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One in five teens report change in sexual orientation during adolescence, study finds

Some teens who identified as heterosexual reported having some attraction to same sex or engaging in same-sex sexual behaviour 

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Monday 04 November 2019 19:24 GMT
Study finds one in five teenagers experience sexual fluidity (Stock)
Study finds one in five teenagers experience sexual fluidity (Stock)

Teenagers are likely to experience sexual fluidity during adolescence, with a new study finding one in five adolescents report change in sexual orientation or sexual attraction during that period of life.

According to researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Pittsburgh, adolescents are “heterogeneous” when it comes to how they define and experience their sexual orientation.

To study how sexual orientation changes during adolescence, researchers analysed data from 744 high school students in the rural southern US based on three components: specific identity labels, romantic attractions, and other- and/or same-sex sexual behaviour.

The students, 54 per cent of which were girls and 46 per cent of which were boys, were asked to fill out surveys each year for three years.

The research found that at some point during the three-year period, 19 per cent of students reported at least one change in their self-labelled sexual identity.

According to researchers, this included changes such as students switching from identifying as heterosexual to bisexual.

Researchers found that female students were more likely to report a change in sexual identity, with 26 per cent reporting a change compared to just 11 per cent of male students.

The study also found differences between female and male students in regards to romantic attraction, with 21 per cent of the teenagers reported changes in who they were attracted to over the course of the study. Female students made up the majority of these reports, in comparison to just 10 per cent of male students who reported changes in romantic attraction.

"This work highlights the fluidity that many adolescents experience in terms of how they label their sexuality and who they feel sexually attracted to," said J Stewart, a PhD student at NC State and the lead author of the study. “Some adolescents shifted between sexual minority identities and/or attractions - gay or lesbian, bisexual, etc as well as varying degrees of same-sex attractions - across all three years.

“Others fluctuated between heterosexual and sexual minority groups. And when we looked at the extent to which sexual identity, attraction and sexual behaviour aligned, we saw some interesting trends.”

Even among students who identified as heterosexual, researchers found variability, with both male and female students reporting having some attraction to the opposite sex or engaging in same-sex sexual behaviour over the three-year period.

Of the findings, Stewart said: “Adolescence is a time of identity exploration, and sexual orientation is one aspect of that. One takeaway here is that the process of sexual identity development is quite nuanced for a lot of teens. And based on research with young adults, we expect these patterns will continue for many people into their late 20s and even beyond.”

Stewart also said it is important to note that the findings were “internally driven changes” and could not be “imposed on an individual”.

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"To be clear, we're talking about internally driven changes in sexual orientation," he said. "This research does not suggest these changes can be imposed on an individual and does not support the idea of conversion therapy. There's ample evidence that conversion therapy is harmful and does not influence anyone's sexual orientation."

In the future, the researchers plan to expand the study, which was published in the Journal of Adolescence, across “different sociopolitical environments”.

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