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More Than 6% of People in the UK Aged 16 and Older Changed Their Reported Sexual Identity Over 6 Years, Researchers Found

One in 15 people aged 16 years and older in the UK changed their reported sexual identity over a 6-year period, according to researchers.

The authors of a study, published in the journal Demographynoted that "sexual identity is fluid", but posed the question, "just how fluid is it?" They also questioned how fluidity varied across demographic groups, and how well mainstream measures fared in capturing that fluidity.

Co-author, and assistant professor, Nicole Denier from the University of Alberta in Canada, highlighted that the 2021 UK Census had started to collect data on people's sexual identity, but sexual identity had been measured in "different ways internationally".

The idea that sexual identity was fluid "is not new", commented Yang Hu, professor of global sociology at Lancaster University, and lead author. However, up till now, relatively little was known about just how fluid it was in the population, and how the fluidity varied across different demographic groups, he pointed out.

Assumptions Challenged

For the study, the researchers analysed data from the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study involving 22,673 individuals who were each observed twice, in 2011–2013 and in 2017–2019.

The researchers discovered that 6.6% of the UK population aged 16 and over – which equated to 1 in 15 – changed their reported sexual identity over that 6-year period.

The findings also "challenged the assumption" that sexual identity mobility declined over the life course. The researchers highlighted that sexual identity mobility was as prevalent among over-65s as it was among young people aged 16–24. "Sexual identity mobility follows a convex pattern over the life course," they said, "with higher mobility rates at the two ends than in the middle of the age spectrum."

The researchers also uncovered that sexual identity mobility was:

  • Higher among young people aged 16–24 (7.9%) and older adults aged 65 and over (7.4%), compared with those aged 25–64 (5.0–6.2%)
  • 10.3% less likely among men (5.7%) than women (6.3%)
  • Three times more likely among non-white ethnic minority individuals (15.5%) than among White people (5.0%)
  • More likely among the less educated
  • More prevalent among those who self-identified as bisexual, had other sexual identities, and preferred not to disclose their identity, compared with those who self-identified as heterosexual, gay, or lesbian

"The relatively high mobility rate among older people is largely driven by their heightened likelihood of moving into a heterosexual identity and forgoing an unwillingness to disclose their sexual identity," explained Professor Hu.

Changes in people's self-reported sexual identity were closely associated with changes in their partnership status and partner's sex, according to the authors. "People who moved into a same-sex relationship were about seven times – 43.3% versus 5.9% – more likely to change their sexual identity to report that they were gay or lesbian than those who had not experienced such relationship changes," they said.

However, "inferring individuals' sexual identity" from their partner's sex substantially underestimated the degree of sexual fluidity compared with people's self-reported sexual identity, emphasised the authors.

"Our research establishes the scale and patterns of sexual identity mobility in the UK," said Professor Hu. However, he cautioned that it did not "explore the complex reasons for the mobility", but did show that changes in individuals' sexual identification were closely associated with changes in their partnership status and partner's sex.

Sexual Identity Fluid Rather Than Fixed

Professor Hu highlighted that "an increasing range of social policies, public health and welfare programmes are rolled out to support equality for and the wellbeing of sexual minority individuals. Our findings show that the sexual minority population is not static, and identities and partnership practices may change over the course of people's lives.

"As the composition of the sexual minority population may shift, policymakers must be attuned to the changing characteristics and needs of the population," he stressed.