Sexual Diaries Documentation and Files"Between the Sheets"ArticlesDiary Form and encodingSt Antony's Oxford 2009



The Diary Method


Current Research

Current data

References & Bibliography      Contact

Sexual Diaries were developed as a method within Project SIGMA and now have a central place in our research work. We use them to provide unique and detailed  information about gay and bisexual men's sexual activity and the contexts within which it occurs (though the method is equally usable for heterosexual behaviour). Validity and Reliability studies have shown that information is stable and in many ways is more valid than interview/questionnaire data [1999].
The diary method is designed to produce data quite different from ordinary survey or interview methods:
  • The information is much more specific, referring not only to the partner/s involved but also to the day, time and setting in which the sexual activity occurred.

  • The data are much more detailed, giving information on the sequence in which things happened, on the roles (solo/active/passive/mutual)  taken. If ejaculation occurred, its destination (in/on a partner, into a condom) is also noted. Any use of toys, "poppers", drugs etc. are recorded in the context in which they are used.

  • Because Diaries are filled out on a daily basis, recall biases are lessened.

Because the diary method produces such detailed information it requires quite different methods of coding, representation and analysis and poses particular problems of reliability and validity. This part of the research, involving a primarily methodological focus and the writing of special computer software has been funded separately by the Department of Health.

The Sexual Diary and the Inventory of Sexual Behaviour (ISB) used in the WHO and SIGMA interview schedules have an identical structure (ref 1992 below), which makes direct comparison possible of data produced by the two methods and allows tests of consistency to be made.


Diary keepers are asked to keep a diary on a daily basis for the period of a month (though shorter periods are acceptable). Diarists are recruited both as part of the Project SIGMA ongoing samples, and occasionally by large-scale appeals in the gay press for volunteers to keep a month diary. To date there have been appeals in 1986, 1988, and 1992, and 1995.  In addition, diaries have been used in research on Minority Ethnic Groups, Non Gay-identified MSM and Young Gay Men.  Experimental work is in progress extending the method to use in PSE research, in non-literate cultures such as Bangladesh, and in monitoring reactions to new condoms (“Femidom” or “Reality”).


Research using diary data is currently focused upon a number of substantive and methodological topics (references are at the end of this sheet)

  • the effect of age and relationship combinations on the amount of sexual activity [1990a]

  • the definition of reciprocal and power-based sexual sessions [1990b]

  • the structure of sexual activity and its encoding in diaries [1988, 1992]

  • the incidence of sexual role-types (only active/only passive/both active and passive/neither active nor passive) for different sexual behaviours, and the effect on risk behaviour [1993b]

  • subjective and objective effects of alcohol consumption on risky sexual behaviour [1994a]

  • inferring sexual networks from diary data [1995a]

  • analysing high-risk behaviour from diary records [1994b,1995b]

  • investigating the relative validity of diary and questionnaire accounts of the same sexual behaviour [1999]

  • extending use in international studies of MSM (in conjunction with NAZ)

Currently [31 May 2001] the micro-fiche and machine-readable database of sexual diary records consist of information on:
  • 1258 individuals from

  • 25 sites in the UK producing

  • 1975 month-long sexual diaries

  • consisting of 32,142 sexual sessions.

Under funding from the Department of Health, special-purpose software has been written (SDA: Sexual Diary Analysis) to store and analyse these data.  These programs are available to bona fide researchers from Project SIGMA Essex.              

Under funding from ESRC, the hard-copy diary forms have been anonymised, indexed, documented and reduced to micro-fiche form and  are now  archived and lodged in Wellcome Contemporary Medical Archives Centre, Euston Road, London. The diaries are thereby accessible to any bona fide researcher.


1988     (a) `Something sensational ...' The Sexual Diary as tool for mapping detailed sexual behaviour, Sociological Review, 36 (2), 353-367

(b) The Numbers Game: Gay Lifestyles, Epidemiology and Social Science, in P Aggleton and H Homans, eds (1988) Social Aspects of Aids, London: Falmer

1990     (a) Final Report of Project SIGMA to the Department of Health, ch1

(b) Patterns in Homosexual Relations: The Use of the Diary Method, in M Hubert, ed., Sexual Behaviour and Risks of HIV Infection, Brussels: Presse Saint Louis (¶)

1992     The Structure of Sexual Behaviour, Journal of Sexual Research, 29 (1), 61-83 (¶)

1993     (a) Strategies in Eliciting Sensitive Sexual Information: the case of Gay Men, Sociological Review, 41 (3), 537-556 (¶,¡)

 (b)Sex Role Separation in Sexual Diaries of Homosexual Men, Aids, 7 (6), 877-882 (¶,¿)

1994     (a) No Connection Between Alcohol Use and Unsafe Sex Among Gay and Bisexual Men, AIDS 7(1): 115-119 (¶)

(b) Diaries and Sexual Behaviour: The Use of Sexual Diaries As Method and Substance in Researching Gay Men's Response to HIV/Aids (ch 9), M. Boulton, ed Methodological Studies in Aids Research, London: Falmer

1995     (a) Networks and Sex: some social contexts of  Gay Men's Response to HIV/Aids, in  R Parker and  John Gagnon, eds, Conceiving  Sexuality: Approaches to Sex Research in a Postmodern World, London: Routledge

            (b) Risk in Context: the use of sexual diary data to analyse sequences of homosexual risk behaviour, in H tem Brummelhuis and G Herdt, eds Culture and Sexual Risk: Anthropological Perspectives on Aids, Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis

1996     Between the Sheets: Sexual Diaries and Gay Men's Sex in the Era of Aids, London: Cassell

1999     Parallel accounts?  Discrepancies between self-report (diary) and recall (questionnaire) measures of the same sexual behaviour,  Aids Care 11(2) 22-234

2000     How many account for how much?  The concentration of high-risk sexual behaviour among gay men. Journal of Sex Research 37(1), 1-7

A P M Coxon is author of these references, with co-authors indicated as follows:

          P.M. Davies, A.J. Hunt, T.J. McManus, P. Weatherburn, F.C.I. Hickson

¿           N.H. Coxon

¡           C.M. Rees

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