This study investigated stability and change in self-reported sexual orientation identity over time in youth. We describe gender- and age-related changes in sexual orientation identity from early adolescence through emerging adulthood in 13,840 youth ages 12–25 employing mobility measure M, a measure we modified from its original application for econometrics. Using prospective data from a large, ongoing cohort of U.S. adolescents, we examined mobility in sexual orientation identity in youth with up to four waves of data. Ten percent of males and 20% of females at some point described themselves as a sexual minority, while 2% of both males and females reported ever being “unsure” of their orientation. Two novel findings emerged regarding gender and mobility: (1) Although mobility scores were quite low for the full cohort, females reported significantly higher mobility than did males. (2) As expected, for sexual minorities, mobility scores were appreciably higher than for the full cohort; however, the gender difference appeared to be eliminated, indicating that changing reported sexual orientation identity throughout adolescence occurred at a similar rate in female and male sexual minorities. In addition, we found that, of those who described themselves as “unsure” of their orientation identity at any point, 66% identified as completely heterosexual at other reports and never went on to describe themselves as a sexual minority. Age was positively associated with endorsing a sexual-minority orientation identity. We discuss substantive and methodological implications of our findings for understanding development of sexual orientation identity in young people.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Austin, S. B., Roberts, A. L., Corliss, H. L., & Molnar, B. E. (2008). “Mostly heterosexual” and heterosexual young adult females: Comparisons of sexual violence victimization history and sexual risk indicators in a community-based urban cohort. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 1015–1020.
Austin, S. B., Ziyadeh, N., Fisher, L. B., Kahn, J. A., Colditz, G. A., & Frazier, A. L. (2004). Sexual orientation and tobacco use in a cohort study of US adolescent girls and boys. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158, 317–322.
Austin, S. B., Ziyadeh, N., Kahn, J. A., Camargo, C. A., Colditz, G. A., & Field, A. E. (2004). Sexual orientation, weight concerns, and disordered eating behaviors in adolescent girls and boys. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43, 1115–1123.
Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as a socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 347–374.
Boudon, R. (1973). Mathematical structures of social mobility. Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company.
Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219–235.
Cass, V. C. (1996). Sexual orientation identity formation: A Western phenomenon. In R. P. Cabaj & T. S. Stein (Eds.), Textbook of homosexuality and mental health (pp. 227–251). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
Corliss, H. L., Austin, S. B., Roberts, A. L., & Molnar, B. E. (2009). Sexual risk in “mostly heterosexual” young women: Influence of social support and caregiver mental health. Journal of Women’s Health, 18, 2005–2010.
Diamond, L. M. (2003). Was it a phase? Young women’s relinquishment of lesbian/bisexual indentities over a 5-year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 352–364.
Diamond, L. M. (2007). A dynamical systems approach to the development and expression of female same-sex sexuality. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 2, 142–161.
Diamond, L. M. (2008a). Female bisexuality from adolescence to adulthood: Results from a 10-year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 44, 5–14.
Diamond, L. M. (2008b). Sexual fluidity: Understanding women’s love and desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dickson, N., Paul, C., & Herbison, P. (2003). Same-sex attraction in a birth cohort: Prevalence and persistence in early adulthood. Social Science and Medicine, 56, 1607–1615.
Doyle, J. M., & Kao, G. (2007). Are racial identities of multiracials stable? Changing self-identification among single and multiple race individuals. Social Psychology Quarterly, 70, 405–423.
Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., Ridder, E. M., & Beautrais, A. L. (2005). Sexual orientation and mental health in a birth cohort of young adults. Psychological Medicine, 35, 971–981.
Field, A. E., Camargo, C. A., Taylor, C. B., Berkey, C. S., Frazier, L., Gillman, M. W., et al. (1999). Overweight, weight concerns, and bulimic behaviors among girls and boys. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 38, 754–760.
Floyd, F. J., & Bakeman, R. (2006). Coming-out across the life course: Implications of age and historical context. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 287–296.
Formby, J. P., Smith, W. J., & Zheng, B. (2004). Mobility measurement, transition matrices and statistical inference. Journal of Econometrics, 120, 181–205.
Grov, C., Bimbi, D. S., Nanin, J. E., & Parsons, J. T. (2006). Race, ethnicity, gender, and generational factors associated with the coming-out process among lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Journal of Sex Research, 43, 115–121.
Harris, D. R., & Sim, J. J. (2002). Who is multiracial? Assessing the complexity of lived race. American Sociological Review, 67, 614–627.
Herdt, G., & McClintock, M. (2000). The magical age of 10. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 29, 587.
Hitlin, S., Brown, J. S., & Elder, G. H. (2006). Racial self-categorization in adolescence: Multiracial development and social pathways. Child Development, 77, 1298–1308.
Huenneke, L. F., & Marks, P. L. (1987). Stem dynamics of the shrub Alnus incana ssp. rugosa: Transition matrix models. Ecology, 68, 1234–1242.
Igartua, K., Thombs, B. D., Burgos, G., & Montoro, R. (2009). Concordance and discrepancy in sexual identity, attraction, and behavior among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45, 602–608.
