The Dubious Assessment of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents of Add Health

Abstract

In this essay, we argue that researchers who base their investigations of nonheterosexuality derived from reports of romantic attractions of adolescent participants from Wave 1 of Add Health must account for their disappearance in future waves of data collection. The high prevalence of Wave 1 youth with either both-sex or same-sex romantic attractions was initially striking and unexpected. Subsequent data from Add Health indicated that this prevalence sharply declined over time such that over 70 % of these Wave 1 adolescents identified as exclusively heterosexual as Wave 4 young adults. Three explanations are proposed to account for the high prevalence rate and the temporal inconsistency: (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. Relying on Add Health data, we dismissed the first explanation as highly unlikely and found support for the other two. Importantly, these “dubious” gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents may have led researchers to erroneously conclude from the data that sexual-minority youth are more problematic than heterosexual youth in terms of physical, mental, and social health.

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Acknowledgments

This Invited Essay was requested by the Editor, who reviewed it and provided feedback to the authors. This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis. The first author received financial support from the American Institute of Bisexuality and the second author received support from the Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University, which has core funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R24HD050959-09).

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Correspondence to Ritch C. Savin-Williams.

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Savin-Williams, R.C., Joyner, K. The Dubious Assessment of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents of Add Health. Arch Sex Behav 43, 413–422 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-013-0219-5

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Keywords

  • Add Health
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gay
  • Lesbian
  • Bisexual
  • Adolescents