February 1, 2014

Teen Prank? An Unlikely Explanation

Recent research is questioning the drastic change in sexual orientation among adolescents . . . and media headlines go wild.

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Some attention has been paid recently to a study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior titled “The Dubious Assessment of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents of Add Health” where the authors, Savin-Williams and Joyner, argue that researchers need to account for a large change in sexual orientation status from wave one to wave four of a longitudinal study, called Add Health, that was conducted many years ago.

The Add Health study found high prevalence of adolescents identifying as bisexual or gay in the first wave of the study, but by the fourth wave of the study, 70% of those gay- or bi-identified adolescents identified as exclusively heterosexual. The main reason this is such an important issue in the research world (and beyond) is the Add Health study has been widely cited in the literature, with large bodies of work based around their findings about the physical, mental, and social health of sexual minority adolescents. If these findings are now deemed dubious, the implications are great.

But what if they aren’t dubious? What if there is another explanation?

Savin-Williams and Joyner proposed three possible explanations for the high prevalence rate and steep decline in sexual minority adolescents from wave one to wave four:

(1) gay adolescents going into the closet during their young adult years; (2) confusion regarding the use and meaning of romantic attraction as a proxy for sexual orientation; and (3) the existence of mischievous adolescents who played a “jokester” role by reporting same-sex attraction when none was present.

The authors concluded that the first explanation could be ruled out, but they found support for the last two explanations.

Naturally, this has all elicited a lot of discussion in the world of sex researchers. One of my colleagues and mentors actually posted a link to the study to her Facebook wall and it attracted a good deal of conversation about the topic, some of which I will relay here. Unfortunately, the media attention this study has received has focused solely on the likelihood that this was a teen prank that duped the researchers of Add Health. This is shortsighted.

Jumping to the conclusion of a teen prank without considering the possibility of male sexual fluidity is missing the point. Research from Diamond’s Lab at University of Utah has clearly demonstrated that sexual orientation changes over time, particularly for young people. And for those who thought fluidity only existed in women, Diamond is presenting a talk titled “I was wrong! Men are pretty darn sexually fluid, too” at an upcoming conference. By skipping over this possibility, the authors are reinforcing norms surrounding male sexuality.

Perhaps the boys did change their sexual orientation over time, but they are now saying they were lying. One of my colleagues thought perhaps this sexual fluidity exists in adolescence in particular, where boys are indiscriminately horny and not as influenced by hegemonic masculinity, and over time their increased experience leads to greater certainty of their orientation. With little relationship experience, and likely no serious relationship experience, why should one be expected to define their orientation and stick to it through to adulthood?

Adolescence is a time when identity is forming at rapid rates, the change from time one to time four in the Add Health study may not be that short of a time span, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, there are some limitations to Savin-Williams and Joyner’s study that should be noted. First, the study equates having romantic attraction to members of the same sex as being “out”. This is simply inaccurate. The authors also state that the expectation is for the inconsistent boys to “score high on gender atypicality, including increased popularity with girls, similar to gay and bisexual men.” This statement is feeding into some stereotypes that are harmful for sexual minority boys who don’t fit these stereotypes; of which there are many.

To conclude, it is unfortunate that the media has focused in on this being a teen prank played on researchers when there are other viable explanations for these findings. It is also unfortunate that the authors of the study did not acknowledge the fluidity of adolescent identity as a possibility here, particularly considering the adolescent identity and sexual identity literature to support it.

Sex researchers have a difficult enough time trying to defend our findings as generalizable (when that is the intent, which is not always) with self-selection bias and lab studies trying make their lab space as much like a natural space as possible. We do not need the media to take a study like this one and create headlines like “Did Lying Teens Trick Sex Researchers?” or “Landmark Sexuality Survey Foiled by Teen Jokes” or “Pranksters Skewed Landmark Gender Study“. The reason we do not need these headlines is not because it makes us look bad (although it does), but is more because that likely isn’t the case at all! It is simply inaccurate.