The findings suggest that many adolescents are nuanced and dynamic in the ways in which they identify and experience their developing sexualities. Results of this study demonstrate that as many as 19% of adolescents fluctuate between and within heterosexual and sexual minority identities and up to 21% of adolescents experience shifts in other- and same-sex attractions. Among those adolescents who shift between heterosexual identities/other-sex attractions and sexual minority identities/same-sex attractions, roughly half report a sexual minority identity/same-sex attractions in late adolescence.

Stewart, et. al. 2019, p. 92

Researchers surveyed 744 teens (54.3% female) recruited from three rural, low-income junior high schools (7th and 8th grade) in the Southeastern US. Surveys were collected annually for 6 years with data for this research coming from years 3-5 of the study. The final sample showed racial diversity (see chart).

In addition to basic demographics and sex assigned at birth, students reported on the following at T1, T2, and T3 (grade 9-12):

  • Self-labeled identity (i.e., heterosexual, gay/lesbian, bisexual, “I am not sure yet,” “I do not use a label,” or other identity specified via write-in response.) Researchers coded responses into 5 groups: Heterosexual, Gay/Lesbian, Bi/Pan/Polysexual, Questioning, and No label/other.
  • Romantic attractions(5-point scale specifically assessing romantic attraction; 1 = 100% attracted to boys; 2 = mostly attracted to boys; 3 = equally attracted to boys and girls; 4 = mostly attracted to girls; 5 = 100% attracted to girls).

At T3 (grade 11/12), students also self-reported on:

  • Lifetime sexual behavior. Behavior (i.e., “kissing,” “sexual touching,” “having sex”) with boys and/or girls. Researchers coded responses into 4 categories: 1) only boys, 2) only girls, 3) boys and girls, and 4) no sexual behavior.

Results

Researchers found “many participants demonstrated fluidity in identity and attraction over the 3 years of data collection” (p. 92).(1)No significant racial/ethnic differences were found. 

Sexual Identity

While the majority of students reported the same sexual identity at each time point in the research (identified as “No Shift”), over 25% of females and 11% of males changed their sexual identity at one time point (identified as “Shift”). Of those who shifted: 

  • 22% shifted within sexual minority labels,
  • 9.75% shifted to sexual minority from heterosexual,
  • 41.77% shifted to heterosexual from a sexual minority.

 

At each point in the 3 years of the survey “up to 20% of girls and 6% of boys reported a sexual minority identity label with concurrent same-sex attraction; the majority of these participants (75% of girls, 67% of boys) also reported same-sex behavior” (p.92).

Sexual Attraction

In looking at romantic attractions, almost 1/3 of girls and just over 10% of boys reported some shift in focus of attraction during the three time periods. One-quarter (25%) shifted within various degrees of same-sex attractions. Of the 75% who shifted between exclusively other-sex attractions and some degree of same-sex attractions, a high percentage (44%) reported exclusively other-sex attractions at T3.

Sexual Behavior

By the time of T3 (11th/12th grade), 89% of girls and 83% of boys reported some level of sexual behavior. Same-sex sexual behavior was not uncommon with girls, even for those who reported heterosexual identity and exclusive attraction to boys. Twenty-six percent (26%) of girls reported sexual behavior with both boys and girls (vs. 1.8% exclusively with girls). Only 5% of boys reported sexual behavior with other boys.

Review

As the authors point out, many of the numbers line up well with other current research looking at these topics. There are a few main issues which need to be considered when interpreting and applying this information.

  1. The sample for this study is a specific population of politically conservative, lower socioeconomic, rural adolescents from the Southeastern US. Although the results are within parameters for some known national averages, the uniqueness of the population may influence the data.
  2. Despite a sample size of 744, because of the number of categories, many of the groups contained small numbers. For example, only one student reported going from Questioning at T1 to gay/lesbian at T3. This severely limits interpretations at a micro level.
  3. While the design was set up to collect subjective self-report (I believe appropriately so), this should be kept in mind when making interpretation.
  4. This data collects information from only three years of what many believe is a long (bumpy) journey of self-discovery. The authors reference one recent study (2)Kaestle, (2019). Sexual orientation trajectories based on sexual attractions, partners, and identity: A longitudinal investigation from adolescence through young adulthood using a US representative sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 56, 811–826. showing identity shifts may continue into the 20s. While executing longitudinal research is difficult, continuing to track trends would be valuable. Until then, it might be safe to assume fluidity continues beyond the parameters of this study.

Despite, or with, these issues, I think there is much that can be learned from this study.

So what? …

Probably lots of “so what’s…” in an article like this. It is interesting that even in a rural, politically conservative area,

  • There is a LOT of flexibility in sexual identity and attraction.

To me, this reinforces the importance of parents and community staying calm when a teenager announces a sexual minority identity or one is discovered/suspected. There is a high chance it may change if we allow the teen to continue to explore differing roles.

  • “At each time point, up to 20% of girls and 6% of boys reported a sexual minority identity label with concurrent same-sex attraction” (p. 92). 

Parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other community leaders need to guard their attitudes and language. Using language that “others” sexual minorities or references them in derogatory ways will likely ostracize up to 20% of teens, possibly with strong negative consequences. It is possible these numbers will be even higher in more liberal or urban communities. Always assume, even in seemingly uniform audiences, there are those identifying as a sexual minority present.

  •  “Our finding that some adolescents displayed discordance in their self-labeled identities, romantic attractions, and sexual behaviors supports calls for researchers to integrate multiple aspects of sexual orientation—and to be mindful not to conflate them—in studies with adolescents.”

This would hold for schools, churches, community groups, and also parents. Just because one variable is apparent does not mean we can assume the classification of the other variables. All too often I work clinically with someone who has had same-sex behavior experiences and believes parents, peers, or others have labeled them as gay/lesbian when they do not believe the label reflected their sexual identity.

Adolescence (and early adulthood) is a chaotic time. I believe these numbers support holding a stance of curiosity, support, and acceptance as we interact with teens and young adults.

What do you think? What implications do you see? Add them to the discussion area below…

Citation

Stewart, J. L., Spivey, L. A., Widman, L., Choukas-Bradley, S., & Prinstein, M. J. (2019). Developmental patterns of sexual identity, romantic attraction, and sexual behavior among adolescents over three years. Journal of Adolescence, 77, 90-97.

See the original article in Journal of Adoescence

Developmental patterns of sexual identity, romantic attraction, and sexual behavior among adolescents over three years

J.L.Stewart, Leigh A.Spivey, LauraWidman, SophiaChoukas-Bradley, Mitchell J.Prinstein

“Results revealed 26% of girls and 11% of boys reported fluidity in identity and 31% of girls and 10% of boys reported fluidity in attractions. At each time point, up to 20% of girls and 6% of boys reported a sexual minority identity label with concurrent same-sex attraction; the majority of these participants also reported same-sex behavior. Among heterosexual-identified participants reporting some degree of same-sex attraction at year 3, approximately 66% of girls and 10% of boys reported same-sex behavior.” (From article Results section)

References   [ + ]

1. No significant racial/ethnic differences were found.
2. Kaestle, (2019). Sexual orientation trajectories based on sexual attractions, partners, and identity: A longitudinal investigation from adolescence through young adulthood using a US representative sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 56, 811–826.