Sexual orientation data harmonised standard

This harmonised standard is under development.

We are currently reviewing the implementation and suitability of this standard to ensure it remains up to date. As part of this, we are keen to hear from sexual orientation data users and producers – if that’s you, please get in touch at harmonisation@statistics.gov.uk. Please also get in touch if you have any questions about this work, or if you require advice on survey questions to use for this topic.

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:17 April 2019
Author:Eliza Swinn
Approver:Catherine Davies
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics
Type:Harmonisation standards and guidance
Contact:

gsshelp@statistics.gov.uk

The following guidance sets out how to collect and report statistics about sexual orientation to ensure statistics about this topic are as comparable as possible across the Government Statistical Service (GSS).

Questions

This section provides guidance on the survey questions to use when collecting information about sexual orientation.

Terminology

The terminology used to label this question has been changed to ‘sexual orientation’ from ‘sexual identity’ to align with terminology used in legislation (Equality Act 2010).

Sexual orientation is an umbrella concept which encompasses sexual identity, attraction and behaviour. The question described within this standard is based on a substantial body of research and is designed to capture self-perceived sexual identity.

An individual could respond differently to questions on either sexual identity, attraction or behaviour. The measurement of sexual identity was identified within the research as the component of sexual orientation most closely related to experiences of disadvantage and discrimination. The question was not designed for specific or detailed studies of sexual behaviour or attraction where a series of more detailed questions and answer categories might be more appropriate.

We advise you to caveat or footnote, acknowledging the points above, any data which are produced using the harmonised question design which is then labelled as sexual orientation.

Question for face-to-face methodology

Interviewer notes

The following question should be asked on face-to face surveys. It should be asked exactly as it is shown here with no alterations. Even small alterations, such as slight amendments to the wording or order of the answer categories, may substantially affect the comparability of the data outputs with those from other sources (especially Office for National Statistics (ONS) benchmark data) and may affect the acceptability of the question to respondents.

The question was extensively tested with many different groups and the wording and order of the answer categories has been specifically designed to maximise response across all groups and should therefore not be altered. The question has been designed to collect data that will be comparable with the data collected on telephone surveys. Changes in mode of data collection may always have an effect on responses and response rates. The design of the question is suitable for all different face-to-face survey scenarios, whether it is only one interview in the household or more.

To ask all respondents aged 16 and over.

The question

Which of the options on this card best describes how you think of yourself?

(Please just read out the number next to the description on the showcard).

The numbers on each card are different for each person:

  1. Heterosexual / Straight
  2. Gay / Lesbian
  3. Bisexual
  4. Other

(Spontaneous: Don’t know or Refusal)

Find out more

Rationale and design of sexual identity questioning on the Integrated Household Survey (IHS) is available on the ONS’ archived webpages.

Sexual identity focus group report is also available on the ONS’ archived webpages.

Question for telephone methodology

Interviewer notes

The following question should be asked on telephone surveys. It should be asked exactly as it is shown here with no alterations. Even small alterations, such as slight amendments to the wording or order of the answer categories, may substantially affect the comparability of the data outputs with those from other sources (especially ONS benchmark data) and may affect the acceptability of the question to respondents.

The question has been designed to be comparable with the data collected on face-to-face surveys and feedback from trials has shown that it is acceptable to respondents. Changes in mode of data collection may always have an effect on responses and response rates.

To be asked to all respondents aged 16 and over.

The question

I will now read out a list of terms people sometimes use to describe how they think of themselves.

  1. Heterosexual or Straight,
  2. Gay or Lesbian,
  3. Bisexual,
  4. Other

(Spontaneous: Don’t know or Refusal)

As I read the list again please say ‘yes’ when you hear the option that best describes how you think of yourself.

Find out more

Rationale and design of sexual identity questioning on the Integrated Household Survey (IHS) is available on the ONS’ archived webpages.

Question for self-completion methodology

Notes

ONS has not tested a question for self-completion surveys. However, many other organisations use these questionnaires as their primary tool for data collection and it is therefore important to have a recommended question which is set out in the box below. It should be asked exactly as it is shown here with no alterations. Even small alterations, such as slight amendments to the wording of the answer categories or their order, may substantially affect the comparability of the data outputs and may affect the acceptability of the question to respondents.

