In the continuing of debate over sexual orientation being innate or socially constructed, a new study says it’s a combination of both. Results from nearly 10,000 adolescents and young adults in Waves I, III, and IV of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) survey, reveals that “social context and romantic experience might influence how [people] perceive and label their sexual identity.”
Add Health and Sexual Orientation
The current study compares Add Health data from Waves I (1994-1995), III (2001-2002), and IV (2007-2008). Participants were 16, 22, and 28 respectively. To classify their sexual orientation, they had five options:
- 100% heterosexual
- Mostly heterosexual
- Mostly homosexual
- 100% homosexual
Participants also answered whether they experience same-sex attraction or had participated in sexual activity with someone of the same sex.
Women reported being more sexually flexible.
The study provides additional evidence that women are more flexible when it comes to both their sexual preferences and their orientation. This adds to a body of existing research including eye tracker studies showing women respond to a larger variety of sexual stimuli than men. In addition to being less likely than men to report being totally straight or totally gay, women were also more likely to change their reported sexual orientation as they got older, specifically between Waves III and IV of the study.
Where the results get interesting, and controversial, is when the researchers look at correlations between participants’ reported orientation and their attractiveness, education level, and parenthood status. They found that physically attractive, well-educated women were more likely to report being totally straight as were those who didn’t have children young in life. The study’s lead author notes that these women’s social position could have “facilitated a hetero-conformist identity and thus discouraged alternative sexual identities” (Source). In other words, they had more romantic opportunities with male partners so they went along with it rather than explore any same-sex attraction they might have.
Since attractiveness was rated by the study’s interviewers, it’s also possible that since these women followed conventional beauty norms they also were more likely to conform to other societal conventions, including identifying as straight.
What about male bisexuality?
Well-educated men were less likely to identify as 100% straight while young fathers likelier to say they were. It would have been interesting to run some additional statistics on whether this latter statistic changed depending on the gender of their child. For example, perhaps fathers of boys felt they needed to model conventional masculinity more so than fathers of girls.
As for men’s physical attractiveness, it didn’t correlate with sexual orientation at all.
When talking about men, it’s important to mention the sexual double standard that exists around same-sex sexual activity. It’s long been acceptable for women to flirt, kiss, and be sexual with other women without this necessarily reflecting on their sexual orientation. Men, however, have never been afforded this luxury. Given the presence of response bias in survey studies like Add Health, I can’t help but wonder how much of these participants’ answers reflect this unequal acceptability towards bisexuality. Though as a field, we use the term “men who have sex with me” this does not always reflect the social pressures men feel to be either straight or gay.
Femme Invisibility Lives On
The study also adds evidence to the existence of Femme Invisibility, where people assume that women who dress in a traditionally feminine way must be straight. In this case, it argues that such women are more likely to report being totally straight. Is this a result of her environment? Her romantic opportunities? Rejection from the lesbian community? A combination of the above? The study’s lead author provides one possible explanation:
‘Women who are initially successful in partnering with men, as is more traditionally expected, may never explore their attraction to other women. However, women with the same sexual attractions, but less favorable heterosexual options might have greater opportunity to experiment with same-sex partners.'” Source
Changing Politics & Policy
Lastly, the study doesn’t take into account the evolving political landscape and overall acceptance of same-sex relationships. Both policy and and public opinion has changed drastically since the mid-1990s. Perhaps some of the variation relates to the fact that it’s more ok to admit being less straight, more gay, or somewhere in between now than in the 10 years ago.
Sexual Orientation and Race
Despite it’s many limitations, the study adds another layer of nuance to our conversations around sexual attraction and orientation. The lead author compares orientation to race: mostly innate but at least partially socially constructed. Therefore, environment likely influences whether someone acts on their sexual attractions to someone of their same gender. It doesn’t however, mean sexual orientation is a choice:
“I do not think that women are strategically selecting an advantageous sexual identity or that they can ‘choose’ whether they find men, women, or both sexually attractive. Rather, social context and romantic experience might influence how they perceive and label their sexual identity.” Source
Other Sexual Health News This Week
NYSP To Create Sexual Assault Victims Unit (WGRZ.com)
Baylor Teen Health Clinic Offers Teens Sexual Health Resources App (mobihealthnews)
What a New App Says About Sex Education in Philadelphia (Philly Voice)