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Studying the data

New research indicates at least five percent of American men are gay

A map of the American landscape of acceptance and rejection of gays, based on an analysis of support for gay-marriage initiatives in 2012. The spectrum shows Mississippi as the least tolerant state. Credit: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There’s a fascinating piece over at The New York Times looking at online data to determine the approximate number of gay men living in the United States. The author, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, uses an huge amount of aggregated data from Facebook, dating sites and porn searches, ultimately making the claim that men from more conservative states are more likely to be in the closet.

It isn’t an earth-shattering declaration: any gay man from a religious family will tell you coming out is an ordeal, and one they’d simply rather avoid. I do, however, think that some of the data Stephens-Davidowitz is using feels rather flawed.

A lot of his numbers come from Facebook data of what sexuality men identify as and Google searches of what kind of porn people are looking for. Nevermind that it’s rather unsettling to know someone can be given that kind of access to information (I think we all know by now that whatever we type into the mystical interwebs ceases to be ours the moment we hit “Enter”), but there’s umbrage to be taken with his correlation of data.

The problem with Stephens-Davidowitz’s extrapolation comes with identification. Looking, and searching, for gay porn doesn’t necessarily mean the person doing the searching will identify as gay. Just as many gay men watch straight porn (there’s even a site that caters to gay men who like straight porn, Straight Guys for Gay Eyes), there are undoubtedly self-identifying straight men who have a passing fancy for watching two dudes going at it. Most big names in gay porn identify as straight men. We also can’t forget the apparent unicorn of sexualities, the bisexual, who goes unaccounted for in Stephens-Davidowitz’s exploration.

There’s a staid discretion of sexuality at play here. The Kinsey scale has always been more accepted when speaking of a woman’s sexuality, which historically has been described as much more fluid than a man’s, but why is it so hard to imagine that model for a man as well? Many gay men will profess an attraction to a woman at some point in their lives, just as I’m sure a straight man would say the same of another man. It seems a man’s sexuality has to be either straight or gay, with no shades in between — and that’s a problem.

It’s part of human nature: we like to label things. It helps us understand and cope with the world around us when we can have clear black-and-white distinctions that make sense to us. I’m not saying gay men should abandon their identity — being gay is who we are, and we have an entire culture to be proud of. But the constant need to identify and label others with something that they might not agree with does no one any favours.