“Didn’t you already ask me this?”
Gay and bisexual men are asked to do a lot of surveys, and if you’re in a study like Flux, you’ve probably thought the same thing. Some surveys are from community organisations trying to find out what services are needed or how gay men feel about a particular issue. Some are from health professionals trying to find out if gay men are listening to the right advice. Some are from businesses trying to find out how they can get their hands on the fabled ‘pink dollar.’ Other surveys are created by students trying to complete their studies. And some surveys are crafted by researchers, like the Flux team, who are employed by universities and similar institutions. Sometimes these surveys help educate us about our lives, and sometimes they are used to evaluate our health or the need for resources, but mostly they are for the benefit of the community.
Some issues come up over and over again from the men completing these surveys, so we thought we would answer them through this article.
“Why are you asking so many questions?” It doesn’t matter if it’s a brief 10-minute survey or a one hour interview; this question still comes up a lot. The short answer is “So we are sure we understand what you tell us.” The longer answer is that a survey is different from a poll, which may have been what you were expecting. Increasingly we are bombarded with snap polls or Facebook quizzes… the kind where we just answer one or two questions, make a quick comparison or vote for a simple option. These sorts of polls are often just for entertainment, or used to collect a simple result for marketing purposes, and are almost useless in saying anything really useful because they don’t ask for context. For instance: Is the answer to the question affected by the person’s age? Their gender? Where they live, or how much education they’ve received? If so, the answer is meaningless without that information.
However, the issues we deal with in our community surveys are often quite complex, so we need to know more about you to give us the proper context. If we ask gay men about their sexual health knowledge, does the extent to which they participate in the gay community change their answers? How much do their sexual preferences matter when they make decisions about the kind of sex they have and who with? As you can see, context makes a big difference, and if we’re going to do the research at all, then we have to ask the questions that tell us the whole story. We always try to keep the number of questions down to as few as possible – after all, we don’t want you to give up and drop out!
“Why are you asking the same questions again?” Well sometimes we are, and sometimes we’re not. We often have to ask questions about an issue from more than one angle. For example, if we ask about drug use, the reality is that as gay men we often make very different choices depending on who we are with (a boyfriend, a fuckbuddy, or an anonymous guy in a sauna), or what other activities might be at play in that situation. Drug use can also vary depending on what we know about that person’s attitudes to drugs, their friends’ attitudes, or a range of other factors. If a researcher wants to understand the truth, we have to ask what appears to be virtually the same question several times but each time accounting for a slightly different scenario. So, the questions may seem repetitive, but they are different, and it would be impossible to understand what gay men are doing and WHY they are doing it without asking them that way.
“But you asked me about this last year.” This is another variation of the question above, and the answer is “Yes, we did.” Many studies such as FLUX need to monitor changes among gay men’s lives over a period of time, so we need to ask exactly the same questions each time you participate. If we didn’t, we couldn’t compare those answers over time to see what has changed (and in FLUX, observing those changes is how we’ll find the answers we are looking for). Also, there are some things that have to be asked every time because they’re fundamental to how we all think about the issues and they can actually change over time (e.g. HIV status, relationships, sexuality, and how we think about things like drugs). If we didn’t ask those questions in every survey then we wouldn’t be able to compare the answers in a meaningful way with other information we’ve gathered, or demonstrate that we asked the right questions of the right people for that issue. And we need to account for what else has changed in people’s lives if we are going to meaningfully interpret why their behaviours change. For these reasons, we rely on people like you to do each survey you receive when you’re participating in an ongoing study, such as FLUX.
“But you have to take into account that when I answer this question this way it’s only because of my personal/special/unique situation.” Sometimes someone says this because they’re in a monogamous relationship, or they have an agreement with their partner or they just wanted to try that drug that one time. Sometimes they’re saying that because they’ve made certain choices that apply specifically to them. Whatever the reason, they’re usually saying it because they’re worried about how the answer they gave will be interpreted. Making sure we get that interpretation right is precisely why we have to ask a lot of other questions in each survey so we can account for these sorts of things. Proper, responsible research will never look at the answers on a single question, but at a range of factors and how they affect each other. This is why some of the questions that seem repetitive (like your attitude to drugs or whether or not you’re in a relationship) are asked in each survey you might see… your answers are put into context using those types of questions.
So, how can you be sure the research opportunities you encounter are being conducted responsibly, and in ways that are useful and appropriate for our community? That’s simple: You can check to see who is sponsoring the research, or whether it’s being done in association with a community organisation you recognise and respect.
Too often, research involving gay and bisexual men has been based on simplistic and moralistic beliefs about sex and disease, but the Australian response mostly tends to be reflective of what we’ve known to be the case within our community. How did we get this knowledge? By asking a lot of detailed, consistent, frequent, and issue-related questions in our research, along with demographic and other contextual information that gives us a clear picture we can use to inform our knowledge and action. In short, we get it from doing surveys! Australia uses this approach to better effect than almost any other country. For example, the US emphasis on sexual abstinence and fidelity as an HIV prevention strategy was not taken up here because we knew it didn’t fit with most gay men’s beliefs and wasn’t actually relevant to us. Australian sexual health work among gay men has been of very high quality and has shown proven results. For this to continue to be the case we need to maintain our commitment to the accuracy of the information we collect and see to it that we collect it within our own communities. Most Australian gay men have recognised this and participated generously in our research over three decades. In return, researchers such as the Flux team do our best to ensure that the surveys we conduct are as easy and efficient as possible and that any research we invite you to help us with will always be of direct benefit to the community. Remember: If you have questions about any research project, or about a survey, or what benefit any of this has for us as a whole, just ask! Helping you find answers is what we do best.