Discordance between sexual behavior and self-reported sexual identity: a population-based survey of New York City men

Ann Intern Med. 2006 Sep 19;145(6):416-25. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-145-6-200609190-00005.


Background: Persons reporting sexual identity that is discordant with their sexual behavior may engage in riskier sexual behaviors than those with concordant identity and behavior. The former group could play an important role in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Objective: To describe discordance between self-described sexual identity and behavior among men who have sex with men and associations between identity-behavior and risk behaviors.

Design: Cross-sectional, random digit-dialed telephone survey of health status and risk behaviors.

Setting: New York City.

Participants: Population-based sample of 4193 men.

Measurements: Concurrent measures of sexual identity and sexual behaviors, including number and sex of sex partners, condom use during last sexual encounter, and recent testing for HIV infection. Sex partner information was ascertained in a separate section from sexual identity; all participants were asked about the number of male sex partners and then were asked about the number of female sex partners in the past year.

Results: Of New York City men reporting a sexual identity, 12% reported sex with other men. Men who had sex with men exclusively but self-identified as heterosexual were more likely than their gay-identified counterparts to belong to minority racial or ethnic groups, be foreign-born, have lower education and income levels, and be married. These men were more likely than gay-identified men who have sex with men to report having only 1 sexual partner in the previous year. However, they were less likely to have been tested for HIV infection during that time (adjusted prevalence ratio, 0.6 [95% CI, 0.4 to 0.9]) and less likely to have used condoms during their last sexual encounter (adjusted prevalence ratio, 0.5 [CI, 0.3 to 1.0]).

Limitations: The survey did not sample groups that cannot be reached by using residential telephone services.

Conclusions: Many New York City men who have sex with men do not identify as gay. Medical providers cannot rely on patients' self-reported identities to appropriately assess risk for HIV infection and sexually transmitted diseases; they must inquire about behavior. Public health prevention messages should target risky sexual activities rather than a person's sexual identity.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Condoms / statistics & numerical data
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Homosexuality, Male*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk-Taking
  • Sexual Behavior*
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / transmission