Sexualities scholars have long been interested in situations in which a person’s sexual identity and behavior are mismatched—e.g., when a gay or lesbian-identified person remains “closeted” and only dates different-gender partners. We argue that this mismatch represents a useful proxy for applying identity theory’s perceptual control predictions to an important topic in the sexuality literature. Using identity theory, we predict that identity discrepancies implied by sexual identity and behavior mismatches will lead to increased perceived stress, lower levels of self-esteem, and higher levels of depression. Using three waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, we show that sexual-identity behavior inconsistency—our proxy measure of identity discrepancy—is associated with more stress, lower self-esteem, and more depressive symptoms. As identity theory predicts, we find that identity discrepancies are linked to worse mental health outcomes regardless of the direction of the inconsistent behavior. Overall, our findings strongly support the utility of applying identity theory to understand sexual identity processes.
- Mental health
- Social psychology
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We use the term sexual minority to refer to any non-heterosexual identity. Sometimes we use the more specific LGB acronym to refer to lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities.
Following this logic, in a monogamous culture, someone is unlikely to receive feedback that sexual behaviors are consistent with a bisexual sexual identity based on knowledge of a single relationship. A single relationship will likely provide feedback more consistent with a gay or heterosexual identity (depending on the gender of the partner). However, upon observation or multiple relationships, for example, with sometimes men and sometimes women partners, an individual should receive feedback that encourages the person to think that others see the person as having a bisexual identity.
Note stress and self-esteem are not measured in the same wave so we cannot provide a similar estimate for their relationship; however, prior work suggests the association is likely even smaller than those described for the other measures (e.g., Edwards et al., 2010’s results suggest a shared variation of only ≈3.5%).
Add Health also includes a scale for mastery in Wave 4, allowing us to assess the discriminant validity of the stress scale from this related construct. The two scales are correlated at −0.407, suggesting they share only 16% of variation—giving us greater confidence the stress scale is indeed measuring a unique latent construct.
Different items in different combinations were fielded across each wave. For analysis, we code items so that higher values indicate more depressive symptoms.
We use survey weighted proportion estimates for these percentages to account for the overrepresentation of women in Add Health.
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We thank Jan E. Stets, K. Jill Kiecolt, and Ashley V. Reichelmann for their excellent feedback and suggestions on the manuscript. In addition, we thank all the attendees at the 2021 Identity Theory conference for their feedback on this chapter; their suggestions greatly strengthened our contribution. We also thank Alex Montgomery and Gabi Ruderman for their careful reading and helpful suggestions on earlier versions of the manuscript.
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Mize, T.D., Doan, L. (2023). The Mental Health Consequences of Sexual Identity Discrepancies. In: Stets, J.E., Reichelmann, A.V., Kiecolt, K.J. (eds) Advancing Identity Theory, Measurement, and Research. Frontiers in Sociology and Social Research, vol 10. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-32986-9_6
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