A cross-sectional study examining the (in)congruency of sexual identity, sexual behavior, and romantic attraction among adolescents in the US

Research Project: Teen Health and Technology

Ybarra ML, Price-Feeney M, Mitchell KJ. A Cross-sectional Study Examining the (In)congruency of Sexual Identity, Sexual Behavior, and Romantic Attraction among Adolescents in the US. J Pediatr. 2019 Nov;214:201-208. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2019.06.046. Epub 2019 Aug 8.

Abstract:

Objective: To examine how sexual identity, romantic attraction, and sexual behavior co-relate for cisgender adolescents.

Study design: The Teen Health and Technology survey was a cross-sectional, self-report online survey. More than 5000 youth between 13 and 18 years of age were randomly recruited through Harris Panel OnLine’s panel as well as outreach by GLSEN to over-recruit lesbian, gay, bisexual, and other sexual minority youth. Data were collected between 2010 and 2011. Analyses were conducted in 2018 and restricted to cisgender youth.

Results: Overall, romantic attraction and sexual behavior most closely mapped each other. The greatest discordance was noted between sexual identity and romantic attraction. For example, 59% of girls and 16% of boys who identified with a nonheterosexual identity reported that at least 1 of their 2 most recent sexual partners was a different gender. Nine percent of heterosexually-identified girls and 3% of heterosexually-identified boys reported romantic attraction to the same sex, and 6% and 7% of heterosexually-identified girls and boys, respectively, reported that at least 1 of their 2 most recent sexual partners was the same gender.

Conclusions: Treating romantic attraction, sexual identity, and sexual behavior as synonymous assumes a unidimensionality that is unsupported by the data. Pediatricians and others working with youth, including researchers, should be mindful not to assume identity on the basis of behavior. Researchers should be clear and purposeful about how they are operationalizing “sexual minority” and how it may affect the composition of their study population. Healthy sexuality and risk reduction programs need to acknowledge that adolescents with a particular sexual identity may have romantic attractions, and even sexual encounters, with people who fall outside of that identity.

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