Stability and Change in Self-Reported Sexual Orientation Identity in Young People: Application of Mobility Metrics

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to S. Bryn Austin.

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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

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Keywords

  • Sexual orientation
  • Gay
  • Lesbian
  • Bisexual
  • Adolescence mobility metrics