A significant number of people who hook up with same-sex partners identify as heterosexual, study finds

New research provides evidence that many college students who identify as heterosexual have engaged in sexual activity with a same-sex partner. The study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, also uncovered several reasons why some college students consider themselves heterosexual despite hooking up with a same-sex partner.

“I was working on some previous studies examining college hookups, and we wanted to include students who hooked up with same-sex partners and compare them to students who had heterosexual hookups,” said study author Arielle Kuperberg, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“We had two different measures to work with; one was the student’s self reported sexual orientation, and one was the reported gender of their last hookup partner (as compared to their own gender).”

“When we started to look into it, we realized there were major discrepancies between the two measures; many of the students whose last hookup was with a same-sex partner reported their sexual orientation as heterosexual,” Kuperberg said. “I was intrigued by this discrepancy and wanted to find out more, which led to this study.”

The researchers examined the Online College Social Life Survey dataset, which included more than 24,000 undergraduate students attending 22 colleges and universities. The survey asked participants to report their most recent dates and hookups, along with a variety of other questions.

The students reported 383 male–male hookups and 312 female–female hookups. Male students who identified as heterosexual accounted for 12% of the gay hookups, while female students who identified as heterosexual accounted for 25% of the lesbian hookups.

The findings reveal that “a significant number of people who hook up with same-sex partners identify as heterosexual,” Kuperberg told PsyPost.

The researchers also found there were distinct types of heterosexually-identified students who had their last hookup with a same-sex partner.

“There is not one single explanation as to why. The largest group among these students in our study – 60% – were those engaging in private sexual experimentation.”

“Some of those students found they didn’t enjoy the encounter, or that they enjoyed it but didn’t want anything more with that partner; they may chalk this up to ‘college experimentation’ but this experience may not have long-term implications for their sexual orientation,” Kuperberg explained.

“Some enjoyed it and wanted something more; these students may be in the early stages of forming a non-heterosexual identity, but may need further experience before they feel comfortable identifying as a different sexual orientation.”

“We also found around 12% were women engaging in what is called ‘performative bisexuality’; engaging in low level above-the-belt hookups that take place at social events in plain sight. Some of these women may be doing this only to attract men, but some may be experimenting with same-sex activity in a socially acceptable way,” Kuperberg continued.

“A third group were religious students, which made up a little less than 1/3rd of those who hooked up with same-sex partners but identified as heterosexual. About 1/4th of the religious students exhibited ‘Internalized homophobia’; they had strong sentiments against homosexuality, and tended to have conservative political and social views. The remainder didn’t have strong sentiments against homosexuality, but had very high church attendance rates; they may maintain a heterosexual identity to avoid social conflict.”

The study, like all research, has some limitations.

“Our data only captured one point in time and only focused on college student’s most recent hookup. Future research following students over time can examine how identities may shift over time in response to certain experiences,” Kuperberg said. “We also only examined college students and a lot of this type of research tends to focus on college students or adolescents; research on sexual identity outside of college or among older adults is also important.”

Kuperberg also said the study also shouldn’t be interpreted as suggesting all self-identified heterosexuals who’ve engaged in some same-sex behavior are in denial about their real sexual orientation.

“Our research shows that sexual identity and sexual behavior do not always match up,” she explained. “Same-sex behavior may not necessarily have implications for sexual orientation; not everybody who has hooked up with a same-sex partner but identifies as heterosexual is ‘secretly gay’ or ‘on the down low.”

“Some may be engaging in experimentation because that’s now an expected part of college, and they are curious about same-sex sexuality. Others may be experiencing conflicts between their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs which can cause psychological distress. Although the behavior is the same, motivations for it are diverse, which is important to take into account in future research and in clinical settings.”

The study, “Heterosexual College Students Who Hookup with Same-Sex Partners“, was authored by Arielle Kuperberg and Alicia M. Walker.