Same-Sex Behavior Among 15‒21-Year-Olds

Prior to this decade, little research had been conducted regarding the same-sex sexual experiences among youth, especially those who do not identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. To improve understanding of the development of sexual identity and inform sexual health education efforts, in a 2011 analysis, Janice McCabe and colleagues used NSFG data from nearly 2,700 youth to examine whether sexual behavior differed depending on how individuals described their sexual identity and attraction. In what the authors believed was the first nationally representative study to examine youth sexual experiences in this manner, they found that the prevalence of same-sex activity was 11% among females and 4% among males, and that 6% of females and 3% of males self-identified as homosexual or bisexual. For both genders, same-sex attraction was strongly related to same-sex behavior, as was self-reported homosexual or bisexual identity.

One of the more unexpected findings was that among women who were attracted exclusively to men, those who had engaged in heterosexual sex were more than four times as likely as those who had not to report same-sex activity. The authors suggest that this might reflect a tendency toward sexual experimentation. Alternatively, once individuals have become sexually active via the more socially normative heterosexual route, they may find it easier to consider homosexual options for sexual gratification. Overall, this study showed that sexual behavior, attraction and identity represent distinct dimensions of sexuality at this stage in young people’s lives, and demonstrated a need to include information on same-sex behaviors in sexual education efforts.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine