Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 649–657 | Cite as

Measurement of Sexual Identity in Surveys: Implications for Substance Abuse Research

  • Sean Esteban McCabe
  • Tonda L. Hughes
  • Wendy Bostwick
  • Michele Morales
  • Carol J. Boyd
Original Paper


Researchers are increasingly recognizing the need to include measures of sexual orientation in health studies. However, relatively little attention has been paid to how sexual identity, the cognitive aspect of sexual orientation, is defined and measured. Our study examined the impact of using two separate sexual identity question formats: a three-category question (response options included heterosexual, bisexual, or lesbian/gay), and a similar question with five response options (only lesbian/gay, mostly lesbian/gay, bisexual, mostly heterosexual, only heterosexual). A large probability-based sample of undergraduate university students was surveyed and a randomly selected subsample of participants was asked both sexual identity questions. Approximately one-third of students who identified as bisexual based on the three-category sexual identity measure chose “mostly heterosexual” or “mostly lesbian/gay” on the five-category measure. In addition to comparing sample proportions of lesbian/gay, bisexual, or heterosexual participants based on the two question formats, rates of alcohol and other drug use were also examined among the participants. Substance use outcomes among the sexual minority subgroups differed based on the sexual identity question format used: bisexual participants showed greater risk of substance use in analyses using the three-category measure whereas “mostly heterosexual” participants were at greater risk when data were analyzed using the five-category measure. Study results have important implications for the study of sexual identity, as well as whether and how to recode responses to questions related to sexual identity.


Sexual orientation Sexual identity Substance use College students 



This Student Life Survey was supported by the University of Michigan. The development of this article was supported by research grants DA07267 and DA023055 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, and by a research grant AA013328 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nor the National Institutes of Health. The authors would like to thank MSInteractive for assistance with data collection and Hannah d’Arcy and Brady West for their assistance with data analysis. The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on a previous version of the article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sean Esteban McCabe
    • 1
    • 2
  • Tonda L. Hughes
    • 3
  • Wendy Bostwick
    • 4
  • Michele Morales
    • 2
  • Carol J. Boyd
    • 1
    • 2
    • 5
    • 6
  1. 1.Institute for Research on Women and GenderUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Substance Abuse Research CenterUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.Mental Health and Administrative Nursing, Department of Public HealthUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Public Health and Health Education ProgramsNorthern Illinois UniversityDeKalbUSA
  5. 5.School of NursingUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  6. 6.Women’s StudiesUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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