Two women lie together on a rooftop divan. Photo via pxfuel CC.

The United States has seen substantial change in both public perceptions and legal treatment of same-sex relationships in recent years. Sociologists are interested in how many people have changed their sexual behavior in response to these shifts in social forces. According to a new study, younger people demonstrate more same-sex sexual behavior than older people, with a greater increase for women and black men. 

Emma Mischel, Paula England, Jessie Ford, and Monica L. Caudillo examined data from the General Social Survey, a nationally-representative survey, from 1988-2018. They analyzed whether respondents reported they had same-sex sexual partner since they were 18, as well as whether they reported they had a same-sex partner in the last year. Their main interest was in cohort change, or changes in behavior of people born in a given period. Cohorts involved in this study ranged from those born in 1920 to those born in 2000.

The authors found significant increases in same-sex sexual activity for both men and women in more recent cohorts, but much greater increases for women. They estimate that the probability of a woman having sex with another woman in her life went from approximately 1 in 100 for women born between 1920-1945 to approximately 1 in 5 for women born between 1984 and 2000. The increase for women does not substantially vary across class or race, but it does for men, with lower-class and Black men showing steeper increases in having sex with both women and men. 

Social forces that discourage or punish same-sex behavior have lessened across the board, which may have led to more same-sex sexual behavior. The authors theorize that the lessening of sanctions for same-sex behavior is largely a result of the gender revolution, since same-sex behavior is seen as gender nonconforming. But because the gender revolution shifted the definitions of femininity more than the definition of masculinity, women are more able to deviate from gender norms. In short, heterosexism may have lightened but the change is uneven.