Sex in a box

How much should your mortgage company know about you?

Sex in a box
By John Ryle  •  9 February 1996  •  City of Words  •  The Guardian  •  Revised  •  Posted 2016  •  726 words

Answer the following questions, ticking the appropriate boxes.

1. In which of the following sexual groups would you place yourself—heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual?

  1. Are you now, or have you ever been a sexual partner of a homosexual? Bisexual? Haemophiliac? Intravenous Drug User? Or anyone whose normal place of residence is, or was outside the UK? If “Yes” please give full details. Please state nationality of sexual partners…

The questions are from the application form that the insurance company Friends Provident require all single, male clients to complete before their application for life assurance can be considered. And if you’re not prepared to answer them, you can say goodbye to your endowment mortgage.

If your answer to anything in the second question is in the affirmative, you are required to provide full details, disclosing what are termed “all material facts”. And should you be in any doubt whether a particular fact is material, you must disclose it anyway, as failure to do so may, in the underwriter’s sepulchral phrase, invalidate a future claim. The answers you give to the questions in this lifestyle questionnaire (as it is called) are binding; they constitute what lawyers term a contract of “utmost good faith”.

Among other things it seems that you are required to tell them everything about your sex life, including any holiday fling you’ve ever had. Then, after due consideration, they’ll let you know whether or not they’ll consider having you as a customer. (Don’t imagine that you can walk away and go to another insurance company: almost all of them require something similar.)

There was a time when people went to Confession to save their souls. These days, though, in the Church of the Latter-Day Underwriter, it’s to get a loan.

The church of the latter-day underwriter

Well, we know what they’re getting at. They would like to know if you are going to die of an AIDS-related disease with your mortgage not yet paid off. In such an event, instead of going to the trouble of repossessing your house, they would find it more convenient to be indemnified against any loss. Enter the actuaries with their mortality tables, their risk-calculus software, and their intrusive questions.

But do Friends Provident really want a blow-by-blow account of your liaison with a ski-instructor on that winter holiday in Transylvania? Judging by the size of the box provided for your answer on the form—only about one-inch square—it seems they don’t. What they are looking for is keywords: any mention of countries or cohorts with a high incidence of HIV infection. Once their risk antennae pick up, say, the Transylvanian connection, institutional haemophobia will put you in the high-risk category. As it will if you answer yes to almost any other question on the form.

What will happen then? There will be a request to submit to an HIV test. Or a demand for a higher premium. Or your application may be turned down. And should you somehow omit to mention Transylvania on your form—the word is almost too long to fit in the box—you could find that by not disclosing this “material fact” you have invalidated any future claim on the policy you buy.

Friends Provident, as it happens, is a pioneer in the field of ethical investment. Leaving the wider ethical issues aside, then, let’s apply the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. And let’s put some questions to the people who devised the questionnaire. Why, for example, are they so much more worried about AIDS than any other risk? And why does their questionnaire ask applicants to say if they have been a sexual partner of a bisexual, but not whether the person in question was male or female? The statistical implications for exposure to HIV in each case are quite different.

And would the underwriters themselves be willing to fill out such a questionnaire? Including full details of the fling they had with that Irish guy from the Post Room on the works outing to Calais (France and the Republic of Ireland both being outside the UK). And not omitting any Transylvanian ski-instructors, or chalet-girls or chalet-boys they may have been more closely acquainted with. All material facts must be included. Underwriters may have more exciting lives than we think. ★