What We Ask about When We Ask about Sex: Measuring Non-Heterosexual Behavior and Identity in Survey Research

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 14:15
Location: Elise Richter Saal (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Jamie BUDNICK, University of Michigan, USA
Demographic surveys both illuminate and reflect the social worlds they measure. In particular, scholars have recognized the measurement of identity categories in survey research as a site of political and social contestation and consequence. In this paper, I examine the largest national longitudinal demographic surveys from the United States to illuminate how they measure non-heterosexualities. I analyze when and where questions about non-heterosexuality were introduced, the question wording, and available response options. I contrast these with two large-scale surveys focused explicitly on sexuality that integrate a more social constructionist approach. I find: (1) the construction of sexuality in demographic surveys does not closely align with contemporary theories of sexuality (using language that participants themselves do not use and placing questions along other stigmatized aspects of sexuality); (2) federal funding plays a significant role in setting the research agenda, guiding what questions can be asked; and (3) there are substantial disciplinary divides in questionnaire design and primary outcomes studied, especially between public health (which privileges behavior, asking questions about risk in disadvantaged populations) and sexualities research (which privileges identity, asking questions about pleasure in privileged populations). Demographic surveys have the power to unveil important aspects of difference in the lives of sexual minorities, but they can also reproduce existing inequalities. Given their prominence and privileged position in the world of social science, demographic surveys are an influential place where people’s lived experience are translated into categories of knowledge and governance. They can help us interrogate research methodologies (including design, inclusion, and practice) and understand the role of experts in constructing knowledge. The measurement of nonheterosexualities presents a particular problem for survey research, especially when there is a mobilization against fixed categories and simple dichotomies, and current measurement practices both betray assumptions about sexuality while simultaneously contributing to their reification.