Measuring sexual orientation

June 6, 2017 | Press Releases & Announcements

Dr. Margaret Wolff

Dr. Margaret Wolff, a graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy (CUNY SPH) DPH program, along with her colleagues current DPH student Christina Ventura-DiPersia, current MPH student Audren Renson, CUNY SPH professor Dr. Christian Grov, examined U.S. data collection efforts surrounding the measurement of sexual orientation. Their findings were published in The Journal of Sex Research.

Although sexual orientation is a complex, multidimensional construct often composed of sexual identity, sexual attraction, and sexual behavior, it is often conceptualized in terms of sexual identity labels alone (e.g., “gay”; “lesbian”; “straight”; “bisexual”). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Healthy People 2020 goals sought to improve health outcomes among sexual minorities; the HHS 2011 data progression plan aimed to advance national sexual orientation data collection efforts.

Following these federal efforts, in this review Dr. Wolff and her research team (a) presented existing sexual orientation constructs; (b) evaluated current HHS sexual orientation data collection efforts; (c) reviewed post-2011 data progression plan research on sexual minority health disparities, drawing on HHS survey data; (d) highlighted the importance of and (e) identified obstacles to multidimensional sexual orientation measurement and analysis; and (f) discussed methods for multidimensional sexual orientation analysis.

The research team observed a lack of consensus on multidimensional methods for analyzing sexual orientation data; that only two national health surveys within HHS-sponsored major data collection systems included questions about sexual identity, behavior, and attraction; and that 57% of reviewed articles on sexual minority health disparities measured sexual orientation in terms of sexual identity alone. In their findings, Dr. Wolff and colleagues discussed methods for multidimensional sexual orientation analysis and proposed a matrix for addressing divergence from mainstream assumptions of how sexual orientation may be defined. Although multidimensional sexual orientation measurement is challenging, it is crucial to elucidating sexual minority–related health disparities, guiding related health policies, and enhancing population-based estimates of sexual minority individuals to steer health care practices.


Wolff M, Wells B, Ventura-DiPersia C, Renson A, Grov C. Measuring Sexual Orientation: A Review and Critique of U.S. Data Collection Efforts and Implications for Health Policy. The Journal of Sex Research. 2016;54(4-5):507-531. doi:10.1080/00224499.2016.1255872.