The AIDS epidemic that took the world by surprise brought social scientists across Europe up sharp against the limits of their knowledge and understanding of human sexuality. In most countries, one of the first responses after various studies focusing on gay men was to carry out general population surveys, each with its own priorities and theoretical perspectives, using a variety of data collection methods. Bringing the findings from the various European studies together offers us the opportunity to look at each country against the backdrop of other countries and to explore how differences are related to particularities in socio-cultural contexts and policies. This adds to an understanding of our own national sexual behaviour patterns, but also to a deeper understanding of sexuality in general. While these broader insights can be viewed from various theoretical perspectives, they also enable policy-makers to improve their health policies. Finally, the findings of the cross-national comparisons might be helpful in understanding the differences in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The major outcome of the cross-national comparisons is to have revealed several similarities in the ways sexuality is expressed in different countries. The comparisons also highlight the ways in which sexuality is structured by factors such as gender, personal development, historical aspects, education and place of residence, and people’s relationship status. Of course, the similarities observed between countries do not signify that sexuality is expressed
* We would like to thank the participants in the concluding workshop of the European Union Concerted Action on Sexual Behaviour and Risks of HIV Infection (of which this book is a product), held in Brussels on 16-17 January 1997, for their comments on a first draft of this chapter, and Françoise Dubois-Arber and Michel Bozon for their additional comments.