The Sexual Identity Spectrum: Study Shows Sexuality Goes Beyond ‘Straight,’ ‘Gay,’ ‘Bisexual’

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Human sexuality has grown decreasingly black and white in recent years, and new research sheds light on just how complicated it can be for some individuals. A study out of Virginia Tech University finds that the traditional labels “gay,” “bisexual,” and “straight” aren’t representative of all people and don’t represent the full range of human sexuality.

Further, the study showed that whether an individual is attracted to the same sex, opposite sex, or both, can change over time.

The study, authored by Christine Kaestle, a professor of developmental health, analyzed surveys completed by 12,000 students who took part in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. Students were tracked from the ages of 16 to 18 through their early thirties. Participants were routinely asked through the years about which gender/s they were attracted to, the gender of their romantic partners, and whether they identified as straight, gay, or bisexual.

The results showed substantial changes in the partners, attractions, and sexual identity occur frequently between late adolescence to the early 20s, and between the early 20s to the late 20s. The researchers concluded that sexual orientation and development continues past adolescence into adulthood.

“Sexual orientation involves many aspects of life, such as who we feel attracted to, who we have sex with, and how we self-identify,” Kaestle explains in a statement. “Until recently, researchers have tended to focus on just one of these aspects, or dimensions, to measure and categorize people. However, that may oversimplify the situation. For example, someone may self-identify as heterosexual while also reporting relationships with same-sex partners.”

Kaestle used survey results to create a sexuality spectrum to show how sexual development goes beyond the labels of straight, gay, or bisexual. For men, there were four labels of development: straight (87% of men); mostly straight or bi (3.8%); emerging gay (2.4%), and minimal sexual expression (6.5%).

The spectrum for women included identifying as straight (73.8% of women); mostly straight discontinuous (10.1%); emerging bi (7.5%); emerging lesbian (1.5%); and minimal sexual expression (7%).

“In the emerging groups, those who have sex in their teens mostly start with other-sex partners and many report other-sex attractions during their teens,” says Kaestle. “Then they gradually develop and progress through adjacent categories on the continuum through the early 20s to ultimately reach the point in the late 20s when almost all Emerging Bi females report both-sex attractions, almost all Emerging Gay males report male-only attractions, and almost all Emerging Lesbian females report female-only attractions.”

The study also revealed that female sexuality tends to be more fluid than male. That is, one in six women fall in the middle of the sexuality spectrum — and likely identifying as bisexual — compared to fewer than one in 25 men. Participants who fell in the middle of the sexuality spectrum, as well as those in the “emerging” gay and lesbian groups showed the most changes over time.

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Again, that was especially true for females. Two-thirds of women in the “mostly straight discontinuous” group were attracted to both sexes in their early 20s. That number dipped to almost zero by their late 20s, when women reported only being attracted to men.

“The early 20s are a time of increased independence and often include greater access to more liberal environments that can make the exploration, questioning, or acknowledging of same-sex attractions more acceptable and comfortable at that age,” says Kaestle. “At the same time – as more people pair up in longer term committed relationships as young adulthood progresses – this could lead to fewer identities and attractions being expressed that do not match the sex of the long-term partner, leading to a kind of bi-invisibility.”

Kaestle notes that the categories aren’t meant to replace or slight a person’s self-identity and says that there may in fact be even more categories to be named.

“We will always struggle with imposing categories onto sexual orientation,” she says. “Because sexual orientation involves a set of various life experiences over time, categories will always feel artificial and static.”

The study was published in the Journal of Sex Research.

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