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social sciences

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Market Research  
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In their pathbreaking 1994 work, The Social Organization of Sexuality, Dr. Edward Laumann and his colleagues establish the case for defining homosexuality along three distinct dimensions: identity (how individuals self-label their sexual orientation), same-sex desire, and same-sex behavior.

Many other studies, especially those conducted by professionals in the field of public health and social science, narrowly defined homosexuality in terms of whether an individual engages in same-sex sexual behavior. However, for the purpose of establishing the parameters of the gay and lesbian population in toto, this approach may be inappropriately narrow because it does not take into account the other aspects of sexual orientation that Laumann attempted to capture.

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There are at least two other ways to define a sexual orientation that is other than heterosexual apart from same-sex intimate behavior. One is sexual and emotional attraction to members of the same sex, and the other is self-identification to oneself and to others as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Defining sexual orientation exclusively in terms of behavior does not take into account the fact that individuals may self-identify as gay or lesbian and not be sexually active. Neither does it acknowledge the fact that some individuals engage in same-sex sexual behavior but do not self-identify as gay or lesbian.

In their attempt to capture a national sample, Laumann and his colleagues posed essential questions about same-sex behaviors, partners, identity, appeal, and attraction. Survey subjects were given face-to-face interviews, conducted privately and in confidence; however, for a majority of the subjects, the questions about sexual behavior, desire, and identity were submitted in writing and asked in a self-administered questionnaire only at the very end of the interview. The interviewers, for the most part, never saw the answers because the private questionnaire was placed in an envelope and sealed by the respondent before being handed back.

In terms of same-sex behavior, this study determined that slightly more than 4% of women sampled, and nearly 9% of men sampled, reported that, since puberty, they had had sexual activity of some kind with same-gender partners. For market researchers, of course, more relevant than gauging and investigating sexual behavior is the question of sexual identity and self-awareness. If you wish to speak persuasively to a gay consumer, very often the single most important question to ask is whether the individual self-identifies as gay and what media and market channels are most influential with this individual.

The Enigmatic Nature of Sexual Orientation

Another important dimension of sexual orientation is the fact that, unlike visible racial characteristics or ethnic traits, sexual orientation is not an attribute that can be tracked or detected at birth or at an early age. Moreover, for some individuals, sexual orientation does not appear to be entirely fixed but instead may be a more evolutionary characteristic that challenges our deepest understanding of the roles played by genetics and the environment. Sexual maturity and awareness awakens at different times for different individuals.

Another challenge with tracking individuals based on their sexual orientation has to do with the nature of sexuality itself. Is being gay or lesbian simply being attracted to a member of the same sex? Or is does it require individuals to actually have sexual relations with members of their own sex? Does it include people who only sometimes have sex with members of their own sex?

Laumann's research indicates that the proportion of individuals--whether male or female--who express same-sex attraction or participate in same-sex behaviors is greater than the proportion who are willing to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Research also shows that self-description--i.e., identifying openly as gay, lesbian, or bisexual-- remains a very complex process influenced by innate and environmental aspects. For some, particularly males, the process of identifying as gay, or "coming out," appears to occur now at younger ages than it did in the past, while for other men and women, the process may not unfold until mid-life, if at all.

These observations ought to be qualified in light of the fact that our culture is shifting in a number of seismic ways. In the future, with increased visibility of glbtq individuals and characteristics, the attitudes of children and adults toward homosexuality may well change and that may lead to a greater willingness to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. There is some anecdotal evidence that this shift may already be underway, with adolescent girls and boys identifying as bisexual and lesbian or gay and choosing to attend high school proms as lesbian or gay couples.

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