Institute of Medicine. (1999). Lesbian health: Current assessment and directions for the future. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Kinnish, K. K., Strassberg, D. S., & Turner, C. W. (2005). Sex differences in the flexibility of sexual orientation: A multidimensional retrospective assessment. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34, 173–183.
Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C. E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lertzman, K. P. (1995). Forest dynamics, differential mortality and variable recruitment probabilities. Journal of Vegetation Science, 6, 191–204.
Loffler, G., & Posch, P. N. (2007). Credit risk modeling using Excel and VBA. Chichester: Wiley.
Matras, J. (1961). Differential fertility, intergenerational occupational mobility, and change in the occupational distribution: Some elementary interrelationships. Population Studies, 15, 187–197.
Narring, F., Stronski Huwiler, S. M., & Michaud, P.-A. (2003). Prevalence and dimensions of sexual orientation in Swiss adolescents: A cross-sectional survey of 16 to 20-year-old students. Acta Paediatrica, 92, 233.
Parker, S. C., & Rougier, J. (2001). Measuring social mobility as unpredictability. Economica, 68, 63–76.
Peplau, L. A. (2001). Rethinking women’s sexual orientation: An interdisciplinary, relationship-focused approach. Personal Relationships, 8, 1–19.
Peplau, L. A., Spalding, L. R., Conley, T. D., & Veniegas, R. C. (1999). The development of sexual orientation in women. Annual Review of Sex Research, 10, 70–99.
Perrin, E. C. (2002). Sexual orientation in child and adolescent health care. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Remafedi, G., Resnick, M., Blum, R., & Harris, L. (1992). Demography of sexual orientation in adolescents. Pediatrics, 89, 714–721.
Rosario, M., Hunter, J., Maguen, S., Gwadz, M., & Smith, R. (2001). The coming-out process and its adaptational and health-related associations among gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths: Stipulation and exploration of a model. American Journal of Community Psychology, 29, 133–160.
Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E. W., & Hunter, J. (2008). Predicting different patterns of sexual identity development over time among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths: A cluster analytic approach. American Journal of Community Psychology, 42, 266–283.
Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E. W., Hunter, J., & Braun, L. (2006). Sexual identity development among gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths: Consistency and change over time. Journal of Sex Research, 43, 46–58.
Saewyc, E. M., Bauer, G. R., Skay, C. L., Bearinger, L. H., Resnick, M. D., Reis, E., et al. (2004). Measuring sexual orientation in adolescent health surveys: Evaluation of eight school-based surveys. Journal of Adolescent Health, 35(345), e315–e341.
SAS Institute Inc. (2002–2004). SAS 9.1 help and documentation. Cary, NC: SAS Institute Inc.
Savin-Williams, R. C., & Cohen, K. M. (2004). Homoerotic development during childhood and adolescence. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 13, 529–549.
Savin-Williams, R. C., & Ream, G. L. (2007). Prevalence and stability of sexual orientation components during adolescence and young adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 385–394.
Shorrocks, A. (1978). Income inequality and income mobility. Journal of Economic Theory, 19, 376–393.
Thompson, E. M., & Morgan, E. M. (2008). “Mostly straight” young women: Variations in sexual behavior and identity development. Developmental Psychology, 44, 15–21.
Trede, M. (1999). Statistical inference for measures of income mobility. Jahrbucher für Nationalokonomie und Statistik, 218, 473–490.
Troiden, R. R. (1988). Homosexual identity development. Journal of Adolescent Health Care, 9, 105–113.
Troiden, R. R. (1989). The formation of homosexual identities. Journal of Homosexuality, 17, 43–73.
Wichstrøm, L. (2006). Sexual orientation as a risk factor for bulimic symptoms. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 39, 448–453.
Zhao, Y., Montoro, R., Igartua, K., & Thombs, B. D. (2010). Suicidal ideation and attempt among adolescents reporting “unsure” sexual identity or heterosexual identity plus same-sex attraction or behavior: Forgotten groups? Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49, 104–113.
This study was conducted as part of the Sexual Orientation Mobility Project, based at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard School of Public Health. The work was funded by grants HD57368, HD45763, HD49889, DK46834, DK59570, and HL03533 from the National Institutes of Health. S. B. Austin and H. L. Corliss are supported by the Leadership Education in Adolescent Health project, Maternal and Child Health Bureau, HRSA grant 6T71-MC00009-17, and H. L. Corliss is supported by NIDA Career Development Award K01 DA023610. The authors would like to thank Najat J. Ziyadeh, Sarah A. Wylie, Sereno L. Reisner, and the GUTS team of investigators for their contributions to this paper and the thousands of young people across the country participating in the Growing Up Today Study.
About this article
Cite this article
Ott, M.Q., Corliss, H.L., Wypij, D. et al. Stability and Change in Self-Reported Sexual Orientation Identity in Young People: Application of Mobility Metrics. Arch Sex Behav 40, 519–532 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-010-9691-3
- Sexual orientation
- Adolescence mobility metrics