How Do Sexual Minorities Initiate Sexual Behavior?

Age at sexual debut has been one of the variables most frequently examined by sexual health researchers. This is understandable, given that sexual debut is a critical life event, with implications for future sexual health and well-being. As typically defined, sexual debut refers to first vaginal intercourse. While this may make sense in the context of heterosexual behaviors, what does it mean for sexual minorities?

Shoshana K. Goldberg and Carolyn T. Halpern, in a 2017 Perspectives article, addressed two major issues with the standard way of viewing sexual debut. First, they noted that reducing sexual debut to vaginal intercourse ignores behaviors such as oral sex and anal sex that may occur before, after or in place of vaginal sex. Furthermore, they suggested, vaginal sex is not a behavior that all sexual minorities engage in. To address the lack of information on sexual initiation among sexual minorities, the researchers used nationally representative Add Health data to replicate, on a sample of sexual minorities, a sexual initiation analysis done by Haydon and colleagues on a heterosexual sample (which was published in Perspectives in 2012).

Using latent class analysis, in which respondents who are similar to each other but distinct from others are grouped into a class, Goldberg and Halpern identified eight initiation pattern classes, distinguished by the timing, spacing and sequence of respondents’ first experience of selected sexual behaviors. They found that the patterns among sexual minority youth differed from those among heterosexual youth. For example, Haydon and colleagues found that 17% of heterosexual youth initiated with some behavior other than vaginal sex; this was true for 28% of the sexual minority sample. Furthermore, Goldberg and Halpern found that initiation patterns differed for males and females, and that within each sex, there were significant differences by social and demographic characteristics. In their conclusion, the researchers noted that they hoped their study would serve as a foundation for the use of initiation classes specific to sexual minorities, and suggested that such classes be used to devise a “model of the pathways from sexual initiation to young adult sexual and reproductive health that account for the social determinants, stressors and contexts unique to sexual minority populations.”

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine