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Stability and Change in Sexual Orientation Identity Over a 10-Year Period in Adulthood

Abstract

We examined reports of sexual orientation identity stability and change over a 10-year period drawing on data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS I and II) and tested for three patterns: (1) heterosexual stability, (2) female sexual fluidity, and (3) bisexual fluidity. Fifty-four percent of the 2,560 participants were female and the average age was approximately 47 years. At Wave 1, 2,494 (97.42%) reported a heterosexual identity, 32 (1.25%) a homosexual identity, and 34 (1.33%) a bisexual identity and somewhat more than 2% reported a different sexual orientation identity at Wave 2. Although some support for each hypothesis was found, initial sexual orientation identity interacted with gender to predict a more complex pattern. For the sample as a whole, heterosexuality was the most stable identity. For women, bisexuality and homosexuality were equally unstable and significantly less stable than heterosexuality, suggesting that sexual orientation identity fluidity is a pattern that applies more to sexual minority women than heterosexual women. For men, heterosexuality and homosexuality were both relatively stable compared to bisexuality, which stood out as a particularly unstable identity. This pattern of results was consistent with previous findings and helps to address methodological limitations of earlier research by showing the characteristics of a population-based sample of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual identified men and women over time.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Here and throughout the text the term homosexual refers to gay male or lesbian identity since homosexual was the identity term used in the survey from which we drew all of our analyses.

  2. 2.

    To assess the comparability of the final sample used for the present analysis with the characteristics of Wave 1 MIDUS participants not included in the present analyses, the gender, age, and sexual orientation identity of the 2,560 participants included in the present analyses were compared with the 3,591 participants in Wave 1 of the MIDUS (core sample, urban oversample, and first-listed twin of the twin sample) who were not included in the present analyses either due to attrition from Wave 1 to Wave 2 or incomplete sexual orientation identity information at Wave 1 or Wave 2. The sample used for the present analyses had a significantly higher percentage of women (53.51%) compared to Wave 1 participants not included in the analyses (49.31%) (χ2 = 10.45, p < .01), consistent with research analyzing survey response rates by gender (e.g., Eaker, Bergström, Bergström, Adami, & Nyren, 1998; Green, 1996). There was a significantly lower percentage of visible minorities in the analyzed sample (6.89%) compared to those not in the analyses (12.52%) consistent with previous findings regarding survey research response rates (Green, 1996). There were no significant differences found between those included in the analyses and those not in the analyses in terms of age or likelihood of heterosexual identity, homosexual identity, or bisexual identity. Although only 26 participants refused to answer the question about sexual orientation identity at Wave 1 or had missing values for this question, compared to those who reported a sexual orientation identity, those who refused to respond or had missing values were significantly more likely to be male, χ2(1) = 5.83, p < .05, had a visible minority race or ethnicity, χ2(1) = 69.99, p < .001, and had a significantly lower level of education (M = 2.04, SD = 1.06 vs. M = 3.54, SD = 1.64; t(2864) = 4.58, p < .001) but were not significantly different in terms of age.

  3. 3.

    To explore the possibility that the dichotomous race measure concealed a more complex pattern, additional analyses were conducted (not shown) comparing likelihood of sexual orientation identity change for African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and “other” (includes multiracial) groups to white as the reference group, but no statistically significant associations were found.

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Correspondence to Steven E. Mock.

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Mock, S.E., Eibach, R.P. Stability and Change in Sexual Orientation Identity Over a 10-Year Period in Adulthood. Arch Sex Behav 41, 641–648 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-011-9761-1

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Keywords

  • Sexual orientation
  • Sexual identity
  • Heterosexuality
  • Homosexuality
  • Bisexuality