The question has not been fully tested for acceptability and comprehension in the same way as the face-to-face and telephone questions. The change in mode, may have affected both. In particular, the inclusion of a ‘Prefer not to say’ option and the likely increase in missing data will affect overall comparability with other benchmark data collected by telephone or through face-to-face interviews. However, after careful consideration ONS recommends the question for self-completion surveys. It is likely that this question will be comparable with other sources. Furthermore, in the absence of further testing and research, its general similarity to the recommended face-to-face and telephone questions make it the best option in light of the testing that ONS has done on face-to-face and telephone interviewing.

Self-completion questionnaires differ from face-to-face and telephone surveys in a number of ways. In face-to-face surveys and, to a lesser extent, in telephone surveys, the interviewer has some control over the environment in which the survey is administered and the difference in the level of interviewer control over the environment will affect both the results and also how the question should be asked. In particular, interviewers can control:

  • Who is answering the question and check that it is not being answered by proxy
  • That showcards are used (or the correct procedure is used in telephone interviews) and that the respondent will not have to reveal their answer to anyone else in the room
  • That the respondent is asked the question and does not simply skip it because they did not see it or meant to return to it but forgot

A ‘Prefer not to say’ option is included on self-completion paper or web-based questionnaires when it is not explicitly included on face-to-face or telephone questionnaires. In face-to-face and telephone interviews, testing showed that the inclusion of an explicit ‘Prefer not to say’ category increased item non-response. Such a category was therefore not explicitly included but interviewers knew that they could always code ‘Refused’ if the respondent indicated that they did not want to answer the question. On a self-completion questionnaire, the respondent must be given the option to indicate that they do not want to answer the question as there is no interviewer there to code ‘Refused’. However, the inclusion of this additional category is likely to increase non-response and will have an impact on all categories.

To be asked to all respondents aged 16 and over.

The question

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

  1. Heterosexual or Straight,
  2. Gay or Lesbian,
  3. Bisexual,
  4. Other
  5. Prefer not to say

Find out more

Information for researchers

Further information on the Sexual Identity Project

 

Comparability

Outputs that use this standard are comparable with other surveys that also use this standard.

England and Wales Census 2021

The current Census 2021 sexual orientation question is based on the sexual orientation harmonised standard. However, important amendments have been made to the Census version following new research on the topic.

One of the main changes made to the Census version is the addition of “sexual orientation” in the question stem

“Which of the following best describes your sexual orientation?”

Despite this important difference with the sexual orientation harmonised standard, Census recently commissioned research into how the wording of a question asking people’s sexual orientation can affect the response rate and response distribution of the question. Specifically, the research focused on the effect including the term “sexual orientation” in the question stem would have compared with not including the term in the question stem.

The research’s main finding was that including the term “sexual orientation” had no significant difference on either the response rate or the response distribution for the sexual orientation question. This means that both the Census and harmonised versions of the sexual orientation question are broadly comparable.

Extra information

The sexual identity question is a national harmonised standard. It is important that the question is asked in a consistent way on all social surveys, for comparability across different sources. In view of this, a user guide has been developed to assist researchers. The evidence from the various stages of the sexual identity project have been consolidated into one document with the aim of providing guidance to both users of statistics and those organisations collecting data.

Measuring sexual identity: A guide for researchers (PDF, 116KB) was published in May 2009.

Using this question in the Welsh language

This harmonised standard was designed in the English language. At present we do not provide a Welsh language translation, as user demand for this standard is UK wide and Welsh language testing has not been completed to ensure a translation is comparable and appropriate. Harmonised standards based on Census research have been tested in the Welsh language, which is why we are able to provide Welsh versions of them. If you are interested in using a Welsh language version of a harmonised standard that has not been translated, please contact us: gsshelp@statistics.gov.uk.

Inclusive Data Taskforce

In October 2020, the National Statistician established the Inclusive Data Taskforce to improve the UK’s inclusive data holdings in a broad range of areas, including the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act. In September 2021, the Taskforce recommendations were published, some of which specifically refer to harmonised standards. The National Statistician’s response to these recommendations references the publication of a GSS Harmonisation Plan and the review, refinement and updating of harmonised standards. Further information on this work will be made available in due course.

Contact

We are always interested in hearing from users so we can develop our work. If you use or produce statistics based on this topic, get in touch: gsshelp@statistics.gov.uk.

Review frequency:

This page will be reviewed annually.

Updates

Date Changes
12 May 2021

Added information on comparability

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