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Researchers Document Historical Shift Across 20th Century in Prevalence of Female-Female Sex


Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

(718) 997-5597

Maria Matteo
News Assistant
(718) 997-5593



Flushing, N.Y., Sept. 22, 2005 -- A new study finds a substantial increase in the number of U.S. women reporting female-female sexual contacts between 1988 and 2002 and across the 20th century. This trend was corroborated by a recently released report from the National Center for Health Statistics. However, the new study surveyed adult men and women of all ages--not just those aged 15 to 44, as did the National Center survey.

“Our research documents not only a short-term trend in the 1990s but a historical shift across the 20th century,” says Charles Turner, a professor of applied social research at Queens College (City University of New York) and the CUNY Graduate Center, who led the research team of social scientists, demographers, and statisticians. Collaborating in this study were Drs. James Chromy, Elizabeth Eggleston, Susan Rogers, and Ms. Maria Villarroel of the Statistics and Epidemiology Division of RTI International.

A total of 9,487 adult males and 12,336 adult females were interviewed in face-to-face surveys, which were conducted as part of the National Data Program for the Social Sciences’ General Social Survey. All reports of sexual behaviors were obtained using paper self-administered questionnaires so respondents did not have to reveal their answers to interviewers.

Their study finds that for U.S. women of all ages, the percentage reporting a female sexual partner in the previous year increased from 1 percent in the period 1988 to 1994 to almost 3 percent in 1996-2002. The increase was most dramatic among young women. The percent of U.S. women ages 18 to 29 who reported having a female sexual partner in the preceding year rose from 4.8% to 8.0%.

The study found that this increase continued a long-term trend of increased reporting of female-female sexual contact across 20th-century birth cohorts. The percent of American women reporting female-female sexual contact during their lifetime rose from 1.6% for women born prior to 1920 to 6.9% for women born after 1970. No parallel trend was observed in reporting of lifetime male-male sexual contacts. The percent of U.S. men reporting male-male sexual contacts fluctuated in the range of 3.5% to 5.5% with no statistically significant trend over time.

These findings are complemented by a dramatic increase in tolerance of same-gender sex across 20th-century birth cohorts. Among women, the percentage saying same-gender sex is "not wrong at all" rose from 5.6% for women born before 1920 to 45.2% for women born after 1970. Men show a similar pattern of increased tolerance during this period from 7.5% to 32.0%. However, the level of tolerance expressed by men in the post-1970 birth cohort is lower than that expressed by women (32% vs. 45%).

Discussing the study’s findings, Dr. Turner said that "when we first attempted to estimate the prevalence of male-male sex in the U.S. (Science, January 20, 1989), we noted that changes over time in societal tolerance can be expected to affect both the prevalence of same-gender sexual behaviors and survey respondents’ willingness to report these behaviors."

Their new study includes both male-male and female-female sexual contact and employs statistical procedures to adjust for the impact of changes in societal tolerance. These adjustments did not erase the trend of increased reporting of adult female-female sexual contact across the 20th century. With or without adjustment, no trend was found for reporting of male-male contact.

A report of this study is available online at the Oxford University Press Web site:

A print version of this report is now available in the peer-reviewed survey research journal, Public Opinion Quarterly.


 Office Information

Deputy Director of News Services
(Position vacant)

(718) 997- 5597

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services
Queens Hall, Room 270B
(718) 997-5593

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