March 2, 2010

Evidence That Sexual Orientation Is Not Synonymous With Identity

A recent study reveals same-sex sexuality is not uncommon among young people who identify as heterosexual.

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A recent study by social scientists Zhana Vrangalova and Ritch C. Savin-Williams published in the Journal of Sex Research provides more evidence that young adults are more open about exploring and embracing same-sex sexuality, even while identifying as heterosexual.

The Study

The findings of this study are not unlike those of a Swedish study I mentioned in an earlier blog post.  In this case, Vrangalova and Savin-Williams used an online survey to explore the sexual identity, fantasies, behavior, and attitudes of 243 young adults, age 18-33 (with most being in their early 20s).

They found that half of the men and a large majority of women reported either being attracted to the same sex, fantasizing about the same sex, or ever having sex with someone of the same sex.

That is, the majority of women and half of the men in this study reported a heterosexual sexual identity, yet also reported some degree of same-sex sexuality (in fantasy, attraction, and/or behavior).

They also compared the two groups in their religious affiliation, political ideology, and attitudes toward casual sex and non-monogamy: men whose heterosexual identity was consistent with their behavior, fantasies, and attractions (i.e., all different-sex only) were similar to those with some inconsistencies and among women, those with some degree of same-sex sexuality yet a heterosexual identity were significantly more liberal in their political and sexual attitudes.

The Take Away Message

Although we may find it simpler to think our sexual behavior, attractions, fantasies, and identities are all consistent and aligned, the reality of our world is that they are not consistent for many people.

Our sexual identity, that label we embrace to let others know whether we prefer people of the same gender, of different genders, or both (e.g., gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, queer), does not always necessarily reflect who we are attracted to, who we fantasize about, and who we have sex with.

Although some may assume that this is largely the case for heterosexual-identified people who are really lesbian, gay, or bisexual but are in the closet about their true identity, there are bisexual, lesbian, and gay people whose sexual identities do not align with their behavior, attractions, and fantasies.

And, as Dr. Savin-Williams argues in his newest book, The New Gay Teenager, young adults are becoming much more open in and about their sexualities, and many are resisting the pressure to label themselves as one thing or another.  But, of course, even researchers of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s time knew that sexuality is not black and white, but rather much more complex.