Sexual orientation in Scotland 2017: summary of evidence base

Summary report of statistics and research on sexual orientation in Scotland.

2. About Sexual Orientation Data in the Scottish Government

i. What is Sexual Orientation?

Sexual Orientation is a combination of emotional, romantic, sexual or affectionate attraction or feelings towards another person. It is not just related to sex, but is also about a person's identity. How a person determines their sexual orientation can be based on any combination of the above attractions, feelings or behaviours. It can change over time and a person may not know what their sexual orientation is. However, the Scottish Government recommended survey question is not specifically about sexual behaviour or attraction, although these aspects might relate to the formation of identity. It is also important to note that a person can have a sexual identity without being sexually active.

Reports on sexual orientation will often also include information about transgender people. However, gender identity is outwith the scope of this report. The Scottish Government do not currently have a recommended survey question to collect information about gender identity. The Equality and Human Rights Commission ( EHRC) have carried out some developmental work in this area [1] [2] and the Office for National Statistics ( ONS) and National Records of Scotland ( NRS) are working to test public acceptability around inclusion of this topic in major surveys.

ii. What is Asked in Surveys?

A harmonised question on sexual orientation [3] was introduced in 2011 as one of the Scottish Government's core survey questions. All major Scottish Government household surveys, and UK surveys such as the Annual Population Survey ( APS) and Labour Force Survey ( LFS), use the same question to allow direct comparison of the findings. The question is asked by an interviewer and is:

Which of the following options best describes how you think of yourself?

  • Heterosexual / Straight
  • Gay / Lesbian
  • Bisexual
  • Other

The respondent can also provide a spontaneous 'don't know' or 'refusal'

Results are often presented in a way which compares the 'Heterosexual/ Straight' group to the 'Lesbian', 'Gay', 'Bisexual' and 'Other' groups combined. The number of respondents for each of these groups is normally too small to yield statistically reliable comparisons. So the analysis primarily helps to identify differences in outcomes between the heterosexual and the LGBO group as a whole.

iii. What Data are Available?

There are two main sources of sexual orientation statistics for Scotland:

1. The Scottish Government's most recent data from the Scottish Surveys Core Questions [4] ( SSCQ) is from 2015. This was published on 30 th November 2016 and provides the data from the three main Scottish surveys which ask a question on sexual orientation - the Scottish Household Survey ( SHS) [5] , Scottish Health Survey ( SHeS) [6] and Scottish Crime and Justice Survey ( SCJS) [7] . An identical question is used in each survey to enable a combined output. The SSCQ is a reliable source of data for sexual orientation as the combined numbers of participants allows for a more detailed analysis.

Later in 2017, a multi-year SSCQ dataset will be released, combining the sample across years to provide a larger sample for even more powerful and detailed analysis.

2. The ONS reports on 'Sexual Identity', which is a part of the wider concept of 'Sexual Orientation' (the other parts of sexual orientation are sexual attraction and sexual behavior). Sexual Identity estimates are based on social survey data from the Annual Population Survey ( APS) [8] . The questions collect information on self-perceived sexual identity from the household population aged 16 and over in the UK and provide some comparison figures for Scotland. The Office for National Statistics ( ONS) has published 2015 data on sexual identity in the UK [9] .

The SSCQ provides statistics on sexual orientation from around 21,000 adults each year and can be used to explore topics such as health, qualifications or economic activity. The ONS data can be used to compare Scotland with other parts of the UK and the UK as a whole. The APS dataset used by the ONS sampled around 22,000 adults in Scotland in 2015.

iv. What Research Literature is Available?

Some summary information from key research from recent reports on sexual orientation has also been included in this bulletin, providing more context around the Scotland data presented above. Comment boxes have been added which highlight the implications for the Scotland data. Some reports are Scotland specific, while others focus on a UK wide analysis. The geography which each statistic covers is highlighted to make this clear. Full details on the reports used (including links to the reports) can be found in Annex 1.

The literature presented is a summary and does not provide comprehensive coverage of all issues facing lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Its inclusion is aimed to provide some further context around the statistics - it is not a rigorous review of the available literature or the quality of the studies cited, but rather suggests reports and statistics which may be of interest to policy makers and those who have an interest in LGB needs. The reports cited provide greater detail and other topics which may be of interest.

Please note that much of the literature cited in these sections have been carried out independently of the Scottish Government and the findings do not necessarily represent the views of the Scottish Government or Scottish Ministers.

v. Issues to Consider When Looking at the Data

The figures are likely to under-report the percentage of LGB people within society due to a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Asking about sexual orientation/identity can be seen as intrusive and personal;
  • In a context where some LGB people will not have told friends and family about their sexual identity, there is a real question about whether LGB people generally would want to be open with an interviewer. There could also be significant distrust as to what the interviewer would use this information for;
  • The default option for being uncertain about one's sexual orientation may be to respond 'straight / heterosexual' rather than to say 'don't know / not sure';
  • Particular LGB people are still less likely to be open where they belong to groups or communities where an LGB identity is less acceptable.

Younger adults are more likely to self-identify as LGB in surveys and this can affect like-for-like comparisons with the heterosexual group. This is important particularly in areas such as health, where older people are more likely than younger people to report poorer outcomes. Therefore, where we can, we have included age-standardised comparisons. This accounts for the age differences between the different groups and provides a comparison which is not affected by different age profiles. Technical details on how the Scottish Survey Core Questions calculated age-standardisation can be found in section 11.10 of the 2014 report [10] .

In the sexual orientation literature, the differences in experience between LGB adults compared with other groups (such as heterosexual) are not always clear and comparison figures for heterosexual people are not always available. This is because the surveys do not always use a representative sample from the population and may have only been completed by LGB people. This means that although dissatisfaction may be high and experiences may be negative, it is not possible to say whether heterosexual groups experiences are similar or different and therefore whether the LGB experiences are good or bad in comparison. Even where heterosexual people have responded to the survey, if they have not been chosen using a systematic approach such as random sampling, they may not represent the views of this group as a whole. The Scottish Government and ONS data use robust population sampling and the experiences of the LGB group can be robustly or accurately compared with the heterosexual group.

There is also often little consideration of the differences between the experiences of lesbian compared with gay compared with bisexual people (Hudson-Sharp and Metcalf, 2016). This is true of Scottish data where the LGB numbers are often not large enough to break down into robust smaller groups (forthcoming analysis on multiple years of SSCQ data is intended to fill this evidence gap).

Finally, other studies often include transgender people as part of their study, whereas this report is focusing on sexual orientation only, rather than both sexual orientation ( LGB) and transgender (T). Where the studies have included transgender experiences, the study results are clearly marked in this document as ' LGBT'. The experiences of transgender people tend to be worse than LGB people and therefore may affect the combined statistics. However, these combined statistics should still be adequate to demonstrate the experiences of LGB people.


Email: Jon Hunter

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