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New Study Finds Sexual Orientation Develops Well into Adulthood

A new study has found that whether a person is attracted to the same or opposite sex can change over time.

The study, which analyzed surveys from around 12,000 students, found that substantial changes in attractions, partners and sexual identity are common from late adolescence to the early 20s, as well as from the early 20s to the late 20s. This indicates that the development of sexual orientation continues long past adolescence into adulthood, researchers noted.

The results also show distinct development pathways for men and women, with female sexuality being more fluid over time, they added.

“Sexual orientation involves many aspects of life, such as who we feel attracted to, who we have sex with, and how we self-identify,” said Dr. Christine Kaestle, a professor of developmental health at Virginia Tech. “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.”

In order to take all of the dimensions of sexuality into account over time, Kaestle used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which tracked American students from the ages of 16 to 18 into their late 20s and early 30s. At regular points in time, participants were questioned about what gender they were attracted to, the gender of their partners, and whether they identified as straight, gay, or bisexual.

The study’s findings showed that some people’s sexual orientation experiences vary over time, and the traditional three categories of straight, bisexual, and gay are insufficient to describe the diverse patterns of attraction, partners, and identity over time.

According to the researchers, the findings indicated that such developmental patterns are better described in nine categories, differing for both men and women.

For young men, these patterns have been categorized as:

  • Straight (87 percent);
  • Mostly straight or bi (3.8 percent);
  • Emerging gay (2.4 percent);
  • Minimal sexual expression (6.5 percent).

Young women were better described by five categories:

  • Straight (73.8 percent);
  • Mostly straight discontinuous (10.1 percent);
  • Emerging bi (7.5 percent);
  • Emerging lesbian (1.5 percent);
  • Minimal sexual expression (7 percent).

According to the study’s findings, straight people made up the largest group and showed the least change in sexual preferences over time. Men were more likely than women to be straight — almost nine out of 10 men, compared to less than three-quarters of women, the researchers reported.

Men and women in the middle of the sexuality spectrum, as well as those in the emerging gay and lesbian groups, showed the most changes over time, according to the study’s findings.

For example, 67 percent of women in the mostly straight discontinuous group were attracted to both sexes in their early 20s. However, this number dropped to almost zero by their late 20s, by which time the women reported only being attracted to the opposite sex.

Overall, women showed greater fluidity in sexual preference over time. One in six  were more likely to be located in the middle of the sexuality continuum and to be bisexual.

Fewer than one in 25 men fell in the middle of the spectrum, the researchers said. Men were more likely to be at either end of the spectrum, as either straight or emerging gay. Relatively few women were classed as emerging lesbian, they noted.

“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,” Kaestle said.

“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 demonstrates young adulthood is still a very dynamic time for sexual orientation development, she continued.

“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,” she said. “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.”

“We will always struggle with imposing categories onto sexual orientation,” Kaestle added. “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.

Source: Taylor & Francis Group

New Study Finds Sexual Orientation Develops Well into Adulthood

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). New Study Finds Sexual Orientation Develops Well into Adulthood. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 May 2019 (Originally: 5 May 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 May 2019
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