Data collection and publication - sexual orientation: guidance

Guidance for public bodies on the collection of data on sexual orientation.

Additional guidance for interviewers

Instructions and 'prefer not to say'

Instructions should be given at the beginning of the interview/survey saying why all of the questions are being asked, that they are all voluntary and, if a respondent does not wish to answer any of the questions, they do not have to. This ensures all questions are treated the same.

Testing by the ONS has shown that provision of a 'prefer not to say' option results in an increase in non-responses in telephone/face-to-face interviews. As such the recommendation is that this should only be included in online and paper surveys where refusal is not otherwise possible with the caveat that this may increase the rate of non-response to this question.

If a 'prefer not to say' option is added to this question then it should be added to all questions. In interviewer-led surveys clear instruction at the beginning should advise people that they do not have to answer any question that they do not wish to.

Presentation of the question and terminology

The words used in the question stem have been carefully selected and tested to be as acceptable as possible to respondents, to aid understanding of what is being asked, and to provide the most reliable data for users. If the wording is changed then people may not answer or may answer in a different way and comparisons will not be possible.

Like the wording of the question, the categories have been carefully selected and tested. Research has highlighted that people are not always familiar with the terminology used to describe a person's sexual orientation.

A lot of confusion centres around the use of the word 'heterosexual', which is sexual orientation towards persons of the opposite sex. To help increase the understanding of this term, the word 'straight' is used alongside it which is a colloquial term that is more widely understood. It is never acceptable to use the word 'normal' in place of or alongside 'heterosexual'.

The term 'gay' is used to describe someone who is sexually and emotionally attracted to someone of the same sex and is a widely understood term. It is not recommended that the term 'homosexual' is used as it is offensive to many people. The term 'gay' is mostly used by men to describe themselves and is also used by some women, whilst other women refer to themselves as 'lesbian'. As a result, both of these terms should be used together. If detailed information is required on the gender breakdown, this can be achieved by analysing the responses alongside those for the gender question.

The term 'bisexual' is used to describe sexual orientation towards persons of either sex. This term is in common usage.

Not everyone defines themselves in the above listed terms, and so it is important to have an 'other' category so that people do not feel that they are being made to choose a specific category.

If the respondent enquires what is meant by the categories, it should be explained that, for example, heterosexual/straight might mean that a person is attracted to people of the opposite sex, for gay and lesbian this might mean they are attracted to those of same sex and for bisexual they might be attracted to both men and women. Interviewers should not just assume that a respondent is heterosexual/straight if they say 'I'm normal' or 'I'm ordinary'. The interviewer should probe by asking 'so which of the categories would you choose?'.

The level of acceptability attached to any term is subject to change over time. With this in mind, the terminology used with regards to sexual orientation will be continually monitored and, when necessary, categories will be revised.

Research shows that the order the categories appear in does not affect responses to the question, therefore the categories have been ordered in population size to reduce response errors. Research has shown that people tend to read down the list only as far as the first suitable answer and for that reason, the categories are generally listed by population size.

Concealed randomised showcards

The ONS have developed a system that uses concealed randomised showcards[7] in order to be able to ask the question in households where more than one household member is being interviewed at once and still maintain each individual's privacy. This involves providing a showcard with a coversheet (to ensure no other member of the household sees the card) on which the response categories are written alongside a random number, not in sequential order, so that the respondent just reads out the number next to the relevant category. The interviewer then records which showcard was used and the response number. If more than one individual is being interviewed at a time then each individual will receive a different randomised card. It is very important that before the first showcard is handed over to the first respondent that the interviewer makes it clear to all members that each showcard is unique and that all numbers are different to ensure the privacy of each individual.



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