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Vital Statistics - The Gay Men's Sex Survey

From Sigma Research


The Gay Men’s Sex Survey is an annual community-based survey that it also known as Vital Statistics. It has occurred nationally every year since 1997. The aim of the survey is to inform the planning of HIV prevention interventions for men who have sex with men. The objectives are to describe the level and distribution of those HIV transmission risk behaviours and HIV prevention needs of most concern to health promoters in England and Wales.

The survey has a large and diverse group of collaborators who undertake sexual health promotion with gay men and bisexual men. They share an agreement to work within Making it Count, a collaborative planning framework which stresses respect and autonomy of clients. Collaborators who recruit 20 or more men to an annual survey are provided with a Distributor Data Report summarising the responses of the men they recruited. These data reports are not publicly available.

In addition, Local Area Data Reports are compiled, giving counts for key variables among groups of 20 or more men. Separate reports are compiled for residents of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with data reported by region of residence within the country. We also produce 10 reports on English residents, one for each Strategic Health Authority with data reported by Primary Care Trust of residence. The number of PCTs which are reported at this level depends on the overall number and distribution of men recruited. The survey follows an over-lapping planning cycle in which collaborators are provided with feedback from the previous year’s survey at the same time as they are asked for suggestions for the following year’s survey.

The survey emphasises the participation of health promoters and the educational benefit of completion for participants. It prioritises end-user concerns, participation and dissemination of findings to users. Collaborators receive no payment for the recruitment they carry out.

All data is collected anonymously - names or addresses are not required. Our communications with collaborators underlines the need for respondents not to be coerced into taking part and we stress the need to respect respondents' privacy.

Historically, GMSS has used three different methods of recruitment, with all three being used in only two years (2001 and 2002). Since 2003 we have used only two - online and the booklet distributed by collaborators.

Recruitment via booklets
When the questionnaire has been piloted and agreed, it is professionally designed as an A6 booklet with a fold-out pre-gummed back cover so that it is self-sealing and pre-addressed with our Freepost return details. We print 25-30,000 for bulk distribution to collaborators. In any given year 80-100 voluntary-sector agencies distribute the booklet during the course of their regular work with men who have sex with men. Collaborators are encouraged to mark the inside front cover of booklets with an organisational stamp before distributing them.

Respondents complete the booklet, seal it and either return them to the distributor or put it in the post directly to Sigma Research. Collaborators are asked not to receive back booklets that have not been sealed and to never read the completed booklets. Distributors return booklets to Sigma using registered post or couriers. We have used this method every year since 1999, and intend to do so again in 2008.

Recruitment via the internet
When the questionnaire has been piloted and agreed, we use software to compile a web version of the survey and host it. For our specific use, Demographix provides a maximum privacy option that ensures that our automatic data capture does not include internet protocol addresses (TCP/IP) or any other details that could identify the source computer linked to any data.

The internet version has the same content and introductory text as the booklet version and requires the user to complete the questionnaire page-by-page in a similar way. Data is only submitted when the user hits “SUBMIT” at the end of the survey. They can abort their participation at any time without any data being submitted. We advertise the web version via (free) links on community and health-related websites and via paid promotion on gay commercial websites. We have used this method every year since 2001, and intend to do so again in 2008.

Recruitment via Pride-type community events
Every year from 1997 to 2002, we also designed and printed the questionnaire on two-sides of single A4 sheet for completion on a clip-board at Pride-type community events. We then booked stall-space at Pride-type, one-day gay community events and sent teams of trained recruiters to invite men to complete the questionnaire on the spot and return them to sealed ballot boxes. We have not used this method since 2002 and do not intend to use it in 2008.