Scientists Find Lesbians, Bisexuals On the Telephone

Hello, sociology nerds and friends! Remember last time we hung out and talked about the trouble with counting the gays? Well, I’m here to report that Meyer, Rossano, Ellis, and Bradford have come up with a better way to locate queer women. In their study, helpfully titled “A Brief Telephone Interview to Identify Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Random Digit Dialing Sampling,” the four researchers found lesbian, bisexual, and otherwise-inclined ladies in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston and managed to debunk a few stereotypes along the way.

Motivated by the highly biased nature of non-probability samples that are often chosen in LGBT studies, they went looking for a different way to find gay ladies. The problem with studying minority groups, especially invisible minorities, is that finding respondents isn’t as easy as stopping people at the grocery. That, in combination with a belief that women are more private about sexuality, means that researchers often look to service or activist groups to recruit participants. As a result, studies of gay women often overrepresent respondents who are white, between 25 and 40, and highly educated. This prompted the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Lesbian Health Research Priorities to look for “more sophisticated methodologies” for finding participants. Without a girly grindr to aid in their search, Meyer et al. started making phone calls to see just how many lesbians they could find.

One of the most impressive parts of their survey tackles a problem that gay-counters have gotten wrong for decades. Rather than rely solely on behavior, attraction, or identity, they asked about all three and created a beautifully simple venn diagram to look closer as the intersections between these three dimensions of sexuality.

Of the 68 women answered yes to any of the three questions, only 37% answered affirmatively to all of them, which shows just how much data is missing from studies that focus on only one aspect.

The study also asked questions about health status, participation in the LGBT community, internalized homophobia, and attitudes about sex-related issues. Like the traditional studies that tended to include mostly highly-educated gay women, the women who self-identified as lesbian or bisexual in this survey were more educated and younger than their straight counterparts. They were also more likely to be unemployed. Although they don’t remark on employment status, the researchers do suggest that this could be because “more educated and younger women are less reluctant to disclose same-sex orientation and non-heterosexual sexuality is structured differently among less educated women.”

There was no notable difference in race between straight and LGB respondents. And though physical health was the same between the two groups, LGB women scored lower on mental health scales than straight women. Overall, 33% of the 202 women surveyed reported attraction toward other women, 20% reported sex with women, and 14% identified as lesbian. What this means is a) I’m moving to Jamaica Plain and b) the researchers saved a ton of money by finding 68 queer-ish women in less than 20 hours.

Finally, the study helped prove that women are not the delicate little prudes that were are sometimes believed to be. Only 3% of respondents avoided sexual questions and none called the number provided by the researchers to complain about the questions. While it might be easy write off the results as being indicative of a liberal neighborhood, the questions about sexuality show a clear line between straight and gay women, with straight women answering much more conservatively. Nearly half of the lesbian and bisexual respondents were not completely out to their coworkers and family members, which further points to the conclusion that their area is not necessarily a magical bubble of acceptance. LBG and straight women may not share the same values about sexuality, but we’re all pretty willing to tell strangers on the telephone how we feel.

UPDATE: Thanks to the eagle eyes of alfacinha, we now know that this study is 10 years old. So why was it featured on a blog post from yesterday? Well the blog, NCBI ROFL, is a comedy blog that highlights studies with funny topics. Is the idea of calling women and asking if they’re lesbians funny? You bet. But it’s also relevant! If studies ten years were doing it right, why are researchers still asking all the wrong questions? I’ve got tiny thoughts about tunnel vision in academia and funding, but I’m all ears to those of you who know more about the world of social sciences past undergrad.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.


  1. as a self-identified lady-attracted-to-ladies who also acts on this attraction while living in boston and considering moving to JP in the fall, i would say this sounds both accurate and encouraging!

    • welcome to JP! or as some like to call it, Gay-P. it’s awesome here. you will love it and never want to leave. Queeraoke on Thursdays!

  2. If I understood the Venn diagram correctly, I am really confused by the 1% who identify as LGB and have sex with women but aren’t sexually attracted to them.
    Interesting study though, I always love to hear statistics about us!

    • I like Bhan’s theory. The only other explanation I can think of is that maybe some women ID as queer and sleep with women for “purely political” reasons? I know that a small subset of 2nd Wave feminists stated that they became lesbians in order to fight the patriarchy.

    • 1% of 68 isn’t even a whole person. Maybe there’s rounding involved, but just one person out of 68 in one study could also mean 1 person accidentally pushed the wrong button. Not enough info.

      • No, no, it is like those 2.5 kids you hear about. This was one of the .5 kids who grew up (or .68, I guess). :p

  3. Even as a self-identified delicate little prude, I liked this post (and the venn diagram within it). It inspired me to do some random dialing of my own, just to see how the smooth opening line “Hello? … Hi! Are you a lesbian?” works out for me. I predict multiple prudish love affairs, a death, and inspiring, lifelong friendships.

  4. I thought it was totally fascinating, especially the 0% figure, until I realized how tiny the sample size was. It’s a very interesting methodology and I think it could be very telling, but first it needs to be applied to a serious demographic sample, like maybe a minimum of a thousand women, preferably from various places.

    It’s a shame that wasn’t carried through. Five of the seven categories get totally neglected in research, or even casual conversation.

  5. I love the hopeful tone of this post, but yeah. Sounds like a gayborhood bubble. Random dialing Queer folks in my hometown of Lima, Ohio, for example, would prolly- hopefully!- illuminate bits about the complex ways that people experience and act on same sex attraction in Northwestern Ohio (Glee really is fictional, sadly), ways that would be hard to generalize to places like JP, for example, or, y’know, wherever those Real L Word people are from.

Comments are closed.