at least some of their limitations, saying on page 10 of the book that they “do not claim to have a scientific or representative sample of lesbians and gay men.” Unfortunately, that small disclaimer, dispensed with so early and quickly, is easily overlooked, and anti-gay activists are very eager to overlook it. Since The Gay Report’s publication, this fatally-flawed study has occupied a very important place in the anti-gay arsenal.
1. Dailey, Timothy. “Talking Points: Homosexuality and Child Sexual Abuse.” In Focus 247 (July 8, 2002). Available online at http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=IF02G2.
2. Rogers, Gregory. “Report on ‘The Gay Report’.” Web site of the National Association of Research and Therapy in Homosexuality (NARTH) (July 12, 2005). Available online at http://www.narth.com/docs/reporton.html.
3. Marco, Tony. “Gay ‘Marriage’?” Web site of Leadership U (undated). Available online at http://www.leaderu.com/jhs/marco.html (accessed November 22, 2005).
4. Rogers, Gregory. “Report on ‘The Gay Report’.” Web site of the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) (July 12, 2005). Available online at http://www.narth.com/docs/reporton.html (accessed November 22, 2005).
7. Kenton, K.A.; Johnson, A.M.; McManus, S.; Erens, B. “Measuring sexual behaviour: Methodological challenges in survey research.” Sexually Transmitted Infections 77 (2001): 84-92. Abstract available online at http://sti.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/extract/77/2/84.
8. Bogaert, Anthony F. “Volunteer bias in human sexuality research: Evidence for both sexuality and personality differences in males.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 25, no. 2 (April, 1996): 125-140. Abstract available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=8740519.
Strassberg, Donald S.; Lowe, Kristi. “Volunteer bias in sexuality research.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 24, no. 4 (August, 1995): 369-382. Abstract available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=7661653.
12. Wiederman, M.W.; Weis, D.L.; Allgeier, A.R. “The effect of question preface on response rates to a telephone survey of sexual experience.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 23, no. 2 (April 1994): 203-215.
Ruben, Sam M.; McKenna, Mary K.; Lednar, Wayne M. Letter to the editor: “Comments on the Gay Report on STD.” American Journal of Public Health 72, no. 2 (February, 1982): 214-215.