Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bisexuality not a transitional phase among women

Bisexuality in women appears to be a distinctive sexual orientation and not an experimental or transitional stage that some women adopt "on their way" to lesbianism, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

The study of 79 non-heterosexual women over 10 years found that bisexual women maintained a stable pattern of attraction to both sexes. In addition, the research appears to have debunked the stereotype that bisexual women are uninterested in or unable to commit to long-term monogamous relationships.

"This research provides the first empirical examination of competing assumptions about the nature of bisexuality, both as a sexual identity label and as a pattern of nonexclusive sexual attraction and behavior," wrote University of Utah psychologist Lisa M. Diamond, PhD, who conducted the study. "The findings demonstrate considerable fluidity in bisexual, unlabeled and lesbian women's attractions, behaviors and identities and contribute to researchers' understanding of the complexity of sexual-minority development over the life span."

Results of the research were published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology, published by the APA. This special issue of the journal focuses on research into psychological topics concerning sexual orientation and gender identity.

Diamond used interview data collected five times over a decade from 79 women who identified as lesbian, bisexual or unlabeled. The subjects initially ranged in age from 18 to 25 years old.

Among Diamond's findings:

Bisexual and unlabeled women were more likely than lesbians to change their identity over the course of the study, but they tended to switch between bisexual and unlabeled rather than to settle on lesbian or heterosexual as their identities.
Seventeen percent of respondents switched from a bisexual or unlabeled identity to heterosexual during the study -- but more than half of these women switched back to bisexual or unlabeled by the end.

By year 10, most of the women were involved in long-term (i.e., more than a year in length) monogamous relationships -- 70 percent of the self-identified lesbians, 89 percent of the bisexuals, 85 percent of the unlabeled women and 67 percent of those who were then calling themselves heterosexual.

Women's definitions of lesbianism appeared to permit more flexibility in behavior than their definitions of heterosexuality. For example, of the women who identified as lesbian in the last round of interviews, 15 percent reported having sexual contact with a man during the prior two years. In contrast, none of the women who settled on a heterosexual label at that point reported having sexual contact with a woman within the previous two years.

"This provides further support for the notion that female sexuality is relatively fluid and that the distinction between lesbian and bisexual women is not a rigid one," Diamond wrote.

Latinas' decisions about sexual debut

A sense of personal control over sexual behaviors strongly influences Latina women’s decisions of when to first engage in sex, report researchers from the University of Chicago Medical Center in the November issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Greater sense of personal control over sexual behaviors appeared to be the strongest factor influencing delay. This suggests that Latina women’s own beliefs regarding timing of first sexual intercourse may outweigh the influence of family, friends, and partners.

The study also revealed a high correlation between a young Latina’s decision about when to first initiate sexual activity and her family’s expectations.

“Both personal control and family expectations had a very important role in delaying early initiation of sex,” said study author Melissa Gilliam, MD, MPH, section chief of Family Planning at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “If the daughter perceived that her family felt her education was important, then it led her to delay sex.”

Gilliam and colleagues conducted seven focus groups to determine survey questions most relevant to the culture and experience of the young Latina population. They then developed, tested and administered the survey in both English and Spanish to a separate group of 270 Latinas, between the ages of 17 and 25. The age at the time of sexual initiation ranged from 12 to 24 with 16.15 years as the mean.

The study also found a strong correlation with the young woman’s mother’s age at first pregnancy and the age of the young woman’s first sexual partner. The greater the age difference between the woman and her older partner, the more likely she was to engage in sex at an earlier age.

This study on the sexual attitudes of a specific population is unique because researchers used focus groups to develop the survey questions. If they had found that other factors influenced behavior then they would have included questions on those subjects.

“If focus group participants had said that music played a big role in their behaviors or drug use or gangs, then those topics would be in the model,” Gilliam said.

Statistics from previous studies show that compared to African-American and white adolescents, the Latina population has higher rates of teen pregnancy despite lower rates of sexual activity, and they are less likely to use contraception the first time they have sex. “There are these health disparities that very much track along racial, ethnic lines,” Gilliam said.

Many times researchers presuppose the questions that should be asked and design questionnaires based on those suppositions, said Gilliam, whose work identifies populations most at risk for unintended pregnancy and ways to improve education. “They’re often not rooted in the belief systems of a population.

“If we’re serious about doing research in understudied populations, especially with adolescents, we want to start moving away from cultural comparisons,” she said. “We want to start thinking about questions that are culturally appropriate for the group being studied.”